Media: I don't call that rock, its just dead boring white males: Virgin 1215 claims to be a radio revolution. But, argues Robin Katz, it is a tacky betrayal of the US stations it should emulate

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The Independent Online
VIRGIN Radio has the nerve to call itself a 'radio revolution'. Having monitored its first three months on the air, I am still trying to work out why.

In the first two hours of broadcasting not one track by a female artist was played. The black voice heard most frequently in the first weeks was on a high-rotation commercial which also name-checked the station.

Virgin 1215 is the latest example of American originality betrayed, cheapened and passed off (with a stupendous 26-year time delay) as a plucky British invention.

Its tacky decision to align itself with American 'FM' stations (despite broadcasting on an AM frequency) and its slogan 'radio revolution' are both stepping on the blue suede sandals of my generation. In the US radio revolution there were no corny jingles, hyped charts, dedications or competitions. The professionals were AM (Top 40) jocks who abandoned their Tarzan shrieks and jingles for the soft-spoken sound of the stoned. Some of the best AM disc jockeys blossomed in the transition to stereo, and they were joined by the first female DJs.

But the real fun came with the amateurs, who seemed to forget they were on the air at all. Free form meant programming whatever album you could successfully place on the turntable. You'd hear a whole side of the Beatles followed by equal rations of Jefferson Airplane, Bessie Smith, Laura Nyro, The Fugs and then the soundtrack of Dumbo (which was left with the stylus in the run off groove for hours because the DJ had nodded off.)

It couldn't last and sadly, it didn't. As more music stations switched to FM, owners kept creating increasingly specialised formats to remain competitive.

But the important point is that US radio wavebands are packed with stations, providing a variety of speech and music options. A rock station playing music predominantly by white male artists is not unbalanced because there are alternatives on either side. Incremental radio gives listeners the power to decide what kind of music they want to hear. But incremental stations must exist in numbers to achieve balance.

Virgin is allowed to operate a double standard in music programming. 'Rock' means every style of music recorded from the mid-Sixties onwards performed by white males. This, ridiculously, includes punk - originally created as a spitting protest against rock. But songs by black and female artists are programmed as punctuation - played before, after or between strings of records by white male acts and rarely heard next to each other - on average only one track per half hour is by a female act, and one an hour by a black male.

Virgin will play 30 minutes or more of music by white males without blinking and then proudly claim 'better music and much more of it' or 'much more music variety than any other station'.

Hogwash. It's not 'better' to play OMD's 'Dream of Me', which I think follows from Barry White, and not play Barry White. It's not 'variety' to pay royalties to Paul Weller by playing The Jam's 'A Town Called Malice' but deny income and credit to Holland, Dozier and Holland who created the style. And you don't gain any credibility by telling us that Tasmin Archer is 'a great singer' when you don't play Aretha Franklin. No wonder this station has failed to hit its audience target. Its potential audience has smelt a phoney and fled (or fallen asleep from boredom.)

FM radio, at least by the standards of the country that invented it, means consistency in presenter style. It is easy to spot the problem here. Aside from Wendy Lloyd, who is on at 2am and described in station hand-outs as 'the only woman in the boys' changing room', the remaining all-white male DJs produce a clashing pick'n'mix of professional skills. Even in choosing DJs, Virgin prefers the jive-rhyming of a white cover version (Emperor Rosko) to the black American original (Douglas 'Jocko' Henderson). Add to that the station's anally retentive attitude to its chart (grown-ups don't need charts) and you know this is no FM station.

It worries me when a novice like Nick Abbot (10pm-2am) advises a male listener to break up with his girlfriend solely because she will not sleep with him. When the next caller on his phone-in (a male) expressed disbelief at Abbot's advice, the DJ belittled him. No one reminded listeners that women have the right to say no, especially in the era of AIDS. This is not responsible broadcasting.

Robin Katz is an American writer/broadcaster who has lived in Britain for 21 years. She was a contributor to the 'Penguin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music'.

(Photograph omitted)

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