Lesley Douglas: Radio 2 controller on the rise and rise of Britain's biggest station
Bruce Springsteen fan Lesley Douglas's passion for music is still as strong as when she was a teenager, and it informs all that she does at the helm of Radio 2. She talks to Ian Burrell
Monday 28 November 2005
The head of the world's largest radio station steps down the sumptuous Art Deco staircase at the Park Lane Hotel, in Piccadilly, and her fellow guests are drawn to her like moths to a flame. This is a big music industry bash and - never mind celebrity guests Sharleen Spiteri and Beverly Knight - it is Lesley Douglas, the controller of Radio 2, whom everyone wants to buttonhole.
Inside the mirrored ballroom she networks with the power players of the British music industry, the Tony Wadsworths (EMI) and the Rob Stringers (Sony-BMG). When she is asked how things are going, her reiterated response of "really well, really well" is more than just a platitude. Because, two years into Douglas's tenure, Radio 2, named Station of the Year (again) at this year's Sony awards, has a rock-solid weekly listenership of 13 million and a 16 per cent share of the British audience.
She has just brought in Chris Evans to sit alongside Dermot O'Leary, Jonathan Ross and Mark Radcliffe at the younger end of the schedule, while broadcasting behemoths Terry Wogan (audience eight million) and Steve Wright (Sony gold award winner) are beyond parallel. When she wants to get Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr to present for her, she gets them.
So dominant is Radio 2 on the British airwaves that commercial stations have publicly complained that it has stepped outside the boundaries of its public service remit and into their territory, moving away from Nat King Cole and closer to Coldplay.
Douglas, 42, is both perplexed and irritated at the accusation. "I don't think there's any point answering the claim. We are so different from anything else," she says. "If you look at the range of music we play and - to be boring about it - look at the statistics, the crossover with commercial radio is absolutely minimal."
The amiable Geordie doesn't want a war with the Gcaps, the Emaps and the Virgins of this world, she says. "There's some fantastic commercial radio. I love Xfm, and parts of what Virgin do I think are great. Classic FM has reinvented, or even invented, how you could do popular classical music. It's all fantastic but not what we do."
Douglas is currently in talks with senior figures in the music business with a view to making Radio 2 even more different from the rest of the marketplace. The positioning of Britain's biggest radio station in 2006 will be all about making it the home of the songwriter. This is what Douglas has been aiming for since she took over at the station in 2004, and is why the station will shortly broadcast the former Verve singer Richard Ashcroft, performing with the BBC concert orchestra at the Mermaid Theatre, in London, and will, in January, record a live Ken Bruce session from singer-songwriter James Blunt. It is also why the station is featuring a live session from Stevie Wonder, recorded in front of 200 people at the Abbey Road studios and due to be broadcast next month.
"Virtually everything we do is about songwriting," says Douglas of her strategy. "We are looking at what we do in terms of live music, both what we do and how we do it. We will do that in different ways and in greater depth because I think it sets us apart from everyone."
What Douglas is planning, though she doesn't have the answer just yet, is a branding campaign that really makes a "bigger impact" and gets the message across that Radio 2 is the place to come to hear the great songwriters. In the meantime, she is expanding a network of internet-driven Radio 2 songwriting clubs (based on the modern phenomenon of book clubs).
The Sold on Song feature, in which the story behind classic tracks is explained, is to be developed, with special forthcoming editions on Brian Wilson and Carly Simon. "It's so distinctive and so interesting and isn't the geeky end of music," says Douglas of this approach to radio. "I'm not a music expert. I just love music."
This denial of her musical expertise is far from convincing. Douglas is someone who was drawn by the early-Eighties Mancunian music scene to studying English at the University of Manchester; a Bruce Springsteen fanatic who soon after joining the BBC put her early journalistic ambitions aside in favour of a junior production job in the music department, working on the Gloria Hunniford and David Jacobs shows.
Having worked her way to the top of Radio 2, she has built on the groundwork of her reforming predecessor, Jim Moir, modernising the network without alienating its core listenership, and bringing a succession of younger presenters into the schedule.
