Out of the Light 2 

28 November 2003 tbs.pm/3195

When the network relaunched in April 1986, most contemporary pop was out, with standards and instrumentals getting a much higher priority, and the initially very controversial appointment of cockney-accented former tabloid editor Derek Jameson as breakfast host – R2 was still finding it hard to adequately succeed Terry Wogan who had left in December 1984 to move into television – faded quickly, as Jameson reached sentimental National Institution status.

David Hamilton flounced off to Radio 210 in Reading claiming that R2’s music policy had become “geriatric” and “there’s only so much Max Bygraves and Vera Lynn you can play”, and all hint at a crossover with Radio 1 was rapidly abolished. R1, meanwhile, had a whole host of DJs becoming national personalities through television – Mike Read, Mike Smith, and to a lesser extent Steve Wright, Bruno Brookes and Gary Davies.

In the late 1980s, both stations experienced changes which, in detail alone, appear dramatic and radical. R1, at last began to gain its own FM frequency, initially on Monday 2-Nov-1987 for the London area (from Crystal Palace) on 104.8 FM, and then on 97-99 FM nationally, so that by the end of 1988 over half the population could receive R1 in stereo, with the network being completed in the early 1990s.

R1 obviously no longer needed R2’s FM frequencies for selected programmes, so from 3-Oct-1988 onwards, R2 had FM stereo for the full 24 hours every weekday, and in March 1990 R1’s restricted use of the R2 FM frequencies at weekends finally ceased. On 27-Aug-1990, the new network of Radio 5 opened on R2’s AM frequencies, taking in the sports coverage and regular updates which had been concentrated on R2 with the reorganisation of the BBC’s networks 20 years earlier, and on 1-May-1991 R1 started broadcasting for 24 hours a day.

On the surface, this seems like a serious reworking of the whole setup, in tune with the massive expansion of commercial radio at this point. But both networks were stagnating at this point – or, at least, growing old within themselves, appealing to their existing listeners. Radio 1 spoke openly about aping American AOR stations and boasted that their original listeners from 20 years earlier were still listening, and broadcast documentaries about 50s and 60s icons like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles which should, logically, have been on R2. But Frances Line, architect of R2’s “melody, familiarity and excellence” sea change of 1986, was now controller, and she was appealing solidly to the traditional Light Programme audience, employing the likes of Judith Chalmers and Katie Boyle to present morning shows, with people like Russ Conway doing special hour-long afternoon shows presenting their favourite music. Even the ill-judged appointment of Brian Hayes to the breakfast show was rectified after a year when Terry Wogan returned after the demise of his TV chat show.

Radio 1’s controller since 1985, Johnny Beerling, was by now 55 years old, and it was hard to see how the R1 lineup of 1992, featuring such veterans as Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis, Alan Freeman and Bob Harris, would appeal to the young listeners who were still ostensibly the station’s target audience.

The threat of privatisation was hanging ever more dramatically over the BBC’s more “populist” networks, and dark rumours were spreading that R1 would be sold off, or change completely: perhaps play more album tracks, more speech, more news and current affairs. Things were very uncertain.

It is now too familiar to need repetition that, when Matthew Bannister became controller of R1 in 1993, most of the old guard left pretty quickly. But the most interesting moment in that episode was when Dave Lee Travis went to see Frances Line and asked if he could continue his weekend R1 show on R2 – just move it over, keep the listeners within the BBC, and broaden R2’s appeal. She said no, unequivocally. The nostalgia he evoked was too recent, and his core audience was too young for her idea of R2, and Travis moved into commercial radio after a quarter of a century with the BBC.

So, as R1 rapidly redefined itself – appealing to indie-rock audiences with Steve Lamacq, Mark Radcliffe and the involvement of Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie (all but Lamacq had previously been on the original Radio 5), and bringing in dance, hip-hop and R&B DJs like Danny Rampling, Tim Westwood and Trevor Nelson – R2 stood still for a while. In 1995 it offered such things as a tribute to the 1930s and 40s comic duo the Western Brothers, a look back at the 50s and 60s cinema programmes of Peter Noble, Angela Rippon introducing portraits of the seasons of the year, and Jeremy Nicholas presenting a programme about “Englishness” which made John Major look like a bastion of multiculturalism.

Those who now fell between two stools had gone the way of DLT: they were listening en masse to the vastly increased range of local commercial stations, plus the new national pretender, Virgin Radio.

When Jim Moir became controller of R2 in 1996, it was initially believed that he might keep the station much as it was: hadn’t he produced the Val Doonican Music Show for BBC1, after all? Hadn’t he worked with perhaps the most stereotypical cosy old-school R2 artiste of the lot? But he had also brought people like Lenny Henry and French and Saunders onto BBC1 – something he would arguably repeat when he coaxed so many former R1 DJs onto R2 – and he knew instantly that changes had to be made to stop the network’s slow drift into timewarp and irrelevance.

The entrance of Steve Wright, followed by the likes of Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker and Alan Freeman, massively increased the station’s credibility among a much wider audience, many of whom had been left behind by R1. Both stations had now found a niche.

As R1 had drifted more and more towards dance, hip-hop and R&B, broadcasters like Stuart Maconie, who hit a rich vein of form at R1 in the mid-90s, have found a once unlikely, but now perfectly logical, home on R2. Both are hugely popular, and both can claim the credit for breaking a good number of current UK chart hits, something Radio 1 has always done, but R2 hardly did at all 10 years ago.

Of course, the big losers in this game have been the traditional audience, many of whom have been there since Light Programme days. R2’s programmes targeted at the senior audience have now been pretty much concentrated on Sundays, with the traditional Saturday night light orchestral concert having finished in April 1998 (arguably, the dramatic decline in R2’s light classical output is down to the existence and success of Classic FM), and people like Desmond Carrington, David Jacobs, Alan Keith and Cliff Adams will clearly have no natural, direct successors if and when they retire.

But it’s interesting to speculate on who might cross the floor with age in, perhaps, 10 years’ time. Chris Moyles was inspired to become a DJ by Steve Wright: will Moyles ultimately follow Wright by reviving his current R1 afternoon show on R2? Could Jo Whiley ultimately follow Janice Long, her closest predecessor in the 80s, onto the overnight R2 shift?

Whatever happens, the interrelationship between R1 and R2 has been re-established after some rocky years of disconnection in the mid-90s, and there are many fascinating changes to come yet.

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