Laurie Taylor, Ruling the air waves

Life on Air
November 16, 2007

As I slowly read my way through David Hendy's meticulously documented history of Radio Four, I began to feel more and more like a short-order cook. There I'd been in the kitchens of Broadcasting House for more than 30 years, happily rustling up a range of documentaries and talk shows, without ever being fully aware that several floors above me a long list of controllers and managers were constantly endeavouring to rearrange the seating, devise new menus, and beat off a recurrent barrage of customer complaints.

Some news did, of course, filter down to the presenters and producers on the shop floor. We could hardly have missed the press outcry at such failed programmes as Rollercoaster and Anderson Country or the public protests generated by decisions to move Woman's Hour and the Shipping Forecast to different times, but I can't remember that any of us were greatly exercised by the different views of the proper nature of Radio Four, which, as I now learn from Hendy, were held and promulgated by such controllers as Monica Sims, David Hatch, Michael Green, James Boyle, Helen Boaden and (the current man in the big office) Mark Damazer.

I suspect that we all knew that we were protected from any great revolutionary change in our working lives by the wonderful conservatism of the Radio Four audience. If shifting the time of the Shipping Forecast by 12 minutes could prompt editorials in national newspapers, then the possibility that a new controller could initiate anything resembling a typical corporate restructuring was about as likely as an attempt to reconfigure the Union Jack.

This does not in any way invalidate Hendy's work. His story of the constant and passionate arguments at the top, of the ways in which management tried to stay true to some enduring but always ambivalent notion of the function and purpose of Radio Four, is a magnificent chronicle of an institution at work that stands comparison with Richard Hoggart's superb but under-appreciated story of life inside Unesco, An Idea and Its Servants .

There were two recurrent themes in all those managerial debates: how could Radio Four satisfy the inherent conservatism of its audience and yet still claim that it was keeping up with the times; and how could it be rescued or at least partially relieved from the gibe that it was insufferably middle class?

Hendy has an optimistic take on both these issues. Although change has been slow, often so slow as to go unnoticed by even the most attentive listener, there is no doubt that "most programmes have become less scripted and more spontaneous: they (are) brisker, busier, less aloof, more demotic. As a result, the network's median 'voice', though still fundamentally calm and reassuring, (has) gradually become more questioning and irreverent."

Neither is Hendy greatly exercised by the "middle-class" gibe. His reaction reminded me of Robert Robinson's rejoinder to a guest on Stop the Week who had complained that his last remark was very middle class. "Oh was it?" said Robinson. "Good." Hendy provides a more reasoned demographic put-down: "By almost every ... measure, the proportion of the population broadly regarded as 'middle class' grew significantly from the 1960s. Indeed, if we were to take home ownership as a defining feature of middle- class identity ... we would now reckon on some two thirds of the nation falling into the category." Today's middle class "provides an expanding constituency for Radio Four - especially since in parallel to the expansion and growing self-confidence of the middle class there has been a burgeoning community of the middle-aged".

Perhaps the other reason that the programme cooks never became too agitated about the latest management initiative or the announcement of even more cuts in their budget was that they always had the firm (if mildly complacent) sense that they were helping to maintain a unique British institution. No one, as Hendy makes elegantly (and often comically) clear, can explain precisely how Radio 4 came to assume its current form, but everyone seems to agree that there is now nothing like it anywhere in the world.

In his closing words: "For all its imperfections and irritations, it reaches middle age as the one network broadcasting as a whole cannot do without."

Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck College.

Life on Air: A History of Radio Four

Author - David Hendy
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 544
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780199248810

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