BBC Radio 2 controller Bob Shennan: The man who has listeners coming out of his ears

With two million more people tuning into Radio 2 than when he took the reigns in 2009, Shennan talks about the challenges in maintaining that audience

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The Independent Culture

Bob Shennan freely admits that Radio 2 “has reached heights none of us ever expected to get to”.

In a fragmenting media landscape, the BBC’s biggest radio station has been an aural juggernaut.

Some 15.3 million adults tune in to star presenters such as Chris Evans, Graham Norton and Jeremy Vine every week, accounting for almost a fifth of all radio listening. That’s 2 million more than when Shennan took over as controller in 2009. The enduring challenge for the BBC is to prove that bigger can be better – and that the Radio 2 juggernaut is not thundering ahead at the expense of all else on the road.

We’ve done the tour. Shennan, in black suit, black shirt and with bushy sideburns, roams into the studio to shoot the breeze with Ken Bruce before the presenter breaks off to read on-air dedications for his daily love song.

As we settle into Shennan’s office, decorated with gold discs and various awards, there is more. The drums strike up upstairs as a live set from Black Rivers kicks off on 6 Music, home to another 2 million listeners and also under Shennan’s aegis.

Entertainment, he says, “is at the very heart of the purpose of Radio 2 for sure, but I don’t think it is an impediment to doing other things, I think it’s a way of creating an entry point”.

Five years ago, the BBC Trust concluded the station should “take more creative risks and be more distinctive, particularly in daytime, even though this more-ambitious approach carries with it the risk that audience numbers could fall”.

Next month, Shennan will find out how he has done when the Trust gives its verdict on all of the BBC’s music  radio output.

He rattles off where he believes Radio 2 has distinguished itself: from the kids’ short-story writing contest carried on Evans’s show which drew 120,000 entries, to more folk, country and show tunes and the “incredibly powerful and moving series” of documentaries broadcast by Jeremy Vine in the lead-up to Remembrance Sunday, where mums talked about the music loved by their soldier children lost in battle.

But there is enough for critics to get their teeth into too. Radio 2’s audience is getting older – the average age has edged up to 52 – yet a fifth of Radio 2’s listeners are still younger than its 35-plus remit. With Radio 1’s average listener aged 32 – three years older than the upper edge of its remit – it’s not surprising that commercial rivals feel squeezed.

“Inevitably, some people who are loyal BBC listeners will move from Radio 1 to Radio 2 if they feel Radio 1 is just too young for them and I can’t make those people switch off,” says Shennan.

Could he do more to address the lack of female voices in daytime, where Radio 2 currently fields five male and pale presenters in a row, ending with Simon Mayo in drivetime? Shennan explains he inherited five or six regular female presenters and now he has 12 or 13, including early riser Vanessa Feltz, Sara Cox, Claudia Winkleman and Zoe Ball, who all deputise for the men.

“That is not an accident… so when the time comes for us to select the next daytime presenter I’ll have a much-broader range of talent from whom to choose.”

He seems in no rush, saying the problem is his current line-up keeps breaking audience records.

“I have to take my lead from the listeners,” Shennan says. “They are outstanding broadcasters and the audience loves them. My job is to serve the audience.”

There are different challenges at the edgier 6 Music, once nearly axed, now flying high and staging its own music festival on Tyneside this coming weekend. He is “very comfortable” with the station remaining digital-only, despite some calls for it to swap places with Radio 3, whose audience it has eclipsed.

Shennan listens to Coldplay, Bob Dylan and Elbow – he reveals he texted congratulations to frontman Guy Garvey when his album went to number one – but doesn’t come across as the stage-struck type. His board membership of the Country Music Association takes him annually to Nashville.

Born in Wirral, Cheshire, he was “completely beguiled” by radio when he fell into it late during his student days. Every weekend Shennan volunteered on the sports shows at Hereward Radio in Peterborough and “bombarded them with my interest”. When he graduated they offered him a job.

Sport has sustained much of his career, which saw him join the BBC in 1994, rising to become controller of Radio 5 live for eight years.

In 2008 he took a risk – quitting to join Channel 4, which had plans to get into radio itself. Scuppered by the recession, it never happened.

“I still think it is a great sadness that Channel 4 didn’t get into radio,” he says. “It would have been brilliant for the commercial sector and brilliant for the BBC to have that part of the market involved.”

However, immersing himself in comedy and music outside the BBC came at just the right time, so that when Russell Brand’s “Sachsgate” affair cost his predecessor Lesley Douglas her job, he became a contender.

“If I hadn’t gone to Channel 4, I’m sure I wouldn’t be here now, so for that alone I am enormously grateful.”

Shennan’s ease suggests he has further to go at the corporation, but when the BBC’s top radio job fell free two years ago, it went to Helen Boaden, seeking refuge from the Jimmy Savile scandal at BBC News.

It was a decision “I don’t think you can really quibble with”, he says, and besides, he was handed a bigger mission by the Director-General Lord Hall – to run BBC Music.

The new BBC wants to be defined by genres, not just channels, which has much to do with viewers and listeners tuning into catch-up, digital services that disregard programme schedules.

The first the audience knew about the BBC’s plan to make a bigger impact with its musical output – replicating the success of network-wide news and sport – was the all-star promo of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, featuring Pharrell Williams and Nicola Benedetti.

Shennan sounds a bit like the conductor of an orchestra, aiming “not to dictate what everybody does, but to augment what they do and elevate it”.

“What BBC Music is not seeking to do is trample over the important editorial priorities of all the different services we have got,” he says.

“This is about trying to ensure that all the boats will rise if we get it right.”

His best example is the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, where in the last couple of years it has taken “a joined-up team and collaboration to a level that we have never had before”.

Or the way that Radio 2 concerts are filmed, carried on the red-button service, BBC4 and the iPlayer. But he has to balance that with not weakening the core channels, such as Radio 2, where Shennan dreads the idea of more listeners that listen less.

“With an audience as big as that, the danger is you have more people who are sort of part-time listeners,” he says. “We have to make sure we keep that stickability to Radio 2 in all sorts of ways.”

 

The CV: Bob Shennan

Education: Lancaster Royal Grammar School and then English literature at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Career so far: Joined Hereward Radio in Peterborough in 1987 as a journalist, producer then editor. Moved to the BBC in 1994 as head of sport for Radio 5 live, then head of BBC Sport, and is now the controller of Radio 2, 6 Music and the Asian Network, adding BBC Music last year. Also on the board of Children in Need.

Personal: Married to Joanna. They have two sons, aged 18 and 23, and a daughter, 21.

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