Why radio needs a revolution in 2016

We need to get radical on the airwaves to win bigger audiences, says Jane Anderson

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The Archers is one of the cornerstones of the Radio 4 schedule. To move it is to invoke the seismic rage of middle England. This was proved 20 years ago when the then controller of Radio 4, James Boyle, shifted the drama from after the lunchtime news to its current 2pm slot. They may not have had burning pitchforks in hand, but listeners marched upon Broadcasting House to display their ire en masse.

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So, as we radio devotees settle into a new year, what is 2016 likely to bring? The memories of Boyle’s revolution may have dimmed but are not forgotten, and no controllers are likely to “fix” what isn’t actually broken in the near future.

But for radio to continue to win audience figures that daytime TV schedulers would kill for, this means taking a few risks. Things have to be shaken up a little if radio is to remain fresh.

For starters, we now listen in such different ways. Many may mark their day from breakfast with the Today programme and dinner preparations with The News Quiz (below) to unwinding with the Book at Bedtime, but just as many others are now their own scheduler – downloading programmes and listening to them when and where they want to.

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The structured rigidity of the schedule will not vanish in 2016, but its role will cease to be as important, as more and more listeners switch to creating their own radio timetables to suit their lifestyles.

For years now I have found it so heartily frustrating how much brilliant content we never get to hear. Programme-makers from every genre – interviews to documentaries – have all said the same thing to me: the toughest thing about getting something ready for broadcast is deciding what has to be left out.

Desert Island Discs is a case in point. Who can forget Yoko Ono telling Kirsty Young the thoughts racing through her head when Mark David Chapman gunned down John Lennon in front of their New York home? There was enough material to fill 90 minutes, but it was cut to the prescribed 45-minute slot. Even the version of the show available online is similarly limited. Our loss, as well as hers.

I really hope that 2016 will see schedulers and network controllers taking some calculated risks. If there’s an outstanding episode or edition of a cornerstone programme such as Desert Island Discs, then let’s hear it in its entirety. Listeners will ride with changes like this if the content is outstanding. It’s quality output that we love, not formulaic scheduling.

Radio 3 tried this out last September by jettisoning the traditional Through the Night and replacing it with an eight- hour programme called Sleep – Max Richter’s composition of the same name. It started at 12 midnight and was the longest single continuous piece of music ever broadcast live on the BBC. Beds were provided for the invited audience and the composer himself said, “If the audience stays awake I will consider it the greatest insult!” Radio 3’s phone lines were not jammed with complaints the next morning. They took a risk, the listeners went with it and it was a resounding success.

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I’d also like 2016 to see an end to roping in the latest boy band, cake baker, X Factor finalist or other one-minute wonder to “host” a show. I would not go to One Direction for work on my teeth or to get my car serviced, so why should I be subjected to them “presenting” a show on radio – as they did, along with a gaggle of other youthful poplets, on Radio 1 on Christmas Day?

Presenters like Chris Evans, Eddie Mair and Christian O’Connell did not just turn up at the BBC or Absolute one day and suggest they’d like to have a go on the wireless. They’ve all grafted for years to learn their craft. It’s a skill and should be treated as such. Securing a starry name to present a show may get people to tune in, but they won’t stay for long if the delivery is disastrous.

Over in the commercial world the stations have no licence fee to fund their programme-making. Ads are an irritating but necessary evil, but “audience reach” is what counts to their investors and shareholders – if the number of listeners repeatedly goes down rather than up, the presenter, the show and sometimes even the network itself, are axed.

This means that it’s even harder to take risks. Play those pop hits, golden oldies and classical favourites, but don’t try anything new. The sales team can’t sell ads against imaginative concepts.

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Thankfully, this is beginning to change, albeit late at night, which is a “dead zone” for radio ads anyway. Absolute, for example, has started to commission music documentaries that would sit quite happily on 6 Music or Radio 4. Bring It On Home: the Led Zeppelin Story, which went out last autumn, combined first-person accounts and rare recordings. It was well received by critics and listeners alike. Expertly researched and made programmes like these will engage audience loyalty a hundred times over the traditional DJ-song-DJ format. Plus it was broadcast well after dark.

One final suggestion: Pause for Thought and Thought for the Day. Who would not want to hear some of our great thinkers, scientists and broadcasters like Clive James, Stephen Hawking and Joan Bakewell start our days with intelligent, thought-provoking observations that do not have to involve a higher being? I am not for one second calling for an end to airtime for religious thinkers, but surely there is a place for agnostic, atheist and humanist voices, too?

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And so, back to The Archers, where we began. We’ve all got used to the 2pm slot now. In fact, if current Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams were to change it, Broadcasting House would find itself surrounded again. No, the next public outpouring of dismay will only come if Helen does not manage to disengage herself from the psychopathic Rob before the year’s out!