The BBC Radio 1 Playlist Fake Controversy

cunts I assume many of you have seen this article in The Guardian which purports to finding Radio 1’s playlisting process shocking and has been bandied around Twitter as a sad example of how corporate and cynical music has become, and boo fucking hoo why is not just about the music, man?

Personally, I am shocked. Shocked and disappointed. Dreadful, isn’t it. Britain’s going to the dogs, and it’s probably the fault of all these immigrants. Oh wait, sorry, wrong internet outrage talking point of the week.

But if you’re being honest with yourself, there is nothing in that whole, needlessly long article which should be any kind of surprise to anyone. The writer ends with this rather limp lament: “with all the reliance on data and algorithms and “brands” (and this is a pattern repeated across the industry as a whole), it all feels so soulless.” and then compares the current state of affairs to the glorious days of John St. Peel.

Essentially, the piece ‘exclusively reveals’ that Radio 1 researches bands’ traction on YouTube and Twitter before they consider playlisting them, and discusses their commercial potential, whether or not they’re making good live headway, and the health of the ‘brand’. Then the bands get playlisted or they don’t.

Now I can see the allure of the conclusion, halfway through the article, that this kind of research leads to the station “playing people the kind of music that they’re already listening to”.  And that’s a fair accusation, and one which applies to far too many new music discovery mechanisms at the moment, but I think it rather misses the point of what Radio 1 is for, and what it is expected to do.

As far as I see it Radio 1 is not only supposed to be aimed at young people, but it is also supposed, to a large degree, to represent them as well. It’s state-supported radio, paid for by us, to be made for us. Being force-fed weird shit may appeal to you or I, but it would wear out most people pretty damn fast. That’s why even 6Music has a really rigid, predictable daytime playlist, and only really gets interesting when the specialist shows come on.

I am not saying that it needs to be nothing but populist rubbish, but the BBC has a weird remit which leads to it rather being caught between a rock and a hard place. If they do nothing but push the boundaries of art and culture and consistently support things because of editorial support for their high quality, then they get accused of being elitist, out of touch, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Alternatively, if they try and justify themselves too much in terms of audience and populism they get accused of needlessly competing with the commercial sector, and therefore being redundant… aaand a total waste of taxpayers’ money.

The article then goes on to present, without challenge, Radio 1’s head honchos’ assertion that for all they try and play what people want, they still have way, way more diversity than commercial radio. I don’t know if this is true, but the writer seemed to feel no need to disagree, which leads me to… well, wonder what the fuck all the fuss is about, honestly.

Basically, a picture is painted of a radio station trying to reflect what young folk are into, as well as examples of bands who people weren’t into yet, but they supported and promoted them and the subsequently went on to mainstream success. They do seem, from the article, to make an effort to take risks and they do seem, from the article, to try and balance researched populism with finger-in-the-air judgement calls. That’s pretty much what the biggest state-financed radio station in the UK should be doing, isn’t it?

As far as I can see there is nothing controversial in the article at all, to the point that I find myself vaguely wondering why it needed to be written in the first place. Alright, I fucking hate Radio 1, but then I am 38 and I work in what can only be described as a fairly narrow niche, musically speaking. Radio 1 isn’t aimed at me, and it probably isn’t aimed at you either, frankly, so why would we expect to like it?

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