Why the BBC is mad to sell my beloved, profitable 'Radio Times'
Gill Hudson cried when she left 'RT'. Now she's shedding a tear for the magazine's uncertain future
Sunday 26 September 2010
'Will you come and edit Radio Times?", they asked, rather politely. "Not bloody likely", I replied, rather rudely.
I'm a single parent and life is hard enough as it is. Radio Times?
I'd heard the rumours: a poisoned chalice; too big, too relentless, too political, too stuck in the past. Besides, I hardly watched telly.
"Will you come and edit Radio Times?", they asked again. I wavered. Flattering, indeed, to be asked a second time. Whatever my reservations, this was one of the true greats of the magazine world.
And then they asked a third time. "Well, look," I capitulated, grudgingly – I must have sounded insufferable – "I'll do it for a bit. But if I'm not happy after six months then you'll have to pay me off in shedloads." That was in 2002. I stayed for seven years.
If editing a magazine was a relationship, then Radio Times was The Big One: the one I married, set up home with and had kids by. As with any marriage, there were irritations. Like schedules changing at the last minute, so your cover story was wiped out and the whole magazine had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Like hideously pedantic readers, who would send pages of closely written text to point out that: "I think you'll find that it was shown at 7.35pm on a Wednesday in 1969 not a Tuesday at 7.30pm. Really, Radio Times, this is yet another example of the BBC dumbing down, and I shall no longer be buying your magazine."
And then there were the meetings. Meetings about meetings to prepare for meetings. And more meetings to discuss the meetings we'd just had.
But it was also a joy to edit a magazine that needed no introduction. No more: "I'm editor of [insert any title], the magazine that aims to [insert brand positioning statement]. Everybody knows Radio Times. Everybody knows it's about TV as well.
It was a joy to come up with barking ideas – let's get Michael Palin in a studio with a camel and some sand by, erm, tomorrow. Can we close Westminster Bridge and get some Daleks over it, but without anyone seeing? – and have the budget and the creative geniuses on board to pull it off.
It was a joy, and a privilege, to defend our editorial independence. Yes, we might have been BBC born and bred, but if we thought a BBC programme was rubbish, there was no way we weren't going to say so.
It was a joy to discover that people do things for Radio Times they simply won't do for anyone else. The biggest, most elusive names will write for the magazine, be interviewed, have photos taken, because until you have appeared in Radio Times – best of all, on the cover – then, quite simply, you haven't made it in entertainment.
Why? Because Radio Times is more than just a magazine: it's been the constant backdrop to our lives. Put an archive copy in front of any reader of a certain age and they will be overcome with nostalgia; just the sight of the listings for Till Death Us Do Part or Z-Cars or The Generation Game puts them right back in front of the telly on a Saturday night, with a box of Quality Street, Mum doing her knitting, and Dad in his slippers. And, of course, Radio Times has also always been the posh one. Was mine the only family, in their deeply ordinary suburb, for whom ITV, with Hughie Green and those grubby commercial advertising breaks, was strictly out of bounds? Radio Times told the world that we were a BBC family; that we watched Attenborough.
Not surprising then, that, as the only upmarket, mass-market, paid-for magazine in the country, Radio Times is a phenomenal profit generator in its own right – well over £20m a year. The legendary Christmas double issue alone is worth around £7m.
Eighty-seven years on, Radio Times is still one of the top-three sellers out of some 3,500 consumer magazines. That says everything about the continuing relevance of the brand and the affection in which it's held.
Little wonder potential buyers want to get their hands on it as the BBC magazines portfolio goes up for sale.
I cried and cried when I left RT. It was a big decision, but I knew my magazine marriage was coming to an end. I shall, very possibly, cry a bit more if the magazine is sold only to become just another profit centre to be squeezed until the pips squeak; another product in a centralised process that's been ruthlessly rationalised. Good business sense, perhaps, but not, I think, the way to encourage the big, bold, award-winning mindset of which the magazine has such a proud history. "The official organ of the BBC" deserves to be treated as a special case.
My "Good Luck" card is in the post.
Gill Hudson is now editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest
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