Matthew Bannister interview: From controller of Radio 1 to walking with folk musiciansÂ

Matthew Bannister has been out in the fresh air, recording conversations with musicians for a series that unites three of his passions: folk songs, walking and telling stories in sound.

Tuesday, 16th October 2018, 1:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th October 2018, 1:53 pm
Matthew Bannister. Picture: Wire Free Productions

The Sheffield-born broadcaster's podcast Folk on Foot, which returns this week, is a very laid-back affair - and turning the clock back 25 years might explain the appeal of a relaxed approach to life.

In 1993 Bannister, then a rising star in BBC management, was appointed controller of Radio 1 at a pivotal moment. Its listenership was ageing, and its schedules were filled with veteran DJs who had been on air for decades such as Simon Bates, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and the now disgraced Dave Lee Travis.

Matthew Bannister, then BBC Director of Radio, in 1998 with DJs Terry Wogan, Kevin Greening and Zoe Ball, celebrating 10.5 million listeners between them.

Bannister had a clearout, hiring fresh faces - most famously, Chris Evans - and championing Britpop bands like Blur and Oasis in a bid to attract the nation's youth.

But there was a price to pay. Five million listeners switched off, he was harangued by the press and relations soured with Evans, who jumped ship for commercial rival Virgin Radio after Bannister refused to reduce his hours to a four-day working week.

"It was a very difficult time," Bannister recalls. "Some of the people who were no longer wanted were very angry and hurt. In making that change, inevitably the audience was going to fall, but that led to bad headlines in the newspapers. I found it very stressful. Sticking to my guns saw me through it."

And, he believes, the changes he made helped to build the Radio 1 of today, which still has more than nine million weekly listeners.

"To be honest with you, I think I am now vindicated. Without what we did, there would have been big trouble for the BBC. Radio 1 has thrived and is still the engine room for new talent and music in the BBC, and increasingly a kind of multimedia service for young people."

However, Bannister is experiencing 'a terrible sense of déjà vu' as Evans leaves Radio 2 for Virgin's morning slot, with Zoe Ball lined up to replace him in a virtual repeat of their late 1990s careers.

"It's almost exactly the same set of events. I should say, Zoe won that battle hands down last time round, and her audience figures were far higher than his. We'll see what happens. It's a huge challenge that he's taken on, because Virgin is a very small digital-only station. They're going to have to invest a lot of money in trying to raise its profile to the level Radio 2 reaches. I recognise in Chris the need for a new challenge."  

Bannister and Evans have patched things up; in 2005 Evans publicly apologised for treating his old boss 'disrespectfully'. Bannister went on to become director of BBC Radio in its entirety, and then chief executive of BBC Production, before returning to presenting on 5 Live, Radio 4 and the World Service.

Would he take a managerial role again?

"No," he says emphatically. "I've been there and done that."

Broadcasting, he adds, is what he always wanted to do. "That's where I see my future."

Bannister, 61, grew up in Millhouses and Ecclesall, attending King Edward VII school in Broomhill. His mother, Olga, was a paediatric physiotherapist at Sheffield Children's Hospital, pioneering new treatments for patients with cystic fibrosis, while his father, Neville, mainly worked as a research chemist for British Steel in Orgreave. Olga, who was awarded the British Empire Medal just before her death in June, spent 17 years as a volunteer supporting families affected by motor neurone disease after Neville died of the condition.

Folk on Foot, Bannister says, harks back to his childhood. "My parents introduced me to the idea of walking in the countryside. We were on the side of town that was really handy to get out into Derbyshire and the Peak District, and the beauty of that moorland."

As a teenager he played fiddle in a trio called Hobb - "Don't ask me why," he says of the name - who regularly appeared at open mic nights in Sheffield folk clubs, mostly held in 'upstairs rooms of pubs'.

"I got into folk really because I was learning the violin. My mum said it would be a great idea. As I got into my teens I was thinking, 'What a boring instrument this is'."

His attitude changed when he heard Fairport Convention's album Liege and Lief, which showcased the playing of Dave Swarbrick who used an electric violin. "I thought 'That's what the violin should be like'. I started trying to imitate what he did. It was a great time in my life, and now in a way I'm recapturing that." 

Bannister's first BBC job was at Radio Nottingham as a trainee reporter, but he almost pursued a career in the theatre. The Crucible opened in Sheffield in the early 1970s, and he signed up for young people's acting classes on Saturday mornings. He took a course with the National Youth Theatre in London, and did 'a lot of directing' when he was meant to be studying law at Nottingham University. 

