Wednesday 8 April 2009

A Great Loss? Radio and Children's Books - Lucy Coats

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.


Farah Mendlesohn said...

Sorry, but I can't bear Go4it. It's become a switch off moment. It tried to be Blue Peter with it's magazine format, but it's twee and cozy and patronising and you rather gave the game away when you ended by talking about the market for Rowling and Meyer, because if you then skim back to the list of stories that you list being read, you'll notice that they are for very much younger children.

Once upon a time on a Sunday Radio 4 had a slot for reading a children's book for half an hour. It mostly featured books for pre and early teens, and I loved it. Go4it, has been a teeth gritting experience.

ps I've just been to Liz Kessler's web site. The link to her books (as opposed to her blog, quizzes, wallpaper etc) is tucked away on the right hand side on the mere two books balanced precariously on the window-ledge.


Mary Hoffman said...

Sorry, Lucy, but I loathe Go4it too and lunge for the remote the minute the Sunday evening edition of The Archers is over!

And I am an obsessive, radio 4 listening 50+. Only You and Yours and Gardener's Question Time have my off button finger twitching so compulsively.

I particularly dislike the presenter with his relentless boom-boom delivery - the very worst of children's presenters' stereotypes.

So I don't mourn its departure. Perhaps children could learn to listen to the radio while they "do" something else? That's what most adults do.

Nick Green said...

I will be sad to see it go, if only because it represents the closest I got to fame, when I featured on it shortly after THE CAT KIN was published. Barney came across as really nice in person, and was brilliant at putting the kids there at their ease. But most of all it was just great fun, for me, to go to Broadcasting House and be treated like someone important :0) Always nice.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm afraid I hate it, too - always have done. I predicted its demise as soon as it started and I'm amazed it's lasted this long. My pseudo-step-daughter used to co-present a books prog on Big Toe (she was about 13 at the time) and interviewed people such as Philips Pullman and Ardagh. I didn't much like that either, to be honest, but at least it wasn't patronising.

Kids don't really listen to the radio - or only in the car when they've forgotten their iPod. Maybe they would if there was something worth listening to - or if it was illegal ;-)

Katherine Langrish said...

Actually, Farah, Liz K's website does have more than one link to her books. The three books on the windowsill with the seaside view are her mermaid books, while on the other side, the windowsill with the rainbow is the way in to discover about her fairy books. I think for young readers it's fine and fun to explore the page and find out more things - for example, clicking on the globe brings up foreign editions, important for Liz who has a lot of European readers who might be put off by a website with lots of the English language on the opening page.

Elen C said...

I'm afraid I'm also in the Go4it-bashing camp. Fella-me-lad is just about OK with me having The Archers on, but has an almost anaphylactic reaction if Go4it follows...

Nicky said...

I hated it as did my kids. I am a compulsive R4 listener but at the first bar of the intro I was groping for the 'off' button.