Radio and records

Photo of DJ John Peel

John Peel, courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

For many of us the first time we hear a particular new sound is when we hear a record of that sound played on the radio. Because we do not choose the content of radio programmes ourselves - it is pre-selected for us - there is always a possibility that a sound will take us by surprise with its newness, and a very high proportion of new sounds on radio come from records.

Although records are so prominent on radio, it is not an uncontrolled free-for-all situation and it never has been. Numerous factors are regularly in play to control the way records are used, and these impact on the ways new sounds can be heard. One of the most influential of these factors is what is known as radio 'format'.

The first format to be introduced was the 'Top 40', which appeared in the US in the early 1950s. Whilst some stations featured chart shows among other programming other stations turned themselves over entirely to the Top 40 format. In so doing they limited their broadcasting to a playlist of forty records. In time the idea of adopting a particular format was extended to include musical styles and stations sprang up that devoted their entire broadcasting to, say, country music or adult contemporary. The result was, and still is when this occurs, market fragmentation and a situation in which audiences selected the stations whose musical output they were most comfortable with.

The playlist concept also spread and this continues to be a major component of the programming policy of commercial stations in many countries. In some stations playlists are drawn up by station personnel, in others they are based on charts or phone-ins and in others there is a mixture of the two. Some playlists last a week, others last longer. Today much radio programming in the US, perhaps even most, relies on computer-generated playlists.

Format radio and playlists are not hostile to new sounds but they can only accommodate a small number at a time and a station's market research is likely to remind it regularly that newness has to play second fiddle to familiarity. What keeps audiences tuned in first and foremost is anticipation of hearing something already - if only slightly - known. If a new sound does not easily fit into a format its chances of being broadcast are not great.

Particularly in Europe, where commercial radio began much later than in the US, commercial stations have often been obliged to include a lot of variety in their programmes, and even format stations such as those devoted to jazz or classical music have to vary the way the music is presented. Non-commercial stations (public service broadcasting) are given even wider remits but on popular music stations such as Radio 1 playlists are still in positions of great influence.

Much radio broadcasting of popular music conforms to a system therefore, but that has sometimes been flexible enough to allow independently-minded broadcasters to do something genuinely new. A prime example is DJ John Peel, who joined BBC Radio 1 shortly after it began broadcasting in 1967 and was soon presenting his own show, based on introducing listeners to his own choice of new music. It was a hugely influential programme, bringing listeners' attention to a whole range of contemporary popular music they had not heard before. He was the first DJ to play the Sex Pistols and to introduce the listening public to reggae, among many other new sounds. The show was to run, with some changes - and numerous skirmishes with the BBC - until his death in 2004. Another influential programme with a shorter life was presented by Charlie Gillett on Capitol Radio in the 1980s. With this show and a successor on the BBC, Gillett played a very significant part in introducing listeners to what became known as world music.

Politics has occasionally played its part in regulating opportunities for new sounds to be heard on radio. This can have both positive and negative effects. For example, governments in more than one country have from time to time imposed restrictions on the amount of imported music broadcast. This has happened in different ways in countries as varied as Canada (where a quota system still operates), Israel, New Zealand and Tanzania. One positive consequence is that records by local practitioners receive more air time, but at the same time listeners in those countries do not have the same access to foreign new sounds as do their peers in other countries.

A more obviously negative example is provided by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) during the apartheid era. One way for the state broadcaster to support the government's policy of separate development was to set up separate stations for different ethnic groups. Another method was to limit the music played to traditional or almost-traditional music. As the music scholar Chris Ballantine notes;

"few artists managed to open up any creative space within the rigid, anodyne, formula-bound styles fostered by the SABC's black stations" (1989: 309).

Another well-known negative example happened immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center on Tuesday 11 September 2001. The next day Clear Channel, which owns enormous numbers of radio stations across the US, issued a long no-play list. The list was famously strangely conceived and included a ban on all songs with the word Tuesday in them.