BBC Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams announces departure

Under Williams, the station extended its lunchtime news and changed morning line-up

Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams is to step down after more than eight years in charge of the station, insisting she is proud to have attracted listeners by “smartening up, not dumbing down”.

Under her watch, Radio 4 has rejigged the schedule to extend its lunchtime news programme The World at One, changed its morning line-up to include more science programmes such as The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili, and commissioned successful programmes from the likes of the former British Museum director Neil MacGregor.

She also oversaw the relaunch of BBC Radio 7 as BBC Radio 4 Extra while fighting budgets cuts and dealing with constant criticism aimed at the BBC’s most-scrutinised outlets, especially around the flagship Today programme and the station’s coverage of Brexit.

Williams, who first joined the BBC as a trainee 43 years ago, said: “I have had eight wonderful years running Radio 4, a national treasure at the very heart of the BBC’s public service purpose. My goal has been to keep the station intelligent and to build audiences by smartening up not dumbing down, [and] making sure Radio 4 is the place to come for greater understanding, particularly in these turbulent times.”

She said she placed particular importance on the quality of the BBC’s current affairs output, having grown up in apartheid-era South Africa where she had to surreptitiously listen to the BBC World Service.

Williams’ replacement will have to contend with a radically different broadcast landscape to the one she inherited when she took over Radio 4 in 2010. The station still reaches a substantial 10.6 million Britons in a given week, including more than a million under the age of 35, but the BBC is aware that it needs to react to changes in listening habits.

The corporation itself has admitted it is facing a make-or-break moment with its audio output, with healthy audience figures for many of its major radio stations not being enough to counteract concerns about younger listeners drifting away to podcasts, the impact of music streaming services such as Spotify, and new devices such Amazon’s Echo prompting listeners to try rival services.

The BBC’s share of total radio listening has dipped below 50% in recent years, as commercial radio makes inroads and poaches top talent such as Chris Evans and Eddie Mair since the corporation was forced to reveal the salaries of its top talent.

James Purnell, the BBC’s head of radio, has insisted he is no longer concerned with increasing the overall audience share of the BBC’s radio output and has instead placed a greater emphasis on the success of the BBC Sounds App, which combined live radio with podcasts and specially commissioned material.

However, it is has been hit by complaints from users who are struggling to adapt to its interface or are unhappy at being forced to use the BBC’s own app to access podcasts which were previously available through public podcast libraries.

The corporation has already put millions of pounds into expanding its podcast output, some of which is commissioned by the Radio 4 controller.


Jim Waterson Media editor

The GuardianTramp

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