BBC Radio 4, part of BBC Radio, is owned and operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes including news, drama, comedy, science and history from the BBC's headquarters at Broadcasting House, London. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is Mohit Bakaya.
Radio 4 the second-most-popular domestic radio station in the United Kingdom after BBC Radio 2, broadcasting throughout the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands on FM, LW and DAB, and can be received in the eastern counties of Ireland, the north of France and Northern Europe. It is also available through Freeview, Sky, Virgin Media and on the Internet. Its sister station, BBC Radio 4 Extra, complements the main channel by broadcasting repeats from the Radio 4 archive, extended versions of Radio 4 programmes and supplements to series such as The Archers and Desert Island Discs.
Radio 4 is notable for its news bulletins and programmes such as Today and The World at One, heralded on air by the Greenwich Time Signal "pips" or the chimes of Big Ben. Radio 4 broadcasts the Shipping Forecast, which reached 150 years old in August 2017. The pips are only accurate on FM, LW, and MW; there is a delay on digital radio of three to five seconds and online up to twenty-three seconds.
BBC Radio 4 is the second-most-popular British domestic radio station by total hours, after Radio 2 – and the most popular in London and the South of England. It recorded its highest audience, of 11 million listeners, in May 2011 and was "UK Radio Station of the Year" at the 2003, 2004 and 2008 Sony Radio Academy Awards. It also won a Peabody Award in 2002 for File On 4: Export Controls. Costing £71.4 million (2005/6), it is the BBC's most expensive national radio network and is considered by many to be its flagship. There is no comparable British commercial network: Channel 4 abandoned plans to launch its own speech-based digital radio station in October 2008 as part of a £100m cost cutting review.
Music and sport are the only fields that largely fall outside the station's remit. It broadcasts occasional concerts, and documentaries related to various forms of both popular and classical music, and the long-running music-based Desert Island Discs. Prior to the creation of BBC Radio 5 it broadcast sports-based features, notably Sport on Four, and since the creation of BBC Radio 5 Live in 1994, the station has become the home of ball-by-ball commentaries of most Test cricket matches played by England. The coverage is broadcast on long wave. Consequently, for around 70 days a year, listeners have to rely on FM broadcasts or increasingly DAB for mainstream Radio 4 broadcasts – the number relying solely on long wave is now a small minority. The cricket broadcasts take precedence over on-the-hour news bulletins, but not the Shipping Forecast, carried since its move to long wave in 1978 because that can be received clearly at sea.
The station is the UK's national broadcaster in times of national emergency such as war, due to the wide coverage of the Droitwich signal: if all other radio stations were forced to close, it would carry on broadcasting. It has been claimed that the commanders of nuclear-armed submarines believing that Britain had suffered nuclear attack were required to check if they could still receive Radio 4 on 198 long wave, and if they could not they would open sealed orders that might authorise a retaliatory strike.
As well as news and drama, the station has a strong reputation for comedy, including experimental and alternative comedy, many successful comedians and comedy shows first appearing on the station. Following the six o'clock news from Monday to Friday, the station normally broadcasts a thirty-minute comedy programme.
The station is available on FM in most of Great Britain, parts of Ireland and the north of France; LW throughout the UK and in parts of Northern Europe, and the Atlantic north of the Azores to about 20 degrees west; MW in some areas; DAB; Digital TV including Freeview, Freesat, Sky and Virgin Media, and on the Internet. Freesat, Sky and Virgin have a separate channel which broadcasts the Radio 4 LW output in mono, in addition to the FM output.
The longwave signal is part of the Royal Navy's system of Last Resort Letters. In the event of a suspected catastrophic attack on Britain, submarine captains, in addition to other checks, check for a broadcast signal from Radio 4 on 198 longwave to verify the annihilation of organised society in Great Britain.
