New BBC WM managing editor Gareth Roberts reveals his vision of the future to Graham Young.
Three months into his tenure at the BBC Mailbox and Gareth Roberts is exuding a quiet confidence.
That he’s A) in the right place to work.
B) can guide BBC WM to where he wants it to go.
And C ) has found a ‘rising star’ to take over the all-important breakfast show.
But in order to achieve B) to satisfy A), he also needs to make sure he’s got option C) spot on, too.
His new man at dawn is Pete Morgan, currently the BBC Stoke breakfast presenter.
More importantly he’s the current UK-wide Gillard Local Radio Award Winner for best BBC breakfast show and, rather handily, already lives in Sutton Coldfield.
Currently just weeks short of his 40th birthday, Morgan will arrive at exactly the same time in his life as his now 45-year-old predecessor Phil Upton did in September, 2006.
Roberts says: “Pete was Ed James’ producer at Heart and people have an affection for breakfast presenters like no other. They become entrenched in the daily routine of the presenter and Pete has a natural warmth, with the knack of making it feel like he’s just talking to you.”
Upton was introduced to BBC WM listeners as ‘Mr Birmingham’ following his long stints at BRMB and then Heart. But the city-born presenter and club-lover turned tireless charity fundraising cyclist will leave the breakfast show after five-and-a-half years at the end of April. Or, to quote the mysterious official line, ‘step down’.
Roberts, who has just turned 40 himself, politely declines to explain the phrase – or to say on the record whether Upton was pushed, decided to walk before he was pushed, or even, as is more likely, just felt like he needed a break.
As we all probably would.
“I’m full of admiration for Phil and what he has achieved and I’ll be making sure he gets a good send off” says Roberts. “We are still talking and I am hoping that there’s something for him here, or nationally, for him to get involved with.
“Those conversations are ongoing and between us. Five years on breakfasts really take it out of you.
“I understand that it’s the greatest job in the world, but there comes a point where it’s really hard work.”
Radio stations live or die by their breakfast shows and it’s unlikely anyone will ever match the 25-year record of BRMB legend Les Ross.
Even the indefatigable Adrian Goldberg – now re-energised following his return to WM for three hours every morning from Monday to Saturday – threw in the towel at WM back in 2006 to give the hitherto commercial radio DJ Upton his surprise chance in the first place.
Roberts understands their dilemmas, having worked behind the scenes on the breakfast shows at Capital for Chris Tarrant and Johnny Vaughan.
In those days, he would rise at 4:07am precisely ready to do his stuff. He would then agonise whether he should... drink coffee after noon; catch up on sleep in the afternoon; eat after 8pm or even risk going out on a Friday night at the end of a long week.
When you work in that sort of non-stop, high-pressure environment, you tend to be surrounded by like-minded people, so it’s the family at home which can suffer.
Even today, as the managing editor of a station on air from 5am to midnight or 1am, Roberts admits he can infuriate his wife Anne-Claire by trying to listen all the time to WM’s output using every gadget known to man.
But, since she persuaded him to go to Capital in the first place, he knows he’s on relatively safe ground.
Married for 15 years, they met 20 years ago when he was a politics student at the University of London. Roberts relaxes by watching their sons Tom, 12, and Will, nine, playing football on Saturday mornings while mum looks after two-year-old daughter Esmée. On the positive side, it now looks as if WM will be spared last autumn’s mooted swingeing financial cuts – as it should if a full and part-time staff of roughly just 35 people can keep it afloat as it is today.
Roberts says he has certainly been impressed with the professionalism of the newsroom that he has inherited. Just like Upton was given a big promotion in his BRMB days following the 1993 Richard Park-led Capital takeover, so Roberts is, if not quite a disciple, then certainly another product of the big man’s way of thinking.
“Richard Park is the greatest radio programmer in this country, if not beyond,” says Roberts.
“You shouldn’t try to imitate anyone, but what he did teach me was pride and professionalism. To be proud of where you are. And to listen to everything that you do – or to at least give the impression that you listen to everything.
“For anyone to go into being a local radio editor, it’s a great job. You want to make your mark and to bring in a team because it takes time to see things through.”
Roberts has already identified what he thinks is the magic ingredient for WM.
Personality with a capital P is the new buzz word – at a station where radio legends like Ed Doolan and Tony Butler made the breakfast show their own (and from where Malcolm Boyden was controversially sacked by Roberts’ predecessor, Keith Beech).
Perhaps changing the breakfast presenter at this stage will be of long-term benefit if Roberts wants to be seen as the kind of manager who is starting as he means to go on.
“I have a clear vision of how I see the station and where it’s going... with big personality presenters... and making it clear that at peak times we’re about great speech radio.
“I don’t just want non-stop three-hour phone-ins.
“We need passions, really powerful interviews, human interest stories, things that mean you can’t get out of your car in the car park at Tesco.
“We’re the only local station that can do that.
“Now that we’re running the soccer phone-in every night from 6pm you can hear the passion of the supporters of the great clubs in this area.
“And, when someone like Franksie (Paul Franks) is on, you can ‘hear’ listeners wanting to know what he thinks about things, too. But we have to make sure there’s a lot of fun in there as well and having a laugh. It’s early days, but I’m feeling quite good about that. Make that really good.”
Growing up in Worcester, Roberts says he looked upon Birmingham as ‘the big city’.
He now sees it as a very different place to how it was then.
“There’s a buzz about the place,” he senses. “It feels like a patch on the up, which is hard to say when things are pretty tricky in the economy.
“But places like The Cube make this feel like a very different place to the one when I was growing up.
“The news patch is great and I think we have good storytellers here. People are good at coming on air and telling their stories. And having a laugh. Or a moan. They are much better here than in London.”
Though he enjoyed his newsroom days, Roberts says he has no regrets that he didn’t become a broadcaster himself. You sense his greatest skill is to support his staff in a way which means they can give their best at what they’re good at.
“I loved being a newsreader and reporter but as a presenter I was dreadful,” he admits.
“I love creating programmes and seeing them develop and working with really talented presenters – maybe I’m just lucky to have worked with some great ones,” he says.
When he was just 21, Roberts was sent to Sweden to meet The Rolling Stones and had a one-to-one interview with Keith Richards.
“I thought I was living the dream until Keith told me about his life, and how he could just drive through London picking up women.
“He’s a rock and roll star, all the way through! Nobody else could get away with that.”
Running a station is less rock and roll, more about clockwork and teamwork.
And, during our two-hour conversation, I pull Roberts’ leg about a couple of things.
That WM’s choice of music in the daytime can be awfully mundane – who wants 30-year-old soul records when you’ve switched on to be surprised and engaged? The music has crept back in to some shows having been firmly ditched altogether by the late Tony Inchley, Roberts’ predecessor but two who did so much to shape WM as a speech-only station in the early 1990s.
The other is a noticeable increase in verbal station idents, to the point that recently you could hear: ‘You’re listening to BBC WM 95.6’ followed ten seconds later by: ‘Here’s BBC WM 95.6’s Josephine-Lulu Tavish in our radio car...’.
This is a typical commercial radio practice and one engaged by Roberts because he thinks ‘there’s nothing in BBC WM to tell new listeners that it’s radio’. Which is funny because the fact that the station was formerly called Radio WM in Inchley’s day just goes to prove that what goes around, comes around... in a roundabout way.
“Music in local radio has its place like lunchtime when it’s a bit lighter,” says Roberts, looking more defensive than on any repeated questions about Phil Upton.
Coming back out to battle, he adds: “Listeners know what they want and what to expect at certain times – and there’s no age divide with speech. But we’re about great speech radio, make no mistake.”