Former British Cabinet Member James Purnell Appointed BBC Radio Chief

James Purnell photographed in London
Rex Features via AP Images

James Purnell photographed in London on July 16, 2015.

Former British culture secretary James Purnell has been appointed BBC director of radio and education, responsible for the corporation's radio output alongside its arts, music, learning and children's departments.

He replaces outgoing director of radio Helen Boaden, who has announced that she is to retire from the BBC after 34 years of service.

"I love the BBC and it has been the privilege of my life to serve our audiences for 34 years. But now is the right time to leave," said Boaden in a statement. She will continue to lead the BBC's radio teams until Oct. 31, after which Purnell's newly formed division will take over.

The former politician, who served as Labour Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 2007 to 2008, first worked at the BBC in the Mid-1990s as head of corporate planning. After resigning from government in 2009, he worked at independent production company Rare Day and as an adviser at Boston Consulting Group. Purnell re-joined the Beeb as director of strategy and digital in 2013, later becoming director of strategy and education.

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His promotion to head of radio had been widely expected with reports of his appointment first surfacing earlier this year. They prompted Conservative MP (and until recently, British Culture Secretary) John Whittingdale to question his suitability for the role due to his political allegiances.

"I do have concerns about somebody who has played a very prominent role in a political party then going on to have an editorial job in the BBC," Whittingdale told The Times newspaper in August.  

In his new post, Purnell -- who was interviewed for the job earlier this week -- will remain on his existing salary of £295,000 ($380,000) a year, according the BBC. Boaden annual salary is just over £350,000 ($450,000). Bringing together the previously separate divisions of radio and education will enable the BBC to make further savings and focus on content, said the corporation, which has committed to cutting 1,000 jobs by 2017 as it looks to made budget savings of £550 million ($710 million) by 2021/22. 

"I'm delighted to have been asked to lead the new division, Radio and Education, bringing together Arts, Music and Network Radio with Children's and Learning," said Purnell in a statement. "We're the best public service broadcaster in the world in all these areas. They're unique, but face common challenges - from reaching younger audiences to workings in partnership."

"We've got a singular advantage in all our areas: we either have or could get global rights," he continued. "I want us to use this advantage to think about how we could take on the world for the benefit of our audiences and for Britain."

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Commenting on the appointment, BBC director general Tony Hall said the corporation had "so much more to offer globally in music, arts, speech radio -- things our country excels in. Our role, reflecting the UK to the world, has never been more important. BBC Radio is the best there is and I know it can speak -- and sing -- even more loudly the world over."

He continued: "I want real ambition: a powerhouse for radio - and our education mission around the world. I know we've got the people, programmes and ideas to do just that."

The BBC has said that it will be recruiting a new director of radio, who will serve within Purnell's team, to give creative leadership and focus day-in-day out.


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