The BBC Home Service was the predecessor of Radio 4 and broadcast between 1939 and 1967. It had regional variations and was broadcast on medium wave with a network of VHF FM transmitters being added from 1955. Radio 4 replaced it on 30 September 1967, when the BBC renamed many of its domestic radio stations, in response to the challenge of offshore radio. It moved to long wave in November 1978, taking over the 200 kHz frequency (1500 metres) previously held by Radio 2 - later moved to 198 kHz as a result of international agreements aimed at avoiding interference (all UK MW/LW frequencies are divisible by 9). At this point, Radio 4 became available across all of the UK for the first time and the station officially became known as Radio 4 UK, a title that remained until September 1984.
For a time during the 1970s Radio 4 carried regional news bulletins Monday to Saturday. These were broadcast twice at breakfast, at lunchtime and at 5.55p.m. There were also programme variations for the parts of England not served by BBC Local Radio stations. These included Roundabout East Anglia, a VHF opt-out of the Today programme broadcast from BBC East's studios in Norwich each weekday from 6.45 a.m. to 8.45 a.m. Roundabout East Anglia came to an end in mid-1980 ahead of the launch of BBC Radio Norfolk.
All regional news bulletins broadcast from BBC regional news bases around England ended in August 1980, apart from in the south west as until January 1983 there was no BBC Local Radio in the south west so these news bulletins and its weekday morning regional programme, Morning Sou'West, continued to be broadcast from the BBC studios in Plymouth on VHF and on the Radio 4 medium wave Plymouth relay until 31 December 1982.
The launch of Radio 5 on 27 August 1990 saw the removal of Open University, schools programming, children's programmes and the Study on 4/Options adult education slot from Radio 4's FM frequencies. Consequently, the full Radio 4 schedule became available on FM for the first time. However, adult educational and Open University programming returned to Radio 4 in 1994 when Radio 5 was closed to make way for the launch of BBC Radio 5 Live and were broadcast on Sunday evenings on longwave only.
Between 17 January 1991 and 2 March 1991 FM broadcasts were replaced by a continuous news service devoted to the Gulf War, Radio 4 News FM, with the main Radio 4 service being exclusively on longwave.
In September 1991 it was decided that the main Radio 4 service would be on FM as FM coverage had now extended to cover almost all of the UK - Radio 4 didn't become available on FM in much of Scotland and Wales until the early 1990s. Opt-outs were transferred to longwave: currently Test Match Special, extra shipping forecasts, The Daily Service and Yesterday in Parliament. Longwave very occasionally opts out at other times, such as to broadcast special services, the most recent being when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010.
Programmes and schedules
An online schedule page lists the running order of programmes.
Many programmes are pre-recorded. Programmes transmitted live include Today, magazine programme Woman's Hour, consumer affairs programme You and Yours, and (often) the music, film, books, arts and culture programme Front Row. Continuity is managed from Broadcasting House with news bulletins, including the hourly summaries and longer programmes such as the Six O'Clock News and Midnight News, and news programmes such as Today, The World at One and PM, which by early 2013 had returned to Broadcasting House after 15 years at BBC Television Centre in White City. The news returning to Broadcasting House has also meant that newsreaders can provide cover for continuity, which regularly occurs at 23:00 each night and 16:00 on a Sunday. This has reduced the total number of continuity announcers required each day down from four to three.
The Time Signal, known as 'the pips', is broadcast every hour to herald the news bulletin, except at midnight and 18:00, where the chimes of Big Ben are played. There is no Greenwich Time Signal during the Saturday Afternoon Drama at 15:00 on Radio 4 on Saturdays either. Only pips broadcast on FM/MW/LW are accurate. On all digital platforms they are in delay by between 3 and 5 seconds and even longer online (up to 23 seconds).
Radio 4 programmes cover a wide variety of genre including news and current affairs, history, culture, science, religion, arts, drama and light entertainment. A number of the programmes on Radio 4 take the form of a "magazine" show, featuring numerous small contributions over the course of the programme—Woman's Hour, From Our Own Correspondent, You and Yours. The rise of these magazine shows is primarily due to the work of Tony Whitby, controller of Radio 4 from 1970 to 1975.
