Radio 2 is now beyond my Ken

What used to work, and what listeners enjoyed, is no longer the most important consideration for the decision-makers in Radio

On Radio

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The show, which goes out at 9.30 on weekday mornings, is the most popular in the kingdom: nine million people tune in. The host’s reputation, established over thirty-seven years, is sky-high: he is a star of the wireless. Yet Ken Bruce is packing his bags. Thanks for everything, Radio 2, but Greatest Hits Radio now makes a tighter fit for me and my listeners.

It’s another bruising reverse for the BBC high command, whose contempt for other ranks becomes more evident by the quarter. Bruce is ideally suited to the mid-morning shift. He has an excellent voice, a kindly manner, and in PopMaster, the daily quiz, a much-loved hit. But in April the Glaswegian will be in the chair no longer.

Those shows were of their time, and that time has passed

This latest departure by a well-known name lays bare the culture clash. What used to work, and what listeners enjoyed, is no longer the most important consideration for the decision-makers, who are obsessed with snaring the forty-somethings easing into the second act of their adult lives.

Nobody is suggesting that Radio 2 restores Waggoners’ Walk, whose jaunty theme tune was last aired in 1980. Nor are there any requests to bring back somebody like Charlie Chester, whose Sunday Soapbox laboured arthritically until 1996.

Those shows were of their time, and that time has passed. For teenagers growing up in the grand days of pop music, Radio 2 resembled Dad’s weekend clothes: casual sweater, burgundy slacks, and, with a click of the fingers, it’s Perry Como! However, in a contest between Como and the slops served up by Angela Griffin on Sunday nights in the new dispensation, the crooner would win in straight sets.

Rylan Clark Neal vox pop interviews and portraits

Griffin’s show takes the biscuit, and it’s a bona fide Garibaldi. According to the PR wallahs, who rarely do things by halves, her show offers “blissed-out brilliance”. The process of “unwinding” sweeps listeners along on “a mood-boosting musical journey across genres and decades”. Blissed-out, mood-boosting, journey. It’s popular entertainment as therapy, without the consultant’s fee. Healing, sharing, and reaching out cannot be far behind.

This is not the language of middle of the road broadcasters. It is the bone-headed jargon of the media class, anchored to the seabed by a mission to educate. Picture them, licking plates of diced carrot and apricot coulis in Mortimer Street as they go about their work. What fun to baffle loyal listeners with hours of perfumed manure!

How did we get from David Jacobs, the king of Sunday nights, to Griffin’s blissed-out banalities? With undying commitment, that’s how. This offensive was planned with great deliberation. Zoe Ball! Sarah Cox! Claudia Winkleman! A glottal-stopping curiosity called Rylan Clark, whose career was launched by a valiant fifth place on a talent show.

It’s not just Terry Wogan and John Dunn that listeners miss; nor Jimmy Young and Brian Matthew, whose Round Midnight offered the clearest example of what a middlebrow arts programme can sound like when prepared with affection. Those superb broadcasters are missed, but their absence doesn’t tell the whole story.

The other people, the specialists, made Radio 2 worth listening to: Harry Mortimer on brass bands, Mike Harding on folk, Malcolm Laycock on big bands, Paul Jones on the Blues, and the incomparable Benny Green on the American Songbook. Even Americans acknowledged that Green knew more about that subject than anybody. Radio 2 made room for him, and the world was a better place.

What fun to baffle loyal listeners with hours of perfumed manure!

When Jacobs died in 2013, Don Black took over his show, and did it jolly well for eight years. His love for the songbook matched Green’s, and Sunday nights are made for Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald. That is the proper way to “wind down”, cocking an ear to the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins. “Our kind of music,” Jacobs called it in his courtly welcome, and welcome is the word. It was a formality, observed each Sunday at three minutes past 11 to his admirers’ delight. Those four words closed the week, and listeners tookto their beds in a state of grace.

With a few exceptions, like Paul Gambaccini, Radio 2 no longer welcomes people. It badgers them. The tone is rough and ready, as though presenters want to tap into the vexatious spirit of the world outside the studio. Replacing Wogan the painter of words with the show-off Chris Evans opened the gates. Now, it seems, they will take anybody. As Bruce departs, a cheeky new bug arrives, a Welsh weatherman whose gimmick is an undiluted campness. Golly gosh, how daring.

The response to Bruce’s going revealed how much his audience will miss him, and it seems certain that many thousands will follow the piper to his new home, where Simon Mayo, another Radio 2 man, has already planted his flag. You can’t blame them for taking the road less travelled. Mayday, Mayday, is there anybody there?

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