radio lab

Firstly a caveat. I know how popular Radio Merseyside is, and the good things it does. And I know how many awards Juice FM has won. I know that my Dad would be lost without Sean Styles and the footie beaming out from Merseyside’s Liverpool ONE HQ.

And still I wonder – why don’t I listen to local radio?

Yes, Dave Monks offers me a weekly lesson in the bands I need to follow, and Roger Hill’s eclecticism is a thing of beauty.

But I look at my podcast list and an inconvenient truth emerges: local radio doesn’t speak my language.

I listen to Roger Phillips sometimes and it’s not good for my heart. Here is an intelligent man – a man with a passion for the city, and (as evinced from his appearance at Bido Lito’s culture forum) a man we need to listen to. And yet there he is, sweet-talking to lonely pensioners from Norris Green, reminiscing about corporal punishment – a poster boy for the BBC’s hamfisted mandate delivery in the provinces.

You want real discussion? Sorry, no programmes match your search.

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“Lively chat on local issues…empowering communities…giving us all a voice…” it’s as if Lord Reith never left the building.

Does local radio have to be so safe? So by-numbers? Is the BBC so constrained by licence fee hoop-jumping that it can’t find more space to develop new programming that would encourage the untapped demographic (that’s, er, us) into its embrace?

Unknown_SSOver in the US, the government subsidizes a string of non-profit local radio stations under the ‘public radio’ umbrella – many run by universities. Spread throughout the country, these networks produce blindingly brilliant shows such as ‘Radio Lab’ ‘This American Life’, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic (the best music radio show, like, anywhere), and ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ (pic) – that they’re produced as far afield as Minnesota, Chicago, Los Angeles and Santa Monica lends each of them a distinct and refreshing voice. No capital-centric scheduling for our US cousins.

The sublime design-based show, 99% Invisible, is a project borne from San Francisco’s relatively small station KALW (pic), and has now been picked up across the country – and is a massive iTunes podcast hit (and SevenStreets fave.)

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These local public radio stations compete to sell on their programmes to larger, nationwide networks such as American Public Media, or its slightly better known competitor, NPR. That, and donations, is how they make their money.

The result? Programme-makers get off their arses and create genuinely must-listen content. Cultural memes that sweep the globe and, in their own way, proudly promote their hometown. Liverpool, given the opportunity, could create world beating radio.

Radio Lab (main pic), a product of New York based WNYC, single-handedly changed the sound of radio, with its thrilling cut-and-paste aural soundscape, its intelligent celebration of popular-science and its democratic presentation style.

It’s fun. It’s educational. It’s massively successful. And it’s produced by a local radio station.

Rick Vaughn it is not. Libby Purves’ Midweek it is not. Over there, radio has discovered that there is a third way – and it’s making a real impact, far beyond its geographical remit.

Here? We have the chattering classes in control of BBC Radio 4, the Radio 1 presenters’ graveyard (aka Radio 2) dominating the national airwaves, and a network of local stations permitted to do no more than navel-gaze their way into certain oblivion.

Sure, local radio stations should mostly keep it local (and even WNYC has its fair share of Phillips-style phone ins) but they should mix it up a bit, surely? Not every strand has to be a box-ticking exercise, should it? And even if it did, who’s filling the box marked ‘me’? Or ‘my mates’?

Liverpool is changing. We’re a curious, intelligent, contradictory, and engaged city. So where’s the shift in style at St John’s Beacon, or Hanover Street? Where are the programmes bedding in now for when the old-guard finally hang up their phones?

I’m from Liverpool. And I like folk music. So I should like Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene (the longest running folk radio show, folks).

Yesterday it played some self-indulgent, spirit-sapping a-capella dirge by a bloke with, ooh, all of three notes to his repertoire. It was so bloodless I forced myself to go out and water my Dad’s tomato plants (of course I was at my parents. I don’t tune it at home do I?)

After four refills of the watering can, I came back inside and he was still blooody singing. My mum was initiating divorce proceedings, and the budgie had hung itself from its millet spray.

This was a sunny Sunday afternoon. It sounded like we were in a funeral parlour. For the love of god, could they not have stuck some Bellowhead on?

