Time for BBC Radio England?

BBC Local Graphic.

Once, naively, I went to a meeting of BBC Local Radio editors and suggested that they cut their output in half and pool resources to create a night-time service called BBC Radio England. Well, I wouldn’t have provoked so much shock and disgust if I had stripped off and danced naked on the conference room table. To be fair, my suggestion was made with the best of intentions and after I had heaped much praise on the various BBC local stations I had heard on my various trips through England’s green and pleasant lands.  I remember singling out BBC Radio Newcastle which had an excellent morning news show and an equally good afternoon arts programme. I’d also heard the output of stations in Devon and Cornwall and on Jersey.  All good at what they were doing and I had a quiet chuckle when I heard the local presenters diverting from the centrally-dictated music playlist and responding to what their local listeners were actually asking them to play.

That, it seemed to me, has always been the core contradiction about BBC Local Radio. The stations are set up to respond to particular local communities but, every now and again, a diktat comes down from on high which betrays an absurd  one-size-fits-all approach to local broadcasting. Over the years they have been instructed to forget music and focus on news. Then that was reversed and there was the universal focus on mythical listeners called Dave and Sue. Producers and presenters were told to get to know these fictional listeners and do all they could to grab their attention. There was also a brief period when the stations went all-out to attract the World War 2 generation until those same listeners reacted by telling the BBC they had already fought the war and didn’t need to be reminded of it every day. These centralised commands ignore the fact that each of the 39 BBC local stations work in different market environments, with different demographics and different competitors. It also neglects the appeal of local presenters who have spent years building a relationship with their listeners.

In the latest round of cuts, BBC Local Radio is again being subjected to some shoe-horn thinking from on high. One cost-saving measure will mean an end to all twin presentation formats. This is the kind of thinking that comes from executives who have lost their ear for good radio. Sure, some solo presenters are brilliant, but others need an on-air companion to bounce ideas back and forth and to take different sides on an issue. The best twin-presentation formats understand how each of the two presenters can represent the different views and experiences of the listeners. That can be as simple and man/woman, but it can also be young/old, urban/rural, serious/funny…and so on. Where the presenters don’t understand that and both do the same thing then, yes, bring down the axe.

And BBC Radio England?  Well, the reason I made such a blasphemous suggestion all those years ago was because, in my listening travels, I heard many BBC Local stations sharing evening content in a patch-work style that was difficult to understand.  So, sometimes BBC Jersey would take programmes from Cornwall, some other BBC station would take network content.  I thought one single sustaining service might be clearer and cheaper and allow the station managers to invest funds back into their daytime shows.

Now it seems, BBC Radio England might be becoming a reality by default and for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. Just when local radio can and is providing up-to-the minute coverage of the coronavirus – and offering multi-lingual health advice in virus hotspots – the BBC is talking about pulling back from localness. And, as you have heard me blether on this before, this is also a time when commercial radio is also reducing local content and thus leaving a gap in the market for the BBC.

But there is one good reason to go ahead and create something called BBC Radio England. It might remind the bosses and producers at BBC Radio 4  that’s not the name of the service they’re working for.


Fake news and the sex book that never was.

They say one sure way to sell copies of your book is to generate some kind of public contoversy about it.  Well, a bit late in the day, I’ve done just that…albeit thanks to the Fake News Media that Donald Trump is always going on about.

In this case, the fake news is my little way of experimenting with various bits of software and some of those new apps we are being bombarded with on social media these days. So this basic animation comes courtesy of Toonly and the presenters voices are generated by Speechelo. The rest of the mix is done on Wondershare Filmora.

This is how I’m occupying my time while I wait for my tongue-reduction surgery (due in August) and the Editor’s verdict on my next book (due in October).

I dunno, maybe Twilight News Tonight should become a regular feature. Or maybe not.

Radio…someone still loves you.

Coronavirus - Mon Jun 29, 2020

A few days ago, I got talking to an old BBC chum about the launch of Times Radio. It’s a new venture from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and will sit alongside the company’s others stations such as Talksport and Virgin Radio.

“So, what do you make of it?” asked my old chum.

I had to confess that I had only heard snippets and really not enough to form a judgement, but I was more interested in the actual decision to launch a speech radio station with the intent to rival the likes of BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live and Global’s LBC and super-slick LBC News.

“Here’s yet another commercial company investing in radio,” I said, “You know, that medium that the BBC strategists kept telling us was at death’s door.”

