If you are trying to carve yourself a career in radio, it cannot help to be known throughout
the broadcasting world as "Whispering Bob". Fluent Phil, perhaps. Or Clear-spoken
Clive. But whispering is not a quality that is highly regarded in the wireless business.
Still, this does not seem to have done any harm at all to Whispering Bob Harris. He is
still there, with two music shows, about 30 years after he first stood in for John Peel on
Radio 1 (possibly on the grounds that he knew a lot about music and happened to have a beard).
People of my generation are very fond of Bob Harris, largely thanks to the manner in which
he presented The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2 throughout the seventies. It was the inspiration
both for his nickname and the Jazz Club sketches on The Fast Show. Let me give you a flavour of
The Old Grey Whistle Test. For about 20 minutes, a band called something along the lines of
Particle Accelerator Five would fill the studio with an ear-splitting number that was like
Phil Spector's wall of sound, only 20 times as loud. Suddenly, often without warning, they
would stop. As the last guitar chords took an age to die away, the camera would switch to Bob
in his swivel chair, looking thoughtful. Perhaps he was appreciating a diminished seventh a
couple of bars from the end. Or perhaps he had nodded off for a moment. Who could tell? Whatever
the explanation, a short silence followed before Bob broke the ice. "Great," he would say,
very quietly. Ah, those were the days.
What I had not expected to find, when I tuned in to the hour-long Bob Harris Country
(Thursday Radio 2 - yes, they all end up on Radio 2 eventually) was that Bob had become such a
pioneer at the cutting edge of multimedia. The show has a fairly conventional format in that Bob
plays country records, chats a bit and has the odd live session with interview. But he also makes
frequent references to his website (www.bobharris.org). Listeners send in their requests and remarks
on e-mail, and the site contains features on how Bob actually prepares the show and selects the music.
I suspect that Whispering Bob is something of a gadget man. Apparently he chooses the music
himself from the notoriously large record collection that he keeps at home, and following the show
he carefully lists what has played on the website, complete with the catalogue numbers of the albums.
On the latest show that I heard, he featured the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Arlenes, Linda Ronstadt
and Emmylou Harris. (His three-hour Saturday-night show on Radio 2, Bob Harris, is more
mainstream, with artists such as Pearl Jam, Lou Reed, the Isley Brothers and Van Morrison. And it is
possibly the only place on the BBC that you can still hear the works of Free.) After all these years,
I still find Bob Harris rather endearing. He makes a great effort to communicate with his listeners.
Sometimes the atmosphere reminds me not so much of a radio programme as a music club. Bob is the quiet
bloke at college who brings a crowd of mates back to his room to look at his record collection, then
becomes swept away with enthusiasm.
And that voice. Bob has taken the idea of gently spoken and tested it to frightening new limits.
What else is there to say about him but to sit in silence for a few seconds after the show and then
say, very quietly, "Great"?
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