POP / Rut before groove: It's official: audiences would rather listen to Radio 2 than the new-look, fab and funny, Radio 1. But of course, says Martin Kelner. Solitary, furtive pleasures obey their own rules

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If everybody wanted what they said they wanted, Neil Kinnock's Labour government would be running out of steam about now, the television companies would have abandoned soaps and quizzes in favour of wildlife documentaries, and Matthew Bannister, the controller of Radio 1, would be chaired shoulder-high through the streets of London having delivered us from those boring old disc jockeys we always said we never liked.

But life, as the current radio audience figures show us, isn't like that.

Radio 2, the station that kept faith with its boring old disc jockeys, is now apparently more popular than Radio 1.

I usually treat audience surveys with some scepticism (as a part-time boring old disc jockey myself, I have often found the ratings underestimate my popularity by as much as 50 or 60 per cent, and colleagues with whom I have discussed this report similar shortfalls) but the statistical trend is now clear. The nation says 'No' to the wry, spry, dry young lions of Radio 1, and embraces the calculatedly bland soft-rock of commercial radio, or radio just like mother used to make, from Radio 2.

Why? Skipping lightly over the consideration that Radio 1's WSDYLs (the daytime ones, at least) fail to be as funny as they think they are - in much the same way as Claire Rayner, say, fails to be Kate Moss - there is something in the nature of radio that makes innovation a dicey business.

Think about how we listen to radio. In the car, in the bath, doing the gardening or decorating - almost always on our own. Radio is not a shared experience. It is an entertainment to be enjoyed exclusively in groups of one. As a radio man it grieves me to make the comparison, but I can think of only one other indoor entertainment so peculiarly solitary as radio. There too, we tend to find something we like in our teens or twenties and, with carefully introduced variations, stay with it. Radio 2 succeeds by understanding this basic truth.

That is not to say innovation is never welcome, but the millions of little groups of one listening across the nation like to have the new and radical creep up on them rather than having it rammed down their throat, as it were.

These radio onanists will make their own little discoveries - the sublime Kenny Everett fighting the crackle of Sixties pirate radio, Danny Baker on unsung GLR or Radio 5, some local wag hosting a late-night phone-in maybe.

The television producer Paul Ross, writing in the current issue of Tatler, says the funniest and most radical DJ in Britain is the chap who presents the 2am to 6am show on Virgin 1215. I doubt it's true and don't feel inclined to check, but Ross has the right idea about radio. It's essentially furtive.

In those circumstances, hype is not gratefully received. Anything trumpeted as the all-new, exciting, fab and funny, innovative, different, distinctive, fabulous new One FM will encounter an almost wilful sales resistance.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Radio 1, possibly for internal BBC political reasons, is trying unwisely to force the pace. It took people like Noel Edmonds and Terry Wogan four or five years to become radio stars.

The fab new One FM is in danger of being crushed under the weight of unreasonable expectations. Radio listening is often described as a habit, and like other habits is not best enjoyed when rushed.

Radio 2, helped it must be said by the current vogue for Seventies artistes like Abba, the Carpenters and Tony Monopoly (well, all right, not Tony Monopoly) is flourishing - and managing to innovate too - in a more relaxed atmosphere.

One final thought. Maybe One FM distracts its talents by rushing them into television too soon. Personally, I favour the approach employed by stations in the Sixties which, if my old pirate radio annual is anything to go by, only employed disc jockeys too hideously ugly ever to appear on television.

(Photographs omitted)