Nick Smurthwaite investigates current developments in radio for young children.

The alarming decline in the communication skills of children in recent years seems paradoxically linked to the rise and rise of our screen and keyboard culture. The faster our children can connect with each other electronically the less they seem able to communicate one-to-one.

A survey of headteachers by the National Literacy Trust (NLT) showed that 75% were concerned about the decline of communication skills over the past five years, while 89% of nursery workers said they were dealing with many more children with communication problems than ever before.

‘It’s very hard to pinpoint what’s going on,’ says Liz Attenborough of Talk to Your Baby, an offshoot of the NLT, ‘but it might have something to do with the fact that families are much more fragmented within their own homes. Children spend a lot more time isolated in their own rooms, with their computers and their TV sets, and fewer families have meals together.

‘A lot of parents simply don’t realise that these things matter in terms of a child’s development, they tend to think it will happen naturally without them having an input, but actually they do need to have an input. Learning and listening skills are incredibly important. You can’t learn to read unless you can distinguish sounds. Our role is very much about empowering parents to feel confident enough to take positive action.’

An unparalleled resource
Taking positive action is something Susan Stranks knows all about. As our foremost campaigner for children’s radio she is tireless in promoting the idea of radio as an unparalleled resource for early years carers. To this end, she launched Abracadabra, an all-digital station for under tens in 2002. Because of funding problems, it morphed into Fun Radio, co-owned by Hit Entertainment (of Bob the Builder fame) and GWR, owners of Classic FM. Susan retains 4% of the new station and is actively involved in making programmes. Fun has just started to transmit on the Sky 1062 wavelength.

For at least six hours of its daytime output, Fun Radio is aimed at very young children and their carers, with music and singalongs aimed at stimulating movement, and emphasis on the presentation of words and numbers in a manner that will appeal to pre-school children.

‘I believe it is better for nurseries to make use of digital radio than computers,’ says Susan Stranks, ‘because a computer is another sit-and-look device, and our children spend so much of their time in that situation. One speech therapist friend of mine calls TV ‘the flickering blue parent’ because she comes across so many children with speech difficulties who spend all their time sat in front of one screen or another. In many homes, the TV is on all the time now.

‘When I was doing Abracadabra we did some library sessions, making radio with children as young as four. They pretended to be unicorns by clapping coconut shells together, and made the sound of marching feet with pasta in a box. It was all about teaching children to listen in order to develop their language skills. It’s all very well for a parent to buy a tape to give their child, but that is not the same as somebody being on the radio for you every day. It’s like a family children can visit every day.’

The need for a national network
As coordinator of the National Campaign for Children’s Radio, Susan Stranks is working with Baroness Warnock to establish a children’s radio network that will include what they describe as a ‘nursery of the airwaves’ to coordinate and promote the best practice care and early learning through play, words and music.

Ten new digital radio services are soon to be announced by Ofcom, who have invited interested parties to stake their claims. In a letter to Peter Davies, Ofcom’s director of radio and multimedia, Baroness Warnock writes, ‘Many hundreds of MPs, peers, practitioners in children’s entertainment, education and care, parents and children themselves attest to the unique value of radio in children’s learning and leisure, and have supported our campaign over some 20 years.’

She goes on to argue that early learning initiatives such as Sure Start can be delivered more cost effectively with the support of a daily radio service. ‘Properly managed through a public/private partnership, at least one national network dedicated to children could be sustained,’ she concludes.

For their part, Ofcom have highlighted children and young people as a ‘neglected and deserving audience.’

Making it fun
The growing interdependence of radio and the internet is a key feature of BBC radio’s children’s output, consisting of Go For It! On Radio 4, and the magazine programmes Big Toe (for older children) and Little Toe for pre-school children on the digital station, BBC7.

‘It’s about offering kids a choice and making that choice as enticing as possible,’ says Ruth Gardiner, Children’s Unit editor. ‘I don’t want our listeners to think our programmes are good for them, I want it to be enjoyable. If we do do educational things, they have to be fun.’
Storytelling plays an important role in Little Toe’s output, which is aimed at four to seven-year-olds. On Sundays there is a two-hour story slot on BBC7, which can also be accessed online.

Not a thing of the past
In the long term, of course, the young listeners of today develop into the adult listeners of tomorrow and ensure that talk radio has a future. The new digital age of interactivity and accessibility has opened up possibilities for radio that would have been unheard of a decade ago.

‘I get incensed when people talk about radio being old fashioned,’ says Susan Stranks, who made her name as the presenter of the children’s TV show Magpie in the seventies. ‘Radio is more immediate than TV, cheaper to produce and more flexible. It may not generate as much money as television but it is still a viable commercial proposition and, more importantly, a social necessity.’