My pal laughed but as our chat continued, I recalled the frustration I used to experience working at the BBC when it felt you were constantly having to make the case for radio in meetings dominated by executives from television. On a good day, my radio gum-bumping was tolerated with a few patronising nods, on a bad day it felt like I was arguing for the return of ration cards and powdered eggs .

“Poor old Jeff,” you could imagine them thinking, “He doesn’t realise it’s all about the kids these days…and the kids don’t want radio.  They want Netflix and podcasts. Hasn’t he seen the research?”

Yes, I had seen the research. The same research that told us that average life expectancy in the U.K. was now 81 and that it might be an idea if listeners in their 40’s and 50’s had something exciting to look forward to from the BBC in the next four decades…other than having to pay the licence fee, of course.

Mind you, it was the same kind of youth-oriented thinking that led to the decision to axe BBC 3 as an actual TV channel.

“The kids will find our edgy shows on the iPlayer,” the strategists told us. “Television channels are a thing of the past.”

Of course, no one told that to the people at Freeview where there are still about a hundred channels to choose from…and four hundred on Sky.  Thing of the past, though.

But back to radio. You’d think the BBC, with its proud history in audio broadcasting, would be a brilliant place to work if you were passionate about radio. But it didnt always feel like that because somewhere along the way, the executives at the top of the BBC tree stopped believing in it and whenever a round of budget cuts was announced, you could be sure that those same executives would be looking down at radio and seeing fantastic opportunities to save money. Oh, how I used to fantasise that someone would remind the BBC of its public service obligations and either ring-fence the money for radio or else remove radio completely from the clutches of TV bosses who neither understood it nor cared for it.  I have friends who work in commercial radio and for all that they might have to cope with smaller budgets, salaries and production teams, you do get a sense that they are working for companies that live and breathe radio.  Sure, the aim is to make money by selling advertising – and that has led to some fairly brutal shutdowns and job losses – but the BBC has been slow to see that as an opportunity to step in and fill the gap.

BBC budget cuts are always preceded with some management-speak about streamlining workflows and re-organising  the management structure of the corporation for the next decade/century/millennium.  As if viewers and listeners care about such stuff.  Rarely does the process start with discussions about the kind of new services and programmes the BBC might be able to offer to viewers and listeners of every age group. You know, like a couple of new radio stations maybe?

This time around…as the BBC announces six hundred job losses across Nations and Regions, there’s also talk about spending one hundred million pounds on “diversity on television” – something you might have thought they should have been doing anyway.  And what kind of diversity? Regional diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of age groups? Is all diversity equal or is some diversity more equal than others?

Ach, that’s enough ranting for me because I can feel my old frustrations starting to make me grumpy. Now there’s an idea: Radio Grumpy.  If the BBC wont back it, maybe I can interest Rupert Murdoch.  It seems like his kind of thing.

Pull them off their plinths

Blokes on Blocks

It was 27 years ago and one of the first radio programmes I made for BBC Radio Scotland was about statues. It wasn’t the most audio-friendly idea I’d ever come up with, because those ‘blokes on blocks’, as I called them didn’t have much to say for themselves. But I soon discovered that plenty of other people had lots to say about them.  Among my interviewees for the series was Scottish sculptor Sandy Stoddart who argued that statues should provoke debate and argument. It was, he said, proof that they were still important pieces of art. All the better, he argued, if people felt so strongly about a statue that they wanted it torn down.

He was referencing what had happened in the former Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, where hundred of statues of Lenin were toppled and dragged to the rubbish heap. In Russia many statues of Lenin and Stalin can be viewed in special museums and that, to me, seems like a good solution for our own blokes on blocks that we no longer want to see in public places.  Shove them in a museum and place them at eye level so that we can admire the skill artistry of the sculptor and read why the blokes immortalised in bronze or granite no longer deserve their place on a plinth.

And just think what you could do with a public space the size of George Square in Glasgow.  Clear it of all that sculpted clutter and city planners could finally realise their dream of creating a modern civic gathering place.  That was the plan put forward eight years ago, but it was rejected after public outrage.  Eight years ago, people wanted to keep the statues.

Funny old thing, public opinion. It keeps changing.