Douglas, though humble at every turn, is a social animal who, in spite of having spent a working lifetime at the BBC, knows there is a world outside the corporation. She unenviably grew up in football-obsessed Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a supporter of the rival Sunderland AFC (her father's team), and comes across as someone who doesn't take her friends for granted. Her Radio 2 presenters seem to genuinely like her, accompanying her to gigs and taking her down the pub. With her latest recruit this could be a problem. Chris Evans left Virgin Radio in 2001 after he took sick leave to go on a six-day bender and, by his own recent admission, he will still indulge in the odd nine-hour session. Douglas, a mother of two, says she was never worried by his reputation. "I only ever deal with anyone on the basis of how I find them. All I can say is that from the minute I engaged with him, he has been utterly, utterly professional," she says.
"He has embraced the whole network. He does his shows, he kicked off Children in Need for us, he turned on Blackpool Illuminations. I would never judge someone on the basis of other people's experiences of them, or other people's reported experience of them."
Although Douglas says she plans ahead and obviously keeps an eye out for presenting talent, it is clear that it was the ginger-haired one who approached her and not the other way round. She agreed to a meeting in the office of Evans's agent, Michael Foster.
"From the moment I met him I just thought: 'Yeah, this will work,' " she says. "We chatted and he obviously listens to Radio 2 and knows Terry [Wogan] really, really well and there's a mutual liking. Chris and Jonathan [Ross] also know each other, so it just made sense."
What Douglas likes about Evans is not just that he knows what "works" on radio but that he knows when something is not working - and is prepared to do something about it. "Where I really, really respect him is that if he's doing something on air, a feature that he doesn't think is connecting with the audience, he will say: 'This isn't working, we're not going to do this now' and just drop it. You have to be confident to do that," she says.
Radio 2 is also using Evans and his Saturday afternoon show as a guinea pig to pioneer its involvement in podcasting, where listeners download the shows from the station's website onto their iPods and listen to them when they want. These offerings contain no music, only Evans's chatter. "You can't download the music because of the rights situation, but the speech is all there. The indications and the initial tracking are really positive," says Douglas. "Whatever the tracking says, you just have to use your ears - 'Do I think [Evans's show] is going to work? Yes."
Evans's reputation for being difficult (including during his time at Radio 1) may have been exaggerated, she believes.
She watched him being interviewed by the former Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister at this year's Radio Festival, the industry's annual conference, and says: "It was quite obvious there's massive affection between the two of them."
Douglas has cleverly deployed the likes of Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe to bolster Radio 2's reputation for more edgy music and to cross-promote her other responsibility, the digital station 6 Music.
But the cornerstone of Radio 2 is quite clearly Terry Wogan, who has hosted the breakfast show for more than 33 years. Douglas would be mad to change anything and she knows it.
"He is performing brilliantly. He just dominates Rajar (the official radio industry listening figures). He dominates breakfast, absolutely dominates it," she says, throwing her arms out and pressing down on the first syllable of "dominates".
Douglas often "drops in" to Wogan's studio to watch the master at work while he's on air. "My aim is to keep Terry as happy as I can on Radio 2 and I see no reason to think that he's anything other than that.
"He's developing and changing all the time in terms of the subjects that he covers and the music that he plays," she says, before spelling out her admiration: "The. Man. Is. A. Genius."
Despite his boss's admiration, Wogan broadcasts from one of the most decrepit studios in Broadcasting House, other presenters having moved to newer premises. "This is the breakfast show with over eight million listeners, the biggest in Europe," says the controller, with a note of embarrassment in her voice. "He's still in a very old studio, the environment is dark and dingy, the carpet's got holes in it and he has a terrible chair which he moans about on air."
Her other big star is Jonathan Ross who, Douglas believes, shares with Wogan a talent for identifying the zeitgeist, especially in terms of "what people are talking about and what they are watching".
Ross is often risqué on his television chat show but Douglas particularly likes the family-orientated "warmth" of his radio presentation. "Jonathan so obviously loves his kids and I don't think there's a programme that goes by where he doesn't talk about his family," she says.
