What has gone wrong at BBC Radio 2?
Stars Simon Mayo and Chris Evans are leaving, listeners are switching off... Mark Lawson investigates who is to blame for the crisis at the nation's favourite radio station
"With Radio 2, you make changes like a porcupine makes love – very carefully.”
That was the motto of Jim Moir, when Controller of the network, reflecting the view that the station – on which Ken Bruce has hosted the same show for 26 years, Steve Wright for 19 and Jeremy Vine for 15 – has an unusually stable schedule, which is rewarded by exceptional listener loyalty: the station’s “reach” of 28.1 per cent of the population and “cost per listener” (0.5p) are both exceptional by BBC radio standards.
Recently, though, the wildlife sexual comparison invoked by the running of Radio 2 has been less the porcupine than the rabbit – there have been a startling number of ins and outs.
In May this year, Simon Mayo, after eight years on the Drivetime show, was joined by Jo Whiley, in a pairing that proved to irritate fans of both their previous solo shows. Radio 2 spin doctors were still struggling to find support for the optimistic line that all format changes take time to settle when, in September, they had to deal with the fallout from Chris Evans’s announcement live on air that, after eight years on the breakfast show, he was leaving to join Virgin Radio in 2019.
A small spurt of positive publicity, from the announcement of Zoe Ball as Evans’s successor, was offset by disappointment from some listeners, who would have preferred Sara Cox. And then, on 22 October, Mayo resigned from the station, dissolving the new co-hosted Drivetime after barely six months, with Whiley given her second schedule move in a year, to launch a new music show from 7.00 to 9.00pm, starting in January.
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Only a sadomasochistic porcupine would bring on the next generation in this way. Some tweeters and correspondents to RT’s Feedback pages have reacted as if BBC bosses simply woke up one day and decided to wreck Britain’s most listened-to radio network. And, within the BBC, presenters and producers – in what is inevitably an off-the-record collage of impressions because they have been instructed (under a standard clause in contracts) not to speak publicly – give a picture of a serious breakdown in trust and communication between the hosts and makers of programmes and the bosses.
Someone who has a long-time involvement with Radio 2 says bluntly: “The managers are mainly s**t. And there are so many of them that, if you complain to one of them about something, they tell you the decision was made by another one. But when you go to see the other one, they tell you it was the first one.”
That complaint relates to the fact that BBC Radio has three separate, very senior figureheads. James Purnell, a former Labour cabinet minister, is Director, Radio and Education, while Bob Shennan is Director, Radio and Music, but the heads of the networks (including Lewis Carnie at Radio 2) actually report to a third person, Graham Ellis, who is Controller, Production (Radio). The salaries of this trinity cost the licence payer around £778,000 a year.
Over the seven weeks since Evans announced his departure, Radio Times has repeatedly asked for someone senior at BBC Radio to speak about Radio 2 for this article. After Mayo’s resignation, an interview was eventually offered, but that was then cancelled just before our deadline. Some licence payers may find this behaviour ironic, given the way in which BBC news presenters routinely mock Government departments and businesses who reply that “no one is available to speak” about a controversial issue.
On previous occasions, though, the BBC has insisted that its triplicate radio leaders have distinct and separate responsibilities, and, in relation to the Radio 2 issues, defenders of management argue privately that they have done their best with a combination of planned and unplanned change, both inevitably difficult.
The truth of the Radio 2 crisis lies, as is often the case, somewhere between the counter-accusations. While there is little sympathy for the bosses, what has happened at the station is rooted in off-air developments that show the BBC is not as creatively free as the licence payers may think.
Although audiences, and even journalists, often regard structural changes in broadcasting as boring, the shake-down (or, as some see it, meltdown) at Radio 2 was shaped by three backroom bureaucratic decisions.
The most publicised was the order from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that the BBC must publish the names of anyone paid more than £150,000 per year. Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the BBC director-general, warned that this might become a “poachers’ charter”, tipping rivals off about how much to bid.
One of the debates about what has happened at his most popular radio service is the extent to which Hall may have been proved right by the departure of Evans to Virgin, and unconfirmed rumours that Mayo may resurface at a commercial network such as Smooth. Others, though, contend that another factor in the presenter/ management stand-off is the character attacks, and back-tax demands, caused by the use of tax-reducing personal service companies, which some broadcasters insist that the BBC told them to set up. Last week, a parliamentary select committee strongly criticised the BBC for its handling of this issue.
