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A breath of fresh air – Lesley Douglas

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Since becoming controller of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas has steered a tricky course between welcoming a new digital age while appealing to middle England listeners. Nick Smurthwaite finds out the secret to her success

It has been a tumultuous few weeks in the normally smooth running of the country’s most successful radio station but Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas is weathering the storm surrounding her decision to appoint Chris Evans to take over Johnnie Walker’s drivetime slot.

Despite a backlash from traditionalists concerned about Evans’ capability and suitability to serve the network’s audience, Douglas is hailing him as “one of the best radio presenters of his generation” and sticking to her guns.

Given the health that Radio 2 is enjoying at the moment, with a 16.5% share of the UK listeners, it might just be that she knows what she is talking about.

Indeed Douglas appears unsurprisingly self-congratulatory as she runs through Radio 2’s recent hits and unabashedly sings the praises of her star presenters – Wogan, Ross, Wright, Vine et al.

But isn’t there a danger of being too smug about your success? “I think we have done well in recent years, precisely because we have never sat back and thought, ‘Right this is it, this is the best we can be’,” the amiable Douglas responds. “We criticise ourselves all the time and the nature of our presenters and producers is that they always want to do better.”

Douglas describes herself as “a BBC lifer”, having joined Broadcasting House as a production assistant in the mid-eighties and worked at Radio 2 in various capacities for the past 15 years. Since taking over from Jim Moir in January 2004, having worked alongside him as head of programmes, Douglas has steered a tricky course between embracing the digital age of radio and capitalising on the network’s middle brow, middle England, middle of the road appeal.

While it is tempting to think of the station’s audience as being rock solid, Douglas prefers to see it as being in a continuing state of evolution. “Our research shows that there has been a change in attitude across demographic ranges, a convergence of musical taste in which age has become less relevant. The sixties remain enormously influential and a lot of our younger listeners are inquisitive about what happened musically in the past.”

There is also, she points out, a new breed of contemporary artist – James Blunt, Katie Melua, Jamie Cullum to name three – whose music cuts a swathe through the usual demographic boundaries.

One of the innovations Douglas was keen to make as soon as she took up the reins, was to beef up the musical theatre output, partly because it is a personal passion of hers and partly because she is convinced it is one of the common denominators of British cultural life that has been poorly served by broadcasting in the past. There have been live broadcasts of Sunset Boulevard and South Pacific and more are planned for the future.

“I think it’s one of those things that connects people from all sorts of different backgrounds and we have had a huge amount of positive feedback for the shows presented by Michael Ball and Elaine Paige.”

This summer, Radio 2 will launch an ambitious adjunct to shows like Ball Over Broadway and Elaine Paige on Sunday when it invites listeners to help compose a new interactive musical. A producer has been allocated to the task already and amateur operatic societies up and down the country will be recruited to help out. Douglas hopes the finished musical will be ready for broadcast towards the end of the year. The DIY musical follows on from Sold On Song’s popular competition 18 months ago to find an undiscovered songwriting talent.

Like all other broadcast executives, Douglas has been much preoccupied with matters digital and internet in recent times. Online services such as RadioPlayer enable listeners who miss a programme to hear it in their own time frame, while podcasting allows you to download particular programmes on to your iPod. “We all lead busy lives and you’re not always around to hear things go out on first transmission,” says Douglas. “To know that you can call something up on the internet empowers your audience. Only 12 months ago the website felt like an add-on to the programme output, now it’s much more integral. I don’t think of them as separate things any more.”

Since most of the station’s presenters are over 50 you can’t help wondering what they make of the encroachment of new technology into their formerly low-tech lives. She says Wogan has little truck with it – save a quizzical aside such as, “What is a podcast for heaven’s sake?” – despite the fact that his is one of the most requested programmes on RadioPlayer.

Clearly Douglas is a huge admirer of the recently knighted Irishman, arguably Radio 2’s biggest asset and ratings magnet. “All our presenters give something of themselves and they are all idiosyncratic. But the great thing about Terry is that he doesn’t sit on his laurels, he is forever thinking about what it is the audience is interested in, so that he can reflect that on air.”

One of the accusations levelled by some commercial stations is that it has artificially inflated the cost of attracting quality presenters. Douglas repudiates this, saying her “stars” are there because they want to be. “They could probably earn more elsewhere but they come to us for the creativity and to pursue their passions.”

Douglas is also in charge of 6 Music, the BBC’s second smallest station, and she is clearly aware – and admiring – of many of the newer commercial stations, such as Xfm and Magic. She is all in favour of “daring” so long as it stops short of being offensive.

How does she answer criticisms from commercial producers that Radio 2 has lost sight of its public service imperative in the quest for a bigger audience share and a younger image?

“If I thought that what we were doing wasn’t public service broadcasting it would keep me awake at night,” she says. “Radio 2 has always been a broad church, covering all kinds of music and comedy and it has always had great presenters. They love what they do and that comes across. We’re a happy station with a huge feelgood factor.”

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