Looking after number two
Lesley Douglas has no plans to make Radio 2 more young and trendy - in fact, her top priority is to broadcast more musicals, she tells Ian Burrell
Tuesday 29 June 2004
Lesley Douglas is sitting in her alternative office; a 15th-storey bar that offers panoramic views across the rooftops of Marylebone, where the controller of Britain's most popular radio station is accustomed to being served peppermint tea by a head barman whom she knows as Ferdy.
Planted on a nearby sofa is the footballer Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne, who has just come across to say hello. A slightly bemused Douglas later confides that she has never met Gazza before, but perhaps he was deceived by the sound of her Geordie accent.
Fourteen years after arriving at Radio 2, Douglas, 40, has risen from being the lowliest of production assistants to the big boss of the station she grew up listening to. She is still pinching herself. "I work with Terry Wogan, do you know what I mean? Sometimes you have to do a reality check," she says. And indeed, somewhat bizarrely, only minutes into the interview, out of the lift and bounding down the carpet comes the beaming king of the blarney himself, Old Tel.
"Don't believe a word she says," quips Wogan as he spies the tape recorder in front of his station controller.
The veteran breakfast-show presenter, who still commands an unrivalled audience of more than 7.7 million, has not, it appears, been summoned to make this cameo appearance but has coincidentally convened his own meeting in the same bar.
Wogan remains the most familiar name on Radio 2 but - five months after Douglas's accession to the controllership - he is now part of a changing landscape. In her short time at the helm, Douglas has signed up Mark Radcliffe (one half of the brash former Radio 1 presenting team of Mark and Lard) and Dermot O'Leary, presenter of the Channel 4 show Big Brother's Little Brother and the BBC's Born to Win.
The appointments have led to suggestions that Douglas might be trying to re-shape the station to appeal to a younger, trendier audience that leans closer to presenters such as Mark Lamarr and Jonathan Ross and less towards the likes of Sarah Kennedy and David Jacobs. But Douglas herself says that nothing could be further from the truth.
Asked about her plans for the future of the station she surprisingly reveals that her number-one priority is to introduce greater coverage of musical theatre into the schedule. Film soundtracks will also be given a higher profile.
Douglas says: "Musical theatre is something that we sort of gave up on doing in any depth or scale a number of years ago. It has always felt to me like an area that we should recapture. I think there's a wealth of it we should cover."
She has been convinced of the appeal of such programming by the responses to occasional shows such as Michael Ball's Ball Over Broadway and, particularly, a performance of Sunset Boulevard that featured Ball and Petula Clark. "It was fantastic. It was brilliant and we got a massive response," she says. "It was one of those spine-tingling moments."
She confesses that, despite school appearances in Gilbert and Sullivan and My Fair Lady, musical theatre was previously "not my personal enthusiasm" but was noticeably "an omission from the Radio 2 schedules".
Douglas says: "Musical theatre is the most popular form of theatre in the country and is clearly something we should be doing. A drip feed of letters and e-mails over the years has noted that we don't really cover soundtracks and we don't really cover musical theatre."
When Douglas was appointed, her love of artists such as Bruce Springsteen was widely noted. She is indeed a huge fan of "The Boss" but her favourite singer of all time is actually Nat King Cole. And even when the The Smiths, New Order and the rest of the Mancunian music scene of the early 1980s drew her to an English degree at the University of Manchester, Douglas was regularly tuning her bedsit radio to David Jacobs.
It was perhaps preordained that her first big career break, after she arrived in London from a business course in York with a vague notion of becoming a journalist, was a job on Jacobs's show. "He is one of the nicest and most sharing people I have ever worked with," she says.
Aside from musical theatre, Douglas's next tick box is to expand Radio 2's coverage of Seventies music - another indication that she is not trying to poach listeners from a younger demographic. "I think we need to look at the balance of things in the schedules, I know that I have a gem in The Sounds of the 70s and I know that I have a gem in the presenter Steve Harley. There's not a presenter who has turned out as good as him and yet he's on half an hour a week. I would like to do more of him and more of Suzi Quatro."
Wogan appears to have the breakfast job for as long as wants it - with Douglas describing the broadcaster as "the absolute pinnacle of what can be achieved". Describing the genial Irishman's appeal, she says: "His lifestyle is obviously different from his listeners' - he was in the royal box at Wimbledon yesterday - but on the radio he is absolutely in touch with what we all are. He always seems like he is living the same life as you are - even though he isn't. That's a fantastic talent."
Jeremy Vine has lost several hundred thousand listeners since inheriting Jimmy Young's show, but Douglas regards him as one of the finest journalists in the country and is impressed that he holds onto a 5.4 million-strong audience, despite the "massive gear change" of following Radio 2 stalwart Ken Bruce in the schedule.
Douglas scored a spectacular PR coup in April when Radio 2 recorded a script with Brad Pitt, whom it persuaded to present a show on the cult English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Already, the programme has been the subject of 65,000 "replays" on the Radio 2 website. The controller was similarly proud of a special on the music of South Africa presented by the revered musician Hugh Masekela.
Douglas also has the BBC digital station 6 Music in her portfolio. This network (home to presenters like Phill Jupitus, Craig Charles and Tom Robinson) is much loved by the music industry but some observers have complained that it is too blokey, the radio equivalent of predominantly male magazines like Mojo and Q. The male-heavy listenership of 6 Music is, she believes, partly the result of men cottoning on more quickly to new gadgetry (such as DAB radios).
But she has felt the need to send a directive to the station's presenters not to become too nerdy and to open their personalities to listeners. "We need to make sure it does not become too closed and inward-looking and that it is part of the real world," she says, pointing out that most of 6 Music's presenters have never worked on mainstream shows.
That does not mean that Douglas will be introducing more women presenters to either 6 Music or Radio 2 as a tactic for enticing more female listeners. "What I don't agree with is female presenter equals female appeal equals keeping female listeners happy." Radio 2, she argues, is not about gender or even age but a question of "attitude" and "taste".
"Why would you, if you're 30, not like Nat King Cole? Or Matt Monro? Of course you are going to like it if you like strong singing," she says.
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