Local heroes

Radio - Louis Barfe on why voices from the regions are worth a national outing

For wireless humorists and parodists, local radio is easy meat. In the early 1980s, Radio Active took the genre apart expertly. In the early 1990s, On the Hour did it again, the sustained attack afforded by the ex-Radio Norwich sports jock Alan Partridge being supplemented by events such as Chris Morris's demolition of Mike d'Abo, a Manfred Mann singer-turned-local radio presenter. Then, in the late 1990s, the cruelly underrated Grievous Bodily Radio did it all over again.

In many ways, the satire is utterly justified. Many a local radio presenter, especially in the commercial sector, has become a legend in his own mind, yet remained one click above novice on a scale of actual broadcasting expertise. Ego is all you need. Neil "Doctor" Fox of Capital FM and Network Chart infamy is the new role model.

It is possible to argue that commercial local radio no longer serves any purpose. In the days of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (there's one for the teenagers), independent local radio (ILR) stations had to leaven their populist output with community-based programming and some non-chart music. Until the late 1980s, when national groups such as GWR and Emap began buying everything in sight, almost every ILR station offered classical music programmes, documentaries of local interest and original drama.

Noble it may have been, but it did try to be local radio for local people at least some of the time. Since the great consolidation, however, the giants have foisted a non-stop hits policy on each of the stations in their charge. The end result is that you might as well be listening to Now That's What I Call Music 627 or some similar compilation.

For example, Moray Firth Radio - "The Heart of the Highlands" - was set up in the early 1980s as the epitome of community radio. Now, however, as part of the fairly big Scottish Radio Holdings group, its daytime programming seems indistinguishable from any other chart-pop-based ILR. The only truly local things about it are the presenters' accents - although mid-morning presenter Ray Atkinson is a displaced Glaswegian rather than a true Highlander.

Mercifully, the BBC's local network holds the line when it comes to genuine regional programming, and is currently involved in a fascinating experiment called A Sense of Place. Every Sunday for the past month, each station has been broadcasting a half-hour documentary about an aspect of local life. Radio Kent went whelk-boiling in Whitstable, BBC Hereford and Worcester visited a hospice and a prison among other venues, and Radio Cumbria revealed "the truth about sheep".

Although some of the output is undoubtedly worthy (and, whisper it quietly, dull), there cannot fail to be gems in this many broadcast hours. Radio 4 is selecting some of the best for a national airing. But some are destined to be heard only by their local listeners. Ideally, the internet could be used to make all of them available, though the BBC does not seem to have got its act together in that department yet. The Sense of Place website contains highlights of most of the programmes, and all of the local stations offer downloadable news bulletins. Unfortunately, very few offer a live stream of their total output. For what it's worth, many commercial stations do - including Moray Firth - although it is hard to see why they bother.

One very good thing about BBC local radio going online would be that the whole world could hear Roger Hill's Pure Musical Sensations (BBC Radio Merseyside, Sundays at midnight). His tastes are possibly more obscure than either Andy Kershaw's or John Peel's, and it is reassuring to hear that someone, somewhere, is playing records with titles such as "Supergluing Your Genitals to the Carpet Does Not Make You a Cantaloupe". "Doctor" Fox wouldn't play that. His loss.

Further information about A Sense of Place is available from www.bbc.co.uk/senseofplace

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