Thursday 1 March 2012

Changes At BBC Radio 1 - Some Thoughts

Back in the early 90’s BBC Radio 1 faced heavy criticism from the government, the media and private sector radio. The reason? As a public service youth station it was failing badly, having become a bloated and fat joke. It’s audience profile was greater amongst 30-45 year olds who had grown up with the station than it was with younger listeners.The station's established presenters such as Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates, Bruno Brookes and Gary Davies weren’t connecting with their target youth audience and the station was considered a dinosaur.

Enter new controller Matthew Bannister who very quickly began a hatchet job on the stations “Smashie and Nicey” DJ culture to bring in new, younger talent. Bates, Davies, Brookes and Travis (who resigned on air with his infamous “There are changes being made at the station that go against my principles" speech) were soon all out and the new guard were in. The music aired also began to change – The Golden Hour (an hour of ‘oldies’ every day) was booted into touch and Status Quo found that their songs were no longer played on the station. Believe it or not Quo challenged this  (unsuccessfully)  in the courts.

Not all of Bannister’s new charges (a number of whom transferred from GLR radio) were a success. Emma Freud, Danny Baker and Kevin Greening were all talented broadcasters but didn’t bring in a new audience. In fact Bannister found Radio 1’s  figures dropping to below 10 million as listeners departed to Radio 2 and independent commercial radio. But with the cull in presenters and audience Bannister set the direction for the future of Radio 1. This was a radio station that didn’t trade on nostalgia,that constantly re-invented itself and defined its status by broadcasting to a younger audience.

Since Bannister’s departure the man steering the ship has been Andy Parfitt. Parfitt has successfully rebuilt the stations audience (up to an average weekly reach of just over 11.5 million) and yet with this build the average age of its listener has also gone up to over 30. It’s flagship breakfast show DJ is Chris Moyles (age 37) who has a style of presentation that harks backs to old school Radio 1 and unsurprisingly attracts a large number of listeners age 45-54 and he’s brought back The Golden Hour. Likewise many of the stations other DJ’s are in their mid 30’s (Scott Mills, Edith Bowman, Sara Cox, Zane Lowe).

Once again Radio 1 (via the BBC Radio Trust) has been tasked with targeting a younger audience and a new controller Ben Cooper, age 42 has been employed to do this. The question is how does he achieve it? Is a spectacular cull of DJ’s on the horizon like the Bannister era? Possibly not so – the recently announced swap between Scott Mills and Greg James with Mills soon to occupy the early rather than late afternoon slot shows that Radio 1’s strategy may be more of evolution rather than revolution this time round.  When  Bannister took over in the 90’s the likes of the elderly John Peel survived the clean sweep by his ability to embrace new forms of pop music, many of today’s Radio 1 DJ’s shows have a greater degree of mainstream relevance in the same way that Peel had underground relevance. However, despite his popularity Moyles time must surely be coming to an end at the helm of the station, but a huge cull seems unlikely.

Instead controller Cooper has already signalled his intention to attract new younger listeners by embracing new formats – smartphone, ipad and IPTV listening for example rather than traditional radios. Maybe as pop music reaches middle age (where very few ideas are original any more) the age of a radio show presenter is less important. Maybe it’s the medium the show is delivered on, the music, the content and the authenticity / ability of the presenter to connect with a younger demographic than a presenters actual age that will define the Radio 1 of the future?

Or despite whatever they do, Radio 1 will never be able to fully shake off their older audience – because maybe, just maybe there’s a group of ‘grey-pound’ oldies out there who find it impossible to lose interest in new music, are interested and not fearful of youth culture (something that maybe their parents were) and can also afford to embrace technology such as smartphones and ipads even easier than teenagers can.

In the 60’s, 70’s and 80's pop music was seen as an art form that alienated older generations, But the teenagers of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s have now lived through numerous changes in fashion and style of pop music and have grown used to the idea of embracing change and the new. They’ve lived through punk, new-romantic, acid house and the birth of hip-hop. The likes of both the mainstream and the underground no longer surprise them, but simply remind them of music of the past.

Radio 1 will be set goals of becoming more relevant to the youth market, but may find that mum and dad and the kids are increasingly interested in the same things. Unless the station is going to be broadcasting Teletubbies LP’s, pop music and pop music radio is increasingly becoming for any age – something which the BBC Radio Trust may have missed and not fully understood.

