Get your tanks off my lawn

A report published last week claimed that Radios 1 and 2 have an unfair advantage over the private sector and should be sold off. Here, Jenny Abramsky, head of BBC radio, hits back, defending the BBC's public service role - and explaining what makes its stars stay loyal
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The Independent Online

The BBC has no more passionate servant than its director of music and radio, Jenny Abramsky. Critics say she has a "Leninist mindset" immune to the notion that the corporation can ever do wrong. But her colleagues adore her, and her track record since she joined the BBC in 1969 as a "programmes operations assistant" has been of consistent innovation and achievement.

Having edited The World at One and the Today programme, Abramsky moved on to create Radio Five Live and launch BBC News 24. Until recently she was spoken of as the woman most likely to become the BBC's first female director-general. She is a key member of its executive board.

Abramsky will be 60 in October, but she remains vivacious and still has the smile contemporaries say made her instantly noticeable during her student years at the University of East Anglia. Recently, though, it might have been expected to fade because her radio empire is under ferocious attack. Yet her response is a polite but forceful request to the network's critics to remove their tanks from her lawn.

Commercial radio companies have condemned the new BBC charter as a "licence to kill" their stations, and competitors accuse Radios 1 and 2 of stealing their listeners with blatantly commercial tactics. Last week, a report for the European Media Forum, a branch of the independent European Policy Forum, blamed the giant BBC music stations for massive market distortion and called for them to be sold.

Abramsky accuses her critics of trying to reopen debates that were formally resolved during the charter review process. "It has felt like being on trial for the past three years in terms of the accountability that BBC Radio has had to go through," she says. "We have shown every track we have played and dissected everything we do to ensure that our approach is distinctive. Commercial radio does not have to do that."

The EMF report is equally adamant. Asserting that Radios 1 and 2 have "stunted growth" in the radio sector, it says both would prosper in the commercial sector and concludes that selling them for £500m "would rebalance the radio market and level the competitive playing field". Rajar listening figures for the first quarter of 2006 support that view. BBC Radio had a 12.8 per cent lead over independent stations, which attracted just 42.6 per cent of listening hours.

Abramsky is scathing. "It is a myth that the BBC is stifling the market. The truth is that commercial radio has been targeting 15- to 45- year-olds. They have the majority share of 15 to 45s. Commercial radio has had a difficult time because they haven't made the right decisions. There are lots of things they could do. Maybe instead of having very tight play lists, rotating all the time, our approach might be better. That would be a very good thing because part of the role of the public service broadcaster is to lead."

But the privatisation call was not an isolated criticism. It followed the controversy provoked when details of BBC radio presenters' salaries were leaked to a tabloid newspaper. Competitors learned that the BBC pays Terry Wogan £800,000 per year, that Jonathan Ross earns an annual salary of £530,000 for one show per week, and that Radio 1's Chris Moyles makes £630,000. These salaries reinforce commercial radio's accusation that the BBC poaches talent with rewards private stations can't match.

"There have been some quite disingenuous stories that we are inflating the market," says Abramsky. "I'm not going to breach confidentiality but I have had a number of my presenters offered extraordinary salaries by commercial radio, and they have stayed to work for the BBC for considerably less. I would absolutely dispute that we have caused super-inflation."

The Commercial Radio Companies Association, the industry trade body, says Radios 1 and 2 are just masquerading as public service broadcasters. It accuses the BBC of adopting a "reputation-by-night, ratings-by-day strategy" and insists that if the BBC were a commercial entity, its share of the radio market would provoke referral to the Competition Commission. "Any objective external economist is likely to be startled by the scale of the BBC's entertainment radio productions," says Graham Mather, president of the EPF and a member of the Competition Appeal Tribunal. "The picture we see is one of a commercial sector in great disarray and distress."

Abramsky is a BBC lifer with no private sector experience but she emphatically rejects that picture. "Radios 1 and 2 play a very important part in delivering public service programming. They are doing something quite unique in the market and if they weren't there, there would be a very serious loss of support to UK music and UK artists."

Commercial radio despises what Abramsky has done with Radios 1 and 2. She insists they are just doing what the Culture Secretary requires of them. "Public service broadcasting is not just about market failure. Part of it is, and I quote the Secretary of State, to be 'serious about entertaining'." She plans to go on being very serious about having fun for some time yet.

On Music: 'We're doing just what we should be'

There seems to be a different approach to music than to all other forms of art. Music is a very important part of people's lives. It has as much right to real, quality, public service broadcasting services as speech does. There is a danger of a kind of elitism that excludes music, with the exception of classical music. If you talk to somebody like Katie Melua [right], she will say that she sent her CD to Terry Wogan's producer, Paul Waters. He listened to it, thought it was great and played it to Terry. They started playing it and the rest is history. It was exactly what a public service radio station should be doing.