But two more obscure pieces of governmental shuffling are at least as significant as the pay disclosures. On 3 April 2017, Ofcom, the government approved media regulator, was for the first time given external scrutiny of the BBC, which had previously dealt with all editorial issues internally. On the same day, a new Unitary Board (combining both BBC high-ups and independent non-executive directors) took over internal oversight of the corporation from previous committees of governors or trustees.
Where this dusty bureaucratic road leads to the Mayo-Whiley fiasco is that, under the new arrangements, all BBC services became subject to two “operating licences”: one from Ofcom and another from the BBC Board.
The Ofcom document contains a series of requirements for each network that may surprise many listeners with their strictness. Radio 2, for example, is instructed that “in each Financial Year at least 40 per cent of the music in Daytime is from United Kingdom acts; …in each Financial Year at least 20 per cent of the music in Daytime is New Music…”
Most importantly to what has happened, Clause 1:36:2 of the Ofcom licence requires the BBC to “reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom”, and Clause 1:37 to “make demonstrable year-on-year progress” towards greater diversity both on and off air. Failure to comply with any clause can result in the BBC being fined up to £250,000.
The BBC Executive, led by Lord Hall, is also now required by the new Board, headed by chairman Sir David Clementi, to publish an annual Action Plan, personally signed off by the DG. Prominent in the pledges for 2018–19 was to “reflect the full diversity of the whole of the UK”, with a promise to be the “industry leader” in on- and off-air diversity by 2020.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to see that a radio station whose presenters between 6.30am and 7.00pm are five white men over the age of 52 was potentially vulnerable to challenge. However, the problem, an insider argues, is that: “The bosses have never admitted, privately or publicly, that the Mayo-Whiley decision was gender equality driven.” If so, this was likely to be on legal advice: changing Mayo’s working arrangements purely on the basis of his being male could be seen as law-breaking discrimination.
But it is a widespread belief at the BBC – and among media commentators – that the network became committed to social engineering. In this period, the Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey, in the past an occasional fill-in presenter for Ken Bruce and Jeremy Vine, directly targeted Radio 2 as part of a wider campaign against unequal opportunities and unfair pay rates for BBC women.
In July 2017, when the income of top BBC presenters was published for the first time, Garvey said: “Radio 2... extraordinarily male and entirely pale and big salaries.” In further interventions, she publicly urged the BBC to sack one of the station’s big boy beasts.
“The Radio 2 managers,” an insider claims, “became terrified of Garvey. They felt they had to do something.”
A cynic might have joked that the solution would have been to move Garvey to Radio 2, but, instead, it seems the Mayo show was targeted as the place for change. A BBC source says that managers calculated that: “Simon was the only one who would wear it.” They reportedly concluded that it would be pointless to ask Evans or Wright to co-host, as they were so used to being big, solo voices at the microphone, and that the formats of Bruce’s and Vine’s shows would struggle to accommodate a second presenter. So Drivetime was seen as the only option for the desired diversification.
On 22nd October, announcing his departure from Radio 2, Mayo tweeted: “I’ve loved working with the exceptional Jo Whiley and when the show was ‘reconfigured’, she was my first and only choice.”
That is true but, perhaps due to diplomacy or the Twitter space limit, that isn’t the full story. While it’s true that Whiley was his only choice, the negotiations over what Mayo calls a “reconfiguration” appear to have given him no choice about having to have a female co-host. Some even say that it was made clear to Mayo that the effective choice was “no Jo means no show”. A friend of Mayo says: “He definitely said, ‘If I have to co-host, then it would be Jo.’ But the important words were ‘if I have to’. He always felt it was a disrespectful imposition.”
Wrong-footing the BBC publicity department, Mayo, in an interview scheduled to talk up the launch of the new show, admitted that it had been “difficult and upsetting” to lose his own Drivetime. And it was the perception of many listeners that a broadcaster previously noted for his gentle calm on air sounded upset and in difficulties during a show that featured uneasy silences and not much easier exchanges between the co-hosts.
Whiley also seemed to be finding the pairing tough and, for her, the music may have been as excruciating as the chat. While some DJs view the songs as an occupational threat to their on-air monologues, she’s one of those with specialist enthusiasm and knowledge, and it was impossible sometimes not to detect a critical cringe as she introduced Drivetime playlist hits that clearly wouldn’t be let near her iPod.
