ROCK / All your soft rock favourites: With new radio franchises and a cable channel, AOR rules the air- waves. Who needs it? Obvious, says Jon Ronson, the Indie Scene. If it wasn't for Phil Collins, who would they have to hate?

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The Independent Online
Since it was announced last week that the defiantly adult- orientated rock stations Crystal and Virgin had been awarded the new FM radio London franchises, all hell has broken loose. The Radio Authority has been deluged with complaints. Right- thinking pundits across the nation are up in arms, fervently chattering on the Late Show and in the pages of the NME about the ominous implications. Even God himself has let His feelings be known: witness His magisterial wrath at the recent Pink Floyd concert at Earls Court.

In the same way that rap is the most universally abhorred musical genre in Middle America, while being embraced by ghetto society, so has Adult Orientated Rock divided our nation into those who believe it to be a symbol of all that is loathsome and insipid in our culture, and those who can't see what all the fuss is about because Fleetwood Mac's Rumours has some great numbers in it.

I am rather biased in this matter, for I myself am a victim of the scourge of AOR. For two years I worked as a late-night DJ on South Manchester's proud yet pitiably esoteric KFM radio, a flagship for wildly abstruse, no-hoper noise bands like Bad Religion and Killdozer. Of course nobody listened, so eventually our parent company, Emap, was forced to cut its losses and sell its stake to the assertively chirpy, Stoke-based Signal Radio Group.

Alarm bells began to ring when our new programme controller, John Evington, initiated a chipper company slogan: 'Songs-You- Can-Do-The-Ironing-To' (iron to Killdozer, we thought, and you're likely to become a victim of a domestic accident). Next, he appointed an ebullient AOR afternoon presenter who made the following memorable announcement during his second show: 'That was Sting. News just in. Margaret Thatcher has just announced her resignation. Anyway, on to more weighty matters - it's part two of our dictionary quiz]'

Things culminated in a Night of the Long Knives during which we were all sacked and replaced by uniformly sprightly people with sizeable Donald Fagan record collections and many fascinating fun-facts about Wet Wet Wet at their fingertips.

That, four years ago, was one of the first of a series of high-profile pitched battles between the pro- and anti-AOR lobbies. The controller of 1 FM, Matthew Bannister, struck a blow to listener friendliness by placing the recondite likes of Echobelly, S M A S H and Credit to the Nation on his playlists. Radio 2 fought back, launching its cheery, but monumentally unsuccessful on-air slogan 'It's All for Yooooou'. Things looked bleak for the AOR faction when Harry Enfield's Smashy and Nicey were banished to Fab FM's overnight graveyard shift, Radio Quiet. 'This one's going out to all you truckers out there,' Smashy announced between sobs. But just when we thought it was safe to go back into the waves, the Radio Authority delivered its body blow.

Of course it isn't only Donald Fagan fans that have benefited from the recent announcement; God and womankind have both been given well-earned slaps on the back, with franchises awarded to London Christian Radio (with the decidedly adult-orientated Cliff Richard at the helm) and Lynn Franks's Radio Viva. But it is the triumph of Crystal and Virgin over the much-touted indie station XFM that has caused the most vehement furore.

Lord Chalfont, the Radio Authority chairman, defended his decision to award the franchises to the two remarkably similar stations by explaining: 'I don't pretend to be an expert in such matters, but there is a distinction between the two. AOR relies far more on melody than rhythmic beat, while Virgin is classic rock.' Ah ha. There you go.

'Our music isn't banal,' Richard Huntingford, Crystal FM's programme director, says. 'Whether you like it or not, adult contemporary music is enormously popular, especially among females, demographically speaking. And anyway, Elton John started out as an alternative act. So did Phil Collins.

The lot of them.'

Huntingford hasn't yet devised Crystal's on-air slogan, but it won't be too dissimilar to that of it's sister station, Heart FM. 'What we say there,' he says, 'is 'All Your Soft Rock Favourites'. That basically sums up our policy. More music, less prattle, and all your soft rock favourites.'

Huntingford is right, by the way. There was a time when Phil Collins was spoken of in reverent tones. Today's derided, over-exposed AORockers are invariably yesterday's thrilling subversives. Perhaps the failure of XFM's bid and 1 FM's dwindling ratings is the best thing that could happen to indie music. The genre is supposed to be alluringly clandestine, only to be heard late at night on a crackly AM pirate station. Let's face it: had the Sex Pistols not been banned from all terrestrial media in 1977, the punk revolution would have been far less thrilling.

Five years ago, a suggestion that the likes of 'Pulp' and 'Therapy?' would ever make it on to Top of the Pops would have been ridiculed. But now it is almost impossible to turn on 1 FM without hearing a DJ announce: 'That was Whitney Houston, and here's Swervedriver.' Even the dogmatically adult-orientated Virgin has embraced the possibilites of providing alternative music, placing the likes of Oasis and Blur on its playlists. At least MTV has had the common decency to initiate a much-welcomed form of musical apartheid - rounding up the adult rockers and shipping them into their own Cable TV ghetto, VHF-1. Nowadays, you can switch on MTV safe in the knowledge that your favourite REM videos will be wholly unsullied by the unwelcome appearance of that bloody Wet Wet Wet song. In these difficult times AOR segregation is our only hope. So I welcome the Radio Authority's decision to snub the esoterics and stick with the AORs. And XFM? What's wrong with starting up a pirate. That's cool.

(Photographs omitted)

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