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Programming music in niche radio: a case study February 27, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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In a regulated commercial radio system, radio professionals are always confronted by the political dimensions of their work. These relate to their responsibilities to the regulator, to the shareholders of the station, to their audiences, and to their own sense of professionalism. In the case investigated here, these dimensions are thrown into stark relief, and even though the circumstances may be atypical for most stations, they can do much to raise questions of a more general nature. The station at the centre of this study broadcast in the UK under a licence which set out a ‘promise of performance’ obligation to serve an ethnic minority audience within a large city. However, during the time of my study the station was fined for not complying with its licence, and my research with members of its primary audience revealed the widely held view that the station did not meet its obligations. Centrally, then, I am interested in accounting for this perceived difference between the licence obligation and the station’s output, in tracing the practices of the radio professionals who produced this output, and in exploring how these professionals explained and justified their actions.

As I will show in this section, the central dynamic of my case study station was the conflict between obligations set out in the promise of performance section of the station’s licence, the imperatives created within the national radio system, and different senses of value in popular music. Following the analytical framework I have already established, I explore the following three areas: how the formal documentation relates to the recent history of UK radio and attempts to regulate commercial radio; how economic imperatives impact on station management decisions, how regulators attempt to intervene in this process for cultural ends; and how these more general tensions are then intensified when related to the particular music and senses of cultural identity that are at play in the case study.

The station’s ‘promise of performance’ document says the station will:

… provide a service of music, news and information primarily for listeners of African and Afro-Caribbean origin but with cross-over appeal to young white urban contemporary music fans.
(Radio Authority 1994)
These sections of the station’s licence were the cornerstone of the late-1990s UK commercial radio regulatory system run by the then regulator, the Radio Authority. At first sight the language in the promise of performance sets out a simple objective for the station in terms of its intended audience and music policy. The music policy itself is outlined in more detail in a series of tables which specify the genres and proportions of music the station should play. The statement codifies an argument made in the station’s original bid for the licence. In the bid the authors claim that by combining the primary and secondary audience they will extend the choice of radio listeners in the locality, meet the cultural needs of neglected listeners, and establish a financially viable station.

The language of the promise speaks directly to the concerns of the regulator and to the background of the station owners, and uses rhetorical tropes derived from commercial broadcasting discourse, rather than to the particularity of the locality, its population and its culture and language. The reference to listeners of African and Afro-Caribbean origin is revealing in itself. While it stands for the group of black Britons who are signalled as the station’s primary audience, the term seems strange when applied in the broadcast area, where this group is overwhelmingly of Jamaican origin, and direct family connections with the African continent are unusual. Likewise the use of the term ‘urban contemporary music’, along with ‘crossover’ and ‘service’ are derived from the language of commercial radio and the music industry.

The reasons for this can be found in the background of stations targeting black listeners, and particularly the back-story of the licence and the company that owned it at the time of my research. During the 1990s, local British radio markets started to resemble the structure found in other developed countries, with a number of stations competing for audiences and increasingly trying to exploit niche audiences to distinguish themselves. At that time the British radio system was organised in three sectors: the BBC public service sector, with five national stations and 40 local stations; the commercial sector, made up of three national stations and 217 local stations; and a small and volatile unlicensed sector. The station at the centre of my case study was one of three commercial stations broadcasting within a major conurbation, where listeners could also receive a BBC local station, the corporation’s national services, and often as many as ten unlicensed stations, most targeting local black Britons with strong black music programming and substantial community support.

