Exploring and understanding jazz and British radio in the 1930s February 27, 2016Posted by wallofsound in British Jazz, Jazz, Music History, Music Radio, Uncategorized.
On the 14th June 1933 Duke Ellington and his Orchestra broadcast live from the BBC studios on the National Service as part of the band’s first tour of Britain. A few days earlier, the BBC had interrupted its usual flow of programmes to broadcast a five-minute interview between Ellington and the sponsor of his whole visit, the British bandleader, Jack Hylton. The broadcasts represented an important moment for both jazz in Britain and for the BBC. The live June 1933 broadcast is widely cited in Ellington biographies and histories of British jazz, but it has almost no presence in the literature on the BBC’s development. This post explores some of the background to this broadcast in the political economy and organisational culture of the BBC at the time.
Understanding jazz and radio in the 1930s
Radio and jazz emerged at the same time, and they were each significant in the development of the other. Susan Douglas explains this link between medium and music as cultural transformation:
“it is in radio’s relationship to jazz that you see the beginnings of this invention’s nearly century long role in marrying youthful white rebellion to African American culture”.
For Stephen Barnard , in Britain, jazz was a ‘problematic’ music for the BBC, caught between categories of entertainment and serious music and between notions of American and British culture. In his account, jazz fitted uneasily into the BBC’s drive to domesticate popular music as a form of post-work relaxation, to centralise its production in London and to tame, for British listeners, those elements of American and African American cultural exoticism perceived to pervade hot jazz. However, these more sophisticated takes on the radio-jazz relationship tend to be overwhelmed by more totalising narratives about their historical correspondence. As I show, it is common in histories of jazz to suggest that the BBC ignored jazz in the 20s and 30s, a contention easily contradicted by the evidence of its broadcasts. Likewise, histories of broadcasting have tended to position the BBC as an overly culturally homogeneous organisation (which is easier to sustain as an argument) but then leap to the assumption that it was therefore overly dominated by its first Director General and narrow and paternalistic in its programming. To understand the Ellington Orchestra’s broadcast we need a sophisticated sense of how the BBC’s music programming operated in the early 1930s.
The BBC’s treatment of jazz
Early British radio, and its institutionalisation in the British Broadcasting Company from 1923, and the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1927, tends to be presented as stable, sometimes even monolithic, driven by common professional practices and a single, often personified, ideology. Of course, in the case of the early 1930s BBC this is the proposition that the BBC was a paternalist monopoly broadcaster dominated by the ideas of its Director General, John Reith. From this perspective, chroniclers of jazz in Britain have tended to dismiss the prewar BBC’s treatment of jazz as “haughty”, “niggardly” and “aloof” and even “suppressing the whole spirit of individuality that was to be central to the future development and longevity of jazz” . Even Barnard, in his otherwise insightful discussion, mistakenly allocates the Ellington live 1933 broadcast to the regional service and so erroneously draws the conclusion that it represented a lukewarm attitude to jazz. Reith only occasionally made public announcements on jazz and the BBC, and the interpretation that these represented an antipathy to broadcasting jazz is not supported by what he actually said. Most often his statements rhetorically assume that jazz and popular music are staples of broadcast output, arguing that such programming offers a respite from hard, morally-improving work, but nevertheless he proposes that such output should not be the only content of radio programming. Such a position is reflected in the output of the BBC at the time of the Ellington band’s tour. Each of its regional and national services typical daily broadcast for 13 hours, featuring between 90 minutes and two hours of live dance band broadcasts and some presence of jazz in the 45 minute programmes the BBC designated as ‘gramophone recitals’. At around 15% of programming this is far greater than any other type of output, including the widely perceived to be dominant forms of cultural-uplift programming, even on the London-originated National programme.
There was a precedent for Ellington’s 1933 tour and BBC broadcast, in a similar tour by Louis Armstrong exactly twelve months before, and the continuities and comparisons are useful in grounding our understanding. Parsonage’s study positions the arrival of Armstrong and Ellington as a culmination of a half-century of the Evolution of Jazz in Britain, and provides just such a detailed contrast of the reception and meaning of the two tours. However, these visits perhaps better represent a rupture in the way that jazz was understood in Britain. These two innovators of jazz subsequently came to personify the two main trajectories in which jazz played out in European culture through the 1930s and into the war years. Put succinctly, Armstrong was increasingly taken to represent the notion that jazz was a folk music which needed to be understood through its origins, while Ellington was constructed as a modernist, and jazz as a new art form. These two new discourses became the dominant perspectives of British jazz fans. As I detail below, within the BBC a third trajectory is apparent in the BBC, in which the early elements of jazz form were incorporated into the BBC’s idea of light musical comedy, which itself would form the basis of the later idea of light entertainment.
It was Armstrong’s semiotic legacy that came to define jazz in the immediate post-war period but, as I will show, in the meantime it was to be Ellington’s approach which dominated both live and broadcast notions of jazz in Britain for a decade. The small group Chicago sound, which was extricable linked to Armstrong through his early 1920s recordings, became the foundation for the jazz fan Rhythm Clubs, their radio recreation in the BBC’s Radio Rhythm Club, and subsequently the distinctly European post war trad jazz movement. However, as I detail below, the BBC’s role in using Ellington as the reference point for a model of symphonic jazz created what became the prevailing notion of jazz in Britain in the 1930s.
Both Armstrong and Ellington went to the UK relatively early, and yet at key points in their rising US careers. Both were relatively poorly known in the UK only months before their arrival. Armstrong had already left behind the small group Chicago music he would be linked to so strongly by British jazz fans, and by 1930 he was recording with Dickerson’s band on Okey, had become a noteworthy performer in legitimate musical theatre and major Harlem dancehalls and adopted the crooning singing and recording style pioneered by Big Crosby . As the 1920s turned to the 30s, Ellington had made appearances in two films, taken on Irvin Mills as his manager, extended the reach of his live radio broadcasts and signed an exclusive deal with Brunswick records, and in 1931 he left his residency at the Cotton Club to tour ballrooms and theatres across the US. When the Ellington Orchestra walked into the BBC studios in London just before 8.00pm on the 14th June 1933 they did so with the full weight of all these economic, cultural and musical practices swirling around them. What the next 45 minutes, and the following six years would mean for Ellington, jazz and the BBC were rooted in all that had come before and all that things could mean in the future
 Susan J. Douglas, Listening In : Radio and the American Imagination: From Amos ‘n’ Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (New York, N.Y.: Times Books, 1999), 90.
 Stephen Barnard, On the Radio: Music Radio in Britain (Milton Keynes; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1989).
 Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972).
 Foucault and Sheridan, Archaeology of Knowledge.
 The BBC’s Genome project, which makes full programme listings from The Radio Times available in an online searchable database (http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk) is an invaluable source for rich data source of information on planned programming and the way these programmes were framed by the BBC.
 Jim Godbolt, A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-50 (London: Paladin, 1986), 98, 109, 200.
 Catherine Parsonage, The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935 (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 49.
 Barnard, On the Radio, 13.
 See, for instance, John C. Reith, Broadcast over Britain (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1924), 18.
 Parsonage, Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 221-260.
 William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) , 164.
Duke Ellington band on BBC Radio 14th June 1933 8.00pm January 16, 2013Posted by wallofsound in Jazz, Music Radio.
