“When at school, I’d often come home for lunch to catch the BBC Radio 1 chart rundown. You’d hear new entries for the very first time.”
There was real excitement about what new sounds I was about to hear. The early 1980s was a very groundbreaking period in Western music. It was also very eclectic, from Michael Jackson or Madonna to the Human League, New Order et al.
Popular Music Radio Goes AWOL
BBC radio listening figures are down significantly today, compared to its pre-internet heyday. I’d guess most listeners are over 40. We all have many more distractions, such as YouTube and TikTok. Popular music now competes with video games, influencer content and social media. Talk radio in the form of podcasts now rules the digital airwaves.
Music radio in its traditional form, with presenter/curator, is alive and well on the fringes of independent non-profits and local radio. I still listen to the BBC but also find myself in some far flung places, in search of the human element. I love Radio Free Brooklyn for example.
Content Designed For Addiction
We are also distracted away from the simple entertainment qualities of freeform music radio by addictive streaming apps. Subscription models are designed to encourage binge watching to keep you locked into a monthly fee. Content creators on lower budgets struggle to keep up with demand so resort to mindless filler podcasts, exploiting trending news headlines.
Music streaming services are also in the business of the addiction model, by filling playlists with muzak. The reason there is so much ambient dirge or identikit EDM is perhaps due to us needing to be anaesthetised while juggling so many apps, subscriptions and media noise. Our brains might actually explode if we actually find the time for music.
Radio Provides Tangible Pleasures
I can vouch for the benefits of listening to properly curated, broadcast music radio. I go through phases of detox from addictive platforms. I turn on my favourite UK station BBC 6 Music and begin to reconnect with the world. I also feel a sense of guilt, for not tuning in as often as I once did. Anyone who works in broadcast radio, whether local, national or digital is a skilled performer and engineer. It’s an art-form.
Radio also benefits musicians greatly, or it used to. My own experience with indie radio is interesting. The biggest audience is actually the musicians themselves. Non-musician music fans are more likely to be found browsing Spotify or YouTube. Upcoming artists crave unbiased listening, though often rely solely on their peers for support.
Perhaps Outrage Has Killed Radio
Listening to a radio broadcast is a passive activity. There might of course be a brief phone-in or even a music quiz. You can go about your normal, daily business without radio demanding anything of you. Perhaps the virus of social media outrage and discourse has killed radio. We don’t have the patience or willingness to let someone else choose our entertainment.
Our brain now constantly churns over with opinions about stuff. Much less we want to hear the latest tune by so-and-so. Great music selected by a presenter always had a calming effect. There are rare talk orientated podcasts that review music releases. Though much of music themed content focuses on old music.
Hobbyist Mixtapes and Local Radio
So I have found myself turning to the underground radio scene more and more. MixCloud, while also a subscription model, is where you’ll find the best in independently curated music podcasts. There are streams from localised FM stations including Sheppey FM here in the UK. Hobbyist music fans can live the dream, streaming curated mixtapes.
Admittedly, much hobbyist output is retrospective or specialised. The production quality of many non-profit stations is surprisingly good. And it’s always nice to hear a voice in-between tracks. I actually enjoy waiting to hear who the artist is, rather than just glancing at a playlist. A presenters enthusiasm for a song is also more infectious than just a mixtape.