It’s too good an opportunity to miss.
A spot of self-indulgence, if you will.
And if you’re going to going to wallow in anything – nostalgia, praise, acrimony – you might as well dive in head-first and do it properly.
Friday 28th August 2020 saw the end of an era at my former stomping-ground, BBC Radio Merseyside. It was the last ever phone-in hosted by Roger Phillips whose radio career began 42 years ago when the ex-actor, taxi-driver and medical student was asked to come into the radio station for a voice test.
The rest as they say is history.
In this case, local history, the stuff on our doorstep, in our street, on our radio.
The stuff that matters on an hourly basis.
Not regional radio (spit) or national.
Remember that, BBC (they won’t).
(Cliché alert # 1 : ‘You can tell a scouser, but you can’t tell him much’)
Who are yer?
Since ‘passing’ the voice test all those years ago, Roger, then the scruffy ‘trog’ with the great-coat, was called into the old BBC radio studios on Sir Thomas St in Liverpool (the council’s former education offices) and presented ‘Morning Merseyside’.
After that, he didn’t look back. (except for a spell at the short-lived, independent City Talk radio station in Liverpool in the nineties but we’ll ignore that, as it still narks me. Hold grudges…moi?)
After working as an actor amidst such luminaries at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre as Anthony Sher, Julie Walters, Bill Nighy and Alison Steadman to name but a few, the man who also earned regular money on the taxis had at last found his niche, his sweet-spot.
He discovered that he loved radio.
And more importantly, the listeners loved him. (Well, many of them.)
Getting to know you
It shouldn’t really have worked this well for him in Liverpool.
He was a posh luvvie from M*nch*ster who knew nothing about football or pop and rock music (don’t skit them, they can’t help it).
He was a classical music fan who counted among his Cambridge contemporaries, Salmon Rushdie.
But the media is more about what you know and what Roger knew instinctively was how to empathize with listeners and get them to open up to him. He is also possessed of a mind as sharp as a tack on the burning issues of the day, in a city region which in the seventies and eighties had become a bye-word for economic and social decline, and anger.
But – Cliche alert #2 – he’d fallen in love with the place and after a few years the feeling was mutual; he became ‘one of us’ – a scouser (in a good way).
The ‘E’ word
Since I’ve known that he was planning to retire from the phone-in ( he will still occasionally appear on the airwaves but not presenting phone-ins) I’ve been wracking my brains to try to find suitable words to encapsulate what by any standards is a remarkable career, working at the heart of the community since the early 70’s, collecting awards for his broadcasting work like they were going out of fashion.
His gruff, warm voice (yes, both) is known to generations of listeners – the devoted, the occasional, the seldom, the random, the box of frogs inhabitants…the minute you heard his voice, you knew you were in the presence of someone worth listening to.
If you live on Merseyside, Cheshire or its environs you will at some stage have heard Roger’s whiskey and ciggies voice gracing the airwaves – in your car, your kitchen and, in recent years, your phone and your laptop.
And if you don’t know what I’m talking about or who the hell Roger Phillips is, well it’s too late now, you’ve missed out – where were you?
His empathy and understanding, emotional intelligence and keen moral sense have educated, informed, entertained and infuriated thousands of radio listeners every day for nearly half a century.
He was on the radio during the Toxteth Riots, the economic and political troubles in Liverpool during the 1980’s ; during the Hillsborough disaster and its protracted and tragic aftermath when he gave a voice to the many who felt betrayed by the establishment…..his empathy and understanding of the suffering and trauma experienced by people was a beacon in an age of factionalism, bitterness and injustice.
He stood up to the politicians and decision-makers who tried to turn the other way and shift the blame elsewhere.
Always defending Merseyside against unfair criticism and never afraid to tackle those in power in the city who put other agendas (say, party politics or personal power) above the interests of ordinary people.
He didn’t take himself too seriously either and was prepared to admit he’d been wrong when faced with compelling evidence (that’s what he told me anyway).
At various stages of my BBC career I worked with Roger as his reporter, producer, news editor, programme organizer and managing editor and I realise now it was a bloody privilege.
Despite the heated discussions, the arguments over station policy, the BBC bollocks, he always gave the listeners – the people who paid his and my wages – the utmost respect and when he encountered BBC bosses whom he felt didn’t put them first he showed his teeth and faced them up in private and public.
It was a side seldom heard on the radio but believe me, it was scary. And I was on his side, most of the time.
Whatever the future holds for public service broadcasting in the localities of England there’s unlikely to be any like Roger again, in my view.
A new generation is coming up with new ideas and fresh ways of engaging with people — whether BBC local radio will be part of their landscape who knows.
As he hangs up his headphones he’ll have the best wishes of many ringing in his ears.
And he’ll be appreciated by even more, as the light fades a little on his professional career and shines a bit more brightly on his family life.
Not a bad way to move on, eh?