Wednesday 1 February 2023

Radio Gaga

It often seems that there are plenty of things for people to get annoyed and upset about these days, and I sense that we're getting too good at getting annoyed. In reality that probably isn't true: it's just that the internet has given us somewhere to express our annoyance, and some people have accepted that gift with tiresome glee.

Some of the things that cause annoyance really do matter - our own wellbeing or that that of our loved ones; questions regarding the morality and integrity of those in positions of power and influence; political policies and decisions; issues specific to our own lives, our families, our workplaces, or our neighbourhood. Other things arouse passions and strong opinions but actually don’t matter at all: most obviously sport and entertainment. The passions and anger that sport generates, if kept proportionate and in check, provide a valuable safety valve for anger and emotions that might otherwise become destructive.

A lot of our anger and frustration is these days termed “First World problems” - things that annoy and frustrate us which are in reality little or no cause for real suffering, and stem from the fact that many of us are spoilt by the relative luxury in which we live compared to previous generations, and to many people in other parts of the world. We should all try to remain aware that a sense of proportion is important regarding whatever is annoying us. 

So with that preamble out of the way, I'm going to write about something that has annoyed me, and by all accounts many others, in recent times and especially in recent weeks: radio, and in particular some changes over recent months to BBC Radio 2, the soundtrack to the lives of so many, and in particular to older adults like me.

The on-air announcement by 71-year-old Ken Bruce that he had chosen to step down from his long-running mid-morning slot on Radio 2 created a surprising amount of response and reaction, and has fed into a narrative which many feel is a pattern since the appointment of a new controller, Helen Thomas. Following soon after the enforced departure of another veteran presenter from a long-held slot, Steve Wright, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Ms Thomas is seeking to lower the average age of presenters, to “update” the prevailing style of music played and hence to target a younger audience.

Ken Bruce

The simplistic reaction is to smile knowlingly and say “that's life, change happens etc”, to leave the baby boomers to whinge about it until they find another radio station playing “their” music and something else to complain about from the comfort of their index-linked pension fuelled lifestyle.

We have, after all, been here before, thirty years ago, when Matthew Bannister took over as controller of Radio One and purged that station of the “Smashy and Nicey” generation which was, like the typical listener of the time, growing older. Then, as now, many listeners reacted with dismay, accused the BBC of ageism and in many cases defected to other, commercial, stations. Nothing lasts forever.

Matthew Bannister's changes came at the start of what proved to be a pivotal time in the history of rock and pop, when the decline of the “hit single”, of “the charts” and later of the purchase of physical music recordings was just starting to be felt. A generation which had grown up with “pop” music, very much their music as opposed to that of their parents and grandparents, was growing older and refusing to grow out of what was thought to be a phenomenon of rebellious youth. Back in the day, older people were like your proverbial granny in Slade's Merry Christmas, Everybody, telling you that “the old songs are the best”, meaning gentle, melodic tunes.

But as we aged, we, the baby boomer generation were, like Noddy Holder's granny, “up and rock and rolling with the rest”. We not only carried on listening to rock and roll, sixties pop, seventies glam rock, punk and new wave, but we also embraced the music being enjoyed by the next generations. This phenomenon was already apparent at the time of Bannister's infamous purge of Radio One, with the Britpop explosion of the mid nineties proving to be the last hurrah of hit singles and physical music recordings, and artists like Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, the Lightning Seeds and many others, not to mention teen idols like The Spice Girls, Take That and Boyzone producing songs which owed everything to the sixties and seventies, and appealed to kids, parents and grandparents alike.

And that's where it started to get complicated: Bannister's purge of the DLTs, the Tony Blackburns, the Simon Bates, the Steve Wrights of this world sent them to Radio 2 or to commercial radio, and there they might have stayed, endlessly recycling their fab and groovy hits to an ageing audience, were it not for the for the fact that the older generation was still liking the new stuff, and the younger generation was liking the old stuff.

My own children grew up listening to my 60s, 70s and 80s CD collection, and rather than thinking of it as “old people's music”, they loved it just as I had done at their age. Music by The Beatles, The Stones, The Eagles, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, The Bee Gees, Abba, Motown, 80s power ballads - all from before their time - became as much a soundtrack to their lives as it had been to mine. And meanwhile, I was embracing artists like all the above mentioned Britpop, Coldplay, Kaiser Chiefs, Keane, Amy Winehouse, Adele, The Killers and many more, whilst artists from my younger years were in many cases still releasing new material which appealed to all ages. Moreover, anthemic songs like We are the Champions, Hi Ho Silver Lining, Is this the way to Amarillo, Rockin' all over the World, Hey Jude and above all Sweet Caroline have acquired a ubiquity which few would have foreseen at the time of their original release. Known and sung, word perfectly, by people aged 5 to 95, at weddings, football matches and other joyous gatherings.

Musical tastes, which had in my youth created a very real divide between me and my parents, was now a powerful bond between me and my kids.

