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Expansions in radio channels and the enhancement of specialist music programming November 22, 2011

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.
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Analyses of change in contemporary radio tend to share the assumption that dramatic change in radio is a recent phenomenon, and that before now radio has always been pretty much the way it was at the end of the twentieth century. However, this is not the case. Radio technology did not become a broadcast form – programming being sent outwards from a central station to mass audiences – until the 1920s, and it had initially been utilised as a point-to-point, reciprocal form of communication. Music radio developed in the USA from the 1950s (Rothenbuhler and McCourt 2002), and many European state and public broadcasters resisted these changes until the late 1960s and early 1970s (Barnard 1989). In the first half of the twentieth century, the music industry, and especially record companies, were antagonistic towards radio, and the settlement of disputes about who should pay for the music played via records over radio was only secured in the second half of the century (Sanjek and Sanjek 1996). As we entered the twenty-first century, much of this settlement began to unravel. The number of stations expanded exponentially, music copyright holders came into conflict with both radio and music listeners, and specialist music became an important part of new forms of that oxymoron, ‘niche broadcasting’.

The expansion in the number of radio stations available to listeners over the last decade is based upon an increase in the number of channels through which radio could be distributed. In turn, this expansion in channels is associated with technological innovations in both distribution and consumption, together with quite radical changes in the national regulation of broadcasting. Most important has been the development of technologies for distributing streamed audio. This has been a century-long development, but the speed of change has become exponential. Up until the 1960s, innovation in radio technologies was aimed at extending geographic coverage and the distribution of programming content through network technologies. Inventions aimed at increasing the number of broadcast channels or improving audio quality, like the discovery of frequency modulation (FM) in the 1910s, were neglected within national radio systems driven by the pursuit of universality of reception and centralisation of programming (Faulkner 1993). It was not until the 1970s that FM was increasingly used as a means to expand the number of audio broadcasters, and then enlarged further by using a wider range of frequencies beyond 100Mhz. Likewise, digital systems of encoding/decoding the audio signal were only deployed from the mid-1990s to allow transmissions to be placed closer together on adjacent frequencies, and in DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) systems to enable several stations to be broadcast on a single frequency through compression and multiplexing technologies (Ala-Fossi, Lax et al. 2008). The major expansion, though, came with the contemporaneous start of internet broadcasting. While over-the-air broadcasting, even using digital codecs, had always limited the number of transmissions that could be received in one geographical area, the wired network-based systems of online radio allowed access to thousands more streams of audio. Initially these were accessed through a desktop computer over a telephone wire or cable feed, but the ability of mobile devices to access broadband data has increased both access and mobility for listeners.

It is actually hard to see these changes in distribution as separate from the shifts in the technology listeners have used to access radio programming. Though the distribution technology is important in enabling expansion or innovation in broadcasting practice, cultural aspiration and use are far more determining. As I have shown elsewhere, for instance, the physical and cultural mobility of young people and the development of a post-war commuter culture in large US cities were more important than the availability of car or transistor pocket radios in creating the idea of listening on the move (Wall and Webber 2011). Likewise, the lag between the availability of FM and over-the-air digital distribution technologies and the establishment of sizable institutional and listener support for the opportunities for wider programming both suggest that the machines we use to listen to radio have been more influential on the number of stations than innovations in distribution.

In the same way, the existence of the internet cannot in itself explain the remarkable expansion in ways to listen to radio. Internet radio has piggybacked on the purchase of computers for their email and web search functions, and utilises the adoption of broadband lines, offsetting the relatively high cost of a desktop computer as a radio receiver at a time when lower-priced digital radios struggled to find a sizable market. In this context, it is no surprise that the first services were from existing over-the-air stations creating online simulcasts. US college stations WXYC and WREK both make claims to being the first over-the-air station online in 1994 (WREK dkn; WXYC dnk), and the UK Virgin Radio station claims to be the first full simulcast broadcaster in Europe in 1996 (Bowie 2008). Internet-only stations did quickly emerge, however, and as I indicated in the introduction, used very different models from over-the-air radio to create their music programming. Specialist music radio was particularly prominent, either as part of multi-channel portal systems like AOL’s, or enthusiast-curated like Live365’s.

