Opportunity knocks, from Boston, Mass. to Broadcasting House, W1A 1AA
Monday 17 November 1997
For more than 30 years Jimmy Young, former crooner, DJ and latterly interviewer, has presided over one of the most successful programmes on British radio. At midday, half an hour into JY's Prog, there is no radio show being listened to by more people. Its daily "reach" (folks tuning in for some part of the show) is 2.06 million. Party leaders appear with Jim, and are succeeded in the interviewee's chair by the doctor who advises on prostates. So when I got the call and a voice asked me if I would like to stand in for Jim when he took his annual hols in Florida, I thought it was a leg-pull. First, this was far too big a programme for even the most capricious management to give over to some spotty tyro to ruin. I had done some radio presentation before, but in far less high-profile slots.
Second, I had always thought of myself as a kind of Radio 4 voice, doing things like "Analysis" on local government financing. It had never occurred to me that I had the personality to anchor a programme that required me to introduce popular music, read out listener's comments (an essential part of the JY experience) and say, in warm tones, "88 to 91 FM: that's Radio 2, from the BBC". And all of it live. Miss the little cue green light, and drop off the edge of the world! In fact I was so bamboozled by the offer, that until two weeks before getting in to the hot seat, I thought I had been booked just for three Mondays. In fact I had the whole three weeks.
It has been - as they used to say - a gas. In each show I've taken over from Ken Bruce, said "hello", done a little menu of what's coming up, conducted four interviews - usually one political, one on an "issue" of the day, one on a report (often concerning health, or transport) and one lighter one - read out reader's comments, introduced and back-announced nice music and, two hours later, handed on to Debbie Thrower.
The interviews are set up for me, researched, briefs written and questions suggested by a team of four, whose capacity to move from subject to subject is pretty remarkable (the main producer himself turned down a job on the Today programme to stay with JY; lucky for me he did). As for the listener's comments, well those have been something of a surprise. On EMU, for instance, more than half of those who phoned in were actually in favour of monetary union, which is not what you'd expect from an audience of predominantly over-60-year-old Britons. And where listeners relate their own direct experiences, there have often been moments for me of real insight into the way we live. When I was ill last week, and had to miss a show, I was actually sent "get well" cards. My mum tuned in to Radio 2 to hear me - and she likes it. My partner also tuned in. And she likes it too.
In the late Eighties Radio 2 was, by popular consent, a wrinkled pensioner of a station that would be given over to the private sector to do with as it wished, this to propitiate the Thatcherite gods of privatisation.
It may be that senior management never shared this prejudice; anyway, the matter never came to the test, because two things happened: Thatcher fell, the Beeb-friendly John Major (may his name in this context be forever blessed) took over - and the perception of Radio 2, even inside the BBC, began to alter. Partly this re-evaluation happened because of the revamp at Radio 1. Bannister's Purge, a necessarily bloody and long overdue affair, led some to notice that - for some time - Radio 2 had not been suffering from the audience slicer of competition. Far from it. This derided station had been gaining listeners.
It is a radio station for those who want something a bit gentler and melodic. But that doesn't just mean radio for the retired and elderly. It is also a station for those whose lives are busy enough without the radio going all testosterone on them; whose kids and jobs provide them with all the freneticism and conflict they need, and whose radio station should be there to relax and - yes - to inform them.
It does mean compromise, though. I suppose that my own moment of truth came when - without a catch in my voice - I heard myself finish reading one comment, and then saying huskily into the mike: "And this is Barry Manilow." And, my God, it was.
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