Radio 4's engaged listeners - a lesson for the rest of us

I’m always a bit stunned if I meet someone who works in radio but doesn’t like Radio 4. In fact, I can’t get my head round the idea that anyone wouldn’t love Radio 4. Gillian Reynolds has written in the Telegraph about the continued growth of the station’s audience - now edging close to 11-million every week.

DAB and online means the competition’s never been tougher and yet, in a way, there isn’t any competition.

In a world with hundreds, in fact thousands of identikit jukeboxes, Radio 4 shines through.

Rivals would say it’s down to a series of big news stories, and obviously news is a massive part of Radio 4’s schedule and its success.

But dig into the figures and you find 7-million weekly listeners for drama, well over 5-million for comedy. The Archers alone has 5-million listeners.

But the real joy of Radio 4 goes far beyond the established hits like The News Quiz or Today. It’s the prospect of discovery.

Try dipping into the schedule when you wouldn’t normally listen - you’ll almost certainly learn something new, or hear something you didn’t expect.

Its depth and ambition is unmatched, and that’s perhaps why those 11-million Radio 4 listeners are so passionate about it.

The last few weeks they’ve been obsessing about a minor schedule shake-up - moving Brain of Britain is apparently a seismic shift in some people’s lives.

But what your average music station wouldn’t give for that level of engagement. I used to work for Classic FM - an enormous station with a massive audience. But its talented and hard-working presenters and producers often laboured in near anonymity, despite an audience in the many millions.

The only explanation I ever came up with was that Classic is background listening. Relaxing, yes, engaging? That’s a tougher challenge.

It’s not just Radio 4. Audiences keep rising at talkSport, and 5live pulls in around 6-million each week.

Talking to different audiences perhaps, but all making programmes that demand active listening. They engage you, get inside your head, get you thinking.

In an era when anyone can carry a few thousand tracks, each personally selected, in their phone, playing thirty songs over and over again won’t cut it.

Of course there’s a place for passive background listening. But your listeners will never love you, the way Radio 4’s listeners do. They won’t shout, or cheer, at the radio the way talkSport or 5live listeners do.

And don’t dismiss this as a love letter to speech radio. Radio 2 mixes daytime pop with documentaries, comedy and current affairs. A big part of 6 Music’s success is presenters who clearly love what they’re doing. And every time I head back to the north-west, I’m struck by how engaging local stations like Real Radio or Radio City still are, managing in a few links to communicate more than many London stations manage in a whole day.

It’s something I can’t get from my iPod playlist. It’s a reason to keep listening. And if you work in radio, claim to love it, but never go near Radio 4, don’t come crying to me when the DJ-Tron-2000 does you out of a job...