Meet the beat selector: The alternative to a DJ?

DJs don't choose the records they play. But is it true, as the Who's lead singer claims, that a computer does it instead? David Sinclair finds out
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The Independent Culture

Roger Daltrey joined the Ageing Rockers' Hall of Infamy last week when - like Sir Cliff Richard and Status Quo before him - he ranted about the state of modern pop radio. "It's very hard for bands in our position to get airplay these days," the singer of The Who moaned. "Very few DJs these days love music. They're just personality. A lot of music is chosen by a bloody computer."

But is music on the radio being chosen by a computer? "I don't think there's a radio station in the country that doesn't use a computer to organise its playlist nowadays," says Alan Carruthers, formerly the programme director of 100.7 Heart FM, Birmingham, and now the controller of the digital radio station The Arrow.

The computer program that does this is called Selector. Made and marketed by an American company called Radio Computing Services (now owned by the radio, television, live entertainment, and billboard behemoth Clear Channel), Selector is used by 7,000 radio stations in 93 countries and accepted as the industry standard. Its function is to organise the songs on any radio station's playlist into a coherent schedule. Thus, when a song is entered into the Selector system it is assigned a category. All sorts of information about the song is logged - whether it is by a male or female artist, whether it is slow or fast, pop or rock, long or short and so on.

At the basic level, "clocks" tell Selector what sort of songs to pick, when, and from which category. The process can be refined: the programmer may have noticed that it is a sunny day outside, and could therefore instruct the computer (on that day) to factor in a bias towards songs that have a summer feel.

According to Carruthers, Selector schedules the music on about 80 per cent of commercial radio stations. "You can use it on a classical music station to select music of a harmonious key, so you don't judder from an Ab into a Dm."

For the time being, the playlists themselves are still compiled by human beings, although their choices are guided by market research. A typical method is the Auditorium Music Test, in which 200 people from the station's target audience are played 10-second clips of maybe 500 records. However, when it comes to new music, the programmers have to listen to the songs themselves. But one person whose input will generally not be required these days is the DJ,

"I can't think of any daytime radio DJ who chooses his own music or, indeed, has chosen his own music for a very long time," Carruthers says, cheerfully confirming the basis of Daltrey's complaint. "In commercial radio, DJs on big stations are chosen for their ability to communicate with their audience and not for their music knowledge."

But what happened to the days when DJs would lovingly pore over the week's new releases before arriving in the studio with a box of discs?

"The box of records, where the DJ makes his own choices, still exists," says Trevor Dann, the director of the industry organisation The Radio Academy. "That's how Bob Harris works, and that's how some of the Radio 1 specialist programmes work. I do a show myself on the Classic Gold network and that's how I do mine. But that is all very much at the margins.

"The fact is that, if you go back to a world that Roger Daltrey would recognise, the world of pirate radio and Top 40 and Radio London, it was just the equivalent of a computer program, but written out on a piece of paper. Radio London chose their playlist, then divided the songs into gold, silver and bronze. Then they said we'll start the hour with a gold, then a silver, then an oldie, then a bronze, then another gold. And so on."

Maybe so, but you don't have to be a disgruntled Who fan to feel that it has also made modern radio scheduling blander. One example of this is the way in which local radio stations owned by the same group now tend to operate according to one programme schedule. Thus you can drive from the North to the South of England and hear exactly the same records being played at exactly the same time on a succession of "different" local radio stations; a non-stop diet of James Blunt, Keane and Take That from Newcastle to Bristol, the only difference being in the accent of the presenter in each region. It is rather as if commercial broadcasting is following the pattern of chains such as Next, Gap, or Starbucks, where you expect to find the same products in York, Exeter, and so on.

"The music programmers would say: 'If we've got our targeting focused right in one place, why would you want to make it different anywhere else?'," Dann explains. "It's fine - provided you don't actually like music very much. It's like Pizza Hut. If you've got your menu for Pizza Hut right in one place, then it's right for every place. But you wouldn't go to Pizza Hut if you were a connoisseur of pizzas. You go because you're hungry."

Accepting musical diversity and accommodating the whims of individual DJs, who may well step outside the stipulated musical format of a station, is an expensive and risky procedure, and computerised playlisting is welcomed precisely because it has put a stop to such practices.

The writer and broadcaster David Hepworth recalls a conversation he had with a radio executive about the onset of computerised playlisting. "It's getting to the stage now where the individual DJ has no input whatsoever," Hepworth said to him. The executive replied: "Well, I'd like to think so."

But where does it all end? There is already a computer program that enables the DJ to pre-record all his or her links beforehand, then leave the building, secure in the knowledge that the computer will drop the recorded speech into appropriate breaks between songs. In place of the spontaneous bonhomie and companionship that "live" music broadcasting once offered, there is now no real-time human contact at all. It is not so much pirate radio as a generation of stations modelled on the Marie Celeste.

All is not doom and gloom. Hepworth contributes to The Arrow. His programme, Radio Word, is based on the music and musicians featured in his magazine The Word, and he has a pretty free hand.

"The Arrow targets an audience of men over 40, which means we use a bigger database of music," explains Carruthers, the station's controller. "But we still use a computer to schedule it. And we play The Who. In fact, they're one of our 10 most played acts. It's just a case of who you are targeting. The Independent wouldn't put a picture of a topless model on page three, because that is not what The Independent's readership would wish to see. Similarly, you wouldn't expect a daytime pop radio station to play The Who."

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