The station hosts a number of long-running programmes, many of which have been broadcast for over 40 years.
Most programmes are available for four weeks after broadcast as streaming audio from Radio 4's listen again page and via BBC iPlayer. A selection of programmes is also available as podcasts or downloadable audio files. Many comedy and drama programmes from the Radio 4 archives are rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC Radio 7).
Due to the capacity limitations of DAB and increasing sport broadcasts on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Radio 4 DAB has to reduce its bit rate most evenings, such that after 7p.m. its DAB output is usually in mono, even though many of its programmes are made in stereo (including its flagship drama "The Archers"), these can be heard in stereo only on FM, Digital TV on Freeview & Freesat (Ch. 704), Sky, Virgin and on line via BBC iPlayer radio. BBC World Service, which uses BBC Radio 4 FM & DAB frequencies between 01:00 and 05:20, is in stereo, but only on Radio 4 FM & DAB and not on its own dedicated DAB channel. BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcasts in mono on DAB, but has always been in stereo on Digital TV (Freeview / Freesat Ch 708), Sky, Virgin and online.
Notable continuity announcers and newsreaders
Announcers carry out the following duties from Broadcasting House:
- Provide links (or junctions) between programmes
- Read trails for programmes
- Provide reassurance to listeners during a programme breakdown
- Read the Shipping Forecast (except the 05:20 broadcast, which is covered by BBC Weather)
- Read the BBC Radio 3 news summaries at 13:00, 17:00 and 18:00 on weekdays
- Alice Arnold (1994-2012)
- Carolyn Brown (left 2015)
- Harriet Cass (left 2013)
- Peter Donaldson (1973-2012)
- Charlotte Green (1988-2013)
- Peter Jefferson (left 2009)
- Astley Jones (left 2006)
- Laurie Macmillan (died 2001)
- Rory Morrison (died 2013)
- Charles Nove (left 2019; now with Scala Radio)
- Jamie Owen
- Brian Perkins
- Iain Purdon (retired from BBC World Service in 2016)
- Vaughan Savidge (left 2018)
- Moira Stuart (left 1981 to move to TV; now with Classic FM)
Frequencies and other means of reception
Radio 4 is broadcast on:
- 92–95 MHz FM in England, and from some transmitters in Wales
- 94.6–96.1 and 103.5–104.9 MHz in Scotland
- 93.2–96.0 and 103.5–104.6 MHz in Northern Ireland
- 103.0–104.5 MHz from other transmitters in Wales
- 198 kHz longwave (Droitwich, Burghead, and Westerglen)
- Medium wave in some areas:
- Standard FM content
- Subsidiary LW content, where applicable
- Freeview channel 704 (FM only)
- The Internet
- iPlayer live streaming
- Digital satellite:
- Virgin Media channel 904 (FM), channel 911 (LW)
- Selected other cable television providers (Also on various frequencies on analogue cable networks)
- Virgin Media Ireland channel 910 in Republic of Ireland
- TalkTalk TV channel 604
There have been criticisms voiced by centre-right newspapers in recent years over a perceived left political bias across a range of issues, such as the EU and the Iraq War, as well as sycophancy in interviews, particularly on the popular morning news magazine Today as part of a reported perception of a general "malaise" at the BBC. Conversely, the journalist Mehdi Hasan has criticised the station for an overtly "socially and culturally conservative" approach.
There has been frequent criticism of Radio 4—and Today in particular—for a lack of female broadcasters. In September 1972, Radio 4 employed the first female continuity announcers—Hylda Bamber and Barbara Edwards (an event which caused the Daily Mail to proclaim that Radio 4 had "fallen" to women's liberation). For quite some time, the introduction of female newsreaders led to complaints from listeners; women discussing topics of feminist interest led to similar complaints.
- ABC Radio National
- CBC Radio One - A Canadian talk radio station from CBC
- List of BBC newsreaders and reporters
- National Public Radio
- Radio New Zealand National
- RTÉ Radio 1 - An Irish talk and music radio station from RTÉ
- Sveriges Radio P1
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