Being a radio presenter used to be an easy ride. Nowadays though, the industry is in dire straits. Commercial radio is shrinking at an astonishing rate. It seems that every six months or so there's another huge round of redundancies. This has been exacerbated by the recent digital economy bill which was whisked through parliament towards the end of The New Labour Project's reign. The details of this bill mean that there are now less legal obligations on commercial radio broadcasters to provide local content. As a consequence friends of mine who work for GMG Radio (Guardian Media Group) have been laid off up and down the country today as more radio stations are consolidated into single quasi-national entities.
Amusingly The Guardian's coverage of this story omits a comments section (http://tinyurl.com/23eqy4q) in stark contrast to their aggressively critical coverage of rival company, Global Radio's, similar decision a few days earlier (http://tinyurl.com/3ab26lv).
For people who work in commercial radio these are tough times and decisions like this are unfathomable to some. I wonder how many listeners will notice though? The role of the local radio disc jockey has been whittled down to near irrelevance over the past decade, to the point that I question these days whether or not they have become an anachronism.
Radio DJs gained their place in popular culture thanks to pirate radio, when new pop music could be heard in one of two ways. Either it was carried on a lorry, in the form of a plastic disc, to a shop near your house where you purchased it (or listened in one of the listening booths) or you listened to it via an illegal pirate radio transmission. If you opted for the latter choice then inbetween these musical treats you had to endure some goon rambling on about how great he was*.
This led to a lot of people thinking the bloke who advertised himself inbetween the popular music was actually interesting in his own right, despite the fact that this was rarely the case. There was a brief period (once this sort of radio had been patronised by the Government sponsored BBC) where these people became genuinely big celebrities. In many ways most of them (with only two or three notable exceptions**) were precursors to the 'famous for being famous' brigade everyone moans about today. You know, like Jordan or Peter Andre or whoever.
The uncomfortable truth which everyone in the industry ignores is that music radio was astronomically successful back then because it acted as gatekeeper between the audience and their favourite pop music. Only as you get into the 80's do genuine talents start to emerge and even then they're unpredictable, difficult to manage and frequently leave to work elsewhere. Talent is a lot harder to monetise when compared to a record player pumping out pop music all day.
Furthermore commercial radio is often staffed, at the middle management level, by people who don't understand the above dynamics. Many of them remain under the sway of the superstar DJ myth and believe that those early massive listening figures were down to their genius. This means that there are still some people in my industry who think there's some sort of skill behind making a success of having a licence to broadcast pop music in an uncrowded marketplace in the distant past.
The reality is that as access to pop music has changed its dynamic the business model upon which commercial radio was built has become less and less viable. Add to that the increased number of licences handed out during the 90s, which largely saturated the market, and you've got the current mire that the industry finds itself in. Consolidating these stations into bigger entities, to some, seemed inevitable.
I remember sitting in a radio studio shortly after 9/11 doing an afternoon show on Hallam FM and working out that I was providing just under 5 minutes of content an hour, on a good day. Most of the guidance I was given came in the form of being told to cut down the chat, play the hits and make my links nice and tight. There was little encouragement to do anything other than say as little as possible. This presented a dillema familliar to most people of that profession. Do you say "no, to hell with that, I'm going to make up my own rules," at the risk of losing your job, or do you toe the line and take the money each month? Those who survive usually follow the latter course of action. What else can you do?***
I remember having a deeply pessimistic vision of the future back in 2001. It seemed to me that radio presenters and their bosses were complicit in making themselves irrelevant to their audience. Rather than recognise the way things were changing for their industry people seemed, to me at least, to bury their heads in the sand, hide behind the music and hope for the best.
It became impossible to drink with friends in the industry and not hear the old familliar line that "they should let the personality back into local radio". Everyone knew there was trouble brewing. It doesn't make it any easier to deal with now that the most pessimistic of predictions have come true.
However, I personally believe that the changes being made now will, in the long term, be for the better. They are in many ways a vindication of all that pub talk. Content will make the difference in this new landscape as the big companies battle it out with their quasi-national brands. It'll just take time for things to settle down. Furthermore, all those talented people who have lost their jobs will adapt to the new shape of the radio industry and find work in it. I'm convinced of that.
Furthermore, creeping up on the horizon is the online world. It has yet to reveal its full potential but there will doubtless be radio professionals who will be part of that in the next few years.
All of this will take place in the shadow of the now debunked myth of the superstar DJ. The Smashy and Niceys of local radio who insisted that the way to do it was by talking as little as possible.
*Obviously there were some people who were good. Kenny Everett is probably the person you were thinking of. John Peel? Who else though? Really? Don't get me wrong here I'm not just slagging people off for the sake of it. I'm just trying to make the point that Smashy and Nicey were a real phenomena and, what's more, there are lots of people who idolise their real life counterparts who work in radio to this day.
**It's not much more than one or two though is it? Really, can you imagine people downloading old shows of anyone other than Peel/Everett in the future. Oooh - let's listen to him introduce that song again!
***Obviously there are noble exceptions to all this. Many programmers tried to buck the trend here and there but it's a lot easier not to. Particularly if commercial considerations are taking preference.