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The Guardian

Why You Can't Listen To The Radio

Articles by TR for the Guardian newspaper:

1) Radio Diary 2003
2) Face The Music 2002
3) Letter to Tessa 2001
4) Call that fair ? 1999
5) Werner's Visit 1990

Tuesday July 31, 2001
A punk survivor begs the culture minister for some edgy music

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 think not.

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 Branding Came.

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 anytime soon.

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 plummeted.

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.

Tom Robinson