Radio 4 listeners are creatures of habit. Different moments of the day are marked by the R4 schedule in clock-like fashion. From ‘Today’ to ‘The World at One’ and from ‘The Archers’ to ‘The Shipping Forecast’, the listeners know where they are and what time it is when a particular voice or theme tune rings around the room. These things may be insignificant to some, but to others they matter. Therefore, whenever a new-ish controller seeks to make their mark by axing a long-running programme or relocating a show to an alien time slot, Radio 4 listeners react in a manner that underlines how much both they and the station itself are regularly misjudged and misunderstood by the BBC overlords.

In 2006, the decision of then-R4 controller Mark Damazer to dispense with the UK Theme, an eccentric medley of traditional British and Irish melodies that had opened the station every morning since 1978, was greeted with a listeners’ backlash that even reached as far as Parliament; an online petition demanding the decision be overturned garnered over 18,000 signatures. It was all to no avail. There were suspicions the theme was dropped because it wasn’t deemed ‘politically correct’, something that could be seen as an overreaction but would also chime with the general opinion of the BBC’s attitude to those segments of its empire that don’t quite fit with the broadcasting business model of the twenty-first century.

Recently, Libby Purves’ Wednesday morning institution, ‘Midweek’, was dispatched to the wireless necropolis after 35 years on air; and now it seems ‘Saturday Review’, another R4 fixture with a lengthy pedigree is also to receive the chop. The latter is a radio equivalent of Mark Lawson’s late BBC2 ‘Review’ series – once referred to as ‘WWF Wrestling for the chattering classes’ by Elvis Costello – and often features infuriatingly smug and pretentious critics that make you want to throw the radio through the window. At the same time, it still provides a service in that plays, books and movies receive exposure on it that they don’t receive outside of broadsheet arts supplements. It’s apparently being dropped due to radio budget cuts.

Radio 4 listeners are passionate about their station of choice because outlets for what is increasingly viewed as niche broadcasting have diminished in the rush to cater for kids or teenagers or a ‘family audience’ that will accept whatever shit is shovelled up for them on a Saturday evening, the kind of surrender to the lowest common denominator formulaic ratings-chasing express that prime-time television embodies. Which other radio station would produce ‘Tweet of the Day’ or ‘Bells on Sunday’? Just because their audience is small doesn’t mean that audience doesn’t count.

Of course, it’s middle-class; it’s white, it’s elitist; the right says it’s too lefty; the left says it’s too far to the right, with Corbynistas booing Nick Robinson from ‘Today’ recently due to that very reason; you don’t hear many regional accents on it – and so on. I might be white, but I’m certainly not middle-class, and I like to hear well-spoken voices on the radio on account of not hearing many of them on the street. Elitism to me is when anyone from a working-class background is advised by their peers to avoid, say, the ballet, opera, theatre, literature, galleries, museums and so forth because ‘they’re not for you’. Inverted snobbery is a greater obstacle to the opening of artistic doors than snobbery from on high, and Radio 4 is one way in. It’s there for anybody who wants more than beer, tits and football. Just listening to ‘The Archers’ for me is an almost radical experience considering the environment I was raised in.

Radio 4, like its television sibling BBC4, sticks to the Reithian principles of informing, educating and entertaining; it’s an oasis of intelligence and illumination with programmes that provoke thought and discussion above and beyond the vocal merits of some bawling, blubbing Gary Barlow wannabe with a sob-story facing a firing squad of judges; there’s more than enough of that for those that want it everywhere else. Yet, for all the odious Tony Hall’s PR waffle about the Beeb’s investment in ‘culture’, the corporation’s most damaging cuts have been reserved for its cultural outlets. Fewer new programmes are being produced for BBC4 now than just two years ago; on many evenings its schedule is clogged-up with repeats; yes, they’re usually worth watching, but the chances are viewers have already seen them several times before.

Increasingly at the post-Birt BBC, the laudable ethos behind the corporation’s creation has been lost and buried beneath the scramble to appease ‘market forces’. One-time genuine alternative BBC2 has been reduced to competing with Channel 4 – another once-great innovator – in how many variations on formats that have been done to death over the last decade can be concocted: the cookery game show/celebrity comedians grouped together and sent on ‘life-changing journeys’ to far-off lands/famous names encouraging ‘ordinary people’ to achieve their dreams/etc. etc. As the old saying goes, this isn’t what I pay my licence fee for.

Tellingly, considering the cuts that have been inflicted upon the best of the BBC, money has been miraculously found to cover the salaries of its senior freeloaders. Thanks to Private Eye, we know that the previous Director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden was on a wage of £352,900 a year, with her deputy Graham Ellis on £212,800. After last autumn’s reshuffle, James Purnell was made Director of Radio & Education on £295,000 a year and Bob Shennan as Director of Audio & Music just about manages on an annual salary of £245,565. But the Beeb can’t afford a 45-minute arts review series once a week on Radio 4. Fancy that!

© The Editor


  1. As one who came to Radio 4 from its predecessor, the Home Service on Long Wave, it still remains the station to which my many static and mobile radios are tuned, the digital ones may stray to the World Service occasionally to avoid religious drivel and The Archers, but Radio 4 is always the default setting.
    After discovering it in pre-teen years, I eschewed the claimed attractions of 1 and 2, whilst remaining for too philistine for 3 – so 4 became and remains my own home service.
    In my career I was required to drive upwards of 40,000 miles a year, usually alone apart from the constant companion of Radio 4. And what a delight to enjoy that eclectic output whilst also being paid for it. And what surprises it delivered, from afternoon plays, scientific features, politics and economics, foreign correspondents, even Woman’s Hour – hardly a day went by without learning something new or gaining another perspective.
    Although it has its constants embedded into each day, it also has an unpredictability in many of the other programmes – ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’ being just one example of radio at its best, leaving the listener to provide all the imagery, similarly ‘This Sceptred Isle’, another tour de force in gripping explanation of two millennia of history, then there’s ‘Round Britain Quiz’ for sheer mental gymnastics. Radio 4 remains a station of serendipity, where surprise treasures can still appear at any time.
    It has changed over the decades, but so have I: some of my own changes may be credited to the ongoing education and development acquired through that station, the ‘FM University’.
    The license fee of £3 a week represents excellent value for Radio 4 alone – whatever its other failings, and there are many, should the BBC ever disappear, then Radio 4 would be the saddest of losses to me. I am certain no-one else could or would produce it, or its like, ever again.

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    1. Eclectic is the one word I should’ve – and didn’t – use in this piece to describe R4’s output. I love some of the ‘Woman’s Hour’ serials, particularly the one running at the moment, which eavesdrops on Frances Tomelty as a shrink with several brilliantly neurotic clients, the best of whom is Roger Allam playing an MP not a million miles from the one he played on ‘The Thick of It’. And then we’re into a documentary on something I knew nothing about previously, but is undeniably fascinating. Then we have the likes of ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, which again opens a window to the world in a way no TV news programme ever does. And the wonderful flipside is the likes of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. I don’t know where I’d be without it, quite honestly. If anything justifies the BBC and its continued existence, R4 is it.


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