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02 November 2011

Radio Reinvented

I've not written about Commercial Radio for a while, despite having spent more than two decades in the industry trying to knock spots off the BBC.

So whilst others continue the debate on local radio cutbacks and DQF, I'd like to turn my attention across the divide - and express cautious optimism about developments in the independent sector.

In particular, a quiet revolution on DAB.

We saw the launch and demise of various ambitious DAB-only services in the noughties - remember OneWord, anyone? Or the excitement generated by Channel Four Radio (I can't believe this link is still up), the most ambitious proposal of all, an up-market offering which promised to deliver Jon Snow at breakfast head-to-head with Humphries and Naughtie?  Which never bloody happened? 

So it's good to see commercial DAB finally getting its act together, albeit in an evolved, not to say mutated, form.

First off I've got to commend Richard Wheatly and his team at Jazz FM, my personal favourite. Just because it is. It's my blog, and I can say whatever I like.

For the first time I have a 24/7 station that delivers a kind of music I want to listen to,       and which provides an appropriate ambience for my office at Leeds Trinity, where the radio's always on - naturally - to remind my postgraduate news trainees of the all-pervasive nature of their chosen medium.  To take Jazz FM national is an enormous achievement and I wish the station well.

My 17-year-old son is an equally devoted fan of Planet Rock. That station's giving him the kind of musical education I got from Luxembourg - the station that put the 'wave' into 'medium wave' in my youth. He gets it crystal clear (but still has a vinyl collection).

Absolute Radio have got their act together with a suite of sub-stations; 80s, 90s, Extra and Rock already show up on my digital dial with more to come, including a genre varient for my era, the 70s.

This diversification reflects real-world audience motivation in using the medium; I can determine more closely what I'm going to hear, as I could by going to Spotify or Pandora, but without losing the 'shared experience' of broadcast radio.

If I feel like a good old nostalge for my youth, original tracks are what I want to hear. The half dozen that get played to death everywhere, yes, but also a wider range of tracks.

There was more to 1976 than You To Me Are Everything, though not if you listen to a mass-market station.

Neither do I want to put up with, say, Adele who may well have been market-tested to oblivion with a song that offends no-one, in the hope that the next track played might be from Abba.

Real Abba, that is, not that dreadful Dancing Queen remake from Steps, or whatever Simon Cowell's factory has manufactured this week. Absolute's approach is proving a winner in audience terms, according to RAJAR, and others are starting to follow suit.

GMG have launched Smooth Xmas for the festive season. Non-stop Christmas music. Oh yes. I groaned as well when the project was announced (in an October heatwave) but will I be listening come peak shopping time in week commencing 19 December? You bet I will.

I well remember last year hitting the auto-zapper on my music centre at home, yelling 'give me Christmas music!' at BBC and independent stations alike when they were stubbornly refusing to play festive favourites at the precise moment I wanted them. And I also recall switching Slade off in disgust when someone played Noddy Holder's retirement banker when I wasn't, at that particular time, wanting to hear grandma rock and rolling with the rest.

There was a Radio Active parody in the 80s which envisaged a station called 'Music Was My First Love FM' that would play, er, John Miles' top-rated track over and over so a listener could enjoy it at any hour of the day or night.

Commercial DAB has morphed closer to that parody than anyone, least of all the old style Radio Authority, could have imagined. But y'know - it might just be all the better for that.

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