At the end of July, Radio 4 listeners could have been forgiven for looking downcast. “Cheer up, it may never happen,” would, however, have been the wrong thing to say. It was indeed going to happen, in April 1998 to be precise – “it” being a massive shake-up in Radio 4’s programming.
“Spindoctors take knife to healthy Radio 4,” trumpeted The Times when the changes were announced. The Daily Mail stated flatly: “Radio 4 has decided to marginalise – and antagonise – some of its most loyal listeners.”
Other media response was less hysterical. The Independent called the new-look Radio 4 “a station for all generations”, and The Guardian referred to an “aborted revolution”, saying that the changes were “mostly modest and sensible”. Even Radio Times praised the attention to detail in the process.
According to James Boyle, controller of Radio 4, the proposed changes do not amount to a relaunch of the station.
“People were led to expect that it was going to result in the dumping of a large number of popular programmes. The changes we are proposing to make are of a different sort altogether. It’s about rearrangement and doing things that will improve the dynamics of the station.”
The term “dumbing down” was used by opponents of the changes, but Boyle is dismissive of it.
“It was a phrase that was bandied about before we made the announcement. There’s no question of anything like that. I don’t even use the phrase.”
David Bunker, research analyst for Radio 4, implemented various measures to study audience attitudes prior to the station revamp. The main tool was Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar), administered by RSL (Research Services Limited) on behalf of the whole radio industry to measure radio audiences and listening behaviour.
In addition, Radio 4 used a time use survey called Daily Life, carried out by research company RSGB on behalf of the BBC generally.
Bunker explains: “At this stage, it was purely quantitative. It allowed us to put hypotheses forward such as why some programmes are doing really well while others are not. At news times, for example, Radio 4 gets a very high share of the audience. The problem is that away from these news peaks the audience drops dramatically.
“The period at 9am is an important junction for Radio 4. We found that people were leaving and going to other stations.”
Information on the image of Radio 4 was supplied through a tracking study conducted by Norwood Brown which looked at the image of the station among different groups in the population.
Bunker notes: “A worrying thing is that, while among its listeners it has a very high profile, outside the core listenership, people are vague about what Radio 4 actually is. There tend to be misconceptions that it’s all about politics or plays. Even among quite keen listeners, some people say it’s too much hard work and too snobbish.”
While the research was in process, Radio 4 also interviewed small groups of producers and editors throughout the UK. There were also consultations with groups like the National Viewers & Listeners Association, the RNIB, disability groups and the Consumer Council.
Alison Lyon is managing director at Counterpoint, the company Radio 4 used to conduct qualitative studies on the data it sourced. She was commissioned to research each of the day parts: mornings, afternoons, evenings, Saturdays and Sundays. Groups of respondents were selected through a network of market research recruiters to offer a fair reflection of opinion in the various regions.
By helping respondents reconstruct their activities and moods at various times of the day, Counterpoint identified a range of listening types which it defined as planners, addicts, dippers and flickers.
Lyon explains: “The planners don’t want any change at all. They are willing to concentrate a lot of effort into radio listening. Trying to make more of the schedule suit younger people’s lifestyles was anathema to them. They found it very difficult to accept that the nature of radio listening was changing and felt that research that talked to non-listeners was pretty dodgy.
“The addicts tend to work from home or listen while doing tasks. They love the tone of Radio 4 and it’s on all the time. They see it as an intelligent companion with a sense of humour. They were much happier about the changes.
“The biggest group of listeners is the dippers, who love Radio 4, but feel it asks too much of them too often. They loved the idea of the station making itself more modern, so long as the intelligent speech element was maintained.
“Flickers have a very low tolerance: if something is not interesting they just flick channels. Push-button radio has made them very promiscuous.”
An additional type consisted of people who seemed to be in awe of Radio 4. Most of them were slightly younger than members of the other groups, and Lyon says that although they said they would like to be Radio 4 listeners, they found the station rather elitist.
Each group interviewed created an ideal schedule for the day part in question, and these ideas were fed into the analysis.
“We identified cornerstone programmes which respondents asked us not to touch. The planners (a minority of Radio 4 listeners overall) were particularly reassured to see those cornerstones still there.”
Hypothetical schedule changes were drawn up and tinkered with to meet listener requirements.
A new method of commissioning was also instituted, with five new commissioning editors, each controlling a different part of the day.
By the time the final schedule changes were publicised, Radio 4 was on full alert to cope with audience response. About 20,000 people received listener packs after phoning in for more details.
Bunker remarks: “People are very happy to be kept informed. One of the big criticisms in the past was that Radio 4 would do something and there didn’t seem to be any reason for it.”
Boyle says an Impacon survey shows that public perception of the changes has been positive.
“When we made the announcements, we knew that we had spoken to the right people and got the right information. We still have a communication exercise to do, however, and we want to make sure people anticipate the changes with pleasure, looking forward to them rather than fearing them.”