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Something in the air: Twitter creates new wave of radio stars

Social networking has turned disembodied BBC voices into real people. By Ian Burrell
  • @iburrell

The rise of the BBC radio announcer has been meteoric. Suddenly the newsreaders, traffic reporters, continuity announcers and voices of the  shipping forecasts are almost as well known as the presenters and DJs.

The transition from faceless script reader to multi-faceted broadcast personality has been turbo-charged by Twitter, which has been embraced by the announcers and has allowed listeners to discover the personalities behind the familiar voices.

It has helped make radio stars out of the likes of Corrie Corfield (continuity announcer and newsreader on Radio 4), Lynn Bowles (traffic analyst on Radio 2) and Vassos Alexander (sports reporter on Radio 5 Live and Radio 2). Alice Arnold, the former Radio 4 newsreader, has amassed 31,000 followers on Twitter – due in part, no doubt, to her high-profile relationship with the television broadcaster Clare Balding.

On Twitter we discover that Corfield is the proud owner of a fashionable Pashley bicycle which she calls Cordelia, dislikes goat’s cheese and refers to her London neighbourhood Tooting as “Toots”, an expression that has caught on. And we learn that her news-reading colleague Susan Rae is partial to some risqué humour over the mention in her Radio 4 bulletin of a rediscovered Orson Welles film called The Mighty Johnson.

What would Tord Alvar Quan Lidell have made of this? Alvar Lidell’s delivery, in impeccable received pronunciation, was the benchmark for BBC announcers as he gave the nation Chamberlain’s message that we were “at war with Germany”. But beyond his catchphrase – “here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it” – the audience didn’t know much about him.

“I think it’s completely different now to how it was before Twitter,” Corfield says. “Suddenly these disembodied voices coming into their sitting rooms were real people and they liked the chat we have between ourselves.”

The radio announcers are a tight-knit group. Corfield and the Radio 2 announcer Alan “@dedders” Dedicoat both revealed to their Twitter followers that a group of announcers gathered for lunch this week to remember their much-missed colleague Rory Morrison. Those attending included the veteran newsreaders Peter Donaldson and Brian Perkins, as well as Charlotte Green, who was propelled into the headlines this week as the new voice of the BBC’s football results.

The public had an insight into the once secret world of the announcers 18 months ago when there was a collective online moan about the coldness of the continuity suite. The Radio 4 newsreader Kathy Clugston attempted to solve the problem by bringing in a leopard skin “Slanket”, a hideous blanket with sleeves which all Radio 4 presenters were encouraged to wear, with the images posted – of course – on Twitter.

Thanks to the announcers, Radio 4 listeners have learned much about the inner workings of the network – including the fact that the announcers operate the production desks themselves. If Corfield didn’t operate the fader, The Archers would not be broadcast.

“We are not going to disgrace ourselves or give away trade secrets. But it’s a chance to be less formal and less ‘BBC newsreader’,” Corfield said. “People have said it is like having the curtain slightly lifted and having a look behind the scenes. I think that for some people it has made their listening slightly better.”

Her colleague Susan Rae has been in the spotlight before. When she broke the RP mould as the “first-ever accented person” on Radio 4 in the 1980s, some listeners complained angrily at her Scottish voice. She avoids politics in her tweets – “there’s lots of stuff I wouldn’t comment on because you have to be impartial as a newsreader” – but the modern tone of Radio 4 allows a continuity announcer to show “a little more personality”.

Dedicoat – also known as the “Voice of the Balls” for his role of reading out the National Lottery numbers – was a pioneer in breaking out of the announcer’s box, thanks to Terry Wogan who dubbed him “Deadly Alancoat”.

He said of Wogan: “He got his news man and his travel person in with him. Up until then we were in separate little studios and he broke down all those barriers. It’s nice to blur the edges because in the olden days announcers were very formal people and the whole thing was done in your dinner jacket and you just read the news. Things have changed so much.”

BT Sport has hired the BBC radio sports reporter Vassos Alexander as one of the faces of its new television output. Alexander’s profile has been raised by his exchanges with Chris Evans on Radio 2’s high-energy breakfast show, which has an audience of nearly ten million. “I’m not looking to become a personality,” he said. “But if Chris wants me to do more than just read the sports news then that’s great, if it adds to the show.”

Lynn Bowles, who has 22,000 followers on Twitter – which she uses to discuss her passion for Land Rovers – has had her profile raised by her clever banter with the Radio 2 presenter Ken Bruce. “I’m a handmaiden to Ken Bruce – I wheel him in in his bath chair and open his Thermos flask,” she said. Her traffic reports have brought her a dedicated fan base of road users who contact her with details of snarl ups using names such as “Chuffing Willy” and “Jasmine’s Grandpa”.