News Radio 1: The Unofficial Party Of Britain’s Youth?

Radio 1: the unofficial party of Britain’s youth? That’s the goal apparently. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Controller of Radio 1 Ben Cooper stated that ‘I would love Radio 1 to be the unofficial political party of young people in the UK… Just celebrate it rather than just being a bunch of hoodies who are doing wrong all the time.’ Cooper worked at the station for almost a decade under former controller Andy Parfitt, so has had ample time to decide what to do with it. To cut a few stories short, after a rough time in the 90s Parfitt ushered in a very bright era for Radio 1 in the 2000s. What seems to be the trouble is that he did such a good job that the audience he built up won’t leave. You see, it’s not just enough for Radio 1 to have a large audience, it must also be the right audience.

While Radio 1 is predominantly aimed at teenagers and early 20-somethings, its average audience age has actually increased to 32: double its lower-bound. Also, approximately 10% of its audience is also over 45. According to the great BBC master plan most of these people should be writing complaint letters to their local stations about traffic lights by now, or listening to Radio 4. Instead, they’re loving Tinie Tempah, trying to win tickets to the Big Weekend and telling Greg James how fit he is. This is the equivalent of your Mum telling all your friends how much she likes your favourite song. Except, it’s practically the same thing. With Radio 1 being a mildly insecure adolescent at the kitchen table moaning ‘FFS Mum, is ur lyf so boring dat u hav 2 nik mine???’ The more I think about it, the ‘Mum’ in the analogy could quite possibly be your Mum in real life.

But it is trying. There has been some excellent programming covering the issues of young people. A heavy focus is often placed on students at various levels of education and University tours are common. Also, one of the first acts in Cooper’s reign was to clear out some of the longer serving overnight DJs. Cue outrage from long-time Gilles Peterson and Judge Jules listeners, whose proclamations that ‘You can’t get rid of them! They got me into… back in…’ unwittingly validated Cooper’s decision. In a way, I think that the eventual switch (coming in April) will be a trial run for more head-rolling. I mean, ‘re-shuffling.’ If replacement DJs such as Skream, Benga and Toddla T do bring in that fabled younger audience then surely a precedent will be set. All this points the the great big elephant in the room: Chris Moyles.

At 37 years old and in the hot seat of their biggest slot, Moyles is an obvious target when the sensitive subject of age is bought up. Cooper has been supportive of Moyles, but cagey as to whether he will last to the end of his contract in 2014. I’ve always been a bit polygamous with my listening habits, flitting from station to station like a socially conscious 18 year-old at Prince Harry’s birthday party. As such, a ‘Zoo Radio’ show like Moyles’ that relies on the listener being ‘part of the gang’ often falls flat with me. I’ve tuned in before and heard some gold, but other times it’s like I’ve been left at the pub with a group of people I don’t know. The other week I tuned in to hear them talking about one of the new Glee songs. They played one, talked over most of it and then had Aled (I think) sing it instead.

The song was ‘Man In The Mirror’; a regular listener might want to hear Aled (I think…) do a passable karaoke cover of one of the finest songs ever written by the greatest entertainer our planet has had the honour of producing. They had clearly thought that a good way of spending some tax-payer-funded time on air is to get a co-presenter to sing it instead. But do you know what one technologically clued up young person smack in the middle of their target audience thought? ”Man In The Mirror’, what a great song. I really feel like listening to it properly now. Luckily, I have that song available to me on three different devices within a two metre range. I think I’ll pop it on.’ In case you’re slow, that person was me.

Now that link / epoch could’ve had an amazing twist at the end. I might’ve missed out on a Sony Gold winning slab of audio porn that would be aped by wannabe jocks for decades. But the point I’m making is that even as a radio enthusiast, to someone who isn’t part of their club it wasn’t particularly interesting. Now to turn this anecdote into something more practical, for me this symbolises why they may struggle to pull that younger audience with Moyles at the helm. That’s not to disrespect Moyles, if I have a fraction of his career then I’ll probably die a happy man. On a personal note, I’m also pleased to see someone with a personality and average looks (no offence Chris) making it in entertainment. There’s hope for me yet!

But watching the new Radio 1 commercials (the one with the thing that looks like a Furby on ‘roids) I’m struggling to see where his show fits in. As Fearne Cotton or Zane Lowe pilot the mutant tea-cosy off into the ether amongst the thunderous roar of Knife Party some text proudly reads ‘New Music. It’s our thing. All day every day.’ Which is cool, as a DIY Radio presenter I’m pretty keen on my new music. But if this is the direction that the station wants to push, why is their biggest show one that plays about five songs an hour? I’m not even saying that Chris has a bad show, he definitely doesn’t. But as I’ve said, a lot of it seems to rely on you already knowing and caring about the team, their opinions and their lives. This is probably why he has retained an audience for so long and numbers remain high, but I can’t help listening and wondering if a younger person is going to want in on it. That is, assuming a ‘younger person’ is what’s being targeted by that great big disco furry in the adverts.

Despite this, I’m still pretty optimistic about Radio 1. It still pushes and takes what would be deemed as risks at other places. Its Social Media still sounds like there is a human controlling it, something most radio stations (or ‘brands’) fail spectacularly at. They’re also one of the few bigger stations who seem to have a good plan and commitment to new music, such as playing it when people might be listening. I should also say that anyone who gets the Foo Fighters and The Strokes to play Carlisle within the space of 24 hours deserves a pat on the back.

The real challenge for them will be adapting with the youth of today (and tomorrow) in a way that previous generations haven’t had to. Connecting with them in the 2010s will be a lot harder than ‘deciding to play punk’ was back in the 1970s. If radio changed in the 2000s then what will happen in the 2010s may be unfathomably seismic. Will kids in 10 years still even care about radio? I pointed out earlier how when I wanted a song, I had it straight away. Legally, easily and on the move. So even the ‘people will still listen in the car’ argument may fade out. But if any major station is going to make that connection I can see it being Radio 1. Ben Cooper has acknowledged the changes that will occur in the industry, with a plan of ‘reinventing radio for the young people of Britain.’ Potentially reshaping our definition of the medium to fit with a changing technological climate. As a station that can afford to make mistakes, they may be the ones leading the way to bring successful new broadcast models to a young audience. This may actually be a blessing in disguise for the commercial sector, who don’t necessarily have much room for well-meaning failures. Once Radio 1 has established the platform, they’ll be able to join them. If Radio 1 can match this technological drive with the right message, talent and content then Ben Cooper may just have his wish.

Tags: Features

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