Profile: Keeping radio in step: Peter Baldwin: Gail Counsell talks to the ex-military man behind the local broadcasting auction

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The Independent Online
PETER BALDWIN takes impertinent questions on the chin as a military man should. Too old at 67 to be chief executive of the Radio Authority? Too naive in the ways of the City to deal with the fast commercialising world of local radio? Not a bit of it, as he politely but crisply makes clear.

Everyone agrees he is a decent chap: fair-minded, courteous, Old School, the very model of the modern major general that his adored Gilbert and Sullivan wrote about.

Where his critics and supporters part company is over whether he is sufficiently wily to mud-wrestle with the merchant bankers and media barons who have recently descended on the revitalised world of commercial radio.

He has no experience of business, finance or the City. His first 37 working years were spent in the Army, after signing up at the tender age of 14 years and 11 months as the Second World War was nearing its height.

He reels off his subsequent campaigns as effortlessly as one of Napoleon's generals: the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, quashing insurgents in Borneo, jobs at Staff College, and Nato, all topped off with a major generalship in the Signals Corps.

But at 52, the Army made clear his time was up. Returning to civvy street, he answered an advertisement by the now defunct Independent Broadcasting Authority and passed effortlessly into a second career in radio quangos.

He became the IBA's deputy director of radio - or as he would have it,'chief of staff' to John Thompson, then director of radio. On Thompson's retirement in 1987, he stepped neatly into his shoes. When the Radio Authority was carved out of the IBA by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, Baldwin, by then already past the IBA's retirement age, glided into the job of chief executive.

He was the natural choice of the new authority's chairman, Lord Chalfont (75, former deputy chairman of the IBA, ex-defence correspondent, former foreign office minister, veteran of the Burmese and Malay campaigns and holder of the Military Cross).

By all accounts they make a mutually deferential team (Baldwin outranks Chalfont militarily, Chalfont outranks Baldwin in status, thanks to his peerage and his seat at the top of the authority's boardroom table).

Together they have given the outfit a distinctly military flavour. 'It's full of tall, straight military chaps with clipped upper lips, who make liberal use of military analogies,' observes one regular visitor.

His lack of commercial experience was of less consequence before the arrival of new national radio stations, such as Classic FM, and as larger, more professional groups began to replace the fragmented stations of local radio's early years.

But the scent of serious money soon had the likes of Associated Newspapers and Emap collecting stations as if they were coming into fashion. It was inevitable that such players would eventually find themselves challenging the existing tortuously complex and highly restrictive radio-ownership rules.

When it came it was a corker, a scheme dreamed up by merchant bankers Schroder to allow Emap to breach the permitted maximum on the number of licences that can be held, by putting some of them in a company that would be jointly owned by Schroder and Emap. The company ownership was technically deadlocked. Presto] Emap no longer owned the licences. What few could have guessed beforehand was that the scheme would win the approval of the Radio Authority. Expensive City lawyers are said to have opined that the rules were so widely drafted that the authority had no option but to approve the scheme.

But its previous vocal lobbying for some liberalisation - which looks likely at the end of the year - made it look suspiciously as if this regulator was jumping its own gun.

Even supporters are surprised at the stance. 'In many ways, the ruling is a victory for common sense but it's very out of character for the authority, which has always been a stickler for interpreting things legalistically,' says one.

In any case, battle has now commenced. On Wednesday the High Court will hear a legal challenge by the Guardian newspaper group, which is challenging the authority's verdict.

Baldwin himself has little truck with the claim he is in any way inconvenienced by his narrow background, arguing that the Army gave him both the man- management skills to run the 30- strong staff of the authority efficiently and, as a Signals expert, essential experience of the technical side of communications work.

'A man who had only worked in the City might not have experience of working with staff and engineering experience. I brought to the party two qualities which were in need at that time and I have absorbed the business and financial knowledge,' he says.

He insists his overriding role is to represent the listener. 'Sometimes commercial interests and listeners' interests conflict. If you had whiz-kids who wore red braces and only had as their interests the financial side, the listener might suffer. I hope we bring to the party a sense of balance.'

Many argue his financial acumen is pragmatic and praiseworthy. The Act insists the financial viability of stations is taken into account before a licence is granted. Baldwin is credited with taking a rational approach to the commerciality or otherwise of applications for the 155-odd licences for which the authority is responsible. He guessed correctly, for instance, that a classical music station such as Classic FM could generate sufficient advertising revenues, when many doubted it.

He and Chalfont were also largely responsible for the decision that 'about 6 or 7 barons' was the right maximum concentration for commercial radio, ensuring that the legislation effectively restricts each grouping to a market share of about 15 per cent.

The limit was his attempt to strike a balance between the industry's need to become more commercial and the importance of keeping local radio local. He confesses to feeling 'more than just a twinge when you see some chap who's won a licence with enormous enthusiasm, and then along comes a big fellow who buys it up and because he doesn't like this chap out he goes, and some manager from central office takes it over'.

As a self-confessed 'dinosaur from another era', one of his most delicate responsibilities is responding to listener complaints on taste and decency.

His attitudes can have an old- world ring. 'I do not believe it is necessary to use a swear word to make a point . . . I do not believe it is necessary to see the sex act being enacted (on screen) when in earlier days it was more than sufficient to see some clothes brush a girl's ankle and the bedroom door close.'

But he is no dictator, summoning younger members of the authority into his office to give their opinion: 'That's the reason often we would not uphold a complaint I might otherwise want to uphold.'

He lives emphatically and unhesitatingly for his work. He may show little interest in the popular music and chit-chat that dominates the local airwaves but, nurtured on Army discipline, he thrives on the demands the job places on his energies.

'I have never not wanted to go to work. I cannot remember a day when I dragged my feet to either the Army or the office.'

His tenure at the authority expires at the end of next year; he grimaces at the thought of retirement. Even if it means seeing more of Gail, his wife of 12 years, he insists he will instead find himself other work to keep busy.

If not, though, there is always the 'great cause' of his life - finding a sponsor for the D'Oyly Carte and its dedicated promotion of the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

(Photograph omitted)

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