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She thought her accent would keep her out of the media. Now she's the voice of Manchester
We spend a shift with Anna Jameson
By Jack Dulhanty
Anna Jameson isn’t a morning person. She’s six weeks into a job presenting BBC Radio Manchester’s breakfast programme, and sets four alarms (3:30, 3:40, 3:50, 4:00) to get in on time to go live. But, for thousands of listeners across Greater Manchester, she is the morning person.
Jameson, 34, steps into the office at 5:45am carrying two coffees, and hands me one. First thing is deciding what the show’s focus will be. She sits with her producer, flanked by the morning’s papers, to discuss the stories of the day. There will already be a few ideas and scripts — basically, all they need to hit the ground running — left by an evening team the night before.
Jameson’s producer, Charlie Holt, wears a green button-down shirt, jeans and trainers, and sits scrolling through handover material. The pair suspect they share a kind of telepathy. “We can just look at each other and know what we’re thinking,” Jameson says. Despite some initial scepticism of this on my part, they do, in a de-brief after the show, say more than a few things at the same time.
Holt sends one of the team’s reporters, Ellie, to Bolton. She is going to interview people there about their views on Matt Hancock — the former health secretary who has reached the latter stages of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here — which she will then use in “two-ways” with Jameson (where a reporter and presenter talk on air). Hancock will be the main call-in topic for the show, embedded within general news coverage and local interviews.
Ellie leaves, making it one less person in the vast BBC Quay House office in Media City. Its five floors contain a sizeable wedge of the broadcaster’s output — from BBC Breakfast to Radio 5 Live to Match of the Day — but at this time they are practically empty.
There are lots of whites and greys on the walls and meeting booths bound in reflective chrome. It feels like sitting in an empty space station. Across the way I see Charlie Stayt, who presents BBC Breakfast with Naga Munchetty. He’s stood in a little kitchen watching water boil. His hair is perfect.
Radio Manchester is just a small corner of the operation, two studios and a few rows of desks. Jameson stays in her studio for the full four hours of the show, with a sports presenter and newsreader going in and out of the other.
A little before 6am, she gets settled in the studio, leaving the lights off. "I can’t cope with how light it is first thing”. It’s easier in the summer of course, but right now the window looking over the Media City piazza is clotted with darkness, with the first few trams of the day the only light threading through it.
As presenter, Jameson is the linchpin; it all begins and ends with her. She sits in front of eight screens and a mixing desk. “They say: ‘oh it’s just like driving a car.’ I can’t even drive a car! Well, properly.”
The screens cover everything from the show’s running order to scripts, pre-recorded material and incoming callers. One is just a really big touchscreen TV remote, to work the TV in the corner of the studio. There’s also a vinyl player that some other shows use and the other presenters’ personal mic muffles, which they were assigned during the pandemic to avoid infection. “Yeah, we need to move those.”
From 6-7am, the station is mostly playing music, so Jameson continues to scan the papers, looking for potential items to discuss on the show and firing questions to Holt. All the while, Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship, along with a suite of other songs one may call “bangers,” consume the studio. I later ask Holt who chooses the music: “Oh, that’s way above us” he says, beckoning his eyes upwards at what I imagine to be a kind of playlist deity, holding an iPod in each of its eight hands.
A leap of faith
“Anna Jameson at Breakfast, BBC Radio Manchester,” is an opening jingle that, even for me, throbs with adrenaline, and I’m not Anna Jameson. Of course, she is unfazed. Jameson has an ability to maintain a level of enthusiasm on and off air that borders on preternatural, while still finding the right tone to match the conversations she is having.
Whether its laughing with a caller or trying to help readers better understand the state of Manchester’s mental health services, she never seems to miss a beat. And, she will fall just as easily into planning the next segment while off air, or just talking about what she did the night before.
Her ability to switch gears is uncanny. She could be talking about something utterly unrelated, but when the schedule requires, she will bring her fader back up, the lava-lamp-sized recording light will glow red, and she will pick up exactly where she left off.
Meanwhile Holt and his broadcast assistant, Will, manage a dozen lines with callers looking to take part in quizzes, guess the daily secret location (today, it’s Rivington Pike) and either defend or demolish Matt Hancock’s honour. Holt briefs callers on what they can and can’t say (which, specifically in relation to Hancock, isn’t always effective) then puts them through to Jameson.
“You want to make it feel like it is happening,” Jameson tells me during a music break. Local radio lives and dies by its ability to engage its listeners and offer them a forum to share their thoughts on the matters of the day.
Indeed, the station has made a point of embedding itself in the community and hiring people who reflect it. Mike Sweeney, who formerly worked as a platelayer on the Salford Docks, now hosts the morning show from 10am to 2pm.
It’s unlike commercial radio stations like Magic FM where the focus is on the music, and the listener experience is more passive. And, unlike other radio stations who share coverage that isn’t particularly localised, BBC Local Radio is supposed to create a sense of community, like a town square built out of megahertz. For many, it’s also a source of companionship and support.