And so to 2023, and the fate of BBC Radio 2. Helen Thomas may think that she is refreshing Radio 2 and reaching out to a younger demographic. Maybe she is, but to base decision-making on what seems increasingly like a laughably outdated understanding of musical tastes and sociological behaviours seems to me and to many people of ALL ages to be a very short-sighted, simplistic and potentially deeply harmful way of proceeding, especially given the BBCs historic remit as a kind of embodiment of British values and culture.

Yes, Steve Wright and Ken Bruce are getting on in years, but their fans stretch back into a far younger demographic. Wright may be old, he may have the look of a recluse, but his youthful voice, his mastery of the zoo format radio that he pioneered and his catholic taste in music provided a perfect soundtrack to the working week for millions, of all ages. His sidekicks Tim Smith and Janey Lee Grace were also intuitively real, and provided a wonderful antidote to Wright's persona. Wright himself was not only a very good interviewer of celebrity guests, but also had enough self-awareness to send himself up with the whole “DJ Silly boi” and  no ‘g' thing which heralded the end of the working week in such joyful style. His somewhat predictable humour, his catchphrases and idiosyncracies had the air of the embarrassing uncle - a bit weird, sometimes a bit cringe worthy, possibly even a bit creepy, but nevertheless much loved and somehow very reassuring.

Ken Bruce may be a portly bald-headed septuagenarian, but he has his finger on the pulse of how middle England in its broadest sense thinks and feels. Through the difficult and isolating days of Covid lockdowns, he, like many, was “working from home” with the perfect blend of awareness of collective suffering yet also of the need to chivvy us all along. And his musical tastes are absolutely not stuck in the past: he has embraced and promoted good music from every era, valuing and cherishing the best of the past alongside all the good stuff which is still emerging in the fields of pop and rock.

The BBC hasn't yet admitted it, but it is abundantly clear that Scott Mills has been a disaster in Steve Wright's former slot. An ageing DJ with no intuitive feel for his audience's taste, he comes across like a man embarrassingly refusing to admit he's past it. His show feels like an awkward warm up set in Magaluf done by a superannuated mobile DJ hoping nobody will notice his paunch and his wrinkles. When I hear Scott Mills, I always have a mental picture of a man wearing a backwards baseball cap in a desperate attempt to look down with the kids.

Steve Wright and his successor Scott Mills

Sadly, Radio 2 is collectively heading down the same road. Zoe Ball comes across as far too matey with her guests and co-presenters, leaving the listener feeling left out rather than included. Her predecessor Chris Evans, despite his millionnaire lifestyle and hell raiser past, felt more like “one of us”. Sara Cox, too, has started to sound a little desperate, putting on silly voices in the hope that it will sound cool in an ironic post-modern way, but unfortunately she just sounds - well, silly.

But of course  these days, I seldom listen to any of them. Like many others, I have moved to Greatest Hits Radio, where I await the triumphant arrival of Ken Bruce in a few weeks' time. Their advertising department must be rubbing its hands with glee as ratings and hence revenues soar.

On Greatest Hits, I have rediscovered Simon Mayo, himself lost to Radio 2 some years ago, but still relaxed and effortlessly on trend, in touch with the zeitgeist and the lives of ordinary people in a way that Scott Mills simply isn't. Mayo comes across as a cool ageing man at ease with, but not obsessed by, his age. Ken Bruce and Steve Wright share that trait of character, which was in many ways the essence of Radio 2 in recent decades .

So there I am, a disgruntled older man, moaning about change. I offer two points in mitigation before I shut up:

The first is this: the knowledge that my “disgruntledness” (a good word if it doesn't exist) is shared by millions, including many much younger than me. My thirtysomething, gay, Labour-voting, Brexit-hating daughter agrees with everything that I say on this topic. She's millennial to the core, yet resents Scott Mills and all that he represents with a passion. And I know many of her generation and even younger who feel the same way.

The second is this: that I do NOT want to hear just music of the 60s/70s/80s. I love plenty of music from the past 30 years. Radio 2 in the 21st century had become a place where “music of the future and music of the past” were played and promoted in equal measure. My one gripe with Greatest Hits Radio, if it is to be my new home, is the obsession with the musical past. Perhaps Ken Bruce could fix this when he joins.

And do you know what? My daughter even agrees with me on that last point

So please, can someone at the BBC see sense before they alienate and lose several generations all at once? National, commercial-free radio is our friend, a medium of unique value, and used wisely is a wonderfully unifying glue to an increasingly fragmented society. Divisive ageism is not the way forward, indeed it is - irony of ironies - hopelessly outdated.

Let's leave the last word about all this Radio Gaga to Freddie Mercury, who, had he not been taken from us too soon, would now be an old man of 76. Old peoples' music? I don't think so...

Let's hope you never leave, old friend

Like all good things, on you we depend

So stick around, 'cause we might miss you

When we grow tired of all this visual

You had your time, you had the power

You've yet to have your finest hour

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