‘Radio Waves’, Sunday Times, CULTURE, 21/10/2012

‘Radio Waves’, Sunday Times, CULTURE, 21/10/2012

Paul Donovan laments the BBC’s sorry record in providing radio for children and highlights the widespread concern about young children’s listening and language deficit, which can be so damaging to their social life, education and employment.

Today’s children have less licence-funded radio than ‘Children’s Hour’ provided in the 1940s when the Home Service was the only platform of delivery and,  of the £640.1million annual budget for its domestic radio services, less than £1m is reserved for what the BBC now calls ‘family listening’.

The Sound Start Group of parents and educators who are concerned about this situation have called on Director General, George Entwistle, to review the BBC’s strategy for children’s radio and commission an independent evaluation of radio’s potential role in children’s leisure and cultural development. A copy of this letter is posted below:


Dear Mr Entwistle,

Congratulations on your appointment. We welcome your aim to serve all audiences with the highest quality content and fix any nonsense you find, which we hope will open a way to address the BBC’s poor record in providing radio for children.

In February 2011 the BBC’s Strategy for Children’s Audio wrote off its core remit to make and broadcast public service radio for children aged 14 and under: handing 75%  of their air-time and 50%% of the budget to grown-ups. All radio for children under the age of seven has been replaced with 15 minute podcasts, thus disenfranchising the 18% of homes without internet access. Parents complained that downloads require extra equipment, know-how and parental supervision compared with a pre-programmed push button radio that even a very young child could operate but their protests have fallen on deaf ears, as have appeals to BBC Trust Chairmen, Sir Michael Lyons and Lord Patten, for a public review. From a £640.1m radio budget £1m goes to children.

These instant cuts contrast most unfairly with general BBC savings averaging 16%, amortised over five years. Well publicised campaigns won reprieves and increased audiences for 6 Music; the Asian Network; World Service and local radio networks but, despite years of expanding capacity, children are left with less licence-funded radio than ‘Children’s Hour’ provided in the 1940s when the Home Service was the sole platform of delivery. The BBC is mandated to serve all communities across all its available conduits and to set quality benchmarks for others to aspire to. Instead it chases ratings and, when failing to meet them, abandons the audience least able to fight.

Remaining content for listeners aged 7 – 14 years is combined with clips from R4, and rebranded ‘family friendly’ on R4Extra – Home for fans of Horror, Sci-fi and Stand-up Comedy.  An hour, plus a repeat, of children’s drama and stories airs on Sundays. Pre-school time is now occupied by ‘Crime and Thrillers’, featuring violence, contract killings, guns, knives, drugs, poisoning and suicide, and ‘The 7th Dimension’ rotates gruesome horror stories made to scare adults: e.g.  recent repeats of ‘The Edge’ from Fear on Four dramatised the breakdown of a debt-ridden father who dreams of pushing his wife and children off a cliff, before actually throwing himself over the edge in a horrific suicide witnessed by his wife and children.  Stories which include children in the cast are all the more intriguing to younger listeners whose parents may not be around to supervise this adult targeted network.  Management claims to schedule carefully around family time, yet Valmont’s calculated seduction and deflowering of convent girl , Cecile, in ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses; the racy sexual musings of ‘The Governor’s Consort’ and extremely hard-hitting racist language of 1940s Rhodesia, in Doris Lessing’s ‘The Grass is Singing’ immediately preceded recent 4’Oclock Shows.

There is no watershed in radio and the BBC says parents must be responsible for monitoring their children’s listening.  In response to complaints about conflicted content executives argue that very few children tune to BBC adult-speech stations and even postulate that today’s children may no longer be able to listen without visual stimulation: apparently oblivious of their own culpability were such a sorry surmise to be true. After decades of failure to attract young ears the BBC has given up and, instead, instructed Worldwide Ltd to rent its PSB archive to commercial rivals. This contravenes advice to broadcasters in the Bailey Review: Letting Children be Children.

The tactic will commercialise children and place their radio future in even greater jeopardy if it fails to generate enough sponsorship and advertising revenue to satisfy private share-holders.

