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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.