Listen to the radio

24th October 2003 at 01:00
It encourages imagination and concentration, and young children need more of it, says Susan Stranks

The legendary Listen with Mother was scrapped 21 years ago this month. It was the beginning of the end for mainstream children's radio. The BBC phased out children's leisure listening and relegated primary school output to Radio 3 at 3am.

Executives argued that kids only wanted TV and pop music and the rest could buy audiotapes. Does that mean we should scrap fresh fruit and vegetables because most kids prefer burgers and pop?

For the past 20 years, I have campaigned for the establishment of a children's radio network. Radio, more effectively than television, can more effectively encourage listening, concentration, imagination and physical co-ordination - especially for the very young. As has famously been said, the pictures are much better.

But both the BBC and the commercial sector target the under-sevens via TV, and one in three children under five now has a set in their bedroom.

TVs and computers have their place in children's lives but so too should radio. From our earliest years we need cultural stimulation that reaches beyond the knowledge and preferences of our parents, peers, schooling and current commercial trends. Radio can help to provide it.

Children have differing needs at each stage of their development and this fragmented audience can be costly to serve. Broadcasters have largely ignored the youngest listeners and appropriated the pre-teens to boost audience figures for Radio 1, Capital, and other pop-led stations. However, a small renaissance is taking place.

Leicester's award-winning Takeover Radio is programmed and run by children, for children. And the literature-based station, Oneword (also award-winning and available on Freeview or visit includes regular stories and fun for the young. Disney has joined up with Capital Radio to build a pop-music-based network for eight to 14-year-old.

And, with new-found respect for young ears, the BBC airs Go4It on Radio 4 each Sunday evening and Little Toe (seven to nine years) and Big Toe (nine to 11 years) each day on its digital network, BBC7.

Last January, I helped to launch abracaDABra! - a radio service for younger children that is broadcast across London by the digital radio development group DRg.

We run sessions, in partnership with schools and libraries, to show children how to "see with their ears". Visitors from as young as three queue up to record drama and poetry, read their own work, play musical instruments and sing and mime to familiar nursery rhymes and songs.

They create sound-effects using such devices such as coconut shells (unicorn hooves), dried pasta (marching troops) and Cellophane (a crackling fire). Did you know that scrunching cotton wool close to your ear sounds just like footsteps in the snow?

The children's work is edited for broadcast and we find that even the shyest will join in if they think their efforts may take to the air. Used in this way, radio can recognise ability, respect effort and reward achievement. Participating teachers have described it as the fourth R in education and the missing link in the learning chain.

Research by the Basic Skills Agency shows that, in some areas, half the children enter formal learning without the listening and speaking skills they need. Teachers say valuable time is spent showing their young charges how to eat properly, do up their buttons and go to the toilet. Education Secretary Charles Clarke has called for ways to improve the situation.

David Bell, chief inspector of schools, has urged parents to teach their children basic communication and social skills in preparation for school, and to talk more to their babies, but many parents and carers have limited time and resources and do not know how best to help.

Take a simple radio set that is not tethered to a screen or keyboard but can be moved around and carried outside in fine weather. Use it to deliver a tasty daily menu of nursery songs, music and movement, games and stories, topped off with helpful family hints and advice on parenting, and the good old wireless becomes a modern instrument of fun, learning and social benefit.

In a timely development, the Communications Act has de-restricted local government ownership of broadcasting licences, thus freeing local authorities to invest in TV and radio channels to complement their educational and social provision.

A radio network in support of early and primary years services could be delivered for the price of a single inner-city school and, through publicprivate partnership, could become self-supporting in due course.

In the words of the Baroness Warnock, who has long championed radio for children: "This would be a most intelligent use of public resources to serve a national need."

Susan Stranks co-ordinates the National Campaign for Children's Radio and is a founder of abracaDABra! digital radio for children aged 10 and below.

She is best known for having co-presented Magpie and her own show, Paperplay, both for Thames TV.

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