The Return of Tim Davie as BBC Boss

Tim Davie BBC

Tim Davie, who has just been unveiled as the BBC’s next Director General, had a particular technique when talking to large gatherings of staff.  Before beginning his spiel, he would ask us if it would be ok if he removed his jacket. I can’t imagine any of us were going to object, but in this small act he achieved two things. First, by asking our permission, he seemed to be according us a degree of respect and, secondly, by removing his jacket, he gave the impression of informality. He didn’t need to ask us if he could remove his tie, because he rarely wore one and it was that same informality that drew some criticism the last time he was given the top job. That was back in 2012, after fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal claimed the head of George Entwistle.  I remember meeting Tim in his office in the days before Entwistle’s departure. I had gone to London for yet another meeting to discuss budget cuts and popped in to see Tim with a tiny idea I’d had about an online comedy calendar. Tim was in charge of BBC Audio and Music at the time and I thought he could give us access to the BBC archive of radio comedy to make the calendar a reality. I could not have picked a worst moment to talk to him because he was clearly distracted by the internal shenanigans at the BBC’s top level.

“I was having a conversation with my wife last night,” he told me, “And we were trying to think who they will choose to be the acting DG if George is forced to resign.  We worked out it might be me. It’s frightening.”

And they did choose him, of course, because more likely candidates were already embroiled in the Savile scandal and others were trying to distance themselves from the story. It was a horrible time and I remember programme makers in Scotland were feeling the shame of working for an organisation that had harboured one of Britain’s worst paedophiles. One producer told me she had been harangued while trying to record material for an arts programme. Others were so distressed by the situation that they were in tears.

I had once met Savile at a Radio Hall of Fame gathering in London. I wrote about that in the Red Light Zone He was a grotesque character who had gone around every table after being presented with his award. In his shiny tracksuit and coloured sunglasses, he had laid hands on every second woman’s shoulders as he offered his thanks for the honour. Most of them shivered at his touch. I had also written about the encounter on my BBC blog, but when the scandal broke, that entry was removed on the grounds of “taste”.

A few days after my comedy calendar meeting, Tim was named as acting DG and news crews were waiting for him when he arrived at work that morning, tie-less as usual and clutching a paper cup of takeaway coffee. The attacks began almost immediately, and everything was thrown at him including a good dollop of class prejudice about his “barrow boy” background.  I’m sure he was glad to hand the job over to Tony Hall and go on to more fun things as Director of BBC Worldwide.

I had two other memorable encounters with Tim Davie.  One was when he addressed a meeting of staff at Pacific Quay and told us that the quota system that guaranteed a nine percent share of commissions for television producers in Scotland would never apply to those of us who worked in radio. I felt I had no alternative to stand up and object to that if, for no other reason, so that my own staff could see that I didn’t agree. My last encounter came when I applied for the job as Director of BBC Scotland. The interview went well until we got into the topic of Brexit and I lambasted the BBC’s news coverage of that story as shallow and personality driven. Tim, probably remembering my outburst at the last staff meeting, suggested I might be not be a good ambassador for the Corporation.  Well, maybe he was right. Lets face it, I’m the kind of bloke who leaves and then writes a ‘laugh ‘n’ tell’ book about what it was like to work there.  Still available from all online retailers at £8.99, by the way.

Lockdown at Lollipop Lodge

unnamed (2)

Chapter One.

