Wot no talking radio?

Back in the days when music radio was still in the hands of the creatives rather than a badly programmed computer, eccentricity was allowed to prevail behind the scenes.

London’s Kiss 100 FM, the first legal dance music station, in the first few years of existence employed a wonderful man called Andy as their Head of Engineering. Sadly, Andy unexpectedly passed away four years ago, but he is remembered as a kind of coca-cola drinking hairy hobbit who, in those exciting early days, ‘lived’ in the ‘Racks Room’ at Kiss.

Whilst the rest of the building had the output of Kiss burbling away through the tannoy, wherever Andy was would have Radio 4.  Not just burbling, but on quite loudly.  Popping in to see him and having any form of conversation was a battle with the Radio 4 audio.  The same was true at his home.

He seemed to have Radio 4 on whenever he was awake, rather than tuning in for specific programmes.  So whether it was an in depth programme for farmers, a programme about money, Woman’s Hour, or some random one off about the history of custard, all would just burble away into Andy‘s ears.

It used to puzzle me that he would listen to everything regardless of its extreme diversity, rather than dip in selectively for specific programmes that were relevant to him.   Was he alone in doing this?  Indeed, today, do people just leave Radio 4 on?  I tend to think not.

In contrast, they might leave London’s LBC on, and the reason makes sense.  Generalising, LBC‘s output is the same all the time.  It is a ‘conversation’ between the listeners and the presenter, who is sometimes joined by ‘experts’.  The topics of conversation tend to be ‘philosophically’ about items in the forefront of public consciousness rather than extended Q and As on, say, gardening problems. Generally, a topic will occupy about 20 minutes unless it is generating a massive response, and all callers tend to use the phrases “I think…” and “in my view”.

Personally, I enjoy LBC, and it is something I feel safe with.  It will always be the same thing whenever I tune in. If I don’t feel drawn to that form of stimulation I don’t tune in.  I don’t live in London, and I don’t listen because I once did.  I listen because of the format.  If Liverpool had the equivalent I’d listen to that.

Possibly my favourite type of talking radio is the style that was once provided by Chris Moyles when he was part of Radio 1.  Again, like LBC, the decision to tune in would be taken knowing what to expect, and that the content would be more or less the same whenever tuning in.  This is not the case with Radio 4.

Talking, it seems to me, is a unique activity that radio can and should do.  It’s something an iPod can’t do. Just playing songs one after the other is something an iPod can easily do. So, radio stations shouldn’t be trying to compete with an iPod by just playing back-to-back songs.

Ok, I hear you say that an iPod can be used to listen to speech based, er, podcasts, and that’s right.  But, a podcast has no immediacy.  I love listening to timeless radio plays or somebody reading a story, or maybe a quiz or a bit of comedy, but it’s not the same as listening to exchanges of views or reaction to ‘stuff’.  The beauty of the Chris Moyles format, not unlike the Danny Baker format, is that they rely on the back and forth, the seamless inclusion of the listeners.  Everybody becomes an instant correspondent, and, as with LBC, the topic can be extremely current.  An iPod can’t do that; a podcast can’t do that.

I guess I’ve validated a function for ‘radio’, so why is there no real talking radio, especially from the commercial sector?

LBC is a commercial station, and, albeit that it’s swallowed into the portfolio of Global, alongside Capital, Heart, yada yada, it works and it has an audience.

But outside of London there’s nothing.  Well, there’s talkSPORT of course, but that just safely talks, well, sport. As do commercial radio stations ahead of also providing match commentary.  Why no talking the talk that LBC talks?

I’m not suggesting a rival to Radio 4, programming.  That would be prohibitively expensive to produce, but, well, LBC is the model, surely?  Programming is relatively cheap to produce, especially when you factor in not having to pay PRS/PPL and all the other rip-off music agencies.

Instead, the commercial sector just effectively leaves an iPod with a tiny playlist of songs on shuffle playing away to a decreasing audience, having turned off the light and locked the door to the radio station.  Why not talk with the audience instead of running away from them?