Even my Dad turned off. We were witnessing the sound of ever decreasing circles. And it summed up everything you need to know about the state we’re in.

BBC’s local radio is in disarray – budgets slashed, good people lost. The team at Merseyside does a lot, a hell of a lot, on very little. And its broader editorial policy is ruthlessly centralised. But, while much can be said for the BBC’s commitment to quality, it’s squeezing the lifeblood out of local radio, and is forcing a major subset of its audience to go forage for content 5,000 miles from home. Content that, honestly, says more to me about my life than Billy Butler ever could.

Last year, the BBC killed the (excellent) BBC East show, Naked Scientists because the show wasn’t ‘local’ enough. Science, apparently, only happens in London (and, thankfully, also on the Naked Scientist’s podcast.) Ironically, the BBC don’t seem too bothered about, say, BBC Manchester playing music from America. But when it comes to science, debate or talk, stations are forced to keep it parochial.

It was a decision so wrong it hurt. To really find its voice, local radio needs to shake free of its comfort zone, take a look across the Atlantic and realise that, these days, we’re all locals now.

Liverpool’s independent media has proved there is a mandate for a new voice in the city. Why aren’t we hearing it, and why can’t we have a phone-in?

I’ve not mentioned Pete Price. I think that’s for the best, don’t you?

PS: I still miss Crash FM.

  • Ramsey Campbell

    Roger Phillips? A great guy with a not quite inexhaustible supply of patience. That may be because people ring him up and say Roger, can I call you Roger, Roger, because I’m going to repeat my phrases, Roger, I say I’m going to repeat my phrases so that everybody gets my point, Roger, get my point, Roger, I’m saying. Or they talk about the new world order and say we must listen to Richard D. Hall, who knows the truth because he’s working class and educated and if we all went to http://www.richplanet.net/ we wouldn’t do things that reveal our shallowness, Roger, I say reveal our shallowness, like going abroad for a holiday and watching television, Roger. And so on. I got a novel out of it myself.

  • david_lloyd

    That’s so true, Ramsey. Ramsey, that’s so true. And it also sounds like a Pinter play.

  • Mark

    You like folk music and there’s a folk music show on Radio Merseyside…….but you don’t like the actual music they’re playing? Just put your own records on.

  • david_lloyd

    I was trying (obviously failing) to make a bigger point about programming – and audiences. The folk scene is bigger, and more varied, than the playlist on Folk Scene acknowledges, I fear.

  • John King

    Aye there’s definately room for a Seven Streets / Bido Lito style radio station that reflects today’s Liverpool rather than the dated, cosy station formats and programming that exist at present. My personal gripe with local radio (in Liverpool and beyond) is that shows such as Dave Monks demonstrate that there are a lot of good local unsigned bands who could be popular if they were given exposure – but shows such as his are tucked away in the schedules where they are only preaching to the converted – i.e. bands, promoters and the dozen of us who actively seek out new music 😉

    What they need to do in my book is to put a few accessible local artists on medium-heavy rotation at peak hours to differentiate themselves from the nationals – because if they are only going to play the same Top 40 oriented stuff that the nationals are playing then what’s the point in local radio?

  • david_lloyd

    Dave’s better now he’s on Saturday, but take your point yeh. So you think me and Craig should be the smashy and nicey of Liverpool? *shudders*

  • Robertq

    There definitely needs to be an intelligent culture/music/arts show in the city. It’s all so fractured (in music, for instance, you’ve got Dave Monks who tends towards the more traditional side of things, and Roger Hill who does weird stuff) – there needs to be a really solid programme with a broad range. Basically something like the Culture Show does – handpicked things, and topical.

  • Ramsey Campbell

    There was one – Artwaves. The very talented and erudite Angela Heslop ran it for quite a few years. It vanished from Radio Merseyside not very long after I did, having reviewed films for them for thirty-eight years until the new acting station manager saved them the price of a weekly pizza. That was one way they celebrated the City of Culture. Ridding themselves of Angela’s Artwaves may have been another. Perhaps it was too elitist (that is, it praised good work and didn’t mince its words about the bad stuff, which no doubt made it insufficiently inclusive).

