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Mark Steel

Mark Steel: No escape from the curse of 'easy-listening' radio

Someone has decided that this rot is popular, but it isn't

In these discussions about the use of torture, everyone seems to have missed the growth of one barbaric practice rapidly on the increase, which is the enforced playing of Magic FM in public places. This hideous fake-soothing, "easy-listening" evil infests a huge number of cafés, minicabs, shopping centres, leisure centres, pubs. It's unstoppable, and unless we reduce its emissions by 90 per cent by 2020 the planet will become uninhabitable.

It takes immense planning to avoid being subjected to its Phil Collins and Abba-dominated pap, involving long periods in hiding and careful reconnaissance, with training from veterans of the French Resistance.

And when one of these records stops, before you can process the thought, "Ah, a moment's respite", the faux-jocular DJ is telling you, "Wow, we've got some great music coming your way. I hope you're having a fantastic morning, and if you're in that 25-mile ice-bound tailback on the M3 just sit back and relax, this is 'Candle in the Wind'."

And you know that if a nuclear bomb went off he'd say, "My word it's 8.6 on the Geiger counter this morning so whether you're digging a bunker or already disintegrating, I hope you're having a wonderful day with our classic tunes, and don't forget the mystery voice competition will be coming up right after Lionel Richie." And all punctuated by adverts for car insurance.

Soon there'll be loudspeakers playing it on every corner. It will be on in operating theatres and in courtrooms during murder trials, and crematoriums will replace funeral services with Magic FM, so you'll all stand there for a few minutes through "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and the travel news, then send the coffin on its way and leave.

This is all because someone has decided this rot is popular, but it isn't. Some people tolerate it because it lulls the listeners into a semi-coma where the real world can't get in, acting as a type of morphine so they can drift off to "Every Breath You Take" and gently wait to die.

But few people can truly enjoy it because it's the same every single day. So you'll never hear anyone say, "Wow, did you hear Magic FM this morning?" because you'd have to follow that with "You'll never guess what happened – they played a track by Billy Joel."

It can't even work as nostalgia, because no one can think, "Oh marvellous, they're playing 'Fernando'. I haven't heard this since 10 to three and it's nearly half past now, doesn't seem possible does it?"

Occasionally they do play a classic Motown song, or Dusty Springfield or something with a hint of stimulation or sexuality, but in some ways that's even worse, because they're playing it as genteel background lift music when it's supposed to be electrifying. It's like seeing footage of George Foreman being knocked out by Muhammad Ali, but on "You've Been Framed" with a presenter saying, "Uh-oh, here's another chap who's taken to the floor, heh-heh."

Obviously people should be free to listen to whatever they like, but when this stuff's thrust at you from all angles all the time, you enter into a philosophical debate about liberty that could keep universities busy for decades as they consider the moral implications of forcibly subjecting people to Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Poxy Red".

I might have a day where I play a selection of particularly manic African rap, or the entire works of Nick Cave, but I wouldn't suggest it's blasted into every café, shopping centre and minicab. Well I would, to be honest, but the point is I wouldn't get away with it.

But also, if you complain to whoever's playing Magic publicly, a common response from the staff will be, "You don't like it – we have to listen to it all bloody day, it drives us MAD." Surely this is an act that contravenes several clauses of the Geneva Convention. These poor sods would probably rather listen to Dentist FM, with a DJ saying, "Remember this stubborn little incisor from 1982, an absolute classic – vvvzzzzzhhhhh vvvzzzzvvzzzzz."

And the worry now is that other radio stations will try to go the same way. Radio 2 has announced its intention to deepen its appeal to over-65s, which I hope isn't code for becoming more like Magic. Because this is how dictatorships start.

I bet if you look at the Soviet Union in 1930 there was a radio station playing a handful of mindless tunes all day across the farms, and before long the population was in a trance, and its disc jockeys were purring, "OK, it's minus 27 degrees out there but never mind, if you're being worked to death in a salt mine just relax in the frozen wastes and enjoy the great sound of Abba. This is "Gimme Gimme Gimme a Man After Midnight".