RADIO / People like you should try Radio 2

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THERE WAS this poor wretched fellow who couldn't sleep. He was - are you concentrating? - an insomniac, dyslexic atheist. He kept wondering if there just might be a dog. That is your classic Terry Wogan joke. He gets dozens like that, sent to him by devoted fans to fill in the cracks on Wake Up to Wogan (R2). They come thick, sometimes very thick, and fast. In an average quarter of an hour, however glumly you awake, you always find yourself sniggering at least once. He has the great gift of making you feel he might suddenly give up the whole business and go home: it would be terrible to miss that moment. 'What are you on?' asks his straight-man, ostensibly there to read the traffic news. 'I'm on day-release,' comes Wogan's swift reply, 'to repay my debt to society.' For my money, he's in credit.

Sometimes Wogan's audience gets stuffy and wounded by his ceaseless frivolity. One of his pleasures is to send up the trails for later programmes. He couldn't resist it when Jimmy Young, that worthy old campaigner, announced that he would be doing a programme on Alzheimer's disease. 'That was um . . . um . . .' says Terry inevitably, adding in desperation: 'Now look, that was a joke, OK?' He knows his listeners: they are the 50-pluses who form the bulk of Radio 2's audience. Alzheimer's is a little too close to them for comfort. If he reads a letter from a youngster, he's likely to tell the youngster to go away because he doesn't fit the audience profile. More suitable was a card from someone in a nursing-home. 'I'm glad to be talking to you,' says Terry respectfully, 'and to anyone else in hospital, or in a hospice, or anywhere where you can't manage to turn me off.'

But the more you listen to Radio 2, the more you come to realise that it's not quite what you thought it was. Sometimes, sure, the music is the kind of rubbish you could bear only if you had something awful to do, like stripping stubborn old wallpaper. But the station can also put out the Young Musician competition, or four hours of live Jose Carreras. And it is the home of the weekend Arts Programme, one of the best to be found anywhere - a serious rival to Radio 4's Kaleidoscope.

One Saturday last month it began: 'I was standing alone at a street corner, as quiet as quiet could be, when a great big ugly man came up and tied his horse to me.' Off we went on a profile of Bea Lillie, a gem of a performer whose comic songs provided the perfect punctuation for Sheridan Morley's chat with her biographer.

Morley is the regular Saturday presenter of this hour of arts news. He seems able to display an interest in every branch of the arts, from pop concerts to grand opera to Broadway theatre to street poets. He is genial, enthusiastic and hugely knowledgeable, the perfect companion for a late-night drive on a wet motorway.

Also surprising is the fact that Radio 2 is a social worker. Campaigns to improve our fitness, to support Children in Need, to increase Aids awareness and to reduce unemployment have all featured in the last few months. Heaven help any flabby old layabouts who thought they could relax. This week Man Matters concentrated on men's health, with Brian Hayes talking to Bob Champion and Gloria Hunniford to Michael Bentine about how they discovered and coped with testicular and prostate cancer respectively. Their message was that men should stop thinking themselves invincible and pay attention to their bits and pieces. Both guests were impressive in their positive attitudes to the disease, but Champion would have been dead by now had he not been canoodling with a lady vet who discovered his problem and sent him hot-foot to hospital.

Radio 2 attracts over 9 million listeners each week, but might lose a few with its latest venture. It is hard to imagine why anyone should have thought Celebrity Gossip a good idea. Four tedious, conceited 'outstanding personalities' were asked to find lateral links between famous names. The person linking Wayne Sleep and Prince Philip was Michael Reagan, but I still don't understand why, though somebody in the audience did.

Of the latest rash of quiz shows, this is the most irritating. Nicholas Parsons is the chairman. He is so unspeakably dreadful, you can't avoid the suspicion that he has simply been set up to be mocked and thus to provoke some laughter, even if it is the easy, cruel kind that offers relief to the poor souls dragged into the studio to listen. Few panellists on his Just a Minute (R4) could ever survive an episode without attacking him and, in the first of this new session in the stocks, the 'personalities' rounded on him again. Astoundingly, he seems to enjoy it. I didn't.

More fun was Barbara Windsor, with 15 minutes of saucy postcards from the end of the pier. Fancy a Bit is the least politically correct series you can imagine - which adds a new kind of naughtiness to the dear old jokes she turns out. 'Last night I got a bottle of whisky for my wife,' she announced, before chortling fruitily as she delivered the punch line: 'What a wonderful swap.' You'd never hear that on Radio 4.