Switching the radio back on
A lesson from radio stations out foreign about the thing which pop music stations are supposed to be good at – the music
It’s that week of the month again when all thoughts in radioland turn to the quarterly JNLR audience survey due out tomorrow. These will tell you who’s going up and who’s going down in the listernership stakes. After executives spend a few hours in a boardroom parsing and crunching the figures, each station will send their spinners into action to tell us that all’s well on a range of press releases which are either eonomical with or embellishing the truth of the story. Never fear, every station is the leader of the pack when it comes to some age group from 15 to 65 in their manor. Everyone’s a winner on JNLR day.
Everyone’s a winner bar, of course, the listener in search of exciting music radio. One byproduct of the stations’ over-bearing focus on JNLR statistics is that they tend to forget that good, exciting music radio usually trumps all. Isn’t it pop rather than personalities that we want when we move the dial?
By and large, I’d given up on radio to provide me with any sort of music during daylight hours. I check out the night-time shows but, probably like most readers, I do a Tommy from Early Doors and stick to my own during the day.
Then, an ephiphany. I spent a few days driving around the north last November and decided to give BBC Radio 1 a go. And I became a fan because you just didn’t know what was coming next. Sure, there were occasions when there was inane DJ chatter but it didn’t go on and on and on to the detriment of the music. I accumulated a dozen Shazam tags on the back of ‘what the hell is that?’. Their evening shows were off-the-hook, with that Friday schedule of Annie Mac, my old boss Pete Tong and Skream and Benga all thriller and no filler. It was genuinely exhilirating radio.
Then, there’s 6 Music which has produced a new Saturday afternoon ritual in my gaff around listening to the Gilles Peterson and Craig Charles’ shows. I know from comments here that there are many 6 Music fans in the audience so you’ll have your own favourites. Again, it’s about genuinely exciting music radio.
Therein lies the rub. Look at all the talk at the moment around 2fm and who will replace with Hector Ó hEochagáin on the breakfast shift. It’s all about zoo radio personalites, TV mini-stars and DJs who’ve made a sack of similar jobs on other stations. Every discussion around 2fm is about personalities, be it how bored Ryan Tubridy sounds (Ryan has sounded bored for years because he’s a smart lad who has had to dumb down) or why Larry Gogan is still on air (because he still has an enthusiasm for pop music that most of his colleagues on air have long lost, perhaps?). Music, which is supposed to be a music station like 2fm is all about, takes a back seat. Actually, no, hold on, they stick the music in the boot.
Here’s another small example of how priorities are skewered. Yesterday, BBC Radio 1 music policy dude Nigel Harding tweeted a bunch of tunes which will probably work their way onto the playlist in due course. If you go back through his timeline, you’ll see he does this every few weeks or so. Aside from showing that he’s on his A game when it comes to music, it also gives an insight into how the station’s sound is shaped.
Now, have you ever seen a tweet from new-ish 2fm boss Dan Healy about music? Maybe he’s not a social media kind of guy (he still hasn’t updated his bio to tell us about his new gig), so an interview or the like? Is he a fan of Duke Dumont, The Gloaming, Daniel Avery, Girls Names, Girl Band, George Ezra, Rosie Carney or Bear Hand? What are the tracks he hopes his station will help break in 2014? Or is he more of a Garth Brooks or Elkie Brooks’ man? See, we don’t know – and this is the guy who’s in charge of a pop music station. Actually, does 2fm even have someone looking after music policy?
But instead the narrative is all about personalities and the like rather than the music which should be driving the damn thing. The reason why 2fm has slipped well behind its rivals is because they’ve adjusted to the modern world while the national pop station has just rested on its laurels. That would be OK if it was still 1984 and there was no-one else in the game, but it’s 30 years on and a station comingatcha with personalities first is not even your dad’s pop radio – it’s your grandad’s pop radio.
As has been the norm for years, there’s lots of hubble and bubble around 2fm’s funding, especially in view of the fact that it has an unfair advantage because it’s under the wing of public service broadcaster RTE. There are good arguments to be made here, but the real problem with 2fm, as with so many music stations chasing the same dwindling audience, is that it has forgotton about the music. That’s the real nub of the issue, but no-one is calling for a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications’ investigation into that.
Instead, thousands have given up on the radio and gone online instead. I’d love to know the Irish listenership figures for the BBC stations online and I’m willing to wager that it’s considerable (probably more than some local music stations in Dublin, in fact). Then, there’s the pull of online streaming services who also take care of people’s music needs. The days of a music station being the be all and end all of pop broadcasting are thankfully over, but too many stations are trying to put the genie back in the bottle instead of trying to compete on the new pitch. The real lesson here is that music radio is, strangely enough, about music.