The man with 39 new bosses

Mark Forrest Mark Forrest draws a nation of local radio listeners into conversation

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Mark Forrest gets around. Darting from the Cumbrian peaks to the Norfolk fens, the Liverpool docks to the Jersey sands, the Birmingham metropolis to Oxford spires is all in a night's work for the presenter.

He's now a fortnight into his new job as host of the three-hour evening show that has been syndicated to all 39 BBC local radio stations in England and the Channel Islands every weekday since January 7.

Networked, but determinedly local, the programme takes the BBC's best local stories and develops them into a country-wide conversation.

Already, it's turned Network Rail's embarrassment, mistaking Harrogate station for Huddersfield when announcing a multi-million pound upgrade, into a national talking point around abrupt u-turns.

Start Quote

There's lots of brilliant audio, of course, but some is standalone. We're not Pick of the Week - we have to be able to link a story from one area to another”

End Quote Mark Forrest Evening show presenter, BBC Local Radio

And when a Tory councillor in York declared his city too affluent for a foodbank, Forrest and his three-strong production team found a like mind in Gloucestershire when a foodbank opened in the Cotswolds.

'The whole point is to strike a chord with many people across many communities, no matter where they are,' explains Forrest. 'There's lots of brilliant audio, of course, but some is standalone. We're not Pick of the Week - we have to be able to link a story from one area to another.'

'39 new bosses'

Produced by fledgling indie Wire Free Productions and broadcast from Radio Leeds, the show relies on the support of local stations and Forrest's '39 new bosses' - the station editors whose locally or regionally produced evening shows were scrapped as part of DQF to make way for Forrest's one-size-fits-all offering.

Producers at each station can press one ENPS button to ping cues to their top tales straight to the evening show's inbox.

'We hope that they will see the inclusion of their stories as a badge of honour,' says Forrest, who reveals that a colour-coded wall chart and map in the production office will guard against any regional imbalance. 'We mark up when and how a station has been involved. Twenty-eight of them were featured in the first four programmes.'

If he had any worries about getting local teams on side, these were overshadowed by fears the technology would crumble.

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We hope that they will see the inclusion of their stories as a badge of honour”

End Quote Mark Forrest

'It's never been done before,' explains Forrest, 'and I didn't have a clue how it would work with me sitting in Leeds and the show going out to 39 stations with their own brandings, idents and promos. I knew I'd be blamed if it all went wrong.'

He needn't have fretted - so far, all has gone smoothly and Forrest has been able to focus on keeping 1.7m listeners happy.

'A real blooming mix'

He inherited the audience - average age 55 and over, evenly split between urban and rural dwellers - from an 'extraordinarily eclectic' bunch of programmes that used to inhabit the timeslot.

'It was a real blooming mix,' he considers. 'Some stations had sport every night, regardless of whether or not any live action was taking place. Others were nothing more than a man or woman in a studio with a box of CDs. Some had nostalgia shows, some played country, some brass bands…'

Most of the BBC's commercial competitors, he adds, air syndicated shows from London, with a few local ads tossed in, at that point in the schedule.

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I think the last thing the BBC wanted was to do just another network show from New Broadcasting House”

End Quote Mark Forrest

'I think the last thing the BBC wanted was to do just another network show from New Broadcasting House. There was a feeling that it wouldn't work for a lot of the audience who were seeking out something that wasn't network.'

Forrest comes armed for the task, with experience of local and network radio, as well as city and country living.

Spot the movie star

He spent 17 years at Classic FM, broadcasting from a Leicester Square studio. 'I'd cycle everywhere, go to film previews all the time and could spot movie stars out of the window.'

But for the last five of these years he broadcast two of his six shows a week from his little Yorkshire cottage.

'I noticed that I used different language on these occasions; I phrased things differently, different things were important to me… When you're away from London you notice when the first snowdrops push their noses out. You talk more about the weather than you do in the city.'

Last year he presented the Radio York breakfast show, a return to his local radio roots.

He earned his first professional gig at Radio Tees - a small, commercial station - when he was a 19-year-old student. 'I'd take the train to Stockton on a Saturday night, stay in a fleapit B&B and open up the station on a Sunday morning.'

His first full-time job was at Metro Radio where he presented the mid-morning show. 'It was the show that got the biggest audience - that was the show I wanted and that was the show I got.'

Being on the radio was all the young Forrest - who grew up in Wetherby and went to school in Leeds - had ever wanted to do. 'I was one of those clichéd kids who was obsessed with pop radio, the mechanics of it and how DJs used language.'

Pure maths

But his parents disapproved of his career choice, deeming it a 'recipe for disappointment', so he dutifully trotted off to Newcastle University to study Pure and Applied Mathematics.

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They thought it was fun to have a hobby - if you liked acting you did amateur dramatics; if you liked broadcasting you did hospital radio”

End Quote Mark Forrest

'They thought it was fun to have a hobby - if you liked acting you did amateur dramatics; if you liked broadcasting you did hospital radio.'

Perhaps his subsequent seamless career, which has taken in stints at Talk Radio, Virgin and 5 Live, has settled their qualms. But he took their advice on having a hobby.

He runs. It was round parks when he was in London, up and down hills now that home is a 17th-century cottage in a small hamlet nestled in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He competes for his club, has won mountain marathons and was Southern Region Fell Running Champion for two years.

Goats in kid

He also keeps animals - sheep, chickens and three nanny goats who are in kid at the moment and due to give birth to twins at Easter.

'Luckily, my partner's parents are Yorkshire hill farmers, so I have an in-house expert in animal husbandry.'

He'll be hoping his goats have an easy birth - like his show.

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