What can we offer the children?

28th October 1994 at 00:00
This month licences for six new radio stations for London were awarded. Four went to pop and rock stations, one to Christian Radio and another to a station for women. Once again, nothing was offered to children. This can hardly have been because children are already generously supplied with radio, as both commercial and BBC networks give little to their youngest listeners.

Among the many serious flaws in the 1990 Broadcasting Act was the disregard of children's rights to radio, a neglect which in any other field would have provoked an outcry, particularly when the airwaves are part of the public domain.

The Children Act and the UN Convention on The Rights of the Child stipulate right of access for all children to information, education, arts, play and the media and require that the opinions of children be aired. But in practice, radio has failed to provide for children.

Good radio is a proven learning tool that can encourage communication, aid concentration, stimulate imagination and promote the early development of language, literacy and play, themselves a prerequisite to formal schooling.

The BBC has turned somersaults to discount children as radio-users. Weekday schools output has been reduced and dumped into Radio 3's afternoon schedules while the rest is broadcast in the early hours of the morning, when teachers are expected to record it for later use. Meanwhile, the children's radio that was on air was replaced with the news and sport network, Radio Five Live.

The commercial sector dismisses the very young, only recognising listeners above 15-years-old. Instead of offering stations with a broad range of programmes, it is developing a narrowcast policy, producing specialist services. This has led to an explosion of music-driven formats on the one hand and headline-led chat on the other.

Neither of these options is attractive or beneficial to young minds which need early and continuing access to a full range of information and creative work, appropriate to age. These include sung and spoken words, conversation, debate, stories, information, drama and music of all kinds.

The young need a sound place to listen, learn and play . . . and it's no good fobbing them off with the promise of digital broadcasting somewhere over the horizon.

There is a very real danger that the only thing to grace this much vaunted ether, when it arrives, will be pre-packed weather-filled news-bites.

The timetable for the awarding of the only remaining terrestrial radio space is set to be advertised today, with broadcasting likely to begin two years from now. Its allocation rests at the discretion of the Radio Authority, which has chosen city, regional and community stations.

We must make sure that in this last round of radio licences, children's rights will be properly respected and protected. If they are not attracted to radio now, who will be the future listeners?

There is a strong and urgent case to be made for a family-driven, child-centred network. If neither the Radio Authority nor the BBC can or will serve their needs, then a new public service frequency should be found.

Such a service could be multi-funded: attracting industry, trust and Treasury money to a common cause and could be run as a non-profit distributing charity, winning extra cash from bodies such as the National Lottery, The Foundation for Sports and local authorities. At nights it could expand to support learning at all levels.

This would provide an effective cost-saving, benefit-bringing service which could put Britain back in front of the caring league.

Susan Stranks is director of Sound Start, which will apply to set up a children's radio network in the next licence awards

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