Friday, June 08, 2007

Video Killed The Radio Star....

…Well it didn’t exactly come to pass as Trevor Horn predicted, but now I wonder whether it might be happening more insidiously and indirectly. This week, XFM launched Xu, supposedly an innovative concept handing total control over its daytime programming to its listeners, from 10am through to 4pm. In the first instance, this is total bunkum. Listeners will only be able to select tracks from the very restrictive XFM music library used to create the original playlists, plus, depending on the policy’s success rate, a lot of the music will probably be pre-programmed by music editors anyway. It’s also hardly a novel concept, having been used by various music TV channels for a number of years. By subsuming this concept into their radio networks, are GCap finally fulfilling the Buggles prophecy?

Call me old fashioned – but I think there’s a critical difference between music TV and radio. Music TV, at its most successful, is as much based on visuals as audio – featuring largely expensive promos made by big teams and competent directors. This is partially where the energy and vitality comes from. Radio, lacking this visual identity, requires some form of personality and comment to provide it with identity.

One suggestion has been that XFM owners GCap are simply trying to save money on DJs salaries, which is of course plausible given the company’s commercial imperative. In light of the success of Radio 2 in particular (which has invested heavily in unpredictable choices of on-air talent in recent years), this does seem like a baffling way to cut costs though. Others have suggested that, fearful of technological development and the massive success of online video and social networking, XFM are attempting to create a ‘multimedia experience’ (which sounds horrible) by tying the daytime schedule directly to online content.

I’m all for exciting cross-platform developments. I love on demand functionality and I’m a great admirer of any broadcaster with a strong web presence. Yet there’s a massive problem when corporate bigwigs see ‘interactivity’ as purely synonymous with ‘User Generated Content’. The technologies involved develop so rapidly that a new fad will very quickly emerge and render all this obsolete. Not only this, but those simply looking for a music shuffle feature would surely prefer the more personal iPod, or will turn to more genuinely interactive online services such as (just last week the subject of a $142million takeover by CBS). Interaction between a radio station and its audience works chiefly through its presenters – it’s a tried and tested formula, and it works! As a result, the big innovations in Radio recently seem to have been through the choice of estoteric presenters – Russell Howard on 6Music, Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, amongst other examples.

On a personal level, I’ve found XFM completely disastrous since the Capital takeover. Only John Kennedy’s XPosure show has been consistently worth a listen, but the station’s policy of forcing complete album playbacks into this slot has destroyed the format of the show too frequently. Elsewhere, the station provides no alternative at all, with wall-to-wall Keaneplay Razor Patrol of the likes you can hear on virtually any other station. Radio 2 is genuinely less conventional in its selection of music. It feels like an uncertain time for cutting edge radio at the moment, with Radio 3 cutting back its contemporary output with less jazz and the loss of the excellent Mixing It and now this, a gamble that I sincerely hope fails to pay dividends. The real problem that technology poses to the broadcasting industry is that anyone can now do it themselves (albeit by entering a legal minefield) – those of us who value diversity, and listening that challenges as well as entertains, may well desert traditional broadcasters altogether and find our musical tips elsewhere.

NB: Personal Opinion, not written in a work capacity.

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