Whiley, as one of the few women in music radio, had necessarily become mentally tough and used to abuse. But, even by the low standards of online comment, she suffered spectacularly vituperative criticism for having, as protestors saw it, ruined Drivetime; comments which Mayo commendably described as “appalling” in his resignation tweet.
Friends of Whiley, meeting her during the summer, were so horrified by her visible levels of distress that they privately contacted a senior producer to check that the BBC was aware of the toll the show was taking on her, and were assured that it was. She will assuredly be much happier at 7pm, playing records she respects.
Another factor in Mayo’s unhappiness seems likely to have been the fallout from the publication of salaries. The July 2018 list, covering the period before their pairing, placed Whiley in the £170,00 to £179,999 band and Mayo on between £340,000 and £349,999. (His 5 Live film show with Mark Kermode, as it is made by an independent production company, would bring a separate, unrevealed fee.)
The BBC has publicly said that Mayo and Whiley were paid the same for their Radio 2 show. Although it won’t become clear until next summer’s publication of this year’s figures – which will be skewed by Mayo’s early departure – the BBC could have achieved equality either by raising Whiley’s pay or cutting Mayo’s. If his pay was reduced, it may have given him another reasonable cause to feel unease at the BBC.
On the Monday Mayo tweeted that he was leaving Radio 2, it was school half-term in many areas, so the station’s schedule was filled with stand-ins for vacationing regulars. Taking over from Sara Cox (replacing Evans), Mark Goodier (in for Bruce), mentioned that he would be followed by Vanessa Feltz (instead of Vine) and then Craig Charles (depping for Wright). “In fact,” said Goodier breezily, “the only regular presenters on today are Simon and Jo at 5pm!”
Many listeners must have been astonished that Goodier made no reference to the fact that the move of those hosts was currently leading news sites. I was subsequently told that Radio 2 presenters had been told not to make reference to the developments on air. This type of primitive news management is one of the things that has given BBC managers a bad name with presenters.
There was further staff exasperation when, last Thursday, the quarterly Rajar radio listening figures revealed that Radio 2’s audience had fallen year-on-year by 800,000 listeners, including a half-million fall in Evans’s figures. Lewis Carnie issued a statement expressing pleasure that “Radio 2 is still Britain’s most popular radio station”, a gloss that one insider likened to the Black Knight in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, exuding positivity even as each limb is hacked off.
The Evans drop may counterintuitively be good news, as it gives Ball a lower starting benchmark. And Carnie now has the chance to deliver some positive news in the shape of the new host of Drivetime. Sara Cox was the obvious front runner. As she goes to 5pm, Trevor Nelson is moving into Cox’s current 10pm-midnight show.
It’s a lot of change for listeners to accept at once
It could be be a formidable line-up of broadcasters, with the benefit of putting a previously older-bloke station at the front of the diversity curve. The drawback, though, is that it’s a lot of change for listeners to accept at once – especially after almost a decade of presentational stasis – and that the game of music-show chairs may not be over.
A leading showbusiness agent, though stressing that he knows of no such specific moves or negotiations, says: “If I were a commercial radio rival to the BBC, I’d conclude that what has happened with Evans and Mayo has shown how the all-powerful Radio 2 might be taken down. I’d go in with a big-last-payday mega-offer for Steve Wright and see what happened. I’d be surprised if their resolve isn’t tested again.”
Certainly, for Radio 2 managers, much work seems necessary to reconcile those in the studios with those in the offices. A well-known presenter says: “If you ran a company that made chocolate bars and you lost one of your biggest products to a rival, and then had a spectacular relaunch that had to be abandoned after a few months, you’d be sacked. But, at the BBC, there seems to be a rule that managers are only responsible when things go well, not when they go wrong.”
Presenters point out that there is no evidence that any manager involved in the reputationally and financially disastrous lost legal case against Sir Cliff Richard, the gender pay or presenter contract controversies has faced any consequences at all. The Radio 2 mess is not expected to be an exception.
If you want to be optimistic, then the departures of Evans and Mayo have, in a messy way, achieved Radio 2’s need to refresh and feminise its line-up. But, if the new schedule, resulting from a combination of choices and accidents, is to succeed, it will require the audience to adapt quickly from the porcupine decades to the year of the rabbit.