Radio Current Affairs

One of the main aims of the No Such project was to look at the representation of the public under Margaret Thatcher on both television and radio. In this the research was unusual as most research into representation or into political communication has tended to focus on the visual media and the press.

radio microphone image Radio archives
Image: Radio microphone Bournemouth University LBC/IRN Archive

BBC Radio
We decided to select two long running factual radio programmes, both broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Woman’s Hour and File on Four and to attempt to study coverage of the case study theme for the project, representation of the health service. Hugh Chignell, who has written and published on the precursor to File on Four, Radio Four’s Analysis chose the single subject current affairs programme.File on Four; Georgia Eglezou chose the very long-running daily magazine,.Woman's Hour.

As there is no national repository of radio programmes and extremely limited access to the tapes in the BBC’s archive (by listening to them at the British Library) this was always going to be a problematic task. Added to the general inaccessibility of old radio programmes is the perception that daily or weekly current affairs programmes are less valued than, for example, a radio play or a crafted radio feature. The research led us to the offices of File on Four and their comprehensive transcript collection which probably contains every File on Four script from its launch in 1977 to the mid 1990s and the advent of the online transcript. As the section on Woman’s Hour reveals we were not so lucky with that daily magazine; very few tapes or transcripts could be found.

Independent Local Radio (ILR)
During the 1980s Independent Local Radio was also making programmes which commented on the issues of the day. Between 1973 and 1990, local stations were required, as part of their contract, to broadcast speech-based programming in addition to music to a wider audience profile. A digitisation project at Bournemouth University has made many of these programmes available online BUFVC ILR. Commercial radio was known as Independent Radio, until new broadcast legislation was passed which transformed the business model under the Broadcasting Act 1990.

Tony Stoller, Chief Executive of the Radio Authority 1995-2003, writes about government policy in relation to Independent Radio in the 1990s (ILR paper). Emma Wray explores programmes of the 1980s which dealt with the growing problem of AIDS, against the background of regulation (Commercial Radio paper). These two papers draw on original sources of both primary and secondary data, including information held in the archives of the current radio regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), who has granted extensive access to previously unseen confidential archives.

Radio and health
Radio, in the specific case of the health service, tells a particular story about public services and people’s experiences of them. It has advantages over television as well as disadvantages. On the positive side, radio is an excellent medium for the views of ‘ordinary people’ with its slightly more relaxed approach and lack of concern with how things look. The microphone is less interventionist than the camera (or camera crew in the 1980s) and in both BBC programmes there is a greater sense of getting a range of NHS users and employees to be honest and forthcoming. File on Four benefited from its Manchester base and gathered its stories mainly in the north of England. This, combined with the real skill of its reporters, produced some revealing accounts of the decline of the NHS in the 1980s. Woman’s Hour of course benefited from its particular interest, and sympathy for, women and this provided an interesting perspective on the NHS under Thatcher. The London-based ILR station, LBC, was able to be part of a government-sponsored awareness programme on AIDS, and also to make the most of its informal relationship with its phone-in audience.

Hugh Chignell writes:

The research on File on Four. consisted of a textual analysis of twelve programmes transmitted during the 1980s on the subject of health. Most of the transcripts were photographed in situ at the File on Four offices in Manchester and a few were copied at the BBC’s write archive at Caversham. Three programmes were also listened to at the British Library. In addition Michael Green, the first programme editor and its creator was interviewed as was Jenny Cuffe, one of the long-serving reporters. This research is ongoing, more staff and ex-staff are being interviewed during 2010.

What follows is a sketch of the programme and its aspirations and style based on an interview with Michael Green who was previously a producer of Analysis and went on to become the longest running of Controllers of Radio Four. In these edited comments, Michael Green discusses the contrast between Analysis and File on Four, important as the latter programme had to differentiate itself clearly in its style and approach from its more arid and cerebral ‘parent’.

File on Four began as a two subject programme which quickly became a single subject and was always 45 minutes in length. Initially presented by Peter Oppenheimer (who has also presented Analysis), it was ‘pacey’ and included ‘dust on our feet’ stories which other programmes were not getting. This was reporting ‘from the ground up’ and not studio based – ‘reviewing life lived’. The most common issues were prisons, housing and health. Typically a policy was chosen, then an individual case examined and the findings might be presented to a minister for comment. On Analysis you would not hear the voice of an interviewer but on File on Four you heard the reporter ‘you had a sense of engagement between the reporter and the interviewee’ and there were also reporters doing voice pieces on location which was unheard of previously. It certainly never happened on Analysis ‘but didn’t happen much elsewhere’. In comparison with Analysis it was less abstract or philosophical.

In addition, Michael Green noted that FOF was also a training ground for young BBC reporters, for example Richard Kendall, Peter Salmon and Helen Boaden. Manchester was a good place to work and was also home to The Manchester Guardian and World in Action and there was a culture in BBC Manchester which made it less constrained than London. File on Four presented social stories from which broader conclusions could be drawn. It focused on individual cases, such as the health service, and asked ‘what’s going wrong?’; it was micro rather than macro. The choice of stories was typically journalistic, there were weekly editorial meetings at which stories would be suggested for the programme’s 12 week run.

