BBC Radio 4 - A feast in audio form

BBC Radio 4 is an astonishing radio station broadcast in the UK. It is consistent in quality and varied in content. It does not assume you're stupid or have a short attention span. There are no advertisements; little music— but there is a general atmosphere of quiet erudition. Radio 4 remains an outpost of the old Reithian ideal of broadcasting as a public service- to Educate, Inform and Entertain.

It is my near-constant companion in the home; I listen to Radio 4 almost continuously, only turning to music stations (or in extremis, television) occasionally. I have a radio in the bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Radio 4 is the last thing I hear before putting out the light at night, and the first thing I listen to before getting up. It makes doing the ironing tolerable. The familiar voices and schedule are a sort of comfort blanket for the mind; an armchair for the intellect and an exercise bike for my opinions and pet peeves.

It's slightly pompous, slightly left-leaning, slightly dismissive of British institutions, slightly complicit with them, slightly staid and slightly forward-looking- it could be considered the voice of the nation. Or at least the middle class part. Or at least the English middle class part. It's programmes are of such high-quality that they transcend their target audiences; Women's Hour's audience is 40% male; people enjoy Gardener's Question Time even if they've never picked up a trowel.

It has a unique role in the UK's nuclear defence strategy.  If a submarine captain can neither establish contact with commanders nor pick up Radio 4, he is to assume that the country has been destroyed and act accordingly.  In a potentially very direct way, Radio 4 is therefore the vital sign of the nation and the miner's canary for nuclear apocalypse.  The BBC puts great efforts into their broadcast reliability nines.

How to Get It

BBC Radio 4 broadcasts in the UK on FM, Long Wave and Medium Wave, via DAB and terrestrial and satellite digital TV. Occasionally the Long Wave signal differs from the rest of the network to include church services and ball-by-ball cricket commentary (Test Match Special).

Several programmes are also available after broadcast on the Flash-based BBC iPlayer or MP3 files with podcast feeds- but usually only for a week after the initial broadcast.  They have come a long way since Patrick Moore used to read out URLs saying "stop" instead of "dot".

The Best of Radio 4

Some of my personal favourites or otherwise notable programmes are described below:

  • The Today Programme— Monday to Saturday's morning news magazine programme. It has made a feature of combative interviews with government ministers and opposition spokesmen, but it also features in-depth news coverage with a dignified and authoritative air. Also, sports reports with none of that. The Today Programme really sets the news agenda for all media for the next 24 hours; a real case of "you heard it here first". The Today Programme is as much part of the UK's political system as green leather benches.
  • Start The Week— A discussion programme covering several important current issues from the spheres of politics, culture and science. The panel will include leaders from each of those fields; and the programme excels in allowing the brightest minds from one field the chance to quiz the opinion-formers from another.
  • In Our Time— An academic debate show of staggering ambition, which it often realises. Each week a panel of experts explore a topic from every angle; they are informative without being condescending, and manage to illuminate topics without assuming much pre-existing knowledge from the listener. This week, the topic was Jorge Luis Borges, with an Oxford professor of Spanish and a University of California professor of comparative literature. Previous topics have included the Great Exhibition, the number zero, the Diet of Worms, Hell, the Graviton, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. All past programmes can be listened to in full on the BBC Website- a remarkable resource.
  • From Our Own Correspondent— The BBC employs correspondents all over the world to report back on news wherever it happens. From Our Own Correspondent broadcasts reports about the daily lives of people in those countries whenever there is no particular international news event in the spotlight.
  • Desert Island Discs— Talk show in which a guest is asked to pick several recordings, books and luxury items that would see them through a lifetime stranded on a desert island.
  • I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue — Comedy panel game, in which some of the grand old men of British comedy and a handful of comparative newcomers compete to do silly things; like singing one song to the tune of another or coming up with new definitions. The quality and inventiveness of the innuendo, and the studied surliness of the (now sadly deceased) octogenarian chairman's disapproval are timeless and priceless. The home of Mornington Crescent.
  • The Unbelievable Truth— Another panel game, under the masterful chairmanship of David Mitchell. The panellists take turns to deliver mostly-false lectures and to identify the rare truths within.


Quirky Stuff

As befits a broadcaster with such a long history, Radio 4 has gathered certain eccentricities. Its listenership are very protective of them, and react with fury when one changes or is replaced.


