Background radio -v- Foreground radio

RAJAR is the name given to the organisation that gives random people a diary and says, “Hey, stick these pretty stickers in the bits over there to indicate what radio station you listened to today and for how long.”

Here’s my take on a couple of things about RAJAR figures and “music radio” (as opposed to “talking radio”), and why figures for those more adventurous (musically) are so bad.

“Music radio” falls into two main styles, but hasn’t previously been examined properly to identify the needs of the potential listener.

So, there’s music radio that people want on in the background and there’s music radio that people want on in the foreground. With me so far?

Radio 1, for example, is not designed to be on in the background. It is playing music that has an immediate and current following and is ‘loved’ by enthusiasts of the bands or artists being played, and its listeners are people who passionately want to know more about what’s being played.  Hence why the presenters talk a lot and are full of information as well as targeted and relevant entertainment.  Interestingly, they use their proper voices rather than put on the silly voices you hear on most commercial stations.

Heart (or Smooth or Magic or Gold), for another example, is designed to be on in the background. It is playing music that doesn’t have that immediacy of interest about it. People already know the music, they’ve heard it a thousand times before. It’s heritage music (a polite way of saying bland). Therefore they don’t need to know more about it in the way people want to know more about fresh new music.

So a format of presenters not saying much apart from an occasional piece of them sounding like a railway station platform change announcement along with 300 songs rotating around back to back, will become popular when those 300 tracks are heritage tracks. We, as radio anoraks, can see to our horror examples of these bland wallpaper stations scoring good RAJAR figures, but it’s because they aren’t actually being ‘listened’ to, they are just on in the background and not actually ‘listened’ to.

On the other hand, we see stations like XFM that aren’t playing all the bland stuff plummet in RAJAR. At first this really doesn’t make sense. Can it really be true that the only radio working in the UK (outside of the untouchable BBC) is bland?

No. I put it to you that the type of modern up front music being played on XFM is the type of music that requires lively informed presentation as part of its hook. However, what owners Global did a few years ago was the complete opposite. They removed all daytime presenters just leaving XFM to burble away in the style of a bland jukebox station.

No, no, no, no. Wrong move. Like Radio 1, XFM was not designed to be on in the background. Its music is foreground music, so it needs to be presented, not just segued. Radio 1 shows this to be true.

And what did we see as the master-plan to try to save XFM? That’s right, they brought the presenters back! They were even allowed to show a tiny bit of personality too, much as Global hates its presenters doing such a thing.

Commercial radio’s real danger is from these thick programmers who are in charge of these stations yet just don’t get it, despite it being their job to. Rather than fix the stations they are breaking because they really don’t understand the music radio listener, they dream up some next wild madcap scheme to further alienate the listener. Why oh why are these mad people still employed, still there to further break things, when in any other type of business they’d have been chucked out the back door as quickly as possible?

Foreground radio is so damn simple to programme because it is so immediate. Employ up front presenters who know the audience (and not just because they’ve been on the telly. Telly presenters don’t automatically make good radio presenters – Global should have learnt this from the disaster that was their Capital breakfast show), share the audience’s love of the particular style of music, and can communicate with them. Like the old days of commercial radio. Like the now days of Radios 1 and 2. Then you’ve grown yourself a radio station people want to listen to, and so your figures will go back up. Full stop.