Photograph of Duke on-route to England published in the Melody Maker 17th June 1933
This is a list of numbers played by Duke Ellington’s band in their 1933 broadcast. They are listed by order as set out in a contemporary Melody Maker review. While Jim Godbolt (2005; 105) when citing the review says there were 14 numbers, it is more likely there were nearly 20 including the seven song ‘Blackbirds of 1930’ section and a suggestion that there were other popular songs later in the broadcast. Ulanov (1946, 131) states the programme was 45 minutes long. The Radio Times says 14/6/33: Duke Ellington and his Orchestra and says the broadcast is on the BBC National Service 8.00-8.45pm. Godbolt says it was broadcast on the Regional Service at 8.30 (109), but he also correctly cites that “He (Ellington) was preceded by a talk on Industrial Relations, by Professor John Hilton, and followed by Philis Clare and her Boys, a polite song and instrumental act.” Godbolt’s confusion may have arisen from the fact that he seems to have been using the Daventry listing which refers to the National Services English Midlands transmitter.
The Radio Times listing says:
“Duke Ellington, the famous American coloured dance-band leader and composer arranger, is now on his first visit to this country, under the auspices of Jack Hylton. Tonight listeners all over the country are enabled to hear the first direct broadcast of this famous band from the studio in England. A relay of the band from New York was included in the Birthday Week programmes last November. Ellington has a dual title to fame : his original orchestrations and arrangements for the dance music played by his band, and his original compositions in the jazz idiom, notably Creole Rhapsody, Mood Indigo, and Hot and Bothered”.
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (theme)
Medley of tunes from Blackbirds of 1930:
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby (reprise)
I’ve Got The World on a String (in a selection of popular tunes)
Programming music in niche radio: a case study February 27, 2012Posted 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.
The new age of music consumption January 21, 2012Posted by wallofsound in Music Industry, Music Radio.
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Here I want to present a critical approach, which balances an analysis of the political economy of record production with a cultural economy of music consumption allows us to deal with changes in the ways in which we access and experience music. Here we are obviously talking about the way we listen to music that we have downloaded as digital music files using our computer or mobile phone. In an overview of popular music production this involves us looking at the way that music retailing is organised, and even questioning if the future of the music business lies in retailing music at all.
This is actually quite a difficult area to think through with some clarity because, unlike the ‘hidden’ detail of the organisation of record companies and music corporations, the detail of record retailing seems to be a very public issue. It is certainly a common media story, either reporting on the closure of a high street chain of record retailers, or presenting a report from an industry body that shows that record sales are falling, or the political discussions about the downloading of music files from the internet. The problem here, though, is not that the information we want is hard to find, but that it is obscured by an almost overwhelming quantity of opinion and, at times, hyperbole.
The fact that the use of the internet to access music is a pervasive theme of this book shows how important it is. Louis Barfe (2004), attempting a historical and contemporary overview of the music industries, has even suggested that we can understand internet to access music as causing the fall of the record industry, by which its rise can then be examined. Writing just over a decade ago, like many commentators, he evidences this ‘fall’ by pointing to a decline in record sales and he implicitly accepts the standard industry argument that this is the result of online music sharing. However, as we saw in chapter three Technological change has been a major characteristic of the record industry throughout its century-long life. From acoustic, through electronic to digital recording techniques, through shellac, vinyl, tape and then CD music formats, and the various media forms on which the music can be accessed, it is hard sometimes to see it all as the same industry. We should also recognise Barfe’s history, using a metaphor of ‘rise and fall’ derived from stories about the lives of prominent individuals or even whole civilizations, as the sort of as totalising story we analysed in chapter one. As we try to understand the modern music industry it is quite easy to accept arguments like this, particularly as they are so pervasive. However, such stories obscure more than they reveal.
In discussing access to music attention has most often been placed on the consumers of music as undermining the music industry through ‘illegal’ downloading, or on the industry as failing to respond to the realities of a new world. It is, though, much more productive to think about this as a change within the music industries, one characterized not by the ‘fall’ of a once powerful industry, but of another shift in the political economy of the industry and the cultural practices of music consumers. More specifically, then, we need to identify what is changing in the record industry and in the wider music industries.
Rather surprisingly, part of the answer is that not a lot has changed. Taking Britain as a fairly typical example, at the time of writing over 80% of recorded music sales were in the CD format, and while this represented a decline of a third over a decade it still accounted for around 100 million CDs in a single year. The downloading of digital music files from retail sites was growing steadily towards 20% (BPI ref). In the area of music radio, 90% of the British population still listened to radio with 85% of that listening via over-the-air, overwhelmingly AM and FM, broadcasts (RAJAR ref). Part of the answer, though, is that much is changing. By the time you read this, it is likely that the process of declining CD sales will have continued and that people will be using an array of new online music services instead of more traditional forms of listening to physical records or on over-the-air radio. In chapter 12 we will return to the implications of this change for our experience as music consumers, but there are also some important changes in the institutions which provide these music services, and in music retail as a whole.
At the level of political economy control of music consumption is moving away from the traditional music corporations and media outlets to a new generation of corporations with their roots in the computer industry. These new music industries institutions have grown from small companies very quickly because they have offered new products and services which seem to understand the cultural practices of their consumers far better than the traditional record and radio institutions have. While record companies and radio stations have interpreted the new technologies in terms of their existing practices, these new companies have completely rethought how they can make money out of music. It is not that the new companies have completely reinvented how to consume music, almost all their services are built upon existing cultural practices, but they have used the new technologies to extend them and to find new ways to make money out of them.
At the time of writing there are some quite prominent examples of these new institutions, and they are presented here with the usual qualification that you will need to reassess their place in the music industries as it is at the time that you are conducting your own analysis. Given how quickly the new organisations and institutions have emerged, it is just as likely that they have been replaced by new ones.
New forms of record retail
For a century records were purchased primarily through shops on the high street. These stores changed from the furniture or department stores which sold the first phonographs, through first specialist record shops, and then specialist music record shops, to the mega stores of the late twentieth century. There have always been mail order record retailers, either for record buyers who lived in relatively isolated areas or who had specialist music tastes, and the largest record vendors had always been general merchants, but the rise of online retailing is still worthy of note. Not only are its most successful organisations completely new to the market, they also represent the twin strategies of record retailing.
The first re-imagined the retail experience through the possibilities of greater interactivity and data management. The most successful company here was Amazon, which extended its book retailing business to records and subsequently a wide range of products and services, including music file downloads. At one level the Amazon site offers a simple search and purchase facility, but this is underpinned by a series of technologies aimed at encouraging music discovery. Data collected on your activity on the site is used to make further suggestions of things you may want to buy, the online store’s customers are recruited to review products and the services of its various associates, and through a combination of automated and responsive systems the website is tailored for individual customers. In doing this, the online retailer adapted many of the ways in which offline shoppers had decided what to buy. Customers would be influenced by the opinions offered by friends, the recommendations of staff in a specialist store, or paths of music discovery built in the music experience. While most of these techniques are in widespread use now the company’s innovation allowed it to attract customers and build the necessary scale for such an enterprise to succeed.
