Ageism at the BBC: Why Robbie Williams is a big turn-off for Radio 1

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Take That star has been snubbed by the pop station. Pierre Perrone reports on another (albeit milder) BBC scandal

Ageism is all around us, a fact highlighted whenever BBC television and radio management reshuffle their presenting line-ups.

Last week, Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper announced that Vernon Kay, 38, and Reggie Yates, 29, would be leaving the station's weekend roster. He also announced the fast-tracking of Jameela Jamil, 26, who will take over presenting Radio 1's Official Top 40 chart run-down from Yates in the new year. Following the departure of Chris Moyles, 38, from the flagship breakfast show two months ago, his fresh-faced replacement Nick Grimshaw, 28, has also made the news. Last week, Grimshaw claimed that Robbie Williams, 38, was "irrelevant" to the station's listenership.

Indeed, George Ergatoudis, Radio 1's Head of Music, has not included the singer's current chart-topper "Candy" on its playlist, prompting claims that age has also become a factor in decision-making when its playlists are compiled. The single has, however, been featured on the chart run-down, and Yates even interviewed Williams, who stated proudly on air, "I'm nearly round the corner from being 40."

In pictures: the pop artists who still have it at 40 (and up)

Many observers smelt a rat, a manufactured controversy, designed to keep Williams and his Take the Crown album in the headlines and rolling around the Twittersphere on the way to a simultaneous No 1 position alongside "Candy". It has not hurt Radio 1 either, with Cooper keen to reinstate the station's mission to appeal to teenagers and the under-thirties.

We've been here before, most famously in February 1996, when Status Quo issued writs against the station for refusing to playlist its ghastly cover of "Fun Fun Fun" featuring the Beach Boys. By then, Radio 1 controller Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann, "Head of Radio 1 Production", had engineered the departure of a raft of "Smashie and Nicey" DJs including Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates and Alan Freeman. The group tried to take the case to the High Court, but Mr Justice Collins told their barrister, Kenneth Parker QC: "Maybe they don't like your client's music. They don't have to like it."

In the same year, The Beatles also fell foul of the Bannister-Dann regime when Radio 1 overlooked the posthumous "Real Love", from the Anthology project. This time, MPs questioned the decision and Paul McCartney was incensed enough to call and leave a message on Dann's answerphone. McCartney also penned an article for the Daily Mirror, pointedly mentioning Oasis, and stating that "you can't put an age limit on good music," but Radio 1 wouldn't budge.

In 1999 the British vocalist most associated with the festive season, Cliff Richard, met with a complete blank from the whole music industry when he wanted to release "The Millennium Prayer", his "mash-up" of the Lord's Prayer to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne". EMI, the label he'd been with for four decades, didn't want to know, and he eventually went to Papillon, a new "heritage" independent launched by Chrysalis boss Chris Wright. Despite the absence of airplay on either Radios 1 or 2, Richard topped the charts again.

It was all a far cry from the beginning of the decade when, under the more sedate controller Johnny Beerling, Radio 1 refused to play Iron Maiden's raucous "Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter", a track vocalist Bruce Dickinson said was intended "to scare the living daylights out of Cliff Richard". Thanks to Radio 1's ban, Richard topped the Christmas 1990 charts with "Saviour's Day" though the Maiden single knocked it off its perch during the first week of January 1991.

From the first listen, the forced, Latin-flavoured jollity of "Candy" – co-written by Williams and his Take That bandmate Gary Barlow, with Norwegian DJ and producer Terje Olsen – sounded like it had escaped from Ricky Martin's repertoire and was, therefore, perfect Radio 2 daytime fodder. Sure enough, it was playlisted by the station's own Head of Music, Jeff Smith, who subsequently made Williams's Take the Crown album of the week. No problem there, you would think, clear demarcation between the BBC's two popular music stations. Until you cross-reference their playlists.

"Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars, which sounds like The Police in their late Seventies pomp, is on the Radio 2 A-list and the Radio 1 B-list. Coldplay's "Hurts Like Heaven" features on both stations' playlists, as do "Ride" by Lana Del Rey, "Carry On" by fun., "Beneath Your Beautiful" by Labrinth (featuring Emeli Sandé), "Troublemaker" by Olly Murs, "Little Things" by One Direction, "Give Me Love" by Ed Sheeran and The Script's "Six Degrees of Separation". Sure, the recurring tunes between them will be of a totally different ilk, but surely there should be no overlap between a station aimed at the 15-29 demographic and one targeting the 50-plus baby-boomers.

While the debate continues, no one seems to mention that most of Radio 1's 15-29-years-old listeners are meant to be at school, university, in training or at work during the daytime and that the rationale would be for the station to have a fluctuating playlist and schedule reflecting late afternoon and weekend listening and school holidays. And don't get me started on how Radio 2 has abandoned fans of light music and middle-of-the-road crooners, with the commercial sector uninterested in what is not seen as a lucrative listenership, too old for "smooth", but not shuffling off just yet.

This article will appear in the 17 November print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

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