Long live the mildly eccentric competence of BBC local radio

Let us have more Abbie McCarthy playing SlimeLord’s “Existence is Shit” to the good people of Tunbridge Wells.

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“If you’re around Barrow Raiders’ rugby ground a little bit later, you might meet this lady, who’ll be walking on fire and broken glass.” Val Armstrong, a presenter on Radio Cumbria, prepares to speak to a listener doing something improbable for Cancer Care.

An otherwise perfectly ordinary charity event with a raffle etc, this one it seems  was to involve a potentially brutal denouement starring a woman who was herself (in Val’s words) “going through a hoo-ha with chemo”. The sort of phrase you’d never ordinarily hear on national BBC radio. Not something, for example, Eddie Mair might have said to Steve Hewlett during their conversations last year about Hewlett’s cancer treatment. A little too breezy. And yet Armstrong – the listener instinctively comprehended – cared a great deal, and ran the interview with the sort of insouciant and mildly eccentric competence absolutely typical of the best of local radio.

As BBC Local Radio celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, there’s been much talk of a decline in listenership for the 39 stations countrywide, to around six (doggedly supportive) million. Cuts and embittered defeat would surely follow. Instead, in a speech last week, the BBC director general Tony Hall, like an old maid being wobbled off her bike on her melancholy way to vespers – by a circus – unexpectedly hailed BBC Local Radio as the “DNA of our communities”.

Among other promises there followed a particularly good one to replace the generic shared evening show across the stations, with “more local programming”. Which means (I suggest) more farmer Chris Skinner on Radio Norfolk, standing in a field, as he did the other day, describing a sparrowhawk as it chased its prey – an outraged blackbird – right under his tractor. More Off The Ball on BBC Scotland giving a shout out to Pete, who had just died, but who went to Lisbon in 1967 to watch the cup final with Tommy Campbell (“A place where not many Scots had gone before”). More Abbie McCarthy playing SlimeLord’s “Existence is Shit” to the good people of Tunbridge Wells on BBC Introducing in Kent. I’m moved to put aside my turbid air of suspicion and approximately quote Ulysses. The heaventree of stars hangs with humid nightblue fruit!  

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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