BBC appoints James Purnell as radio chief to lead new ‘powerhouse’

James Purnell

The BBC has confirmed that James Purnell, former Labour culture secretary, will take up the role of director of radio and education as Helen Boaden announces her retirement after 34 years at the corporation.

Purnell’s new role will see him take charge of radio, education, arts, music, learning and children’s departments as the BBC fuses divisions “to deliver further savings to focus on content”.

The BBC also confirmed Purnell as one of the leading internal candidates to potentially take over from director general Lord Hall when he stands down in the next two or three years, the Guardian reported.

Purnell joined the BBC as director of strategy in 2013 with a whopping £295k a-year salary. The BBC has said he will remain on his existing salary in his new role.

His appointment sparked a political row among Conservative politicians including John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, and Damian Collins, a member of the culture select committee, who accused the corporation of “leftist bias” and argued the appointment of a former politician could risk the BBC’s impartiality.

He led the corporation’s charter renewal talks in May, and was appointed director of strategy and education in July as part of a corporate reshuffle by Tony Hall to create a “simpler BBC”.

The BBC will also be recruiting a new director of radio to sit under Purnell to give creative leadership and focus day-in-day out.

Boaden will continue to lead the radio teams until the new division starts on 31 October. She will then remain responsible for myBBC, the BBC’s major digital project, as well as leading the BBC’s contribution to Hull.

"I grew up loving the BBC, so it’s been a privilege to work here, fighting for a licence fee increase in the 1990s and now working on charter review,” said Purnell. "We’ve got a singular advantage in all our areas: we either have or could get global rights. 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.”

Hall said: "I’ve talked a lot about a BBC that’s more digital, more open and more global than ever. And, with the Charter now all but done, I need the right top team in place, with the right responsibilities, to deliver just that.

"There are three big challenges. First of all, how do we best compete in a world full of ideas? I want to connect great thinkers inside and outside the organisation; to partner more closely with other great institutions. Secondly, how we connect with young audiences. They’re digital; they’re demanding in the very best sense of the word and we need to do more to engage them. And finally, there’s 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.

"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."

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Jessica Goodfellow

The Drum's media reporter covering everything from publishing, TV, social media, radio and technology.

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