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Battle of the air waves: Irritated of Bournemouth

2006 June 20
by Paul Vallely

I have some bad news for Dorothy Byrne, the woman who has masterminded the notion that Channel 4 should move into early morning radio to challenge BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Ms Byrne, head of news at Channel 4, recently lambasted the BBC news flagship, claiming that its worldview was that of a “middle-aged man from Bournemouth, with a strong interest in birdwatching, whose wife wears cashmere twin sets and is active in the bowling club”. Her new initiative, she said, would knock Today off its perch.

John Humphrys, the BBC programme’s belligerent frontman, was indignant. ” It’s a bit sad that she feels the need to rubbish the most successful speech programme in Europe. It’s a bit of an insult to all the people who don’t fit into that lazy caricature.”

But what about those who do fit the caricature? Do even they agree? Yesterday we went out on the nature trail to find out and tracked down a chap who rejoices in the name of Dante Munns (his father was doing Dante Gabriel Rossetti at art college when he was born.) Mr Munns is from Bournemouth and he is not just a birdwatcher but on the staff of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. And while he is not exactly middle-aged he is, at 34, certainly in his middle years.

The trouble is that he doesn’t listen to the Today programme at all. It’s not that he doesn’t get up at the right time. His 18-month-old son Thomas has him up every morning between 6.30am and 7am. It is just that there is quite enough noise in the house with the soundtrack of a toddler waking, having his nappy changed, being fed and got ready for his childminder before Mr Munns’ wife Louise sets out for work as a teacher at a local middle school and he – dedicated environmentalist as he is – sets out to walk or cycle to his job as manager of the RSBP’s Dorset heathland project.

It’s only when he gets to work that the radio goes on, and then only when travelling in the pool car between RSPB sites. “It’s mainly Radio 1 or Radio 2 – I sometimes catch bits of Jeremy Vine who’s a good interviewer – or Five Live, but that’s more when the cricket’s on than for football,” he says. “But I travel by bike or train when I can. Then I might pick up a paper – either The Independent or The Guardian if there’s a story on the front page that catches my eye. I get the information I need to do the job through work; our media department feeds us the press cuttings we need. I catch up on news by reading the Dorset Echo in the evening, or the local freesheet, the Wareham Advertiser, and watching either the BBC or ITV news at 10 or 10.30pm.”

The woman from Channel 4 has got it wrong when it comes to the birdwatcher’s wife too. Louise Munns does not have a cashmere twin set in her wardrobe and is a stranger to the local bowls club. “Actually,” says her husband, “she’s a fashion-conscious young woman more likely to be found at the local gym or cycling to keep fit.” As for the radio “she flicks about between Radio 1, 2CR FM and Radio Solent. “She’d be horrified at the Channel 4 caricature, as am I,” muses Mr Munns. ” It’s a shame that birdwatching is seen as such an anoraky pastime. The fact is that more and more ordinary people are interested in birds.”

All of which might suggest that Mr and Mrs Munns, rather than being bastions of Today, ought to be targets for the Channel 4 Radio. He is a floating voter, a floating newspaper reader and fairly promiscuous with radio stations.

In any case, for all Mary Byrne’s bluff confidence, Channel 4 has a long way to got to make inroads into the Today heartland. The BBC programme reaches around a fifth of all men and women in the UK. And while its strengths remain in southern England and among the ABC1 social grades (almost three-quarters of its audience comes from these higher social groups) it is broadening its appeal both socially and geographically. Though it still underperforms among ethnic minority groups, internal BBC figures show that in terms of overall approval, Radio 4 and its flagship programme, remains the most highly appreciated BBC service on TV or radio.

Its weakspot is that its reach, while increasing among those aged over 54, has been decreasing among the vital 35 to 54 group. But Five Live, which was launched 15 years ago with the aim of winning younger audiences, has in recent years seen the average age of its listeners rise to 46 with a very poor reach among female listeners who make up a bare 30 per cent of its audience. Five Live’s Breakfast programme has achieved a respectable 700,000 listeners but that looks puny compared with the Today programme peaks of almost 2.8 million between 7.45am to 8.00am. And intriguingly the Radio 4 under-25 audience is holding up well.

