The Week In Radio: All-powerful pop pickers know how to talk that talk


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The Independent Culture

So what's the deal with radio playlists, asked Pat, Mike and Marie on Radio 4's Feedback. Who gets to decide the music that gets played? Do listeners have any input? Why do we have to hear the same record repeatedly throughout the course of a day? Do DJs actually DJ anymore?

These were unusually pertinent questions from Feedback listeners, who in this case were talking about Radio 2 even though their queries would apply to most mainstream music radio stations. While I didn't hold with their broader complaint that Radio 2 plays too much new music in its bid to reel in a more youthful demographic – clearly they haven't listened to Ken Bruce, a show that has been proved to cause premature ageing – I'm with them when it comes to the need for transparency.

There will, of course, come a time when radio playlists won't have the commercial significance that they do today. Users of online streaming services such as Spotify and We7 have already realised that there is no law that says you have to hear Rihanna 163 times a day.

But, for the time being, we need to know how singles make it to air. In the good old days of the Seventies and Eighties, payola – the practice of paying or bribing a station to play your record – was the way forward. Battalions of "pluggers" were employed by record companies for the sole purpose of plying radio producers with assorted stimulants and then watching their singles fly up the charts. But those days are gone thanks to a clause in Ofcom's broadcasting code. Both producers and record companies are now required to behave themselves, or at least not get found out.

Anyway, in his quest to discover how today's playlists are compiled, Feedback presenter Roger Bolton inveigled his way into Radio 2 and lurked as producers gathered for the weekly meeting. He talked to the executive producer of the Chris Evans show who shrieked with excitement and told him he was "about to witness the cut and thrust of the playlist meeting". Then, moments later, she went into the meeting and shut the door.

Well, what did we expect? It doesn't behove radio networks to divulge the biases and influences behind their choices that, as they are keenly aware, can dictate the success of a record. What we did learn was that playlist meetings decide which 30 songs have to play in a given week and how often. Outside of these prescribed lists, producers and presenters can draw on a database of 14,000 singles from every decade going back to the Forties that they call "gold music".

The general requirement, the head of music policy at Radio 2 told Bolton, was that the station plays 20 per cent new music (ie music from the last 10 or so years) and 80 per cent "gold." He had long given up on consulting audiences about what they wanted to hear as "using our ears and using our own acumen about music was more important and better to do".

He went on to say that at Radio 2 there are few limits when it comes to people hawking their records to producers. "There's no formal appointments system," he revealed. "People pop around the building with music. Producers like that kind of interface."

Really? Do you hear that, all ye struggling artists and songwriters? The doors to one of our biggest radio stations are open! No appointment needed! So pop round, show them your wares, dazzle them with your talent. Don't let this opportunity pass you by. If they try and turn you away, stand your ground and tell them the man on Feedback said it was OK.