BBC Radio: Time for a Radical Rethink
The demise of Brian Kay’s Light Programme has once again focussed attention on the sorry state of Light Music broadcasting in Britain. We pay the piper – it is now time that we called the tune, argues David Ades.
BBC RADIO : TIME FOR A RADICAL RETHINK
Early last November rumours started circulating that BBC Radio 3 would be axing Brian Kay’s Light Programme in February. This is the only national programme which Light Music admirers can rely upon to let them hear recordings of the kind of music they enjoy, so the thought that it was to disappear from the schedules filled many of us with alarm.
Letters, telephone calls and e-mails started to reach me even before I had alerted members as to what might happen through our website, and it was clear that you were all concerned at the news. I say ‘might’ deliberately, because for many weeks the BBC fended off letters of complaint saying that a final decision had not been taken.
Of course, this was far from the truth. Having already decided on a big reorganisation of the afternoon schedules it would be naïve to expect the Controller of Radio 3 to make a U-turn and bow to public pressure. Such things don’t happen at the BBC.
The national press quickly picked up on the story. Paul Donovan in the Sunday Times urged readers to complain to Michael Grade about Brian Kay’s departure. Roger Wright (Radio 3 Controller) told The Guardian that concerts lasting from 2.00 to 5.00pm introduced by ‘consistent voices’ would fill the time vacated by the programmes being cancelled – presumably this means that money would be saved replacing presenters with staff announcers. Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph said that she loved Brian Kay’s programme and would miss it.
Our last London meeting was held shortly after the news had broken, and by then a number of members had asked us to organise a petition against the decision to end Brian Kay’s show. This was duly signed by most people present, and forwarded to the BBC; it was never even acknowledged.
Just as the groundswell of anger was steadily building the BBC’s boss Michael Grade defected to ITV, leaving the Corporation with other matters to contend with. A separate letter I had sent to Michael Grade a few days previously (in my private capacity) made the point that many of us have grown up enjoying light music provided on the old Home Service and Light Programme which is now almost completely ignored by today’s programme makers. Millions of pensioners find little to interest them on the radio, and turn to their CDs for their musical entertainment. Radio 2 is hailed as a great success, yet it is merely a carbon copy of countless commercial stations around the country. I further suggested that present Radio 1 and Radio 2 should be merged, and that a completely new Radio 2 should be aimed at over 55s.
No one of importance would ever have seen the letter. The reply from BBC Information in Glasgow merely said that it noted my comments and that it appreciated feedback from listeners.
Other RFS members were also not slow in writing to the BBC. Alan Bunting (a retired BBC employee) told Michael Grade that he was very disappointed at losing the 4.00pm programmes on Radio 3, and bemoaned the fact that Radio 2 had completely deserted the over-55s.
James Cahall e-mailed the BBC from the USA saying that one hour per week devoted to light music out of total broadcasting time of 168 hours was hardly greedy. James also emphasised how many people overseas listen via the internet – something that the BBC is unable to measure.
In a separate letter to me as secretary of the RFS, Roger Wright admitted that "Brian Kay's Light Programme has been a splendid part of our programming but we are responding to other listeners who want to hear more classical music, rather than a dedicated light music programme. I realise, frustratingly, that pleasing one group of listeners potentially disturbs others. There will still be some light music included in our other programmes but not a dedicated focus as in Brian Kay’s Light Programme." Personally I think that very few of us will want to endure the majority of Radio 3’s usual output in the hope of occasionally hearing a piece of light music.
David Daniels began his letter to Roger Wright with the words: "what the hell is happening at the BBC? I cannot believe that practically the only programme on the national network devoted to quality light music is to be axed. Once upon a time this material formed the largest part of the BBC’s output, indeed many pieces of light orchestral music formed the top selling recordings in the 50s and 60s and the generation who bought these still enjoy it given the chance." David’s letter went on to denigrate two particular "complete morons" who appear on Radio 2, and ended by saying that the BBC has a duty to serve the nation as a whole, not just the under 50s. This letter prompted the standard response from the BBC in Glasgow – in other words, no one cares what the audience thinks or wants.
Steve Fish also wrote in similar terms. He received the usual BBC reply, but in his case from the Managing Editor of Radio 3 rather than the ‘anonymous’ BBC Information. One suspects that there is a standard letter on a BBC computer which can be readily accessed to deal with complaints from the public.
Which leads us on to the important question: what can be done to persuade the BBC to respect the musical preferences of millions of potential listeners, and reconsider the structure of its national radio stations?
First of all let’s consider the shortcomings and the problems from the point of view of the licence payers.
1 BBC Radio does not fully reflect the wishes of the population when it comes to the music played. There is too much pop and plenty of classical music, with all kinds of ethnic preferences receiving attention. But over 55s are almost totally ignored.
2 There are too many radio stations playing the same kind of pop music that broadcasters admit is aimed at the 25-35 year old audience. What they seem unable to grasp is that more of these people are at work during the daytime, leaving the vast majority of the available audience aged over 55.
