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The events of the last year have severely shaken the metronomic balance of the cultural calendar. As restrictions have seen live music reduced to a rare, socially-distanced hum, ghost lights continue an extended run on theatre stages and festivals move online, the aftershocks have been felt on institutional radio, too.
From national to local stations, the BBC was forced to restructure its programming to meet the limitations and demands of the new normal. The changes meant that, from March 2020, certain shows and presenters covered elongated hours, while others were removed from the schedule altogether as the Corporation assumed a more defined role as a public broadcaster.
On BBC Radio Merseyside, one such programme that was placed on hiatus was THE POPULAR MUSIC SHOW. Fronted by Roger Hill and a revolving team of presenters, the programme is lauded for its left turns, deep digging and connoisseur curation of sounds from Merseyside to the far reaches of the world. To this day it remains the longest-running alternative music show in the UK. However, the 43rd year of its running was far quieter than the team had expected as it departed its late Sunday night slot.
After a challenging year, the programme has returned to BBC Radio Merseyside, albeit with a few tweaks and new features to meet the continuing impacts on scheduling. Roger Hill fills us in on the set-up of the new show, the future of late-night radio and the importance of presenting new, expansive cultural discoveries on a local public broadcaster.
PMS spent the best part of a year off air due to the pandemic and the resulting changes to schedules. Did you notice the landscape of radio changing in that period of time?
It was very easy to notice, because the BBC completely restructured local radio. There was no space for pretty much anything that was individual programmes, so many, like ours, went off. I saw that the BBC decided, for the first time in a long time, what it wanted to use local radio for. In other words, what this access to local people was about. People do like to be talked to as though they live somewhere particular, provide information, raise spirits – local radio does that. It’s the first time in almost 40 years of my being involved with it that local radio actually got its mission back.
With this restructuring, did you think there was a gap left in terms of the cultural offer and exploration in a musical sense? How did this affect your planning when returning to the air in January?
I said to the team, ‘Who listens to us anyway? Who are the people who either go on iPlayer or listen late at night and want to hear what we were doing?’ It boiled down to a combination of the culturally aware and the independent thinkers, if you like, the doers, the people who go to gigs, get Bido lito! for example. We framed the new show around the idea that there was a community there that, essentially, the rest of radio Merseyside wasn’t speaking to.
Do you think there is a new frame around radio itself, a new way of looking at it? And is this something that you’ve taken on, or is it a case of repurposing what you had?
At the moment, monthly at least, we will have an extension to PMS that can be heard on Melodic Distraction. The change for us, I think, is in thinking about what we do as the one-hour show. Just as Bido Lito! became more than a magazine, similarly PMS becomes more than a programme; it becomes an information system, it could become an online platform, regular email newsletter. It becomes a focus for something. But we don’t want to do this too much, otherwise we’ll never get any more time back from the BBC!
Talk me through the reformat a little bit and how the show might be operating differently.
The first thing that’s important is the new time [9pm] and I think that is important as we’ll capture people who wouldn’t necessarily be coming to find us. We’ve introduced spoken word, too, and we’ve had some really good features from that so far this year. We’re still the only programme on the station that plays world music. Although we can’t do festivals currently, we’re obviously keeping people abreast of developments in that area.
Every programme has mentions in it, too, as we call it now. And they’re not always just musical, but they’re about cultural activities and online activities. And also, we’ve got a five-minute section, which is five recommendations, five aspects to look forward to. That is definitely a nod towards cultural events and happenings.
If the first section is really kind of music and speech, the second is about what to do during your week, the third is about the electronic, the digital, the online and everything else. And then, finally, we have a 15-minute flourish at the end, where we remind people that we’ve got a very deep, good archive, and remind people about what’s on our mixes.
As you know, over the past 40 years or more, late-night radio slots like John Peel’s were presented as a particular kind of exploration and cultural navigation. Do you think that this slot for music programmes still has merit? And do you think that can come back? Or do you think we’re moving into an age where everything has to be a little bit more on demand?
It’s a good question, but a question that’s very hard to give an answer to at the moment, except to say that since [last] March late-night radio no longer exists locally. The BBC has gone through so many revolutions over the years. It will be past my time, I think, but eventually there may come a time when the BBC rediscovers the joys of what we might call ‘free floating navigation late-night radio at a local level’. I mean, I don’t think it’s completely out, I think it just happens to be what the BBC is into at the moment. It knows it’s in a tougher market than it was 10 to 20 years ago. There are far more radio stations out there, far more niche radio stations. We were very loose on the old show, but it’s not like that now. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for that kind of radio. We are now definitely in the structured programme market that we weren’t in, originally.
Do you think local radio will be at a loss without the more freeform late-night music programming?
I think, bearing in mind the bigger picture, we’re just going to have to embrace it, to be honest. But it’s one of those things where I often wondered whether the listeners who joined us at midnight on a Sunday had actually been listening to anything else on Radio Merseyside. They may only have parachuted in for us and then parachuted out again and, therefore, the radio station didn’t get any huge benefit from the numbers which transfer out into the rest of the station. So, I think the BBC probably wouldn’t go back and do it again.
Does it matter to you to remain on a public service broadcaster? Does that change the essence and the ethos of the programme?
I took the view, and I’ve always had this, that there was something about working for the BBC and broadcasting on the BBC airwaves and being part of the BBC information system, which was a dignifying – if dignity is something that we want to attach to our kind of music – but also empowering. I think I always thought that it would be best to keep something that was PMS on Radio Merseyside, even if we had to start thinking outside the box a bit.
It does matter to be on the BBC for me personally. But then, of course, I started out that way. I suppose maybe there’s a real sense of loyalty, sentimentality, a sense of the BBC is a generally good thing and it’s nice to be part of a good thing with a kind of international dimension to it. So, for me, there is a benefit of being there. But we are, as you can tell, reaching out and putting ourselves outside the BBC as well as inside. And in a sense, because we’ve always been a bit of a trailblazer as a programme, maybe we will be the model of how the developments will happen in the future.
The Popular Music show now runs bi-weekly at 9pm on BBC Radio Merseyside. The next live broadcasts are on 2nd, 16th, 30th April.