The second, was a service built into the technology of music organisation and listening, where the whole process of accessing and consuming music was re-organised. The most successful company here is the Apple computer company with its iTunes Store. Again, the ideas were not usually original – there had been many music file download companies before – but Apple built its retailer around its iMac computers and mobile digital file players, the iPod and later iPhone. As an integrated component of the iMacs’ iTunes music ripping organisation and playout software it was actually easier to buy a track than rip it from CD, and the use of Amazon-derived music discovery and recommendation systems extended the offline iTunes experience into a wider virtual world of music retail. Fundamentally, though, the success of Apple in becoming the world’s largest record retailer derives from the widespread popularity of it iPod and iPhones, and the usability and integration of the software services.
New forms of music service
If the first set of organisations that emerged in the new age of music consumption re-institutionalised previous activities of buying, collecting and listening to records, the second set re-institutionalise radio listening within a new political economy. There’s a more detailed examination of these music services in chapter seven, but here we need to outline the companies involved and how they became an important institution within the record industry and larger music industries. Because most of the focus of public debate has been on downloading, the fact that new forms of music consumption built around data streaming have been formed into new music industry institutions seems to have been lost. The fact that these services are often perceived to be extensions of radio services, and often present themselves as such, may also account from their critical neglect in debates about the record industry.
When the US broadcasting and internet services corporation, CBS, bought the relatively new online radio-like service and music fan website, Last.fm, in 2007 it paid $ 280m. Even though the deal was given some coverage in the business media, the significance of the deal in highlighting a new institutional form in the music industry was lost in all the public debate around downloading. As other seemingly similar services – like Pandora and Spotify – attracted more consumers, and the user base of this new way of listening to music expanded the brands became better known. Nevertheless these services have not been given the critical attention they deserve, even though they represent profoundly new ways to organise and make money out of records. It would not be too much on an exaggeration to claim that, along with iTunes and its store, these music services represent the most significant change in the institututional structure of the music industries since the original development of records and radio broadcasting.
Last.fm, founded in 2002, rhetorically claimed to be the ultimate radio station: both the end point of music radio’s evolution, and the only radio station listeners would need from now on. The .fm suffix cleverly suggested the service had its origins in over-the-air music radio and its future on the internet. Because its uses streamed audio content structured in a playlist-like running order it does feel like listening to radio but, as regular users know, a radio station made just for the individual listener. Utilising a range of data scraping, music discovery and responsive technologies, along with a social media world in which music fans can interact, the music services makes money out of music consumption by offering the full service for a subscription. Like Pandora and Spotify, there are free and advertising-supported levels of the service, but these companies business model if firmly rooted in the idea that consumers will pay for a flow of music that balances what we know with what we might like and an access to this music where ever we are and without the restrictions of a record collection we have to manage ourselves.
Such services are a radical departure from the usual form of record retail based upon acquiring and organising a physical record collection, and even the mass broadcast form of over-the-air radio, and adds the cultural practices of sharing music which have been a central part of music fandom for decades (see Wall, 2012).
These music services are relatively new, and the lessons of history tell us that they are more likely to take their place in a consumer ecology that includes traditional forms of record ownership and music radio, rather than replace them. Nevertheless they offer a radically different political economy of music consumption and an innovation in the form of music consumption culture. In themselves they do not mean that record companies will become redundant, but they do indicate that record companies need to respond beyond imagining that online services must be controlled to simply reproduce the retail function of the record shop and the promotional function of the radio station. Along with companies like Amazon and Apple, they do show that the biggest changes in the music industries are taking place at the point at which record companies connect to music fans, and that it is companies from outside the music industries who seem to understand what needs to be done far better than those within the traditional structures that create and supply music.
Barfe, L. (2004). Where have all the good times gone?: the rise and fall of the record industry. London, Atlantic.
Wall, T. (2012). Specialist music and the internet. New Perspectives on Radio. N. Gallego Pérez and T. García.
Specialist music, the public good, and radio programming November 14, 2011Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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My analysis of the state of radio and popular music in the twentieth century starts with a fundamental question about the degree to which the radio systems we currently have in place, and the ones which are emerging, serve our common good. Starting with this question generates a very different approach to one built upon questions about the potential for radio to generate profits, or the degree to which radio serves the needs of listeners, although they are not incompatible approaches. In essence I am asking questions about the political economy and culture of radio and popular music. Restating Vincent Moscow’s general definition for music radio, political economy seeks to study ‘the power relations that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption’ of music and radio (Mosco 1996, 25). Such an activity becomes evaluative when we utilise two very different ideas of the ‘public good’. In the first, radio and music are seen in Samuelson’s economic terms as ‘a public good’. That is, a collectively consumed product or service, where one person’s consumption does not exclude consumption by others, and where indirect or collective forms of funding or regulation are required to compensate for the failure of traditional markets (Samuelson 1954). Over-the-air radio is a classic example because it was initially freely available to those with a receiver, allowing listeners to benefit without paying directly. For this reason radio has evolved funding forms as diverse as spot advertising, listener-support sponsorship, and the UK licence fee. In addition, as the preferences of listeners are not communicated by a direct exchange of cash for radio listening, regulators often intervene to ensure the diverse interests of listeners are met. The second idea, ‘the public good’, refers to our collective economic, moral and cultural well-being, rooted in Utilitarian or moral philosophy (Bentham, Burns et al. 1996; Rawls and Kelly 2001). As I will show, the provision of music is often discussed in terms of the way it serves the cultural vitality of our society.
Both these versions of public good have been central to debates about radio and music since records and radio were first employed, and they became focused again as new technology started to shift the balance of power between musicians, record companies, radio stations and music fans in the twenty-first century. For instance, the idea that radio was a public good and that unrestricted over-the-air broadcasting would not deliver an ideal radio system was central to the review of radio in the UK conducted by the nation’s communications regulator, Ofcom (OfCom 2004). Likewise, the review is linked directly to the public good when it seeks to ‘develop an up-to-date set of public purposes for radio performances’ (49). In another example, policy makers in the UK’s public broadcaster, the BBC, used the idea of the public good to argue for the corporation’s continued existence and to explain the way the BBC’s radio, television and online output was organised.
Most interestingly, in both the Ofcom and the BBC cases, the arguments for treating radio as a/the public good were linked to arguments for the programming of more specialist music. For instance, in the last major consultation on radio, Ofcom’s 2004 document, says:
Radio has many of the characteristics of a public good … (and) there could still be an inefficient outcome if the preferences of listeners and those of advertisers were not perfectly aligned and hence the range of programmes offered would be too limited. In this case, there might be a justification for intervening to ensure that a sufficient range of programmes is supplied (47).
Further, it makes the case for radio providing a diversity of specialist music:
The nature of radio arguably makes it better at providing all sorts of music, from classical to folk, from jazz to rock, and at providing opportunities for new talent and for live performances (49).
Likewise, the UK government’s 2006 discussion paper on the future of the BBC identified the provision of “new and specialist music” as one of the ways in which the popular music station Radio 1 should distinguish itself from commercial music radio (DCMS 2006). The station’s ‘service remit’ is distinguished by ‘a mix of daytime programmes with wide appeal and specialist shows in the evening which operate at the forefront of new music’ aimed at 15-29 year olds, and claims ‘at least 40% of the schedule is devoted to specialist music or speech-based programmes’ (BBC 2007). There are similar service remits for the other national music radio stations 1xtra, 2, 3 and 6Music.
