Talent will out under right radio management

Attitude, not age, key to reaching young listeners, says ex-BBC Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt

Andy Parfitt, former controller of BBC Radio 1, who will speak at the Radiodays Europe conference in Dublin next week

Andy Parfitt, former controller of BBC Radio 1, who will speak at the Radiodays Europe conference in Dublin next week

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 01:04

How can radio managers get the best out of on-air talent? According to former BBC Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt, who will address this question at the Radiodays Europe event in Dublin next Tuesday, “the talent” is motivated by a degree of autonomy (which in music radio often means input into what they play), the opportunity to master a skill and the sense that there is a higher purpose to what they do.

“The most interesting one for me is autonomy. If you really do let creative talent play without setting any kind of framework, the question is: do you get the best content for your listeners? With exceptional talent, maybe you do, but more often, you don’t.”

Parfitt, who has since set up talent consultancy Enlightened Leadership, remembers being in a room where a senior broadcasting figure wondered aloud if “there was one rule for Chris Evans, another for everyone else” at the station. “I remember saying, yes, actually, at the time, because there was a prodigious amount of talent there.”

Both DJs and managers at BBC Radio 1 know that it is “an important part of British cultural life for young people, and has been since 1967”, says Parfitt, who ran the station from 1998 to 2011. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”

But this soundtrack-to-youth status often leads to “tricky conversations” about which DJs should go in which slot. Radio 1’s strict remit to cater for 15- to 29-year-olds has seen older presenters “graduate” from the station onto BBC Radio 2 or simply axed from the schedule at a pace that – even given the recent changes at RTÉ 2fm – seems brutal by Irish standards.

“You don’t have to be 17 to appeal to 17-year-olds. That’s clearly not the case. John Peel was a broadcaster that young audiences looked up to, as a kind of father figure. Annie Nightingale is another person who has absolutely retained that relevance,” says Parfitt.

“So the direct correlation with age doesn’t stack up. However, I think the conversation is about one of enthusiasm for the audience you are trying to reach, and a question of open-mindedness. If you’re saying things like ‘people using Twitter just talk rubbish’, maybe that’s the point at which you’re drifting away.”