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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Remembrance of radio protests past

In 1999 I used to do a radio show on GLR. It was a couple of hours on a Friday night. I loved doing it. I did it, one way or another, for ten years. They used to pay me next to nothing. It was so little that I only used to invoice them once a year. There had been rumblings for a while that the BBC planned to bring GLR into line. The management who had re-launched it as a speech and music station for adults had moved on and the powers that be wanted it to conform with all the BBC's other local stations. They had been running trails announcing a "period of consultation" about the changes.

One Friday night I turned up and Brian, the guy who used to handle the phones, announced that the changes were going to be implemented earlier than we thought. "This could be the last time," he said. (He didn't know any of this for a fact but we all know the first casualty of war is the truth and anyway he'd been to the pub. Meetings in the pub are always a feature of media disputes.) I immediately decided to go out in a blaze of glory. I started the programme with the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" and peppered the rest of the two hours with a combination of similar message songs and trails about the period of consultation. It was my Rex Bob Lowenstein moment. There was nobody there to stop me and so I carried on. They rang up on Monday and asked if I'd resigned. I said I had.

The next few weeks were great fun as I found myself co-opted as a figurehead for a "Save GLR" campaign. I invoiced the BBC for the money they owed me for the show and used it to hire the Conway Hall for a protest meeting. I spoke. It was like Citizen Smith. At the same time I was using what little leverage I had to force the authorities into some form of negotiation. I wrote to the Chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland. I'd met him at a drinks party to thank those "experts" like me who'd been brought in to give the thumbs-up to various parts of the Corporation's output. I said that if our opinion had been worth something then it was clearly worth something now. Taking the point he arranged a meeting with Mark Thompson, who wasn't the Director General then but counted local radio among his responsibilities. Alongside him sat the middle manager who was charged with overseeing the changes. At least we were spoiling her day.

He said he'd get back to us. He never did. I'm sure he felt he'd made a gesture by seeing us. I don't much blame him. By then the steam had gone out of the protest, not least because many of the GLR people who were most likely to object had got their eyes on new roles at 6 Music, the new digital station that the Corporation was making ready at the time.

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned that righteous indignation tends to blow itself out quickly and that certain people like the idea of being a temporary member of an oppressed minority. I canvassed lots of GLR presenters for their support. Many gave it readily. Others made themselves difficult to contact. Bob Harris sent me a note saying "it's my experience that when management has decided to do something like this, they've thought about it a lot and nothing is going to change their mind." At the time I thought it was a cop-out. Now I think it's nothing more than the truth.

21 comments:

Five-Centres said...

I couldn't agree more.

Sad as I am to see the station go, and sad as I was to see the old style GLR go, we soon move on with our lives.

I've had endless emails, probably from people who haven't listened in years urging me to join Facebook groups 'that already have 70,000 members' and sign on-line petitions. I'm just deleting them as they'll change nothing.

Much like those who mourned the death of Woolworths, when was the last time they shopped there?

It's all history now, much like 6music is about to be.

Steve Lake said...

Leaving aside the weary cynicism for now David - and you're probably right that nothing will stop this now, although I think you'll find the righteous indignation has more legs than you think - the key difference (which you highlight yourself) with GLR's demise was there was about to be a viable alternative in the shape of 6Music. Not an exact copy perhaps but near enough.

The desperate thing about the demise of 6Music is that there is no viable replacement or alternative. Mark Thompson's report is very strong on the specifics of closure, very weak on the details of what will be in 6Music's place.

There's vague talk of migrating some programmes and presenters to R2 (to replace what? And where does the new comedy and talk and documentary go?) and a 'review' of how the BBC can maintain its commitment to new music. And that's it.

Maybe I'm playing the weary cynic now but this doesn't strike me as the closing of a chapter. It strikes me as the end of the book.

Steve Lake said...

Five-Centres - can you put some flesh on the bones of that assertion that all the campaigning emails you're receiving come from people who probably haven't listened in years? Why would they waste their time writing to you in support of something they don't listen to?

I am an active participant in the fight to save 6Music because I listen to it every day and have no clue what to listen to (on music radio at least) if it goes.

No doubt I'm deluded. No doubt it will happen anyway (although we did eventually manage to get rid of George Lamb). But I'm not quite ready to take an easy chair in the 'it's been decided so there's nothing we can do about it' camp.

Five-Centres said...

Okay, perhaps I'm generalising (a bit), but those I've received emails from are those who love nothing more than jumping on a stick-it-to-the-man bandwagon.

I'm afraid those days are behind me now.

I only hear Simon Mayo on the way home sometimes, and apart from that and Pick Of The Pops that's all the radio there is in my life.

Mick said...

I have been experienced extreme déja vu for the last week or so. Like Bob Harris 10 years ago, I'm very cynical about this 'public consultation' making any difference. They claim no decisons have been made, but they said that about GLR too.

But, I'll join the Facebook Groups, sign the petitions and I'll give the BBC Trust my views. My humble opinion might be the straw that breaks Mark 'train-crash' Thompson's back...

