That’s the thing about the nights…you don’t realise…how much of people’s lives you’ve become…the audience will no longer be having a friendly voice talking with them and holding a conversation with them…the output might be top class…but it won’t be the same, it won’t have that intimacy – BBC Radio 2 presenter Alex Lester .
The announcement that the UK’s most-listened to radio station, Radio 2, is to cut its live overnight output, mainly presented by Alex Lester and Janice Long, has shocked and angered many of those who listen to the station between midnight and 0500 – 0600 at weekends – and sparked a further debate about the purpose and responsibilities of a public service broadcaster.
Of course, no broadcaster likes to lose his or her programmes and any change sparks protest in radio – one of the characteristics and unique aspects of the medium’s appeal is for it to produce far more of sense of ‘ownership’ in its audience than by any other ‘platform’. A change to a schedule and/or presenters feels to many almost like a personal insult, and even (judging from some of the responses) similar to the death of a loved one. But in this case both the reasoning for the change and the manner of its execution seems to have been both cack-handed and sneaky. In what seems to be an attempt to avoid the furore that accompanied the move from weekdays to weekends for Alex Lester in 2014, the BBC has left the announcement to the last possible minute.
For Alex, his thirty years of service, doing a job that few would brave for three days let alone three decades, with an audience numbering around a million when on weekdays, are to be met with a swift guillotine at the end of this month with a brief thanks for the “… contributions to the programme” – a line in a BBC press release that is chilling in its lack of emotion and perhaps indicating there will be no official presentation of a golden alarm clock at a glittering leaving ‘do’. Rather than acknowledge the needs of a very specific audience (and let’s remember the new BBC Charter requires the Corporation to serve diverse communities) the press release relates at length how ‘expert musical curators’, ‘streaming music’, ‘playlists’ etc., etc., must satisfy what has become over the years a devoted listening public. Comments so far on public media would suggest this is not being greeted with similar enthusiasm – rather there is a growing feeling that night workers are being ignored or dismissed by the Corporation.
If loyal followers of ‘The Dark Lord’ (as he is affectionately known) look carefully they may be lucky; he will be found elsewhere, amongst local radio audiences who have always loved his original and unique personality. And, let’s face it, if BBC Radio 2 loses listeners (as they surely will) this is where they will find a more welcoming home. But if you’re looking for that warm and friendly voice in the long dark hours between midnight and dawn, on a national network you have counted on for the last thirty years, forget it. It’s autoplay and voice tracking for you. If you complain you can look forward to corporate statements citing masses of research data that will prove that those who have enjoyed the company of the Dark Lord on the ‘Best Time of The Day’ show would MUCH prefer a robot providing tracks on a network jukebox. You may have been a loyal audience, but you have little choice as there’s no real alternative available – which will be why the BBC seems to think this is a safe gamble.
Lewis Carnie, Head of BBC Radio 2, says you’re a “… relatively small percentage of our audience …”. But smaller audiences have not traditionally been a problem for the Corporation. BBC Radio 3 is a whole network dedicated to a niche audience which could be culled if that’s the rationale being used, and at its height Alex Lester’s listening figures reached a million – the same as the total audience for BBC Radio1Xtra. So the question that remains is, how does killing off live programmes overnight on Radio 2 fulfil the remit of public service broadcasting?
The axing of the live shows has been justified by the need for the station to cut its spending, which is part of the BBC’s need to trim its budgets overall, due in the main to a variety of new demands and responsibilities foisted onto it by the government – not least the cost of ‘free’ TV licences for the over-75s. The announcement comes during a critical few weeks, in which the BBC’s new Royal Charter comes into effect, and a new unified board – merging the Trustees and Executive – under a new Chairman prepares to take control.
Until the new system comes into effect in April, the BBC Trust is the body that, amongst other things, issues ‘service licences’ for all BBC sectors. Its most recent agreement for Radio 2 notes that it agreed a change to the network’s baseline budget on the understanding that: “…in giving approval to this change, the Trust has been assured by the BBC Executive that the change to the budget does not reflect any change to the remit, scope or other stated key characteristics of the service”. Doesn’t dropping all live overnight programming constitute a change to its scope? The service licence also revealed that the annual budget for the network was nearly £50 million.
As discussed in a recent ‘radio roundtable’, which contained the interview with Alex Lester quoted above, it seems fantastic to the commercial sector that a station with that kind of budget cannot find the relatively small amounts to pay for live presenters for at least part of the night. How much money is actually being saved? After all, it was reasoned in the roundtable, being a BBC network there would still be a Technical Operator on duty to run the recorded sequences, which in any case are surely not completely cost-free; they’ve still got to pay for the power of the transmitters, so the only real saving is the fee of one presenter per night. Even at BBC network rates (which the Corporation likes to keep secret but we’ve had enough hints and even outright disclosure over the years to have a good idea) it surely can’t amount to a significant saving in the scheme of things.
