What is Public Service Broadcasting
This is taken from David Hendy's new book Life on Air: a history of Radio Four (2007) Se especially the emboldened paragraphs. (but read all of it) Hendy is pointing out that the usual ‘text book’ version of the PSB idea is misleading, if not just plain wrong.
When listeners and critics and broadcasters draw attention to this lineage, they invariably speak of Radio Four as 'the heartbeat' of the Corporation or 'the keeper of its soul'. The choice of words is hugely significant. It forges a link with the BBC's founding father, its first Director-General, John Reith, and to the ethos of public service broadcasting he propounded in the 1920s and 1930s-and which still, to some extent, conditions the way in which the BBC views itself, and is viewed by us. This 'Reithian' ethos is sometimes lazily defined as straightforwardly elitist, patrician, authoritarian, stifling. But it was always more complex than that. When Reith talked of bringing to British people 'the best' of things ideas and culture and information they did not know they wanted but which he, at least, knew they needed in an era of mass democracy-he undoubtedly played the neo- Victorian paternalist to perfection. What could be grander, after all, than his quintessential claim that broadcasting should give a lead to public taste rather than pander to it? 'He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.' Yet Reith went on to say very clearly that the whole point was to bring the best' into the greatest number of homes'. If broadcasting was a force for the improvement of taste and knowledge and manners, as well as a means of promoting social unity, the task was to enable men and women throughout the country to take an interest in things from which they had previously been excluded. And if all British people were to be led on to higher things, the BBC needed to attract a mass audience. It needed to be truly popular. Hence the classic formulation of the BBC's mission being to 'inform, educate, and entertain': in part, an expression of the desire to build rounded, enlightened citizens by exposing them to the broadest range of material; in part, a recognition that only through the enticement of popular programmes would decently sized audiences ever be secured for all the tougher, more 'improving' fare.
The result, in any case, was this: that the National and Regional Programmes, then the Home Service, and finally Radio Four-none were ever designed to provide only those worthy programmes which other media have generally found unprofitable. Reithianism held firmly to the idea that for a public service to do its work-for it to complete its cultural mission-it had to be witnessed by the public at large. Broadcasting was always for listeners, not producers-and for listeners in sizeable number. This was why Reith never reconciled himself to the Third Programme, introduced long after he had left the Corporation. He found it 'objectionable' precisely because it ring-fenced culture for a tiny minority, rather than diffusing it in the generality of the BBC's services.
For Reith's heirs, then, it has always been Radio Four that really mattered. It is the Reithian service par excellence: perhaps not as avant-garde as some would wish, certainly overcautious at times; but, through its 'mixed' programming, generally committed to the old BBC project of nurturing rounded citizens and forging a 'common culture'. The very range of its schedule, stretching from news and classic drama through features, quizzes, religious services, discussion programmes, and consumer magazines, all the way to comedy and popular serials, has represented the coming together in one place of the Corporation's three defining tasks: informing, educating, entertaining. The language with which it generally speaks-not quite fully literary, not quite fully colloquial-sits profitably somewhere between the 'instant' and the 'academic'. And the claim by one of those charged with running it, that it is 'like a friend who has read a few more books, seen a bit more of the world', provides a resonant declaration of the surviving desire to improve-but gently, even surreptitiously. Indeed, it is precisely these achievements that have ensured Radio Four's special place in the British broadcasting ecology: never the most popular service in sheer ratings terms, but sufficiently popular while remaining sufficiently committed to quality for it to become extraordinarily influential-indeed, for it to become, as much as any part of the BBC could, a kind of 'civil power' fundamental to British character formation during the later twentieth century."