Thursday, 16 October 2008

Life on Air, by David Hendy

I first posted a version of this review elsewhere earlier this year, but the recent paperback publication of David Hendy’s Life on Air seems a good opportunity to revisit it. Life on Air was a deserved winner of the Longman-History Today prize as 2008 Book of the Year.

Life on Air is perhaps best described as an institutional history; but the limits and nature of the institution the reader might be presupposing are immediately called into question. The title and the subject court the reader's experience as listener to a Radio Four whose identity which is validated by continuity in the content and personality of the service. As David Hendy reminds his readers, while Radio Four has always had a controller and its own staff, the character of the station, like other BBC services in what was once called sound, then radio, and now audio (the recent rechristening of BBC Radio 7 notwithstanding), has concurrently been dependent not only on the general direction of BBC radio as set by successive directors or managing directors, but also in part on the ambitions of other departments within BBC radio. Each of these (particularly before the move to corporate centralism in BBC management under John Birt) existed to a large (if variable) extent on its own terms and championed its own interpretation of what public service broadcasting ought to be in Britain, how the BBC should fulfil its role, and fought for its own share of the carefully rationed wavelengths. The evolution of Radio Four took place within this context.

The emergence of Radio Four's present character is almost a story of how people in lower, middle and lower senior management in BBC radio championed 'the rich mix' - a term which Hendy associates with one particular fight in defence of Radio Four, between 1978 and 1982 - against various committees and several managing directors of radio, directors-general, or governors, against expectations that in the near future 'the rich mix' would be redundant and that Radio Four's purpose would be 'informational'. Not only was the cause of rolling immediacy particularly demanded by journalists, it seems also to have been an expectation of Ian Trethowan, managing director of BBC Radio from 1970 to 1976, that Radio Four was to become a news and current affairs network; and many other figures in the BBC took this for granted at various points between 1967 and the early 1990s.

Hendy starts the book with a chapter '30 September 1967', and David Dunhill's elegy for the Home Service as he closed it down for the last time (though missing my favourite part of that announcement, the punning "What is radio for?"). While Dunhill assured listeners that the Home Service was like a bride on the eve of her wedding, which would go on being the same person - "we hope" - the change of name to Radio Four came as part of an ongoing process of rethinking the purpose of the Home Service which had been going on since the arrival of Frank Gillard as director of BBC Radio in 1963. At this point the Home Service was in the middle of a conscious transformation, having over the previous three years been gradually exchanging music programmes with the Light or Third programmes for speech. These included taking over The Archers from the Light, and sending programmes like Record Review to the 'Music Programme' that shared the Third's frequency, though it was the sharpening of the music-led networks that was BBC radio's priority, and thinking about the future of speech was an afterthought. This reshaping did not end in 1967; Woman's Hour, for example, didn't come to Radio Four from Radio Two until 1973. Its most successful controllers seem to have been those who tenaciously defended the character of the network while stressing evolutionary change.

For someone for whom BBC radio has been a recurrent soundtrack to his life, there are smiles of familiarity as various landmarks are passed. In October 1970 new controller Tony Whitby - husband of children's television's Joy Whitby, creator of Play School - merged four consumer programmes into You and Yours, listened to in my lunchtimes at home in the early 1980s, and still thriving in the twenty-first century. Brian Redhead arrived at Today in 1975 as one of many attempts to harden its news content. This drive was frustrated briefly during the 'counter revolution' of 1977 led by controller Ian McIntyre, which saw Today being sliced in two to allow for Up to the Hour, a medley including paper reviews, Thought for the Day, and clips from comedy records, the intention being to make the news more focused; the experiment was ultimately as good as denounced on air by announcer Peter Donaldson when he urged listeners to retune to other BBC networks rather than listen to it.

