Saving the BBC 

21 June 2024


Cover of The Listener

From The Listener, dated 11 September 1969

It says something about ‘Crisis in Broadcasting’, the pamphlet produced by the Campaign for Better Broadcasting — a campaign which has distinguished support — that it was first commissioned ‘in defence of public awareness of architecture and the environment’: that is to say, by a lobby which has been attempting for a good many years now to persuade broadcasters to deal with subjects which are, by their nature, among the most intractable either in radio or television. How can you convey on film the feeling of space — an awareness of the fact that you could comfortably introduce a medium-sized block of flats into the great staircase of the Royal Palace at Caserta? How can you shoot Vanvitelli’s cascades there without making the façade of the palace look like anything but an uninteresting brick-shaped object in the far distance? The Campaign for Better Broadcasting is, in short, high-minded, devoted to a good cause, but unpractical and unwilling to face the facts of broadcasting.

To begin with, it disregards the truth that broadcasting is a term which includes both radio and television, and it is no answer to say that the BBC’s own pamphlet, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, was guilty of the same old-fashioned restriction of the term to cover radio alone. Within broadcasting, television is now overwhelmingly the main source of information and entertainment for the population of this as of most other highly developed countries. It follows that radio has taken on a different function from the one it had in the days when its role as the dominant medium was unchallenged. Its paramountcy came to an end in this country some time in the early Fifties. Itma was its peak and its climax. Short of some great upheaval, it is hard to believe that radio will ever again play a major role in the life of this society. That this was so was evident to a considerable number of broadcasters over a decade ago. The BBC’s present attempts at rationalising the function of radio are, in this sense, more than ten years overdue.

If radio lost ground, it was partly due to the novelty and excitement of the new medium. This stage of naive excitement soon passed, however. If television continued to attract audiences away from radio, there were other and more important grounds for it. The chief of these was that television made obsolete, and revealed as relatively ineffectual, when compared to their TV counterparts, some of the most important types of radio programme: radio features, the bulk of radio drama, large-scale entertainment, sporting events. Radio features, which could not hope to compete with the filmed documentary, had been written and produced by some of the most gifted men and women ever to be recruited to radio, and it was, for me, one of the tragedies of post war broadcasting to see them applying their skills to a genre that was doomed and moribund. Their programmes were, in the end, as anachronistic and curious as those other radio programmes which broadcast the sound-tracks of movies. Because of vested interests, difficulties over staffing, sentimentalism and old habit, the BBC did not allow itself to become aware of the fact that whole areas of radio programming had ceased to have a place in broadcasting for the simple reason that the audience had turned from sound to vision and that vision enjoyed certain advantages. A proper recognition of this fact would have called for the major reorganisation of the radio services of the BBC which its management, at that time, was unwilling or unable to contemplate.


BBCtv caption for announcements of programmes on BBC radio in the late 1960s

BBCtv caption


Once the ascendancy of television was established, the role of radio inevitably changed. It became a medium to which the public turned for the satisfaction of specific and definable needs at specific and definable times. What it was looking for was not mixed programming (which it had on television) but the certainty of being able to enjoy types of programme better suited to radio than to television. These were music of almost any kind from classical to pop; news and news features; and certain types of speech, including, at one end of the scale, soap operas and, at the other, serious discussions or talks in which the picture adds little or nothing to the enjoyment or understanding of the programme. Some of this output it wished to hear at times when television was not available, either in the sense that there were no transmissions or in the sense that the listener was engaged in some activity which made viewing impossible: driving, doing the housework, reading, having a bath. What the listener wanted, and still wants, is the certainty that on a particular wavelength he will readily find the kind of programme he desires without the need to comb the pages of Radio Times.

It was the recognition of this desire among teenagers — who are one of the social groups most addicted to radio, being mobile, unwilling to sit at home in front of a set and fanatically interested in a particular range of music — that lay behind the success of Radio Caroline. At the other end of the scale there are listeners of all ages who welcome the idea of a music programme precisely because, whenever they wish and without having to listen to a batch of mixed programming, they may be sure of hearing good music. What the BBC has done is to recognise the ancillary role of radio and to adjust its programmes to the known habits of the listener.