On Presenters: 'They love the freedom the stations offer'

Two-thirds of the songs on Radio 2 are not played on any other radio station. Almost 1,400 different tracks are played weekly - almost twice as many as on any other station. We have to be distinctive in the market. We have to play a public service role. We have got a public who care passionately about music and now have broader tastes. Younger people are not ashamed to listen to their parents' music, and parents are no longer alienated by their children's. That's why a lot of presenters love working on Radios 1 and 2. They're free to introduce people to new music.

On Public Service: 'We do things commercial radio doesn't'

The Voice of the Listener and Viewer and the Churches Media Council were quite passionate about the role of they feel Radios 1 and 2 are playing in areas where they see no evidence of commercial radio. Why does commercial radio not do any religion? Why do they not do any current affairs? Why do they not put on somebody like Jeremy Vine [right]? Our most successful breakfast programme, Terry Wogan [left], has religion in it. Our drive-time programme has business. We are doing news and current affairs with Jeremy Vine [R2] and Newsbeat [R1] in the heart of our daytime schedule. I strongly refute the sugges-tion that we are not public service in daytime.


From Peter to Petronella?

Is it time for Peter McKay to lay down his quill? The Daily Mail's arch-gossip, who has presided over the Ephraim Hardcastle column for nearly 10 years, has in the past mentioned that a decade's run might represent a suitable time to step down. When asked, McKay offers up only Blairish obfuscations on the subject of the handover of his column, but I understand that his editor, Paul Dacre, has been taking soundings about who could possibly replace his inimitable scribe. One name in the frame is that of Petronella Wyatt, a former target of the column and now Ephraim deputy. But surely not half the diarist that McKay is.

Calm down, and carry on spending

Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley summoned her heads of department on Monday morning for a series of meetings over Bert Hardy's Press Gazette interview. In it, the veteran managing editor talked of London's evening paper "living beyond its means", and noted that journalists were overpaid. Wadley asked her lieutenants to calm their staff down. No transcripts are available, but by the time it had filtered down to the newsroom, her message was interpreted as: "Don't worry about what Bert said. It's not policy and he was speaking out of turn. Just carry on as usual." To stress her point, Wadley promoted Robert Mendick to chief reporter, Ross Lydall to City Hall editor and Keith Dovkants to chief features writer.

A whiff of criticism from the stalls

More civil war among the theatre critics? In Friday's Daily Mail, Quentin Letts had a go at a fellow critic for having poor personal hygiene. Letts, reviewing a show in Hampstead, complained that "the man next to me, a foreign theatre critic of the lank variety, had raging BO. Really quite remarkably whiffy he was." Letts is uncharacteristically discreet about the identity of the malodorous chap, but other London theatre critics have also privately noted the problem. Perhaps it's time for a whip-round for some fragrant Parisian deodorant?

Sandra Howard goes 'Stella'

Whatever next? After an extensive de-fluffing exercise that would be the envy of many a sheep-shearer, The Sunday Telegraph's new editor, Patience Wheatcroft, has hired a blonde ex-model as a columnist. Her new signing? Sandra Howard - wife of former Tory leader Michael - who is to begin a column in Stella magazine in a fortnight. Popular Sandra has not so far been thought one of life's natural columnists, so the contents will be awaited with interest.

Please, give that man a mike

It was reported recently that the BBC's best soccer commentator, Barry Davies, would not be commentating on the World Cup. His admirers hoped that such stories would provoke some youth-obsessed TV exec to think again about the great man and offer him a microphone. But sadly no such offer has been forthcoming. "I've done 10 of them, but I'm hardly going this time," says Davies. "I'm doing a few articles and going for the first part and then coming back to cover Wimbledon as I usually do. I didn't really expect to be asked and I've been in America so I don't even know who they've got. So unless John Motson keeled over, I don't think I would be there for the BBC." Shame.

We know where you...

Daily Mirror editor Richard Wallace has issued a stern warning to his hacks about paying dodgy detective agencies for private phone numbers, addresses and bank details. He's told the paper's finest that if they break the law, they will be out of a job. Could this sudden assiduousness in pursuing ethical journalism have anything to do with the recent report about illegal dealing in gen by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas? In Thomas's arsenal is a dossier naming 305 journos who have used such tactics. The commissioner promises to prosecute those "identified in previous investigations who continue to commit these offences". Ouch.