Ch.. Ch.. Ch.. Ch.. Changes

Radio is a funny old game.  People who work in it generally really, really love it while a few, of course, simply do it to pay for Mister Tesco’s weekly delivery. But in my experience most radio employees have a visceral attachment to the job that is missing from say a career in telephone engineering or Uber driving. It’s the idea of communicating and making a difference, often having licence not to be a grown up, knowing when to be serious and when to giggle. It caters for all sides of folks’ personalities, and when it goes well there can be a sense of euphoria absent from a good day selling newspapers, fixing cars or making a till balance.

Of course I’d be lying if the word “ego” didn’t appear somewhere too. Working in Radio can massage one’s self importance better, and more frequently, than a hyper active physio on speed dial .

But recently the world of UK radio is waking up to a new dawn that will leave many behind, stranded forever in the night time darkness of unemployment. In anticipation of those changes some are already anxious to try other opportunities, and they say it’s because  “the fun’s gone out of it.”

I was lucky. Really, really lucky. When I started as a student presenting through the night on Radio Clyde in Glasgow the only rule was that I had to stick to what was called needle time. This was a set number of minutes of “regular” music I could play. The Musician’s Union and others thought that if we could only play, say, forty minutes of recorded music in my four hour show then maybe, just maybe, I’d have live musicians in the studio instead and pay them to entertain the shift workers and insomniacs. Of course we never did. Daft rule made by daft people. But we weren’t too daft to get around it.

We discovered that film soundtrack was exempt from the needle time rule, so falling back on Saturday Night Fever, Grease,  Beatles movies, etc, got me through the night without having to talk for hours about the weather, the state of my health, and what those nasty politicians were up to. Also there was access to the “legendary” Canadian Talent Library. I can still see those album covers, used week after week by me after I discovered Canada’s middle of the road songs didn’t count towards our needle time limit either. The artists became legends to a select bunch of listeners – shift workers and insomniacs whose home was the wee small hours.

Very few found fame outside of that select listenership. I can think of Gordon Lightfoot, Maybe Hagood Hardy, but I’m struggling after that, though I remember well the names of the others who remained blissfully anonymous including The Laurie Bower Singers, Rob McConnell, and Johnny Burt. Some had ridiculous names such as the Shufflebabies, Les Foster And Five Fabulous Friends, and good old Doctor Music who I suspect was as much a doctor as I am. Think of elevator music covered in sugar and with treacle the drizzled over the top, all served with a dollop of artificial sweetener. Simpler times!

Before this becomes a programme note to prehistoric commercial radio days, the point is that no one told us what to play back then, and when we graduated to daytime shows, so long as we used the Top 30 and around another 30 recent releases as the backbone of our shows, we could play what we wanted. Fancy hearing Al Green? No problem. How about earth Wind And Fire? Deep Purple? Elton? We all had a free hand, and Radio Clyde became the most listened to station in the country, with people tuning in because of surprises, good banter and interesting guests. The presenters mattered, were local heroes, cherished by the local listeners as their own.

In 2017, things couldn’t be more different. A computer picks the music now, knowledgeable and mustard keen presenters who are passionate about music get no say in what they play, interesting guests are almost nonexistent except on BBC radio, and the same music crops up day after day, hour after hour. I’m not a dinosaur here to tell you that it was better way back then, and I do know that in these days of increased competition the audience will go elsewhere if those surprises I mentioned earlier don’t take their fancy. It was certainly better for us back then , but the question is...was it better for the listeners? They had less choice, fewer stations to flick away to, no DAB.

Next week I’ll talk about the changes coming, the unemployment queue beckoning for local radio staff around the country, and the mewling self obsession expressed on air just now by presenters who are losing their slots.

It’s time for presenters to swap self entitlement for self respect.