This was a programme created ‘at the right time’ because it was important to compete with television – to engage with people in new ways. In the 1970s, radio was struggling having been ‘bashed around by TV’ which took the money and attention. File on Four was part of the reinvention of radio in a new era. Part of the ‘resurgence’ of radio, exploiting its ‘great strengths’; speed and people saying things they would not say on television ‘ it can be a much more revelatory medium than television’.

The research on File on Four’s coverage of health in the 1980s showed that it was not only one of the main topics examined by the series but also that there were double the number of health programmes in the second half of the 1980s compared to the first half. The research (interpretive textual analysis of programme scripts) showed a persistent theme of the NHS in crisis, and the feasibility of private care as a way of solving the problem. The generally obstructive attitudes of consultants is also a persistent theme. There appears to be a move away from the ‘bottom up’ aspiration of Michael Green, the first series Editor, and indeed the radical reputation of Manchester BBC, towards health programmes which suggest a greater interest in managerial views and internal market solutions.
Back to the top »

radio microphone image Radio archives
Images: Hugh Chignell Hugh Chignell in the Bournemouth University LBC/IRN Archive

Georgia Eglezou writes:

The BBC Radio Four programme Woman’s Hour was broadcast for the first time on 7 October 1946 from 2 to 3pm as part of the Light Programme. As Norman Collins, its creator, said, the purpose of Woman’s Hour was “to recreate home life after the ravages of war” (Mitchell and Karpf (eds), 2001:266). In the initial broadcast of Woman’s Hour the character of the programme was described as containing “talks by experts [on subjects such as] keeping house, on health, on children, furnishing, beauty care” (Ibid). It was a programme directed at women who were presumed to be homemakers. Over the years, though, Woman’s Hour developed and changed its scope and managed to attract not only the attention of women but also of men without losing its primary mission of putting women first. It became a pioneering programme which covered numerous taboo topics. In 1955 the programme was the first to mention homosexuality and in 1956, prostitution.In 1956 when the programme first broadcast on the subject of cancer it contained a warning that some people might wish to switch off (Ibid, 67). In the area of health and medicine the programme has addressed many important and intimate topics. In the 1970s there were regular discussions on abortion, the pill, physical and mental handicap. (Hendy, 2007:332). It also included more overly political topics such as South Africa, the Gulf, nuclear power, nationalism (Mitchell and Karpf, 69). In 1980s the programme was presented by Sue MacGregor until 1987 when she left to work full-time on the Today news programme. She was succeeded by Jenni Murray. At that time the focus of the programme changed with the arrival of the new editor Sandra Chalmers. Instead of reacting to items on the news, the programme started to proactively set its own agenda and play a more active role. For example in 1988, Woman’s Hour pioneered a cervical cancer campaign and organised a studio discussion on the topic containing both experts and women suffering from the disease. (Murray, 1996:255-256).

In my research on Women’s Hour I focused on the specific dates: 1980 (publication of the Black Report on the NHS), 1983 (when laundry, cleaning and catering services in hospitals outsourced), 1988 (changes in the health system were announced), 1989 (the White Paper Working for Patients was published). The above dates are significant because they marked the most important changes in the Health System in 1980s and the introduction of a private-like behaviour to the public health service. Unfortunately due to the limited number of accessible programmes’ transcriptions and the inadequate number of programmes available for listening, the outcome of the research must remain tentative, as the results may not be representative of the total output of the programme. However, the examination of the limited number of individual programmes, available from the years 1983 and 1988, showed that in 1983 the only health provider that was mentioned was a public hospital, a health service provided by the state for the promotion of the interest of the community. However, in 1988 “the language of the buyer and seller” started being used with the promotion of “private laboratories” -market institutions. This resulted in the quality of public service being undermined and thus, represents an incursion by the market and the private domain into the public domain (Marquand, 2004).

Hendy, D. (2007) A History of Radio Four. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marquand, D. (2004) Decline of the Public. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Mitchell, C. and Karpf, A. (eds) (2001) Women & Radio: Airing Differences. London: Routledge.
Murray, J. (2007) Woman’s Hour, From Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne: Celebrating Sixty Years of Women’s Hour Lives. London: John Murray.
Back to the top »

About the Commercial radio sound Archive. Available from: British Universities Film and Video Council.

There are three archives available:
LBC / IRN; ILR Sharing; and ILR South.

AIDS – The Facts
January 1987 - broadcast across the Independent Local Radio Network (45 stations)
(ILR Sharing archive)

Nightline – special AIDS edition of the phone-in / advice programme, presented by Bob Harris.
7 January, 1987, LBC.
(LBC / IRN archive).

Harry Theobalds (IBA) on anti-AIDS advertising
10 November 1986, Independent Radio News
(LBC / IRN archive)ges behind ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign
11 November, 1986, Independent Radio News
(LBC / IRN archive)

Margaret Thatcher interview on NHS spending cuts and the AIDS crisis
23 January, 1987, Independent Radio News
(LBC / IRN archive)

Back to the top »

British Commercial Radio in the 1980s: the relationship between regulation and programme content. Dr Emma Wray, Centre for Broadcasting History Research, Bournemouth University Click here to download the PDF