That Tone Of Voice

When the sun shines, the radio sounds better. I have no scientific formula to prove this – it just does. And on a hot summer morning, what happier sound could you wish for than the cheery voice of Tony Blackburn?

But I’m not listening to a podcast of Radio 2’s Pick of the Pops, or his BBC London soul show. Nor is this Tone’s weekend shows on the Magic AM network or Kent’s KMFM. Tony’s back on a breakfast show. And this time it’s on BBC Local Radio. Sensational? Well….

This is a tough one, because like many anoraks turned pro, Blackburn is a living legend in my opinion. And in recent years, he’s been in demand for on air work for more outlets than ever before. It’s obvious to any listener that he clearly still loves being on air with a distinct personality which is ideally suited to a music or entertainment show.

And here’s the rub – BBC Radio Berkshire’s breakfast show can, at best, only ever be fifty per cent of that. Like all other stations in the network, it must rigidly observe the Service Licence, which demands an all speech format. Berkshire is slightly different from other stations, in that it hasn’t yet adapted the generic jingle package by production company Mcasso. Berkshire’s package itself sounds distinctly 1990s (a recut, I think, of New York’s WABC). Combine that will 100% talk and – well – it’s not quite Tone.

In fairness, this isn’t Blackburn’s regular gig on the station. He’s been working on mid mornings – a show which arguably has more of a chance to bring out the true personality and character that we all love Tony for. Mix music and speech, and he sounds just like he ever did.

Some purists might argue that to do it justice, a speech based breakfast show needs a journalist to anchor it. On the other hand, if you have a journalistic production team, surely they’ll take care of that stuff? Well yes and no. Balancing a sparkling personality with a tough, questioning manner is no easy feat. Tony’s coverage of the Keogh report into hospital mortality rates was perhaps a good demonstration of why I reckon the balance has sometimes gone too far in the wrong direction. Yet he still handles calls from listeners with charm, ease and cheese in equal measures.

In an extremely competitive market, BBC Radio Berkshire does well to maintain a 16% weekly reach. And undoubtedly having a massive name covering breakfast can only help to promote the station to potential new listeners. But, here, the restrictive format in in danger of stifling that personality.

In his 2012 report , consultant John Myers took the view that local managers should be given greater flexibility in determining their own station’s budget and format.

It’s likely to be a few more years yet before the BBC Trust reviews Local Radio once again. If stations are to continue hiring big names, the Trust needs to allow manager to vary the content according to the local market.

That includes making room for legends.

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