Cheltenham Literature Festival: Meet the Controller: Q&A Session with Gwyneth Williams, Controller of BBC Radio 4 and 4 Extra

As I think most people involved in radio will know, listeners of BBC Radio 4 are extremely loyal to the station and the shows they listen to – about 10 million listeners tune in to an average of 12 hours each week – but Radio 4 listeners can not stand change.

I saw this first hand yesterday, when I went to my first Cheltenham Literature Festival event of the year – the Q&A session with Gwyneth Williams, the controller of BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra, with Front Row presenter Kirsty Lang acting as the ‘chair’.

It was quite interesting being in a room full of loyal, intelligent Radio 4 listeners (as opposed to a room full of students at uni). For each person who wanted to be very critical about Radio 4 (and there were plenty yesterday afternoon), there were a number of other people who were prepared to raise their hand in order to defend the BBC.

The result of this was actually a very interesting, wide ranging debate about Radio 4, and I think from the point of view of the controller, it was almost like a focus group. There were points raised about just about everything from Radio 4’s choice of presenters, to the Americanisation of the English language, and why listeners in rural Gloucestershire who can not receive the station on FM must put up with Yesterday In Parliament on 198 LW. There was one woman who was extremely critical about Radio 4’s Sunday schedule, and even someone who dared to be critical about the Archers (the reaction from the audience was quite amusing, and when asked ‘Who listens to the Archers?’, just about everyone in the room raised their hands).

There were points made about how Radio 4 should attract younger listeners, and for some reason the debate about trails went on for a very long time. we even heard from one of the programme makers about why he wants trails, because he wants people to listen to the show, and it has been shown that the listening figures rise dramatically when a programme has been trailed.

It was an interesting event, and I’m sure that, had there been time, it could have gone on for so much longer.

I leave you with this thought – one point raised by the R4 Controller last night, was that Radio 4’s competition is not TV: Radio 4’s main competition is museums, books, newspapers, magazines, the theatre – hence it is very important for Radio 4 to maintain high standards within its programmes. I’d never really thought about it before, but I think I agree with this.


Fred Hart

Stock Controller and Radio Presenter/Producer

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