Can BBC radio thrive in a new world of podcasts? | Radio 2

No one will win the top prize choice of bluetooth headphones or a smart speaker for simply knowing which Radio 2 DJ’s show has featured the Popmaster slot for 25 years. But the popular music quiz, like the show’s host, Ken Bruce, is now moving over to Greatest Hits Radio.

The mellow tones of Bruce, who last week announced he is to leave the BBC after 45 years, have provided the soundtrack for many lives, soothing ears in the kitchens, offices and cars and lorry cabs of Britain. Even so, the outcry that met news of his departure on social media seemed to suggest brutal and sinister forces were at work.

Fears that Bruce’s place could be taken by Scott Mills, a recent Radio 1 transfer, appear to haunt his fans. And when Rob Brydon, a comedian who boasts Bruce as one of his repertoire of impersonations, asked on Twitter for “privacy at this difficult time”, his joke acknowledged the central part that Bruce’s show has played in the listening habits of many.

Can one soft Scottish voice encapsulate the mood of a whole radio station? And are audiences really so loyal to a small, ageing group of DJs and presenters? Well, Radio 2 is about to find out. In the wake of the recent losses of Simon Mayo, Vanessa Feltz, Paul O’Grady and Steve Wright, stalwarts of almost equal measure, the station will be looking to steady the ship and reassure listeners.

“The fury about Ken and Steve Wright going has been interesting,” says Miranda Sawyer, Observer radio critic. “You would almost think it was the fault of Scott Mills, not simply that he has moved over to do a job he is perfectly qualified to do.”

The level of upset has exposed once again the deeply personal, if not intimate, relationship the public can have with a radio station. “The problem for Radio 2 is that his was the most listened-to radio programme in the country, with a bigger audience than Zoe Ball,” adds Sawyer. “Yet he is 71.”

It is true that an older white man’s graceful decision to step away in favour of newer talent would be welcomed in many creative industries. As Bruce said: “I have been here for quite a long time now, and it possibly is time to move over and let somebody else have a go.” But changes, whether due to commercial poaching or retirement, pose a particular problem to a radio station in the era of podcasts and streaming.

Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray, who left the show in 2020. Photograph: Tricia Yourkevich/BBC/PA

Other BBC stations have lost key voices at an alarming rate. In the last few years, Radio 4 has waved goodbye to Today’s interrogator-in-chief John Humphrys, to PM’s Eddie Mair, to Start the Week host Andrew Marr and to regular Woman’s Hour presenters Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey. A new controller will also arrive at Radio 3 this March, a station where any change is always the focus of worry among classical music fans who already regard themselves as an endangered species.

“A lot of names have left the BBC recently,” notes Simon O’Hagan, radio writer for the Radio Times. “But if you were to switch to one of the five main stations, within seconds you would still know which one you were listening to, so I don’t think there’s been any real diminution in distinctiveness.”

If hidden forces are reshaping our listening habits, then O’Hagan suspects it has more to do with a broadening of listener appetites. “Genres have not collapsed, but the borders between them have collapsed a little. This morning I was listening to Radio 3’s Kate Molleson playing a Crosby, Stills & Nash track to mark David Crosby’s death, and talking about the way he grew up listening to Bach before becoming this big folk-rock figure. Now it’s possible a few listeners wondered what was going on, but there’s a loosening up that has happened, and that’s great. Radio stations must recognise the population has much more eclectic tastes.”

Sawyer also welcomes what O’Hagan describes as a “loosening of constraints”, but she recognises two persistent rival strands of listening behaviour. She says some people always have either Radio 4, Radio 3 or Radio 6 Music “chuntering on in the background” out of entrenched habit. But there are butterfly music fans like her, too, the kind who switch between stations in search of fresh sounds. And change has to come. “Radio 4’s schedules have stayed ludicrously the same really for 50 years, in spite of newer elements coming in,” Sawyer adds.

A former controller of the station, Mark Damazer, defends the value of this “core spine” of programming. “These warhorse programmes, such as Today, The World at One, Desert Island Discs, Woman’s Hour and The Archers stay the same while others change around them. Some come and go, and others, like More or Less, become established. This is not a radio station that likes to trumpet its changes. Its listeners don’t want to hear they’re in the middle of a revolution. They just absorb what happens.”

Steve Wright, who left his Radio 2 afternoon show in 2022. Photograph: BBC

Damazer believes recent directors-general of the BBC have each recognised that the personal impact of a radio station on a listener is different to a television channel. “There’s always been a distinction on that front. People don’t think of themselves as ‘a BBC One’ or ‘BBC Two’ person, because they are really a coalition of programmes, some of which an audience identify with. Radio is still different. The branding is much more fundamental and the station controllers are gatekeepers.”

Damazer argues that even the wholesale streaming of content on the Sounds app and the deluge of podcasts have not yet affected this bond significantly: “Of course, these brands will dissipate a little, and Sounds is a very good and necessary thing, but it does not yet have the same relationship to BBC Radio that iPlayer now has to BBC TV’s output.”

On the latest analysis, it seems most people are still listening live, although the margins are narrowing. In the third quarter of last year 54% tuned in for broadcasts, while 46% listened on demand on Sounds. Both those who enjoy speech radio and those looking for music now have the chance to schedule their own listening. Sawyer has also noted the way that “break-out” segments of particular radio shows now develop an independent following online, something Radio 1 has long been alive to.

For O’Hagan, the emergence of new cultural boundaries, amid all the new freedoms, is a concern. “Radio is becoming more fragmented, like everything else in entertainment. BBC Sounds can operate like a kind of Spotify service to create a string of our favourite programmes. But that might mean we’re not now hearing so many things by chance that surprise us. We might be putting up some barriers.”

On the whole, however, he believes the changing broadcast climate is inevitable and largely a good thing. “There has to be a conscious rejuvenation of radio, of course, and we are already getting hybrid podcast shows on live radio, adopting the podcast aesthetic and, to some extent, inviting listeners to step away from live broadcasting.”

If a “post-Bruce” Radio 2 wants to stay in charge, presiding over the “tracks of our lives”, it should take note of other subtle emotions at play, according to Sawyer. “Radio 2 used to play decent, middle-of-the-road pop, and that core sound is shifting towards 80s and 90s dance music, with a little less blue-eyed soul going on. I wonder how listeners feel about that. If you love 80s or 90s sounds, there are other niche stations you could go to, and the danger is that when you hear a song you liked when you were young, it can actually remind you that you are old.

“Perhaps what listeners really want to hear on Radio 2 are those songs they feel everyone already knows and which just seem timeless. The dance tracks from your youth, on the other hand, can be a reminder that you are not timeless, and that may not be appealing.”

Like any friendship, the business of maintaining the relaxed voice and brand of a radio station is nuanced. The chemistry, a balance that appeared to come naturally to Ken Bruce, is tricky and potentially volatile.