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GEORGE WEBLEY: Is The Big Apple Of Pop Music Rotten To The Core?

Sounding Off By Big George
Published January 1997

Musicologist and composer Big George wonders "Is the Big Apple of pop music rotten to the Core?"

How come, no matter what part of the country you find yourself in, the same records by the same tedious artists seem to be played on every single independent local radio station? You know the acts I'm referring to — they're the same ones who have eight‑foot cardboard window displays in high street record retailers promoting their latest albums. The reason for this uniformity is that they're all in a bracket known inside the industry as 'Core Artist'. Or, to put it another way, safe, bland, easy‑listening tripe. And just who picks these artists?

Well, far be it from me to suggest that there's a conspiracy involved, but did you know that over 90% of all national local radio stations are run by three huge, tone‑deaf, advertising‑hungry companies? These stations are playlisted from head office by one person, who has the power to dictate the music listened to by the entire country.

On average, a weekly playlist is made up from less than 250 records, 40 of which are on an 'A' list. These lucky records will get played about five times a day. The running order is chosen by a system called 'Selector', which scientifically programmes the order of a show; that same running order will be used on all stations nationwide.

It's also a sad fact that all local disc jockeys are not only told what records to play, but what to say as well. After every three‑record sweep they must say who the artist was, in reverse order (they don't have to say what the track was called and are forbidden to make any comment on the artist or say what album a track was taken from, unless it's a movie soundtrack). It is a sackable offence to speak after an ad break and at least once an hour they must give a scripted station ident, usually something like "You're listening to the all‑new FM 123 Bland, where we give you much more music and we've cut the chat".

What they don't tell you is that the records they're playing are probably the boss' wives favourite artists, and the rubbish jokes the DJs are contracted to find so amusing are faxed to all DJs simultaneously across the country. Independent Local Radio wants only one thing: advertising. They're not interested in quality output or local involvement, just more money in their coffers. In fact, apart from the barest minimum of local events being announced on‑air free of charge, everything you hear, apart from the records, is paid for. So when you hear of a concert being sponsored by 'FM 123 Bland', it means that they have been paid thousands of pounds to promote it — even local festivals can cost the organiser £6000 for the privilege of a few mentions on‑air and a banner up at the event.

So why is it that people still listen to local radio? There's an organisation called RAJAR, who survey listening habits a couple of times a year. They are an opinion poll company who estimate the listening figures stations use to attract more advertising. These figures are the only source used to judge the number of people listening, and we all know how accurate opinion polls are. You'll know when the RAJAR people are in your area — it's at about the same time as your friendly local radio offers to give you money if someone asks you what station you listen to. To hammer that point home to the 'Plebs' (their term, not mine) who listen, they pledge to double the cash if you have the name of the station written down. Strangely, neither RAJAR nor the Radio Authority monitor whether money is actually being given away to ordinary members of the public. Of course, you'll hear lucky winners saying how great the station is, as they win money. Amazingly, the lucky winners always seem to be working at a private clinic or car showroom. Of course, this is only coincidental and not illegal product placement.

And obviously the fact that these instant prizes are completely unregulated never leads to a winner being a member of staff who doesn't speak on‑air, or a DJ's partner — or does it? These are all devices to inflate the listening figures and attract more advertisers. As long as you can show the friendly advertisers that an ever‑increasing number of the population is tuning to the most watered‑down radio on the planet, you can charge more for the ads, whether the figures are accurate or not. There's no less than 10 minutes of advertising an hour, as well as station idents, news, travel and weather bulletins, and the meaningless banter of a DJ telling you that they've "cut the chat and given you more music..."

That's why local acts never get played on daytime radio any more, because there is no local responsibility to provide a service to the public. In fact, a good deal of the overnight and weekend output of most local stations is networked from head office, which can be over 400 miles away. Or as one company logo puts it: "Local Radio, Nationwide".

Personally, I could forgive them all of this if they did just two things. Firstly, give daytime airplay to local contemporary musical talent. Every town has at least half a dozen bands and singers who are every bit as good as the top bands of the day. Every hit band was a local band once.

The second thing is to bring back specialist evening shows. There was a time when local radio excelled in nightly 2‑hour long shows dedicated to the likes of Reggae, Country, Rockabilly, and so on, presented by people who knew about the music they played and informed the listener.

Sadly, the more local radio becomes the preserve of a couple of major public companies, the less it has to do with music. As for what's wrong with BBC Radio 1 and 2, maybe some other time.