Working at BBC 'like life under communism': Former head of Radio 1 berates corporation bureaucracy

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The Independent Online
WORKING at the BBC is so tightly controlled it is like 'life under communism', the former controller of Radio 1, Johnny Beerling, said yesterday. He criticised 'His Royal Birtness' - the corporation's director-general, John Birt - for presiding over a bureaucratic system.

'Total control from the centre and very little flexibility or room for manoeuvre - no wonder some have compared it to life under communism,' Mr Beerling told the Radio Academy conference at Olympia in west London. Mr Beerling, who was replaced four months ago by Matthew Bannister, said he left because he could not work within Mr Birt's totalitarian organisation.

'I left because in the last two years my job had less to do with the creative role and more to do with bureaucracy. From what I hear, it goes from bad to worse, with everyone currently groaning under the need to provide the centre with an annual performance review - whatever that is.'

Mr Beerling attacked a new Radio 1 presenter, Danny Baker, as epitomising the 'new BBC man' - a DJ who is only interested in promoting his own reputation rather than the network. Mr Baker took over from Dave Lee Travis, who was forced out from Radio 1 last year, and presents two weekend shows. 'Danny Baker brought with him his own team of producers, and when do you hear him trail the other jocks, remember the name of the newsreader or phone number of the station, or play a jingle?' Mr Beerling asked. 'Station team spirit or pride in the network appears to be a thing of the past.'

At the heart of the debate about Mr Birt's impact on the BBC lie three factors: his reorganisation and centralised control of BBC news and current affairs; the controversial market-driven system of making programmes, called producer choice; a programme policy of changing some services such as Radio 1.

Yesterday, Mr Bannister hit back, saying his predecessor had been criticising producer choice specifically, a new policy that Mr Beerling had barely worked under. 'Johnny was there at the introduction of a new system, it's been difficult and it's been hard work, but we are now beginning to see the benefits. He left before that stage,' he said.

Mr Beerling tried to prevent Radio 1 being recast as a youth station with more speech. In the last year, which included his departure and a wholesale change in presenters, Radio 1 has shed more than 2 million regular listeners. Mr Bannister defended the changes, saying: 'Producer choice is only coming to the end of its first year and already at Radio 1 we have been able to take 10 per cent out of our non-programme- making spend, and we will be investing more than pounds 1m back into the programmes over the next year.'

The changes to Radio 1 were welcomed by Paul Russell, Europe president of Sony Music Entertainment. In his speech, he said he admired Mr Bannister for taking on new DJs rather than household names, and for trying new music and new formats. 'By refocusing Radio 1, Matthew Bannister is actually providing a real spotlight on the public's desire for the alternative. I admire him because as times change radio stations have to have the courage to move and change with them,' he said.