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Smooth operators. Whatever happened to real radio presenters?

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The BBC notwithstanding, and a peppering of community outfits aside, there aren’t really any independent radio stations left in the UK. It’s all ‘networks’ – which is a rather overexcited way of saying a large corporation bought lots of stations and imposed their brand and format on them. Money doesn’t just talk – it also broadcasts, it seems.

One of these networks is called ‘Smooth’.  It’s owned and operated by Global Radio, can be heard in most regions of the country, and vaguely promises “Your Relaxing Music Mix”.  It’s all very tame and predictable stuff, a bit like Radio 2 on an off day with intrusive ad breaks. But it does provide gainful employment for some of the nation’s jobbing jocks. Or at least it did.

Earlier this year, Smooth Radio underwent a bit of a revamp. This is something broadcasting companies find hard to resist. Convinced a bit of tinkering will unlock a veritable treasure trove, they cut loose with new logos, shows and line-ups. One only has to look at ITV’s history of rebrands (about six in fifteen years), to appreciate this reluctance to settle on an identity with which they’re happy.
In the case of Smooth, the most obvious change was the sacking of Lynn Parsons, Simon Bates, Gary King, Pete Waterman and David Prever. Andrew Castle, Myleene Klass, Kate Garraway and Tina Hobley were the replacements.

'Presenting radio programmes is a lot like writing. Everybody thinks they can do it, and in a way, they can.'

You may have spotted a notable difference between the former cast and the latter. Whatever your opinion of Parsons, Bates and their former colleagues, they are all seasoned radio professionals. Pete Waterman may be better known for talent shows, Kylie and old trains, but his DJ credentials are pretty robust too. The usurpers are a different matter. They all come from telly. Andrew Castle and Kate Garraway shared a sofa at GMTV, Klass is a former pop singer and reality person, and Tina Hobley is an actress from Coronation Street and Holby City. In a cynical mood, one might easily get to thinking this grouping was hired for their fame, rather than any proven skill behind a microphone.

Presenting radio programmes is a lot like writing. Everybody thinks they can do it, and in a way, they can. They just can’t do it very well. I’m certain many people imagine Bob Harris, Rhod Sharp, Annie Nightingale, Johnnie Walker and Danny Baker, do nothing more than boot up the ‘on-air’ light, gab for a bit, play some songs and go home. Of course, they all approach their programmes in different ways (Baker famously writes all his notes on the train on the way to the studio), but their incredible broadcasting skills simply cannot be acquired or imitated by any chump with an agent who fancies a go.

The key here is experience. Without exception, those five presenters have dedicated hundreds of hours to the perfection of their craft. It’s no accident their programmes make us feel we’re the only listener, holding us in stasis – unable to move from the wireless, making us laugh, gasp, dance – making us listen. It’s an art which cannot be bought or assumed, because it’s only available to those who have a natural talent which has been chiselled and polished for decades.

No television channel worth its salt would dream of choosing a complete novice to front a show on the strength of their fame in another field. Modern radio stations do that all the time.

I vividly recall the comic actor Peter Serafinowicz covering Richard Bacon’s 6Music show one Saturday afternoon. Now, I like Serafinowicz, he has an unhinged charm which can be enormously entertaining. In this instance, he was worse than hopeless. He’d fallen into the trap of thinking ‘It’s only radio’. Utterly unprepared and apparently unrehearsed, he filled two hours with gaps, pauses, stumbles, fumbles and desperately unfunny adlibs. What’s more, he did the same the following week. I hope he would now admit radio is much, much harder than it sounds.

From time-to-time, I’ve done stuff on the radio. Pirate stations at first, then some local work, and more recently online. I know the basics and I can put together a reasonable programme. And yet, I’m painfully aware how short I am of the air time needed to be ‘effortlessly’ great. Because I work from home, I listen to an enormous quantity of radio. This has made me acutely aware of the subtle expertise which distinguishes an adequate broadcaster from a tremendous broadcaster. Those who fall into the ‘tremendous’ category are never folk moonlighting from their mainstream jobs. They are never TV wonks picking up a bit of freelance, nor are they actors or comedians. They are real radio people, with fader marks embossed in their fingertips, and headphone dents in their scalps. And you know what, once they retire (or can no longer get a gig), there will be no-one there to do the job properly.

When that new Smooth Radio gang was announced in February, a very wise man tweeted “It appears people who run radio stations don’t like radio very much”. He has my wholehearted and disappointed agreement.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, consultant and copywriter

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