It is, Bob Shennan says, “the biggest thing we’ve ever done” – an undertaking that “goes to the heart of what the BBC is for… a moment to unite the nation”, with a line-up he describes as “phenomenal”.
Shennan, the BBC’s head of radio and music, is in his office on the eighth floor of Broadcasting House, enthusing about the fruition of more than two years’ planning and dedicated effort – an event of huge complexity and ambition that will fill 20-plus hours of airtime on both TV and radio this weekend. It will deliver, he hopes, “a unique experience” to millions of listeners and viewers.
Belfast, Coventry, Perth and Swansea are the four locations, and the number of acts appearing tops 100. They include Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Florence and the Machine, Liam Gallagher, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, George Ezra, Nigel Kennedy, First Aid Kit, Rita Ora, Paloma Faith, Stereophonics… the list goes on. Some 175,000 people will attend live, and it’s all but sold out.
So why The Biggest Weekend, and why now? The answer has a lot to do with all those BBC ideals Shennan alludes to – spreading music across the land and bringing the UK together at a time when “the tyranny of choice”, as Shennan puts it, holds sway. The more prosaic reason can be summed up in one word – Glastonbury.
Every few years the giant that is the Glastonbury Festival puts its feet up and takes a break, and 2018 is one of those years. But the festival has become such a fixture in the BBC schedules that, without it, there’s a yawning gap. The gap needed filling. So The Biggest Weekend is really the BBC’s own Glastonbury, and as with the Worthy Farm spectacular, the commitment involved is prodigious.
Making things happen is central to Shennan’s vision of the future of BBC radio. He is 56, lives in High Wycombe, is married with three grown-up children, and he has a BBC career that goes back to producing radio sport in the late 1980s, his journey to the top job interrupted only by a spell at Channel 4 in 2008. Now he presides over the BBC’s radio output at “an incredibly exciting time”, when “huge change” is happening.
“The internet has transformed the audio experience,” Shennan says. “There are podcasts. There’s the iPlayer. But more people than ever are listening to radio in some form or other. There are still 32 million people a week listening to BBC radio. It’s true that younger people are turning more and more to podcasts, but don’t let anybody kid you that they’re not listening to the radio. It’s still an incredibly strong medium among the under-25s. The future lies in adapting to audience needs. Radio right now feels buoyant, exciting and a bit precarious all at the same time. That gives us a huge opportunity.”
One manifestation of the rapidly changing nature of radio is the recent upheaval involving the Radio 2 schedules. Venerable names including Nigel Ogden and Frank Renton have disappeared. The Simon Mayo drivetime show has become Jo Whiley and Simon Mayo. There’s a much more prominent role for Sara Cox, and the network has welcomed OJ Borg. And with the death in the past year of both Brian Matthew and Desmond Carrington, the station seems to have untethered itself from an important aspect of its past.
But the past – at least the more recent past – is where Shennan goes in his defence of the changes. “Radio 2 has for 20 years experienced a very strong growth and it began when the then Radio 2 controller Jim Moir introduced Jonathan Ross and Steve Wright to the schedules. It was a revolution, and it took the station from being a single-figure station to a station of 12-13 million.
“There was another revolution when Chris Evans took over the breakfast show, and Radio 2 grew into a station of 15 million listeners. A lot of that growth has been in the over-55s and we’ve been flatlining with the 35- to 55-yearolds. You can’t set a radio station in aspic. As soon as you do that, you lose ground. The changes we’ve made have been in order to make sure we keep fresh and relevant for all audiences. You have to keep replenishing at the younger end, but not in a way that deprives anyone.
The only deprivation that seems to be on Shennan’s mind at the moment is the Champions League final. A lifelong Liverpool supporter, he was there in Istanbul in 2005 when the team lifted the trophy, and describes the moment as “one of the great days of my life”. They’re back in the final in 2018, and Shennan can be forgiven for inwardly cursing the clash of dates with The Biggest Weekend. “I won’t be in Kiev,” he says a bit ruefully. “I’ll be in Swansea.”
And who’s he looking forward to seeing? Where do the BBC head of music’s tastes lie? A somewhat guarded figure whom an agent who knows him well described to me as “inscrutable”, Shennan mentions Ed Sheeran, the Gallagher brothers, Taylor Swift and Nigel Kennedy. A broad church. As the sun rises on The Biggest Weekend, “something for everybody” might be seen as the Bob Shennan mantra.
Interview with Simon O’Hagan
The Biggest Weekend runs Friday 25th May – Monday 28th May. Coverage at various times is on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 and on Radio 1, 2, 3 and 6 Music.