Is 'cool' Radio 2 now too hot for its own good?

Critics say it's not the station's job to promote the Scissor Sisters
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The Independent Online

BBC Radio 2 is cool. Credibility has replaced cosiness on the network that boasts middle-youth icons Jeremy Vine, Chris Evans and foppish stand-up comedian Russell Brand as presenters.

The revolution was confirmed in October when Radio 2 signed the high priest of hip, Bob Dylan. Starting on 23 December, his Theme Time Radio Hour will bring Dylan's playlists to UK audiences for the first time. It will mark a fitting climax to six years in which Radio 2 has left competition in its wake, establishing itself as Britain's premier radio station, with a regular audience of more than 13 million listeners and an unparalleled Rajar share of 15.7 per cent.

One man has steered the music policy at the heart of this creative transformation. Colin Martin, Radio 2's executive producer of music, chairs the all-powerful playlist committee that decides each week which new releases will be added to the output. Inclusion on the A list (tracks receiving about 20 plays per week) can make a band. Stars that have benefited include the Georgian jazz/blues singer Katie Melua, Fife songstress KT Tunstall, James Blunt, Norah Jones and New York glam rock outfit the Scissor Sisters.

"Prior to Colin Martin, Radio 2 had an esoteric and shambolic music policy," says the radio industry consultant Paul Robinson, a former head of BBC network radio strategy. "He has made it coherent, given it real shape and focus and really younged it down."

But now Martin, the former drummer in the 1960s blues and rock band the Artwoods, has announced his retirement and the biggest job in music radio is up for grabs. Outside the BBC, radio industry leaders pray it will go to someone less ruthlessly determined to dominate the airwaves.

"I would like to see him replaced by someone who is entirely focused on delivering the BBC's public-service purposes," says Lisa Kerr, of the commercial radio companies body the RadioCentre. "Radio 2 performs very poorly against its public-purpose objectives. It has a format freedom that is totally incompatible with what commercial radio companies are allowed to do."

Analysis from the RadioCentre reveals that Martin's years in charge of Radio 2 coincide with a 40 per cent increase in listening by commercial radio's key demographic target group of 15- to 34-year-olds. The average number of hours they tune in to the BBC station has gone up by a dramatic 53 per cent.

"Once you commit to a strategy that is specifically designed to drive market share and pursue a younger audience, you are targeting commercial radio's heartland, whether you admit it or not," says Steve Orchard, operations director of GCap Media. "Colin Martin has been a very effective director of music, but why is the BBC pursuing market share at all? Its job is to fill niches the commercial sector cannot or will not fill."

Ms Kerr says: "If you give tens of millions of pounds of public money to a national FM radio station, it inevitably plays a role in promoting new talent. But the truth is there are loads of places where you can hear Boyzone or the Scissor Sisters. We were very disappointed that the Government did not take a much more critical view of Radio 2 during the charter review process."

"Some of commercial radio's loss to Radio 2 is the commercial sector's own fault," says Mr Robinson. "They have not been at their creative best in recent years. But the problem is real because research proves that once someone becomes a Radio 2 listener they do not want to leave. Commercial stations find it almost impossible to pull them back out of the pot."

That makes Radio 2 a dangerous enemy for commercial radio stations. "The BBC is being pushed on to the back foot," says Professor Steven Barnett of Westminster University. "Radio 2 is getting in the way of the profits of a lot of companies. All eyes will be on the service licence the BBC Trust draws up for it. I suspect it may have to withdraw a bit from popular music in favour of news, documentary and talk."

By the time Colin Martin hangs up his headphones in March it may be clear that is the price the BBC will pay for his formidable ability to predict musical taste.