Fifty years after the radio revolution, are the BBC’s stations now irrelevant?

The Home Service, and the Light and Third Programmes became part of British life. But too much of their successors’ content is unfit for the digital age

Next Saturday, 30 September, BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 will all be 50 years old. There will be celebrations. Let’s imagine what they could be like. Radio 1, with its cooler best friend 1Xtra, has been excited about its birthday for weeks and its party would take up the whole weekend, moving from cocktails at a celebrity do to raving on stage with a festival headliner, followed by seven hours’ clubbing madness and a fully Insta-ed comedown. Radio 2 has decided to have a few chums over for dinner and a chat about house prices, before pushing the chairs back for a kitchen disco. Radio 3 is attending an interesting panel discussion on ancient history, a classical concert and spending Sunday on its PhD. And Radio 4 has read all the broadsheets before 6am and is prodding you awake to tell you exactly what it thinks.

We know the personalities of these anonymously numbered radio stations as though they were our friends. We get annoyed when they behave out of character; they have been woven through our national story for half a century. But in a swipe-left-multi-format-binge-watch world, can these old pals continue as they are?

The four stations began as a reaction, a late response to a changing world. In the mid-1960s, pirate stations such as Radio Caroline and Radio London began to broadcast pop music 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and millions tuned in. The BBC’s existing radio stations – the World Service, Home Service, Light Programme, Music Programme and Third Programme – were either not designed to play pop or not so much of it and had no proper response to the pirates. So the BBC went to the government and, in 1967, the Marine, etc, Broadcasting (Offences) Act was passed, which effectively banned pirate radio stations. (Supposedly, prime minister Harold Wilson only agreed to this as part of a bargain: he wanted to establish the Open University and the BBC agreed, in return for scuppering the pirates.) The act came into effect on 14 August 1967, and six weeks later, on 30 September, the Home Service became Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light and Music Programmes merged to become Radio 2, and Radio 1 was created. Not from thin air; the new pop station snaffled several Radio Caroline DJs and a few from the Big L (Radio London), including John Peel, whose late-night show, The Perfumed Garden, had been a surprise success. It even nicked the Wonderful Radio London jingle, just substituting the word one for London.

In truth, the BBC was forced to create Radio 1, and with that, Radio 2, 3 and 4, and its longest-standing DJ, Annie Nightingale (she started in 1970), recalls an underlying feeling that many people didn’t want the station to exist. “It was manned by technical people who came out of the RAF, who knew nothing about music,” she says. “A memo said: ‘We are never going to have this American-style radio here, with disc jockeys.’” And it was not an instant success, sharing airtime with Radio 2 in the afternoons and playing fewer songs than the pirates had done because of weird needle time laws that restricted the amount of recorded music that the BBC could broadcast in any 24-hour period.

Lauren Laverne of 6 Music in the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour studio.
Lauren Laverne of 6 Music in the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour studio. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

But by the mid-70s, Radio 1 was the most popular radio station in the country, and continued in that spot until the 2000s, when Radio 2 took the top place. Today, Radio 2 is still the UK’s most popular station (it has more than 15 million listeners), with Radio 4 coming in second (around 11 million). And the family of four has expanded, with Asian Network starting in 1988, 5 Live (originally Radio 5, in 1990) established in 1994, and the digital stations 1Xtra, 4 Extra and 6 Music all beginning in 2002. None, despite various threats of closure, most notably Asian Network and 6 Music, look anything other than well established. They, too, are part of how our country sees itself.

Fifty years on, Radio 1 is still doing well; by far the most digitally savvy of the original BBC stations, it has established itself as a YouTube player, with a witty social media presence that drives up listenership. It is very much supported by 1Xtra, its urban sister, which has provided most of Radio 1’s UK stars. Radio 2 is a purring Rolls- Royce, expensive but worth it. It knows its audience inside out. Its specialist shows are excellent – blues, folk, jazz, country, on selected evenings at 7pm – and its weekend offering is a great blend of charismatic personalities (Graham Norton, Liza Tarbuck, Paul O’Grady) and music. But Radio 2’s weekday daytime DJs are still very white and very male (no women or BAME presenters between 6.30am and 8pm) with the impression given by management that this will not change until one of them actually drops dead on air. Radio 3 gets the least attention, except during the Proms, but as classical music’s popularity wanes among the young, that’s hardly a surprise. One wag described it as Radio Dignitas. It’s better when more experimental – as on Late Junction and Hear and Now – and The Essay is always worth a listen.