With all these men in her A-team, Douglas has been repeatedly asked about the male dominance of her presenting line-up (and indeed about the "blokey" tone of 6 Music). She gives no ground on this, saying that a male presenter as well as a female presenter can attract a mixed audience.
She has a number of talented women presenters in her line-up (Mica Paris, Kirsty Young, Davina McCall, Elaine Page, Sarah Kennedy, for example) but is quite clear on her position. "Suzi Quatro (presenter of Rockin' with Suzi Q) is so energetic in everything she does. She has an authenticity. When she talks about American rock 'n' roll, you know she has lived it. But I couldn't care less whether Suzi Quatro was a woman or a man. She is what she is."
Radio 2 is fast earning a reputation for its ability to persuade Hollywood stars to guest as presenters.
First came Brad Pitt who was talked into hosting a show last year on the cult folkie Nick Drake by producer Dave Barber, a Drake obsessive who had cottoned on to the fact that the film star had played the English artist's music at his wedding to Jennifer Aniston.
Douglas says she quickly saw the value of Barber's idea.
"How do we get attention for it so that more people know about the influence of Nick Drake? If we haven't got attention for it, only the people who already love Nick Drake are going to tune in," she says. "I see part of our mission as being able to explain the importance of people like Nick Drake. I've never seen so many column inches on anything as there were on Brad Pitt. It was everywhere."
After Brad came Johnny Depp. The actor presented Rebel Without A Cause - The James Dean Story in September. Johnny Depp is the "epitome of cool in cinema now", sighs the Radio 2 head. "When you are talking about doing James Dean, you can't get a parallel as great as Johnny Depp."
The Johnny Depp project was brought in to Radio 2 courtesy of Bob Geldof's production company Ten Alps. "They had a relationship with Johnny. I don't think it was directly through Bob," says Douglas.
"The most extraordinary people do radio - because it's very easy and is not about how you look - and passion induces people to do the most extraordinary things. The main thing is to never assume they're going to say no."
And so Robert Downey Jr will tomorrow present the first in a two-part series on Charlie Chaplin called Smile - The Genius of Charlie Chaplin.
"I wanted to do Chaplin, that was my first commission, but it has taken nearly two years to come to fruition," says Douglas. "They've got access to stuff that's not been heard, from a written archive in France."
So does Radio2 want to be known as the station that gets the stars to present for it?
"No, no," says Douglas, instantly and somewhat surprisingly. "What happened this time was that there was just a rush of them. We never just go for big names and I'm just as proud of [producer] Paul Sexton's stuff we did on the Rolling Stones.
"Russell Davies did something on Tommy Dorsey that was brilliant. People talk a lot about Tommy Dorsey, but I feel, having listened to the series, that I know the man and how he did his music in a way I never did before."
She will not, however, go with a project just because of a celebrity involvement. "I hope that we never put this name on that, just because it's a name. I don't sit down and say: 'Who are my favourite actors? Let's get them.' That would be the way to insanity and, actually, the programmes wouldn't be very good - it would be obvious they weren't authentic."
It has been quite a journey for Douglas, whose first experience of music was watching David Essex at Newcastle City Hall, and who, as a teenage girl was nervous at watching the Seventies doo-wop outfit Darts.
"I remember sitting in the front row terrified of the Darts singer Den Hegarty, because all the papers had said that he was the mad man of music and that he would dive into the crowd," she says.Now when she goes to watch her hero Bruce Springsteen, she gets the chance to talk to him after the show. When - for work - she went to the Radio 2-supported South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, she watched Kaiser Chiefs perform an impromptu gig in an alley way.
"I was with Mark Radcliffe and it was one of those afternoons which was just magical. They were so brilliant, it absolutely blew me away. I've seen them loads of times since."
Douglas is by now gushing with excitement. "Don't you think that when I get to go to South by Southwest, with Mark Lamarr, Stuart Maconie, Mark Radcliffe, Bob Harris and Steve Lamacq, such fantastic people..." she trails off. "How privileged is that? That's not a job!"
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