BBC Radio 4 is a radio station owned and operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is Gwyneth Williams, and the station is part of BBC Radio and the BBC Radio department. The station is broadcast from the BBC's headquarters at Broadcasting House, London.
It is the second most popular domestic radio station in the UK, broadcast throughout the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands on FM, LW and DAB, and can be received in eastern and south 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 (formerly BBC Radio 7), 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.
It 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's Shipping Forecast reached 150 years on the air in August 2017. The pips are only accurate on FM, LW & MW as there is a delay on DAB and digital radio of approximately 3 to 5 seconds, even longer online (up to 23 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 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.
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 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 meters) previously held by Radio 2, and later moved to 198 kHz as a result of international agreements aimed at avoiding interference (all UK AM/MW/LW frequencies are divisible by 9) and to mark the station becoming a fully national service for the first time the station officially became known as Radio 4 UK, a title that remained until mid 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 an evening bulletin was aired at 5.55pm. 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 am to 8.45 am. Roundabout East Anglia came to an end in mid-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, apart from in the south west. 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 and the Study on 4/Options 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 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 long wave: currently Test Match Special, extra shipping forecasts, The Daily Service and Yesterday in Parliament. Long wave 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.
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 long wave 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 News Briefing, comprising a news bulletin, weather, sport, 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).
The remainder of the day's schedule is determined by the day of the week, with the following 'fixtures' on weekdays: Book of the Week at 09:45 (the Daily Service on LW), Woman's Hour at 10:02 (including a 15 Minute Drama at 10:45), You and Yours at 12:15, The World at One and a repeat of the previous day's The Archers at 14:02, the Afternoon Drama at 14:15. At 17:00 another current affairs programme, PM, is broadcast. At 18:30 there is a regular comedy 'slot', The Archers at 19:02, Front Row at 19:15 and a repeat of the 15 Minute Drama at 19:45. The World Tonight airs at 22:00, followed by Book at Bedtime at 22:45. At weekends the schedule is different, with other fixed features at various times.
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 (as Today 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. 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/AM/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 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 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 01:00am 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.
Announcers carry out the following duties from Broadcasting House:
Radio 4 is broadcast on:
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.