BBC Radio 2 bosses Helen Thomas and Jeff Smith have revealed their master plan for keeping the nation's most popular radio station ahead of the pack.
The duo are interviewed in the latest issue of Music Week alongside star presenters Jo Whiley and Trevor Nelson ahead of the return of flagship live music event Radio 2 In The Park, which will take place in Leicester from September 16-17.
Thomas said she endeavoured to appeal to the broadest possible audience with the choice of presenters and was full of pride for the current line-up.
"We have the most amazing squad and getting them all together in September in Leicester will be incredible," she said. "Radio 2, for decades, has been aimed at an audience of 35-plus, so we are not targeting a very specific slice of audience, we want there to be something for everyone on this radio station. I am so proud to have, whether it's Tony Blackburn, Bob Harris or Johnnie Walker - absolute legends of the airwaves - still doing incredible business for us on Radio 2, as well as bringing through people of different generations.
“We have star presenters in every single slot right across the day, and I can't see any other radio station that's got that. I look at the line-up and I literally couldn't be happier.”
There is no other radio station like it on the planet and I want it to continue to tower above all others
Expressing her pride in the statistic that one in four adults who listen to UK radio are listening to Radio 2, Thomas, who has been in the post since 2020, insisted she never takes its lofty standing for granted.
“I absolutely recognise that in this role, I am the custodian of this incredible national institution,” she said. “I treat it and our listeners with the greatest of respect, and every move is made with the intent of ensuring the survival and thriving of this amazing, incredible radio station. There is no other radio station like it on the planet and I want it to continue to tower above all others.”
Smith, who has been with the BBC since 2007, described R2’s relationship with record labels as “brilliant”, but was keen to encourage even closer cooperation - citing the success of its Piano Room format, which has been a hit with listeners since launching in January 2022.
“I’d say to the music industry, talk to me more about what we can do with the Piano Room to expose your artist’s music to a wider audience than ever before with the sheer scale and scope that we can offer,” he said.
Smith acknowledged the challenge from DSPs and other platforms, but said that Radio 2 stands apart due to its “full-service nature”.
“We don’t have many full-service radio stations anymore, but Radio 2 is certainly one of those," he said. "If one of those competitors started to try to be something like Radio 2 that would be interesting to see. That would be a threat. But I think those are very much on-demand experiences."
Even in the streaming era, Smith is convinced radio still has a key part to play in the breaking new acts.
Nowadays, all sorts of people could claim they’ve given birth to these hits. But if you want to be successful, ultimately, I believe you’ve got to be on the radio
“I’m not too sure it necessarily begins within mainstream daytime radio,” he said. “Nowadays, all sorts of people could claim they’ve given birth to these hits. But if you want to be successful, ultimately, I believe you’ve got to be on the radio. That is a level you have to attain and it has to be the ambition for many artists, even now.
"If you want to be successful why wouldn’t you want to be on the biggest radio station in the UK? The biggest radio station in Europe? It’s not going to work for everybody and not all artists are going to work for us, but radio is still so important to breaking new music.”
In the latest RAJARs for Q2 2023, Radio 2 was down 7.4% year-on-year to 13.46m. While it remains comfortably the UK's No.1, the total represented a loss of 1.074m listeners compared to a year ago. But Thomas insisted there is never any rush to draw conclusions based on the quarterly figures.
"When the RAJARs come around, of course, it's an opportunity to look at what we're doing and where we're going," said Thomas, speaking prior to the results. "But we never made kneejerk decisions based on RAJAR because I've been doing this a long time and Jeff has been doing it even longer, and you know in your gut if something sounds right. You feel it, you can hear it and you can see the response from the listeners.
“The listeners to Radio 2 love this radio station and they tell us what they think, and I value that,” she said. “I would rather have that relationship with our audience because they're grown-ups as well. I've been doing this a long time and Jeff has been doing it even longer, and you know in your gut if something sounds right. You feel it, you can hear it and you can see the response from the listeners. So of course, we pay attention to the RAJARs when they come around. But no sudden movements - ever."
The past few years have seen something of a changing of a guard at the station with the departure of presenters including Simon Mayo and Vanessa Feltz, while Steve Wright left his weekday show last year after more than two decades. New faces have included Radio 1’s Scott Mills, who joined last year.
Most controversially, Ken Bruce, who presented the mid-morning show for more than three decades, departed for Bauer Audio UK’s Greatest Hits Radio earlier this year.
Bruce, who was succeeded by Vernon Kay, could claim to be the nation’s most popular broadcaster at the time based on RAJAR figures, with 8.2 million listeners (Kay pulled in an audience of 6.9m in the same time slot in Q2 according to the Guardian, but is yet to have a full quarter in the role).
“Ken is an amazing broadcaster, who was here at the BBC for 45 years and 31 years on mid-mornings, and he chose to leave,” said Thomas. “He decided to leave, so it wasn't a change that I was looking to make, but had an offer from elsewhere and he decided to go elsewhere."
However, the BBC received criticism from longtime fans for its handling of Bruce's exit. The 72-year-old Scot said the corporation had brought forward the date of his last show by a few weeks (“I had intended fulfilling my contract until the end of March but the BBC has decided it wants me to leave earlier,” he said). A BBC spokesperson countered that it was always known that Bruce was leaving in March, adding that returning to Wogan House for a week after a month of broadcasting the Piano Room sessions at Maida Vale “provided a natural break”.
Regardless of the circumstances of Bruce's departure, Thomas insisted there were no hard feelings.
"We just wish him the best of luck,” she said. “I saw him at the ARIAS earlier this year and he was really happy. He was thrilled. And of course, from our perspective, whenever somebody moves on, it opens up an opportunity for someone else."
And Thomas is convinced Kay has what it takes to succeed in the role.
“I was so thrilled to be able to bring Vernon in, because Vernon was somebody who had been deputising right across the network for a couple of years," she said. "He started off depping for Rylan, then Dermot [O’Leary] and then he did a little bit of Steve [Wright]. Then he became the dedicated breakfast dep.
“We could just see how much the audience loved him and it isn’t hard to see why. He's really warm. He's really funny. He's really relatable. He loves his music. He's so happy to have the keys to the Piano Room. When I offered him the gig and said, ‘By the way, your first Piano Room is going to be with Noel Gallagher,’ his jaw hit the floor. So it's exciting because it opens up a whole new world of opportunities.”
The full Radio 2 interview appears in the current edition of Music Week.