The listening band
Once upon a time there was Children's Hour, with Uncle Mac, Larry the Lamb, and a rapt audience of children across the land. Then there was Listen with Mother at a quarter to two, when domestic life came to a standstill while a deep-voiced man sang, "This is the way the ladies ride", and Daphne Oxenford read us a story.
These were the high and heady days of school radio, when generations of British infants swayed, stretched, and hip-hopped around the gym to the strains of Music, Mime and Movement. But then, as the visual media swelled and proliferated, radio for children ebbed slowly away. All that's left of Children's BBC now is a half-hour on Sunday evening, and last month saw the last daytime broadcast by school radio. We seem to have reached the stage of Goodbye Children, Everywhere.
Or maybe not. Galloping over the horizon at this 11th hour comes Susan Stranks, a name previously associated with television, most famously as presenter of the children's programme Magpie in the 1970s. But after a spell at home raising her own family - she is married to Robin Ray, the broadcaster and musicologist - Ms Stranks has been reborn as a champion of children's radio. The last independent broadcasting licence for the Greater London area is up for grabs next month, and she aims to secure it for children - with a view to creating a national children's network for the millennium.
Her arguments are persuasive. Children's listening skills have been steadily eroded over the last 20 years by the huge influence of the visual media. As children spend more and more of their pre-school years locked in front of electronic babysitters, dire warnings of the consequences have begun to appear from child psychologists and reading experts. Research suggests that children who spend their early years passively watching TV and video are likely to end up with poorer language development, shorter attention spans, more reading difficulties and fewer social skills than earlier generations.
"Radio can help. It can provide an exciting alternative to TV viewing - and it's much more interactive. It encourages children to listen, think and concentrate," says Susan Stranks, "The time's come to reinvent radio, with programming to attract the children of the 21st century."
Her idea is a commercial station, enlivened with the buzz of advertising jingles, sponsors' messages and competitions. "You could cater for different age groups at different times of the day - how about Under Five Live in the mornings, with songs and stories and alphabet rhymes for the little ones - sort of Open Nursery School programmes for older children in the afternoons - perhaps schoolchildren making their own programmes, clubs and homework hotlines. And bedtime stories and songs, of course. All of it embedded in music for parents and children to share - from Nellie the Elephant and the Chipmunks to popular classics like 'Night on a Bare Mountain'."
Commercial radio is something of an inherited passion for Susan Stranks - 50 years ago her father, Alan, used to produce the Ovalteenies programmes for Radio Luxemburg - and she is pursuing it with a single-minded determination bordering on obsession.
For five years, she has been rallying support, lobbying politicians, educationists, potential sponsors and the broadcasting world. She has collected famous names to vouchsafe their support, from Susan Hampshire, Claire Rayner and Penelope Leach to John Julius Norwich Baroness Warnock, and Lady Solti.
She has rounded up children's writers, poets, teachers and pre-school experts to advise on content and create the programmes. She has persuaded her husband - who for the last three years has compiled the music library for Classic FM - to develop the music mix for the station (it's a lovely image: the man who knows every opus number in the world solemnly cataloging Tubby the Tuba and the collected works of Pinky and Perky). The project's working title is "Sound Start".
To this jaded mother it sounds pretty good. Imagine a radio station that would keep young children happy in the car, something to plug them into at night, entertain them in bed in the early morning and keep them away from the endless drivel of cartoons churned out on TV.
And as one who can still trill Alan Stranks's Ovalteeny song, learned at my mother's knee 40 years ago, I suspect "Sound Start" might be a pretty sound commercial investmentas well.
Susan Stranks co Radio Lollipop, Garth Hse, Orchard Hill, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 4NR. Tel: 0181 661 0666