Who will be the next controller of BBC Radio 4?

Whoever it they must know what “quality programming” really means.

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How much audio do we consume? What percentage of that is radio? How much talk radio do we consume? What is the BBC’s audience share of all that audio – and why is it declining? Such questions have never dominated so much. These past weeks have seen Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams prepare to step down, and John Humphrys announce his 32-year tenure on Today is coming to a (reluctant) end. Rajar figures revealed that Radio 4’s weekly reach fell by three quarters of a million listeners, from 11.25 million in the last quarter of 2017 to 10.48 million in the same period last year (the World Service, however, is on the up).

“Radio is over,” someone chimed on The Media Show, discussing uninterested younger listeners and replenisher audiences. Oh, for the fugue state of the podcast, went the discussion, where chatter is more relaxing! Only on podcasts can we hide from half-hour bulletins and Brexit talk. Good news for the former Labour minister James Purnell’s podcast-centric app BBC Sounds. Bad news for Today, the success (or not) of which “sets the agenda” and keeps listeners parked for the rest of their lives on Radio 4… or so the thinking has long been.

The increasing difficulty for Today is that it must, to a certain extent, keep us in a state of hysteria about things in order to make us feel we’re “interested” in the news – when in fact we are less interested in the news than ever before, because we feel instinctively pessimistic about long-term trends. We’ll be poorer than our parents. A computer will take our jobs. No new controller can do much about the foul national mood – about this unprecedented lack of both interest in democracy and a sense of our being “stakeholders”. We feel fragile, and partisan. Institutions such as the BBC – too left! too right! – are resented. At its peak, circa Grenfell, 11.55 million people were tuning into Radio 4. But people are switching over, and off. And so be it – for now. Things ought to be allowed to “decline” without us throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Controllers are auteurs. Despite the layers of management and producers and editors, and endless commissioning rounds, a controller’s personality profoundly shapes what we hear. In her eight years, Gwyneth Williams commissioned both Tweet of The Day (a world in birdsong in just 90 seconds) and Seamus Heaney’s reading of Beowulf, which dominated, like thunder, two weeks of broadcasting. Listening to an entire New Year’s Day of nothing but War and Peace in 2015 I remember thinking how unexpected it sounded. Not so much the content; but that it was doing things with our concept of live radio time, suggesting that the medium isn’t ruled by some mystical law about the length or shape of programmes, or thoughts. Keeping radio thrumming is always far less to do with making it “youthful”, and absolutely everything to do with a looseness, a coolness with form.

There is a danger in setting too much store by figures. One day soon, biotech will be tracking our heartbeats to work out exactly what we want – data discerning, to the second, when people are drifting mentally (which voice, which presenter, which age, theme, story, sex, opinion) and delivering only our desires and preferences back to us. Such radio will miss the point of its very self – that great things are also made up of what we don’t like: things stumbled on, or even scarcely endured. If algorithms only ever direct us to where all our media choices have previously taken us, and away from all the other stuff that might make us change our minds about something, then culture is dead. That’s what a culture is.

For what it’s worth, my money is on Mohit Bakaya as the next controller. Once a producer of Radio 3’s Night Waves (and now commissioning editor for factual programming on Radio 4) he’s worked within the corporation from the ground up, and with programmes such as Doorstep Daughter and The Global Philosopher he has demonstrated a creative use of new technology and an unusual freedom with how to shape narrative.

Whoever it is, a controller must know that talking about “quality programming” is not the same as a politician talking about “schools” and “hospitals”: it’s an actual thing that is already being done on the station, every day. They must comprehend that it concerns a much wider sense of the mainstream that is in decline – the idea of a national broadcaster as a unifying voice. They must be like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, in the scene where he says, “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year… At the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in… 60 years.” The decline isn’t nearly as precipitous as is being said. Anything might happen. Radio is still a very big pie. The real – the only – question is, who’s going to panic? And who isn’t? 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam