Show Hide image

Feeling the pinch

The real scandals in radio broadcasting this year were cuts, cuts and more cuts

The Ross-Brand scandal may have dominated the news in 2008, but the most important radio story of the year was actually the collapse of Channel 4 Radio, the long-trumpeted competitor to Radio 4. For a while, whenever I met up with friends who worked at the BBC station, the evening would quickly dissolve into fantasy about the promised land of big budgets and open minds at Channel 4. At the festival of workshops and discussions organised for BBC Radio employees at Broadcasting House in the summer, Bob Shennan, former head of Radio 5 Live, was brought in to talk about the imminent launch of the new station. The event was heaving. Bring us your huddled masses, said Shennan. Two days later the bottom fell out of Channel 4's advertising revenues and the radio project was scrapped.

Not that I'm bashing BBC Radio - thank God for it. After a month spent in America earlier this year, I was quite literally downloading Farming Today with a tear in the eye. ("As pork from Ireland is removed from the shelves, we ask where has all the meat gone?" Truly, this programme is the jewel in the BBC's crown.) But there will be real tears if the cutbacks continue, especially at the World Service. Walking the corridors, one can no longer look into the windows of the Romanian Service (all gone) or the Russian Service (cut to shreds) and feel the tremor of the speaking globe. I occasionally work at the station as a presenter and, let me tell you, if they pinch any more pennies, in five years there'll be nothing left.

Only the other day an internal directive insisted producers are to do more interviews over the phone rather than in foreign studios - damn the quality. And as BBC producers have learned, peculiar things can happen over the phone.

When the Ross-Brand story broke I happened to be watching CNN in New Jersey. It appeared in a strapline across the bottom of the screen: COLIN POWELL ENDORSES OBAMA LIVE IN FIFTEEN MINUTES ON MEET THE PRESS . . . BILL CLINTON TO SPEAK AT A RALLY IN FLORIDA IN SUPPORT OF OBAMA: FIRST PUBLIC SHOW OF SUPPORT SINCE HILLARY SNUB . . . JONATHAN ROSS SUSPENDED FROM THE BBC AFTER SEX PHONE CALLS. I thought, hey, I so wish I was back in the UK. Didn't the whole thing feel very queeny to you? Two bullying misogynists mincing around a studio talking about their willies. The worst thing about the ensuing carry-on was all the arse-licking of the former Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas. Everyone talked as though she was the fifth Beatle, being shot by cannon into space along with several shredded pipe cleaners and some mangled wheelie bins (as opposed to cruising serenely into a plum job in the music biz). To be precise: it was her predecessor Jim Moir who'd turned the station around and brought in Ross as a presenter in the first place. To be even more precise: this is the woman who gave a regular slot to Dermot O'Leary.

Alors, the rest of the year in brief: Emma turned down Will Grundy for a second time in The Archers, propelling him ever more fervently towards a lifetime of bitter feretting; George Lamb enraged the nation by being supposedly thick on 6 Music (but was actually totally groovy); the Reith Lectures were OK; Marcus Brigstocke continues to believe he is a political satirist; and a marketing man for Pepsi was made creative controller of BBC Radio and King of the Intergalactic Republic. Oh, and Jason Donovan now has the Sunday evening slot on Lantern FM in Devon (which can also be heard on 35 other regional radio stations). Now, can we all go and watch some telly?

Antonia Quirke on what to listen to over Christmas

There's a full reading of Milton's Paradise Lost with Anton Lesser (from 22 December to 2 January, 5pm on weekdays, 9.30pm at weekends, Radio 3). On Christmas Day itself, Adrenalin Anthems (11am, 5 Live) considers what music our sports stars listen to just before they compete. Contributors include the Olympic gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu and sprinter Iwan Thomas. Choices include songs from New Order and (naturally) Survivor.

Later that day, Lennox Lewis (left) presents a programme about the life and career of Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, 100 years after he won the crown on 26 December 1908. The Galveston Giant (9pm, 5 Live) tells Johnson's story of racial prejudice, exile and imprisonment, while Lewis traces his own path to becoming heavyweight world champion.

As for music highlights, Bob Dylan offers up his choice of Christmas tunes on his Theme Time Radio Hour (Christmas Day, 11pm, Radio 2). On New Year's Eve, listeners have another chance to hear the jewel Prom 60 from August, featuring the Chinese maestro Lang Lang and some of the compositions he has favoured during his career, including Chopin's Grande Polonaise and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody (7pm, Radio 3).

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 first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special