The demise of British radio is very sad, but perhaps it’s had its day. I feel lucky to have worked in the radio industry during the ‘good days’. The 1970’s – 1990’s were the good days when radio was vibrant, fun and creative. In the old days you picked the music you played yourself! Those days are long gone, quite right too. It was absolutely the right thing to do to introduce playlists and a ‘station sound’. In the early days of commercial radio our large towns and cities had their own commercial station, but just one. That station obviously wanted to appeal to as much of the available audience as possible and played a wide range of music, from current hits, all the way back to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby!
Then came the parting of the ways. AM and FM split. Stations that had previously occupied both frequencies were able to offer an alternative radio service on the AM, while the ‘Big City stations’ stayed on FM. Stations like Capital in London, BRMB, Piccadilly Radio, Radio City, Metro Radio, TFM and many others. By providing an alternative service, usually an oldies station, it mean that the Big City stations could narrow their target audience and appeal to a younger age group than previously.
Then came more stations, then some more and more again. The various radio regulators over the years have allowed perhaps too many stations to start up, this has not really added to radio listening, it just means that each station has a smaller audience. Now we have digital radios in cars and the wider choice that offers, and of course we can plug our iPhones, iPods, even SD cards full of music, into the music system in our cars. So we don’t need radio anymore. Why did we ever listen to stations that only played music we liked part of the time? What has radio to offer that our CD players don’t?
The answer is content.
Any music radio show is made up of three things, the music, the presenter and the content. All are important. You must play the right music for your target audience, surprisingly perhaps some radio stations even fail at that obvious basic requirement. They don’t know what their audience want, and they don’t know how to ask them.
Then there is the presenter. Presenters need to be confident, knowledgeable, friendly and above all be enjoying what they are doing. The third ingredient is the content, something other than the music that is worth listening to. It might be a competent presenter saying something of interest, it might be a competition, or some musical hook to hang around the music being played. Or it might be a format as old as the hills, that has stood the test of time and still works.
There are two programmes on BBC Radio Two each day between noon and 5 p.m. Both are remarkable in their own ways. Steve Wright in the afternoon (2-5pm) is called, by Steve, ‘The Big Show’. What is remarkable is that the only thing big about it is Steve Wright’s ego. By complete contrast is the Jeremy Vine show (12-2pm). This format is as old as the hills. The show dates back to July 1973 when Jimmy Young, who had been broadcasting on Radio One, yes really, was moved to Radio Two. He started a new style ‘mixed format’ show of music and speech, which is still on-air today.
When Jimmy Young was taken off in 2003, he complained that the BBC were doing a disservice to his large and loyal audience who would suffer as a result. What Jimmy hadn’t realised was that he had got into a bit of a rut and that the show was sounding tired. When Jeremy Vine took over, the show was revamped, freshened up, many, if not all, of the old regular features were scraped, and the audience went up, not least because of Jeremy himself. Jimmy had done a great job for years, but it was time for a change.
Jeremy Vine is the consummate broadcaster, a first class journalist, who knows a good story when he hears one, he’s also an excellent broadcaster. He knows just when to end a phone call or an interview, very important that, get the best out of it and move on. He also knows the golden rule of interviewing people, which is, always listen to the answers to your questions. Pointless having a prepared set of five questions if the answer to the first one takes you in a different direction and you have not heard that happen.
There was a big story not so long ago about the South African disabled olympics star Oscar Pistorius. Oscar had shot dead his girlfriend at his home in Pretoria, South Africa. The Jeremy Vine show, as it so often does, looked at this story from a different angle. Jeremy’s researchers, BBC researchers are still the best, had found a young disabled British boy, also called Oscar, who was a big admirer of the Paralympic star. Jeremy asked him what he thought of the athlete and then asked for his reaction to the news of the shooting. The boy was clearly shocked and disappointed. He told Jeremy that he has a poster of his hero on the wall in his bedroom. Just as Jeremy was breathing in to ask another question, the boy added in a sad voice that he was thinking of taking the poster down. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. Jeremy being the absolute professional that he is let that comment hang in the air for a few seconds, adding considerably to it’s impact. That silence spoke volumes, it was a poignant moment. You could not make this stuff up.
It’s all very well playing a few oldies and asking the audience what they think the ‘Golden Year’ is. All you have to do is Google the song and it’s all over. But you can not invent most of what happens on Jeremy Vine’s show, they and he, do it so well. That is the true quality in British radio these days, sadly there is so little of it now, but the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio Two is the very top of the tree.