Media Matter Nick Thomas
Fifteen years ago and more, when hundreds of budding media moguls were trying to set up their own commercial radio stations, I thought
the BBC was missing out on a peat opportunity. Why not let private concerns buy its local stations outright, and sell them the news service month by month, thereby securing jam tomorrow as well as some much needed jam today? There may have been legal problems which I either can't remember or never grasped in the first place, but the only argument I recall being voiced against this super wheeze at the time was much loftier. Putting BBC local radio in commercial hands would be a betrayal of its listeners, it would be selling out to the forces of philistinism. The idea was an outrage, and terms such as "lowest common denominator" and "community" were bandied by those who wished the Beeb to maintain its regional presence.
I never bought this line. Commercial television at its worst is mindless drivel, and most pernicious when it forces the BBC to compete on the same level. All the networks have to make a conscious effort to resist the LCD tendency in order to fulfil their obligation to the wider public. But radio. particularly local radio, is different. The simple fact is that pictures numb the intelligence, while the act of unaided listening stiinulates the critical faculties, and people will not tolerate on the radio the sort of rubbish they seem quite happy to soak up from the box.
The band of acceptability in the output of a local station is very narrow. It has to be middle-brow in tone, but intelligently so; it has to provide regular, accurate local news and weather reports; it must have magazine programmes and phone-ins that address the interests of the audience; its music must be, broadly speaking, Radio Two. If a station steps outside these boundaries it will find itself broadcasting to a minority of a minority, with no loyalty and no future. Whether it carries advertising or not is really beside the point, for two reasons. Firstly, advertisements for local businesses provide a service in themselves, and secondly, they help to break up programmes that might otherwise become soporific. Indeed the advertising segment is such a useful stylistic device that the BBC stations use it in precisely the same way as their commercial rivals, but to plug their own programmes rather than the merits of a sponsor.
My two main local stations are BBC Radio Oxford and Fox FM, and the gulf between them is wafer-thin compared to that between BBC 2 and Channel 5. Fox is perhaps a little racier, appealing to an audience that at least thinks of itself as younger and more cosmopolitan, but I can listen to both with pleasure. The battle for listeners is really fought on the loyalty generated by particular broadcasters, and, though some of my fellow Oxonians might disagree, I think the BBC has the best in the form of Bill Heine, who does a lunchtime phonein show.
The technique is superb. Heine has a suave yet friendly, and above all distinctive mid-Atlantic voice that has an infectious chuckle permanently lurking just below the surface. He has the great gift of being able to disagree courteously, without resorting to shock-jock abuse, and remains above controversy while managing to sound genuinely interested in people's views. He also has a way of making people think, and thereby raising their remarks above the predictable that's what I mean by "intelligent middle-brow". More, he seems to enjoy the chat, whatever's on the line, and tens of thousands of people have come to regard him as their own, their property, their friend. That's the secret.
Last week I promised to review Son of God, but reckoned without the upset to our printing schedule caused by the Easter holiday. My apologies; it's on the list.