By the way, David, thanks again for booking Conway Hall - I still owe Mark Ellen a pint from that night!

Doug said...

I don't agree that this is done and dusted. This is a proposal that has to go before the BBC Trust before it can be confirmed.

Thompson's stated "vision" is that the BBC should:
"concentrate more than ever on being a creator of quality. It should focus even more than it does today on forms of content that most clearly build public value and that are most at risk of being ignored or facing underinvestment. It should take significant further steps towards building the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its programmes and services."

The closing of 6Music so clearly flies in the face of this, that it can't do any harm to point out the fact to the BBC Trust. In the meantime, I suspect that the station will benefit from a significant boost in audiences as people check what the fuss is about. Hopefully this to will give them pause to think as the amount of money they will save is pretty miniscule in the scheme of things.

Huw said...

I feel the same about 6 Music as I used to about the John Peel show: haven't listened to it for years but I think it's a good thing that it exists.

Doug said...

From the Guardian website.
"The BBC has given the first hint of a U-turn over plans to close its digital radio station BBC 6 Music, after a furious backlash from listeners, trade unions and some of its own staff."

From the BBC Trust Chairman.
"If we find that... there's massive public concern that we need to take account of then we will go back to the director general to rethink the strategy before it's approved."

It is far too soon to give this up as a done deal.

Chris said...

DAB killed 6Music. The government persist with this ill-advised switch off of the FM transmitters and sublime stations like this are marginalised so much they become an easy target for this kind of cowardly, knee-jerk cull.

Captain Hemisphere said...

I live in Australia and loads of aussies I've seen have joined the FB group. I doubt they listen.

Steve Lake said...

Why not? They can do so via the internet. 6Music has a significiant listenership based in the US.

Green Man said...

I didn't realise until now that you and I have something in common. We were both sacked by the same "BBC middle manager" (my turn was in Wales a couple of years earlier). I'm glad you managed to spoil her day.

David Hepworth said...

How dare you? I wasn't sacked. I sacked myself. You'll be hearing from my lawyer.

Lee said...

Well, that's a bit of a counsel of despair, David, and very British too, if I may say so: "There's nothing to be done so why even try?"

Those of us who do actually listen regularly to 6Music, and get something from Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Maconie, Lauren Laverne, Adam & Joe and Guy Garvey know full well that we're not going to get anything remotely similar from commercial radio. Yeah, it's not the most important thing in the world, and no, I'm sure we'll all get over it and retreat further into a genius playlists and lo-fi podcasts, never having to unwittingly listen to Fearne Cotton.

But if I love the Word Magazine for anything, it's for the sense of community, of celebrating our shared cultural heroes and memories. Surely something that's trying to do something similar, albet on the radio, is worth trying to save?

Lee said...

Well, that's a bit of a counsel of despair, David, and very British too, if I may say so: "There's nothing to be done so why even try?"

Those of us who do actually listen regularly to 6Music, and get something from Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Maconie, Lauren Laverne, Adam & Joe and Guy Garvey know full well that we're not going to get anything remotely similar from commercial radio. Yeah, it's not the most important thing in the world, and no, I'm sure we'll all get over it and retreat further into a genius playlists and lo-fi podcasts, never having to unwittingly listen to Fearne Cotton.

But if I love the Word Magazine for anything, it's for the sense of community, of celebrating our shared cultural heroes and memories. Surely something that's trying to do something similar, albet on the radio, is worth trying to save?

David Hepworth said...

It's one thing to misinterpret what I wrote, Lee. It's another altogether to "quote" something I didn't write and further imply that I said *anything* about commercial radio or the merits of anyone's case. Isn't this the kind of thing people always accuse the tabloids of doing?

thisboywonders said...

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-6-music.html

Lee said...

Self-righteous indignation has a very bad rep, doesn’t it. Sometimes it’s just the ticket.

David, I'm not at all sure I did imply that you said anything about the relative merits of the subject at hand; I certainly didn't intend to and, moreover, would look forward to reading your thoughts, beyond what can be inferred from your references to certain people liking the feeling of being temporarily oppressed.

I was paraphrasing your last paragraph; that despite, as you describe it, much self-righteous manning of the barricades, management had made a decision and, you've since come to understand, nothing was ever going to sway them from it. Well, that seems to me a usefully long way from saying that nothing ever could sway management in circumstances like these.

In other words, it strikes this perhaps tabloid-corrupted reader as an unnecessarily defeatist (perhaps 'bracingly realist'?) peroration.

Nigel Smith said...

I agree with you that "righteous indignation tends to blow itself out quickly and that certain people like the idea of being a temporary member of an oppressed minority".

The issue here is that the BBC are planning to close 6 Music on the flimsiest of pretences without ever giving it a fighting chance for success.

I work for BBC Audio & Music and have written about my thoughts on the proposed 6 Music closure here:
Carnival Saloon

Lee said...

Thoughtful post, Nigel.

Robert Shaw said...

I went to a Save GLR gig at the 100 Club. Discovered Cousteau, who were a very good band, at that gig - so something good did come out of it after all.