Dear Tessa Jowell,
Please, for God's sake please. It's not much to
ask - but can we have some decent music on the radio?
I mean the B-52's, The Band, The Beat, Blur and
The Buzzcocks ... I mean Beck, Billy Bragg, Beastie
Boys and the Buena Vista Social Club. I mean all
of the above and more. Generations of us boomers
and post-boomers - from the Summer of Love to the
ferment of punk and first flowerings of rap - have
grown up believing that music actually matters.
And are we being served by music radio today? I
In the global marketplace, British popular music
punched above its weight for decades - partly because
our music press championed the quirky and the nonconformist
and partly because BBC radio could cheerfully play
that same oddball music without worrying what advertisers
would think. From the Beatles to Bowie, Roxy Music
to Radiohead, many great British originators went
on to conquer the world. But that was BBC - Before
Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, Radio 1 is now so relentlessly
hip, it hurts. Rebranded as a niche music station
for urban 15-24 year olds, it's been a runaway success,
and why not? No one who remembers Smashie &
Nicey could possibly object, though personally I
prefer my headbanging dance music and nihilistic
hip-hop in moderation.
Radio 2 has also spectacularly reinvented itself
with a mission to dispense popular music and culture
to the entire adult population. Bizarrely, it works.
This unfeasibly broad church - with celebrants ranging
from Jimmy Young to Mark Lamarr - attracts an equally
broad congregation. Ten million listeners simply
can't be wrong.
Paradoxically the scale of this success also causes
the station's biggest difficulty - taking musical
risks. With a listenership this wide, producers
can't afford to startle the horses, and we won't
be hearing the Pixies, Pogues, Poco, Placebo, Prince,
Primal Scream or Public Enemy back to back on R2
Risk is vital to innovation, and the most influential
music station of the past decade was surely London's
tiny GLR - with its eclectic playlist, fanatical
audience and shoestring budget. Oasis, The Corrs,
Dodgy, Suede, Alanis Morrisette, Sheryl Crow, Baby
Bird, Cornershop and Pulp were all first aired on
GLR, when mainstream radio wouldn't touch them.
Mavericks like Chris Evans, Mark Lamarr, Emma Freud,
Graham Norton and Danny Baker likewise began their
careers at the station.
Naturally John Birt's BBC ran some focus groups
two years ago, then axed all the music and most
of the presenters. GLR was rebranded as London Live
- a speech and news station with a new logo and
huge injection of capital. Audience share predictably
A more serious consequence for those of us scratching
a living on the wilder fringes of the music industry
was that we lost our last point of access to daytime
radio. The bar is now set impossibly high. How will
the next Oasis or Edwyn Collins ever achieve that
first break or big comeback? It's no coincidence
that David Gray couldn't get arrested on UK radio
last year and had to make his breakthrough via Ireland.
And don't get me started on commercial radio. Driven
by common denominators of reach, ratings, and revenue
the vast majority of stations treat us like pop-gobbling
morons. Small stations get swallowed by ever bigger
syndicates, where centralised presenters push buttons
to trigger the next segment of a computer-generated
playlist. Still more depressing is Classic Gold
radio, based on the premise that 1) we only ever
listened to the top 40 when young and 2) we haven't
listened to anything since.
So what can a culture secretary do about all this?
Well, as it happens, an unexpected window of opportunity
just slid open among the BBC's new digital radio
proposals. These include, wait for it - a music
station for 25-50 year olds: the Q and Mojo generation.
OK, I'll declare an interest. Having been involved
in the early BBC consultations, I know the core
playlist includes the likes of Morrissey, Moby and
Madness along with the Manics, Massive Attack and
Van Morrison. For me, an all-digital station playing
live sessions and album tracks of this calibre,
is the most exciting proposition since Napster.
In fact I'd very much like to work there.
Most exciting of all is the possibility that such
a network could also air new music by lesser known
artists: interesting, unproven music that's too
mainstream for Radio 1 and too edgy for Radio 2.
This really matters, and not just for the egos of
a few peripheral musicians. It matters for a fresh
generation of big hitters and high earners - the
next David Gray or Radiohead. And yes, it matters
for export dollars and tax revenue as well.
The consultation period for BBC digital services
ended on Friday - so whether this station goes ahead
is now up to you, Tessa. Of course hardly anyone
owns a digital radio right now, but that's the point.
As with satellite, it'll take content this good
(along with much cheaper hardware) to make the switch
worthwhile. Let's get cracking - music radio for
the rest of us is long overdue.