Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Spencer Leigh and On the Beat to be axed?

If, like me, you like a range of popular music from the fifties onwards - and you probably do if you're reading this - I strongly advise you to listen to Spencer Leigh's programme On the Beat, broadcast on Saturday evenings on BBC Radio Merseyside, while you still can.(Links at end.)

Future programmes have been announced on his personal website until around mid-January, but after that it's anybody's guess how much longer the show will continue to be run.

This is as a result of cuts affecting the budget of BBC local radio. You can read a fuller account in a Liverpool Daily Post article here but the gist is that the BBC is trying to save 20% from its overall budget and local stations will be more likely to share programmes with other regions, especially in the evenings. And at weekends there might be shared programming from 1pm - apart from the football, which is sacrosanct, apparently. Spencer has said in recent editions of his show that he is trying to cram as many interviews in as possible in the available shows in case that's his last chance.

The report says there is anger at the station that Radio Merseyside, "the most popular BBC local radio station outside London", is being targeted. If On the Beat does end, this will be a real pity - and I speak not as a local, but a listener  in London for the last year via BBC iplayer.

I only started listening in the last year or so, partly because of an interview with Alan Klein which I have made use of on this blog, but I've really grown to enjoy Spencer's wide-ranging musical knowledge and his unshowy delivery. Performers seem to open up to him because they know that he knows his stuff and he cares about it. He has written books about various aspects of pop music: he has a particular interest in Merseybeat and the Beatles but his knowledge of rock'n'roll and 60s/70s pop seems pretty far-reaching.

One small detail, because it was an area I knew something about, was that his was the only UK obituary of Pookie Hudson (in the Independent) which gave any indication of familiarity with the Spaniels biography. And recently on a Steve Cropper interview he was able to make the leap between the Beatles' 12 Bar Original and Green (not Glass) Onions. Not to mention a discussion with (I think) one of the Searchers about just what sort of kiss it was in Sweets For My Sweet which "thrilled me so." Or pointing out the pinch from the Diamonds' version of Little Darling at the end of the Beatles' Misery.

Do these things matter? Yes, because they indicate the knowledge below the surface. Small moments but highly significant. And the programme isn't parochial. Yes, it's partly about announcing local gigs and his knowledge of Merseybeat and the Beatles will come to the fore but the scope of the programme is much wider than that. If you could weep when you think of the amount of time you have spent in the past listening to interviews by DJs or TV figures who haven't done their homework or simply don't have that much invested in the interaction then in a quiet sort of way Spencer will be a revelation because he does care - and he can make the musical connections which can illuminate things for the listener. Or he will just know the right song with which to make a comparison.

There is, in short, a foundation of wideranging knowledge which means that his interviews are more rewarding than in many other cases, and you can hear it in the performers' response to his questions: you can hear them relaxing and opening up, because it sounds like they're being talked to by a human being who has actually enjoyed their music, not a Radio Personality.

When I began writing this blog, almost two years ago now, I thought I would only write about doo wop, having a lot of messages from an old doo wop messageboard I wanted to preserve. I thought maybe I'd write the odd new piece as well, but keep it to doo wop.But over time, other music I'd grown up listening to crept in, and of course it was all connected. Why not just celebrate it all? Which is what I've tried to do.

And what I get most strongly from Spencer's show is that he too thinks all this, the broad sweep of popular music, is important. On his personal website he says of On the Beat:
My radio programmes contain many interviews with a wide variety of people from the world of pop, rock, country, soul ....everything in fact. I hope to provide an insight to their music, and give the listener an opportunity to hear the unusual as well as the familiar.
Well, for my money he does - frequently. And it will be a crying shame if money is what takes this longrunning, genuinely informative and delightful show off the air for good. In an email I wrote to Mick Ord, the station manager, I ended:
So if you can, Mr Ord, please don't allow the axe to fall. The
programme may promote local events, but I can confirm that to lovers
of the broad sweep of popular music its appeal is national - at the
very least.

Update 4th December:

BBC Trust consultation about local radio

If Radio Merseyside is your local station and you wish to show your support for On the Beat or other programmes under threat, you can  fill in a questionnaire which is part of  the BBC Trust's online consultation about local radio. The relevant page can be found here. It is open until December 21st.

You can answer as many or as few of the eight questions as you wish, but perhaps the most relevant for On the Beat is Question 7, which focuses on local radio's music and arts commitments. In particular, it asks how well you think you think your local BBC station does the following things:
  •     provides opportunities for new and emerging musicians from the local area
  •     supports local arts and music events by providing event information
  •     plays a wide range of music, including music relevant to the local area.
Bear in mind that other Radio Merseyside programmes like Folk Scene are also under threat so if you enjoy other shows you may wish to mention them too. Question 8 is an "any other comments" one so anything else you want to say could be put there. 

And it's not just online: you can email or post your response. You can also call into Radio Merseyside reception in Hanover Street for more information. 

So if, like me, you value On the Beat, please take advantage of this opportunity to declare it to the BBC before the consultation deadline of December 21st.

Spencer Leigh's own website here. Click on "Radio Programme News" for a list of programmes and guests until January 14th 2012.
 His Radio Merseyside page here.  
 BBC iplayer link for most recent programme here. 

Update, 17th December: the iplayer link will take you to the 17th December show, which features an interview with Mike Redway, who recorded for the Woolworths label Embassy. More about his career here. There is also an interview with Richard White, author of a book about Dexy's Midnight Runners, who is currently working on a book about the spiritual and religious aspects of the Beatles music. There are also some pleasant musical surprises in the show. The next two shows will be Christmas and New Year specials. 


Oh, and if you're wondering, the above is a song I was introduced to via On the Beat recently.