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Back from the grave
This online edition of The Listener is a revival of one of British journalism's great titles. Here Peter Fiddick looks to the past - and to the future.

t was nine years ago this month that the last issue of the Listener was published, giving me the melancholy honour of being the last editor of one of the most distinguished titles in British periodical journalism. To this day, people tell me how much it is missed.

I did not in 1991 feel it fruitful to rake over the manner of its passing, nor have I since. It was a traumatic and in some respects bitter period, for the magazine's staff, contributors and indeed owners. Yet this online Listener provokes reflections on how both publishing and broadcasting have changed in the intervening decade and even on whether, had the crunch occurred at this end of it, there might have been a different outcome.

Unholy trio

For the Listener, of course, the publishing and the broadcasting trends were inextricably linked. Founded under John Reith, essentially as a way of extending the life and influence of the fledgling BBC's thoughtful broadcast "talks" and of enhancing the BBC's own reputation, it never lost that purpose, although successive editors interpreted that in tune with their times and built other rich editorial strands, notably a widely respected literary and arts coverage.

Thatcher did for it
So the Listener came to be seen as one of a trio of weekly magazines, alongside the Spectator and the New Statesman, though without their party political attachments - but certainly not without politics, as witness the wise and elegant column written, in the 80s, by John Cole, the BBC's political editor.

At the same time, the other two, often struggling or searching for new rich patrons, frequently protested against the presence in the market of a rival they saw as subsidised by the BBC's public funding. It was, however, Prime Minister Thatcher turning her hostile eye on the broadcasters in the mid-80s, via the Peacock Committee, that did for it.

White knight

Michael Checkland, as BBC director general under the political cosh to cut costs, was poised with the axe as early as the summer of 1987. Then an unlikely white knight rode to the rescue: ITV - or rather, Sir Denis Forman and Paul Fox, respectively chairman of Granada Television and chief executive of YTV. With new broadcasting legislation and a franchise round on the horizon, they both temperamentally and politically saw benefits in ITV doing a cultural public service.

Quite quickly, the Listener was spun off into a limited company, jointly owned by the BBC and ITV, who had three board members each, under an independent chairman, and would henceforth share the cost. It seemed a good idea at the time!

The joint deal was in ruins. I saw the writing was on the wall
In retrospect, it was downhill all the way. Simultaneously, the incumbent editor, Russell Twisk, was leaving to run the UK Readers Digest. Ominously, the new company's directors, all top tv executives, were so busy at their day jobs it took them until the end of the year to replace him. After barely a year, in January 1989, their choice, Alan Coren, was pushed out under pressure from the ITV side, now unhappy about the editorial direction they had themselves sanctioned. I was offered the job.

But now ITV was under the Thatcher cosh, facing the prospect of a licence auction. I knew I would be lucky to keep them on board beyond their existing franchises, but the challenge couldn't be ducked. In the event, at the end of 1989, a BBC-side director poached our general manager, a key leader in a small team. The ITV side screamed foul, and by midsummer 1990 the joint deal was in ruins. With Checkland unable to make a case for shouldering the whole cost again, I saw the writing on the wall.

Cultural revolution

That much was broadcasting politics at work. Ten years on, they haven't improved. But the publishing revolution is something else.

One key fact about the economics of the Listener is that nobody really knew what they were until very near the end: a year after I arrived, two years-plus after the joint deal, we were still trying to unravel the production costs from those of Radio Times. Meanwhile, a recession had started, with all magazines hit and the Listener, which had come off its current peak even before ITV came in, sliding relentlessly. A more commercial publisher might have dug deep and found a marketing budget. Or, of course, pulled the plugs earlier.

We found cheaper print contracts and, having gone through the on-screen revolution at the Guardian, I pushed to get out of paste-up and into desk-top publishing. Too late. About my final act was negotiating a Mac/Quark XPress course for the editorial staff - as part of their redundancy package. Ironic, eh?

Well-presented print is attractive, subtle, directional
And now? The electronic future, it seems to me, is not yet triumphant. Paper is convenient; well-presented print is attractive, subtle, directional. The net is still, for the most part, in its functional, utility stage. It's getting there, but even so, while reading a 2,500 word piece in a well-designed magazine, with a glass beside you, is a pleasure, off a screen, it's a chore.

But on three key counts, online is a winner. It decimates production costs. No paper. No print bill. Distribution likewise: no postage, no lorries, no wholesale or retailer's cuts. And it offers instant access to any likely kindred spirit, wherever in the world they be, whatever the niche. Getting your magazine into people's hands is nine-tenths of the battle.

I shall, in the coming days, watch to see how many hits this site gets. And, I've little doubt, eat my heart out.

Peter Fiddick
Peter Fiddick was the last editor of the paper-and-ink Listener. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster, and reviews the newspapers for BBC One's Breakfast News.

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