As pressure mounts to attract younger listeners, Radio 4’s future hangs in the balance

BBC insiders worry the station is being asset stripped as funds are diverted to a new app. 

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BBC bosses can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Ofcom regulators chastise them for failing their younger audiences, but any attempt to lure in the nation’s youth risks a rebellion in the Home Counties heartlands. Equally, they have to seize the opportunities of the personalised digital world – while not disregarding the huge audiences still attached to linear channels. The public service commitment to universality makes it particularly tough to make choices when money is tight.

Currently enduring his turn on the toasting fork of controversy is the BBC’s director of radio and education and former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell. He was the driving force behind the development of BBC Sounds, described by the corporation as its biggest product launch in a decade when it went live last autumn. There is no doubt that it is an exciting concept: all the BBC’s radio services together in one place on an app and online, augmented by on-demand programmes, music mixes and podcasts.

But the buzz of the launch, boosted by a marketing budget estimated at an eye-watering £10m, has been met with grumbles from inside Broadcasting House as it becomes clear there will be a fight for dwindling resources between the shiny new toy and traditional stations. Cuts to Radio 3 have already diluted the station’s editorial proposition. Some have noted that Purnell was partly responsible for the straitened circumstances, as the strategist behind the charter renewal process that lumbered the BBC with funding licence fees for the over-75s.

Sensing that BBC Sounds will win out over traditional stations, Gillian Reynolds, the doyenne of radio critics, has taken to describing Purnell as “the BBC radio supremo who wants to phase out radio.” Confirming fears within the BBC, producers last week received letters asking for redundancy volunteers, citing the need to “reinvest in the key strategic objective of attracting more young listeners to BBC services”.

In a subsequent article in the Times, anonymous Broadcasting House insiders didn’t refrain from pulling their punches. One presenter reportedly said that “Radio 4 is in danger of being destroyed. The jewel in the crown is being shut down and asset stripped like a Midlands car factory.” Purnell’s supporters say that savings would be needed anyway, irrespective of BBC Sounds.

Cuts to services and the demand that stations attract younger listeners have prompted irritation within Radio 4 and other networks. News this week that Bob Shennan, Purnell’s second in command, will be moving from radio to the BBC corporate centre gave further cause for gloom; his departure will entail the loss of someone experienced in the medium and prepared to battle for quality.

Radio 4 managers have coped with austerity circumstances until now, but they fear that targets looming in the next five years could seriously damage the network. To put it crudely, there will be less money available for quality Radio 4 programmes – many of them already stretched very thin – and more available for BBC Sounds podcasts.

Purnell hopes that the best of the podcasts will find a home back on Radio 4, but the requirement for new content to appeal to younger listeners has made insiders sceptical of whether that would work in practice. A former BBC executive describes this “obsession” with youth as “immensely arrogant towards audiences over 35.”

Some of this is just the usual W1A war of words, but there are plenty of experienced observers who think the BBC has got many things fundamentally wrong. BBC Sounds itself had poor search and share functions at the time of its launch, and its app hasn’t received much love. The average rating from users limps along at 2.2, compared with 3.7 for the iPlayer radio that it is due to replace.

“I hate it,” says one industry luminary. “It’s made me use it less than the radio player because it is so unfriendly and so designed for young music lovers.” Listening figures themselves are hard to evaluate: the BBC has claimed 1.3m are using Sounds each week, though we’re not told whether this meets the goals set out in the business plan.

A further challenge is that younger audiences generally want music; due to music rights, BBC Sounds is offering a much thinner selection than the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. The BBC’s mixes are inflexible: you can’t skip a track you don’t like, and they’re interspersed with jingles and presenters. A source who has seen the usage figures says that many of the music mixes are performing poorly.

The net effect is that the editorial focus of Sounds ends up moving back to speech, which is not the first choice for your average 18 year old, and podcasts get smaller audiences than if they had a network airing. But Purnell cites the liberation of producers able to make content about anything for anyone, with successes like 5 Live’s That Peter Crouch podcast.

The deeper question is whether the BBC’s management is misunderstanding the nature of radio itself. I remember discussions more than 20 years ago that predicted the fragmentation of radio networks in the digital age, but linear radio has since become stronger in many respects: Radio 2’s audience has grown to be the biggest station in Europe, and the BBC has also claimed records for Radio 4.

The medium is fundamentally different from television, where nobody gives two hoots about which channel a programme is on. Among radio listeners there is still a huge premium on narrative radio and shared experiences with trusted presenters. Commercial operators seem to think that this remains the way forward. The success of LBC is based on compelling hosts who seize the news moment, and Virgin’s investment in Chris Evans alongside Bauer’s launch of Scala suggest there is plenty of life in old formats.

Intriguingly, Purnell had originally wanted BBC Sounds to become a home for commercial radio as well as BBC productions, and a place where independent podcasts could also be given space. This was another attempt to cement the BBC as the one-stop digital shop for all your audio requirements. Bauer and Global groups have allegedly said no to the BBC’s offer, but Purnell is not flickering in his commitment to Sounds.

The question for loyal listeners is whether that will be at the expense of the services they currently love – not just as fading examples of the analogue past, but as broadcasting formats still of huge value today.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.