At the same time, public service broadcasters, like the BBC, also invested heavily in ways of providing time-shifted listening through ‘listen again’ or ‘podcast’ services on the internet. The rhetoric of the first suggested listeners could re-listen to a programme they had already enjoyed but, increasingly, listeners would use the system as their main way of enjoying radio. With the BBC in the vanguard, developing its iPlayer from 2005 to a major launch in 2008 (BBC 2008), most significant broadcasters now provide this form of access. The podcast model was an even greater move away from traditional listener models. Combining the idea of timeshifting derived from video recorders with the mobility of portable mp3 players like the iPod, users set up automated scheduled downloads of a programme and then play it when and where they want.

However, the internet and digital broadcast systems have allowed niche radio formats, and even some imaginative alternatives, to exist in the margins of commercial radio. Two instances provide informative examples. In the UK, the XFM and Jazz FM commercial stations have established themselves as exemplars of specialist music provision within an increasingly competitive commercial sector. At one level they can be seen as a perfect example of the Hotelling principle, that commercial enterprises will tend to supply to the centre of the market until the point is reached that there is a benefit in providing niche goods or services (Hotelling 1929). However, they are both interesting examples of British attempts to move away from the dominant ‘certainties’ of US format radio. Both stations owe their origins to regulatory initiatives consolidated in the 1990 Broadcast Act, which aimed to extend the diversity of music played on British commercial radio (Wall 2000, 186-192). They also both provide exemplars of the twists of regulation, ownership and programming which have characterised British commercial radio since that date. XFM has remained a broadly ‘alternative rock’ station (Ofcom 2008), while JazzFM has dabbled in jazz eclecticism, jazz/R&B hybridity, smooth jazz formatting, and most recently jazz and soul as lifestyle music (FM 2011a).

XFM’s current incarnation carries many of the characteristics of British commercial radio. Their core output originates from a London-based FM licence which allows them to broadcast to the capital, and much of the output is also broadcast in Manchester on a second local licence which includes locally-originated, peak-time shows. In addition, the London programming is available on the DAB over-the-air radio system in most of the UK, through satellite and cable television, and as an online stream. It is owned by Global Radio, at the time of writing the largest UK radio group, who also hold a range of UK local licences around traditional US-style formats like AOR, Classical, Contemporary Hits, Gold, Talk, and Urban. So, in many ways XFM is Global’s niche alternative rock station. However, along with a second brand which plays Urban music, Choice FM, XFM’s origins as an independent broadcaster and its championship of specialist music is an important part of the station’s image and ‘total station sound’. It uses traditional strip programming around breakfast/midday/drive-time shows, with more mainstream programming in the day and more specialist shows in the evening (XFM 2011a). However, it does tend to employ presenters who are well regarded by the music’s fan base, and there are examples of innovation in programming, including music documentary series.

Jazz FM has had a more complex history but, perhaps, a more unusual contemporary existence. The station’s origins owe an equal debt to a music fan campaign and the new ‘incremental’ policy of the radio broadcaster to increase the range of musical output on commercial stations. Early incarnations of the station were driven by a strong commitment to a broad jazz music policy, but it ignored many of the conventions of broadcast formats and it struggled for financial viability. It went through numerous owners and a set of radical changes of name and music policy, until its final owners GMG took over in 2002, taking the station increasingly towards a US-style Smooth Jazz and then AOR format, and a rebrand to Smooth FM. Today the Jazz FM brand is actually licensed from GMG by its earlier management team. Unsurprisingly, then, the station has now returned to many of the programming features that characterised it in the early 2000s: a mix of classic and contemporary jazz heavy on vocalists, combined with soul and pop jazz in the day and specialist shows for a variety of sub-genres of jazz and soul in the evenings and weekends (Jazz FM 2011b). Although the station is often criticised for not playing enough jazz, and for playing too much smooth jazz, the station does not conform to the conventions or music playlists of the typical smooth jazz format (see Barber 2010 for a discussion of the Smooth Jazz format and its origins). Surprisingly, the station does not broadcast on FM, but on DAB, digital TV and the internet. In addition, the station is developing an interesting approach to radio in uncertain times by offering itself as a specialist music brand, by making strong use of its internet site, a record label and live promotions unit, and a strong emphasis on music as lifestyle consumption.

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