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Former Culture Secretary to lead BBC radio from next year

By | Published on Monday 3 October 2016


Former Labour Culture Secretary James Purnell will soon be in charge of BBC Radio, following the announcement last week that the Beeb’s current radio boss Helen Boaden is retiring. Purnell, appointed Director Of Strategy & Education in the relatively recent management rejig at the Corporation, will now become Director Of Radio & Education.

It’s thought that when BBC Director General Tony Hall set about his rejig of senior management at the Corporation – partly to reduce spend, partly to restructure the organisation for this brave new digital age – he was initially hoping to have just three top directors other than himself and a Deputy DG. The simpler, streamlined BBC would then be structured around the three remits that original chief John Reith famously decided the Corporation should fulfil: inform, educate and entertain.

In the end Hall’s restructured senior management was more complicated than that, for various reasons. Though it was thought one reason was that Hall couldn’t quite work out where veteran BBC exec Boaden would fit into that grand plan. Whether lumping radio entirely in with education makes sense – given some BBC stations are there very much to entertain, and others to inform – isn’t certain, though it will definitely save some money in the executive salaries budget.

Embarking on something of a ramble as he announced Purnell’s new gig, Hall said on Friday: “I’ve talked a lot about a BBC that’s more digital, more open and more global than ever. And, with the [new BBC] Charter [from government] now all but done, I need the right top team in place, with the right responsibilities, to deliver just that. There are three big challenges”.

“First of all, how do we best compete in a world full of ideas”, he went on. “I want to connect great thinkers inside and outside the organisation; to partner more closely with other great institutions. Secondly, how we connect with young audiences. They’re digital; they’re demanding in the very best sense of the word and we need to do more to engage them. And finally, there’s so much more to offer globally in music, arts, speech radio – things our country excels in”.

Concluding, he mused: “Our role, reflecting the UK to the world, has never been more important. BBC Radio is the best there is and I know it can speak – and sing – even more loudly the world over. I want real ambition: a powerhouse for radio – and our education mission around the world. I know we’ve got the people, programmes and ideas to do just that”.

Purnell himself added: “I grew up loving the BBC, so it’s been a privilege to work here, fighting for a licence fee increase in the 1990s and now working on Charter review. I’m delighted to have been asked to lead the new division, Radio And Education, bringing together arts, music and network radio with children’s and learning”.

He went on: “We’re the best public service broadcaster in the world in all these areas. They’re unique, but face common challenges – from reaching younger audiences to workings in partnership. We’ve got a singular advantage in all our areas: we either have or could get global rights. I want us to use this advantage to think about how we could take on the world for the benefit of our audiences and for Britain”.

So there you go. If you’re worried that the former politician and strategy man won’t know a great deal about making good radio, don’t worry, a more junior Director Of Radio will be appointed, reporting into Purnell, who will hopefully know something about modulating some frequency.