  • mark

    I’m no fan of Billy Butler, but to be fair to him, he’s always up for playing new and upcoming Liverpool bands, as well as getting them into the studio too.

    How would a Bido Lito style radio station do anything other than ‘preach to the converted’ in the same way as Dave Monks/PMS etc?

  • @DazAltTheory

    To answer your article, the reason why Liverpool/Merseyside Radio isn’t listened to is for an exact reason… the population is naturally rebellious.

    Ofcom would be working over-time in dealing with complaints & breaches of regulations if Radio on Merseyside attracted MORE of the population.

    Social controlling tactics, possibly keep it bland rather than interesting?

  • Robertq

    Have to agree re: Billy. People think he’s part of the ‘old skool’ (he is), but his show constantly pushes young new acts too.

  • Eddie Cotton

    Here at Liverpool Community Radio (on-line station) based in Kensington, we address the ‘local issues’ on our Big Lunch shows, and also play non-copyrighted local music. So there are alternatives out there. But my main concern is Ofcom’s continued reluctance to grant FM licences to Liverpool based radio stations. Manchester have at the last count around 14 of these, and I wonder why that is the case?

  • Conor

    Bernie Connor is often overlooked, and his eclectic style would do wonders

  • John King

    I mentioned Seven Streets / Bido Lito in terms of presentational/journalistic style style -i.e. they feel fresh compared to much of local radio.

    My second, seperate point regarding music policy was aimed at local radio in general (in Liverpool and beyond) a suggestion that they add “a few” local artists to the main playlist so that they aren’t “preaching to the converted” like Amazing Radio for example.

    To be honest I’ve never listened to Billy Butler, can you give any recent examples of bands he’s had on? Lots of bands on my facebook have mentioned PMS/Dave Monks sessions but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone saying they were doing a Billys Butler session – I must check him out 🙂

  • Robertq

    Billy occasionally has on songwritery types/pop types/local bands. It’s nothing groundbreaking, or even the stuff you’d find written about on here/Bido, but it’s definitely something at least.

  • mark

    Off the top of my head Silent Sleep and Barbieshop have been featured on Billy’s show. He has new local music on there every day and always has done. I can’t stand him, but I can’t fault him on that.

  • mark

    Then that is down to your personal taste. They could play Bellowhead and another listener might be driven out of the room to tend to the plants. Commercial radio will not alter from it’s current format cos it is all about the bottom line, and BBC Radio has had it’s budget annihilated over the past few years, so can hardly be expected to deliver shows that move too much further away from the presenter in a studio format, as it would be just too expensive to make.
    That is where internet radio and podcasts come in – to fill the boxes that don’t – and can’t – get ticked by local radio. What I get from the article is “Aren’t internet radio and podcasts great” rather than “Isn’t local radio shit”.

    I also think you dismissed Roger Phillips’ show too easily in the article. Also, a lot of people listen to local radio, so the title is misleading, in my opinion!

  • Vicky_Anderson

    Billy’s one of the only media types in the city that has ever had the good sense to champion Anathema, I think (the other one being, erm, me ;). He was so genuinely interested in them, too, he gets a pass. If he starts playing the new Carcass stuff then I’ll be really impressed.

    And Dave — Bellowhead??! Get out 🙂

  • Carl

    Personally I try to avoid local radio either because it seems aimed at those who lived through both wars or the phone-in idiots, or its the over-comercial crap like CityFM. Elsewhere national stations or franchises or just so boring. I’ll stick to commercial and dj free Radio Paradise from California for now thanks.

  • david_lloyd

    haha. Fair point well made. But I almost said Capercaille…

  • Transmission

    Actually, even a cursory glance at the listening figures shows that local radio in Liverpool is still really strong and pulls in large audiences.