  • The UK Theme (RIP)— The day's broadcasting used to begin with the UK Theme, a slightly saccharine mash-up of stirring British and Irish folk songs and marches. Arranged by Fritz Spiegl, it featured "Rule Britannia!", "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?" and Trumpet Voluntary, which are regarded as British tunes; the Londonderry Air (the tune of "Danny Boy") from Northern Ireland, "Annie Laurie" and "Scotland the Brave" from Scotland; Men of Harlech from Wales, and the English "Greensleeves" and "Early One Morning". It was used from 1973 until its retirement in 2006. There was a considerable controversy surrounding its removal.
  • The Pips— There is a news broadcast every hour, on the hour. These are preceded by "The Pips", a time signal derived ultimately from the BBC's own atomic clock. It sounds like 5 short beeps one second apart, followed by a longer beep on the hour. Since radio signals take time to propagate, (and digital signals take additional time to decode) the pips can actually be late by a significant fraction of a second, depending on where you listen. But the Pips serve another purpose- the BBC's way of saying "ATTENTION, CITIZEN; NEWS!".
  • The Bongs— Certain news broadcasts, including the ones at 6pm and 12 midnight are prefixed by a live relay of the chimes of Big Ben.  Yes live.  Occasionally sirens or the chanting of protesters at parliament are broadcast alongside.
  • The Shipping Forecast— A 5 minute broadcast of weather reports and storm warnings for shipping in the waters around the UK. It is gibberish for most listeners, but vital information for sailors. It has a poetic rhythm, and the various shipping regions have romantic names. It evokes those in peril on the sea while the listener is tucked up in bed. It also has a distinctive, specially-written theme tune called "Sailing By".
  • Thought For The Day— The Today Programme is a robust news and current affairs show. Politicians from any party can expect to be handled pretty roughly. However, an odd moment of calm is provided at about 7.45 each morning; a 5 minute sermon by an invited member of a monotheistic religion; a bishop is the usual choice, but laypeople, rabbis and imams are not uncommon. At its worst it's a wry look at modern life with a last-minute "that's a bit like Jesus/Moses/Mohamed" tacked on at the end. But sometimes "Thought For The Day" does live up to its name.
  • Test Match Special— When the England Cricket Team is in action in a test match, the Long Wave Radio 4 signal is given over to Test Match Special, a day-long, ball-by-ball commentary on the contest. When rain stops play, the commentators talk affably about whatever occurs to them. The Long Wave signal makes the whole thing sound like a old 78 record. The schedule on FM continues as usual.
  • The National Anthem— Another incongruous moment is provided by The Today Programme. Just before the 8am pips, one of the presenters will say "Today is the Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen"; the surprised listener will then hear a drum-roll and the National Anthem. Other key members of the royal family are honoured in this way. A high-tempo rendition of "God Save the Queen" is also heard at the end of each day's broadcast.
  • The Archers— A daily 15-minute soap opera set amongst rural folk in the fictional village of Ambridge. This programme began life in 1950 as a drama aimed at the farming community. Britain's food production had not yet recovered from the war, and The Archers storylines were used to introduce information about high-yield farming techniques to the rural listener. Nowadays it's a regular fixture, and is mainly enjoyed by soft-handed urbanites who enjoy the west country accents and vague insights into modern country life.


A Typical Weekday

Up with the larks...

The Radio 4 day begins at 5.20am with the first Shipping Forecast. A news report, schedule description and some trails for upcoming programmes follow; then a Prayer For The Day, and a farming bulletin. Then it's time for the station's main current affairs show, The Today Programme which runs until 9am. Next up is usually a panel discussion programme; the best of which are Start the Week, The Moral Maze and In Our Time. A dramatic reading from the Book of the Week fills the time until 10am, when begins the famous Woman's Hour; a pair of documentaries or a comedy round off the morning.

Let's do lunch...

The afternoon begins with the consumer affairs programme, You and Yours- described by Dead Ringers as "an hour of nagging and fretting", which is not far off the mark. News magazine The World At One follows before an episode of a themed documentary series (this week's haul included a look at how landscapes affect history, the suitability or otherwise of the national anthem, souped-up cars, then men who soup them up and the women who love them; and the countryside), except on Fridays, when the slot is occupied by a media panel discussion called The Message.

Afternoon, all...

At 2pm, every day for the remainder of human history The Archers will be broadcast; then the Afternoon Play provides some varied drama. At 3pm comes a themed magazine programme, covering personal finance, the natural world, gardening (Gardeners' Question Time), health or the environment. A pair of short programmes such as dramatic readings or personal musings lead to a themed documentary at 4pm; this week being The Food Programme on Italian ox-meat, Word of Mouth on etymology, Thinking Allowed and All In the Mind on psychology, Bookclub on modern literature, The Last Word obituary programme, and others.

Twilight, when the lights are low...

From 5pm to 6.30 come the PM news magazine and the more formal Six O'Clock News. After all that education and information comes the entertainment; 6.30 during the week is comedy time; popular, long-running shows like Just a Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue and The News Quiz rub shoulders with newer efforts like The Personality Quiz, The Now Show and Dead Ringers. Many former Radio 4 comedy programmes from this slot have gone on to great success on TV or in the cinema, such as The Mighty Boosh, The League of Gentlemen and Dead Ringers. A repeat of The Archers follows at 7pm; and at 7.15 we are treated to Front Row, an excellent cultural review programme with news of the latest literature, stage productions, TV programmes, and movies. A short serialised drama takes the listener up to 8pm.

Into the night...

From then it's more documentaries, this time with more of a current affairs or investigative journalism flavour. This is the home of the prestigious File on Four programme, which is often about problems facing public services, Crossing Continents on life in other countries. On Fridays, Any Questions? pits a panel of politicians, journalists and commentators against a live audience of questioners from the public in a church hall or school gymnasium somewhere in the country.


