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Not so easy listening on Radio 2

Amid the storms at its sibling stations, Radio 2 has sailed on magnificently in calm waters. Until now...
Not so long ago Radio 2 was, if we're honest, something of a joke. To confess to listening to it was, for anyone under 40, a little like saying that you'd joined the Caravan Club or bought a fluffy cover for your toilet seat: it was an admission that you weren't as young as you used to be, that you'd reached that stage where you liked a tune you could hum, and proper words. And so Radio 2 was rather looked down on.

Over the past couple of years, that beige image has changed. Under the guidance of Francis Line, controller from 1990 until the beginning of this year, Radio 2 started to be taken much more seriously. While listeners fled from Matthew Bannister's Radio 1, protested in their thousands at plans to switch Radio 4 from long wave and bayed their disapproval at Nicholas Kenyon's Radio 3, Radio 2 remained serenely untroubled. It emerged that it was the UK's most popular station, in terms of audience share, if not of reach - that is, it didn't have the most listeners (Radio 1 still has that honour), but the listeners it had listened to it an awful lot. Audience approval was matched by critical praise: last year it was named Station of the Year in the Sony Awards; as the aggressive style of interviewing favoured by the Today team on Radio 4 came under attack, some media commentators began pointing to Jimmy Young, Mrs Thatcher's favourite interviewer, as the man to listen to. There has even been a rumour - put about, you suspect, by the Radio 2 Press Office - that the rise of the easy listening cult has made Radio 2 fashionable among the clubbing generation. All in all, Radio 2 looked like BBC Radio's big success story.

All of a sudden, though, there are signs of unrest. At the end of January, Jim Moir, former head of entertainment at BBC television, took up the post of controller; and along with him came Steve Wright, the man who brought zoo radio to Radio 1, with a three-hour show on a Saturday morning, Steve Wright's Saturday Show (a title that follows in the dazzlingly imaginative tradition of Steve Wright in the Afternoon and Steve Wright in the Morning), and a two-hour sugary dedication slot, Steve Wright's Sunday Love Songs. As he has come in, other shows have had to be moved around. And Radio 2's loyal listeners, it seems, do not like it.

Last Friday, on Chris Dunkley's Radio 4 forum for listeners' grievances, Feedback, Moir was called on to defend himself against a slew of criticism: listeners complained about the importation of Steve Wright - he belongs on Radio 1, they felt - the axing of Martin Kelner (familiar to Independent readers as a frequent contributor to these pages), the disappearance of the easy listening show Sounds Easy following the death of its long-time presenter, Alan Dell. More generally, there was a sense that younger listeners were being wooed, to the detriment of the loyal older audience. Has the backlash begun?

Moir bats that one away confidently: "Listen to my voice," he says - we're talking on the telephone - "do I sound shaken?" No, he doesn't, but you wouldn't necessarily read anything into that: 10 seconds of conversation with Moir is enough to make you realise that it would take a lot to shake him, in any sense. He is a man of famously massive girth and, you would judge, proportionately large self-confidence. At any rate, he isn't about to be put on the defensive: "I didn't turn up [on Feedback] to defend myself, I turned up to explain," he says.

This is, in brief, and leaving aside the traditional pieties about the radio as the friend in the corner and the listeners' sense that they own their station, Jim Moir's explanation of what's going on:

Every radio station now faces shrinking audiences, simply because there are more and more radio stations out there competing; so every radio station has to keep chasing new audiences just to stand still. For Radio 2, this means appealing to the "threshold audience" - that is, the fortysomethings who have outgrown Radio 1, and are now retuning to Virgin or one of the many "gold" stations now flourishing around the country. In signing up Steve Wright, Moir hopes to send out a signal to this audience "that Radio 2 is not cardigans and slippers ... this is very much a live and happening station". The plan is that, having sampled Radio 2 at a weekend (the time, research suggests, when the thresholders are most likely to be listening to the radio), the new listener will be tempted to try again in the week; and will then discover that Radio 2 is not as fuddy-duddy as it's painted - that all the old jokes about Radio Zimmer are misplaced.

