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Life on Air: BBC Radio 4’s Milestones

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By Kirsty OUP-UK

I am an avid Radio Four fan. If I don’t start my day listening to Today then, quite frankly, I feel that something is amiss. And weekend mornings without Saturday Live with Fi Glover and their resident poet, or the Archers omnibus edition on a Sunday, makes for the perfect soundtrack to eat breakfast to. This month the station celebrates its 40th birthday, and to celebrate we are publishing Life on Air: A History of Radio Four by David Hendy, Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Westminster, and former producer of current affairs programmes on Radio Four. Here, he takes a brief look at what he regards the milestone moments in the station’s history.

Radio Four is truly extraordinary: not just a radio station but a British institution commonly claimed to be ‘the greatest broadcasting channel in the world’. It’s listened to by the Great and Good and a vast swathe of the middle class. For many it’s a beacon of civilized values and intelligent discourse; for others – the doubters – it’s the unreconstructed voice-piece of Little Englanders. Either way, it’s so deeply woven into daily existence that for many Britons life without it is, quite simply, unthinkable.

The station was born in the Swinging Sixties. But it’s directly descended from the BBC of the 1920s. And because of this heritage, alongside its dogged determination to hold to an extraordinary mixture of news, drama, comedy, debate, and occasional eccentricity, it’s been regarded as the very soul of the Corporation and all it has stood for: an essential component of that Enlightenment Project launched by its founding father, Sir John Reith, to burnish us into rounded citizens.

In a world of tightly-formatted media products catering for precisely-targeted niche audiences, Radio Four has long been an anomaly. Yet, here’s another extraordinary thing: this month it reaches its fortieth birthday. It also does so with buoyant ratings and undiminished critical support.

How on earth has it survived so long? How on earth, indeed, has it survived so well?

In one respect the answer’s simple: by changing. It’s done so organically and by stealth, always alive to public mood yet moving in the slipstream rather than the vanguard. Think of it as a garden, ingeniously cultivated to blend the new imperceptibly with the old. Yet even if change has been largely evolutionary, there have also been the inevitable moments which singularly captured a striking shift in direction or gear and very often acted as lightning rods for barely-suppressed anxieties in the country at large.

The list of such moments would surely be different for every listener. But my own Top Five milestones on Radio Four’s long road to middle age would be these:

hendy_life_on_air.jpg1. 4th October 1965: the first edition of The World at One. This lunchtime programme tore down the BBC’s long-established boundary between News and Comment and seemed to shatter some of the sleepy decorum of the old ‘Home Service’. Its presenter, William Hardcastle brought to BBC Radio some of the urgency and heat of the newspaper world, and gathered about him a team of buccaneering journalists who pulled-together a programme from scratch in three hours flat. This left little time for long debates about balance and responsibility. And it proved that a less formal, more irreverent style of journalism was consistent with high standards. For at least a decade it was the most important public forum in Britain for the discussion of politics. Programmes that came to prominence in following decades, such as Radio Four’s breakfast show, Today, still owe their essential character to its pioneering work.

2. 4th April 1970: Radio Four launched a dramatically recast schedule and created long-lasting series such as Start the Week, The World Tonight, and PM. The new schedule supposedly marked an end to the old ‘mixed’ BBC networks – in which listeners were exposed to a deliberately varied diet of music and speech – and their replacement by more consistent streams of music or speech in which listeners could find a reassuringly ‘predictable’ range of programmes. The cultural elite raged at what they saw as the abandonment of Reithian ideals. All was not lost, however. On Radio Four, ‘speech’ remained a nebulous category. In this respect the battle over its essential identity had been sharpened rather than settled: many journalists began to think of it as a ‘news channel’ in-waiting; dramatists, comedians, or those attached to Reithian serendipity, now saw it as their last refuge. Bitter disputes between these two positions have lurked behind many of the rows over Radio Four’s programming ever since.

hendydavid.jpg3. 8th March 1978: the first ever episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Before it was a film, a television series, a novel, a tea-towel, it was a radio series. For aficionados of Douglas Adams’ surreal – and cerebral – space odyssey, the radio version has always remained unsurpassed. It offered listeners a richly textured comic-book style of production which somehow managed to sneak in plenty of interesting philosophical ideas about life, time, and existence. Intellectuals compared it to Swift; fourteen year-olds enjoyed hearing depressed robots clanking around. Best of all, it suddenly made Radio Four fashionable: the place where a new generation of writers could try out unusual ideas; the place where a new generation of listeners could discover cult attractions.

4. 1st March 1983: the day the BBC learned of the existence of ‘The Voice of the Listener’. This was a listeners’ movement dedicated to the defence of Radio Four’s ‘rich mix’ against various schemes to turn it into an all-news channel. Later, the organisation campaigned more broadly for public service principles and the protection of what it called ‘quality’ programmes in the traditional BBC mould. Other popular protest groups followed, each more articulate and well-connected than the last. Radio Four was entering the era of consumer sovereignty, and the message to all its subsequent Controllers was clear: the network, in effect, now belonged to its listeners.

5. 17th January 1995: Gerry Anderson is forced by public opinion to leave his post presenting Anderson Country. The programme had outraged Radio Four loyalists by appearing to be a banal, folksy, concoction of disconnected items featuring non-entities talking about non-issues. Anderson’s departure, and the early demise of the series, demonstrated a burgeoning appetite among the station’s listeners for tougher, more intellectually challenging fare. Over the next 10 years, Radio Four unveiled a whole range of highbrow discussion programmes, offering ‘talk’ rather than ‘chat’. Cultural commentators, who later noted an efflorescence of book groups and public lectures, declared that debate was ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. But Radio Four, it appears, was the first to turn Gresham’s Law on its head.

Recent Comments

  1. Ms T

    I agree with the Hitchhiker’s moment, it really paved the way for creative production techniques on air in a more accessible format than those experienced on Radio 3. Producer Dirk Maggs was inspirational and aurally what a treat we have in store with the adaption of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency!

    I would like to make a bid for historic moments related to comedy on Radio 4 – the first edition of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue? Many pioneering and challenging ‘cult’ series on television had their first and in many ways best airing on Radio 4 – think Alan Partridge, Little Britain.

    Congratulations to David Hendy on his book!

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