They say variety is the spice of life, but has anybody told commercial radio executives?

There is a conventional wisdom in commercial radio that you should play what the listeners like, and lots of it.  This sounds eminently sensible.

The problem is that this conventional wisdom is taken to extremes, specifically that what listeners apparently like is the same songs over and over again.

A spot of background.

Every commercial radio station has a playlist.  Songs that station management want to be played several times a day to promote, combined with a computer that would have prevented Kenny Everett playing Bohemian Rhapsody fourteen times in two hours.   Stations which want people not to switch over because the children are in the car and want to hear Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande will play a measured amount of new songs.

What happens between those deliberately programmed songs…

I’ll go specific.  U105 was launched in 2005 with a mandate to play music from the golden age (1960s and 1970s) to the present day.  In the early days, specialist shows covered country music, pre-1960 music, rhythm and blues, rock, and contemporary religious music, but after a number of years, Sunday breakfast presenter Juls Martin moved on to UCB and the evening specialist shows were cancelled some time later as they simply didn’t attract listeners.  Commercially appropriate, but not so good for the redundant presenters.

Hold that Golden Age thought for a moment.  We will come back to it.

U105 is the station I know about, because I’ve been listening to it for 16 years.  John Rosborough recruited my friend Juls and several presenters from Citybeat, including Head of Music Maurice Jay (love him or hate him, Maurice is one of the finest experts in music radio) and a friend I made in City Hospital Radio during my short stay on that station, David Johnson. Carolyn Stewart was the first presenter of many to come from Downtown/Cool FM.  Listening to the programmes, especially Jerry’s Jukebox, was an adventure into music I had forgotten, never heard of, or never stopped loving.

But it’s not just U105.  If you listen to any commercial station – local or national, they all suffer from short playlists.  Presenters whom we the listeners have heard making stonking choices of music – the gift of the radio presenter being to be able to choose a good song next – restricted to playing what executives think listeners want to hear.  Demoted to voices behind a microphone with control of non-music features, but not doing what many of them have done for decades, which is to figure out what song to play next, given what you’ve just played and given what the computer wants you to play in five minutes.

“The same thing over and over again” has changed from a broad-based variety where “the same thing” is a genre, perfect for someone with the radio on all day, to a rotation of the same songs over and over again, and the only escape is stations such as Belfast 89FM where the commercial pressures are far less due to presenters being volunteers.

And… I hate it.

My iTunes library consists of hundreds of artists and composers, some of which wouldn’t be played on Radio 2, Radio 3, Classic FM, or UCB or even Spirit FM in Ireland.  I’ve extremely broad tastes.  If I’m in the bath, I will often stick on a whole album because it’s that good and there’s a certain pleasure in listening to an album as the artist intended and getting more of a sense of what they do.

At the opening of U105, the mainstream programmes played a variety of music from the previous 45 or so years.  Anything from Elvis onwards, but primarily Beatles-onwards.  Mathematically, U105 is still playing music from the last 45 or so years, but the difference is that 45 years ago is now 1976.

And there is a musical problem with that.

There is a point where music changed, and it’s not my joke (music died with Freddie Mercury).  It’s in the mid-60s.

Listen to tracks like these:

Then go back and listen to the originals by the Doors, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Incidentally, the Wets’ version, backed with Billy Bragg’s cover of She’s Leaving Home, was from Sgt Pepper knew my Father, an NME charity tribute remake of Sgt Pepper released for its 21st birthday in 1988, and if you have never heard the Doors’ cover of Light my fire (EDIT: not the anodine cover versions) or their opus Riders on the Storm, you have missed out.

The point music changed is when chart music embraced pianos, Hammond organs, and orchestras working with guitars and drums, and saw the musical experimentation which marked the late 1960s and set the stage for the disco and glam rock of the 1970s and the synths of the 1980s.

Stylistically, mid-late 1960s music is close to 1980s music in a way that 1950s music was quite distant from 1970s music, and the end of Big Band and Swing (and even the remarkable Ray Ellington, who played on the 1950s Goon Show and did a way better version of Green Door than Shakin’ Stevens would try in 1981) was even further away.  There is a consistent underlying trend that survived the advent of electronic dance music in the 1980s, the death of Freddie Mercury and the experimental phase of U2 that binds 2020s rock and pop to the 1960s.

And the mathematical solution – playing the last 45 years – means that a station such as U105 which plays music from the gold age onwards (as stated in its Format, a document all commercial stations lodge with OFCOM) is stating that the gold era began in 1970s.  That’s not what the music in my iTunes library says.  Yes, I’m a massive 80s fan, but I was brought up to enjoy a very wide range of music, from Slade to the Pet Shop Boys, but please no Spice Girls.

Mathematically playing the same relative timespan of music in 2021 as was played in 2005 throws the baby out with the bathwater.

What I want in a radio station is:

  • A wide variety of music – artists, eras, genres and individual tracks that will both please me and secure other listeners who will keep the station going, including songs that stretch the listeners – album tracks, songs lost in the mists of time that fit with the style of the station, and that band that made No. 10 with their first UK single and No. 63 with their second (Ten Sharp, I’m looking at you) then crashed out.
  • Presenters who are trusted to make good musical choices between the promoted playlist songs
  • Presenters who will take you on a journey of discovery of music

What I don’t want to hear is the same songs over and over again.  I want to be surprised.  I want to hear the unexpected inbetween the routine, even if it’s at the level where you suddenly hear Everybody wants to run the world instead of the original.  Where 1960s and 1970s music isn’t just for Christmas.

Unfortunately, surprise doesn’t seem to be on its way to me.  When I listen to a commercial station to enjoy the on-air banter, I am supporting the livelihoods of the presenters, because stations with lots of listeners get more advertising revenue, and that has the problem that if the numbers don’t go down, the radio executives making musical decisions think their plan is a success.  You will find Facebook groups complaining about radio stations’ music policies, but radio executives don’t read them.

Yes, Belfast 89 is there, so are other not-for-profit stations reliant on volunteers.  But until the conventional wisdom that listeners want to hear the same few tracks every day is seriously challenged by people like me who love music, I’m not going to find what I’m looking for in any commercial station in the UK.