Where the campaigners have genuine grounds for anxiety is over the proportion of talks material currently on the Third that will be salvaged for Radio-4: Radio-4 will include what used to be called ‘the spoken word’. They are entitled to doubt the BBC’s ‘sweet, sly reasonableness’ until firm proofs are forthcoming. There is, moreover, as they point out, a trend towards a stereotype in radio broadcasting: the magazine programme with items of not more than four minutes in length. This terseness is a pendulum swing away from the long set-piece of up to an hour, just as the discussion is a reaction away from the intoned lecture which was a producer’s artefact or from the virtuoso broadcast talk, which, read or heard after a lapse of years, is often astonishingly thin and trivial The danger that the solid talk may be diluted, superseded, lost, is real. Yet this is a type of programme which, in spite of A. J. P. Taylor’s spellbinding or the enthusiasms of a Hermann Bondi, rarely succeeds on television. What is needed, if room is to be found on Radio-4 for the best in the tradition of radio talks, is a close look at the kind of programme that still goes out. The crucial question should be: is this programme something radio does so well that it demands a place in the schedules? Considered in these terms, light drama appears to be something of an anachronism. Contrary to what the campaigners argue, the answer is not more mixed programming but more specialised programming.


Stuart Hood

Stuart Hood


Where I believe the campaigners to be wrong is in conceiving it possible to revert to what they regard as the old Reithian paradise. They are, in this sense, themselves reactionary. The Reithian certainties are gone and not to be restored, resting as they did on assumptions which are now generally seen as open to question. The Reithian philosophy of communications is based on the proposition that in an ordered society there are those who know, who have the education and the skills, who hand out their views on all matters to the rest of the population in the form of mixed programming. It may be that the use listeners make of radio today is in some way a reaction against this proposition. Then there is the assumption that monopoly is good. Challenged by the commercial lobby in the name of one kind of freedom, it is challenged on quite other and more serious grounds by those who question a system which places broadcasting in the hands of organisations which control both the technical processes of transmission and the editorial processes of programme-making. The effect is to limit quite sharply the range of programmes available to listeners, to require the acceptance of certain concepts such as mainstream Christianity, and to exclude programmes of dissent which go beyond certain fairly closely defined limits. The great debate on broadcasting in this country ‘that should be taking place’ is a discussion on how the limits of broadcasting may be extended.

‘Crisis in Broadcasting’ refers to that well-known passage in the Pilkington Report which discusses the old conundrum about ‘giving the public what it wants’. This, says the report, ‘is a misleading phrase, misleading because, as commonly used, it has the appearance of an appeal to democratic principle, but the appearance is deceptive. It is, in fact, patronising and arrogant, in that it claims to know what the public is but limits its choice to the average of experience.’ This is one horn of the dilemma of which the other is ‘what the public ought to have’. The Reithian sits uncomfortably between them. There is a solution to his dilemma, but it is a Gordian one: and that is to make air-time available to independent artists, producers and directors, to give access to the machinery of communications to groups representing political, religious or minority interests (architects, for instance) and allow them to put on their programmes. This would be pluralistic broadcasting, undreamt of in the Reithian philosophy. But perhaps this is what the great debate ought to be about.

It ought to be an attempt to discover how, in a democracy, more of the public can broadcast what it wants to say. The campaigners say that they may be just in time to save the BBC. There is an argument that this is precisely not what is wanted — to save the BBC as it was. What is needed is a campaign to change the BBC and to release it from the horns of its dilemma, which are sharp, dangerous, and liable to render it impotent.

Stuart Hood, who discussed the BBC’s proposals for radio earlier this year in the ‘Listener’, does not, of course, speak for the BBC on these matters. He is a former Controller of Programmes, BBC Television.


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