Saturday, 6 February 2010

On current BBC Radio 2 and 'my music era' (MEGA-POST)

I originally intended this to be two separate posts, the first of which was meant to appear about a month ago, directly after Chris Evans took over the high-profile Radio 2 breakfast slot. As is my wont, the idea drifted but now appears a better time to revisit.

Oddly, it's been instigated by the last two complilation CDs (yes actual CDs kids!) I've bought. Both were casual purchases as part of my regular Saturday morning Tesco shop and the first was one I only spotted there and then.

These are those CDs:

Now basically these are compilations, and ostensibly dedicated to a specific musical era. Even on cursory investigation of the track listing, temporal definitions crumble a little. The American Diner CD the tracks run from 1956 to the 70s (there's even a 2002 one on there, but that could be a re-recording). The Electronic 80s one has three big hits from 1979 on it and nothing from the last two years of the decade - plus a track from Johnny Hates Jazz that I'd never have called 'electronic' then or now.

So much for definitions, but there's more. One person - me - bought these albums, 21 days apart. Maybe more surprisingly, yesterday was the first time (except for during the 80s itself) I've bought an 80s compilation, but it was not the first time I'd bought an album of tracks that are largely from 'before my time'. I've been doing that since the early 90s I think, via diverse triggers from fond visits to diner style eateries in London to a "Star Trek: Voyager" episode themed around the song "Someone to Watch over Me".

Now, there's a lot of evidence that I have eclectic musical tastes, and that my appreciation of contemporary music started relatively early (pre-school, circa 1967), but I don't think I'm the only one.

However, just as there's a lazy adage that 'your Doctor is the first one you grew up with' (which doesn't entirely hold for me, but that's another story), there's some so-called truism that your 'musical era' is the one that most closely mirrors your teenage years. My teenage years run from September 1977 to September 1984. Popular music trends annoyingly don't go in convenient 7 year chunks and people are entering their teens all the way along so there has to be a bit of compromise to the rule, but actually I'd agree that this makes me very slightly too young for punk and disco but dead on for ska, new romantic, hi-NRG, indie bands and what I'd call punk-pop like Blondie or Billy Idol. I'd probably plump for 1980-83 as being my core era within that (notably, 1984 was the my first full year of employment). After 1984 I should then have a lessening enthusiasm for later chart trends like house, Stock, Aitken & Waterman, hip-hop and boybands.

It's those limits that I have a problem with. I lasted with the majority of the charts, and a fair bit outside them up to the end of the 90s, and at 45 still don't automatically write off new stuff ten years later. And because I'd started liking and eventually noting and buying specific pop music I'd heard from about 3, I have always had favourites that date from well before I turned 13. So when I'm lazily targeted for something like an "Eighties Night" (which generally seem to match all the most overplayed stuff from the latter half of the decade anyway) I feel a bit insulted and patronised. Just as I would if someone decided upon the age-appropriate waist height for my trousers, as Debenhams recently did. "In my day" (1980-83?) the age-appropriate measure for trousers was tightness, not waist height, so it's hardly a robust theory.

However music radio stations, and most especially commercial radio stations, have to have a strategy of what they are broadcasting/who they are broadcasting to as the primary way to market an identity. For most this has always been done by age profiles. I'd say this springs from the birth of the big BBC stations in the 60s, which was obliged by the need to target the 'younger generation' who'd been covertly tuning in to the illegal pirate stations which the government wanted to break. Basically, the 'Home' service became Radio 4, the 'Third" became Radio 3 while the "Light" programme was cannily split between audience age to create Radios 1 and 2 on 30 September 1967. Bear in mind though, with the then limited FM capacity, they actually still shared the FM airwaves as a mongrel station for years, with the younger sibling the poor relation . Partly due to this, commercial radio sprung up in the mid-70s, basically reversing the 'mongrel FM' profile to more closely resemble Radio 1 but in a local context.

