When Gwyneth Williams was growing up, she wasn’t allowed to listen to the BBC. In the South Africa of the 1960s, the apartheid regime viewed citizens who sought news other than that provided by the state-
controlled broadcaster as potential political dissidents, and the secret police would harass or even arrest those they discovered tuning in. The makeshift aerial on the roof of her parents’ house in Pietermaritzburg, therefore, represented more than just a chance to dip into for entertainment.
“It was a big deal, because you weren’t really supposed to listen,” Williams tells me over tea at Old Broadcasting House in central London, her South African accent now only the faintest trace in her voice. “We used to put up aerials to hear the news, and it was really important.”
This first encounter with the BBC World Service, crackling away in secret, was formative for Williams. She recalls it now as a reminder that, as the controller of Radio 4, she has influence over what those forced to listen covertly in places such as Zimbabwe, Eritrea and North Korea hear. “It really matters that our news and current affairs is the best,” she says, “the highest top-level journalism you can have.”
It also set the template for her career at the BBC: after time as the head of radio current affairs, she became the director of the World Service English division in 2007 – a post she left in 2010 to take the top job at Radio 4. She now leads the station at a once-in-a-decade moment of political turmoil: 2016 is the year the BBC’s royal charter must be renewed by the government.
The process is one that has already been influenced by the Conservatives’ victory in May 2015. The appointment of the veteran MP and long-time BBC critic John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary was interpreted by many as an act of war. Shortly after the election, Downing Street sources were saying that Whittingdale would “sort out the BBC”. He is, after all, the man who in 2014 described the licence fee as “worse than the poll tax”.
Williams is surprisingly relaxed about the political dialogue around the BBC. “The BBC is a great big institution right in the middle of the British state, just as our other institutions are. Institutions are in rolling crisis, as they always have been, but particularly now. They’re always recasting themselves and trying to innovate and keep up.”
More than that, she is convinced that the need for the BBC hasn’t gone away, whatever today’s politicians might be saying. “We need Auntie. It’s bound to take a different shape, and there’ll be a different political debate around it depending on the current politics, really.”
As we talked in her perch high up in the original BBC building, it was easy to understand how it’s possible to take this longer view. Politicians come and go, but the corporation is still standing at the heart of everything. What cannot be explained away, though, is that it is going to have to do more for less in future.
Although the indications are that the licence fee will remain as part of the new charter, from 2018 the BBC is going to have to absorb the cost of financing the free licences the state formerly gave to the over-75s. That amounts to £725m, or roughly a 10 per cent budget cut. As the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, warned two years ago, it’s the kind of cut that can’t be achieved by “salami-slicing” a little bit from everything.
Asked where her station sits in all of this, Williams is upfront about the scale of the challenge she faces. “It’s affecting Radio 4, it certainly is. I’ve taken a few million quid out of Radio 4 over the last few years, as carefully as I can, obviously protecting audiences at the front line. We’ve reduced management here – we’re very small.”
The evidence is clear as far as the last point goes. Arriving for the interview, I am surprised to be shown in to a small, open-plan office with only a handful of desks. Williams explains the set-up: “It’s me, it’s the scheduler, it’s Laura [from the press office], and a couple of commissioning editors – 2.8, precisely, commissioning editors.”
The room where we are sitting isn’t even really the controller’s office – in a move reminiscent of something from the BBC satire W1A, Williams doesn’t have one, because since the 2011 redevelopment of Broadcasting House, everybody is meant to “hot-desk”. Instead, we have our tea in a meeting room that I’m told others refrain from booking out so that Williams can have a base in the building.
Although the budget cuts are not to be taken lightly, the controller of Radio 4 occupies a somewhat privileged position. “Radio 4 is relatively protected, compared with other bits,” Williams explains. “But we’ve still had to take quite a bit out. And there’s more to come.”
This protection comes courtesy of Radio 4’s greatest asset: its audience. When I speak to Williams’s predecessor as controller, Mark Damazer (now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford), he calls it “the trump card”. Each week, the network broadcast of Radio 4 reaches nearly 11 million people, and one in every eight minutes spent with radio in the UK is spent with Radio 4. On top of that, there are more than two million on-demand requests a week via iPlayer or the Radio 4 website. While other traditional
media outlets struggle because of the internet, the advent of digital has only helped Williams reach even more people. That trump card is one she isn’t afraid to play.
“When they come for the budget, obviously I say, ‘Well, we do have a significant audience . . .’ and they know, of course, that it’s true. Radio 4 has a special place in the BBC, I think. Everybody recognises that.”
The stereotype of a Radio 4 listener is well known. They’re old, they’re grumpy, they’re quite posh, they love The Archers and they hate change. At least part of that is rooted in fact – BBC figures show that the average listener age is 56, and if you’ve ever listened to Feedback you know that some of them are quite irascible about small changes in programme format. But that is very far from the whole story, Williams insists.
“In fact, I’m very pleased [that the average age is at 56], because it’s stayed there. People are getting older, and there are more and more listeners . . . and people are living longer, but the average has stayed more or less the same. And we do have about 1.4 million listeners of under 34 a week, which is a reasonable chunk.”
Her listeners measure their lives not, like T S Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock, in coffee spoons but by the Radio 4 schedule. “When I cut the quizzes at half-past one, when I got here first, in order to extend World at One, people wrote the most heartbroken letters, saying, ‘I always have my lunch break then to listen, and now I can’t.’ So people really care about it, but I don’t think that’s conservatism. It’s passion.”
Ultimately, the pact between Radio 4 and its listeners is mutually beneficial. Williams can build her resistance to budget cuts on their loyalty, and they trust her in return not to ruin the thing they love. “If you are rooted in it, you can actually do anything you like,” she says. “I’ve certainly learned that – more this last year than any time, but actually since I got the job – that the audience is up for anything. You can say what you want on Radio 4.”
Innovation is essential, she says, especially for an institution as old as the BBC. “I keep back a bit of budget. I cut in order to do a little bit of innovative stuff: you have to.” As well as the recent digital moves, such as allowing listeners to download programmes and keep them for up to 30 days, plus more short, 15-minute programmes that listeners can use to “build their own hours”, there is a host of initiatives planned for 2016. These include a domestic companion to From Our Own Correspondent called From Our Home Correspondent (the first episode is at 9am on 3 May), an element-by-element dramatisation of Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and the impossible-sounding Global Philosopher (the video will be on the BBC website on 22 March, and it is broadcast on Radio 4 at 9am, 29 March), in which Michael Sandel will debate with dozens of people from around the world at the same time, using a vast video wall. There will be a crowdsourced series on free speech and a new version of Look Back in Anger starring Ian McKellen and David Tennant. In charter renewal year, Radio 4 is coming out fighting.
Still, it would never do to stray too far from tradition. Williams tells me about her favourite letter from a Radio 4 listener. “It said: ‘Dear Controller, now that the last controller has departed (I hope to the innermost circle of Dante’s hell), will you bring back the UK Theme?’ It went on, saying it was a heinous act of vandalism. It was incredibly amusing.” The letter was referring to her predecessor’s decision in 2006 to abolish the orchestral music played every morning as the World Service handed back over to Radio 4. Thousands signed a petition, but the theme was still axed.
It’s a salutary lesson: no matter how skilfully you pilot Radio 4 through turbulent times, there will always be someone who thinks you ought to go to hell.