“I might be the luckiest girl in Scotland,” Fiona said as the girl in Tesco handed her the receipt and asked her if she had any plans for the rest of the day. The poor girl looked so downtrodden and fed up. And that calamity of a hairstyle! Poor dear. Fiona decided there would be no harm in sharing news of her own good fortune.
“I’ve just met the most perfect man and he’s invited me to stay with him on his very own island.”
“That’s nice,” said the girl who was already looking at the next customer and crooking a finger to beckon him through the two-metre distance marker. She had to change that to an open-palmed ‘halt’ when she realised Fiona was still talking to her.
“And what’s amazing is that I only met him last night. We were on a blind date, one of those computer-matching thingies, but we hit it off right away and now…”
“That’s nice,” said the checkout girl who realised her premature come-on to the next customer had created chaos in the queue as the line of twelve people all tried to move back to their original positions. She heard the crash of trolleys and more than a few swear words.
“And now this whole lockdown nonsense has been announced and I was absolutely hating the idea of living alone for the next three weeks and so Hamish, that’s his name, Hamish said I could come to his little island for the duration.”
“Uh huh, well, if you’ll excuse me, I need to…”
“Of course he’d had a bit to drink and I wondered if he might have been joking, but I phoned him first thing this morning to tell him how beautiful the dawn was looking and I asked him outright if he still felt the same way.”
“I’m sorry but…”
“And he was so funny, pretending he’d even forgotten my name and all that. Quite a tease, he is, but I do like a man with a sense of humour. Anyway, he’s picking me up tomorrow and that’s what made me remember that there’s late night shopping on a Thursday. So I’ve been in a mad whirl for the past few hours, picking the right things to wear for the island. I’ve got plenty of cocktail dresses of course, but most of them are last season, so I phoned Hamish again and asked him what I should bring. And do you know what he said?”
“No, but…”
“Toilet rolls! What a hoot. Anyway, I thought I’ll show him I’ve also got a funny bone or two, so that’s why I came in here. That’s why I’ve bought all these loo rolls. Three twelve-packs. They only had two left on the shelf, but there was an old dear in one of those electric scooter contraptions. So I followed her around the aisles until the big multi-pack tumbled from her tiny basket. I’m quite the commando sometimes and it will be a funny story to tell Hamish in the morning.”
“Is there a problem here?”
The store manager had arrived, alerted by the logjam behind the till. Fiona didn’t much like the look of him with his clip-on tie and neck tattoos. He also gave off a whiff of cheap after-shave, probably the supermarket’s own brand she thought.
“No problem,” she told him, “Except this lovely girl here has been holding me back with all her chit-chat. Goodness, is that the time?”
Fiona had glanced at her wristwatch. It had been a gift from Daddy on her 21st birthday. Oh, he did spoil her! This cute Rolex for her birthday, the little BMW for Christmas…she was, indeed the luckiest girl in Scotland.
“It’s almost eight o’clock and I still have so much to do before tomorrow. I’ll be off then. Bye bye everyone.”
As she pushed her trolley away from the till, the people in the queue broke into a round of applause so she turned and gave them a little wave. How sweet of them! It was the same when she went outside. People were hanging from their windows, whistling and cheering and some were even banging pots and pans. But how could they have known? Was it written on her face that she was already, totally, madly in love?
She called Hamish three more times that night just to check a few details about the trip. Each time he took a little longer to answer, which was a tiny bit annoying. It was almost as if he couldn’t see the importance of her questions about swimming cozzies and hair straighteners, but her last call of the night was really urgent because she’d completely forgotten to tell him about Gooseberry.
“Gooseberry?” he had said, sounding a bit off-hand.
“Yes, Gooseberry. I forgot to tell you I would have to bring Gooseberry. He’s my dog, well, my best friend really.”
“I see,” said Hamish, “And what kind of dog is he?”
“Oh, Hamish, he’s the most adorable Irish Setter you have ever met. He’s my cuddle-chum.”
“And there’s no one who could look after him for you? Gooseberry, I mean.”
“Well that’s the thing. I completely forgot that Mummy and Daddy are away on one of their silly cruises. They set off weeks ago and now there’s been some kind of nonsense on board. They’re not letting people get off or fly home. Something about a virus. Mummy sounded quite upset about it all.”
“It’s the corona,” said Hamish
“No, no, it’s called the Ocean Princess or something like that. Anyway, that’s not the point. I will have to bring Gooseberry along. You don’t mind, do you? Tell me you don’t.”
“That’s fine,” said Hamish, “I’ll see you in the morning er…”
“Fiona. Silly boy!”
“Aye well, I’ll pick you up at half past eight, Fiona. So, you get some sleep, we’ll have a long drive ahead of us.”
“Oh, I can’t wait. Your island sounds so romantic. Just me and you and the crashing waves.”
“And Gooseberry” said Hamish and then the line went dead.

Borrowed Voices

There wont be many live author appearances for a while, of course. In my case, just as well, given that recent tongue surgery has left my voice with an underwater quality. I can only hope that dolphins and whales are organising some kind of post-lockdown literary festival.

Government instructions to ‘stay at home’ does give me ample time to be working on my next book, but I’ve been procrastinating.  I’ve opened a Soundcloud account to deposit the various extracts I was able to record before going into hospital. Much better were those performed by the radio chums I persuaded to lend me their voices. So thank you, again, Richard Melvin, Julia Sutherland and Gary Robertson.

If you’re also in procrastination mood yourself, have a listen.


Thank the Lord


There I was in the Salmon Bothy, settling myself for my stint at the fantastic Portsoy Book Festival yesterday, when the Festival Treasurer handed me a mysterious package.

“This,” she said, “Is from the Lord Lieutenant. He says he knows you?”