Later he was offered a place to learn about theatre directing as a postgraduate in Cardiff, and applied to Sheffield Council for a grant.

"I thought, I've got to have another string to my bow, so I wrote to the BBC station in Nottingham and said 'Have you got any jobs going?' It so happened they had an opening. So, in the same week, I got offered a grant of £985 for a year in Cardiff and a one-year contract for Radio Nottingham at £3,000. I'd always been a radio nut - I'd got that from my dad - and the BBC headed notepaper with the offer on it was so exciting I took the job."

Folk on Foot has provided many highlights, Bannister says. One instalment of the first series found him walking round Robin Hood's Bay on the North Yorkshire coast with singer and fiddle player Eliza Carthy, before gathering round the kitchen table for a performance with her parents, folk luminaries Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. "It was spine-tingling," he remembers.

Season two launches with an episode starring Jon Boden, the former frontman of Bellowhead who lives in the Loxley Valley and has written songs inspired by the area's old brickworks. "He sings some of those on location in the valley and by the factory," says Bannister.

He also takes a dip at Brockwell Lido in London with You Are Wolf's vocalist Kerry Andrew, a fan of cold water swimming, and treks across Dartmoor with Mercury-nominated Seth Lakeman.

"Folk musicians absolutely get this, because their music is so often rooted in a sense of place," he says. "The idea you might perform on location isn't a surprise to them, they almost all go 'Oh yeah, fine'. The only issue we've ever had with anybody is finding the time to do it. I find folk music as exciting as it's ever been right now."

Bannister is paying for the venture out of his own pocket, though 'a small but growing number' of listeners have registered as paid subscribers.

"As we build the audience we'll be looking for sponsorship. I'm keen to preserve the quality of the audio and make sure it's not interrupted by too much advertising. At the moment it's a loss-making project and it's a labour of love for me."

Bannister, who has been married three times and has a grown-up son and daughter, gave up hosting the World Service interview show Outlook to focus on the podcast. He misses meeting the contributors, and the production team, but felt it was time for a change.

"I did it for 10 years and it's the most extraordinary programme to do - week in, week out you are introduced to some of the world's most inspiring people. The stock in trade of Outlook is ordinary people with extraordinary experiences."

Kofi Annan was a standout interviewee - "He told this story about being mistaken for Morgan Freeman when he was on holiday" - as well as a woman from Delhi whose daughter had been killed in a traffic accident at a notorious blackspot.

"Ever since that day the woman had gone, herself, to that junction to direct the traffic, year after year, day after day, to make sure no-one suffered the fate of her daughter. She'd never left Delhi before and we gave her the chance to fly to London. She was the epitome of what we might expect on Outlook."  

Bannister still presents the obituary programme Last Word on Radio 4, which has been running since 2006. "You're never sure what's going to happen every week - you can't be, you're in the hands of death. Last week we had the man who'd won the Nobel prize for developing fibre optic technology, and next to him was Charles Aznavour and the guy who wrote Postman Pat. What a great contrast."

Folk on Foot is made by Wire Free Productions, Bannister's company that until earlier this year delivered a syndicated evening show for the BBC local radio network. This ended when the corporation decided to reinstate stations' own nightly schedules, but Bannister won't complain. 

"When the BBC changes its policy, you can't argue with that," he says. "We were pleased to have the business and I think we did it incredibly well."  

Folk on Foot returns on Friday, October 19. Visit to listen.

Podcasting a '˜new space for sound'

The growth of podcasting is having a positive impact on traditional radio, says Matthew Bannister.

"It's democratic - anyone can start a podcast, anyone can get involved. Obviously that means there's some terrible things out there, but also really fresh, new and interesting ideas are thriving, and so it's an interesting new space for sound."

Listeners aged 25 to 34 are attracted to the medium's portability, as episodes can be easily accessed on smartphones. One of the most popular strands, the investigative journalism podcast Serial, has millions of listeners, while Folk on Foot has notched up 20,000 downloads so far.

"I think you'll find the BBC now is commissioning stuff with an eye to the podcast market, as well as to the broadcast market," Bannister says. "They are launching some things that are going out as podcasts first, and other things are changing the kind of storytelling they do on mainstream radio. Also it provides a competitor to the BBC, and that's all to the good because no monopoly is a healthy thing. It's a wonderful new way of getting people engaged in the thing I've loved for 40 years."