I don’t know what Helen Thomas thinks she’s doing. The current Head of Radio 2 is not so much making a mark as scribbling over a largely successful blueprint. Taking over in lockdown and realising how much the station and its presenters meant to the millions of people listening should have been enough evidence to suggest that even tinkering with the formula would be enough to rub salt in the wounds. For loyal listeners like myself still bear the scars of the ill-fated decision a few years ago to merge the doyens of radio, Simon Mayo and Jo Whiley, to create a show that no one wanted or asked for, simply to fulfil a gender quota that would have rectified itself anyway, if only they had waited a few months more, as Chris Evans moved to pastures new and was replaced by Zoe Ball in the primetime breakfast slot. This enforced decision, by the then Head, Lewis Carnie, and his predecessor, Bob Shennan, was made all the worse by the fact that neither recognised nor apologised for their mistake. Instead, it was left to Mayo to finally put us all out of our misery, in the face of particularly unwarranted criticism of Whiley, by resigning from his beloved Drivetime slot, Sara Cox admirably picking up the pieces from a saga that could have so easily been avoided if those at the top had just left alone what was unbroken.
With Jo Whiley returned to her preferred evening slot, albeit slightly earlier, in a move that subtly revealed the unrepentant nature of Carnie and Shennan, pushing the specialist music shows to the later time of 9pm, things did seem to settle down. There has always been a bitterness bubbling under the surface though; an unresolved hurt from the Mayo/Whiley saga that has cast a shadow on the long-promoted idea of ‘the Radio 2 family’. There was a time when this rang so true, and was no better expressed than in the highly-acclaimed 2Day back in 2011/12, when the station gathered together all its presenters for a 12-hour showcase of its many varied shows. Back then, it really could do no wrong. One of the reasons behind this popularity, I suspect, was the fact that presenters had been able to ebb and flow of their own accord. When Terry Wogan stepped down from the breakfast show, for example, it was on his own terms. Chris Evans may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but at least his appointment was not enforced at the expense of Sir Tel. Similarly, Evans himself chose to finish of his own accord. Zoe Ball remains a marmite replacement but at least there was no acrimony over Evans’ departure. The difference between then and now is that recent changes have the whiff of a top-down strategy. Is it any wonder then, given what happened last time, that trust between the Radio 2 listeners and its hierarchy has reached a new low?
The catalyst for this most recent crisis of faith in its leadership was the baffling decision to force Paul O’Grady to share his slot with the comedian-turned-presenter Rob Beckett. O’Grady’s show was one of the most beloved on the station, perfectly situated in the Sunday teatime slot, entertaining older listeners whilst being accessible across the board. His partnership with producer Malcolm Prince, responsible for many of the brilliant features which made up the show, was a huge hit; a winning formula honed across its 10+ year history. The old adage, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, did not seem to apply here though. Much like Steve Wright’s removal from the weekday afternoon show, it appears that the hierarchy wished to gently push the old-guard aside in favour of creating a station which is fast resembling Radio 1 from 30 years ago. And whilst one can understand the pretext, it completely misses the reason for Radio 2’s longstanding success. For the point is not that Radio 2 is for a particular demographic, or a particular kind of music lover, or anything else. Instead, Radio 2 is the definition of eclecticism: playing the music of then and now, from every genre, interspersed with talk and conversation, and documenting the best of music history. Yet this identity is slowly being set aside, pushed to the margins, along with many loyal listeners, in favour of a ‘90s nostalgia boom which bosses seem to think will win over younger listeners simply because it happens to be of their time. But for those like me in the 18-35 age bracket, who have grown up listening to Radio 2, they have completely missed the point of why we tuned into the station. And now that notion of family has been diluted still further by the departure of Ken Bruce, whose time came to an abrupt end at the end of last week.
Of course, the decision to leave after 30-odd years was Ken’s alone. I cannot help but feel that it has been hastened though by the way in which some of his colleagues have been treated. Bosses may have been lining up a contract extension for the presenter of one of BBC Radio’s most popular shows, but one cannot help feeling that this decision was out of step somehow with the broader direction of travel. One of the reasons Ken’s show was adored by millions, I’d like to suggest, is because it was one of the last bastions of Radio 2’s core identity. And whilst one could argue that this is retained by the likes of Tony Blackburn and Liza Tarbuck, their location on the outskirts of the schedule points to the fact that this is a fading reality. Radio 2 is changing, and not for the better. Hence the reason for audience dissatisfaction, and why there was such a backlash to the baffling pronouncement that Ken would be leaving a couple of weeks earlier than his contract’s end. This may have been for quite sound reasons, in order to detract from his promotion of Greatest Hits Radio, but to those on the outside listening in, it looked and sounded like spite. Its appearance was that of an offended hierarchy looking to get one over on a well-respected presenter who had told no one of his plans to leave before his shock on-air announcement. As a result, their top-down decision added fuel to an already smouldering fire of discontent that has been waiting to rage again ever since the Whiley/Mayo debacle. The problem is, this time, it comes with irreparable consequence.
It is not that I won’t listen to Radio 2 ever again. I happen to prefer Scott Mills to Steve Wright. I really like Sara Cox. I still tune in to Jeremy Vine when I can at lunchtime. The specialist music shows will always win out over everything else at 9pm. But my commitment to the station, unwavering a few years ago, has now well-and-truly waned. One could argue that this is a result of naturally evolving habits and changes to listening patterns. To some extent, they may be right. But my tuning over to Absolute Radio Country, BBC Radio Wales of a morning, and 606 on 5 Live on a Sunday evening, is predominantly because I have fallen out of love with a station that I thought cared about its listeners. Instead, an erosion of trust has taken place over the last few years, starting with Mayo/Whiley and ending with Bruce, that has resulted in the loss of that sense of family that the station was known for. It is no longer the station I fell in love with, and that makes me sad. I don’t want to become bitter about it though. Just express how I feel about the choices that have been made and the result that they have had on this particular listener, and I’m sure many others too.
Good luck to Helen Thomas. If her approach wins new listeners then I hope, one day, they will experience the same joy and pleasure that I got from Radio 2 for a time. But know this: to market the station on the basis of a simple, single demographic is to underestimate the complexity of their listening experience. Music is far more universal than that.