Many of Radio Four's crises seem to have arisen from anxiety that its plural personality couldn't be maintained, or from the certainty of factions such as the aforementioned news lobby that it could not and should not be sustained. Hendy does not stray too far into the debate on modern Britain's uneasy and uncertain grasp on what 'class' is, which continues to shape current discussion about Radio Four. (I wasn't sure if the recent utterances by Jane Garvey about the ‘middle class’ nature of the station, following her translation from Radio Five Live to Radio Four and Woman's Hour, were self-conscious PR, or an unthinking condemnation of the debate about what constitutes intelligent discussion and what constitutes elitism to another round of dubious class-based rhetoric.)

Even as Radio Four 'Basic' took over 1500m/200kHz long wave and became Radio Four UK, complete with Fritz Spiegl's famous theme, on 23 November 1978, it was being undermined from within. The “new national service from the BBC”, as it was hailed by announcer David Symonds, was rapidly being presented at a succession of meetings as an anachronism. The election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 encouraged those in the BBC who thought a period of retrenchment, even retreat, from the goals established at the start of the 1970s was inevitable. For a while it seems to have been assumed that the numbered stations of 1967 would be phased out and that most of Radio Four's output would be merged with local radio under the heading 'BBC Town and Country Radio' or possibly 'BBC Radio England', acknowledging that for many the requirement to carry parliamentary coverage on long wave, and the absence of VHF frequencies for Radio Four outside England (not fixed until the 1990s) meant that 'Radio Four UK' had failed at its inception. Later, John Birt, an outsider from ITV parachuted into the BBC as its first director of news and current affairs, for reasons which had a lot to do with politics, was incensed in 1987 when Radio Four allowed Today to end at 9am on the day of the Great Storm; controller Michael Green reasonably said that there was no point keeping news on air as local radio was best placed to provide information to those affected and the storm hadn't made much impact anywhere north of Watford. The incident helped fuel Birt's desire that Radio Four should become news-led or evolve into or spin off a serious news network, something that never happened in the way Birt imagined, except during the 1991 Gulf War and the attempted coup in the USSR later that year.

Hendy celebrates but also criticises the atmosphere described by some as 'creative inactivity' which allowed producers to spend time thinking; against the neo-managerialism of 'Producer Choice', introduced by Birt as director-general, and which was in full flight in 1997 when Hendy ends the main body of his account, he places the introduction of time management, a fuller appreciation of costing and editorial monitoring in the 1960s which decisively ended a culture where many programme-makers spent long lunchbreaks in the pub. Birt's BBC awaits its historian, though Hendy briefly introduces business sociologist Richard Sennett and his conclusions about the conditions which ensure quality of output without ruling whether or not Birt's reforms decisively affected this at Radio Four for better or worse.

By good fortune as much as by design, it seems, Radio Four has moved from its roots in the 'middlebrow' Home Service, born out of the need to comfort and sustain Britain at the dawn of the Second World War, through the incorporation of some of the high cultural aspirations following the dissolution of the old Third Programme during the 1960s (which magnified in importance following the arrival of Melvyn Bragg as presenter of Start the Week in 1987), into an age when we can no longer be certain what low and high culture are. Its role now, Hendy thinks, is "to widen out horizons a little as the world of fragmenting tastes and ideologies pulls us apart". This is a development unforeseen by the "public affairs" lobby who wanted drama and comedy excised from Radio Four in the 1970s, and perhaps also by John Birt, who apparently expressed bafflement at Michael Green's determination to hold on to Today, The World at One and PM, which (in the discussions which eventually led to the creation of Radio Five Live) Birt wanted as the core of his desired 'upmarket' rolling news network. Didn't he want to lose Today, he was asked, so he could run comedy in the mornings? The 'rich mix' is surely richer for being mixed together on one network. The arguments used by European listeners during the 'Save Radio Four Long Wave' campaign of the early 1990s included that Radio Four was a good ambassador for British cultural values. The continued existence of Radio Four argues well for the health of British pluralism, whatever one's opinions of the state.

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