Read the article carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

Phone-ins are everywhere, on the BBC, commercial radio and the World Service. They are cheap, satisfy a craving for instant fame, and exude a strong whiff of democracy. Yet there are lingering doubts about their value.

First of all, imposters2 can get through. A famous example occurred last year, when hundreds of thousands of listeners heard an angry man from Doncaster ring up to savage Michael Green, controller of Radio 4, for the appalling soap opera citizens. It was an electrifying moment, and Green sounded rattled by the ferocity of the criticism. Later it emerged that the caller was in fact the former producer of Start the Week3 and a lover of cruel practical jokes. He had given a false name when he rang.

This year there have been other worries. Does the BBC give its controllers an easy ride?4 Are these programmes PR masquerading as journalism5? During the phone-in with Radio 4’s controller earlier this month, I observed the proceedings from start to finish. Once, I naively6 imagined that when you listened to a BBC phone-in what you heard was simply a succession of people ringing the BBC. If they got through, they were put on the air and asked their questions. The very opposite is true: they are on the air because the BBC has called them7.

Lines open at 8am. There is one number to ring, and eight lines on it. Each of the eight extension phones in the Broadcasting House basement is manned by a BBC production assistant or secretary—volunteers working overtime. If you get through, you speak to one them for several minutes. They have printed forms on which they write your name, phone number, age bracket, gender, a summary of your question, and a category called ‘on air potential—good/average/poor’. The volunteers have to put a tick against one of them. ‘Those marked ‘poor’ aren’t chosen,’ said Caroline Millington, head of BBC radio’s magazine programmes. ‘They would probably freeze8 on air.’

The forms are handed to the deputy producer, Chris Paling. Promising questions9 he puts in a separate pile, summarising the question at the top of the sheet and running a yellow highlight pen through it. He hands this pile to Nick Utechin, the producer, who makes the final selection and also decides the running order of the calls, in order to get a varied menu. A woman telephonist rings back the chosen callers and keeps them on the telephone until their big moment, when they are put on the air. Presenter Nick Ross knows the name and town of each caller, and who is coming up next, because that information is flashed on to a television monitor which he and Utechin can see but Green cannot.

On the basis of what I saw, Paling and Utechin selected exactly those questions12 which any other seasoned journalists would have done to create the most lively programme possible. I saw several questions from admiring callers who ‘liked Radio 4 a lot’: none of them made it past Paling’s desk.

You have to be very persistent. The BBC estimates that about 3,000 callers tried to ring the Radio 4 phone-in. Of those, 204 got through and logged their questions; 16 were chosen to go on the air. On Radio 3’s phone-in, 185 callers got through and once again 16 were chosen. So even if you do succeed in getting through, the chances of then getting on the air are still more than 10–1 against13.

Even though the programmes try not to be bland, they have one great defect. The controllers are interviewed by their own employees as well as by their listeners: Green by Ross, for example. Isn’t it a bit much to expect someone to interrogate freely and without fear or favour the very person who pays their salary? At the moment, presenters have vested financial interests in not being too rude or too curious. A little network-swapping would be no bad thing, and would give the BBC’s controllers a more testing time.


1 Why, according to the text, are there so many radio phone-in programmes?

2 Who or what are ‘imposters’ in this context?

3 What is ‘Start the Week’ and why is it mentioned?

4 How does the author answer the question ‘Does the BBC give its controllers an easy ride?’

5 Explain the meaning of ‘PR masquerading as journalism’.

6 Why does the author use the word ‘naively’?

7 What does ‘them’ refer to?

8 What is meant by ‘freeze’ as it is used in this context?

9 Explain the phrase ‘Promising questions’ as it is used in the text.

10 What have the callers been doing just before they go on the air?

11 What is it that Green is not shown?

12 What happened to the ‘questions’ referred to in this case, and what was the reason for this?

13 What does ’10–1 against’ mean in this context?

14 What suggestion does the author make in the last sentence, and why?

15 In a paragraph of 60–80 words, summarise the steps that listeners must take to be able to participate in BBC’s phone-ins and the factors that determine which people are selected to do so.

Sample Answers