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No more local radio? What a ridiculous idea

All change: Amanda Holden & Jamie Theakston host a national breakfast show on Heart
All change: Amanda Holden & Jamie Theakston host a national breakfast show on Heart Credit: Heart Radio

Do we still need local radio? The executives at Global, who operate the stations Capital, Heart and Smooth, don’t seem to think so. They’ve just got rid of all 22 of Heart’s local breakfast shows and, from this week onwards, are broadcasting a single, London-based breakfast programme across England, Scotland and Wales. Similar plans are afoot for centralising other shows and the same is happening on Capital and Smooth.

It’s a ridiculous idea. The new Heart Breakfast, presented by Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden, is clearly intended to compete directly with Chris Evans at Virgin and Zoë Ball at Radio 2, but it was instantly greeted with dismay by listeners at  its launch on Monday morning.

The first couple of days featured guests of a glitzy TV personality stripe, including David Walliams and Keith Lemon, and, inevitably given Holden’s portfolio, some chat about the final of Britain’s Got Talent. Holden and Theakston’s light showbiz patter is too frothy for me first thing  in the morning, but the new show itself is fine.

Still, that’s not the issue. If you want national breakfast radio, you already have plenty of options across the commercial sectors as well as the BBC, from pop music and chat to politics or classical. The strength of local radio is that each station is, by nature, completely distinct. Due to Global’s actions, that distinctiveness has been lost at least 22 times over, with around 100 employees out of a job.

Global wants its shows to be bigger, and you get the impression that the decision has been made by people  who think that local radio is all Alan Partridge and Royston Vasey. Even though personally I’d be happy  with unlimited amounts of Partridge, that’s pure snobbery. 

On radio, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Local radio beats anything nationwide when you need trustworthy and specific local news, traffic and weather updates, or if there’s a big event in town, or just when you want to feel particularly connected to where you are and  what’s going on nearby. It’s time  spent with people who know what  it’s like to live there, and who go  to the same places that you do.  For plenty of listeners, this is the whole point of listening to the radio at all. If other local stations go the same way of centralisation, we’ll all be poorer for it.

I’m more hopeful for the changes this week at BBC Radio 5 Live, which works beautifully as a nationwide station, and where comedians Elis James and John Robins, freshly poached from Radio X, have begun a new Friday afternoon show.

Elis James and John Robins 

James is a Radio 4 panel show regular and Robins won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2017, and the BBC has accordingly much hyped this move. I was keen to hear it, having been a fan of the pair and their idiolect on Radio X since they started in 2014 (which makes me a proud “oner” in James and Robins parlance). They’ve created a funny and bold style of broadcasting based on a skilful combination of literate comedy, mental health openness, and  heartfelt obsessions with the band Queen and Welsh political history. It has felt like something special.

Unfortunately, the comedy  language between James and Robins can be opaque for newcomers, and some 5 Live listeners didn’t see the funny side at first. The response to  the first show has been polarised between delighted fans and 5 Live regulars who mourned the absence  of Eleanor Oldroyd and The Friday Sports Panel (which came to a close at the end of May after over four years on air).

The first show felt frantic and exposed, and both presenters sounded a bit unnerved by the long expanses  of broadcast time unpunctuated by music. They talked extensively  about being brought in to attract  a more youthful listenership – an in-joke, as both of them are jaded thirtysomethings and James is  a father of two – but more than a few listeners took it at face value and  were unimpressed.

Perhaps they might be happier in a weekend slot (and there’s a space on  5 Live Saturday mornings now that Danny Baker is apparently persona non grata) or on 6 Music, continuing in the footsteps of the great pioneers of live radio comedy, Adam and Joe. But if the BBC can have the confidence to let them relax and take a slower, more welcoming pace, this could be the beginning of great things.