14 MARCH 1998, Page 52


Change your habits

Michael Vestey

It won't be just the clocks that will need changing this spring, listening habits will need some adjustment as well. Last year James Boyle, the controller of Radio Four, unveiled his new schedules to come into effect on 5 April, but he said there'd be a period of consultation before going ahead. That time is now up and he'll be telling us next week whether or not his proposals are to remain unaltered.

Some of them shouldn't be a problem except that many listeners won't be able to alter their domestic habits to hear pro- grammes at the times of day or night that suited them. I'm thinking in particular of The Moral Maze, to be shifted just after the 9 o'clock news on Thursday mornings to 8 p.m., when many are having dinner, with a repeat at 10.15 on Saturday night. Surely, only the most dedicated people will want to tune in then. And one of the regular panel- lists, the acerbic historian Dr David Starkey, seems destined to become a crea- ture of the night. His show on Talk Radio has been shifted from Sunday mornings to Sunday evenings, with, I would guess, a falling away of audiences and contributors.

Incidentally, when I tuned into his Talk 'I don't even understand how Stephen Hawking's wheelchair works.' Radio slot at the usual time recently I heard a moronic show about astrology, the host of which was Russell Grant. Had Alas- tair Campbell struck again? I wondered, as Starkey berates this government as cheer- fully and caustically as he did the last. I phoned Talk Radio to find out but as it was Sunday no one was available. There was only one thing for it. I would have to ring Starkey's show at 7 p.m. and ask him live, on air, why he'd been unceremoniously moved, and to a time when the medium- wave reception is poorer. The problem with this was that the subject under discus- sion was Europe, and Chancellor Kohl being given the Freedom of the City of London.

Thinking I should call myself after some ancient king, Eorpwald of East Anglia or Wulfhere of Mercia, I settled for John of Wiltshire. I would ask him straight out why he'd been shifted before offering my views on Europe. This, I found to my surprise, was easier thought than done, particularly when the presenter is as loquacious as Starkey. Somehow, when I was put on air, I heard myself talking about Chancellor Kohl, EMU, the democratic deficit and Sir Edward Heath about whom I was not com- plimentary. All right, so I'll ask him about his show in a moment and just as I did I found I was talking to myself. I'd been cut off. My only consolation was hearing the next caller, 'John of Sussex', telling Starkey how intelligent I'd been. According to Talk Radio the following morning, the ghastly Grant is considered to be more popular.

Anyway, returning to the Radio Four schedules, the ending of the aimless and sometimes desperately contrived The After- noon Shift is to be welcomed. It's to be replaced with familiar programmes such as Moneybox Live (excellent when presented by Vincent Duggleby who is himself an expert on money matters), Gardeners' Question Time and so on. I'm sad to see the departure of Farming Today from its pre- sent slot, though I can't complain too much because I'm rarely awake at 6 a.m. A short- er version will be heard before Today which will start earlier at 6 a.m., an unnecessary change, I would have thought. Having heard Farming Today a few times in the past month I noticed how much it has changed. Its domestic farming content has been cut back and in its place are more leftish environmental issues. There was a time when you could listen to it and almost smell the farmyard.

Another bad move will be putting Yester- day in Parliament on long wave only at a quarter to nine in the mornings. I find it covers PM's Questions better than any other outlet on radio with the exception of Radio Five Live's afternoon show. Audi- ences have dropped for Today in Parlia- ment at 11.30 at night on long wave and the same will happen for Yesterday in Parlia- ment. It's also fascinating to hear how many peevish Old Labour Scottish voices there are on the backbenches. The Archers will have a new 7 p.m. edition Sunday evenings. Although I remain an aficionado, despite the sometimes silly story-lines and political correctness, I have mixed feelings about this as I don't really like listening to the radio at that time on Sundays.

There are other changes, affecting radio drama and news and there isn't space here to go into them. But when Boyle first announced his changes I thought they were rather clever. He was rearranging the furni- ture but not throwing it all away. He wants to increase audiences and hold on to listen- ers who dip into Radio Four for short peri- ods, fewer than 15 minutes a week. He says there are millions of them. Quite who they are, I don't know, the young, presumably. I would be surprised if the changes really do make much difference but we will have to see.

The real danger lies in the content and style of programmes. If you take a serious subject and allow it to be presented in a downmarket and patronising fashion, as has happened with some programmes in the past few years, the network will not gain enough new listeners to replace those who've fled to darkened rooms.