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Fine Documentaries, and not on Radio 4

Gillian Reynolds in The Sunday Telegraph, 13 October 2008

Factual programmes – such as this week's Rock in the Dock – are making a welcome return to commercial radio

Once upon a charity quiz night, this newspaper's team rampaged to glorious success on a question about a hit song of the time. It had a catchy, folksy, fiddle-de-dee-ish introduction. ‘Bluebells,’ said the chap from Sport instantly, ahead of our pop pundit (for it is a truth universally acknowledged that sports writers know more about everything than all the so-called experts put together), 'Young at Heart’.

He couldn't have known then that its fiddler would later sue for royalties. But it's the kind of story that fascinates, as does the lawsuit pianist Johnnie Johnson, the original of Johnnie B Good. brought against Chuck Berry, or why it took 38 years for the organist on Procul [sic] Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale to get his due, a decision that was overturned on appeal. Rock in the Dock. a new documentary series on Smooth and Real radio stations tells them all, and very well too. starting today at 1.00pm.

Documentaries? On commercial radio? Smooth and Real have been broadcasting two each weekend since June. They did Rolling River of Rock, a history of the Mississippi and its music. And a series on the music and events of 1968, presented by our own Paul Morley. And Alexei Sayle on Where Did All the Money Go? – tales of bands who asked that very question.

Now here's David Quantick. author of Radio 4's brilliant late-night comedy One, esteemed presenter of Radio 2's The Blagger's Guide ...with Rock in the Dock, four 50-minute programmes on writs'n'hits which couldn't fit Radio 4 (too much pop), wouldn't suit Radio 2 (too conversational), but slot perfectly into a commercial music station. Except for two things.

First, documentaries have long been consigned to commercial radio history. A special levy on profits, set up in the late 1970s by the old Independent Broadcasting Authority, was instituted to fund programmes that broadened their stations' appeal. Some even won prizes. As regulation relaxed and commercial radio prospered. such things went by the board. Why spend money on scripts when the audiences seemed happy with just music? Now there's a new question: why tune to radio for music when you can get more on the internet? Commercial radio listening has been dropping for a decade and, with it, revenue. Yet a loyal core audience grew up with commercial radio. Who is still talking to them?

John Simons. programme director of Smooth and Real, believes his stations are. 'You've got to do more than just music,’ he says. 'You've got to add texture and substance to the whole output.’ Smooth and Real are part of Guardian Media Group, responsible ultimately to the Scott Trust. Dame Liz Forgan, until recently chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, also chairs the Scott Trust. John Myers, boss of GMG's radio interests, said if they really wanted to fight back against the BBC. they needed to diversify. That would take funds. 'Make a case: said Forgan.

They did and the Trust put £lm into extra programming. Simons and Myers began commissioning last March. They brought in Jim Moir, former controller of Radio 2, to assist. Major independent producers tendered. Audience research has shown 'overwhelmingly positive' reaction. They are now into a second round of commissions.

Before that, for Armistice weekend, they have something special. Colonel Tim Collins has been in Afghanistan and Iraq. talking to front-line troops. Blogs from the Bunkers will share their exclusive insights. The programmes are made by Smooth Operations, producers Rock in the Dock, who also did Radio 2's Sony Award-winning Radio Ballads. Ambitious? Canny, more like.


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