Dante Munns has a very different reason for remaining aloof. Having studied at West Craven comprehensive school in Barnoldswick, North Yorkshire – and enjoyed a childhood of sticklebacks, tadpoles and finding nests of chirping song-thrush chicks in hedgerows – he read biology at Stirling University and never wavered from wanting a career in conservation.

Today, he talks with animation about his career living among 100,000 seabirds, without water or electricity, on the Farne Islands. And his voice lifts when he recalls his time as osprey warden at Loch Garten near Inverness where he had a close encounter with a capercaillie – a turkey-sized grouse that chased him from its nesting territory in one of the most exciting and frightening episodes in his professional life. “The thing is, I’m much more excited in getting out and experiencing life than in hearing other people talk about it on the radio.”

Even so, when I run him through the topics from the running order of yesterday’s Today programme, he conjures up respectably well-informed views, and on a number of additional subjects too. What lights him up most, however, is an item towards the end in which a Today reporter tries to track down one of this country’s most striking insects – the banded demoiselle. ” It must be a national survey of dragon and damselflies. It’s not a subject I’m terribly up on but if I’d heard it I might well have been interested. Maybe it’s a programme I’m missing out on after all.”

Another triumph for Today. Perhaps the woman from Channel 4 would have been better keeping her mouth shut.

The views from here

For a man who doesn’t listen to the Today programme or any other news in the morning, Dante Munns has a pretty coherent view of the world:

Climate change

It’s the most under-reported issue of our time. It’s the biggest single issue of our day. But it seems too daunting for the politicians with their five-year time frame. And it’s very difficult for ordinary people to know how they can make a difference, though recycling and energy conservation are something everyone can do. If this isn’t addressed a lot of other issues are going to be irrelevant.

Nuclear power

We need to explore the alternatives more first. Nuclear energy has such a long lifespan and legacy. There are many other things we need to explore more intensively before we resort to that.

Housing

A huge percentage of the world’s lowland heath is in Dorset and yet it is also an area with a huge need for extra housing. There is a real shortage of affordable housing in the Poole and Bournemouth area where there are a lot of second homes. We need 40,000 new houses. That means we need to look at brownfield development or building in conurbations further afield in Dorchester or Blandford and improving the rail network.

The NHS

It is clearly under-resourced but it’s a really valuable asset. My personal experience of it has been that it is a really good service with high levels of staff competence.

Education

We have an incredible education system. It’s doing a fantastic job with kids today in core subjects like maths and English ­ better now than when I was at school. My concern is that the range of subjects has narrowed too much. There isn’t time for poetry, the arts and sport. And schools are becoming too high pressured; the early focusing on SATexams is not healthy.

Prisons

My concern from a taxpayer’s point of view that we aren’t getting value for money. Sentencing is unsystematic and often disproportionate. People tend to go to prison who needn’t, while others who are clearly a danger to society don’t get long enough. We need more alternative punishments.

Blair, Brown & Cameron

I’m of a generation which is quite bored with politics. There no longer seem to be any real differences between parties. I do vote at every election; I’m not complacent, but I am disillusioned. They all change once they get into power.

Iraq

Ethically, I’m very concerned. I’m horrified at the cost. The war is going to leave a huge and long legacy. We should have known that it wasn’t just a situation we could go in, sort things out, and pull out. We shouldn’t have got involved at all at that stage. There were plenty of other places where there were better arguments for us to get involved than Iraq. The politicians didn’t give us enough information and what we did get was often not relevant.

Gay bishops

I think that organised religion has lost its way. There are things that people in the church seem to have very strong opinions on that are irrelevant to the rest of society.

World Cup

I’m more of a cricket fan, but it’s a great event with real potential to bring people closer together in a very positive way. England just need to play a lot better against Sweden.

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