I know my face must have looked blank and I didn’t want to appear rude, but for the life of me I couldn’t think who she meant. For those unfamiliar with the title of Lord Lieutenant, it’s a throwback to the days when the monarch appointed a representative for each of the old Scottish counties. In the past, the Lord Lieutenant had the power to raise a militia of local people in order to quell any uprisings.  These days it tend to be a title bestowed on retired people with a good record of public or community service.

It was only when I opened the package that it all became clear, because inside was a book. It was the history of Elgin High School and there was a card marking the chapter about the BBC Scotland SoundTown project which set up camp in the school back in 2005. We built a radio station with the pupils and spent a school year organising a range of activities linked to the output of the BBC.  The headmaster at the time was Andy Simpson and he, it now turned out, was the new Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire.  In the card he offered apologies for not being able to attend my event at the festival but he also recalled how we had swapped jobs for a day. I’d spent a  few hours shadowing his job as Headmaster at Elgin and he’d come to Glasgow to sort out BBC Radio Scotland.

I had often wondered if that SoundTown project made any difference to the schools we  invaded over the years, but Andy put my mind to rest by writing:

“SoundTown was an important moment for Elgin High School. It undoubtedly raised aspirations amongst the pupils as well as the profile of the school both locally and across the country. We were able to build on this in different ways and subsequently saw exam passes and career progression routes develop in very positive ways.”

That was a really terrific thing to read. And from a Lord, no less!



The book that keeps on giving.


Write a book and get it published.  It probably wont make you rich but the fringe benefits are terrific. The Red Light Zone rolled off the presses more than a year ago, but the rewards just keep on coming. I’m not talking about the monthly royalty payments – which barely fund my out-of-control addiction to fresh blueberries – I’m really talking about the unexpected emails I get from happy readers and old friends. One such came into the other day from a girl I knew at school called Mary O’Hagan.  She’s now Mary McCarthy, a successful magazine journalist living in Spain. She got in touch to remind me of a an essay I’d written in fourth year English class.  It was a critique of  Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but I’d written it in the style of the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield. I’d forgotten all about that, but Mary assured me that the teacher read it aloud to the class and I might have got a round of applause. What a nice memory to contrast with all the times I dodged school entirely and spent day after day riding the bus into the centre of Glasgow and staying out of the rain by exploring all the libraries, museums and pie shops.  Inevitably the Truant Officer tracked me down, blabbed to my parents, and my days as a carefree teen-about-town were over.

Then there’s the unexpected press reviews, like the eight-star ‘One To Read’ piece that has been popping up in local papers around Scotland. I’m trying to be positive so wont spend too many sleepless nights wondering why I dropped two stars. Honestly.  But why? WHY?

And of course there are the invitations to speak at book festivals like the one I’m attending in Portsoy this Sunday morning. I’m dispensing with most of my usual props and PowerPoint slides (although I’m keeping the coconut) and simply punctuating my chat with clips of audio. The book is about radio after all.

As I say, write a book. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. I might even do it again.

No Time To Die…


… I’ve got a book festival to attend. The Portsoy Book Festival, to be precise. It was something I was invited to do months ago, but I did think of cancelling when tongue surgery left me with a voice that sounded a bit like something from a Muppet version of The Elephant Man. Happily, week by week, my speech is improving and I’m looking at that Portsoy date – 8th March – as a personal challenge. Just in case, though, I’ve made some calls to a few radio chums and asked them if I can borrow their voices for five minutes. I’ve asked them to record some extracts from The Red Light Zone, so if I get a bit tongue-tied on the day, I can hit the play button on my laptop and give myself and the audience a break. It’s times like this when you appreciate the support of your friends. Frankly I’ve been blown away with the messages of love and congratulations I received when I posted the latest news about my condition on Facebook this weekend. Great news it was too. No spread of the cancer to my lymph nodes, so no need for radiation therapy. In fact, the consultant confirmed, I am now officially cancer free. Imagine that! I was diagnosed on the 12th of December and officially cured on the 15th of February. How’s that for a super National Health Service?

So, it’s back to the keyboard now and continuing work on my next book. I’ll be revealing a bit about that at Portsoy and, thinking ahead, I did manage to record an extract from that before I went into hospital. There might even be a musical interlude of sorts too because, as part of my speech therapy, I’ve been singing Sinatra songs every morning to get my newly reconditioned tongue moving. Unsurprisingly, I don’t sound anything like ol’ Blue Eyes . Not yet, anyway. Give me another few weeks.

Be great to see you in Portsoy. If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.