The BBC has certainly used the opportunities of new digital channels as a way of extending their provision of specialist music. In a study of the BBC’s output, I identified its digital-only 6Music and 1Xtra stations as offering significant opportunities for specialist music (Wall and Dubber 2009). This is the result of the BBC’s construction of its radio stations through documents which define their service and meet the BBC’s ‘contribution to public value’. So, for instance, 6Music has a remit to ‘reflect the evolution of popular music through extensive use of the BBC archive’ and to ‘reflect the breadth of work produced by iconic artists’ at the same time that it:
focus[es] on new music, particularly that made by UK artists, prioritising less familiar acts who may become enduring icons in the future but who do not enjoy commercial support, thus demonstrating its independence from commercial interests (Trust 2011b).
1Xtra’s service licence defines the station output as ‘contemporary black music aimed at a young audience, concentrating on new black music and new artists, particularly British ones’, while its public value is expressed in terms of its role as ‘a platform for a range of music rarely heard elsewhere’, to ‘support the UK black music industry’ and ‘live performances and club nights’, aiming to ‘identify and support new musical talent – particularly from the UK’ (Trust 2011a).
The idea of the public good has also been strong in the history of US radio, although its significance tends to be obscured by the domination of the commercial sector and network organisation. In early debates about radio, it was strongly related to the idea of cultural uplift and struggles over content in the 1920s (Doerksen 2005), and of course the US public broadcast service is rooted in such ideas (Mitchell 2005). There is an equally important tradition in US radio which bridges the public and community sectors in the diverse range of college radio stations, which since the 1960s have been an important part of specialist music broadcasting in North America. I have previously looked at the sector myself, identifying the importance of New York’s WFUV , based at Fordham University in establishing the Album Adult Alternative format around folk, world music and Americana, and Boston College’s WZBC, which sustains the tradition of freeform music broadcasting and its support to the avant-garde edges of rock music (Wall 2007). Although only accounting for just over 10% of US radio stations (Federal Communications Commission 1999), college-based broadcasters have played a significant part in introducing innovative programming and extending the forms of music available to the listener. This is particularly the case from the mid-1980s, when forms of alternative rock, and particularly British indie rock, were heavily supported by, and became strongly associated with, college broadcasting (Rubin 2011).
To a large extent, though, these examples are a continuation of approaches to specialist music and broadcasting established in the mid- to late-1980s and, as I indicated in the introduction, they now exist in a very different ecology of broadcasting. There are two main dimensions to these changes: firstly, the number of available channels for broadcasting has increased and with this enlargement the relationship between radio and recorded music has altered significantly. Secondly, and more recently, music radio has been challenged by those music radio-like services I took as the starting point for this discussion. In the next two sections I turn to these changes to examine how they have related to this senses of music as a public good and for the public good.
BBC Statements of programming policy 2007/8
BBC (2007) Radio 1 Service Licence. BBC
Bentham, J., J. H. Burns, et al. (1996) An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation.
Commission, F. C. (1999). “Broadcast Station Totals, 1990 – 1999 “, 2007.
DCMS (2006) A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age. D. f. C. M. a. Sport
Doerksen, C. J. (2005) American Babel: rogue radio broadcasters of the jazz age.
Mitchell, J. W. (2005) Listener supported : the culture and history of public radio.
Mosco, V. (1996) The political economy of communication : rethinking and renewal.
OfCom (2004) Radio — Preparing for the future (phase 1 developing a new framework).
Rawls, J. and E. Kelly (2001) Justice as fairness : a restatement.
Rubin, N. (2011) “U.S. College Radio, the ‘New British Invasion,’ and Media Alterity.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 9(2)
Samuelson , P. A. (1954) “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure.” Review of Economics and Statistics 36(4): 387–389
Trust, B. (2011a) 1Xtra service licence
Trust, B. (2011b) 6 Music service licence
Wall, T. (2007) “Finding an alternative: Music programming in US college radio.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 5(1): 35-54
Wall, T. and A. Dubber (2009) “Specialist music, public service and the BBC in the internet age ” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 7(1): 27-48
Popular Music and Radio in the twenty-first century November 10, 2011Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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When Last.fm was founded in 2002, as an online radio-like service and music fan website, its very name set it up in contest with over-the-air radio. It rhetorically signalled its claim to be the ultimate radio station, both as the end point of music radio’s evolution, and as the only radio station listeners would need. The .fm suffix suggested music radio’s origins in over-the-air radio and a future on the internet. Of course music radio stations have continued to broadcast on FM frequencies, and more over-the-air stations have joined them on the digital systems introduced in most countries. Over-the-air services continue to capture over 85% of radio listening hours in a country like the UK. However, as the young entrepreneurs who established Last.fm understood very clearly, the global reach and interactive nature of the internet could enable a different relationship between listener and music than the one on which the century-old broadcast model was based.
When I first researched internet music radio between 2000 and 2003, I had neglected the fledgling music service, and instead focused my analysis on Live365.com ‘crowd-sourced’ radio and AOL’s portal radio service, then called AOL Radio@Network. Nevertheless, I interpreted the development and dominance of these ‘networks’ as evidence of an emerging model within online-only radio services (Wall 2004). On the basis of a comparison of internet radio’s lower fixed and higher variable costs relative to over-the-air radio, I revealed a number of important developments: more new entrants in ‘broadcasting’; a move to niche, streamed programming, often bundled and heavily branded; greater emphasis on automation and ‘amateur programming’ (p. 37-39). I also suggested that the technology enabled even more opportunities around bespoke radio services, built upon mining data about listeners, and an integration of streamed sound with what we would now call social media content (p. 39-40).
While both Live365 and AOL services continue today in modified form, the most notable innovations have been in the development of the radio-like music services, of which Last.fm has been the most successful. However, this emphasis on innovation can disguise how important over-the-air radio remains. Statistics for the UK, to take one example, are instructive here. Throughout 2011 radio listening continued to grow, both in terms of reach and listening hours. Although there have been significant increases in listening through digital platforms like DAB, digital television, computers and mobile devices, FM and AM listening still accounts for over 60% of radio consumption. And notably, 85% of consumption is of over-the-air services (both analogue and digital) (RAJAR 2011).
My purpose in the following posts, then, is to unpick some of the continuities and innovations that have characterised music radio over the last decade. In particular, I am interested in exploring how specialist music provision has prospered since 2002. The health of specialist music is one index of diversity in music programming, which is in itself an aspect of radio’s claim to contribute to the public good. To perform this exploration, I will cover three broad areas. Initially I want to develop the argument that specialist music programming is an important function of radio in promoting the public good. Here I examine the contributions of the public, commercial, unlicensed and community sectors over the last ten years, as well as the way that changing regulation has helped or hindered diversity. Secondly, I examine how the expansion of channels for audio distribution has extended the wide range of music radio available, and what implications this has for the future of musical diversity. Finally, I explore the relationship between music services and traditional music radio in some more detail, examining what impact activities like music recommendation and personalisation have had on the tradition of the specialist DJ and the promotion of musical diversity. It is worth noting that I have drawn my examples and case studies almost exclusively from UK and US radio. This will, by necessity, place a qualification on the usefulness of my analysis at a more general level. While the global reach of internet radio has offered an alternative, radio remains structured primarily at the level of the nation state, and each country has developed distinct systems. Nevertheless, the historic monopoly the BBC and its public service model in the UK, and the dominance of commercial network radio in the US, make these national systems excellent poles of broadcasting for a comparative analysis.
