'Its a London thing', but sadly for GLR, Londoners are not listening

Failing station plans big changes, but it is not sure what they are.

OVER THE years the cosy London radio backwater which is the BBC's GLR has become a stagnant pool. Now, the lord of the manor is threatening to clean up the pond and restock it. The villagers, though much reduced in number of late, have become jealously protective. This Monday GLR listeners were waving their placards outside Broadcasting House.

OVER THE years the cosy London radio backwater which is the BBC's GLR has become a stagnant pool. Now, the lord of the manor is threatening to clean up the pond and restock it. The villagers, though much reduced in number of late, have become jealously protective. This Monday GLR listeners were waving their placards outside Broadcasting House.

A Tunbridge Wells contingent may well have been among them because the majority of GLR's audience is from outside London. This, in itself, is a problem because the BBC now wants to "refocus the station and make clear that it is for Londoners". This seems entirely reasonable. It is, after all, "The BBC's Station for London". Has been for 11 years.

Jane Mote, BBC Head of Local and Regional Programmes, South East, is the moving force at GLR. A 36-year-old journalist, she's been in this job for more than two years. During that time, the station has lost 100,000 listeners - a quarter of its audience.

In the real world, the reward for this level of performance would be the personal belongings from her office stuffed into a carrier bag and handed to her at the door. But the BBC is different. It has been conducting a review. It has taken a couple of years, during which time the London radio scene has changed. The BBC has finally put its plans before the public, but information about changes at GLR remains scant. Drill down to get more detail and there turns out to be less.

Mote is irritable today. She is tired. She has been an easy target for the small group of vested interests - regular GLR contributors - who have attacked the plans in the press. For most listeners, the main issue is her intention to reduce the ratio of music to speech on the station. It's not a new issue. Getting the ratio of music to speech right has eluded BBC managers as they have responded to falling audience figures.

"There will be less music," says Mote, while insisting that no definite plans have been made. "We want to evolve GLR, so that it really becomes the place where people go for quality speech radio," says Mark Thompson, Director of National and Regional Broadcasting, in the BBC house journal, Ariel.

But when Mote appeared on GLR to answer questions in mid-September, it was remarkable how uniform the listeners were in their comments. They all expressed concerns about any reduction in music.

The problem seems to be the station's definition. GLR aims for an audience of 4.1 million; the number of Londoners within its 25-44 target age group - hardly a niche. This is contested territory and a broadcaster needs to be a little more specific about its objectives.

Talk, according to Mote, defines a station's character better than music. "Unfortunately, at the moment there are times of the day where somebody might switch into the station and not know instantly what it is they are getting. The point is that speech is often the time at which you are most distinctive," she insists. "The difficulty with the station is that we don't have a marketing position and that's what this process aims to resolve."

GLR is itself Matthew Bannister's realigned Radio London. Bannister, brought his cronies to the renamed BBC local station. Under the musical guidance of Trevor Dann, they created a distinctive, highly likeable station. Unfortunately, in terms of listeners, it was a failure, drawing in less than half the audience of its predecessor. Bannister moved on. The BBC rewarded him for his failure at GLR by making him controller of Radio 1. He took most of his pals with him, and GLR was allowed to drift.

"Since then we've grafted a mish-mash of what we think the views are and to be fair I don't think, until the last two years, the BBC has been clear enough about defining what the station is about," concedes Mote.

So what is it about? "It's a London thing," she offers, recalling the marketing slogan.

For daytime listeners, the present GLR is self-obsessed, patronising, grossly self-indulgent. Starting with Robert Elms's self-inflating "Good morning London", the bulk of GLR's daytime programmes is dominated by chat, often featuring discussion on subjects of microinterest. Elms, in particular, voices his assessment of his station (and, by inference, himself) as "very intelligent, very articulate, very hip and wise and a bit sassy and a bit ironic, and all of those things".

Music comes a distant second in daytime, as is underlined not only by the huge gaps between tracks, but also by the trampling which much of it receives. That is not going to change. Apparently music attracts the wrong people. Instead there will be more of what the station calls "intelligent speech". Oddly Elms, its top presenter, is concerned that it might be dumbed down: "The fear is that, just as London is moving forwards into a 20th century [sic] and becoming the kind of city that GLR reflects, that we're going to be going in the opposite direction."

How will Ms Mote judge the success of her changes? She will judge it, she says, on "the difference we make to London itself. I'd like to see things change in London because of this station".

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