Sunday farce hour?
Why is a long-running beacon of religious radio programming being banished by BBC bosses?
Broadcast since 1940, not even the blitzkrieg of Nazi bombs on London was able to stop Sunday Half Hour – a mix of hymns and prayer – going out on air to bring spiritual comfort and uplift at the end of a Sunday week by week.
Now, however, the authorities at Radio 2 have decided to shift its start time from 8.30pm in the evening to an earlier slot – fourteen-and-a-half hours earlier in fact, namely 6.00am. That's right – you didn't mis-read that: from Sunday 20th January, the show is transferring to six o'clock in the morning, albeit in an extended 60-minute version.
At this point I should declare a personal interest: at the end of a busy Sunday of church ministry I often head out for a run, which in winter means driving somewhere with enough street light in order to see where I am jogging. I've caught Sunday Half Hour off and on, but it was only in the run-up to Christmas that I became particularly fond of it: the show's latest host, Diane Louise Jordan, has a warm and engaging style, and the radiance of her own Christian faith shines clearly through.
When she mentioned in passing the fact that the show was being extended to an hour I assumed her talent as a gifted broadcaster was being recognised. But I must admit that when I heard the rest of the news – that it was being shifted back to its new early morning slot – my ears nearly fell off in disbelief.
Now in fairness to the BBC it must be admitted that they do have something of an argument to justify the change. For one thing, the audience for Sunday Half Hour is now only 246,000 – just half what it was a decade ago. And, in fact, the number of those listening to Radio 2 at 6.00am in the morning is apparently double that figure – namely 520,000. So it could be argued that the new, double-length programme will actually be broadcasting to double the audience.
While this may be good in theory at least, it assumes that all the existing half million listeners at that time will stick with the new show they are being offered. But, more importantly, it completely overlooks what have surely been two of the primary functions of Sunday Half Hour – firstly, to bring religious worship to many senior and housebound listeners unable to travel out to church; and, secondly, to round off what little remains of Britain's Christian Sunday with at least a nod in the direction of God.
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In relation to its particular audience, it would seem highly unlikely that this specific demographic are the segment of population most likely to be either able or wanting to use the BBC i-player function to catch up on the new early morning broadcast later on in the day.
And in relation to the timing – well, as Quentin Letts put it in the Daily Mail, the change "ignores the programme's aesthetic fit with eventide, its echo with the Anglican tradition of Evensong".
Combined with other changes, the result is that, according to The Independent, Radio 2's "faith programming is being reduced by half an hour each Sunday".
An online petition at www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-sunday-half-hour/ is hoping to repeat the success of a previous campaign to save Choral Evensong, which the BBC unsuccessfully tried to move away from Wednesdays on Radio 3. Or, as someone else has suggested, perhaps Classic FM may scent a superb opportunity...