RAJAR (2011) RAJAR data release Quarter 1 2011
Wall, T. (2004) “The political economy of internet music radio.” The Radio Journal: International Studies in Broadcast & Audio Media 2(1): 27-44
Duke Ellington on WHN 1927-29: ‘Serving the masses, not the classes’ September 26, 2010Posted by wallofsound in Jazz, Music Radio.
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As most Ellington fans and scholars will be well aware, on the 4th December 1927, Ellington’s band, the Washingtonians, opened at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City (Haskins 1985, 47). They were soon featured in the broadcasts of the local Manhattan-based radio station, WHN. The band could actually be heard on the station for some years leading up to their Cotton Club debut: from 1924 at the Hollywood Club, and again in January 1927 at the same location, by then renamed the Kentucky Club (Collier 1987, 55 & 96; Lawrence 2001, 81 & 409). Collier suggests that these broadcasts had been instigated by a young fan working for the radio station, although it is more commonly believed that the initiative belonged to Ellington’s manager, Irvin Mills. Collier’s story works well as mythology because that fan is identified as Ted Hushing, who became perhaps America’s best known ‘sportscaster’ from the late 1920s, while the Mills angle misses the point that the Washingtonians had broadcast before he took over the reigns of their careers. Lawrence states (but without a cited source) that the band played on Mondays between 11.30 and midnight, and on Wednesday and Friday evenings between 7.00 and 7.30 (Lawrence 2001, 113), while Collier is less precise, although he concedes that accuracy is difficult when relying on anecdotes from contemporary listeners.
As biographers and jazz writers, the authors of such accounts of Ellington’s life and music naturally focus more on the developing story and recording details. However, a more complex and more interesting sense of the social world in which Ellington operated emerges if we seek to understand both the nightclub and the radio station broadcasts in greater detail. In fact, by the time The Washingtonians were broadcasting from the Hollywood/Kentucky club, their shows were part of WHN’s extensive remote broadcast initiative, which embraced perhaps thirty theatres on Broadway and a good number of clubs in Harlem, including the three biggest: Connie’s Inn, Small’s Paradise and the Cotton Club (Doerksen 2005, 32). The Washingtonians were broadcasting mainly because of where they were, rather than who they were. A similar argument, by the way, could be made for their records. Ellington’s Vocalion releases were swiftly assigned first to the Kentucky Club Orchestra, and then to the Cotton Club Orchestra within a few days of his first appearance there. Their associations with key clubs was clearly very important in signalling who they were.
The evidence also suggests that the first Ellington broadcasts were made live from the radio studios in the mid-evening, while the later ones took the form of ‘radio remotes’ from the Cotton Club at around midnight, the time at which we know that the Ellington Orchestra was featured. Owned by a Brooklyn newspaper entrepreneur, but programmed by the publicist for the down-market Loew vaudeville theatre group, Nils Thor Doerksen, WHN developed a form of ‘cabaret broadcasting’, promoting first Loew acts and then those of other entertainment businesses through performances based in the studio, and subsequently relaying their performances live from the venue itself (Granlund 1957). In addition, WHN time-shared their frequency with two, and subsequently three, other stations up until 1934 (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 124). In 1926, the station was broadcasting from 12.30 pm until midnight, and its programme schedule featured two ‘Dance Orchestra’ programmes: one at 7.00 pm and one at 11.30 pm (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 84). However, its published schedule for late 1929 reveals that, by that date, one of the other time-share stations broadcast on the frequency from 9:30 pm to midnight (New York Times 1929). It is very likely, then, that the loss of the night-time broadcast slot meant that the Cotton Club remotes were no longer possible, and that this was the reason that, by February 1929, the Ellington band could be heard on WABC.
While it might have only been possible to hear Ellington’s WHN Cotton Club remotes for about a year, it is still significant that they started on that station. WHN features prominently in early radio histories, mainly for two controversies: one around its on-air style; and a second, but connected, dispute around its compliance with patents. Both highlight the adverse reactions to the station’s forceful commercial approach to the then new medium. We should therefore see the station, and the Ellington Orchestra’s musical broadcasts, as being at the centre of a series of connected struggles over the future of radio, struggles that were themselves indicative of competing cultural discourses of value in American society. In fact, it is not too fanciful to suggest that Ellington’s cultural practices at this time can be read as those of a bricoleur, manipulating visual and aural signs to construct a persona which he hoped could (but never would) resolve the tensions between competing black and white cultural values. The result was experienced by audiences through the mediation of a set of new technological forms of communication – records, radio and film – that would come to define what it was to be a modern American.
Perhaps what I mean by this will become clearer if I provide some background to radio, to its technological and economic base, and to the debates that raged around its implementation as a broadcast medium. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was not clear what purposes the relatively new wired and wireless technologies would be used for, and while by the 1920s wireless had been established as the basis of broadcast radio, and wired technology as the basis for point-to-point telephony, the owners of the patents in these areas were keen to ensure they controlled and exploited them for profit. The point at which Ellington’s band were broadcasting, then, was a transitional period, where radio broadcasts were dominated by small independent stations but the right to exploit the potential of these broadcasts was dominated by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). This corporation was an alliance of patent-holding companies, who pooled their technology with the radio assets of the US military to determine the post-war development of domestic radio and telephony. For land-based radio, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) was the most powerful, as they held the right to license the transmitter technology and approve the commercial exploitation of both wired and wireless broadcasting. In addition, the broadcast stations came under the regulatory control of the Department of Commerce, and after 1927 the Federal Radio Commission, with the former emphasising content and the latter frequency allocations.
WHN was, then, part of a much more diverse and unsettled radio system than that which would be apparent in the network systems of a decade later. At the time Ellington’s band first broadcast, only 7% of stations were profit-maximising commercial broadcasters like WHN (Dimmick 1986), and radio content was produced by broadcasters run by universities, religious groups, political parties, wireless manufacturers, and newspapers (Barnouw 1966, 4). Further, WHN could not broadcast when and to whom it wanted. It was allocated a time-shared frequency with another station based at a New Jersey Amusement Park (WPAP), with the Calvary Baptist Church (WQAO) and, after frequency re-allocations in 1928, with a station run by an electronics magazine publisher (WRNY) (Jaker, Sulek et al. 1998, 84).
The station was far from typical of the time. WHN’s experiments with remote broadcasting were a novel use of both wired point-to-point technology (to relay the performance to the transmitter) and wireless broadcast technology (to get the performance to listeners). Further, compared with even its time-share stations, WHN stood out for its emphasis on using broadcasts as a basis for direct revenue generation, its collaboration with New York clubs and cabarets, and its exuberant presentation style, which many saw as crass or even indecent.
It was these characteristics which defined the way in which radio listeners would interpret the Ellington band’s performances. While other stations followed WHN in establishing remote broadcasts of music, these tended to relay performances from midtown upmarket venues like the Waldorf Astoria, Biltmore, Lafayette Hotel, and Hotel Roosevelt, and when dance music was featured it would be from bands led by the likes of Paul Whiteman, Ben Bemie, Meyer Davis or Paul Specht. The Ellington band’s WHN broadcasts were in the company of other black entertainers like Ethel Waters, Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, Florence Mills, LeRoy Smith, Charlie Johnson, Wilbur Sweatman, Leona Williams, and Fletcher Henderson’s Club Alabam’ Orchestra featuring Louis Armstrong (Doerksen 1999, 88). While other stations, in other cities, also broadcast such ‘hot’ jazz bands, it was far from a common activity (Barlow 1995).
