Andy Parfitt enjoyed some golden years at Radio 1. When he started as station controller in 1998 there were predictions the audience might collapse to 4 million as youth radio became less relevant – by the time he left, two years ago, the network was enjoying all-time record ratings of nearly 12.8 million.
One of the primary tasks he faces in his new portfolio career is to galvanise the music-making of children with all the societal benefits that might bring – from bolstering the confidence of a young person in care to finding the next pop star to fill UK plc’s coffers.
And of all the instruments that might inspire the chair of the national charity Youth Music, the one that fills him with hope is that unlikely wooden box with four strings: the ukulele.
It was the subject of a feature that Parfitt made for Radio 4, in the earliest days of his long career at the BBC, and it occupies his thoughts again now. “I was walking through a Cornish town with my kids and there were two young girls busking with a ukulele, and if you go on the web there is tons of this [ukulele] stuff,” he says.
“It’s a beautiful simple instrument that is very portable and you can knock up a tune in three seconds flat. It suits the web age even though it’s incredibly analogue – a bit of wood. You can combine it with mixing and recording apps and suddenly have your YouTube channel full of the stuff.”
It also suits the music zeitgeist, he thinks, citing an appearance by folk acoustic artist Lucy Spraggan, whom he heard after tuning in to Radio 1 to hear one of his former protégé presenters Matt Edmondson. That the effervescent Parfitt still listens to the network at the age of 54 is not a surprise, though it might irk his successor, Ben Cooper, who is desperately trying to bring down the median listening age of the station.
Parfitt has spent many years studying the impact of technology on the way young people listen to music and is clearly a supporter of the changes Cooper is making on his old patch. “There’s an amber warning light on the dashboard for radio and young people and it’s starting to flash,” he says.
If Radio 1 is to reach the nation’s youth – 80 per cent of whom now have a smart phone or similar device – it needs to think in pictures as well as audio. “Radio 1 is not just a radio station,” he says. “It can comfortably exist as a YouTube channel, as an event, as an app or as a stream to your mobile device. It shouldn’t be locked into this idea that it’s just a radio station.”
The fact that young people rarely buy radios these days doesn’t mean their lives can’t be transformed by music. Youth Music works with 100,000 young people, distributing £10m a year of National Lottery funding. Parfitt says the beneficiaries often come from isolated communities or inner-city estates. “Urban deprivation and rural isolation are the words used here to describe the pinpoint accuracy by which they try to distribute the money so that it’s spent most effectively.”
Youth Music has had two difficult years after a government review of cultural education raised questions over the focus of the organisation and its overheads. Parfitt says changes have been made, pointing to a new no-nonsense logo that replaces the previous one of a singing face in a pair of headphones. The message is that it is a responsible charity that is not trying to be down with the kids. Parfitt is speaking in Youth Music’s more modest new headquarters, near London’s Tower Bridge. He says he is “the final bit in the jigsaw puzzle” in a reform process begun by his predecessor, Richard Stilgoe. Less than eight per cent of Youth Music’s budget now goes on infrastructure. The rest is aimed at giving young people access to music that they otherwise would not have.
Formal music education is not fashionable. Parfitt says only 1 per cent of young people take the subject at A-level while 80 per cent cite it as a passion. He likes the idea that those who benefit from Youth Music projects can get a recognised qualification, even if they are not academically minded. “It’s not A-level music or maybe it’s not even GCSE that I’m thinking of, but it might be something that recognises attainment outside the school system and helps with the CV and bolsters the confidence,” he says, remembering how as a young trumpeter he struggled to read music.
One lesson he learned through audience research work was that Radio 1 risked losing listeners if it tried too hard to become a hangout for cool “scenesters”. Youth Music, too, tries to be inclusive and is “genre-agnostic”, encouraging young people to explore styles from classical to grime.
Music and its effect on young people seem to be constants in Parfitt’s career. He keeps coming back to ukuleles, referring to a shop that is selling them “by the cartload”. Later, he emails with a link to a story saying that a Frank Skinner-inspired ukulele craze has actually led to an unwanted surplus of the instruments being sold for as little £1.12 on eBay.
It seems to run counter to his theory, but Parfitt says not. “ Looks like an opportunity for the young to benefit,” he says.
He hopes Youth Music can offer similar advantages.
Youth Music is staging the "View the Fresh Thinking for Music Education" seminar on Wednesday 24 July. The seminar can be viewed live online at www.youthmusic.org.uk/network. Questions may be tweeted in to the panel using the hashtag #ymseminar.
Andy Parfitt: 6 questions
Where was the last place you went for dinner?
Chicken and chips in the town square, Llafranc, Catalonia, Spain
What was the last album you bought/listened to?
Hummingbird by Local Natives
What was the last book you read?
Karl Marx by Francis Wheen
The last event you attended?
Prospect presents Michael Sandel and AC Grayling in conversation
The last sporting event you attended?
London 2012 Olympics track events
What was the last film you saw?
The Intouchables directed by Olivier Nakache