Broadcasting into the void… (part three)

Parts 1 and 2 in this series of articles are about how the BBC appeared to spend the early part of last century not really knowing who was listening to the radio and why. You can read both parts here and here. In this episode Charlie Harper of the punk band the UK Subs rubs shoulders with the national treasure that is Stephen Fry. And that’s probably the only time that both have been mentioned together in the same sentence.

Part four of this series – to be published shortly – will identify members of one particular section of the audience that listened most attentively. Indeed, they’re a special collection of individuals that were so taken with the romantic idea of listening to the radio as teenagers late at night in the fifties and sixties that they’ve made their own creative accounts of their experiences. I’ll ask, by the way, if they’re all looking back with rose-tinted glasses.  Stay tuned. You can read more about these artistes in my book, Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture, published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2022 to celebrate 100 years of British broadcasting.

But first, back to the archives. I’ve already discussed the 1920s, and how the birth of radio seemed like a bright idea at the time. However, within at least ten years one BBC exec ended up complaining that he felt as if he were “broadcasting into the void” due to a lack of decent audience research.

It now seems as if that wasn’t just a one-off. Indeed, BBC staff over the subsequent decades continued to question: “who is listening/watching?” A colleague of mine, Christine Verguson, wrote her PhD thesis about the history of BBC North in Leeds between 1945 and 1990. (Full disclosure: I was her doctoral supervisor.) You can download and read her thesis here. She includes oral histories from a number of Beeb staffers and freelancers.

She writes (on p. 183) that as far as BBC North was concerned, from the 1960s to the 1990s, “Certainly little attention was given to the potential audience”. Producers in Leeds seemed to be, as Val Gielgud said decades before, broadcasting into a void: One film editor is quoted as saying: “I think we made the films for ourselves really. One knew there was an audience out there but on a daily basis one made an item for what we thought it was worth. For the best content and to the best of your ability…Obviously you wanted them to enjoy it.” Another said, “We never met the public. We never asked what they wanted”.

Meanwhile, in both BBC Local Radio stations and in the growing ILR commercial radio sector, computer technology was being applied to the art of broadcasting; in the process it was turning it into a science.

On the one hand it could assist in automated playout, whilst on the other it could take from the DJs the job of picking the music for each of their shows. Either way, the craft of the disc jockey was, in the 1980s and 90s changing in fundamental ways.

When I first started at BBC Radio Derby, I enjoyed picking tracks for when I sat in on the drive-time show.

I’d spend part of the morning browsing in the gram library on the first floor.

My choice of music was specially selected because I imagined that my listener would enjoy hearing each track. The 1989 review of my show, and my music choices, makes for interesting reading. You can read the full review by Ken Garner in ‘Radio & Music’ magazine from 1989 here:

By 1990, when I’d moved to present lunchtimes at BBC Radio York, the option of choice had been taken away from me. The software, ominously, was called Selector. The brand name was, perhaps, a description of the one act of decision-making that had been summarily removed from the DJs. A computer was now, indeed, the selector.

The songs and tracks would henceforth be compiled by a system based on list of music gleaned from the results of focus groups – targeted for age and demographic make-up.

Today, the gram library at BBC Radio York has long-since been partitioned into an accessible toilet and a kitchen area.

From the commercial sector, here’s an example of one of the first major British ILR stations to be automated in both music playlists and transmission of programmes. The station is called Pirate FM. It was launched in April 1992, and here’s the BBC’s Spotlight report on that evenings’ regional TV news programme.

But back to the topic of how we in the radio industry try to work out who our audience is, and why we’ve never come up with a complete answer.

In the 1990s, as technology offered listeners more choice, the BBC knew it had to focus on its audience. However, by the first decade of the new century a revelation of how the Corporation went about visualising its local radio listeners came to the attention of the wider public and caused some embarrassment. In 2005 the New Statesman published the revelations about the imaginary couple Dave and Sue: a plumber and school secretary in their mid-50s. And you can read legendary Yorkshire broadcaster Martin Kelner’s take on it from 2011 for good measure.

At one station we’d already discreetly done our own research a couple of years previously. The result: our typical (average?) listener was in her 50s, read the Daily Mail, and subscribed to The People’s Friend.

As a consequence, the literature lying around on the news-desk in the production office upstairs changed overnight. I’ve never read so many short stories in my life.

Which perhaps demonstrates that the Corporation’s radio producers and broadcasters were still, after all these glorious years, trying their best to work out who was listening to the radio – and why.

In 2011 Charlie Harper of the UK Subs, the long-running punk band (each of their LPs was released in alphabetical order. I respect that) had a grumpy moan about contemporary radio in Britain. His track ‘Radio Unfriendly’ on the LP Work in Progress (see how it’s one of the more recent?) listed the genres that Harper detested.