All this worked fine for approximately 20 or so years, until the logical flaw in strict age profiling that had previously been ignored became an elephant in the room. The man who shot the elephant was Matthew Bannister - his kill is rather well explained here and was the subject of an infamous "Blood on the Carpet" documentary. Basically, you either age with your original listeners, as Radio 1 had been doing for those 20 years or so, or you suddenly reposition your station back to its original age remit, which means saying a brutal bye-bye to most of your original listeners. Bannister controversially chose the latter, though in hindsight it was obviously the right decision or Radio One would eventually have headed into sheltered housing with its listeners. At the time though it appeared Bannister was fixing a problem that didn't exist. And logically you'd have thought the Radio One refugees should have comfortably found sanctuary on Radio 2 - and this mistakenly seems even more obvious looked at from now. Alas, the Radio 2 controller of the time had also made a bold move upon appointment - to target an OLDER audience, typified by replacing Terry Wogan with the 9 year older Derek Jameson. Both strategies in themselves caused listeners and DJs to be lost forever to various commercial stations (who also successfully set up a network of 'Gold' alternatives in this flux period) but together they created an unbridged demographic gap for several years until Jim Moir arrived at Radio 2 in 1996.

Personally, being a patient soul and armed with those aforementioned eclectic tastes in music, I was able to straddle the changes over the 90s. I went in being an almost wholly Radio 1 listener who nonetheless made the occasional dip into Radio 2 (Saturday mornings when DLT or Danny Baker were on Radio One started me off), to the reverse by the end of 1999 (I stuck with the Top 40 show). Though admitedly I'm also fairly allergic to commercial radio and would never actively tune into Capital/Radio Forth/whateverFM.

But the problem with pigeonholing by age persists, and perceptions of failure when measured against that. Take Bannister's overhaul of Radio 1 in over the mid-90s, which was wholly defined by what age they were targetting and actioned accordingly. This only works when you keep re-applying it, and there's reason to believe that it hasn't kept up post-Bannister. Compare with Jim Moir's quiet overhaul of Radio 2, working only with the wreckage of reputation left by Frances Line rather than the still popular station that Bannister inherited. Moir's initial high profile hirings certainly did include some Radio 1 alumni like Steve Wright, Alan Freeman, Paul Gambacinni and Johnnie Walker, all pointing to an implicit age profile to target those growing out of Radio 1, and a lifeboat for their DJs. However, by employing the likes of Jonathan Ross, Michael Parkinson and Desmond Lynam (later with Paul O'Grady, Aled Jones, Richard Madeley, Dale Winton, Jeremy Vine, Russell Brand, Allan Carr and Dermot O'Leary) Radio 2 was lining up familiar TV faces as presenters who not only hadn't gone anywhere near a Radio 1 career, but weren't primarily known as DJs and most, arguably, had no street-cred in a music context.

Whether by accident or design though I think this was the key to Radio 2's present success as the big daddy of the BBC stations - age is now somewhat incidental to the station profile. It's now the BBC One of radio - no-one really argues BBC One is targetted at a particular age group. The criticism still comes of course that all these names, because they don't have the music street-cred and (heavens!) perhaps don't even operate the decks that this is dumbing down for 'da yoof'. Which I think is crap and just not getting a whole lot of things about modern life and the different reasons why people listen to the radio (which are not always shared across the same age demographic).

Your average listener of any music station is always going to be more concerned with the choice of music and the personality they are spending time with - whether the presenter is able to give you wikipedic knowledge or have hung out with the artistes being played is fairly secondary and only radio anoraks will worry that they're not actually pressing the buttons. They equate to the political anoraks who work themselves to climax at PMQs. Unlike politics though, where I believe the creed of personality over substance is not to be trusted, personality is at the heart of broadcasting, with or without music. Jim Moir and his two successors as Radio 2 controller have hit on this and stuck two fingers up at the age profile rule. Just as when you have some members of all political parties complaining that the BBC is biased against them you know it's getting it right, when self-appointed age reps of old and young slate the parts of Radio 2's output that isn't to their taste, you know the balance is right.