Commercial radio was established quite late in Britain, by the 1972 Broadcast Act, and was initially restricted to a single local station broadcasting general music programming in each of the major cities. The sector grew steadily through the next twenty years, as new stations were set up in other cities, and additional stations in the larger urban centres. Nevertheless, Britain had a relatively larger unlicensed sector where stations with commercial or community roots, broadcast on frequencies not used allocated to licensed stations, and offered music forms mostly neglected by the mainstream music programming. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most common music played was drawn from the black diaspora, with Reggae and Soul most prominent at that time (see Hind and Mosco 1985). From 1980 onwards the regulator attempted to replace the large number of unlicensed stations which were attracting commercially viable niche audiences, and to respond to the neglected demands for community broadcasting. Most significant among the strategies was the establishment of ‘incremental’ licences, which as the name suggests, aimed to add to the breadth of radio services available in any one area [Choices and Opportunities 1987, 8.9]. Between 1990 and 2003 British commercial radio faced a lighter, but still relatively robust, regulatory regime, and the then regulator, the Radio Authority, continued the policy of ‘extending choice’ through its licensing strategies.

The origins of my case study station are complex, but significant to its later operation. An incremental licence for the locality was advertised in 1987 and was awarded to a station targeted primarily at black audiences, but not to the community activist consortium made up of former unlicensed broadcasters. The station struggled to attract a large listenership, particularly when the unlicensed stations aimed at the black community returned to the air after their abortive attempt to secure a legal right to broadcast. The station subsequently went bankrupt after several changes of ownership. The licence was then re-advertised in 1993 in an amended form with a wider broadcast footprint. It was awarded to a company which united London-based young black entrepreneurs with two white radio managers. The black entrepreneurs already owned an incremental licence in the capital which had been uniquely successful among the incrementals in attracting listeners from the black community in London and staying solvent. My case study station took the brand name of the London station, while at the same time a number of the staff from the failed local predecessor moved to the new enterprise, which even took over their empty studios and offices. These developments, and the establishment of my case study station, were read in the local black community as a positive sign: a successful Black station from London would now be broadcasting in their locality. To the new owners, though, this chronology would have suggested something very different.

This is apparent in the language of the new promise of performance agreed between the new owners and the Radio Authority. It imagines the metropolitan heterogeneous black population of the London station plus the idea of a ‘crossover’ to an urban contemporary audience by the white radio managers. Any disjunction with the realities of the locality were unlikely to be noticed by a London-based regulator, who was seizing the opportunity to licence a station which combined the only successful black incremental station with the skills of long term radio professionals, and which offered a commercially viable way of meeting the needs of the local black population.

These factors are the most immediate context of the promise, but it is equally important to understand why the regulatory system existed in the form it did. Regulation of local commercial music radio in Britain has long been predicated on the relative scarcity of broadcast frequency and an adaptation of Harold Hotelling’s model of spatial competition (Hotelling 1929) . Hotelling posited that profit-maximising companies will base themselves closest to the market’s geographic centre. By extension, all other factors being equal, radio stations will place themselves in close proximity to the centre of ‘musical taste’ within any musical market. While everyone may not gain full satisfaction from the music played, the majority will be sufficiently willing to listen. It is only as additional stations start broadcasting that it is worthwhile positioning their programming towards more distinct tastes but, even then, to stray too far from the ‘centre ground’ will lead to a loss of profit.

The aim of the regulators after 1990, then, was to counter these tendencies as they licensed additional stations, by stipulating that licences would be awarded to applicants who extended choice among listeners.

As Jody Berland has noted, however, there is no natural correlation between a category of music and an audience, and in radio economics some audiences are preferred over others (Berland 1993). Berland’s observations point to the fact that radio music is meaningful in political economic, aesthetic, and cultural realms. For a profit-maximising radio station the music is important for its ability to attract audience for which advertisers will pay to access. For my case study station, black musical forms would attract both the black community specified in the licence and a portion of white listeners who often had higher disposable incomes. For radio listeners music is part of an aesthetic text, the sonic features of which construct pace, volume, and emotional qualities to the listening experience. Understanding these is at the centre of the skills of the music programmer. Finally, the records played are also linked in complex ways to cultural identity. This is particularly apparent in the musical forms favoured by members of the local black community, and in the attractiveness of the same forms to a section of the local white population. Like all radio stations, my case study station needed to work hard at constructing and sustaining an economically attractive audience by, on the one hand, utilising the distinctive aesthetic and cultural meanings generated by its music programming while, on the other, keeping that music as close as possible to the centre ground.

