Daryl Ilbury

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

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