Star Interview: Editor's big ambitions for the renaissance of BBC Radio Sheffield

If there is a job at BBC Radio Sheffield that Katrina Bunker hasn't done, she'll be surprised.

Sunday, 31st December 2017, 1:45 pm
Updated Sunday, 31st December 2017, 1:50 pm
Katrina Bunker at BBC Radio Sheffield

From making tea around the studios as a teenage volunteer to writing scripts, presenting programmes and producing the breakfast show, she did it all on her way to becoming the station’s managing editor.

“I even used to man the switchboard and answer the phones in reception from time to time,” she remembers. “And fetched the milk... which was probably the most important job.”

There’s a comforting familiarity to local radio. When a listener tunes in, they know what to expect – a mix of news, sport, phone-ins, topical chat and a smattering of MOR music.

But Katrina is in charge at an interesting time. In a speech in November the BBC’s director general Tony Hall pledged to bring about a ‘renaissance’ for the local radio network, which has just marked its 50th anniversary.

At a stroke he cancelled £10 million of national cuts, and set out an ambition to reinvent the service by widening its audience, deploying digital technology to a greater degree and becoming ‘more creative’.

It’s a far cry from the atmosphere of the mid-2000s, when presenters were handed descriptions of a glum fictional couple who were supposedly their target audience. The imaginary pair – Dave, a plumber, and Sue, a school secretary, both aged 55 – were uninterested in high culture or politics and saw the world as a ‘dangerous and depressing place’.

“Those days are very much a thing of the past and it’s much more of a broad appeal focus on localness rather than age groups,” says Katrina over coffee in her office next to her station’s quietly industrious newsroom.

Cheerful, she has an air of level-headedness about her and speaks unhesitatingly.

Lord Hall’s speech, she concludes, was ‘very much about BBC local radio being for everybody’. “I think that’s absolutely right. If you think about our sports team, and their brilliant commentaries and Football Heaven – people of all ages have always been ringing that phone-in.”

Katrina was born in Sheffield and grew up in Dronfield, where she went to Henry Fanshawe School. As her parents were estranged, she was brought up by her mother, Rita, who worked as a secretary for big Sheffield companies like Firth Brown steel and the Tetley brewery. Her father co-owned city centre TV shop Bunker & Pratley.

Aged two, Katrina was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and disabling inflammatory disease. It affects her movement – she’s had two knee replacements and a new hip over the years – but she insists the condition has never defined her life.

“It’s helped make me the person I am. I think a lot of my determination, passion and resilience comes from facing a disability and getting through it,” she says.

“I really wanted, even though I’d got that to deal with, to make a success of whatever I did. I can’t stand for very long and I can’t run or anything like that, but it’s not something that gets me down, it’s part of me.”

The BBC has been ‘incredibly supportive’, she adds.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really had to have many conversations with my bosses about it. I’ve managed to work around my condition without it really affecting my job.”

Early on, Katrina harboured aspirations to be an actor, but was drawn into radio aged 17 after producing some short dramas for the Sunday breakfast show in Sheffield. She was invited back to help out and was offered a proper job when she graduated from Hallam University.

“Radio is much more intimate and personal than stage work ever was and I just felt so touched by the close relationship Radio Sheffield had with the people who listened. I was amazed by the things people used to ring in and share. Similarly to the theatre, essentially you’re putting on a show. You’re entertaining audiences and engaging people. I got the same buzz.”

She spent 15 years working in different roles around the studios, then housed in an old Victorian villa on Westbourne Road, Broomhill.

“There was something almost a bit naughty about being at Westbourne Road. It felt a bit more hidden, and less part of the city centre. There was something a bit mystical and magical about it, like you were privileged to have a radio studio in an old house, and you shouldn’t really be there.”

In 2001 the station, which broadcasts throughout South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, moved to purpose-built offices on Shoreham Street. They have a more workmanlike atmosphere, but it was probably for the best, it seems. “Here it feels like a more professional set-up, even though we were always really professional.”

Before being appointed managing editor in 2016, Katrina oversaw a project across the BBC in Yorkshire, looking at how well the broadcaster was performing online.

“The internet has absolutely transformed everything we do. We are still making great radio but we’ve also got to think about how we engage with audiences on social media and get all our big local stories on to BBC online as well.

“Our journalists don’t just tell stories for the radio any more – they’re also getting pictures and video, and thinking about stories that might work for social media. It’s a journey we’re still very much on, because that world changes all the time.”

Celebrating the 50th birthday – Sheffield was among the first BBC local radio channels in 1967 – threw up some useful insights, she feels. She spoke to former staff and loyal listeners, and the team created a video – “One of my proudest moments,” says Katrina – remaking Pulp’s hit song Common People with help from presenters Toby Foster and Paulette Edwards, residents and a community choir.

“It struck me that even though we’ve changed so much in the way that we work and sound, the essence of what we do is still absolutely the same. We’re still about bringing people together and being a platform for people to have a voice.”

In Sheffield she leads around 40 staff, and although she doesn’t really have a ‘typical day’ – “Every day is different” – many meetings are required to set strategies and discuss ideas. She also tries to hear as much of the regular output as she can, from the outspoken Foster at breakfast to the whimsy of Rony Robinson’s afternoon slot.

The schedule recently underwent a shake-up, including the addition of comedian Rob Rouse to the weekend line-up, and on January 15 and 16 Paulette’s show will be joining forces with Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for a ‘simulcast’ about the menopause.

The station is also working with The Star more closely. Joint debates have been held about devolution and policing, and a group of licence fee-funded ‘local democracy reporters’ will be joining the newspaper soon, covering South Yorkshire’s councils on a shared basis with the BBC.

“Even though the two newsrooms will always be competitive – and long may they continue to be – sometimes it’s healthy to come together. That’s felt really positive.”

Katrina, 39, lives in Bradway with her husband, travel writer David Whitley. Theatre and pub quizzes – “I’m very competitive” – are favourite distractions, when radio doesn’t occupy her thoughts.

“I’ve got big ambitions for Radio Sheffield. Eighteen months is still quite new to the job and the near future is about seeing the station be the best it can be.

“We’ve got a really exciting future ahead of us.”

‘Further cuts would have been really hard’

National cuts of £10 million at the BBC would have had a ‘huge impact’ on Radio Sheffield – and cancelling them means the station can grow for the first time in years, says Katrina Bunker.

Under a previous savings drive, Sheffield’s local evening programmes were scrapped in favour of a shared show broadcast across all 39 regional stations, but the BBC’s director general Tony Hall has said individual night-time schedules will be reinstated.

“If we’d had to lose more people, we would have had to share more programming,” says Katrina.

“Undoubtedly you’d have probably found some daytime sharing, certainly of some programmes and probably some things like off-peak news bulletins.

“Ultimately that starts affecting the essence of what you are, because if more of your programming and journalism is coming from a centre and is shared, you’re not really truly local any more. It would have been really hard.”

Community-based or local arts-oriented shows could be the way forward in the evenings, she suggests.

“We’re suddenly facing a future where we’re building again, which is really encouraging.”