However, even given this theoretical background, the confident alliance of black Britons and white urban contemporary music fans imagined in the promise of performance was actually illusory. It is easy to demonstrate how the correlation represented in the promise statement could be initially convincing, but it could not deal with the actual music-cultural geography in which the station was located. As we shall see in the next two sections of my analysis, the relative ambiguity of the statement also allowed the station management to attempt a discursive transformation of the equalities between music and audience encoded in the promise.

The promise statement represents the institutionalisation of an asserted cultural equivalence. That is, the popularity of Reggae, Soul and Hip Hop among black Britons is used to transform them into a commodity to sell to advertisers. The popularity of these musical forms among particular groups of whites is understood as a ‘crossover’ of music from a black market to a white market (see Perry 1988). In US commercial music radio, this crossover was transformed into a new radio format: Urban Contemporary (George 1988). The Urban Contemporary format itself was the product of a rising popularity for forms of R&B and Rap among white listeners, and the saturation of the mainstream music radio market. The number of stations in one geographic area had become so large that any new entrants would make more profit attracting niche audiences, than in fighting for the mainstream audience. While mainstream pop stations played ‘crossover’ R&B and Rap, Urban stations tried to attract a combination of black listeners, and white listeners who had strong sense of affiliation with black music and often a distaste for mainstream pop commercial radio. However, in the less contested radio markets of the UK there would be more profit to be made in attracting a mainstream, rather than niche, audience. In this context, the professional repertoire of concepts like ‘crossover’ processes and ‘urban contemporary fans’ disguise the real complexity of radio music and its audiences.

The notion of urban contemporary, and its applicability to UK radio, is further undermined by the differences in topography of music cultures between Britain and the United States, and significant changes that occurred after the mid-1980s. The central importance of Reggae, and forms of African American dance music, in the development of a black British identity is very strong (Gilroy 1991). There is also a long tradition of engagement between white Britons and the music of African Americans and African Caribbean people, although these have tended to be in the margins of popular taste, and most often associated with youth sub-cultures like Teds, Mods, Soul fans, and white Rastas (Chambers 1985). It is certainly the case that this crossover process reverberates again in the last decade, through the popularity of Rap and Ragga with some groups, and R&B with others. However, the dance music cultures that grew out of the British House music scene have made any simple notion of an Urban Contemporary music, and of a white crossover audience, very problematic. Nevertheless, the idea of Urban Contemporary as a musical genre and a radio format, has become central to the discourse of radio and the music industry. Although the actual dance music associated with club cultures (Thornton 1995) is indebted to the African American cultures in Chicago and Detroit, the British dance cultures have developed an aesthetic and senses of cultural identity of their own. While club cultures are diverse, and many include major participation by black Britons, by the 1990s most were dominated by a young, white, prosperous, middle-class constituency.

The link between music and culture, and the possibilities of attracting a white listenership that faced the station mangers was both more complex, and more potentially lucrative, than suggested in the promise of performance. What was conceived of as a secondary audience – white urban contemporary fans – had been extended by the inclusion of dance music fans with relatively higher disposable incomes, and any sense of an overlap of musical taste with the primary audience of black Britons had weakened. In bold terms, a dance music station would make more money than an urban contemporary station, and far more than a Reggae, Soul and Rap station.

From the outset, then, the station had an obligation to produce programming that would appeal to local black Britons, and to committed white fans of black music. However, their economic imperative suggested encouraged station staff to extend the white audience by playing dance music and more mainstream forms of black music. This imperative was strengthened by the fact that my case study faced competition from several established unlicensed stations for the black listenership, than they did from the mainstream pop stations for white dance music fans, and relatively greater competition than that faced by the more mainstream stations.

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