Magazine article The Spectator

Were Radio Four's Mr Boyle a Newspaper Editor, He'd Be Sacked by Now

Magazine article The Spectator

Were Radio Four's Mr Boyle a Newspaper Editor, He'd Be Sacked by Now

Article excerpt

The BBC is unique. Take the case of Melvyn Bragg. When Melvyn was raised to the peerage several months ago to serve the Blairite cause in the Upper House, the BBC regretfully announced that he would have to part company with his Radio Four programme, Start the Week. Many felt it was sad to see Melvyn go, for in truth he ran the thing very well, but that his ejection showed that the BBC had a sense of propriety. And yet after a few months Lord Bragg of Wigton re-emerges on Thursday mornings with a programme almost indistinguishable from his old Start the Week. It is a rum organisation that behaves in such a way.

Six months ago James Boyle, the new controller of Radio Four, introduced farreaching changes to his station. Several perfectly good long-standing programmes were scrapped, and there was a lot of rescheduling among programmes that remained. The Today programme was lengthened by 50 minutes. Perhaps readers will forgive me for mentioning that on 21 March I wrote in this column that I expected that `this root and branch reform will make people unhappy'. Mr Boyle had relied too much on research, particularly `focus groups', rather than the judgment and instincts of his own programme makers.

Last week new figures from Joint Audience Research showed that Radio Four has lost more listeners than at any time in its history. In the past three months the network has mislaid 570,000 listeners, and its overall weekly radio audience has dropped to 7.7 million. Far from attracting new listeners, the audience of the expanded Today programme has fallen by 600,000 to 4.6 million. These figures cover one quarter, and Joint Radio Research tells me that we should treat them with caution. But it does seem clear that quite a lot of people have been made unhappy by Mr Boyle's changes.

Why did he do it? There was much talk at the time of Radio Four losing listeners, but in fact the station's audience has held up well over the years. Five years ago, in 1993, the average weekly Radio Four audience was 8.6 million. Last year, when Mr Boyle seized the reins of power, the figure was 8.15 million. Despite the advent of Radio Five in 1994, and the proliferation of other independent radio stations, Radio Four's audience had been remarkably resilient. So why the wholesale transformation? Because, as I said in my previous article, Mr Boyle is a modern manager who needs to leave his mark, who practises change for change's sake - ceaseless, never-ending revolution.

I must say, though, that part of me rather admires Mr Boyle. He bounces about from interview to interview repeating in a chirpy sort of way that he is 'disappointed'. If an editor of a national newspaper had brought about comparable changes and seen a decline in circulation, he would have been more than disappointed. He would have been sacked. Indeed, that is what recently happened to Andrew Marr at the Independent. But Mr Boyle has not been sacked, and I don't expect he will be even if the next quarter's figures are bad. He has merely stated that he will fall on his own sword if the time comes. He will judge the moment.

I can't remember any senior manager being turfed out by the BBC for not delivering the goods. The BBC pretends it is part of the market, and that it lives by the same rules as the rest of us, but it is really a sort of oligarchy whose revolutionary spirits are immune from the consequences of their own actions. …

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