The late broadcaster Gerry Anderson once quipped from his Radio Foyle studio that Derry is a lot like Cuba – you have to see it before it changes. Typically, his off-the-cuff humour spoke to something deeper.
Derry is a place apart. Culturally, it is arguably as far, if not further, from Belfast as it is from Dublin. For almost 40 years the BBC’s outpost in the city has admirably reflected, celebrated and challenged that identity.
BBC Northern Ireland’s decision this week to axe Radio Foyle’s flagship breakfast show and hourly news bulletins – as part of a wider cost-cutting plan across the UK-wide corporation – is being seen as the station’s death knell.
Ana Leddy, former head of RTÉ Radio 1 who ran Radio Foyle for eight years, has little doubt about the real impact of the Belfast-based management’s £2.3 million “savings and reinvestment plan”.
“No breakfast show, no news bulletins… local programming comes on at 1pm for a few hours? Does that sound like a radio station to you?” she says.
“I believe this is a killer blow. It’s the end of BBC Radio Foyle as we know it and is, in effect, its closure.”
Leddy, brought up in Sheffield, is of Irish extraction and worked in BBC local stations in England for 10 years before being appointed managing editor of Radio Foyle in 1998. She quickly had to get to grips with the nuances of Derry when she arrived.
“There is a different psyche in Derry,” she says.
It is not just that it is, obviously, predominantly Catholic or nationalist, but its natural hinterland runs north and west into Donegal, adding deeper complexity to an existing divergence in the North between the east and west of the river Bann.
“So many families are intertwined, living and working across the Border. People carry two wallets, two purses, with euro and pounds. It is a state of mind. You wouldn’t have it anywhere else.”
It is a complexity Leddy negotiated to steer the station towards countless awards, including beating BBC behemoths Radio 4 and Radio 5Live to win the Sony overall UK best radio breakfast show.
‘Voice for debate’
“A local radio station should hold a mirror up to its audience, but also be a window to the world,” she says.
“Foyle has done that by really knowing its audience. It has been strong enough and courageous enough to do that in a unique situation in Northern Ireland, at an even smaller level in Derry and the northwest in an era where society has emerged from the Troubles, and we all know how fragile that can be,” she says.
“Giving a voice for debate in these times is as important as it’s ever been. Foyle is an important place from that point of view.”
No stranger to overseeing cuts herself – she was dubbed the Iron Leddy and the Axe of Montrose during her tenure at RTÉ – Leddy is practical about the financial realities of broadcasting.
Nonetheless, she believes there is a “special argument for Radio Foyle because of its unique nature within Northern Ireland” and the “importance of maintaining that balance of voice for local people”.
“I just think it is incredibly important that that is maintained,” she says. “Derry has a very, very different personality from Belfast. That is just the way things are.”
In effect, the Belfast-based Radio Ulster would extend its reach into the northwest as Radio Foyle diminishes. The question is whether it could – or would – rise to the “challenge” of reflecting a distinctly different listenership.
“Where a radio station is based is the place that gets the most attention. There is only so much room on a daily news agenda. Derry will inevitably go down the pecking order,” Leddy says.
BBC Northern Ireland refused to disclose a breakdown of listenership figures for either Radio Foyle or Radio Ulster. The figures are “commercially sensitive”, a BBC spokesman said, adding that “Foyle’s maximum audience is the third-smallest in the BBC after Guernsey and Jersey”.
Even 16 year after she left Derry for Dublin, Leddy is clearly emotional at the suspected fate of Radio Foyle.
“It almost feels like my baby is being taken away from me,” she says. “I am devastated by it. I am devastated for the people of the northwest, for the staff in the station. It is a very, very special place. I worked hard for it, I believed in it, I loved it and I did my best to champion it.”
Garbhán Downey, a former editor of the Derry News, publisher of Colmcille Press and one-time Radio Foyle stalwart, places the demise of the station in a historical context of Belfast-centric decisions.
A stint acting as news editor in Radio Ulster did little to shake his belief.
“About 12 years ago, I was asked to put myself forward as station manager at Foyle,” he says.
“I was shortlisted. At the interview in Belfast, I was given a scenario where I was a government minister having to deal with trade unionists, telling them that 25 per cent of my department was being laid off.
“My reading of that was ‘my god, they want someone to close Foyle’. That was not going to be me.”
Before that, an internal review recommended the de facto downgrading of Foyle, and he believes John Hume fought it, buying the station some time before Derry being awarded UK City of Culture in 2013 “bought it another few years”.
“They have been trying this in Belfast for more than 20 years now,” he says.
“It is part of this Belfast idea about becoming a nation city, totally overblown about its own importance. It thinks it can act with impunity when it comes to what it regards as its dominion.”
During his time in the Belfast newsroom, Downey says Foyle was regularly referred to as “Radio Vatican”. The Derry station’s insistence on not referring to the North’s second city as Londonderry particularly grated on some, he recalls.
“I can’t stress enough how absolutely brilliant many people in Belfast were and I loved my time there. But there was a unionist mindset in the upper echelons that was never there in Derry. There was always a diversity of opinion in Foyle, always a tolerance.”
Downey suspects that rather than switching to Radio Ulster, listeners in Derry will switch off or over to Donegal’s independent Highland Radio for local programming.
“Ten years ago they gave a Foyle slot over to [Radio Ulster’s] Stephen Nolan and people turned off in their droves. It is both neglect and deliberate. I think Belfast understands Derry has a different psyche but they just don’t like it,” he said.