The day I interviewed John Peel February 22, 2010Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
It is now thirty years ago that, as a student broadcaster, I interviewed John Peel, the BBC radio DJ. He had just turned 40, and I was 21; and at the time (and probably since) he was a major model for me of how music radio could be done: diverse in his tastes, occasionally challenging, and passionate about music. I am not sure where the years have gone since, but when the opportunity to reflect on music radio (and the place it has taken in my life for three decades) presented itself I could not refuse.
I recorded this interview on 22nd February 1980 in the studios of Radio Bailrigg at Lancaster University. I was in my final year of what I told everyone was a three-year undergraduate degree in Economics and Philosophy, but which for me was primarily the opportunity to be part of a team running a radio station, and working out what music radio was and could be. The fact that I didn’t pay full attention to my formal studies, and instead worked long hours in the radio station, turned out to be quite a good move. I ended up a professor of radio and popular music studies, rather than a philosophising economist.
My Peel interview was just one of dozens I did while a student broadcaster. I was keen to learn all the skills associated with programme-making, and I tried to take advantage of every opening to conduct an interview and turn it into a programme. Most of the interviews were of musicians – a range from British chanteur Jake Thackery, through blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and reggae toaster and producer Mikey Dread, to then chart favourites like The Stranglers, The Clash, The Selector, Graham Parker, and neo doo-wop-ers Darts – but I’d also interview political and cultural ‘talking heads’. The interview I remember most vividly, though, was with John Peel.
I’ve got many of these interview on reel-to-reel tape in my loft, but pulled this one out after Peel’s death. I’d been telling my colleagues about the interview as we reminisced about his shows and impact on our musical taste. I wondered what it actually sounded like. I remember it going really well. I have often been known to berate my students for not taking risks, for not taking advantage of opportunities, and not practicing their radio skills. What if I sounded like a right dunce; where would my credibility be then?
I am indebted to Sam Coley who digitised the recording (when I kept saying I would get round to it, but never did) and tightened it up a bit, so any fluffs were not apparent to the modern listener.
My approach with Peel was the standard one: door step and persuade. Maybe I hadn’t even understood that you had to make arrangements to do interviews in advance, or maybe I just figured that wouldn’t work. So I’d just hang out at the venue where my mark was appearing; and then when they arrived I’d introduce myself and ask if they’d do an interview. Peel was visiting the university to do one of his ‘playing records’ appearances that he tended to depreciate, but clearly loved doing. These appearances had some relationship to being a club DJ, but as Peel made such a thing out of not being able to use the equipment properly, and just pulled records out of a box, put them on (sometimes at the beginning) and sometimes said something about liking them, the link was tenuous. I seem to remember having something vaguely to do with setting up his visit, but it probably went no further than just saying that it was a great idea and asking “can I interview him?” Anyway, it meant that I knew when he was arriving, and when he got out of the car I pounced offering food and drink in exchange for an interview. When I explained we had a student radio station he agreed to come to the studios to look round.
It would be hard to oversell what a big deal this was for student broadcasters. For those of us with an interest in music Peel represented everything we thought was good in music radio when there was only Radio 1 and 2; under ten commercial stations and a smattering of BBC local stations, and yet it all sounded formulaic. The word therefore soon got round that I had John Peel in the studio, and pretty quickly you couldn’t see the studio. In fact, I can remember almost everything about the hour or so he was there. I have a canny ability to be able to capture visual memories (although I can never remember the simplest piece of verbal information). I can still see (in my mind’s eye) the people who were in the studio (even though I can’t quite recall their names), and you’ll hear them in the background even though I was glaring to try and silence them.
I am quite amused by some of my questioning, and with the anti-capitalist position I’m taking in a interview with a radio DJ! He’d clearly answered questions like these a hundred times, but he was nice enough to say that he’d enjoyed the experience at the end. He was pretty easy to interview because you just needed to light the blue touch paper and sit back, but I still thought I threw in a few provocations.
So here it is: the results of the day I interviewed John Peel.
US radio programming and alternative music culture December 3, 2007Posted by wallofsound in Music Radio.
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The musical genres of jazz, world, alternative and indie rock, folk and Americana tend to be in the margins of mainstream music radio in the US, but interestingly, they are particularly prominent in the programme schedules of the college radio stations I studied here. In North American radio, each of these genre terms cover a wide range of music, while still not embracing the full range of music made available by the genre-ordering structures used in music cultures outside radio playlists. It is necessary, then, to understand in what sense these could be understood as alternative musical forms, and why particular recordings are included in a programming category, while others are neglected.
Chris Atton (2002; 2004), through an engagement with the key texts of media structural analysis, has shown how neglected the notion of alternative media is, and maps the idea of an ‘alternative media’ within discourse on culture and political society. His attempt to produce an analytical definition which emphasises media subject matter and organisation, and covers artistic and subcultural, as well as political practices, is very helpful. However, as he himself shows, so wide are the range of practices that can be defined as alternative that it extends beyond the unconventional and radical. In this study, I do not seek to provide a definition of ‘alternativeness’ against which the radio stations I studied can be compared. Instead, I want to explore in some detail how the development and contemporary operation of radio broadcasting within the USA has constructed various and particular notions of ‘alternativeness’ as they are applied to music and radio. Following Michel Foucault’s (1972: 49) methodological directive, I am more interested in teasing out the discursive practices which constitute alternative radio as a cultural object.
Any notion of alternativeness must, of course, have a binary ‘other’ against which it is set. In music culture, these senses of alternativeness are built around a notion that there is a ‘mainstream’ which dominates music culture. This metaphor is itself interesting, and contains within it two senses. First, that – in the range of music possibility that runs analogously from bank to bank of a waterway – there is a central flow where the culture runs most clearly and speedily, without the eddies and complex clutter of the margins. Second, that this mainstream runs down from the source in a continuous flow. The mainstream is the common current of thought or practice.
While this analogy is widely used in both vernacular discussions and more systematic academic analysis, the concepts and the way they are deployed receive little scrutiny. For instance, while Raymond Williams (1976) established an approach to discussing the ‘Keywords’ of culture and society, he did not include the concepts of alternative and mainstream; and neither did the authors who updated the work (Bennett, Grossberg et al. 2005). Primarily, this is because the selected keywords are the terms through which intellectuals ordered their analysis of culture, rather than the terms used by the participants who practiced it.
The very notion of a mainstream is constructed by two parallel processes. One, in which an idea of the common current is an assertion of the values of the norm in society: ‘common sense’, ‘what we like’, ‘not esoteric’; the other, in which a mainstream is constructed as an ‘other’ against which values of difference, freedom, and non-conformity can be asserted. These values of difference are in themselves variable, and not necessarily compatible. Most relevant to the discussion here are the polarisation of the exotic from the everyday, the exciting from the indifferent, the substantial from the lightweight, the experimental from the formulaic, and the authentic from the manufactured.