Which brings me back to the present, and to the post I nearly made last month, Basically, I fear that with Chris Evans' new breakfast show for the station, somebody has thought to encapsulate this winning ethos all in one show, and address a few other things on top, and it doesn't work like that. It's too big a tent to keep the plates spinning at either end of it.

I should point out that I was not a listener to Wogan's old breakfast show, as I leave the house just after 7am most weekdays, meaning I only just catch Moira Stuart's first bulletin now. However, on the second day of the new breakfast show, circumstances allowed me a lie-in and I was able to listen for 90 minutes or so.

Firstly there was a distinct whiff of trying too hard, from the tokenistic reps from each home nation listed at the opening of the show (already watered down), the shoehorning in of listeners' children (maybe this works for other parents but it's cringeworthy for the rest of us) but most of all, the very strange playlist (see below). On the rare occasions I'd caught Terry, or even Johnnie Walker, in that slot the music selection had seemed a little conservative, even in comparison with Sarah Kennedy, who has championed the likes of Mika and the Scissor Sisters, in the earlier slot. Evans' team seemed to have ratcheted it a notch or two further back with only a handful of current tracks popping up over two and a half hours. And crucially, never has a programme appeared so age-conscious - trying to redress a problem created elsewhere at the BBC by employing Moira to read the news and be part of the 'gang'. Albeit a masterstroke in itself, but it just looks like another contrivance on top of the dinoasaur playlist and the cutesy kiddies - trying to include/please everyone and probably not really satisfying anyone. You can do that to some extent across the station as a whole, but it is too obvious in one flagship show.

More recently it also seems Chris is still loathe to leave go of ideas better suited to TV.

But my opinion, as someone who won't be listening anyway is rather irrelevant. What may point the way is the first set of listening figures, due in April I think. It might be a struggle as Wogan equalled his best ever ratings in his last quarter on the breakfast shift, while Evans' last 3 months on drive-time registered a slump.

Anyway, after I heard that second show I sought the playlist for it and for the first show on 11 January and I present them here. For me it's not just the amount of oldies, it's the nature of most of those oldies that bemused even eclectic old me:

The Beatles — All You Need Is Love

The Beatles — Got To Get You Into My Life

Frank Sinatra — Come Fly With Me

Robbie Williams — You Know Me

Hockey — Song Away

The Seekers — Morningtown Ride

Paolo Nutini — 10/10

Madonna — Material Girl

Ocean Colour Scene — Magic Carpet Days

Fats Domino — Blueberry Hill

Bruce Springsteen — Glory Days

Elbow — One Day Like This

Tom Jones — It's Not Unusual

Dionne Bromfield and Zalon Thompson — Ain't No Mountain High Enough

The Monkees — Daydream Believer

Mika — Blame It On The Girls

Neil Diamond — Pretty Amazing Grace

The Rolling Stones — Honky Tonk Women

Johnny Cash — Ring Of Fire

Alicia Keys — Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down

Electric Light Orchestra — Rockaria!

Glen Campbell — Wichita Lineman

Supertramp — The Logical Song

Bon Jovi — Superman Tonight

Mon 11 Jan 2010

Roy Orbison — Oh Pretty Woman

Phil Collins — Two Hearts


Rod Stewart — It's The Same Old Song

Cheryl Cole — Fight For This Love

Percy Sledge — When A Man Loves A Woman

Paloma Faith — Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?

Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb — Guilty

Little Big Town — Fine Line

The Hollies — Here I Go Again

The Real Thing — You To Me Are Everything

Lily Allen — The Fear

Freda Payne — Band Of Gold

Billy Joel — It's Still Rock & Roll To Me

Len Barry — 1-2-3

Stereophonics — Could You Be The One?

Emily Maguire — I'd Rather Be

The Yardbirds — For Your Love

The Rubettes — Sugar Baby Love

The Crystals — Da Doo Ron Ron

Journey — Don't Stop Believing

Nell Bryden — Not Like Loving You

The Doors — Light My Fire

Take That — Hold Up A Light

Tue 12 Jan 2010

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