The night-time schedule is again news-orientated, beginning at 10pm with The World Tonight, and including a repeated documentary or magazine programme from during office hours. Radio 4 takes the unusual step of telling you when to go to bed, by means of Book at Bedtime, a dramatic reading taken from a current novel. This is broadcast at 10.45pm, in case you were wondering when you should be tucked up. A comedy programme follows this, and it's usually a little more risque than the day-time comic fayre. When parliament is sitting, a half-hour programme of highlights from the days debate, Today in Parliament, is broadcast at 11.30. Then there's a half-hour news and weather bulletin from midnight; a repeat of Book of the Week, and the latest Shipping Forecast. At 1am, BBC Radio 4 shuts down for the night, and is replaced by the BBC World Service until 5.20.

Weekend Programming

On Saturdays and Sundays, the basic layout of the day is similar; and repeats from the past week are common. This is fair enough, since the weekend listenership has likely been at work during the original broadcasts.

Saturday's original programming includes new chat show Saturday Live (a new replacement for the much-loved Home Truths, a show of family anecdotes); travel programme Excess Baggage, and From Our Own Correspondent, consisting of several submissions from BBC news correspondents covering everyday life across the world. A repeat of Any Questions? is followed by Any Answers, a live phone-in covering the same topics. In the early evening comes Loose Ends, a witty showbiz roundup featuring the stars of the London stage and a few live musical acts. There is a summary of the best of Woman's Hour called Weekend Woman's Hour.

On Sunday, the "Prayer of the Day" is replaced by a peal of church-bells from a different parish. The magazine programmes include the religiously themed, yet inclusive Something Understood, presented by Indian Anglican Mark Tully. An actual complete church service is broadcast instead of The Today Programme. But religious programming does not dominate. Sunday is also home to the famous Desert Island Discs, a Classic Serial drama, children's magazine Go4It, In Business (in which the avuncular Peter Day is in turns confused and enthused by the latest trends from the IT and business worlds), Feedback airs listeners comments on all BBC broadcasting; and a look back at the week in parliament takes place in the Westminster Hour. Sunday mornings also include a gruelling omnibus edition of The Archers- a back-to-back repeat of all episodes from the last 7 days.

History of Radio 4

The origins of Radio 4 go back to the foundation of the British Broadcasting Company (now "Corporation") in 1922. The first broadcasts were from Marconi's London studios; and within a few years the whole UK could receive the programming. Its general manager in those days was John Reith, later Sir John, Lord Reith. The BBC concept of an independent broadcaster, free from political and commercial influence was his idea. Reith was able to defend the BBC's political independence even during the General Strike of 1927, in the teeth of opposition from Winston Churchill. In these early days, they broadcast plays, classical music, talks and lectures, and entertainment programmes. The BBC provided two radio services, the BBC National Programme¹ from London; and BBC Regional Programming (from 6 regional centres).

In 1932, they moved to a custom-built headquarters, Broadcasting House off Oxford Street in London. They formed an Orchestra and began commissioning new music, such as "Belshazzar's Feast" from William Walton. Light entertainment programmes like ITMA were immensely popular, and the streets emptied while they where on air. During this pre-World War II period, the beeb began its world-wide Empire Service (which is now the BBC World Service) and national television broadcasts. In 1939 the two home radio services were merged into the BBC Home Service. During the war, news broadcasting became increasingly important; before this newspapers had successfully lobbied to limit the amount of news available on-air.

In the post-war period, the Home Service continued, and was augmented by a new BBC Light Programme focused on light entertainment, and the BBC Third Programme focused on classical music, jazz, literature, dry cultural anaylsis, Test Match Special, and plays. This left the Home Service broadcasting some music, schools programming, five daily news bulletins, and current affairs analysis. A reorganisation in 1957 reduced the overlap between the three services still further.

In 1967, the whole of BBC Radio was reorganised and the familiar national line up was introduced:

  • BBC Radio 1- New pop and rock music service, drawing on the old offshore pirate stations and the more mild-mannered pop music programmes on the old BBC Light Programme.
  • BBC Radio 2- Then light music and light entertainment, from the old BBC Light Programme; today offering mainstream pop and rock as well.
  • BBC Radio 3- Which inherited the mantle of the old Third Programme, but later retreated to a core of just serious music and drama, leaving the rest to Radio 4.
  • BBC Radio 4- Which was a direct descendant of the Home Service, and is described elsewhere.
  • Various parallel local services, such as BBC Radio Ulster.


BBC Radio 4 has continued without significant changes from that time. Schedule rethinks have come and gone without making a huge impact to their mission. They thrive in the multi-channel digital broadcasting arena, and have embraced MP3 distribution of certain programmes and other Internet-era innovations.


¹ - Up until the 1960s, radio stations were called "radio programmes"; after this time, "programmes" came to be used as the term for individual "shows".


Sources (BBC Links typically feature links to MP3s or Real streams of the programmes):

  • The BBC Radio 4 website,
  • The BBC Story,
  • Wikipedia, (middling, even by their standards)
  • The Uk Theme,
  • The Today Programme,
  • The Archers,