The week in radio

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The Independent Culture
AT 11.10AM on Thursday, Robert Elms (BBC GLR, Mon-Fri, 10am- 1pm) was playing Graham Parker and the Rumour's "Hey Lord, Don't Ask Me Questions". "After this," said Elms as the record faded, "we'll be talking about statues and the unveiling of a new one in London." The travel news then kicked in to bring us details of gridlock in Hammersmith. Elms followed it with some Seventies funk record (style guru he may be, but Robert nevertheless retains a fondness for white-socks music).

The statues discussion was surprisingly informative and entertaining. We moved next to a London gig guide, a Willie Nelson number, a Youssou N'dour record and a live session by Jebloy Nichols. (No, I hadn't either, but he turned out to be an engaging acoustic soul strummer from south London.)

In other words, it was just another day on BBC Greater London Radio - though the inclusion of Orange Juice's "Rip It Up And Start Again" may have been a coded message for listeners.

GLR's faithful fans are livid about proposed changes to the station. Or, to put it in the words of Jane Mote, the head of regional and local programmes, London and the South East, the Corporation's plans "to refocus BBC GLR to reflect and complement the new [London] television service, offering increased interactivity".

Even after a half-hour phone conversation with Ms Mote and repeated rewinds through her appearance on Elms's programme last Friday, in which she took calls from concerned listeners, I'm still no clearer as to what this means. And neither are the station's other listeners. Fiercely loyal and devoted though they are to GLR's eclectic and intelligent output, Ms Mote contends there simply aren't enough of them.

She may have a point, if not an unrealistic expectation that all Londoners can be tempted to listen to one station. According to the latest Radio Joint Audience Research figures, GLR pulls in only 3 per cent of London's listeners. "It's going down," says Ms Mote. "If we carry on like this we'll be extinct."

Not if Ben in Shepherd's Bush has anything to do with it. Ben was dissatisfied with what he called Ms Mote's "advertising and PR speak", which did nothing to allay his chief anxiety - and that of most of those rushing to the barricades - that the review intends to turn GLR into a speech-based station - more chat and fewer tunes. Ms Mote justified this proposed shift by claiming that "when the music is playing it could be any station".

Ben pointed out this is not true: "We have a radio station which plays music that no other station plays." Mike in Wandsworth called to say that the idiosyncratic music policy applied not just to GLR's excellent specialist shows - among them Charlie Gillett's Saturday night rootsiness, Smokey Joe's soca and calypso hour and Gerry Lyseight's global music shindig - but the daytime programmes as well. This is obvious to anyone who has tuned in more than once. But not to the regional boss.

"A large amount of the music isn't distinctive," she tells me. (We are both on 94.9FM, are we Jane?) "You don't often know what's coming next." Hurrah to that, say GLR fans who fear that the nicely wonky daytime programmes will soon have to play the same Simply Red tracks heard on all other London stations. Elms's cheeky-chappie mix of what the Radio 2 johnnies used to style as "a lively blend of music and chat" could only be on GLR. And it comes as close to a definition of the station's identity - grown-up, intelligent, curious, friendly, irreverent - as you will find.

"That GLR is eclectic, eccentric and unpredictable is a strength but also a weakness," says Ms Mote. "It can come over as erratic and chaotic and can be confusing for new listeners." Not a single caller to the 75- minute phone-in agreed. No one supported her drive to "create a new brand for and about London". In fact, most seemed to feel that they have that already in GLR. Oddly, so does Jane Mote: "I think GLR is the nearest we've got to an expression of modern London," she told Michelle in Willesden.

So why not just leave it alone? "We never have left it alone," she says. "I want to build on its strengths. I want a GLR that's an exciting, passionate listen that's distinctive for London." But there's a catch: "You have to be predictable about being unpredictable," she adds, unpredictably. Now she's got me.

She also feels GLR should get out more. "We need to be at the Notting Hill Carnival," she told Time Out. (GLR has had a live presence at the carnival for at least the past five years). Of course, we've been through this one before. Back in 1993 it was decreed that GLR should cut down on its music output by introducing what were called, in Birtspeak, "speech shoulders". This meant, for example, no records in the breakfast show. It didn't work. Now Jane Mote's review is calling again for less music while "offering you, the listener, the opportunity to discuss what's important to you". In other words, more phone-ins.

"The problem," says a former GLR staffer, "is that managers will insist on managing."

"Those on the up feel the need to tinker and poke," says another. "Especially those making a name for themselves in the BBC regions."

The Save GLR campaign is holding a public meeting in the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1 on 5 October at 7.30pm.

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