It's easy to pick holes in the details of Moir's approach - will people really take to Radio 2 so easily? Despite the complaints on Feedback, there's still an awful lot of Jim Reeves and Benny Goodman to plough through before you get to Simply Red or Status Quo (personally, I seem to be unable to tune in without hitting a Roger Whitaker song); and ex-Radio 1 listeners are bound to receive a culture shock when they first tune in to The Jamesons of an evening. It is a shame that Kelner, a witty and original DJ, should have to go to make room for Steve Wright, for whom the issue is surely not whether he is better suited to Radio 1 or Radio 2, but whether he wouldn't be better suited to fleet car sales or hotel management. Still, you can see that Steve Wright's name conveys more to the Radio 1 diaspora than Martin Kelner's does.

And it's hard to quarrel with Moir's basic thinking. If anything, he's been remarkably conservative; it's noticeable that there have been few if any complaints about his other star signing, Michael Parkinson, who follows Wright on Sunday mornings. Moir offers reassurance that Sounds Easy will be replaced at some indefinite point in the future, and insists that he has tried to send out "a big signal" to his core audience that little is changing, through interviews and through careful preservation of the daytime sequences: "The true voice of Radio 2, from Sarah Kennedy in the morning to John Dunn at night, is absolutely secure."

But he plays down Radio 2's peculiar problem: its core audience is much older than other stations - 56 per cent over 55, 76 per cent over 45 - and so it faces the constant fact of listeners leaving, not because they have tuned to the competition, but because they've tuned to what Frances Line used to call "Radio Grim Reaper". Moir puts it more tactfully: "If you are a station which has a particular skew to the mature audience, inevitably natural attrition affects you slightly worse than it does the general market."

As long as this remains true, Radio 2 will be forever on the run down the age scale, seeking to bring in younger listeners and in the process risking alienating the older ones it relies on. Moir may be right to shrug off the current round of complaints: it's a small earthquake, not many dead (the one casualty, Martin Kelner, is alive and well and standing in for Sarah Kennedy this week). But the chances are that the rumblings are going to go on, and on and on. It's a good thing Jim Moir is solidly built.

Radio 2: a brief history

1967: Launched, born out of the old BBC Radio Light Programme.

1972: Beginning of Terry Wogan's rise to BBC radio fame.

1973: Jimmy Young arrives from Radio 1, inviting politicians on to his music programmes. In the Eighties he goes on to acquire a reputation as Margaret Thatcher's favourite interviewer.

1976: Beginning of Roy Hudd's The News Huddlines, the station's flagship comedy programme.

1979: Becomes the first BBC Radio network to provide a round-the-clock service.

1982: Arrival of Gloria Hunniford in the early afternoon slot.

1984: Terry Wogan quits to pursue his TV career.

1986: Derek Jameson takes over the breakfast show.

1990: Ceases to be available on medium wave, the old AM frequency being taken up by the new Radio 5. Frances Line becomes the station's first female controller.

1991: The growth of commercial "golden oldie" stations leaves Radio 2 with a mere 14.3 per cent of the radio audience. In a bid to attract younger listeners, a new BBC directive instructs daytime presenters to give airplay only to songs recorded after 1950.

1992: Dispenses with the dulcet tones of the BBC continuity announcer between programmes, as part of an image makeover. The abrasive Australian Brian Hayes, from LBC, is given the breakfast slot, but lasts only a year. Derek Jameson is moved to late nights, to present a music-and-chat show with his wife, Ellen.

1993: With the demise of his TV show, Terry Wogan returns to his old breakfast slot.

1994: Figures show that Radio 2 has won more listeners in the past year than any other station, and that its audience is tuning in for longer. "Radio 2 is no longer a station for old fogeys", says Derek Jameson triumphantly.

1995: Named station of the year at the Sony Radio Awards. Death of Alan Dell, presenter of popular Sunday afternoon show Sounds Easy, and departure of Gloria Hunniford.

1996: Frances Line succeeded as controller by James Moir. Arrival of the displaced Radio 1 DJ Steve Wright.