Friday, 12 February 2010

Pirate Radio Goes Mainstream: Politics, technology and demographics

I've just come back from giving a lecture in London, to a group of university students from the US. My brief was to cover the history of UK post-war popular music radio. I had a lot of fun putting the whole thing together. Learned quite a bit too.
The bottom line? It really doesn’t matter how brilliant your programming is, how cool and innovative your marketing strategy. You are always at the mercy of factors you can’t control.

Consider politics and radio in the 60s: Pirate radio, which met a need with us baby boomers, got shut down because of politics. Not because it was good or bad (in my view, some of it was atrocious, a lot of it was mundane, some was blatantly corrupted by payola, and just a little bit of it was inspirational). It was not really a threat to the establishment. But it ran counter to government policy. So it went.

Consider politics and demographics in the 80s: The NRJ group is now the largest group in France. But they started in a tiny way, in Paris, in ’81 as a community station aimed at young listeners, and built a huge listenership. Gradually, legislation allowed them to take adverts, and they carried on growing, until they got naughty, and boosted their transmitter power beyond the limits allowed for community or ‘free’ (Radio Libre) stations, at which point they were yanked off the air. They appealed to their listeners to demonstrate – and, boy, did they ever. So, this being French politics, the government backed down.

Consider demographics and technology: radio could not have evolved the way it has today, without the ability to store and manipulate audio files. And that same technology is now kicking its butt, with IPods and web radio.

I love it all. I may not like the way NRJ has evolved into a slick Europe-wide media group. It’s kind of predictable – moving from left field to mainstream. But I absolutely love they way they proved that they could mobilise their listeners in the mid-80s, and grow beyond the boundaries that had been set for small-scale radio.

I wonder if any of that has occurred to government or the established media, as they debate the move to Digital in 2015, which is supposed to leave the FM band to small-scale and community radio?

Nah, must be me that’s being cynical.


Richard Rudin said...

Yes, it's inevitable that the 'left-field' should be absorbed into the mainstream (as happened with rock and roll and punk)but radio's history in he UKL is a bit more complex. I've been trying to explain to my students why the Labour governments in the 1960s AND '70s were so anti commercial radio; how it was against their ideology. This is quite difficult to get over in a short period to 'Thatcher's children' and, to US students, must have been VERY difficult - so respec'!!

Robin Valk said...

If you plot the development of UK commercial radio against a timeline of political changes in this country, it's a fascinating picture. I think that both main political parties were at fault, frankly. Interestingly, there are parallels with US Radio development, although of course, the US got their commercial radio industry up and running 50 years before we did! That said, both US and UK industries have followed the same path from the 90s onwards. And it could well be said that that development was driven by ideology just as much as our 70s see-saw development.