A gazillion years ago (well, back in the mid-1980s) there were two radio stations operating from ships in the North Sea. There was the old establishment sound of Radio Caroline, and there was new kids on the block, Laser 558.
Radio Caroline was the plodder. It played a large selection of songs, catering for the youth of the day as well as their grandparents, in a bizarre clashing medley of eras and songs, but it had absolutely no X-Factor. The presenters were on the whole lifeless, lacklustre, railway-station announcer-soundalikes and took themselves so very seriously. Presentation was something that had stopped being fun on Radio Caroline back in the 1960s.
Innovation, personality and individuality wasn’t encouraged, it was frowned upon. Presenters weren’t even allowed to mention what songs they’d just played on Caroline.
Correspondingly, the listening public just wasn’t listening. True, a bank of a few thousand ‘anoraks’ hung on and were happy to listen to anything and everything that Caroline broadcast, including the religious programming, but the ordinary listeners just weren’t there.
Then along came Laser 558.
Now then, Laser did have the X-Factor. It sounded loud and it sounded fun, promised to never be more than a minute away from music, and had exciting new zapping noises as its jingles. It immediately seemed like it had the energy and enthusiasm of the pirate radio of the 1960s. It played a far smaller variety of songs, but all fitted with each other and had the same atmosphere about them. The presenters sounded like they were enjoying themselves. Within a few months Laser 558 was on everywhere. The listening public was listening and enjoying what they heard. Presentation was snappy, relevant and fun.
Soon so many people were listening to Laser that the commercial radio stations around the UK were complaining and goading the authorities to take action against them. In a vague attempt at appearing to do something, the Department of Trade and Industry parked an observation boat alongside the ships transmitting as Caroline and Laser.
The Caroline reaction was to collectively clench buttocks and to pretend nothing whatsoever was happening. Boring programming continued as normal.
The Laser reaction was to laugh and point on the air and to re-broadcast their presenters shouting at the observation boat through a loud hailer in order to tell the occupants that their boat was ugly. This and other antics ensured that listeners were not only tuned in to Laser for the times when they would normally be listening to ‘music radio’, but that they would rush home and switch on a portable and listen rather than watch TV.
For a short period of time, Laser became compulsive listening. Not for radio anoraks necessarily, but for ordinary members of the public.
Of course, like all new ventures, Laser ran out of money and died after a sadly short life. It left behind a legacy of its own legend. The legend of Laser 558, a bit like the legacy of the pirate radio stations of the 1960s, is something that far outshone the reality and it grows greater with the passage of time.
Laser disappeared and Radio Caroline hopped over and occupied the frequency they’d been using. Even with this advantage, within a few weeks of Caroline’s droning confused one-size-fits-all service, nobody was listening to offshore radio any more.
However, Laser is another example, possibly the last example, of how the public are looking for fun irreverent music radio. And yet, commercial music radio is sooooo boring. Like Radio Caroline, it deliberately has nothing to offer to create that level of excitement and interest that could so easily be grabbing listeners by their balls and making them stay tuned in.
Why aren’t they bothering?