“I know what loneliness can be like, and I just know how valuable I find it when I have that other voice in the house,” Jameson tells me after the show, overlooking the Quays. “I’m well aware that when listeners phone in, I could be the one person they speak to that day, so there’s a real duty of care there as well.”
Jameson grew up in Brownhill, a suburb of Blackburn. “It’s a working-class town, there’s a lot of issues there, social deprivation. A lot of, you know, just things that weren’t great.” She had an interest in journalism, taking work experience at the Lancashire Telegraph while she was in high school. But after studying English Literature in Leeds, she went for a job in events instead.
“I just never had the confidence to do it,” she says. “I went to university. And when I opened my mouth, I felt like people didn't take me seriously, because of my accent. I felt like I didn't go to the right school. I didn't come from the right area.” Hindsight has helped her see the irony: the accent she thought would keep her out of journalism is the same one now broadcast to thousands every morning.
But Jameson’s time at university came before the BBC’s move to Media City, and its move towards including more regional accents on radio and TV. “Everything felt very London-centric in those times. We didn’t have Media City, Channel 4 wasn’t in Leeds, everything was in London.” Aspiring journalists in the North of England, especially those from working-class households, had their opportunities severely limited.
So for half a decade she worked in events, then moved back home to do a post-grad and make the transition into journalism. “It felt like: ‘oh God, you’re starting your career again.’ But it’s a leap of faith I took, and because I’d done that, I was determined to make it work.”
Her time at the BBC has been, by the sounds of it, a series of fiery baptisms. The most literal being her time as a patch reporter having to cover, well, moors fires. “That was really tough, I remember coming away with dust in my eyes, trying not to cough on air because of the fumes.” Her first day producing the Breakfast Show, David Bowie died. Then, she found herself presenting the Breakfast Show the day after the Queen died. “Honestly, nothing surprises me now.”
The role of local radio has become a matter of contention recently. A little over a week after Jameson took over the Breakfast Show, the BBC announced that it was looking at plans to cut local radio programming. This wouldn’t affect what the 39 local stations across England broadcast between 6am and 2pm, but after that, “mids”, “drives”, and “lates” as they’re known — that’s programmes broadcast in the mid-afternoon, during the drive-home and late-night — would be shared across multiple stations. Essentially, they’d become less local.
It's something that has been in the pipes since January, when the government froze the licence fee that funds the BBC for the next two years. Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, warned that services would have to be cut to make savings in an environment of high inflation.
The reactions to the proposals, which would also entail dozens of redundancies, have been overwhelmingly negative. That might partly be because the BBC has done little to explain the proposals, leaving many staff members in fear of losing their jobs. “What is frustrating not just for me but for my colleagues across BBC Local Radio is clarification. The silence is painful,” tweeted Edward Adoo, a DJ for BBC Radio London.
“The narrative in the press is that it is cuts. It’s not.” Kate Squire is BBC Radio Manchester’s executive editor, and is set to become the North West and East’s head of production, one of three new heads of production created under what she calls the “restructure”. The restructure involves directing resource away from “linear” output, TV and radio, and putting it into digital, so online.
“Across England, 90% of our budget is spent on linear output,” Squire says. The restructure proposes to move 10% of resource away from TV and radio and into digital. “If we don’t shift, we will be managing gradual decline.” In the last 10 years, BBC Local Radio has seen its market share halved. This doesn’t necessarily mean audience figures have dropped, they remain at a steady 200,000-210,000 listeners a week. Instead it means the market has grown, and potential listeners are choosing to get their news elsewhere.
“Our average age now is 52. I would say that BBC Local Radio is geared towards that audience,” says Squire. The point of the restructure is to grow audiences elsewhere, and that inevitably means going where younger people are: online. “We have to fish in the pond that the audiences are in.”
The question then, is: will one audience’s expansion be at the expense of another’s services? Squire says not: “We have maintained 39 stations, they might have slightly less local output in the afternoons, but we also know that breakfast and daytime output until 2pm drives the bulk of our listening figures, like more than 70%.”
“I’m trying to get the back-timing right,” murmurs Jameson. Back-timing is where a presenter or DJ times their final few words just right, so that the song that follows will finish in time for the final jingle leading into the next segment — in this case, the 10am news.
After the show, Jameson is going to The Lowry to interview Salford mayor Paul Dennett and the art centre’s executives about bringing the Lowry painting “Going to the Match” back to Salford. It’ll be for the next day's programme. A lot of radio is about thinking ahead. A bit like a game of chess, you need to know the moves before you make them. Getting on the back foot can be disastrous.
But for now, we watch the clock ticking towards 10am. All These Nights by Tom Grennan fades at 09:59:44, and the jingle begins to play. Its final six notes play with three seconds to spare, and then: “At ten, with the latest BBC news for Greater Manchester…”