Wanted: new faces to play the same old songs

More stations, more music, more presenters - but do they have to be identical? Geoff Barton looks at what it takes to be a modern DJ; `Radio has become bland. If Kenny Everett were to send an audition tape to a station today, he would probably be turned down'

Minster FM ("Much more music from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and today") is looking for a new DJ. It is not one of the plum jobs in radio. The station's home is an anonymous building on a business park near York, from where it broadcasts to its audience of about 94,000 listeners.

Now looking for a new daytime DJ, the head of music and presentation, Dave Lee (radio hero: Bruno Brooks), advertises for someone with "the necessary style, flair and ability to compete in a competitive market". What is he looking for?

"A good voice, personality, someone who knows the music and doesn't think he's bigger than the station," says Lee. A normal week brings him tapes from about 10 DJ hopefuls. In response to the advertisement, he has received about 200 audition cassettes.

Three examples: a familiar Seventies disco beat thumps out, then a vaguely transatlantic voice. "Hey, it's gonna be a great day. A high of 74 and looking good for the weekend. Stay with us for news of today's famous birthdays and, of course, if it's your birthday today, have a good one." McFadden and Whitehead sing, bang on cue, "Ain't no stopping us now, we're on the move".

"Nice 'n' tight," says Dave. "Good diction, not too much waffle. He's got personality."

Number two talks of summer funshine, happy music, fun, and promises listeners the chance to win big money if they can identify the artist of the next song. For Dave, it is a bit cliched.

Number three has no music, but plenty of funshine. "All this hot weather. It's just amazing what people look like in the sun, isn't it? I said to a woman I met in the street yesterday: hey, the last time I saw legs like that they were bound up for firewood. Now here's the news headlines."

"Not good," says Dave. Put more bluntly, it sounds like someone who has undergone a charisma bypass operation.

Yet this is one of the better attempts. Dave Lee estimates that 75 per cent of tapes come from complete no-hopers. The best are from people already working in radio, often presenting the bleak overnight shift on some forlorn oldies station.

These aspiring DJs have been attracted by the extraordinary growth in commercial radio in the past 10 years to become Britain's fastest growing advertising medium. There are now 178 local licences, three national stations, and a working list of 32 franchises which will be advertised at the rate of two per month from the end of the year.

But while there is more radio, it is not clear that there is much more choice for most listeners or much of an improvement in quality. Some claim that beyond the big cities every station sounds the same: a bland formula of songs, with continuous music sweeps, chances to win, better music mixes, hottest hits. Travelling down the M1 through Yorkshire, you can often tune into five local stations at any one time and all sound roughly alike.

Howard Rose, a former Radio Caroline DJ and now editor of the Radio Magazine, is not surprised at the lack of quality and distinctiveness. He laments the passing of personality radio: "The age of the disc jockey has now almost gone. We've reached the stage where Identikit radio has become the norm."

Tony Blackburn, now breakfast DJ at London's Capital Gold, agrees: "`As a listener, I'm not just interested in the music with a timecheck every three songs. It's what goes in between the records that makes radio entertaining."

As former pirate DJ Roger Day puts it: "Radio has become bland. If Kenny Everett were to send an audition tape to a station today, he'd probably get turned down."

The new breed of radio programmers reject all this as nostalgia. Steve Orchard is group programme controller of the influential GWR group, which owns 29 stations. He says commercial radio is simply responding to what listeners want. "Research shows that people under 40 want music-intensive formats. They're involved in other activities during the day, so they don't want the DJ to be intrusive."

Orchard says that listeners enjoy hearing personalities at breakfast - the likes of Chris Evans at Radio 1, Chris Tarrant on Capital FM (London), Les Ross on BRMB-FM (Birmingham) and Steve Penk on Piccadilly KEY 103 (Manchester). But the rhythm of their day changes at 9am and the audience wants, in the words of a GWR-group slogan, "No rap, less chat".

Alex Dickson, programme director at Glasgow's Radio Clyde, puts it more bluntly: "The days of DJ chatter have gone," he says. "Presenters are there to enhance the listener's pleasure - they need to be intelligent enough to know when to keep quiet."

So stations like those in the GWR group run tight formats: every spoken link starts with the station name and positioning statement. "The New Trent FM. Nottingham's Better Music Mix." Many links are straight music segues, the sequence programmed by computer, the songs rigorously based on audience research. "Our listeners - especially female ones - like familiarity. They want to hear songs they know," says Orchard.

So DJs are increasingly restricted in what they can say and rarely have any control over the music they play. Hence this month's firings of Capital Gold DJs Mike Reid and others who went against station rules by playing songs they liked rather than those prescribed by the playlist.

So why would anyone want to become a DJ on the tightly formated pop stations of the Nineties? Michael Watson (DJ hero: Simon Mayo) has just got his first break. After five years working on Hospital Radio Gwendolen in Leicester, he has landed a stint doing the late show on KCBC, a small oldies station in Kettering. He is doing five shows a week, commuting from Leicester, and his pay barely covers the cost of petrol.

Why does he do it? "A love of the job. I used to work in factories, doing various really dreary jobs. Now I drive home every night on a high - there's real satisfaction in talking to people, playing records, answering phone calls."

Michael Watson knows he will be replaced, but hopes he will be kept on for "the swing shifts" - doing holiday cover and the like. He also knows there is a queue of people behind him wanting the same first break as a DJ.

So there is the paradox. Tony Blackburn used to call his listeners "funsters" (these were presumably people who liked fun, making you wonder what he called people who were shy). Where once there was an innocence to radio listening which emphasised the personality of the DJ, nowadays listeners treat the medium as a consumable commodity, a rhythm to their lifestyle, switching between narrow music and talk formats according to their mood, an approach to listening facilitated by modern technology.

The more radio has expanded, the blander it has become. And yet the more it seems people are prepared to queue up to chance their arm at a moment of stardom, even if it is only on the late shift at an oldies station in the middle of nowhere.

DJs in the Nineties: what do programme controllers want?

Matthew Bannister, Radio One:

"Someone who loves music, has something intelligent to say, is spontaneous, funny, sharp and interesting. Someone you wouldn't mind spending an evening in the pub with."

Chris Burns, Viva! 963 AM, (London):

"A genuine communicator who won't patronise me, but talks to me with innovative and fresh ideas."

Lorna Clarke, Kiss FM (London):

"Someone who doesn't have conventional broadcasting skills but knows `Kiss culture' - the music and club scene."

Alex Dickson, Radio Clyde (Glasgow):

"There aren't such things as DJs any more - only presenters. They need to know how and when to keep quiet."

Steve Orchard, GWR group (includes Leicester Sound FM, Mercia FM, Q103, 2-TEN FM):

"Warmth and maturity of outlook. Someone who can express their personality in as few words as possible."

Richard Park, Capital FM and Capital Gold (London):

"Someone who sounds bright. Someone who can communicate a knowledge and enthusiasm for the music they're playing. It's the old Reithean ideal of educating the listener."

Rob Pendry, Swansea Sound:

"A good communicator, with a friendly personality, who is able to work as part of a team."

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