How BBC Radio 2 Lost the Plot

Most of us love the BBC. But during the last few years I wonder if we love the “idea” of the BBC more than we do the institution itself. Certainly most of us share the view that it’s vital that we have a publicly funded broadcaster, protected by an annual Licence Fee of £147.50, producing a range of well made programmes, particularly in less popular genres that are financed according to their aesthetic and cultural  needs and not the size of the audience. Well, that’s the theory. In practice, the over used platitude that the Beeb is a “National Treasure” has been getting a bit hard to swallow just recently.

Cast your mind back to 2008 and  the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair. It was the nadir, so far, of public sector broadcasting in this country. Live, on air,  Brand and Ross left phone calls on the answering machine of actor Andrew Sachs, then aged 77. Brand boasted he had slept with Sachs’ grand-daughter, followed it with a string of obscenities as Brand and Ross joked Sachs might hang himself as a result.

Many, no doubt feeling abandoned by the BBC in its pursuit of metropolitan 15 to 25 year-olds, struck back with 42,000 complaints. It was an affair that has come to symbolise everything that an unquantifiable section of the public believe is wrong with the BBC, when, in an era of eye-watering amounts of Licence Payer’s money being trousered by BBC executives and celebrity presenters, the only thing the Corporation appears interested in is chasing ratings.

The sad thing is the Brand/Ross affair is merely the tip of an iceberg whose murky depths include misadventures, wrong decisions, public relations disasters and programme flops that have come characterise the Beeb since a wrecking crew of faceless wonders got their hands on the levers of power.  Just recently we’ve had the unedifying news that the BBC worked for almost six months with the Metropolitan Police’s Film Unit during the planning phase of the TV programme Top Gear to film drag racing stunts around London’s Cenotaph.  Did they seriously think there’d be no complaints after performing wheel spins and “doughnuts” around a sacred memorial to Britain’s war dead?

Later, a contrite Chris Evans, the programme’s new presenter said, “I unreservedly apologise. That footage will definitely be pulled, 100 per cent should it be pulled.” So that’s all right then. The schoolboy antics filmed by the BBC that caused chaos to central London’s traffic because Whitehall had been closed down, all paid for by the BBC Licence payer (you and me),  has now been ditched.

Around the same time, Evans was given a “verbal warning” by the BBC for plugging his Channel 4 TV show on his Radio 2 weekday Breakfast Special. Once a much loved part of Britain’s radio output when compèred by Terry Wogan, in the eyes of many it’s not just the breakfast show that has gone down the tubes, but Radio 2 itself. “Radio 2’s audience and output has changed beyond all recognition over the past decade,” said an independent report complied by the Radio Centre called  Reach Not Reith, adding, “This could have been a good thing, but it has not been.”

The report reminds us that Radio 2 is licensed to serve “all age groups over 35,” but instead, “a series of programming polices have driven its audience younger…the strongest growth has come from the demographic outside the station’s target audience.” And don’t we know it. We’ve had Chris Evans asking listeners to text-in on his “Don’t Forget” spot, as in “Don’t forget to pick up the children.” Then we’ve had Lisa Tarbuck — you can’t make this up — saying, “We have a few men in the family called James and we call them Jimmy or Jim,” and asking listeners to text in with similar examples. And Simon Mayo, on his weekday Drivetime programme, came up with his “Three Word” slot, asking listeners to text in with gems like “Toothache comes back” or “Two soggy dogs,” which was bad enough, but it’s his phone-in that takes the biscuit: “Hi Peter, where are you?” “I’m on the M25 Simon,” “Wow, where are you going?” “I’m going home, Simon,” “Where’s home Peter?” “It’s where I live…”

Who listens to this codswallop? Hasn’t it occurred to Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, the ineffectual free-lunching BBC Trustees or John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that interacting with the public in this way is simply a substitute for having something to say? This is hardly “promoting education and learning” or “stimulating creativity and cultural excellence” that paragraphs 4 (b) and (c) of the BBC’s Royal Charter loftily aspire to. Indeed, you have to wonder if this lot actually turn the radio on at all since BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2 have long been criticised for only delivering about 30 per cent of their public service commitment.

