Changes at Radio Newcastle have not pleased everybody. David Whetstone talks to station boss Andrew Robson.
THOMAS Jenkins, of Craghead, County Durham, wants to know what’s going on at Radio Newcastle following the disappearance of some popular presenters. He said so in a letter to The Journal this week. He is not the only one to have expressed displeasure at recent changes at the BBC station, with further grumbles subsequently appearing on our letters page.
“I suspect ‘the BBC for the North-East’ has a new leader,” Mr Jenkins writes, after also complaining about the “annoying” phrase which, he contends, presenters are having to say “every two minutes”.
He is very astute. Andrew Robson took the reins at the station 10 months ago as managing editor, joining the BBC after a career spent entirely in commercial radio and also returning to the region where he grew up.
His arrival was followed, several months later but in fairly quick succession, by the departures of long-serving afternoon presenter Julia Hankin and mid-morning presenter Paul Wappat.
Wappat’s co-presenter Ian Robinson, with whom he had a chirpy rapport, will have moved off many listeners’ radar after being shifted to the 1am to 6.30am slot.
A BBC insider had told me the new boss didn’t seem to have said a great deal to staff since his arrival, yet changes had taken place. On the other hand, he preferred to sit in the newsroom rather than shut away in an office.
As Sue Sweeney, the stand-in afternoon presenter, wraps up her show, we follow Mr Robson into the studio where he can be photographed in a recognisable radio setting. “I’m running out of smiles,” he says as photographer Lewis Arnold tries yet another angle. But there’s no menace in the quip.
Later he says he was born in Formby, Merseyside, but his parents were from Sunderland and they returned home when he was three. He went to Southmoor Comprehensive School.
So which football team does he support? “I have an interest but for professional reasons I’ve got to be neutral,” he says, parrying the banana skin question with aplomb.
Later he explains that the station’s full name is Radio Newcastle: the BBC for the North-East.
“Obviously we are Radio Newcastle but the area we cover is huge and embraces places like Sunderland and Durham, so ‘the BBC for the North-East’ is just trying to emphasise that point.”
He makes no apology for the prevalence of the phrase on air, suggesting most people do not listen for long enough to find it irritating.
When I say I find the BBC’s constant promotion of forthcoming programmes a mite tiresome, he says, quick as a flash: “I think it would be a real shame if a licence-payer were to miss a programme they really wanted to see.”
Andrew Robson is steeped in radio. In fact, he hasn’t done anything else since he was sent to a Tommy Steele press conference, while a schoolboy helper on the Sunderland Echo’s schools supplement, and met someone from Metro Radio who invited him to the station.
“That was it,” he says. “I wasn’t someone who went to university and wanted to work in the media.”
Instead he started at Metro as a technical operator and then became a producer, first on sport and then on Savile’s Travels.
In 1994 he became deputy programme director at TFM on Teesside, moving to a similar job at Radio Aire in Leeds two years later. He had a spell as special projects producer with Emap in London, then, in quick succession, was programme director at Viking FM in Hull and Key 103 in Manchester.
He worked at Century FM in Newcastle and Nottingham before moving in 2005 to be programme director at Heart FM, Birmingham.
He asks me how old I think he is. I guess 43. He says he’s 35 and you have to admit that he has risen fast and packed a lot in.
He explains: “I was doing a really good job in Birmingham but I’ve always wanted to come back to the North-East because I love it. This offer came along at the right time. This is the first time I’ve worked for the BBC but I am very proud to be doing so.”
He says he hasn’t found it too much of a culture shock, arguing that the two worlds are less disparate than they were.
“In the old days on commercial radio you could just go and do things whereas now, with health and safety regulations and everything else, there’s a lot more paperwork. So in terms of the physical workload, it’s all about the same.”
But he suggests that in the commercial world, stations are under increasing pressure to centralise their operations, making programmes on a network basis.
It is in local programme-making that he thinks Radio Newcastle can both capitalise and improve. He says he has already increased the number of news bulletins and removed music from the 4-6.30pm drive-time slot.
“We spend a lot of time looking at what our audience wants and we respond to that, but you have to pick and choose. We know there’s a demand for pretty much everything but you can’t have a station which only satisfies niche demands.”
One successful niche is the angling show Howes Fishing, presented by Railton Howes. “Anything can be interesting given the right presenter,” says the boss. Which brings us neatly to recent personnel changes.
“For me, if something is working and there’s a demand for it from your audience, then you would be a fool to change it,” he says.
“If you look at Julia and Paul, they were two decisions that were really made by them. They resigned. It was a bit of a surprise. In an ideal world, would I change two shows at the same time? The answer is definitely not. It creates a lot of hard work.
“But the trick for me is always having the next person in mind. I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve been building up some contacts and meeting some people because you don’t want to be left high and dry if something like this happens. Fortunately, I was able to move quickly.”
Jonathan Miles, who is not from the North-East and has never worked here before, took over the 10am slot on Monday – just two days before one regular listener was complaining about him on our letters page.
“He’s been all over the place,” says Andrew. “The last place was London. I think the North-East is becoming more cosmopolitan so it’s not that radical having someone come here from outside. It takes time to settle in irrespective of whether you’re from the region.”
Another new voice will be heard next week when Alfie Joey, who does hail from the North-East, takes over the afternoon slot. He is a comedian, actor and writer who appeared with Johnny Vegas on his BBC 3 sitcom, Ideal. His CV says he originally trained to be a priest.
As for the high-profile departures, Julia Hankin explained her reasons for resigning to The Journal in September. After 14 years on air she fancied a new challenge and is now head of marketing at the Centre for Life in Newcastle.
The reason for Paul Wappat’s departure became clear shortly after I rang him yesterday.
He promised to ring me back but the call actually came from Lucy Palmer, spokeswoman for GMG Radio whose sixth Smooth Radio station is launching in Gateshead on January 8 next year. Wappat, who is 45, is to host the drive-time show.
As Andrew Robson explains, the landscape of radio in the North-East is changing. He ponders aloud what might become of Century FM since it, too, is owned by GMG Radio.
One of the pressures on a radio station boss is to attract loyal listeners and then retain them, even when changes have to be made.
The speed with which this interview was granted – plus the deftness with which he handles potentially awkward questions – suggests Andrew Robson is no shrinking violet.
With an astute ear attuned to Radio Newcastle’s focus groups and listener panels, forever alert to the flows and eddies of his audience, he could well blossom at the Beeb, winning our letter writers over to his new line-up of presenters.
Perhaps it will be a different bunch of listeners writing to The Journal in the new year.