Less chat, more music

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The Independent Online
Matthew Bannister complained on a recent edition of Radio 4's Feedback that his station only seemed to attract critical attention when trying something new. This, he felt, was unfair, because pop radio requires a sense of familiarity, and of continuity, to be heard at its best. His critics needed to try to be more like ordinary listeners, which meant tuning in more than once.

Anyone tuning in for the first time since last year's purge of its most familiar voices would find that nothing much has changed, except that some of the new voices might now sound vaguely familiar. This means, by Bannister's criteria, that his new schedule should be working. But it isn't. Anyone, regular listeners included, who has tuned in to Radio 1 will have noticed that its output remains, after six months, erratic, confusing and poorly presented.

Playing records on the radio may not require a wide range of skills, but it does require enthusiasm and fluency. Emma Freud, at lunchtimes, sounds no more comfortable as a DJ than she did six months ago. And the schedule seems less stable than once it was. It is perhaps a sign of getting old, but, like England fast bowlers, Radio 1 DJs appear to be more often ill and to need more holidays than ever they did. It may only seem as if Peter Powell was on the radio every teatime during the early Eighties, and Simon Bates every morning since the dawn of time, but the familiarity by which Bannister sets such store would be helped if his presenters were not so often presenting each other's shows.

Nevertheless, Radio 1 still has some excellent DJs. Nicky Campbell, who hosts the drivetime show, is sharp, knowledgeable and seems to like the music. But the station's new ethos also requires him to intersperse his programmes with newsy, speech-based features.

On its own, a recent interview with a hospital administrator about baby-tagging could have come equally well from Radio 5 Live or Anderson Country. Conducted by Campbell, it is a profligate waste of talent. As a conventional DJ, he is spontaneously funny, but now he has to read from often badly-written scripts. When talking about music he can be cruel and incisive, but to be cruel about baby-tagging is to sound flippant, to be incisive dull.

The station should follow the example of another BBC institution in seemingly terminal decline, Top of the Pops, which has been rescued by a former Radio 1 producer, Ric Blaxill. Despite being if anything more vulnerable than Radio 1 to the recent vagaries of the charts, Top of the Pops has been revitalised by a tightening up of its format, and by pandering to its audience's memory of the show as once it was. No matter how awful the music, the secret is to pretend nothing has changed.

On the whole, fans of pop music will take just about anything if it is properly packaged, and even those who retain a semblance of discrimination will easily be cheered up by a little well-placed irony. The new Top of the Pops plays it straight and manages to seem gently humorous in the process. Radio 1, which no longer needs to emphasise its public service credentials, should try a little of the same.