While earlier studies of college radio have used a core notion of alternativeness, and one at least presents clear evidence that college radio staff use phraseology similar to that utilised by the respondents in my own research, these ideas remain undeveloped in the presentation of the research data. We can see this clearly in, for instance, R. Wilfred Tremblay’s (2003) investigation of college radio faculty advisors’ attitudes to the future of college radio. He quotes station staff as champions of programming around ‘alternative music, blues and jazz etc’ (: 173), and concludes that there is an acceptance of ‘the traditional college radio ideology: to be an alternative to commercial radio’ (: 179). He also reports that localness was an important driver within the stations, and that such programming independence, rather than national networking, were often seen as the basis of future success (: 180). Similarly, Samuel J. Sauls (1995; 1998) has discussed college radio and the formation of alternative rock music in two descriptive conference papers which summarise journalistic commentary on college radio. Neither researcher, though, takes the opportunity to drill down further into the ways in which differences in programming and presentation practices order this idea of alternativeness, and then make it manifest in the broadcast.
In essence, this is the task I set myself. Following three quite distinct radio stations over a five-year period, I examined the changing programming and presentation practices within each station in some visits and discussions with key staff in 2003 and 2006, and by scrutinising their playlists, programme schedules and broadcasts on a yearly basis from 2002. During my visits, I watched presenters at work selecting and broadcasting the music in their live shows, and went through the music programming practices with key station personnel, including the senior management, programming staff, presenters and faculty advisors. In our discussions, notions of alternativeness were a common theme. As I will show later, my findings reveal considerable variation in practice and output, and incremental but significant change over the five-year period. My analysis shows that these music programming practices drew on the differing repertoires that operate in the wider music cultures associated with the forms of music played.
In more straight-forward terms, there is not one type of alternativeness; and the distinctive sense of alternativeness articulated by the jazz, world, indie rock, folk and Americana music played on the college stations was as much rooted in the cultural histories of those musical genres as it was in the way they were programmed and presented. In addition, the cultural uplift agenda of the 1920s’ university-based stations, the progressive mission that underlay the birth of NPR, and the counter-cultural radio form of the 1960s are all also apparent to different degrees in the way that the alternativeness of the music is articulated within the stations and on air. The music itself, the programming practices, and the presentation styles, then, operate as a ‘homology’ which, paraphrasing Dick Hebdige paraphrasing Levis-Straus, we can understand as the ‘symbolic fit’ between production values, subjective experience, and musical forms (Hebdige 1979: 113). These become apparent if we explore the way that college radio deals with genre styles of indie rock, jazz, and world and folk.
In the 1980s, the association between college radio and certain forms of rock music became so strong that the homology was articulated in the term ‘college rock’. In a retrospective attempt to capture the trajectory of the term, All Music Guide presented it as a ‘confluence of new wave, post-punk, and early alternative rock’ with better selling bands with ‘thoughtful lyrics and socially conscious idealism’, ending in 1991 with the introduction of many of the bands into commercial station playlists after college rock staple Nirvana gained international commercial success (AMG 2007). Certainly, by 1987, the New York Times linked college stations with emergent forms of rock, and six years later presented college radio as key to the development of what would become known as grunge (Pareles 1987; Schoemer 1992).
The ordering of alternative rock codified the experimental forms of free form radio that developed in colleges in the early years of FM into a more organised, and probably more widely palatable, radio format, just as the introduction of station programmers on commercial FM stations had built its elements into the AOR (Adult Orientated Rock) format (Neer 2001). Keith Negus suggests that the growth of interest in college radio by record companies during the late 1980s moved the stations away from the domain of enthusiasts and a maverick image (Negus 1992: 103). The codification of college radio as a format is most apparent in the development of CMJ as a taste leader amongst station staff. Key to the sense of rock music’s alternativeness in the accounts is a merged sense that the music is exciting, substantial, authentic and occasionally experimental, set against a view of music programming on commercial radio as indifferent, lightweight, manufactured and formulaic.
By contrast, jazz programming has tended to construct a sense of alternativeness by following a pattern set within a paradigm established by academic critics constructing jazz as a tradition of great artists, whose performances they actively disassociate from the commercial music industry in which they were created (Ulanov 1952; Stearns 1956; Williams 1959). In doing so, they remade jazz as ‘America’s classical music’. Jazz programming, and presentation on the jazz shows that developed at NPR and college radio stations from the mid-1970s, reflected the ideas of a historical canon and the discographic detail found in the critics’ journalism and books. In particular, the programmes gave little attention to the new forms of music which developed out of the black arts movement, and the retelling of jazz history by black cultural critics (Jones 1966; see Looker 2004).
Jazz programmes were often the cornerstone of college radio’s specialist shows, most often found in the evenings or at weekends, and presented by knowledgeable station staff with large record collections of their own. These programmes presented jazz’s alternativeness as ‘substance’ in contrast to the ‘lightweight’ of other popular music. Most significant was the idea of a mainstream jazz as a tradition which had to be learnt, and into which individual artists had to be placed (Gennari 2006: 207 to 251). It allowed for the idea of a peripheral avant garde, but favoured a textbook rendition of the music’s past. More recently, jazz’s tradition has been recontextualised by the
adoption of the ideas of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, who have articulated the music’s development within African American culture (Ellison 1964; Murray 1976; Ellison and Murray 2000). These perspectives have been influential within jazz education, on musician and educator Wynton Marsalis (via cultural critic Stanley Crouch), and on wider notions of jazz as a concert, or repertory music. This has placed jazz, along with classical music, comfortably as part of a discourse of cultural uplift, and it is in this context that it is most often programmed and presented on college radio.
Folk music, and particularly its reinterpretation by Bob Dylan, was an important element in the 1960s counter-cultural movement which lay at the heart of what Keith has characterised as ‘underground radio’(Keith 1997). The association of folk forms with progressive politics has a long history (see Denisoff 1971; Eyerman and Jamison 1998), where folk is asserted as possessing an authenticity that is contrasted with the manufactured nature of mainstream popular music. From the 1970s onwards, a similar association, rooted in the activities of field musicology and song collecting, built around the vernacular forms of other peoples. Marketed as ‘world music’, it connects to the idea that localised music from different parts of the world is more authentic than the international repertoire that is played on stations with for-profit owners (Taylor 1997). World music works in radio programming terms as ‘exotica’ against the ‘everyday’ of American life, and is presented as part of cultural uplift in widening personal horizons beyond the limitations of North America. It is significant that such programmes hardly ever include music from the homelands of prominent minority groups within the US, and reggae, for instance, is preferred over contemporary US black music forms.
I want to argue, then, that a sense of an alternative music culture is built up out of a series of discursive practices around music, which are then reinforced in the programming and presentation of the music on air through remnants of the ideas of cultural uplift, progressive politics, and counter-culture that have pervaded not-for-profit radio in the US.
This is an extract from a longer paper on college radio in the USA which will be published soon in the Radio Journal
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University-based radio stations have a long tradition in the USA, and a number of issues trelating to music programming in the twenty-first century are first found in the origins of this form of broadcasting. Some of the earliest radio stations established in the first half of the 1920s were based at universities or initiated by faculty staff, at a time when only 7% of radio broadcasts came from profit-maximising stations (Dimmick 1986), and by 1923 the 72 university stations constituted a major category of broadcaster (Barnouw 1966: 4). State universities were particularly prominent among these early broadcasters, and their leaders tended to share a view that radio was an important part of a wider progressive agenda which aimed (in the terminology of the time) at cultural ‘uplift’. In this they juxtaposed their intentions to utilise the new medium for broader social purposes against those of for-profit broadcasters, who aimed to maximise audience size as a means to attract programme sponsors. The debate is captured in a contemporary commentary, in which a professor of political science at The University of Chicago, Jerome Kerwin, argues that profit maximisation was incompatible with educational programming because, “in order to secure the largest audiences which the advertisers want and will pay for, it is necessary to stage the least elevating types of programme” (cited in Smulyan 1994: 135). Derek Vaillant’s study of the Wisconsin state station WHA in the 1920s indicates that music was an important part of a culturally ‘uplifting’ programming mix. Performances of classical music by the university’s orchestra were central to an attempt to produce music programming noticeably different from what WHA’s first broadcast chief referred to as the “jazz and other worthless material” broadcast by for-profit stations (quoted in Vaillant 2002: 64).
