And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Broadcast media: dumbing down or catering for demand?

Recently, Britain’s Radio 1 performed a kind of broadcasting experiment that got me thinking. They called it the ‘daytime takeover’ – essentially, their DJs with shows normally relegated to the graveyard shift were given the chance to take over on the primetime slots – breakfast shows, drivetime, etc. These DJs typically played a mix of eclectic music from the more obscure end of the spectrum, hence their appearance at the arse-end of the schedule.

What was apparent throughout the marketing and approach the BBC / Radio 1 took to this takeover was what was left unspoken: this was a chance for Radio 1 to actually play some decent, quality music for a change. Of course, it was never marketed like this to the public, with the BBC ever mindful not to lessen their populist appeal any more than necessary. But this was what it boiled down to – a chance for the ‘legitimate’ music DJs to have a go.

Now, I’m under no illusions about Radio 1’s audience. It’s the most popular British radio station, it’s aimed at a mainstream market and is obliged to play chart music for various reasons. It’s not about to start throwing obscure Belgian jungle into Chris Moyles’ breakfast show. But why do both the controllers and the critics all-but-openly acknowledge that the stuff it plays is mostly crap? Rather than throwing a bone to the ‘quality’ DJs every now and then, why not attempt to challenge the reasons that the typical Radio 1 listener wants to hear Rihanna and JLS 17 times a day?

I’m sure Radio 1 has some sort of high-minded ‘statement of intent’ or similar that outlines its remit to provide both mainstream and “cutting-edge” programming. Great. But like other forms of media, the gradual dumbing-down of the mainstream is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you broadcast it, they will watch.

While mulling all of this over in my head, I began to second guess myself. As a smart arse wannabe music critic, I’ve given myself the arrogant right to decide what’s good and what isn’t – and now I’m spouting forth from on high about how the musically ignorant should spend their listening time. Does Joe Q. Public really need to ‘discover’ Joy Divison’s obscure B-sides? Should Jane Doe bother picking up that only-released-in-Japan bootleg of Throbbing Gristle? Would it really improve their lives? More to the point, for smart arse music fascists, would it somehow cheapen their enjoyment of underground music if it was rudely thrust into the drivetime playlist?

I do admit to despairing occasionally when flicking idly through the terrestrial TV channels and finding show after show comprising either celebrity reality shows, tired gameshow formats and schlocky teen drama. It’s become as much of a cliché to moan about these things as it is for them to be shown. The internet is at risk of going the same way (as I’ve written before here) – the uptake of users on sites like Facebook and Twitter have taken them firmly into the mainstream, with Farmville and the like becoming just another way for people to idly waste away their lives instead of taking advantage of the awesome power of the internet to (for example) self-publish; learn; interact; discover. Of course, I’m being a starry-eyed dreamer by pretending people are going to come home from work and start updating Wikipedia or something, but they could at least meet me halfway here.

So what to take from all this? How can we continue to progress as a cultural society when even the controllers of that culture are acknowleding the lack of value in the stuff they’re putting out? Perhaps forcing listeners to experience stuff that’s completely alien to them is overkill. But there has to be some middle ground. Sneaking a Captain Beefheart track into the regular playlist probably won’t win many converts, true. But perhaps if there was some way to distance ourselves from the personality culture that dominates the arts in the UK, then maybe there’d be more interest in unknown artists who play good music, regardless of how many copies of their record were distributed in the Daily Mail, or more audiences in theatres for shows that didn’t feature the blonde one from Hollyoaks.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being an intellectual snob. Let them eat cake. And listen to fucking Rihanna.