Another highly relevant part of the service licence (5.4) also highlights that: “Radio 2 should facilitate the growth of communities of interest and enable people to connect with the station and each other.” The live overnight shows certainly enabled people to connect with each other, and this was clearly a much-appreciated aspect of the output.
It’s not as if those working through the night (let alone insomniacs, and those sick and lonely) constitute a tiny fraction of the population. Our service economy and demand for speedy delivery of our online orders means there is a significant ‘community of interest’ of more than three million, one in eight workers, according to a TUC report.
As a former BBC local radio head of programmes, who began that role more than 25 years ago in the week that ten per cent cuts in local radio budgets came into effect – leading in my region to the axing of a number of specialist music shows with devoted followers, and six stations combining their output 6pm-midnight – I know how difficult it is to make economies without upsetting listeners. I also know that although the percentage in my case doesn’t sound that much, of course you have a lot of fixed costs over which you have little or no control, so to achieve ten per cent – demanded from on high – you really have to cut deep into the bits where you do have some discretion; and staff costs are always the biggest part. So you end up losing people, and in radio that means output. In fact, in my case the decisions had been made before I arrived and I spent the next six months or so responding to angry letters and phone calls defending others’ choices. But, heh, that’s one of the joys of management! So I am not unsympathetic to the dilemma of Radio 2 bosses. But there are two other points I’d like to make in favour of retaining live overnight output.
The first is: trying out talent. In the days when commercial radio routinely broadcast live overnight it was a great way of letting aspirant broadcasters have a go with a lower risk of them losing ratings in the key advertising daytime periods – indeed, Radio 2’s ‘Jerry’ Vine (then a student at Durham University) did his first shows overnight on Metro Radio towards the end of my time there. Radio 2 needs to be grooming – if one can use that word without unfortunate overtones these days – its next generation of presenters: people who can mix speech and music and be entertaining, relevant, credible and have an individual personality, yet still able to work in a team to produce a coherent ‘station sound.’ This is much more difficult than many imagine; in particular, the ‘gear-changes’ between speech and music, light and serious fare, can jar and sound crass if not handled with great skill – listen to Jeremy Vine for a daily master-class in this; it sounds effortless because it is done so well. The presenters on the current day-time line-up are all in their 50s or 60s. Sooner or later one or more will depart to new challenges or just to retire; or, perish the thought, be unable to continue for other reasons. At the moment, when one or more of the main team are on vacation, the controllers often fill the slots with people from different backgrounds, some of whom are, in my opinion, ill-suited to delivering the particular Radio 2 mix. But there are many working on the BBC’s own local stations – where both Alex Lester and Janice Long cut their broadcasting teeth – used to the mixture of speech and music and well versed in the Corporation’s ways and requirements who would relish the chance to ‘fill in’ on the network – and, I’m sure, for a much lower fee. So why not have a couple of shows a week that come from one or more of the BBC locals, which have the systems to contribute to the networks anyway?
Secondly, as was pointed out in the roundtable, BBC network radio is proposing, in a process called ‘Compete and Compare’, to make available 60% of its output to bids from those outside the Corporation, in the ‘indie’ sector. Apparently, it has been made clear that the main day-time sequences won’t be opened up to this process, so many of the indies were hoping they could have a crack at the overnights. Some of these are also based outside London – so again there is scope for further fulfillment of the BBC’s requirements for greater geographical diversity, as well as providing a much-needed stimulus to the independent sector.
It took the arrival of Independent Local radio (ILR) in 1973 to provide 24-hour broadcasting in this country – including the first round-the-clock news service. (At the time, and for a few years afterwards, Radio 2, which had then the longest broadcasting hours, still closed down between 0200-0500.) The first of the ILR stations was LBC in London, and today that continues to broadcast live through the night – now, through Digital Audio Broadcasting, on a national platform. I’m told Smooth Radio – not available all over the country – reintroduced live overnight broadcasting a couple of years ago. If it’s possible for commercial broadcasters – who have to find every penny through advertising and sponsorship and have no certainty of income or profit – can find the resources to provide live companionship and dialogue with its listeners, then so should the BBC.
This decision should be challenged. Leave Streaming to Spotify and Apple Music. Sequences of music are not ‘radio’. As Alex Lester says in his interview, everyone, whether they listen to Chris Evans in the peak morning sequence, or to ‘the Dark Lord’ over-night are listeners to the BBC, and (if they have a TV or TV-viewable device) are licence-fee payers. One is not more valuable than another and they all expect a service that suits their needs. This change is not the right approach for a public service broadcaster. It feels petty, mean-spirited and tokenistic. We’ve a right to expect better from Auntie.