You’re unlikely to see any tractors in the vicinity of Wogan House – the home of Radio 2 in central London – but for the past few months, the presenter of the station’s biggest show has had to make sure that the rumble of farm vehicles has remained out of earshot of the listener.
As with so many BBC radio presenters, lockdown has obliged Ken Bruce to broadcast his daily mid-morning show from home. That home is deep in the Oxfordshire countryside, where there is no shortage of potential hazards for the team behind the most listened-to station in Europe to be mindful of.
“We have three teenagers at home, as well as two dogs who bark a fair bit,” Bruce says. “Add to that a stables across the road and tractors passing by outside and it can get a bit lively.”
To keep a broadcasting behemoth like Radio 2 functioning smoothly under the constraints imposed by lockdown is a colossal challenge. What a time, then, for the station’s incoming head, Helen Thomas, whose appointment was announced last month. “We’ve had to change the whole way our shows are produced,” she says.
Wogan House hasn’t shut down completely, but that doesn’t mean the workforce has been able to carry on as normal. Thomas’s top priority has been the safety of her staff – “putting new technical provisions into the building to enable presenters and producers to interact during shows while keeping them separate from the studio engineer”.
Sara Cox, who presents at drivetime, continues to broadcast from Wogan House, but says she is in the building as little as possible. “I take a flask of coffee and bottle of water from home so no more munching Popchips with my producer Louise – she’s producing from home via a WhatsApp video. I have an assistant producer through the glass in the production room. They’re on rotation so we can make sure no one person is in the building for too long.”
Thomas, meanwhile, is working from her home in north London, “missing all my colleagues at Wogan House because it’s such a lovely place to work”.
It’s clearly a time of high emotion for everyone involved at the station, feelings that Jo Whiley, presenter of the evening show, encapsulates. “Being on the radio at this time has been extraordinary,” she says. “I’ve never felt a truer connection between us and the listeners, and never felt a greater responsibility to get it right. The simplest of things have turned into emotional rollercoasters.
“One night I asked people to share with me what they were most looking forward to when things got back to normal and I ended up struggling to read the messages through tears and gritted teeth because the answers were so painfully basic – the desire to hold or be held by another human being; to eat cake with friends, walk/run/swim with fellow enthusiasts; to go to a gig or festival and to sing and dance like nothing else matters. The little things in life that I hope we never again take for granted.”
Whiley’s fellow presenters also feel this sense of responsibility. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to reach people who are stressed, anxious or just plain fed up and to try to help ease those feelings with great music and a hearty dollop of daftness,” Cox says. “Radio has always been very personal. It’s my job to provide distraction and I’m honoured to be able to do it during these unfathomable times.”
Audiences have responded like never before. “The feedback from listeners is lovely,” Saturday afternoon presenter Rylan Clark-Neal says. “A lot of people get in touch online saying how they’ve had a bad week, but listening to the show made them forget what’s going on.”
Whiley describes her role as “providing comfort and reassurance to people who were in an anxious and lonely place”. She says she has tried to be a bridge between people who have been parted by the lockdown “by telling their stories and connecting them with a song that is special to them both”.
The man behind the songs is Jeff Smith, Radio 2’s head of music. Achievements he points to include covering music events like the virtual Cheltenham Jazz Festival at Home, and new live elements such as Radio 2 House Music, which featured James Blunt from his home in Ibiza, Rumer in Georgia in the US, Nell Bryden’s remote performance with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and contributions from Barry Manilow, Kelly Clarkson and Richard Marx.
Old favourites remain a vital component of the station’s output, with Spinning Around by Kylie Minogue, Happy by Pharrell Williams, Ain’t Nobody by Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Young Hearts Run Free by Candi Staton among the most frequently played songs. Popular new material includes Kings and Queens by Ava Max; The Greatest by James Blunt; and Break My Heart by Dua Lipa.
Throughout lockdown, great moments have abounded. Ken Bruce has his favourite: “In the middle of PopMaster our contestant, who was at his workplace, suddenly found someone else had come into the room he was in. Being a good social distancer, and a natural live broadcaster, he relocated mid-question to the toilet, where he continued seamlessly answering – and scoring rather well.”
Radio 2: a resourceful radio station with resourceful listeners.
Find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide.