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The nocturnal radio host is a familiar figure from movies and TV dramas — but the BBC has decided it can’t afford a real one.
To explain his love of radio, John Peel, the late and much lauded BBC Radio 1 DJ, often recalled a night in the 1960s when he lived in the United States:
I was driving back once from New Orleans and it was about 3 o’clock in the morning, and I was in the car on my own and I’d left my two friends down in New Orleans, because in those days before we knew about sexism, we used to follow the fortunes of a young woman who was called ‘Chris Colt, the girl with the 45s’, and we used to follow her around from strip joint to strip joint.
And I was driving back, as I say at 3 o’clock in the morning — moonlit night, driving through the piney woods of East Texas, and dead straight road, just rising and falling through the woods — and every once in a while you came across a little wide place in the road, which would be a small town, or village really, but they don’t call them villages.
And as I came up over the top of one hill — and the moon was right at the other end of the road so you’ve got this kind of silver ribbon of concrete in front of you — and Elmore James’ ‘Stranger Blues’ came on, which starts off “I’m a stranger here / I just drove in your town”. And as I came down, I was whizzing through this little town — and it was just the perfect record in the perfect context, and I’ve never forgotten the setting. And I love the idea of perhaps just once in every programme, once in every month, being able to imprint something that firmly on somebody else’s memory, you know?
That powerful, personal connection between broadcaster and listener is one of radio’s enduring strengths. The relationship between the lone, late-night DJ and the listener, often also on their own, can feel especially close. The broadcaster’s words and music tell the solitary driver, the insomniac, the invalid, the shift worker: You are not alone.
Now, suppose you are driving along a moonlit road in Britain in 2015, just after 3 a.m. Or you find yourself awake at that time. You tune to the nation’s most popular radio station for some company.
It turns out you are alone.
There will be some chat and music but the programme will be a repeat or a pre-recorded show. That’s because BBC Radio 2 decided a few months ago that it would no longer employ a human to talk and play records through the night.
The late-night radio host is a recognisable figure in popular culture, portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the film Play Misty for Me and Gary Cole in the TV show Midnight Caller. But the threat to overnight Radio 2 came not from a knife-wielding listener declaring undying love as in Play Misty, but an axe-wielding manager complaining about budgets.
Shennan’s message seemed to be: we need all our cash just to do things that are popular and public-service. Having someone talking and playing records through the night may not be hugely popular but it is a public service, just as much as a documentary or a specialist music show.
By definition, the audience at that time is marginalised. These are people who do not work or sleep at the same time as most of us. Often they are low-paid shift workers or people who can’t sleep due to illness or stress.
It also seems strange to end live overnight radio in an increasingly 24-hour society, with more people working at night.
If employing someone to chat and play a few tunes between three and five in the morning is straining Radio 2's budget of getting on for £50 million, maybe the station needs to look hard at why it costs so much to provide such a simple service.
Even small chains of local radio stations manage to do it. I worked in local radio for a while and admired the presenters who did overnight shifts. It’s not an easy job — DJs might do a five-hour stint, from one until six in the morning, in a deserted building. I heard a manager had once described the audience at that time as people who want to “sleep with you or kill you… or both”. And, I remember speculating, maybe not always in that order. That was, of course, just a bit of good old DJ banter. I bet most of us have been grateful at some point for a late-night radio host providing some companionship.
As a kid in Scotland, I remember being up in the middle of the night with a bug, and my dad switching on Radio Clyde, one of the few stations with a 24-hour service then. Jim Waugh, who went by the handle of The Nighthawk, was on air. I can’t remember a word he said or the music he played. But I can remember his voice and I can still feel the mix of comfort and excitement that came from hearing it.
Later, the king of overnight radio was surely ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris on Radio 1, his soft tones reciting extracts from his beloved Rock Date Diary and enthusing about classic rock and American chart hits.
In his autobiography (inevitably, The Whispering Years), Harris recalls being amazed at the contact he could establish with listeners very late at night. “It was like an intimate, exclusive club, with a membership of approximately one and a half million,” he writes. His wife Trudie was often also on hand, “taking calls from the Eddie Stobart lorry drivers”.
Harris is still whispering away on Radio 2 but his show from three until six on Sunday mornings is pre-recorded.
Until Shennan made his changes, the wee small hours on Radio 2 were ruled for many years by the ‘Dark Lord’, Alex Lester, hosting his offbeat Best Time of the Day show. Radio 2 probably avoided a greater fuss about the programme’s demise by keeping Lester on board and giving him weekend shows that run from midnight until 3 a.m.
Still, some of Lester’s fans started an online petition to protest. But the outcry was nothing the BBC couldn’t handle. The petition gathered fewer than 2,500 supporters. That’s hardly surprising. Unlike the vocal and well-connected listeners and staff who campaigned to save BBC 6 Music, the truckers, the security guards, the sick and the stressed don’t have the capacity, the contacts or the media savvy to form a formidable lobby group.
But that’s exactly why their service should be restored. Blaming budget cuts for the end of live overnight radio is not really credible. I don’t want to go all Daily Mail but Shennan alone gets paid nearly a quarter of a million pounds for running Radio 2 and overseeing the BBC’s music division, which has just spent a big wodge of cash establishing and staging a new music awards ceremony. (Like Britain really needed another one of those.) In other words, there’s plenty of money around. This is really about priorities.
Radio 2 is a great station. Shennan and his team get lots of things right. But they got this wrong and they should make a belated New Year’s resolution to rethink it.
If money really is the problem, here is a low-cost solution. BBC 6 Music has its own early breakfast show, presented by Chris Hawkins, from 5 until 7 a.m. That seems like a luxury for a niche, digital-only service if budgets are tight. But Radio 2 and 6 Music are meant to be sister stations. So how about getting Hawkins to start at 3 a.m. and broadcast the first two hours of his show on both networks? He even has the right name to make sure the spirit of The Nighthawk flies again.