As technology leads us further down the road of an on-demand world, where does the static dial of a radio set still fit in to our time-precious lives? Cath Bore speaks to those still ga ga about radio to find out why tastemakers and respected voices are still important to help guide us through the sea of possibilities radio throws up.
Time was, music radio ran our lives – or it seemed to, at least. The Top 40 singles chart saw to that, announced at Sunday teatime on Radio 1, the huge emotional investment of teenagers en masse wanting, needing, to find out who was number one. Fast forward to 2017, and we’re in on-demand, zero-delayed-gratification mode, advances in technology making music creation and its dissemination clean and quick, new and pre-releases available at the tap of a touchscreen. Chucking social media into the mix shakes up Lord Reith’s ‘educate, inform, and entertain’ ethos from the early days of the BBC, the corporation’s move to Salford further complicating matters. Modern day radio has expanded into commercial/independent local radio, pirate, community, student, and internet radio; there’s too much to choose from, maybe, and the oft repeated cliché that speciality radio is what the wider public really needs and wants does not play out in terms of listening figures. Compare 6Music’s 2.35 million listeners per week – albeit impressive figures for a digital only platform – in the first quarter of 2017 to Radio 1’s 9.1 million; the truth is, the big commercial and mainstream BBC beasts are still kings of RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research).
Yet, radio is contrary, with anomalies. Commercial radio’s reputation as a place “where music goes to die” as was suggested to me once, is misleading. Liverpool’s Radio City Talk has a weekly local music slot, the Sound Of Merseyside. John Gibbons, also of leading Liverpool FC podcast The Anfield Wrap, invites musicians on air for live sessions and highlights Ones To Watch. “In many ways being played on the radio is less important now than it was. There are just more ways than ever to find new music,” he concedes. “However, it is great for a band’s status to say they have done a live session on commercial radio. It also gives exposure to a different type of audience. The City Talk demographic is probably a bit different from what you’ll see in Buyers Club on a Friday night.”
Community radio was introduced by the Labour government in 2002. A positive initiative, in theory allowing under-represented people a voice, and freedoms away from regimented playlists. The downside being, there was and still is little money to finance it, leading to an often inevitable conclusion. According to Chrissie Farrell, manager of KCC Live in Knowsley, “some community stations try to replicate commercial radio, completely missing the point, purpose and soul of community – and by that, I mean imitating a commercial sound, playing classic, safe, tested music and ignoring trends or new genres. Yes, it’s risky business playing the band from down the road who practise in their mum’s garage, but I feel its community radio’s duty to listen, and, if they are decent, support that band any way possible.”
This year, BBC Radio Merseyside’s The Popular Music Show (PMS to you) celebrates 40 years on air, 35 of them with presenter and producer Roger Hill at the helm. The appeal of the show is, in Hill’s words, “maximum music, as little talk as possible, and a huge diversity of music.” A reason for the show’s longevity is perhaps, as Hill explains, “because we have always had the role of putting local music in the context of the wider excellence of music from everywhere. I believe that we offer the widest range of music of any programme on the radio. It calls for dedicated listening, and rewards discernment, and it is for people interested in the world.”
However, radio carries less of that Reithian paternal status it once had, Hill noting a distinct movement in radio’s value within listeners’ lives. “Once, we broadcast about things and people listened – now we use social media to get people to listen to us. Actual radio broadcasting has become subsidiary to a wider network of communication, and seems to reflect a shortened attention span and a sense of distraction which is not always reassuring.”
Yet, in some ways radio and the people it seeks to serve, are remarkably in-step. This is further in evidence through the BBC Introducing strand offering an online facility so bands can upload songs ready for presenters to listen to instantly. “A band or artist could literally finish recording a track on Friday, upload it to the Uploader and it could be selected and played on the radio on Saturday’s programme,” says BBC Radio Merseyside’s Dave Monks. Using the BBC Introducing network, Monks and his team have pushed for The Vryll Society, MIC Lowry, Sundowners and Låpsley to play Glastonbury over the years, as well as for The Vrylls to play this year’s SXSW. XamVolo, Louis Berry, Clean Cut Kid, Hooton Tennis Club and All We Are have all performed on BBC Music Introducing national stages due to Monks and his team’s efforts.
“Yes, we do have to fight our corner,” confirms Monks when it comes to winning attention for new artists. “We are very passionate about getting the best new music to the next level. After support from us locally, we try and get the tracks some national radio play at Radio 1, Radio 2, 1Xtra and 6Music. It is really satisfying when an artist you have put forward tracks with a national presenter like Tom Robinson or Huw Stephens. This is how music gains momentum.”
So, the BBC and spirited community and commercial stations have their role in giving new music a leg up, and alternative voices a microphone. But what about those other broadcasting outlets in the alternative sector? Podcasting is a biggie now, gaining popularity amongst a younger demographic both in terms of creating content and listening to it.
“Podcasts have become a way for marginalised identities to exercise more control over the content they create and consume,” says Elena Guthrie, Co-Creator and Producer of intersectional feminist podcast Kicking The Kyriarchy, and Assistant Producer for Russell Brand on Radio X. “With podcasts, you can be as radical as you want and platform whichever voices you want to – we are generation DIY! We’re a time-poor generation, so we don’t have time to sit down and read a lot or watch the TV, so if I can put on a podcast I can commute/walk/run/exercise and learn at the same time.”
“As recording equipment has got cheaper and hosting more straightforward, the podcast market has got bigger and bigger,” The Anfield Wrap’s Gibbons reckons. “For people who want to consume as much as they can on the thing they love, it is really no contest. Everyone who downloads is invested. [Listeners] are as mad as you are.”
Podcasts and internet and community radio are strongly interconnected in nature, presenters uploading onto Mixcloud and other platforms. IWFM (It Works For Me) Radio, a new internet radio station managed by Howard Storey and Rob Longson, does this too; the station encouraging a mish-mash of music enthusiasts, feminists, creatives, and free thinkers to broadcast with no boundaries. It’s like pirate radio of old, but legal. The intention of the station is “to create an all-welcoming, slightly rebellious safe space really. Somewhere you could ‘drop into’, feel welcomed and probably catch something unusual, entertaining, educational, challenging or fun. A platform that could perhaps nurture burgeoning talent, but, moreover, provide a place for expression and experiment,” says Longson. And it seems to be working.
“Everyone we invite on, we can’t get them off [air]. The hardest thing is getting them in, then they want to stay. Which is a great sign!” adds Storey.
And yet, as off-beat and quirky as they can be, podcasting, alternative and new music radio mediums do not exist in a vacuum; social media ensures such. Even radio presenters from national radio stations interact with listeners more than ever, directly and within physical spaces around the UK; on BBC Music Day on 15th June, Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie present their 6Music show from the British Music Experience here in Liverpool. The time of a passive audience spoon-fed by remote star DJs in London town is long since passed, which can only be a good thing, surely? In Bido Lito!’s The Final Say column in Issue 75, the former BBC Radio 1 and 2 and now BBC Wales presenter Janice Long wrote of the community and trust built up between presenter and audience. She maintains that link is still intact but operates differently.
“People who listen to me will get the idea of the kind of stuff, the new stuff that I’m going to play – they know where I’m coming from,” she says. “What I find interesting [is that] those people that tune in, they start talking to other listeners about the new music that’s being played. But, also, the listeners will start sending me new stuff saying ‘have you checked this artist out?’ Which I think is fantastic because it’s a two-way street then.”
As part of the Bido Lito! Membership programme, we are holding a special IWFM Radiophonic Workshop with the team behind IWFM on 5th July. Sign up for the event now at bidolito.co.uk.