Next month marks the demise of Go4It, BBC Radio 4's specialist children's book review programme. Barney Harwood, the presenter, does a brilliant job, there are some great stories being read (currently Liz Kessler's The Tail of Emily Windsnap and Julia Donaldson's The Giants and the Joneses feature), some newsworthy topics being discussed (the Arctic and global warming). So why is it being axed? We are told that the audience is made up of the over-50's, and that therefore the 'target market' is not being reached. There are simply not enough listeners 'of the right sort'. If it doesn't work, and, for the present, leaving aside the fact that a) there are now many mothers who, having had babies in their 40's, are now well into their half-century and b) that the people who actually buy children's books for the 'target market' are generally adults, surely the BBC should be thinking about how to make it work. Books are an important part of the government's literacy strategy, and as a publicly funded body, the BBC should therefore be helping to promote books and providing their licence payers and their future licence payers with information on the subject.
But there is a problem. The weekly audience of 4-14 year olds on BBC Radio 7 is only 25,000--a small minority in the grand audio scheme of things. Children's radio programming will continue there--in the CBeebies 5-7am slot, which could be seen as a boon for early risers or, more negatively a graveyard, and books will continue to be featured on Big Toe. Radio 4 will feature Joan Aiken's Black Hearts in Battersea, Roald Dahl's Matilda, Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives and The Wizard of Oz at Christmas. But is it enough? Are the BBC thinking about what children really want, and more importantly how to provide it in a form they want?
For someone such as myself, brought up on a diet of Listen with Mother, listening to the radio is easy and natural. But today's children have so much going on that to sit down for a whole half hour and listen to a programme is, quite simply, an alien concept. A snatch of music here, five minutes on an i-pod there, gaming, downloads--the technology today's children are familiar with is all about fast and furious action. If books on the radio are ever going to work, they must be presented as cool and relevant. In the case of the Radio 4 choices, the books mentioned above are all wonderful classics. But why not introduce younger listeners to some modern classics in the making--by living authors who could be interviewed, could blog, could podcast--all things which kids can understand. Tapping into the 'celebrity culture' will be abhorrent to some readers here--and I'm not too keen on it myself--but if presenting books in this way hooks in more readers then why not? If the BBC wants books to work for those under 16, they must create a buzz about them--find different ways to use the technology which is out there. Don't tell me that there aren't the readers who are hungry for the next big reads, let alone the next good reads--Harry Potter and the current Twilight craze prove that there are. The radio is already linked to the computer--we just need some creative thinking to convince young listeners that books are right up there with the latest pop download. Answers on a postcard to Mark Damazer at the BBC, please.