Uncle might just approve: As new figures show a large slump in Radio 1's listeners, Adrian Reith applauds changes at the station and David Runciman deplores its mind-nubbing natter
Wednesday 03 August 1994
But then that was then and this is now, a world, where radio is no longer synonymous with the BBC. Uncle John would not really know what to make of Radio 1 and its controller, Matthew Bannister; it's losing audiences as if it was going out of fashion. His idea was to reach everyone - but competition in those days meant a cup of cocoa and an early night.
I doubt if he'd have understood Danny Baker last weekend, keeping up a bizarre live phone conversation with a listener who had buried a piano on the beach at Scarborough. Baker's audiences have been plunging as badly as anyone's, but he is creating some of the most intriguing radio around.
Matthew Bannister has lost several million listeners, but not his nerve. He has recognised, as his predecessors appeared not to, that Radio 1 in 1994 is in a completely different environment to when it started a quarter of a century ago. It may have had 29 million listeners a week at its peak, but if its listeners wanted a choice of pop music in those days they had little option apart from Radio Caroline. Now there are nearly 150 pop stations. Two of them - Virgin 1215 and Atlantic 252 - are national services which have parked their tanks menacingly in Radio 1's back garden. Between them they now draw more than 7 seven million listeners a week.
Radio 1 was in dire need of 'repositioning'. So it will take a year or two to find out exactly what the new position might be. But it did not take Bannister long to recognise the studio door needed showing to Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Bob Harris and Gary Davis. It's not Bannister's fault that the powers-that-be at the BBC didn't realise that their ageing presenters had passed their sell-by date on Radio 1, but that their millions of listeners could have been saved if Radio 2 had made them decent offers.
What Bannister has recognised is that because Radio 1 is funded by the licence payer, it can serve listeners who might not otherwise be served. He has scheduled important 'public-service' broadcasters like Andy Kershaw and John Peel at more accessible times and their audiences have improved. Emma Freud may not play the round-the-hour pop, but then any number of commercial DJs are doing just that at the same time on scores of other stations. Freud's topical diet of news and discussion, liaising closely with the excellent Newsbeat operation, is an alternative at lunchtimes.
Commissioning Batman and Superman shows for Mark Goodier in the afternoon - and a new drama for Simon Mayo's morning show - not only break the uniform diet of pop and rock but also enrich the cultural contribution radio makes to the lives of young people. Bannister is creating a new and distinctive Radio 1. True, distinctive usually means 'smaller', but with drama, humour, news, helplines - and a bit of God - it is making radio no commercial station dare do.
Adrian Reith runs the radio advertising production company Commercial Breaks and is series producer of the Sony Award-winning 'The Big Holy One' on Radio 1.
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