The radio presenters' nursery

GLR, celebrating its tenth anniversary this week, says it is not concerned with ratings.
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The Independent Culture
There's a white Rolls parked outside 35c Marylebone High Street, in front of GLR 94.9's reception. Does it belong to one of the London station's wealthier guests (take your pick from Bill Wyman, Noel Gallagher or Jeffrey Archer) or to one of its former presenters who've made the big time?

Indeed, the latter option, rather than the proximity of Harley Streetdoctors - the actual truth - seems the most obvious since a list of the station's alumni reads like a veritable Who's Who of broadcasting. Take your pick from Chris Morris, Chris Evans, Danny Baker, Vanessa Feltz, Emma Freud, Jonathan Coleman, Mark Lamarr, Bob Mills, Sean Hughes, Phil Jupitus, Kevin Greening and Fi Glover and they've all cut their teeth at GLR 94.9.

Not bad for what started out in 1988 as Greater London Radio, an experiment set up by Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann. Their original mission: turning around what had been Radio London, the local BBC station, since 1971.

The pair have done pretty well themselves, reshaping Radio One and rising to chief executive of BBC production and director-general in waiting, and head of BBC music entertainment respectively. Grands fromages from small acorns.

Paul Leaper, a producer who joined the original GLR team in 1989 and has come back to the station, recalls: "Trevor and Matthew wanted to move radio forward a bit. Bannister has a keen eye and ear for talent. He brought Danny Baker, Chris Morris, Chris Evans to the station. Evans got Saturday afternoon for 13 weeks while the football was off, and paid pounds 100. He was awful. Lots of shouting matches!" Images of the ginger presenter skateboarding around the station's corridors flash back in his mind. "He was nearly fired for downright cheekiness with a lady on the phone. Now every network is littered with ex-GLR people. Bob Mills was just any old stand-up. Now he's on telly. Same with Lamarr, Jupitus, you name it."

Suzanne Gilfillan, who has made the grade from "lowly researcher" to assistant managing editor at the station remembers that "GLR started as a three-year project, a backlash against the Stock, Aitken and Waterman formulaic stuff of the late Eighties.

"Since then, we've evolved to reflect the multi-cultural make-up of London. We've playlisted many artists like Beth Orton who got picked up down the line by others. We were the first to use comedians as presenters on air. We gave them a platform to show off their talent. And it's now on Radio 2, BBC 2, Channel 4 ... We created a monster."

Gilfillan continues: "When Bannister got rid of the Smashie and Nicey- style DJs at Radio 1 in 1993, he ended up doing what he had pioneered here at GLR. It's very flattering to develop a talent, to nurture it and if they go on to other things, fine. From this Friday, some will be back to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary in style."

Live music sessions flow throughout the station's output. In the legendary GLR basement, studio manager Paul Strudwick is mixing Mojave 3 for the Robert Elms show. He recalls some. "I finally got to do the Buzzcocks right the third time," he beams. "Just as well since they're one of my favourites. Some can be a nightmare though - usually American acts. Matchbox 20 or Afghan Whigs spring to mind but The Band were the worse. They wouldn't even get off the tour bus. Still, we've had great moments like the last appearance in the UK by Crowded House. We invited 50 listeners into the studio and the recordings later surfaced as bonus tracks on CD singles." Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Cornershop have also fronted shows which are the envy of bootleggers the world over.

Robert Elms came in the mid-Nineties and, save for the odd travel-show assignment, hasn't left since. "It's the best job in the world," he enthuses. "At a time where everyone is concerned with ratings, it's important that there's something not chasing every plumber in a white van. GLR allows you to be intelligent, to talk to writers like Richard Ford or to muck about with Ian Dury," says the presenter who is also a regular on Radio 4's Loose Ends. "They're very different beasts. On GLR, we have a very knowledgeable audience. When you're doing Radio 4, you have to be more careful with your cultural references for listeners in Wiltshire!"

Peter Curran concurs. "The best thing is meeting your heroes, it's a civilised form of stalking. They come in of their own volition. Al Pacino did an answering machine message for me: `Hi, this is Al Pacino, Peter Curran is out there!' Charlie Watts was in, we were talking about Exile On Main Street and he said: `I'm just gonna check the cricket scores.' He literally got up and went to the TV screen next door. I put a record on, he came back and said: `Is this live?' I wonder why he was so relaxed!" Cool under pressure, Curran has made a name for himself with his irreverent interviews on the afternoon show. He has fronted a media show on Channel 4 and contributed to the recent run of Edinburgh Nights with Mark Lamarr.

The current managing editor, Steve Panton, stresses: "GLR extends the choice of the listener. But we're nothing like the other 40 BBC local radio stations. The majority have older listeners. We reflect the attitudes of 25- to 45-year-old Londoners. Word of mouth plays a crucial role in GLR's profile," adds Panton. "Two years ago, we had a few ads in Time Out and the national press. Paul Weller, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin and Neneh Cherry all gave us quotes without prompting."

This is more proof of the station's standing and sphere of influence.

Charlie Gillett, a veteran of the airwaves (in the Seventies, his Honky Tonk show on BBC Radio London unveiled Dire Straits and he has worked at Capital before gracing GLR on Saturday nights), is well placed to assess the contribution GLR has made. "It's a perfect atmosphere for a maverick like myself. It feels like my natural home. The radio ping-pong sessions (the guest picks a record, Charlie returns the serve) with Dr John and Nick Hornby were magical! It ought to exist on a wider scale," he says.

Digital and technical considerations aside (funk supremo Norman Jay does broadcast his Sunday evening show on the Internet), Time Out's radio editor Stephen Armstrong, also a GLR contributor, is not so sure. "It has the feel of a Hal Hartley radio station. The most important function it serves is the creation of future broadcasters. Its history has been very impressive in that respect. When Bannister was there, they certainly felt they were broadcasting on the same level as Radio 1 or 2. But I don't think it could expand the way Kiss FM has done," he says. "The sound of London is Capital. GLR is the BBC's best-kept secret. Sometimes, I really think it's reaching all the people it's going to reach, the youthful middle-class media graduates [400,000 listeners a week]. I suspect they're the same clique who religiously watch Have I Got News For You?"

Still, with Capital's stranglehold over XFM, the blandness of Virgin, Melody and Heart and Andy Parfitt's constant reshuffling of the smutty presenting pack at Radio 1, GLR's claim that, 10 years on, it's "still London's true alternative" is a valid one. Directly or indirectly, whether we realise it or not, GLR has affected British broadcasting in a major way. Quite a feat for a local station costing 2.6p per listener per hour.