Susan Smulyan (1994) has characterised the period in radio history from 1920 to 1934 as a struggle between organisations representing, on the one hand, the primacy of social objectives versus those in pursuit of profit; a struggle in which ‘commercialization’ eventually won out. The progressive agenda of the early university stations had difficulties surviving in an environment in which federal policy tended towards a ‘corporate liberalism’ that privileged certain forms of ownership, versions of intellectual property rights and the commodification of audiences that benefited for-profit corporate oligopolies (Streeter 1996). Regulatory changes in 1927, and the policies of the Federal radio Commission in particular, made it increasingly difficult for such stations to survive against growing competition from profit-maximising stations funded by sponsorship. In the five years to 1926, 177 licences were issued to educational stations; only 12 were issued in the five years from 1927, and only 38 of the 202 stations licensed in the fifteen years since 1921 were still running in 1936 (Smulyan 1994: 130).
While the historical record of the politics of regulation bears out Smulyan’s analysis, there are another set of dimensions to the issue which were as important for the early college radio stations as they are eighty years later. State universities and land grant colleges seemed to be most successful in keeping their licences, perhaps because of their collective commitment to a progressive mission of education, cultural ‘uplift’, and economic and technological development, and the modernist aspirations of senior staff. However, the managers of these stations still struggled with questions about the processes involved in programming decisions, the relationships between the programming in the university-based stations and that of other broadcasters, and of the relationships between the broadcasters and the communities who could listen to the station. Vaillant’s study of the operation of WHA in the 1920s sets the desires of the station’s staff to be part of a project to “rejuvenate and reform rural culture through educational programmes and uplift” against the reception of the programming amongst Wisconsin’s rural communities (2002: 84). So, while some of WHA’s classical music broadcasts were clearly valued by some listeners, others argued for music which was rooted far more deeply in the cultural values of the rural community.
These examples of debates within organisations pursuing social broadcasting aims (offered by Smulyan), and of programmers trying to resolve the friction between audience expectations and their own objectives (offered by Vaillant), are indicative of the wider, century-long, history of radio broadcasting as an institutional form within the US. The progressive mission of some early broadcasters did survive the initial decline of the university stations, and can be understood to have developed within the campaigns of the broadcast reform movement of the 1930s, and in the establishment of National Public Radio (NPR) in 1967 (Engelman 1996; Mitchell 2005).
However, the post-war transformation of the dominant form of radio, from mixed programming to music radio, happened outside the university-based and public radio sectors, primarily in the commercial sectors. For Eric Rothenbuhler and Tom McCourt (2002) ‘radio redefines itself’ in the US in the fifteen years from 1947. This transformation is apparent in programming, the inter-relationships of stations, and the relationship between a station and its respective publics. For Rothenbuhler and McCourt, it is primarily a movement from a network era to a format era. The pre-war, centrally-devised, mixed-block programme broadcasting gives way to locally-devised, strip-structure programming, using a recorded music and news format but overlapped by a transitional period of diversity and experimentation.
By the point that the hegemonic network system had fully given way to a plethora of small independent stations making local decisions within strict conventions, diversity in programming had significantly declined, and the variety that did exist was organised within conventional formats aimed at specific audiences, mainly of teenagers, urban African-Americans and rural whites. The development of Top 40 programming structures (Rothenbuhler and McCourt 2004) was paralleled by the growth of black music format stations (George 1988; Barlow 1999) through to the 1960s. From these roots, a dominant form of AM pop radio developed, built around personality DJs and a fast rotation of a few records, selected on the basis of market information published in music and radio trade journals.
By 1960, then, a dominant music radio ‘mainstream’ had been established in the USA. Presentation became a highly conventional form, taking many of the mannerisms of black radio presenters, but codifying them into a youth-orientated ‘total station sound’, in which the single elements of personality and recorded music were less important than the overall identity of the station. The centralisation, and later the computerisation, of music programming became a central part of ensuring that the station sound predominated. Although as competition within music radio intensified new formats of music broadcasting were developed (Barnes 1988; Berland 1993), pop AM stations relied on well-worked-through formulas to hold market share. These formulas were only challenged in the late 1960s and early 1970s by stations operating on the FM band.
College radio, as distinct from university-based radio stations, developed in the 1960s, to some degree in parallel with FM radio as a technical method of transmission and as a style of music radio. Both the expanded college stations and the for-profit stations explored new forms of presentation and music programming aimed at a rising, young and increasingly wealthy middle class population that saw itself as part of a music-centric counterculture (Eyerman and Jamison 1998: 106 to 139). This expansion in music radio took advantage of the opportunity to transmit on the underused VHF band, and of regulatory changes which discouraged simultaneous AM and FM broadcasting.
Transmission of sound by modulating the frequency of the radio wave, rather than its amplitude, had been established by RCA as early as 1935, but the technical challenges of broadcasting pictures, the second world war, and regulatory changes over the frequencies of VHF transmission standards meant that a settled system was not in place until it was used to send stereo signals as part of the development of domestic high-fidelity audio playback systems (Shingler and Wieringa 1998: 7 to 10). The retarded social application of FM radio and the relatively high cost of FM receivers created an underused broadcast space that, in contrast to the highly formatted AM broadcasters, allowed experimentation with music programming and presentation that was later to be called freeform radio. In Steven Van Zandt’s mythologizing words, the form of broadcasting that developed as FM in the US was ‘quieter, even though it was louder. Peaceful, while it spoke of revolution. Slower, while we evolved at an inconceivably rapid pace’ (2001: viii). The presenters, and their choices of music, were actively constructed as offering an alternative to AM pop radio where, in the contemporary critique from freeform radio pioneer Tom Donahue, ‘the disc jockeys have become robots performing their inanities at the direction of programmers who have succeeded in totally squeezing the human element out of their sound’ (1967: 2).
These freeforms of music radio returned the control of music selection to the programme presenter, who adopted an antithetical style to AM pop radio, purposely juxtaposing music of very different styles; playing lengthy album tracks rather than high-rotation singles; talking slowly for long periods, or not at all; never interrupting a music track and maybe even leaving pregnant pauses (Keith 1997; Neer 2001). The presentation styles were of particular appeal to college students, who adopted many of the practices in their new low-power campus stations.
By contrast, the main thrust of forms of cultural uplift programming, which had motivated the university-based broadcasters of half a century before, was focused on the development of a national public radio system. In the early 1970s, the newly formed NPR distributed classical music concerts for broadcast by public stations, but they did little to engage with a wider issue of diversity of music (McCourt 1999). However, the trajectories of anti-format broadcasting, alternative provision and cultural uplift were to play out in music culture and college radio over the next-thirty five years, through the idea of alternative music cultures.