A succession of public reports by John Bercow MP; Graham Allen MP; Frank Field MP; Sir Jim Rose, and Communications Champion, Jean Gross, show an increasing number of children entering school unable to understand what is asked of them or to express their own needs, which greatly hinders their social, educational and working lives. Freedom of expression defines us but that freedom is meaningless unless we know how to use it and express our thoughts, feelings and ideas. Parents and educators agree that daily radio of high quality songs, stories, nursery-rhymes, poetry; puzzles and number- and word-games improves listening and talking; stimulates imagination; supports the basics of learning and helps families to acquire English as an additional language. With cash-strapped resources in the early and primary years this is a public service the UK can’t afford to do without. Radio opens the world beyond family, friends and school-life: not only giving us what we think we want but what we never knew we could have. It also balances the prevalent screen and keyboard activity frequently blamed for language delay, attention deficit and obesity in the young.

Independent research placed a licence-funded radio network for young children and their families above all the BBC’s new DAB formats and the motor industry confirms such a service would help to drive digital take-up in cars, where parents say they would welcome it most.  A strategy which axes public radio for children; sells their archive to commercial rivals and relegates family hours to the home of horror and crime puts the young at risk, breaches trust and damages the BBC’s reputation.

Currently the BBC’s most listened to digital network, R4Extra is a treasury of some of the finest radio the licence-fund has achieved but, while proudly celebrating this wonderful medium, executives stubbornly maintain children neither want nor need it. Do we remove fresh vegetables and fruit juice because most kids prefer burgers and pop? Given the high rotation and copious repeats of adult radio content, much of which is also available for free download and commercial purchase, it is difficult to understand why children can’t have a fair share of this unique public resource. The English Language is our greatest export and the BBC should be leading the world in production and delivery of radio for children rather than abandoning them to commerce.

The purpose of this letter is not only to set out the facts of the case but also to suggest a solution. We recommend in-depth analysis and evaluation of the children’s radio sector, with published outcomes to inform the BBC and the wider broadcasting industry. We have devised the blueprint for such a study to be conducted in partnership with the BBC and other interested parties, and we hope you will meet to discuss it as a responsible way to nurture the young and fix this nonsense.

Yours sincerely,

The Baroness Warnock DBE – Chair, Sound Start Group

The Baroness Howe of Idlicote, CBE; The Baroness Walmsley of West Derby; The Baroness Massey of Darwen; The Baroness Bonham Carter; Wendy Scott; Wendy Ellyat; Michael Rosen; Sue Palmer; Susan Stranks; Dr Richard House; Professor Tim Brighouse; Suzi Digby (Lady Eatwell) OBE; Dr Aric Sigman; Lady Solti; Anne Longfield OBE; Vicky Ireland MBE; John Hegley; James Carrington

Documents relied on:

MORI and Capibus Ipsos MORI surveys

  • 2001 Research Data
  • 2010 Research Data
  • 2011 Research Data
  • UK Broadcasting & Communications Acts
  • R7/R4Extra Service Licences
  • Ofcom Broadcasting Codes
  • BBC Charter and Broadcasting Guidelines
  • BBC Trust Consultations on the Asian Network and Delivering Quality First (DQF)  
  • Sound Start Group Response to BBC Trust Consultation on Delivering Quality First
  • Sound Start Group Response to BBC Trust Consultation on the Asian Network
  • Hart and Risley (1995)
  • Bercow Review ( July 2008)
  • Frank Field Report on Poverty and Life Chances  (December 2010)              
  • Allen Report (January 2011)
  • The Bailey Review – Letting Children be Children (June 2011)
  • Jean Gross Report (December 2011)
  • Darren Henley’s Report – Music Education in England (February 2011)
  • Darren Henley’s Review of Cultural Education (April 2012)
  • Lord Ramsbotham – Young Offenders and Communication (Hansard)

Copied to the Sound Start Group, supporters of a National Children’s Radio Network, the Press and other interested parties..

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