Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Highlighting the Goodies

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio Highlighting the Goodies

Article excerpt

Since the Home Service was relaunched as Radio 4 in September 1967, the station has established itself almost as the 'heartbeat' of the BBC. The chance to direct, shape and enhance such a treasure-house of programmes - ranging from Farming Today to ElvenQuest via Something Understood Classic Serial and The World Tonight - must be endlessly fascinating. But therein lies the challenge. Radio 4 does sparkle with its intellectual brilliance, its flashes of humour, its ability to make sense of the moment through its reporters, interviewers and the editorial wizards who pull the news together in seconds. It can, though, also appear sometimes like a mammoth container ship travelling ponderously across the oceans from Shanghai to Felixstowe - incredibly useful, full of riches, but on a course that cannot be changed without a lot of warning. How does the Controller make her (or his) mark on such an institution?

As Gwyneth Williams, who has been in charge now for 15 months, explains, 'The challenge for me is to explain, to highlight what's there. It's so rich, the output. The more you explore, the more you find.' The station is stuffed full of programmes, all of which demand a hearing. Take a look at the coming week's schedule and you'll find Dickens translated to India in The Mumbai Chuzzlewits, Melvyn Bragg setting off from the British Library on a journey into The Written World, a 70th-birthday tribute to Professor Stephen Hawking, the Bishop of Liverpool talking to prisoners and questioning the effectiveness of imprisonment, and readings from a book by the daughter of the murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa about life in Nigeria today.

The other great boon, but also huge difficulty, is 'the closeness, the intimacy' of Radio 4. Its most ardent listeners wake up to the station and go to sleep with it. They react to any slight change incredibly personally because alterations to the schedule provoke shifts in their domestic routine. No more quizzes while you're eating your lunch becomes a major catastrophe. 'You know this intellectually, ' says Williams, 'but it takes time to feel it.' By which she probably means it takes until your first real change is implemented for the Controller to realise just how angry listeners can become.

Williams's new autumn schedule, adding 15 minutes to The World at One and squeezing the afternoon so that the number of original short stories commissioned and broadcast each year has been reduced, has brought forth a furore, especially from authors. …

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