Who are they, these 13 million listeners whose existence is nourished by the cheerful inanity of Wogan, the chipper antiquity of Jimmy Young, the chummy amiability of Stewpot? Well, some of them, as it happens, are people like Frances Line.
A bank-manager's daughter from Croydon, Line has the orderly air of somebody who keeps things in proportion. Now 55, her skin is unlined, her bearing graceful. Though it is some years since she won a gold medal for ballroom- dancing, she moves elegantly. She is quietly witty, hard-working and methodical; she is a list-maker, a natural organiser. Her company is easy, her friendliness irresistible.
Line joined the corporation as a secretary in 1957 with six O-levels and a swimming certificate ("I am an unqualified success"). In her Thirties she married Jim Lloyd, presenter of Folk on Two, a tall, genial, handsome man with whom she seems very happy. He already had two children of whom she is fond, but she neither had nor wanted children of her own, preferring to put all her energies into her job. She became a producer in 1970, head of Radio 2 music in 1985, and finally controller in 1990.
Because she has built the station around her own tastes, she is in no doubt at all that she knows exactly what her audience enjoys and where their sympathies lie. She knows that they like tuneful music, friendly presenters and the kind of comedy that stays well away from the knuckle.
One Saturday morning she was shopping in Safeway, and keeping a beady ear on her station via a Walkman. While politely fending off the old ladies who presume it's a deaf-aid she's wearing - "that's very neat," they say admiringly - she heard Anne Robinson cajole Dilly Keane into singing a rude song. "It contained the word fuck, on a Saturday morning, on Radio 2... I rushed home, earpiece awry," she says. She knew the storm of protest that would be gathering at the switchboard, and that she alone must handle it. She was, as usual, right.
Her listeners are a passionately loyal, articulate, strongly conservative bunch, eager to make contact with the station by whatever means they can, to communicate their every thought. They write, phone, fax and visit. Some quote Petronius to Wogan; others queue, every week, outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, just to be there for Friday Night Is Music Night and add their applause to the airwaves.
Some of the listeners, says Line, are very lonely, and bond so closely with the presenters that the slightest change loosens their moorings. Once she was sent a picture of herself with the eyes gouged out because she'd moved David Jacobs's slot; she showed me the latest of this type, addressed to "Old Boiler" and roundly condemning her for having rotten taste and being bloody useless. Happily, in general her letters and cards are from affectionate and appreciative people like Norm, but she knows for a fact that Radio 2 is the favoured station of Reggie Kray.
And gradually more and more people are coming out and owning up to listening - sane people, without criminal records; ordinary people; even clever people. The Sony underlines this trend. It is vindication of all that she has worked for. It shines a media spotlight on a corner that has largely been ignored as too unsensational for the tabloids, too populist for the heavies.
The light reveals a station with an enormous amount to offer. Frances Line has carefully wooed and won some great presenters, including Sheridan Morley, whose weekend arts programme is of a standard consistently as high as its rivals on R3 and R4, and often higher. When people suggest that it is a naff station, all bland and cuddly, she points proudly to the hard-edged Brian Hayes, another weekend stalwart, to whom she affectionately refers as "the grit in my oyster".
She did not sign Jimmy Young. We pause, peering back through the mists of years and wondering who it was that did, before she declares that it must have been Lord Reith. Yet his programme attracts more listeners than any other in Britain at that time of day, and Young has interviewed every prime minister since 1963, lulling them with his apparent naivety into admitting things that John Humphrys could never extract with the steely pliers of his cross-examination: after his polite savaging of John Major, Young was called the R2 Rottweiler.
Yet Radio 2 still has a significant image problem. Despite impressive coverage of every kind of specialist music and light entertainment, it is, says Line, still seen as the Zimmer-frame of the BBC. She is happy to serve the needs of the elderly and she is, rightly, immensely proud of the Social Action Projects she has set up, but she reckons to lose some 200,000 listeners a year to what she calls Radio Grim Reaper and knows that she must recruit younger replacements.
Access points have been programmed into the schedule, designed to attract "the Beatles generation"; people persuaded by recent campaigns to wake up to Wogan can find their radios tuned into something they never thought they'd enjoy, later in the day.
Line doesn't have much time to crack this last one. I had arrived to interview her a few minutes before the world was due to learn that, after 38 years of unbroken, dedicated service to broadcasting, she was to retire in February. It was an emotional moment, and she wanted to savour it.
Sitting in her office in Western House, a BBC annexe slightly downmarket of Portland Place, deep among the bubble-gum pink breeze-blocks, we sat either side of a crackly portable radio and waited for it to be announced on the Radio 2 news. I suppressed a thought that I was about to hear the voice of Churchill declaring victory, or, more appropriately, Edward VIII abdicating.
It wasn't the first item of news, nor the second. After the fourth, I lost concentration, the way you do when you really want to hear the weather forecast and suddenly they've reached the Outlook for Tomorrow.
Then the announcer began talking tenderly about the cause of death of a Kentish killer-whale, and I noticed that Line was roaring with laughter at the realisation that her own station considered her departure less remarkable than the dubious condition of the heart of a dead aquatic mammal. Sure enough, she merited only one sentence in the bulletin, the very last.Reuse content