BBC radio is no longer top dog in the digital age

Eddie Mair and Chris Evans could be the first of many to wave goodbye to the broadcaster, warns Libby Purves

Chris Evans in car MAIN

When we heard that Eddie Mair was leaving for LBC, I pursed my lips. Rumour said it was for money, and I got judgemental. Wrong: turns out he was truly pixilated by a fresh start. Sorry, Eddie.

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But no sooner had we digested this worrying idea that life could be more fun outside Broadcasting House than Chris Evans was heading off to Virgin.

Who next? Now that commercial radio offers both good money and nationwide reach online, is it no longer axiomatic that the best, proudest place to be in radio is the BBC? Commercial bosses like James Rea of LBC speak bullishly of “breaking the BBC’s stranglehold”, which is a bit unfair since the “stranglehold” was due to the pre-digital need for huge transmitters funded by a licence fee, and to a Charter underpinning the public service seriousness of Radios 3 and 4.

It was streaming that changed the landscape, not heroism. But now the commercial stations’ tanks are on the lawn, with a move towards talk and “Leading Britain’s Conversation”. Rea says, “We are closing the gap… we’re in the business of expansion.” His audience is led by ABC1s, like Radio 4’s: but is younger.

Expansion is always exciting. More than retrenchment and fiscal shrinking, from which BBC radio suffers. Only its few superstars and top managers operate in the mad-money area that sparked the gender pay row. Its skilled, faithful core of programme-makers and freelancers are little rewarded or respected.

The BBC is always embattled: criticised for its anxious over management and recent stupidities, its TV limb wincing from a losing arm wrestle with Netflix and Sky. Morale is fragile. Dismayingly, it could be that Mair and Evans are the first flakes of gilded plaster falling off the grand old structure. Harbingers of a sense that actually, dammit, the BBC is not the proudest, happiest, most comradely place to do radio.

I don’t want to think that. Lord Reith was right about offering people something “better than they thought they wanted”, and in his poignant “There are two kinds of loneliness: insulation in space and isolation of spirit. These are both dispelled by wireless.” Radio 4 embodied that faith in mind-to-mind connection; even outside the news department, nearly half its programmes still do.

There is still craft, dedication and curiosity, a civil assumption of listeners’ intelligence but not scholarship. And it’s properly inclusive: you don’t need a smartphone or wi-fi, even your nan’s old tranny with the bent aerial will do. You can be in a shed or up a mountain, in a lorry or a cardboard box on the pavement, and still be offered Peter Hennessy and Neil MacGregor, drama, careful reporting and The News Quiz. I like that thought.

It isn’t universal, though. I’m no Luddite, and podcasts of existing programmes are a boon, but I raise an eyebrow at BBC Radio boss Bob Shennan’s panic at the supposed two million who “only listen to podcasts”, and his appointment of a special commissioner for stuff never intended to be shared on air. Especially when, to be honest, podcasts so often are unstructured, rambling, overlong and self-indulgent. That studio clock has a purpose…

Will that digital-or-die feeling feed a sense that BBC radio as we knew it is over? Are Mair and Evans the advance guard? Are the cleverest people thinking of jumping ship to surf the online wave? I long to be wrong.

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Libby Purves is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and author