Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Radio considered as a metaphor for a nation: part 32413

So Capital Radio - a London behemoth for 37 years - is coming to large swathes of the rest of the UK on FM. In reality, it's merely the logical conclusion of a process that's been under way for two decades. Like the post-war mixed economy model that created them, the original ILR stations - the ones that routinely interspersed "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" and "Blue Monday" with plugs for jumble sales - were, for all their positive attributes, uneasy hybrids constantly being pushed in two conflicting, irreconcilable directions. One of these decisively triumphed over the other with the Act of 20 years ago, and within half a decade most of what existed in the commercial sector was "local" only in the most theoretical sense, coming from interchangeable buildings in interchangeable towns and playing interchangeable music. The development of British commercial radio - instigated by Heath, stopped in its tracks for a while by Labour and the Annan Committee - was flawed and compromised on multiple levels, but it could not have been anything else because to get on the air at all, even 30 years ago, it was necessary to appeal to local elites, quasi-feudal fiefdoms whose power even as late as that now seems literally unbelievable. The quasi-nationalisation of commercial FM pop radio in Britain seems to sum up the final death of restricted, small-scale local semi-capitalism, the point when the last link (outside, perhaps, a few unrepresentative fringe areas, many outside England where the rules may still be different) between pop and the old structures it used to have to fit itself around is symbolically broken for good.

Inevitably, the very people who lament the coming of unbridled Top 40 commercial radio on FM, with no lingering ties to place and history, are very often the same people who yearned for precisely that kind of radio (the offshore stations were every bit as short-term capitalist and dismissive of all other interests as Global Radio is, the only difference was that the political consensus then didn't approve of such things) during their formative years, usually some point between Suez and the coming of the new capitalism, roughly 1956 to 1984. For all they moaned about the "communist" tactics of the Wilson government against the offshore stations, and lamented the poor reception of Radio Luxembourg, they'd have been secretly repulsed had the British state embraced and celebrated pop music, and given them multiple commercial networks plus a BBC equivalent. Had such a thing happened back then, most of these future Thatcher voters would have been exposed as establishmentarians in disguise, at least as right-wing as their parents, and that would never have done. The old restrictions were deceptively convenient for the boomers to the extent that they gave them a platform to define themselves as "rebellious" and "anti-establishment" far beyond their true status as such on the issues that really mattered.

As pop has become the establishment culture to which all seeking power must conform (Brown's real undoing; we're just too close to it to see it yet) the more intelligent and thoughtful of those raised between the collapse of British power and the advent of naked capitalism in the UK may well feel, as I do, disillusioned with pop as a direct result of the Blairite degradation of the political process. But they are outnumbered by those who merely wish for the old restrictions to be continued as a means of covering their tracks - anything to avoid facing how right-wing and kneejerk they actually are, anything to avoid dealing with the fact that they are the masters now. Most of the rest of Europe has had national commercial FM pop radio for years, and in many ways it makes sense for Britain to follow, and use digital methods to fill the gaps; the only reason it hasn't had this sort of radio until now is deep-rooted official inertia (the continental equivalents of Radios 3 and 4 manage to take up far less of the spectrum than their BBC counterparts) and the fact that the decision-makers when the national commercial licences were given out in the pre-Blair early '90s were still of a wholly different generation. But the further institutionalisation of Britain as a deregulated quasi-American economy - everything the ILR anoraks wished for when they were young - unsettles that generation on multiple levels; quite apart from finally exposing them as the self-serving right-wingers they've been for practically half a century, it makes bad pop sound, for the first time, exactly as bad as it is. For every "Good Vibrations" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" the offshore stations played vast quantities of boring banality which, in itself, was and is no better and no worse than most of what the new Capital will play. It's just that the old romanticism of scarcity made bad pop sound good. Now it has to stand up for and of itself, and within the orthodoxies of Anglo-American capitalism it isn't pretty. Now, more than ever, we have to look elsewhere.


  1. At least in the sea of "brand names" the mask is off. In 1996, Kiss were given a license to entertain us simple Yorkshire folk with their fine mix of fine dance music. The test transmissions were fantastic - just what I'd dreamed of, "dance music" seemed to mean everything from 60's soul, 70's funk, disco, reggae, house, electro, hip hop to the then pretty cutting-edge drum'n'bass. It started broadcasting on 14th February 1997 and it lived up to its promise.... and then, on the weekend Princess Diana snuffed it and Tony Blair "directed" (his words not mine) the nations collective brain to shit (my words!) horror-of-horrors Kiss 105 became "Galaxy 105" after a buy-out, and quickly became home to "dance music" only of the kind found in Woolworths, and continued a musical downward spiral until it became indistinguishable from the "mainstream" ILR stations. I felt cheated.... I was cheated, and to this day I have a car proudly displaying a "Kiss 105" window sticker to savour that moment. That and the buy-out of another reasonably promising (and "no playlist" policy) of the Sean Tilley-helmed KCFM to the Lincs Group last year means there is no real hope for decent commercial radio. Why does everything have to be the bloody same?
    Chris Barratt

  2. Yes, I've often heard good things about the original Northern Kisses (and Choice when it was in Brum) before they all became Galaxy, a station that to me has always epitomised the worst and crudest of British capitalism, lacking both the genuine, honest populism of mainstream US radio (which works because they've always had it, it's embedded in the culture) *and* anything good or balanced that has ever come out of this continent.

    The answer to your final question is found precisely in the above-mentioned nature of British capitalism: it is much narrower in its bounds both than its model (US capitalism) and the more social model reflected in the broadcasting of our fellow Europeans, by its very nature it creates crude monopolies by giving the "majority" (in reality just the largest minority) absolute power and bugger everybody else. Our fellow Europeans mostly have several times the FM stations we do and many times the variety, because their versions of capitalism allow it. Even the American version is preferable to ours in this respect.

    Did you get the *specific* reference re. Human League/New Order/jumble sales, btw?