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 has become the home of ball-by-ball commentaries of most Test cricket matches played by England, broadcast on long wave. As a result, 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.
The station is available on FM in most of Great Britain, parts of Ireland and the north of France; LWthroughout 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.
The BBC Home Service was the predecessor of Radio 4 and broadcast between 1939 and 1967. It hadregional 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 previously held by Radio 2, and later moved to 198 kHz as a result ofinternational agreements aimed at avoiding interference.
For a time during the 1970s Radio 4 carried regional news bulletins Monday to Saturday, these were broadcast twice at breakfast, lunchtime and an evening bulletin at 5.55pm. Plus programme variations for 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 am to 8.45 am. Roundabout East Anglia came to an end in 1980, when local radio services were introduced to East Anglia with the launch of BBC Radio Norfolk.
All regional news bulletins broadcast from BBC regional news bases, around England ended in August 1980.
The South West, was the only exception, having no BBC local radio these news bulletins and it's weekday morning regional programme Mornin' Sou West an out-put of Today continued to be broadcast from the BBC studios in Plymouth on VHF and the Radio 4 relay on medium wave, until 31 December 1982 and just before the launch of BBC Radio Cornwall and BBC Radio Devon.
The launch of Radio 5 on 27 August 1990 saw the removal of Open University, schools programming and the "Study on 4" adult education slot to the new station resulting in the full Radio 4 schedule being available on FM for the first time. 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 long wave. In September 1991 it was decided that the main Radio 4 service would be on FM as coverage had extended to cover almost all of the UK. Opt-outs were transferred to long wave: currentlyTest Match Special, extra shipping forecasts, The Daily Service and Today in Parliament. Long wave very occasionally opts out at other times, such as to broadcast special services, the most recent being when the Pope visited Britain in 2010.
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, submarinecommanders, 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 simulcast from the BBC World Service begins at 01:00 and ends at 05:20 with a brief introduction from the early shift continuity announcer. The five-minute Radio 4 UK Theme composed by Fritz Spiegl followed this for 28 years until April 2006. It was replaced by an extension to the early news bulletin,despite public opposition and a campaign to save it. After a continuity link and programme trail there are a shipping forecast, weather reports from coastal stations for 04:00 GMT and the inshore waters forecasts, followed at 05:30 by a news bulletin, a review of British and international newspapers, and a business report. On weekdays at 05:45, Farming Today, which deals with news of relevance to the agricultural sector, is followed by Tweet of the Day, a 2-minute feature looking at different species of birds through their songs and calls. The morning news and current affairs sequence Today then runs for three hours from 06:00 to 09:00 on weekdays (for two hours from 07:00 on Saturdays).
News is broadcast at the top of each hour: a two-minute summary, a longer bulletin as part of a current affairs programme, or a 30-minute programme on weekdays at 18:00 and midnight. At 12:00, FM carries a four-minute bulletin while long wave has the headlines followed by a shipping forecast; on weekdays, long wave also leaves PM for a three-minute shipping forecast at 17:54.
There is a news programme or bulletin (depending on the day) at 22:00. A report on the day's proceedings in the Westminster Parliament is broadcast (asToday in Parliament) at 23:30 and repeated (as Yesterday in Parliament), on LW only, at 08:31 the following morning. The midnight news is followed on weekdays by a repeat of Book of the Week. The tune Sailing By is played until 00:48, when the late shipping forecast is broadcast. As the timing of the forecast is critical, the Sailing By theme must be started at a set time and faded in as the last programme ends. Radio 4 finishes with God Save the Queen, and the World Service takes over from 01:00 until 05:20.
Timing is sacrosanct on the channel. Running over the hour except in special circumstances or the occasional scheduled instance is unheard of, and interrupting the Greenwich Time Signal on the hour (known as 'crashing the pips') is frowned upon.
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.
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 a week 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 onBBC Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC Radio 7).
Due to the capacity limitations of DAB and increasing sport broadcasts on BBC 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Radio 4 DAB has to reduce its bit rate most evenings, such that after 7pm 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 only be heard in stereo on FM, Digital TV on Freeview & Freesat (Ch. 704), Sky, Virgin and on line via BBC i-player radio. BBC World Service which uses BBC Radio 4 FM & DAB frequencies between 01:00am and 05:20am 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.
In 2012 the BBC announced that it would be reducing its main presentation team from 12 to ten. The following are primarily newsreaders (including reading the bulletins on the Today programme) but also contribute to much of the continuity output:
There have been criticisms voiced by newspapers in recent years over a perceived left-wing 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.