Saturday, 29 August 2009

Predicting the radio present, twenty years ago

Whilst looking for some information about the changes wrought by the Broadcasting Act 1990, I happened to find some old press cuttings from that time. What follows are some predictions for the 1990s UK radio industry that I had written in the February 1990 edition of “For The Record” magazine:

RADIO ONE continues to feel the winds of change instituted by the new Head of Music Roger Lewis and a team of younger presenters. It promotes and programmes itself more aggressively now and will continue to lead the way where commercial stations only follow. In the 1990s, it will sever entirely the relationship between its playlist and the current Top 75, thus sounding the death knell for the single as a commercial proposition.

NEEDLETIME RESTRICTIONS, which have held back developments in music radio for so long, will be legislated away, though not without a spirited fight by the record companies. As a result, all-music stations will become the norm in the commercial sector, leaving the BBC as the only producer of serious speech programmes.

MORE STATIONS will fracture the radio market into lots of small pieces, losing forever the kind of huge audiences attracted by the Sunday chart show or “Our Tune”. Record retailers will have to react by stocking a wider range of album releases and developing their specialist sections (a reversal of the 80s trend towards narrower stock). The album chart will increasingly reflect the sum of different sets of fans’ interests, rather than a common pop denominator.

OWNERSHIP of radio will narrow to a handful of large companies, despite the increased number of stations. The 80s saw radio shares treated as profitable propositions for the first time. The existing big boys (Capital Radio, Crown Communications, Trans World Communications) will continue to buy up anything and everything. Publishers (Associated Press, EMAP) will enter the fray, and TV companies will seek lateral integration with radio as a hedge against loss of their franchises. For the first time, radio shares will become an essential part of a media portfolio and change hands rapidly at inflated prices.

FM RADIO will reign supreme. Listeners will remember “medium wave” with the quaint fondness our grandparents reserve for “cats’ whiskers”. Push-button, auto-locate receivers become standard, timeshift recorders are introduced, knob-twiddling disappears, and listeners channel hop endlessly in search of the perfect beat.

SYNDICATED PROGRAMMES already enable David Hamilton to sound as if he works for your very own local station when he is really sat in a London studio. The development of whole syndicated networks in the 1990s means that your favourite rock station in Leeds is actually originated in New York and plays exactly the same records as WLUP Philadelphia.

DISC JOCKEYS will lose their aura as media stars and lose lucrative careers opening supermarkets, hosting TV shows or making their own hit records. Being a radio presenter will carry as much kudos as being a tax inspector.

SHOCK RADIO develops a huge cult following amongst young people, whilst deplored by their parents. The Radio Authority is belatedly forced to curb the phenomenon by introducing a largely ignored “Code of Presentation Conduct”. James Whale makes a film of his life story.

In the December 1989 edition of “For The Record”, I had written:

Asked whether the public service obligations in commercial radio would be abandoned completely, Lord Chalfont [newly appointed chairman of the newly created Radio Authority] has expressed hope that the Broadcasting Act would allow stations to continue with such commitments if they so wished. He added that, in his recent discussions with various MDs of local stations, they had expressed their avowed intent to maintain public service elements. This is a little like a headmaster hearing his class of fourth-formers promise never to drop litter, to always help old ladies across busy roads, and to keep their school uniforms on until they get home.

The issue of public service commitments in radio is important not just from a theoretical point of view, but because it directly affects the listener’s choice. We’re talking about the very things that should differentiate stations from each other.

At the bottom line, commercial radio does not exist to “satisfy” its listeners. It exists to deliver the largest targeted audience possible to the advertisers who pay money to do so. Listeners’ broadcasting needs are irrelevant to the stations’ profitability.

The cheapest form of radio programming is the continual play of well-known pop records linked by young local DJs who aspire to be Tony Blackburn – anything more fanciful than that costs more money and reduces the profit margin. So, in the brave new world where commercial radio is regulated by a “lighter touch”, the cheapest programming appealing to the lowest denominator audience wins hands down. Out go the rock shows, the folk shows, the local band slots and the ethnic language programmes that were necessary to comply with the IBA’s policy of serving all sections of the audience. Out goes anything but a token commitment to local news coverage, information services, off-air activities and social action broadcasting.

Independent Local Radio will increasingly have little that is either “independent” or “local” about it. If a bomb drops on your town at two in the morning, the one place you won’t hear about it is on your local station (unless the story makes the national news). They’ll simply carry on soothing you through the night – probably with a service beamed by satellite from London. ….

We’ll all get to hear more radio in the 1990s. But there are no guarantees to be seen so far that it will be any better for the consumer in its content.

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