Girl bands and boy bands, middle-of-the-road songs, news and talk radio, and stations which repeated tracks from a limited playlist. Given that lot, there’s not much left. So, Harper suggested listening to your mp3 player instead.

That’s OK, but again it reinforces what you already know and like.

The only way out is through mixtapes. But cassettes (in Britain at least) are a technology of the 1970s to 90s. Nick Hornby, a British author, wrote about it in 1995, and it was made into a US movie in 2000.

Now, in the 21st century nobody even makes CD-r compilations for friends these days. Instead, we copy, share and post our favourite music video of the moment to Instagram or Facebook, or we mime to a 30 second clip of it on Tik-Tok. As a result, nothing links together anymore.

At issue here is the problem of a closed loop of taste. I can rely on algorithms and the artificial intelligence from the likes of YouTube, Netflix and Facebook that deliver what they somewhat ingenuously call ‘alternatives’ based on what I already like. They’re not really alternatives at all; they’re ‘similars’.

For example I follow Paul Weller on social media. So, Facebook’s software code reads my personal data (as it always does) and in return I am given the suggestion to follow the Stone Foundation, a soul band from the English Midlands (who happen to have recorded with Weller). Yes, I enjoy their music but I do feel it’s just a little bit more of the same.

Once upon a time I could have listened to a DJ on a live radio station, and I could have discovered tracks I’d never heard before. That’s the joy of old-school radio, when the audience (in this case, me), encountered something new that I didn’t previously know about.

Two BBC Radio 4 comedy series, both written by Mark Tavener, contained satirical swipes at the BBC’s struggle to connect with its audiences. One 1995 episode of In the Red (S01E03) had Steven Fry as Charles Prentis, a fictional controller of Radio 2, and John Bird, as Martin McCabe, the imagined controller of Radio 4 both plotting against the DG in this particular scene…

FX: Telephone rings (Trimphone sound)

Martin McCabe: Hello?

Charles Prentis: Martin? Charles.

McC: (sounding tired) Oh, how’s life at Radio 2?

CP: (enthusiastic) Marvellous. And Four?

McC: Oh, bearable, I suppose. Just been listening to another of my pointless bloody panel games. Why do I let them make this rubbish?

CP: Because you can’t be bothered not to?

McC: (sighs) Oh yes. That’ll be it. So, how are things on Radio 2?

CP: What? Planet Muzak? Oh, chugging along as ever. Anyway, I enjoyed our little chat the other day.

McC: (cautious) Oh, yes. Yes.

CP: Haven’t changed your mind, have you? Martin? About getting rid of the Director General and replacing him with our…

McC: (interrupts) Not here! The phone might be…

CP: What! Bugged? (laughs) I doubt it old man. The BBC hasn’t got the resources to listen at the door with a whisky tumbler let alone bug the phones.

In the follow-on series, Absolute Power, Stephen Fry and John Bird had left the Beeb and become dubious PR executives. Series 1 Episode 5, first broadcast in 2000 was about their attempts to relaunch BBC Radio 3. When they arrived for a team briefing they noticed that all the staff of R3 were wearing black polo necks… The implication was that BBC Radio 3 producers were somehow louche artistic types. Prentis & McCabe’s subsequent suggestion for the relaunch was to turn R3 into a pirate radio station to attract the youth market… Needless to say this didn’t work.

And while I’m thinking about radio comedy, there is a PhD thesis all about audience reaction, feedback, and the measurement of Radio 4 comedy shows – with a great subtitle: “The Cesspool with the Velvet Lid”. Do give it a read. It is a fascinating peek into how audience reaction (known in the business as appreciation ratings) is used to drive both the commissioning process and the schedules themselves.

In the next episode of this series of articles, “Broadcasting into the Void”, I write about how radio of the past has come to be imagined, glorified even, by popular artists. We’ll hear from The Buggles, Queen, Paul Durcan and Van Morrison, amongst others. In the meantime, go and put the following into a search engine of your choice: “Radio Luxembourg” and/or “Radio Northsea International”. Let me know what you find by adding your comments, and links, in the box at the bottom of this page.

And finally, to return to a musical theme, with a topical remark from the archives. Whilst listening recently to this 1971 track by the Staples Singers I was struck by the apposite nature of one couplet that prophetically mentioned politics, global warming, and our recent pandemic. Unintentionally, of course. Just to think: they recorded it fifty years ago…

“Keep talkin’ bout the president, won’t stop air pollution

Put your hand on your mouth when you cough, that’ll help the solution”

Luther Ingram & Mack Rice (1971)

4 thoughts on “Broadcasting into the void… (part three)

  1. fascinating as ever Martin – admit I’ve come to this one a bit late! Likewise love stations & programmes that let me discover the new – BBC radios 3 & 6 music especially, and Jo Whiley on 2 in the evenings. Big Weller & Jam fan too. Thanks as ever for leading us down some intriguing rabbit holes… 🙂


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