And who is overseeing this? Well, er, nobody at the BBC seems all that interested. Director General Tony Hall has defended the right of his (highly paid) executives to have second jobs, such as his Controller of Business, Knowledge and Daytime, who, according to Private Eye, had time to run a café business in Berkhamstead called Here. In a blog since removed from the café’s website, she said it had been “Non-stop…18 hour days, rapid phone calls squeezed in between proper job meetings, hurried decisions about banquettes and stressy calls to the VAT man.” So the interests of the BBC License Fee payer are foremost in her mind then.

Somehow the BBC has to rediscover the ethos of public sector broadcasting it lost long ago. Their firm belief that any music that’s not pop or rock is out of touch with majority taste and thus irrelevant was epitomised in the way they did away with the long standing distinction between Radio 1 (pop) and Radio 2 (easy listening) a few years ago by eliding Radio 1 into Radio 2 to produce two pop stations that aggressively compete with each other and the commercial sector for ratings.

Somehow, the BBC simply don’t get it when it comes to radio. They fail to see that while 20% of the Licence Fee goes on radio, it accounts for 40% of all BBC consumption.  Yet amazingly, they are now seriously toying with the idea of abolishing radio’s separate directorate and merging commissioning of its content with that of television. The idea that same people who eagerly commission reality TV shows, game shows, garden makeover programmes and talent shows will now be meddling with radio content makes the blood freeze.

For years critics of the BBC have argued that in chasing ratings  we are loosing alternatives to popular culture in the Corporation’s relentless pursuit of mass audiences. As the then chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies made clear in a speech in March 2002, “[To] justify the licence fee we must first make sure that the public consumes our services in huge numbers.” The extent to which this kind of populist thinking has become an ideology was revealed by the former Controller of BBC 1 Peter Fincham, when he gave the McTaggart Lecture at the Media Guardian Edinburgh TV Festival in 2007, claiming public sector broadcasting should mean mass medium broadcasting and that he was “fighting to assert the importance of mass audiences.”

But for the “public to consume” the BBC’s services “in huge numbers” then programmes must have characteristics that appeal to the majority, or to put it another way, they must appeal to the lowest common denominator — so there you have it, the Dumber’s Down Charter. This uncritical embrace of the ordinary in the name of attracting mass audiences has driven a coach and horses through the Royal Charter which is now regarded as an anachronism in the corridors of Broadcasting House. They forget that catering for majority taste is what the commercial sector is for,  who have to appeal to mass audiences to generate sufficient advertising revenue to survive in the marketplace.

The BBC is supposed to provide content that the commercial sector can’t do – that’s why we pay them the licence fee.  If all we ask of music, for example, is to provide us with what we already know and like,  it denies our imaginations the emotional and intellectual stimulation other realms of music can bring.  Instead they feel compelled to compete with the commercial broadcasting sector in the ratings game — the “you do Coronation Street so we do  Eastenders” syndrome that extends to almost all areas of BBC Radio 1, Radio 2 and television output. Ironically, most of the memorable television dramas over the last decade have not come from Aunty at all but from the commercial sector’s ITV who, despite a revenue less than half of the BBC, has succeeded  in consistently delivering both high audience numbers and quality programming.

Somewhere along the line the BBC management  have created an alternative reality where the only acceptable indication of a programme’s value is ratings. Apparently they seem happy to stoop lower and lower to achieve them believing they’re too big and powerful to be constrained by petty irritations like the Royal Charter or their responsibilities as the UK’s only Public Sector Broadcaster. The result is an endless diet of populism reflecting a general panic within the corporation’s corridors of power about “connecting” with younger audiences. So that’s why Radio 2 has become a shadow of its former self, where a Chris Evans asks listeners to text in and tell us what’s outside their window or a Jo Whiley, on her “Parents Taxi Spot,”  asks parents  to phone in and tell us what activity their kids are up to while they wait outside in the car to pick them up.

© Stuart Nicholson, May 2016


In the Letters column of The Radio Times, 29 April–5 May 2017, the following was published:

‘One the radio, particularly at weekends, people seem to be continually asked to ring in to ‘tell us what you’re doing.’ I have to turn off Simon Mayo’s drive time show on ‘All Request Friday’ on Radio 2, and now Sara Cox is at it with an impromptu ‘tell us about your wonderful weekend’ spot. Whoever ‘from Colchester’ may be very excited that they’re travelling up to Yorkshire for their grandparent’s golden wedding anniversary, but I don’t know these people, I’m not interested in their lives, so why do I need to hear about it on national radio?’ Sarah Burton, Bridgnorth, Shropshire

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