The BBC sends out the right signals for Radio 4 change

The way that the BBC is handling the current overhaul of Radio 4 is pretty smart - so far. The corporation has received a far better press than it might have expected. The campaign is proving to be an object lesson in how to tame a formidable array of opinion forming critics: communication can work.

The way that the BBC is handling the current overhaul of Radio 4 is

pretty smart - so far. The corporation has received a far better press

than it might have expected. The campaign is proving to be an object

lesson in how to tame a formidable array of opinion forming critics:

communication can work.



Controller James Boyle ordered up meticulous research into how audiences

behave and briskly kicked off an internal debate about the strategic

need to change programming.



But this has also been coupled with an increasingly confident policy of

targeting and briefing potential opponents about the broad details of

declining audiences, while underlining the commitment to core Radio 4

values. Compared with this high level charm offensive, which has

included some influential columnists and editors, mere journalists were

ignored.



And as the BBC has talked to lobbyists championing everything from the

rights of disabled people and farmers it flatteringly drew them into the

process. This means they have not been taken aback by the results. For

example, Boyle has been able to axe Does He Take Sugar? by pointing to

the support the disabled lobby lends to ending ’tokenism’. The fact that

there have been 60 drafts of the new schedule shows that, this time, a

nervy BBC has listened.



But there was one point last week when I gasped with admiration. It was

the news that John Keegan, eminent military historian and Daily

Telegraph writer will be the next Reith lecturer. You only have to place

his name against that of the last lecturer, Dr Patricia Williams, a

black feminist New York academic, to appreciate the signal being sent

out.



The BBC is especially concerned at how Daily Telegraph readers will take

the changes. Why? Because they form the backbone of its audience and can

cause huge trouble. The Keegan stroke disarmed the paper: ’A first rank

appointment’ commented its leader, which ’proves the corporation is

still capable of reaching upwards towards the high standards expected of

it’. The middle class is being invited to tune in.



So far, so good. But the path is far from smooth. The opinion formers

have been squared, but the listeners they presume to speak for have yet

to be heard. I suspect there is a big gap between the two camps. The BBC

will need a very effective marketing and consumer campaign to sell its

new schedules to a prickly audience by their introduction date of 1

April.



Secondly, there is the question of internal morale. That so little of

Boyle’s detailed plans were leaked shows a tremendous loyalty to Radio 4

by BBC staff. But there are many working until next March on condemned

programmes. The BBC is famously bad at communicating with its staff.

Here lies another opportunity to break with its hoary past.



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