Friday, 26 March 2010

Buried Radio treasure. It's out there, somewhere. Got a map?

I've written this for my website, to go onto a new Selector/Music programming section, but I'm posting it here as well. It's a humble suggestion to programmers, and adds to the debate about what exactly music radio is in the second decade of the 21st century.

How we get and how we use our music has changed. Music itself has changed: it was the thing that pulled young listeners in. In turn, radio was the place to hear the hot new stuff.

Now? We get hot new stuff from the net, from friends, on phones. Pandora in the US, and Last-FM and Spotify in the UK can give you want, when you want it. Radio can’t compete with the web. Instead of enthralling and seducing the listener, to its discredit, much radio has devalued its music and retreated into conservatism.

Worse still, many radio professionals have abandoned the idea of ‘owning’ their music, and have farmed out their programming to remote services, sometime hundreds of miles away.

I’m not saying that music radio has a divine right to continue to exist in the face of hot new technology; after all, the technology that empowered music radio helped to kill off earlier forms of music distribution, like sheet music and piano rolls.

But I still think that there’s a LOT to play for. Radio, on whatever platforms it now uses, still has several prime assets: Radio has a direct connection between presenter and listener, in a way that rival media can not match.

And in music programming, of all types, there’s still a vital ingredient that is out there, waiting to be grasped: localism. By this, I don’t mean a parochial approach. I mean a sense of locality, identity and community. Localism becomes doubly valuable when set against the overwhelming globalisation of the record industry, and centralised programming that, while expedient, ignores potential local variations. It always shocks me when I visit a different country - and hear exactly the same music being played on the radio that I’m used to at home.

One of the non-radio projects I am working on taps into the world of new independent music making, which now exists online. It is thrilling, vital, and exciting. Because musicians can use web tools and computer based recording equipment that is now spectacularly cheap, the quality is often spectacularly good. Musicians the world over have side-stepped record companies to distribute their material directly, and I don’t blame them. If all a record company is interesting in signing is yet another ‘Three Tenors’ clone, or another Beyonce wannabe, or the next Michael Buble, then why go to the trouble of trying to get them to take a chance on your material?

But that’s not to say that the new online alternatives don’t have radio value. It does mean you, the programmer, have to do a bit of work to find it, but that shouldn’t be too hard. And this material can have huge impact, especially if it ‘belongs’ to your town, or your region, or even your country.

So, my question to those programmers who still have the freedom to determine what they can put on their radio stations is: are you entirely sure that those global successes the record companies thrust at you wouldn’t benefit from a judicial addition of something that you know - from experience - matters in your town, your region, or even your country?

Think about it. It could be your usp in the radio war.

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