Belfast Telegraph

Laurence White: Every radio programme pursues listeners with the zeal of a missionary. Sean Coyle had them by the bucketful... so why was his show axed?

Radio Ulster's headless search for a younger audience has left thousands of older people like Laurence White feeling they've lost a close friend

With his team on Friday after his last show
With his team on Friday after his last show
Former BBC Radio Ulster presenter Sean Coyle with a portrait of Gerry Anderson

I like my techno trance or garage house music as much as the next 68-year-old - which is not at all. I have become what every parent does eventually, a person who hates the music that teenagers and those in their 20s cannot live without.

It was the same with us back in the Sixties when our only way to satisfy our slavish devotion to pop was to be perpetually glued to a transistor radio (for young people, that was a radio which could be carried about as opposed to the family set, which sat on a very sturdy shelf due to its size and use of dry and wet batteries (don't ask)).

In those days our elders bemoaned the advent of pop and warned that nothing good would come of it.

Well, they were wrong for something good did come of it - the Sean Coyle show on Radio Ulster/Foyle every weekday morning from 10.30am to noon. For Sean played much of the music that was the soundtrack to the lives of those like me now in our late 60s and older.

His was a wonderfully eclectic selection of music. It was as if he had raided the racks of every Donegal record store of their compilation albums of music from a bygone age. It was not just easy listening, but as middle-of-the-road as a Donegal driver.

Pop, American and Irish folk, even some of the better Irish country, though thankfully not too much, was among the daily diet.

But it was the charm of the man at the mic which made it work.

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He was chatty without being forward, friendly without forcing his attention on you. His trademark impersonations were good, some of them excellent.

What Sean did was give the impression he was delighted to be there and to be given the opportunity to entertain his listeners.

It was their enjoyment that seemed to matter, not his status as a broadcaster.

Of course, he was a very different animal from the late Gerry Anderson, with whom he worked so closely for many years and who managed the not inconsequential feat of keeping the link going after Gerry's untimely death. Gerry was a one-off whose style could not be mimicked, and Sean was long enough in the tooth to recognise that.

Instead, he created his own image, stepping up from being the sidekick to the main man and making such a good job of it that his programme was the most popular non-news one on BBC NI, with 82,000 listeners and beaten only by the Stephen Nolan show and Good Morning Ulster.

Which has left us faithful fans extremely puzzled. Every television and radio show pursues listeners with the zeal of Mormon missionaries seeking new souls and every presenter's enforced departure is bracketed with declining listener numbers.

So what was Sean's sin? Did his name crop up at some dinner party attended by BBC NI bigwigs who heard some guest bemoan his programme's content? Was it too lowbrow? Were there no enough young people tuning in?

Of course there weren't a lot of young people tuning in. One of my daughters, who is in her early 30s, used to laugh when she would call into our home in the morning and hear Sean and his music. To her it sounded like something from the advent of radio when sets had whistling valves and aerial leads fed up to the rooftops.

But then Sean's programme was not for her or her ilk. It was, by and large, for people of my generation, who still argue that the music of our youth was the last deserving of the name popular.

And why shouldn't we have a pleasant 90 minutes of music and chat which helps fill the void between breakfast and lunch? Others have made the point that the over-75s will soon lose their free television licence and all of us from our 60s onwards have now lost Sean.

Will he be replaced by some rising star of the BBC? The name of Stephen Clements, late of Q Radio, has been noted as a man to watch, but his audience reach - which in fairness was significant - was for a totally different demographic.

Anyway, commercial radio is full of music for today's generation.

The BBC is different. It is a public broadcaster. It doesn't have to satisfy advertisers. Across all its platforms, it has sufficient content to satisfy every teenager in the country or every other person who wants to be down with the kids.

Older generations like what they like. They don't like change, especially when no rational explanation is given for that change. And they don't like being treated as expendable fodder, so far down the pecking order in the minds of BBC executives that they might as well not exist.

But old people have tempers and there is anger as well as sorrow at the sacking of Sean. It feels like a friend has been treated badly and loyal listeners don't feel that is right.

Where do they turn to now if they want to hear a friendly voice in the morning playing music they recognise and for the most part love?

Of course it wasn't Beethoven or Bach, but it has stood the test of time better than most of the music which followed has not. Ideally, it would be great if the BBC was to admit that "sorry, this was a decision taken in a moment of weakness". But failing that, Sean - who admits he didn't want to leave and would yet take a phone call from the upper floors of Broadcasting House in Belfast asking him back - could have a delicious revenge.

Is there not an enterprising radio controller out there who could snap up an experienced broadcaster with a proven strong listener base and give him a morning or afternoon slot to play his middle-of-the-road music?

Wouldn't it be a poke in the eye for Auntie if Sean was to re-emerge on the airwaves and his legion of fans started turning off the BBC.

The grey-haired generation could have the final say yet.

Belfast Telegraph


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