THE PETE TOWNSHEND PAGE #6
Melody Maker, 16th January 1971
DO YOU SUFFER FROM MEDIA FRUSTRATION?
YOU can’t help wondering, can you? When the government of this country destroyed commercial radio several years back we at least were able to say that they were acting normally…belligerently ignoring the fact that a whole industry which made the country millions of pounds owed much of its success to pirate radio and its so called ‘minority’ audience.
That was very much in keeping with their normal democratic way of going about things.But the latest ideas we are getting from Mr. Chataway are even more obvious. Four years after the act they suddenly realise that there IS money to be made. They want some. They realise there IS an audience for commercial radio. They want their votes. It’s in the light of this kind of thinking that pop music and its offshoots are seen by sporty chaps like Mr. Chataway.
The pirate radio system was not really perfect, the format methods used by all of them were easy to rig and one could buy time for any record on the air.
The people who talk of the days when the disc jockey played exactly what he wanted should talk to John Peel. Peel is someone who passed through commercial radio into a position in Radio One that gives him more freedom than any other disc jockey with the BBC.
Not even the waxworks (Tony Blackburn) gets as much choice in what he plays. In pirate radio, which was run like American top forty radio, it was, of course, mainly the DJs who decided the format and the advertisers who paid the costs.
In a way though it had the same drawbacks as Radio One, in that it had to reflect the majority preferences, the mums at home would still be listening to a good helping of Tom Jones, Ken Dodd and Gerry Monroe, even if pirate radio was around today. The advertisers would not buy time unless they thought the maximum number of people were listening. Their products’ sales would tell them the stations with the biggest audience.
In the same way the BBC has to please the majority because it is a service which the public have to pay for, through licences, thus the programmes become heavily structured in chunks of nearly several months. The same records are played over and over again, because the majority of people are slow to catch on.
Many people only buy records once they are in the charts and probably never react to them when they are first played on radio. Nevertheless, the BBC in Radio One is holding a terrifying monopoly. If one isn’t polite to such and such a DJ or producer he can ruin your career.
It’s lucky that most of the DJs and producers on Radio One are not as aggressive as most of the groups! I’m always having goes at Tony Blackburn, for example. It’s a bit hard but then he is the epitome of the Radio One Disc Jockey. He is popular, friendly, clean cut and knows damn well on which side his bread is buttered. There are some very beautiful housewives in this country man! Ask any milkman.
WHAT Tony Blackburn does reflect is the way that an individual who gets such a lot of air space on the BBC like him, can influence the musical taste of thousands of people. That’s obviously unavoidable, and all the DJ can do is to try to be as up front as possible and take the pelting of the "minorities."
But surely the healthiest way to put Radio One and even Tony Blackburn into perspective is the way BBC television was put into perspective in the fifties by ITV…Competition.
The BBC is doing all right really, it has four channels of radio space (in actual fact it has hundreds when you include the world services), and manages to please nearly everybody. But Radio One IS NOT a Rock station. It’s an easy listening station.
These categories are defined in American broadcasting very clearly. If one is a housewife, one listens to stations that play music that is a little like, say, Terry Wogan’s show or Tony Brandon. If you’re younger than twenty-nine, however, you listen to good old Rock and Roll. Yards and yards of Beatles, Stones, Creedence, Steppenwolf, Zeppelin, Steve Stills and the rest. All the good soul and Tamla singles are played by these stations too. Not ALL Tamla singles, period, which seems to he the case of Radio One.
The two different listening I worlds all buy their records in the same shops and are represented in the same chart which is fair, the chart is really a money-spent graph, nothing else. For some reason it works out that two basic station types is enough, but then the days of big business with singles is numbered even in the States.
If you look back at old American albums, for example Tamla albums, you’ll he amazed to find how bad many of them are. They just used to concentrate on singles. Today Tamla albums are good track for track. The Temptations for example produce amazing albums as well as superb singles.
We will never he so money oriented in this country to have stereo FM radio playing Rock albums even before there is a demand. Unlike Americans we don’t understand the business theory of CREATING demands by allowing people to hear or see what it is they’re going to buy.
An act in this country could never sell enough albums to make it worth a record company’s while to buy advertising air space either. I think Dick James Music will have to admit this soon. They bought space on TELEVISION to advertise Elton John’s new album. It was only a few seconds a night but must have cost quite a packet. Even if Elton John is God he’ll never sell enough records in this country to buy his Rolls Royce. He’ll have to use dollars mate. So as we resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll never hear stereo Rock on the radio in this country we have to ask when we’re going to hear MONO Rock on the radio.
THE MOST endearing thing about Pirate radio was the fact that you could mark all the stations on the dial of you radio (at one time there were about six you could hear clearly in London), and turn off bloody Ken Dodd and listen to a good down-home WHO record, if you fancied. When the Who record finished and the new station played Ken Dodd you could switch him off yet again and possibly even find the Who again somewhere.
Of course there are people who did the opposite – switched us off and searched the air waves desperately for Ken Dodd, getting pastry crumbs all over the radio. All the stations were just as bad as Radio One is today, but you did have a choice, and you did get competition.
A year ago I would have jumped for joy at the news that the government was going to hand Radio One over to commercial interests. I would have revelled in the idea of producers and programmers having to THINK again about what they played rather than letting their own worn out BBC cloth ears decide for them. Today I’m nervous.
We’d lose Mike Raven and his Blind Blake records. We’d lose Pete Drummond and John Peel, Scene and Heard and What’s New. There are so many good things which are unfortunately outweighed by all the bad things, all the Light Programme type things which should really be on Radio Two.
I don’t think a commercial Radio station would operate in the same way somehow. I think they would work for MAXIMUM audience at all times of the day and night, and this means it will end up sounding like Radio One at its worst, perhaps with a few records you wouldn’t normally hear being bought onto the stations’ weekly format. The Rind of things you see on television are NOT reflections of Radio format or what it would like turn out. Discussions, live shows, interviews, specials, etc, are not heard on American radio for example.
Granted, FM Rock radio has done a lot to change this, but slowly and surely the advertisers get their clutches on the whole thing. They don’t want breathing space for their listeners, they want a killing floor. Television appears to have a lot of variety because it’s on for a fairly short time. Radio is on all day and the biggest audience period is during the morning and afternoon, when people aren’t really listening, when radio serves as background music.
A STATION in direct competition with Radio One and its present format would he fantastically exciting though. It would be limited to the same amount of needle time I expect, although the BBC has more trouble with Unions and Copyright bodies than other sections of the music world. Perhaps it would also attract some of the better DJs who can’t work with BBC, like Kenny Everett, even DJs from FM stations in America.
There are so many brilliant guys over there who would gladly get out of the rat rate to be in Britain. At least radio has little chance of becoming a political vehicle in this country. All stations in America are running anti-drug "commercial" spots in prime time, this is compulsory by Federal Law. What would be the most exciting aspect of all would be the possibilities of doing radio shows in studios designed to record ROCK, not Max Jaffa.
Perhaps they, the BBC, would let out the eight track recorder they have been threatening us all with and make some decent live tapes themselves. Stanley Dorfman is proving Rock can be properly recorded in live entertainment. Admittedly it is hard work when you have visual aspects to consider as well as acoustical separation problems, hut he’s doing all right.
The BBC can do it if they try. If they aren’t rushed, and if they’re pushed. Let’s have another radio station that has to fight the BBC for its audience, one that realises the good and the bad at Radio One and avoids making the same mistakes. The audience figures will decide just what is minority listening and what isn’t. Let’s keep our fingers crossed, it could be so incredible.