    Radio Merseyside’s listenership has been broadly steady for the last five years – 340,000 people tuning in for 15 hours per week, and a 16 percent market share. That makes it the most listened to BBC local radio station in the country. So they must be doing something right And its output has improved immeasurably in recent years in an attempt to reposition it for a 40+ rather than 55+ audience. I remember the days when Saturday mornings were dominated by a country music programme; they had a programme presented by a 90 year old who played dance hall music from the 1920s (he was famously taken off the air shortly after devoting an entire programme to a dance craze called ‘cum’); when no Billy Butler programme was complete without some awful David Alexander record. And let’s not mention Hold your Plums (even though Billy Butler does, on days ending with with a ‘y’). There are still anomalies though. I can’t understand why anyone would listen to the vacuous, inane witterings of Roger Lyon. And Billy Maher can’t have many listeners under 70. As for a phone in, if you don’t like what you hear on Roger try and influence it by ringing in. He can only put to air the calls he gets.
    As for the rest of the sector, Radio City is fairly stable at 420,000 listeners per week, although its hours and market share have taken a tumble recently. And Juice FM has doubled its audience in the last few years and now stands at 220,000 per week. Even City Talk has carved out a niche of about 60,000 a week, albeit it is now mostly music(!) and the speech is not really what you would call intelligent debate.
    What has happened is that there is less niche programming. And the simple reason is that they tend to attract fairly small audiences. They also often didn’t feature much local content, aside from a what’s on guide for the particular genre of music. They were a relic of the past, introduced at a time when there was far less choice on the dial. Now, as you point out, it is far easier to get the music you want to when you want to from anywhere in the world. Just as some people in America tune into Radio Merseyside as there is nothing like it over there.
    I guess community radio was supposed to be the answer to hyper-local radio, filling the gap. Those that know their target audience can be quite good (think KCC Live).But if you ever have the misfortune to listen to 7 Waves on the Wirral, you will know that what it sounds like when it goes very, very wrong – even when you’ve been the beneficiary of several millions of pounds of European, council and housing association cash.
    As for your nostalgia for Crash FM – well, never was a station more appropriately named. It attracted a tiny audience – less than 20,000 a week. It was never, ever going to be commercially viable.

  • Transmission

    And don’t forget: “So he turned round and said…and I turned round and said…and he turned round and said…etc.”

  • steve faragher

    download the LCR app from the apps store LCR http://www.l-c-r.co.uk on air 24/7 local people making local radio programmes
    we are hear

  • steve faragher

    the Orange Programme on LCR has been playing local musical talent for the past 2.5 years Alicia “Dogstar” Rose

  • Ramsey Campbell

    Too local for its own good, perhaps? On Roger’s show a Liverpudlian lady has just scoffed at Southerners for putting an r in when they say bath. Unfortunately that’s how it’s pronounced, according the dictionaries I have at hand (Oxford 1933, Cambridge 1993).

  • Ramsey Campbell

    Two regulars on the Roger Phillips phone-in, but speaking to his substitute Will Batchelor. Peter from Huyton starts on 25 July at about 1.04.50, and seems reasonable for quite a while:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01c8hsm

    Peter is the chap who rcently called Roger a moron because he couldn’t grasp Peter’s very individual use of the phrase “land mass”, which Peter repeated with increasing vehemence to make it understood. Peter does not belittle anyone and is not aggressive, however – he says so.

    Here is another regular, Rita from the city centre, on 26 July, beginning around 1.38.50:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01c8hvg

    Why wouldn’t I listen?

  • Craig Cole

    The car part of my commute lasts about 10 minutes each morning and evening. I don’t listen to local radio because I don’t want to spend 7 minutes of that journey listening to solicitor and mortgage adverts.

  • Ardyo

    I would like to receive Radio Merseyside (and City) but in North Wales (only 20 miles from Chester) I cant get any kind of digital signal, and a very poor and weak signal on Analogue. On the A55 I find Radio Manchester keeps taking over. (Typical?!!!).

  • Dave Cartwright Prenton CH43

    Billy Butler should have waltzed off out of the Radio Merseyside Studios with Wally Scott about a decade and a half ago. The pair of the them do very well thank you on the night club circuit. If Butler’s ‘act’ is anything like his present day Radio one then I’d probably be walking out the premises after 5 or 10 mins.at most.

    Dave Cartwright, Prenton, Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside CH43 0XQ

  • Peter Jones

    Billy Butler should be binned in place of a platform show for local entertainment talent. Would be amazing!!!