Radio is a funny industry. On the one hand, people tend to ignore it sometimes and forget it’s on but don’t you dare change or anything, or I’ll be annoyed, and although numbers seem to say that less and less (younger) people are listening when a big change happens it’s suddenly big news.
In case you missed it, after a lifetime of service to the BBC, Radio 2 mid-morning host Ken Bruce is leaving for commercial radio, adding another name to the long list of ‘star’ talent to depart Auntie BBC. Of course, social media is alive with theories about what this means and listeners saying they’ll never again, especially if they replace their friend with (insert name here). The truth is some listeners will follow and some won’t and I’d even suspect some will follow and then wake up one morning and instead dutifully retuning at 10am will stay with Radio 2 and whatever comes next. Radio is a habitual medium, we just drift into things and suddenly we’re a Radio 4 listener, or wake up to the same familiar voices.
I’ve been thinking about what this decision and what it might tell us. This is not so much about whatever led to Ken’s decision to go, as it is the wider story. For his part, he says his contract was coming to an end and he felt the time was right for change, and why not? For the past couple of years the BBC has had to be transparent about how much it pays its biggest stars and so we know that Ken was paid between £385,000 and £389,999 for his daily Radio 2 show and Eurovision. In market terms, that’s probably not bad value but if he follows the trend over recent years that’s going to go down and not up and everyone will know. No excuse for not buying your round on a night out (although I am sure he does). This places talent in an awkward situation, they may love what the BBC stands for but it puts them under a political microscope. That’s a pressure on both sides.
As soon as someone on the radio says they’re leaving the next question is who is going to replace. A promotion for someone else into what is the biggest radio show in Europe? Someone from TV? (I hope not), someone who’s just plain old famous? (please no) or maybe another refugee from BBC Radio 1? Older listeners would of course prefer someone of their generation and would resist some of the stars who were on Radio 1 in say, 1990. But, the bad news is that 1990 is 33 years ago and anyone who listened to Radio 1 back then is, like me, in their 40’s or 50’s – prime audience for Radio 2. Of course, commercial radio has longer been frustrated by what seemed like a slow creep downwards appealing to a younger audience, no doubt as it adds competition to some of their brands that have creeped up in age profile over the past decade or so. There are, of course, older listeners who are being left behind these changes, a gap that Boom Radio was created to address. It’s a problem that the BBC is not serving these listeners, but this is a challenge for any radio stations that targets an audience by age. In the 90’s, Radio 1 had this problem. There were a few new faces but across the schedule but there were people who had been there when it opened in 1967. Talented and skilled though they were, was Radio 1 the right place for them? Changes were made and the audience fell, but the age profile fell too and Radio 1 was cool(er) again. It’s a question I often pose to students, do you follow the audience as they age or try to maintain your position – even if at some point you need to take a hit on how many people listen? All of this does bring criticism of ageism from listeners and former Radio 2 stars like Vanessa Feltz. The last set of audience shows a dip for Radio 2, which Karen Brady seemed to take some delight in, saying “It feels like the most short-sighted of decisions – after all, younger people don’t even listen to the radio.” There is some truth in that but as Ken admits himself nothing can stay the same forever. You could keep things the way they are, make the audience you have feel seen and cared for but know that as time goes on you have a less and less of a case to call yourself a public service.
There’s an element here of the BBC typing itself in knots. They could have made Ken Bruce a wonderful offer to stay, kept his big audience and retained his very loyal fanbase. If he needed persuading they could always offer more money? a 3 day week? But of course it can’t and it didn’t. This is our money (if you pay the TV licence) and can the Beeb justify any means necessary to retain talent? Probably not, so they allow for what was a seamless and mutually respectful transition. In steps someone new (and probably cheaper) and thus opens the door for content that is initially less popular but more maybe more public service. If I had to pick one station that delivered the most public service, it would be either 1Xtra or the Asian Network. Sure, Radio’s 3 and 4 offer excellent drama, documentary, and some seriously niche programming but are they reaching audiences that other parts of the BBC don’t? I don’t think they are. This is the line that I feel is being walked here and its a political one. It’s about looking ahead to the future where they need to convince politicians of their vision.
Of course, in places this sense of trying to do the right thing or not upsetting people hasn’t worked. In her stinging MacTaggart Lecture Emily Matliss told of how editors tied themselves in balancing stories because that’s what the BBC had to do, potentially in fear of ‘phone call from Downing Street or a party political press officer. In leaving the BBC Matliss and before her Andrew Marr and the excellent Eddie Mair found their voices in commercial radio. The BBC is often accused of bias but when it gets that from all sides, it suggests that in the main it’s being fair – even if that’s just in policy terms.
In losing a star name the BBC was seen to have lost but I’d argue here that this is part of a self imposed strategy of trimming some costs and demonstrating it’s value as a public service. When the Bake Off went to Channel 4, certain sections of the audience were aghast. How dare they ruin our show? The truth is, the price went up and they walked away. They became more public service like. This might be where we will end up in the next phase of the licence fee, with free-to-air content funded through a national fee and other content behind a paywall. BBC Sounds already holds back some podcasts for logged-in listeners and this could a model for the future; want the new Dr Who now? Sure, it’s another £5 a month or wait a week and it’ll be on BBC1. Pay out big salaries and they get criticism. Make a great show that people love, because you invested in it – more criticism, lose said show to another channel and it’s all doom and so on.
I actually think this will be good for radio. Whoever takes over on Radio 2, will inherit a big audience and will have the chance to do something exciting. Although, probably not at first. They will pick someone familiar and ween the audience onto them. The audience will wobble but probably not as much you might think and when the BBC look at the granular detail that we don’t see, they’ll probably be mostly ok with it. I have a feeling that the new Ken Bruce show of Greatest Hits Radio will have a new Ken hosting it, one freed of BBC rules and given a new lease of life. No more requirements to play new music and a new team around him keen to give him the tools he needs. That looks like a win to me.
I’m conscious I’ve written a fairly long post here, without much data or cross reference to the countless news articles and expert reviews of this, it’s more of a musing. The point I’m making is this is not about the BBC losing talent and purposely upsetting listeners, it’s about a dynamic industry where some decisions are as much about the politics around it as it is the day-to-day machinations of programming