The BBC Trust’s recent review of Radios 3, 4 and 7 prompted much debate.
Some people are concerned that Radio 4 could lurch in the wrong direction in order to respond to the Trust’s challenge to attract new listeners. A letter in a national newspaper declared: “The proposed dumbing down of Radio 4 is a symptom of a society in decay.”
Radio 4 sets the highest standards in quality broadcasting and during my tenure, nothing will threaten that. We have never bought the idea that so-called “dumbing down” is the way to drive up the number of listeners, young or old, northern or southern. Quite the opposite: in recent years we have raised the quality and ambition of BBC radio while increasing our audience.
Radio 4’s programme-makers are not prone to underestimating the intelligence of their listeners. So why have we welcomed the Trust findings?
Clearly, we are pleased that they endorsed the quality and excellent value for money of the radio stations and our recommendations for how to preserve their appeal. The idea of making more people aware of Radio 4 makes sense: there are so many programmes waiting to be discovered.
But, like us, the Trust is unequivocal in its view that quality and distinctiveness are paramount. Intelligent speech radio is not defined by class or geographic location. At the heart of Radio 4 is an inquisitive love of a wide breadth of subjects.
So, while the challenge of ensuring that the network remains as relevant and popular as ever is a big one, it does not imply any alienation of existing fans. It requires smart, nuanced decision-making that is not driven by simplistic reaction to market research, but by the world-class editorial instinct that the Radio 4 controller and team demonstrate on a daily basis.
Another significant development has gone largely unnoticed. The Trust’s approval of the rebranding of Radio 7 as Radio 4 Extra in the coming months means we can offer listeners more of what makes Radio 4 special.
The station’s commitment to quality – whether drama, comedy or programmes from the radio archive – should offer further comfort to those who fear “dumbing down”.
In the meantime, I recommend going to the Radio 4 website and clicking on any letter in the Programme Title search box (the letters B and M are particularly good). While debate rages, seek solace in something both new and of quality.