Here's the aforementioned Moyles plus Tim Westwood (aged over 50) who still presents to a very young audience on Radio 1 Extra. Are their days numbered ? 


Unknown said...

Be thankful you guys have a BBC - in the US, I would listen to the radio more often if we had something similar. We could also use subsidized television like you have. NPR and listener-supported radio is great though. Excellent, thorough article. Thanks guys.

SG said...

I didn't know the history of Radio 1's audience before, really interesting! Nice analysis. @GoldenGatsby

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Thanks. Yes you’re right. There’s absolutely no doubt that the BBC is something to be cherished. By being state / taxpayer funded it isn’t under the same commercial pressures as commercial radio (although it is becoming increasingly so) and therefore can dare to take more risks – including with the music it plays. It’s probably one of the reasons why for a small country the UK continues to produce exciting new and emerging bands – because their music is given a chance to be played at an early stage in their careers to a mass audience (rather than niche audiences such as blogs). I remember vividly Zane Lowe playing Adele’s early singles. That kind of support and the BBC Introducing network is vital to help support new music.

With the current targets from the BBC Trust let’s hope that Radio 1 continues to support in these areas.

Anonymous said...

Gemma Cairney or Greg James as the next Breakfast Show DJ I reckon (or Adele Roberts as an outside bet)

Andy Von Pip said...

I enjoyed - this as no teenager (like Robin ;) but with a passion for music that has never dimmed (like Robin) I agree, pop music is no longer the domain of the youth and discarded once you hit 30. Go to any gig ( well maybe not an S Club Juniors) and the age range is usually very mixed, which is as it should be as the generation gap now is so small it hardly exists. We all own pop culture.

However I do find Radio 1 a fairly hard listen, with rotating robot sex chart fodder and hyperactive maniac "yoof" presenters whose inane babble actually patronises young people - "Ok, for our next feature, "Get Your Socks Off" we thought we'd ask our listeners to tells us about their favourite Socks, or sock related stories" .

As for Moyles, a loud brash baffoon of the highest order I do hope his sexist, laddish "humour" and his spirit crushingly unfunny arse kissing acolytes are soon shown the door. What he knows about music is so miniscule it could be written on his scrotum. He is EXACTLY like the very DJs he lampoons, with his celeb friends ("great mates") and "HILARIOUS" (usually foreign) voices... I can remember the Halle Berry incident in which decided for no good reason I could discern to treat her to his comedic genius, and did his "black American guy" impression, which left her disdainfully retorting " are we having a racist moment here?." Top Gear awaits him with open arms.
Radio 1 could still be relevant but it was and is so tied to the charts, which aren't as relevant as they used to be that it needs a complete re-think, and simply getting presenters on board who bellow "OMG, L-O-L, its Rhianna, looking well hot and smexy" is probably not what people from any age demographic (excluding the masochistic and lobotomised ) can withstand for any sustained period of time !

Tim said...

I think Matthew Bannister did wonders to Radio 1 after its stagnation in the 90s, and your right it is about time they flushed out the DJs and started afresh.

(As a side note, Bannister is one of the most passionate people I've ever spoken to about radio - its inspiring to chat to him after a whiskey or 3 - I used to live with his daughter at uni).

As to the future of Radio 1 (or radio in general) is the creating of packages of content (such as podcasts) by organisations like the BBC, which others then channel to their audiences. I see channelisation as the future of broadcast content (TV and radio) - a liberalisation of those being the channels from big corporations to individuals, bloggers, small niche groups, as the costs of broadcast near zero (but creating the content remains relatively expensive).
I wrote an article about it recently if you're interested at
If this occurs, then I'm not sure it will really matter who Radio 1 has as their DJs.

Scryst said...

Great piece Robin - I'm in my late 20's and still love pop music as well. I really hope Radio 1 aren't going to be forced down a route of abandoning quality to get rid of an older more discerning listener - the station has some great presenters - Scott Mills is actually very clever in the way he presents what on the face of it appears a lightweight show but is actually very well thought out and funny, the likes of Huw Stephens, Zane Lowe and Rob Da Bank are all massive music fans and know their stuff. If the future is Fearne Cotton etc and the like then I'm afraid I will be pushed away - for f*cks sake I'm not even 30 yet. Surely the BBC should set its standards as being about quality and as you say accept that these days pop music is for all. My dad is in his 50's and listens to Adele, Ed Sheeran and Jessie J - all staple parts of