Do you need to know a lot about radio to make good radio? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? At the very least, surely you need to spend a bit more time thinking about radio than you do about TV or the internet.
The BBC seems to disagree, if the news that they’re planning to cut all their national radio news journalists and make them reapply for multimedia roles also covering TV and online is to be believed. A BBC spokeswoman has confirmed that “broadly speaking, the new model will focus on subjects, rather than platforms”, and that furthermore, there would no longer “be people who work specifically for a radio news programme”.
The problem is that radio isn’t a “platform” for content. It’s a medium of communication. And making a radio report is a different skill from preparing a package for TV because it’s a different way of communicating. A musician and a painter might want to explore the same broad themes in their work, but the techniques they use are completely different, and each takes a lifetime to master.
It’s baffling that the BBC has chosen to handicap its own specialists at a time when the corporation has greater competition in radio news than ever before. Times Radio continues to be quietly impressive, and LBC News, while drawing on the considerable resources of the Global newsroom, provides a straightforward news service without recourse to middle-class angst. Both networks might be blowing the minds of BBC executives if they ever bothered to listen to them.
The BBC has a wealth of radio talent at local and national levels, and a roster of experienced radio broadcasters who understand the unique qualities of radio and have a passion for creating it with substance, verve and style. Why on earth are they stripping it back?
Answers may be found in the BBC’s Annual Report, which was released yesterday and revealed, among other things, that Zoe Ball, of Radio 2’s breakfast show, now earns £1.3m per year, and Lauren Laverne, the BBC 6 Music DJ and presenter of Desert Island Discs, earns £395k per year. Presumably the BBC thinks these and other stars are so starry that they’re worth paying serious beans for. But Laverne’s salary is the equivalent of employing several specialist radio news reporters and paying them all a decent wage.
Meanwhile, on LBC on Sunday night, Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, began her new political interview series. Yes, the courage often fails at the thought of the words “a new political interview series”, but stiffen the sinew, because graver words are yet to come: “with her first guest, Tony Blair”.
Actually, An Inconvenient Ruth was sparky and compelling. Ruth Davidson is not your average broadcast interviewer, and she comes across as much brighter than most politicians on the radio. She is funny, energised and focused, just as she is in her political life. She’s always been the only politician at Holyrood to give Nicola Sturgeon sleepless nights, because she is very good at listening out for question-dodging and not letting the answers out of her sight. And sparring with Sturgeon has been decent training for radio, it turns out.
Davidson’s delivery has an intensity that occasionally feels like someone leaning over the bar and grabbing you by the lapel to demand you pay your tab. But I’d much rather that than be bored, and thank goodness that this was no cosy chat, despite Davidson asking Blair to reflect on his youth, a dangerous invitation to rose-tinted nostalgia. Something about her perceptive questioning made him recall bizarre childhood memories of going to a meat market, in which a one-legged trader poked at carcasses to see which ones were “sound”.
With that strikingly Dickensian anecdote setting the tone, Blair was drawn on how he got into politics, how he remembers key moments of crisis, and what he thinks about politics now. Davidson asked good questions, about why and how Blair made the decisions he did, and she listened carefully to the answers. During the interview she made it clear when she thought Blair was talking nonsense, which was quite often, and was adept at deploying a deft “sorry, I’m confused here” or a “how so?” to apply some pressure and deepen the conversation, and Blair often sounded put on the spot.
It was an illuminating and often funny hour of radio, all the better for a bit of political spice detectable throughout in the significant but respectful disagreements between Davidson and Blair, in a way that the BBC would never allow. Davidson is a sharp interviewer, and the rest of the series should be a must-listen.