And Radio 4? Ah, Radio 4. We could be here for ever arguing about Radio 4. There is still a strong sense that the station represents the UK; or should do. It is the broadcaster to which – by law – we will turn in a national emergency. The station has high status, but this hampers development. There are many shows on Radio 4 that began before 1967: The Archers, Any Questions?, From Our Own Correspondent, Today, Book at Bedtime, Desert Island Discs, Woman’s Hour. They sit weightily in their slots, formats created decades ago, presenters glued to their headphones. Who would dare to change them? Not the commissioners, who are “aware” of concerns about the BBC’s representation of minorities but don’t seem to clock that they’re the ones who could make changes. Not the producers, who, even since the Brand-Ross-palavers, still have far less status than the presenters. Not the audiences, who hate change and age alongside the shows, but seem unable to outlive them. We will all be worm fodder long before anyone dares to cancel Just a Minute, let alone Today’s utterly redundant Thought for the Day.

Asian Network presenter Noreen Khan.
Asian Network presenter Noreen Khan. Photograph: Jamie Simmonds/BBC

There are programmes that demonstrate that modernisation is possible. PM, the late-afternoon news analysis show, started in 1970, but is right up to date, engaging its audience through social media and switching with aplomb between humour, humanity and hard journalism as needed.

The Today programme is not so nimble. The station’s flagship breakfast show has broadened its remit under new editor Sarah Sands, with outside broadcasts from London fashion week and Silicon Valley, and the very odd Puzzle of the Day. But this new approach exposes gaping holes in its presenters’ abilities. John Humphrys, in particular, seems baffled by much of what he is being asked to cover, and has an unforgivable tendency to adopt a sneering tone about arts and culture. His default setting is argument, when inquiry would be a better approach. Humphrys’ longstanding adversarial approach is inbuilt in Today, which leads to ridiculous situations, such as comedy writers being pitted against each other or, more seriously, climate change being given maybe-it-exists-maybe-it-doesn’t presentation (it exists). There is no need to interrogate people who might be better explaining what they do. There is a great need to take lying politicians to task.

Annie Nightingale of Radio 1 in 1970.
Annie Nightingale of Radio 1 in 1970. Photograph: BBC

Speaking to those who work with and for Radio 4, the station’s commissioning process is the source of much angst among independent operators. Most Radio 4 commissioners are now part-time so find it easier to keep commissions inhouse or hand them to larger operators. And the station – along with Radio 2 – has a too-white-too-male problem. Insiders describe situations when lists of potential BAME presenters have been provided, which commissioning editors ignore, while plumping for yet another straight white man. The station, still monitored by government, finds it hard to move into the modern world. Its comedy is going through a safe, Cambridge Footlights moment (again). Its documentaries are excellent, but suffer from over-explanation when they begin: they could learn from the “big reveal moment” podcasts offer. Radio 4 doesn’t seem able to get its head around podcasts. Its drama is light years behind that of its podcast rivals.

Perhaps the trickiest aspect to the station is the station itself. I’ve found that as soon as you sit down in a Radio 4 studio, you start talking like a Radio 4 person. Everyone within Radio 4 operates within its own distinct atmosphere. A solution is outside reporting. And outside presenters: the most charismatic on the station have a working life outside the BBC.

Today, the biggest rivals to the 1967 four – and to all the other BBC stations – are digital. Music streaming, podcasts, YouTube. Increasingly, those of us who would have switched on Radio 4 turn to podcasts. Fifty years ago, Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 were forced into existence as a reaction to a changing world. The world is changing even faster now. Their reactions need to be quicker.

Miranda Sawyer is the Observer’s radio critic


Miranda Sawyer

The GuardianTramp

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