3 Britain has never had more radio stations, yet we are only too aware that ‘more’ means simply more of the same – not a wider choice (just like television, but let’s not get on to that!). Next time you take a long car journey press the ‘search’ button on your car radio. How many stations will it pick up all sounding the same?
4 BBC Local radio stations have a few interesting programmes, but these seem to be under threat from trendy young station controllers. A lot of presenters seem to think they are auditioning for Radio 1 most of the time, playing music which is unsuited to the kind of people who might otherwise enjoy listening to a magazine-type programme concentrating on local news and events.
5 Radio 2 is generally regarded by most RFS members as a great disappointment 90% of the time, and judging by comments in other music magazines we are not alone in our views. The BBC maintains that it is the nation’s most popular station with the biggest audience, yet this is only because it broadcasts over the entire country. Within radio circles it is known (but not admitted in public) that in cities and large towns where there is strong competition from a local commercial station, Radio 2 does not win the battle for listeners.
Britain badly needs a national radio station that can be enjoyed by people over 55 – and that means around 20 million of us! Presenters should be freed of the restrictions imposed by the wretched playlists (these are the recordings placed on computer from which programme makers have to choose) and be encouraged to share their knowledge and enthusiasms with their audience. Of course, it does still occasionally happen today (Russell Davies and Malcolm Laycock are two prime examples) but one wonders how a new generation of Alan Dells is ever going to surface amidst the mire of mediocrity that suffocates and stifles any hint of quality among younger presenters.
And the up and coming presenters have to be made to realise that they should be choosing and playing music to suit their audience, not simply spin their own particular favourites. The culture within the BBC must also change. It must be a brave person in Broadcasting House who would admit to enjoying Mantovani, and Bill Cotton jnr summed up the cloistered BBC mentality in a recent excellent TV documentary on Vera Lynn. Back in the early days of BBC 2, Bill decided that they should present a major series of programmes starring Vera, and he asked his best music producer to be in charge. His response was: "what have I done wrong?"
If the BBC decided today to give 20 million listeners what they wanted, and turn Radio 2 into a station playing quality popular vocal and light music, interspersed with intelligent spoken word programmes, one can imagine the problem in finding a Controller who would be willing to stand up to the snide remarks of fellow broadcasters and executives. Perhaps the listening figures would eventually silence the critics.
Of course one must acknowledge that the BBC does have its own problems. Although it is supposed to be free of any political interference, it is the politicians who have the last say regarding the level of the licence fee. If the BBC does not have a large audience some politicians (usually those with small majorities) are going to get their names in the press by complaining that the BBC does not deserve the money we all give it.
But the BBC is a public service broadcaster – something that its critics (and even some of its own staff) seem to fail to appreciate. We pay our licence fee so that the BBC can broadcast programmes that commercial broadcasters will avoid because advertisers dislike them. We do not pay our licence fee so that the BBC can duplicate the kind of programmes readily available elsewhere, which is why Radio 2 must undergo a serious rethink.
Which brings us back to the reason for this article: the termination of Brian Kay’s Light Programme. The Controller of BBC Radio 3 does not deserve to be made a scapegoat over this matter. It is his responsibility to keep his schedule looking fresh, and it does appear that the classical lobbyists have been putting pressure on him. If we are honest we have to say that Brian Kay should have been on Radio 2, along with the film, show and jazz programmes that are also being axed from Radio 3. Of course, we are very sorry that Brian’s programme has ended, but we should be grateful that Roger Wright commissioned it over five years ago. It was originally broadcast at an ideal time on Sunday afternoons and then shifted to Thursdays when its audience must have suffered. However the availability of the programme for seven days on the internet helped to compensate, and we know that many RFS members outside Britain have listened in this way.
Time will tell whether Radio 3 has lost listeners as a result, and it may be pertinent to mention that the only time in the week when Classic FM experiences a noticeable dip in its audience is on Friday evenings while "Friday Night Is Music Night" is on Radio 2. Someone still enjoys light music.
What of the future? Clearly we cannot sit back and admit defeat. The time has surely come when the BBC must be put under pressure to introduce more enjoyable music on Radio 2, especially during the daytime. If you share this opinion, please write to the BBC and the national press. It is probably a waste of time to write to the Controller of Radio 2, who will be under pressure from above to keep the status quo. So your comments would be better addressed to the new Chairman (when announced) or the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson. It seems that a new Trust has taken over from the former Governors, so the members should also be made aware of your feelings. However one recent letter from the BBC stated that it is the Executive Board which is responsible for implementation of strategy and for the BBC’s day-to-day operations and editorial decisions, so maybe the Chair of that committee should be approached (at BBC, Broadcasting House, London, W1A 1AA).
Your own comments will also be welcome for publication in our next issue.
David Ades - from ‘Journal Into Melody’ March 2007.