Retuning the Bandwidth
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Are Radio Playlists Varied and Balanced in Terms of Genre and Gender?
I have been thinking about radio…
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a lot recently because I think, more and more, it is a hugely influential medium. Not only does radio provide a platform for rising artists and big names but it gives guidance to festivals when it comes to booking acts. Look back at your childhood and I think we can all agree radio was hugely powerful and exciting back then – whether it was listening to the charts or discovering a great new artist. I grew up listening to the charts and what was buzzing in the 1990s and have been a fan of radio ever since. One’s own tastes and habits might be a bit restrictive but, with radio, you get this spread and sense of diversity! That means we are all more open and educated regarding music; not sticking with the same thing and able to experience a lot more. There are stations I tune into all of the time but, more and more, I wonder whether radio playlists are as eclectic and bold as they should be. I keep mentioning (my favourite station) BBC Radio 6 Music because it is awash with great music and options. I have been listening hard lately and found that, like a lot of stations, there is that chance to go further. They are beholden – like most commercial options – to regular playlists which means, invariably, one will hear the same song repeated frequently through the day; this can often go on for weeks before a new playlist is introduced. That is fine if the song being rinsed is wonderful but, if not, that can start to grate…
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I will not name any songs - but you do start to hear the same things repeated and, yeah, it gets a bit annoying. I know why this is done: to make sure as many people hear that song; not everyone listens daily so it makes sense to repeat the songs quite a bit. Because the market is less singles-orientated and, I feel, the album needs more exposure, I wonder whether that radio strategy is wise. It is nice hearing the new releases played but I wonder, rather than a static, one-month playlist that plays these same numbers over and over, why not refresh it every week? I find that, too, stations tend to focus on the bigger artists. I know there are remits and guidelines but it would add more range and variation to playlists if rising artists were included. Getting back to that single vs. album argument, and you often get artists who have new album out and the same single from that album is featured in the playlist – why not include other tracks from the album? I do understand that there is a lot more to playlists than personal tastes and random pickings: there is a lot of maths, science and statistics included in the process. Not only are rigid playlists a bit of a downside regarding radio but, look at the big stations and the music they play, and can one say that the gender balance is right?!
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There are some D.J.s that are keen to include as many women into the mix as possible but I feel there is this general ignorance. So many D.J.s play men back-to-back and throw the odd woman in there. It means that, across the broad, you get this male-heavy playlist. I can understand how hard it is to have a fifty-fifty split across the board but, look at new and older music, and you are spoiled for choice! I do worry producers and bosses are not making enough effort to ensure the gender breakdown of their playlists and schedules are even. I guess it is okay for shows to tip a bit in favour of the men but, on some shows, there is a huge gulf in terms of men and women. Not only does that create a homogenised and rather limited sound but it sends a bad message to female musicians who are trying to get their music heard – stations favouring men more might lead them to believe they do not stand a chance. I think it is important to be conscious of sexism issues in music and relate that to festivals. Festivals do take a lot of inspiration from radio stations regarding their bookings and, whilst one cannot blame stations for the gender disparity at festivals, I think a more gender-balanced outlook would help festivals achieve greater parity. Maybe these are small grumblings but it is not hard to retune the playlists and make them more exciting, varied and gender-balanced.
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Not only do I feel there are limitations regarding gender and new tracks but I also think stations are not that bold regarding certain artists. It is great hearing the same big songs played by those familiar artists but it can be a bit samey. Think about legendary bands like The Beatles and, when it comes to their music being played, can one say stations are digging through the archives hard enough? Quite often, I hear the same six or seven Beatles songs played; some albums/songs rarely get an outing and it makes me a bit miffed. Familiarity is great but, when you open things up and play one of those lesser-heard songs, it is really exciting. David Bowie, Joni Mitchell; Pink Floyd and The Cure – do we tend to rely on the same songs from these artists when, it reality, there is a huge number of golden slices to select?! It is funny because, on some radio stations, they announce which band/artist is coming up and you can almost guess what song it is going to be before they play it! I think, if we want to inspire listeners and make them more aware about great artists’ full range, stations need to make more of an effort to be a bit more eclectic regarding song selections. This sense of boldness should also apply to the balance of mainstream/established artists and rising acts.
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It is impossible to please everyone but I do feel like, with certain artists repeated and there being this rather samey outlook on some stations, there is a whole layer of music ignored. So many great approaching artists do not get played; some iconic acts miss out and, in terms of genre, stations are missing a tricky. I do realise stations have their demographics and guidelines but that does not mean they are as honed as their playlists suggests. So many stations are restricted when it comes to the length of a song, too. Some of the cooler brands take risks but there is still that rule regarding playing long songs: ensure most of the tracks run around three or four minutes. We are told that is the ideal length for a Pop classic and instant hit: this does mean that so many artists and genres are not getting the exposure they deserve. I do wonder whether stations are at the mercy of strict guidelines and old conventions. The music landscape has changed a lot and, whilst some radio stations are keeping their finger on the pulse, others seem to be languishing behind. Music tastes and demands are, I guess, subjective – so everyone will have their own ideals of what makes great radio and whether there needs to be improvement. I do think that there needs to be more done to tip the gender imbalance and, regarding fresh artists, maybe a bit more room in the schedules.
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It is hard to tick all the boxes and make sure everyone is represented. I used to see a lot of the classic albums getting a nod from stations. Again, one cannot include every big anniversary that comes along but I think it is important to celebrate these records to younger listeners and give them their due. I miss the classic album series that used to be on T.V. and, as many titanic albums get a mere nod from stations, could more time be set aside to give these iconic albums a proper celebration? I love radio right now so, regarding these critiques and recommendations, they are very small and not meant to give a false view. I think British radio is doing a great job regarding getting on top of it all; the great new music around and making sure the classics are not ignored. To me, a simple bit of expansion and malleability would give the gold an extra gleam. From ensuring there are more female artists on the playlist to being a bit more adventurous regarding the best-known acts; maybe thinking about the monthly playlists and their impact. I am not expert but, as a listener, I have heard from quite a few other people who share the same concerns. Radio is the most powerful tool in music regarding getting the word out about new songs; making sure we experience as much different music as possible. It is brilliant and I tip my hat to the D.J.s, producers and stations around the country. Maybe, with a few subtle tweaks and adjustments, British radio could become…
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