Thursday 8 November 2012, 13:05 | By

Editor’s Letter: Measuring Radio 1’s success on The Foxometer

Archive Columns Editor's Letter

Robbie Williams

Magic 105.4 Breakfast Show host Neil Fox this week branded his Radio 1 counterpart “brainless” and a “total nob” (presumably meaning knob, as in penis, rather than nob, as in person of high wealth or status, but whatever) on Twitter after Nick Grimshaw told Channel 5 News that he wasn’t sure if Robbie Williams was relevant to Radio 1’s target audience any more.

Now, you might find Fox’s language a bit crude, but I’m sure you’re all nevertheless nodding in agreement with the ‘Doctor': how come Grimshaw “wasn’t sure”, surely he could say with absolute certainty that Robbie is definitely not relevant to Radio 1’s target audience any more? But stop nodding in agreement, because that’s not what Fox meant.

This all stems from the fact that Radio 1 decided not to put Williams’ latest single, ‘Candy’, onto its playlist. Asked to comment on this, Grimshaw said: “I don’t know if he’s now for a Radio 1 audience. I’ve never listened to a Robbie Williams song, but I really like him. To thirteen and fourteen year olds he’s not relevant… they’ve got One Direction. I liked Take That when I was little but I’m not little any more”.

Speaking to Radio Today, Fox countered: “I’m not the voice of youth but Radio 1 are crazy for saying they’re not playing his new song. He’ll still be popular when One Direction have split up. I know [Radio 1 controller] Ben Cooper – he used to produce my Drive show on Capital – but he needs to work out if Radio 1 is a pop station or not”.

Actually, Cooper doesn’t need to do any such thing. He knows exactly what sort of station he’s running, because the service licence provided by the BBC Trust tells him. “The remit of Radio 1 is to entertain and engage a broad range of young listeners with a distinctive mix of contemporary music and speech” the official document says, “its target audience is 15-29 year olds” but “it should also provide some programming for younger teenagers”.

Note no mention of the “pop” word. And remember that Radio 1 has been criticised by the Trust for failing to fully meet its “young listeners” obligation, something Cooper is trying to fix, not least with the appointment of Grimshaw at breakfast.

Now, obviously pop music is a key ingredient required to achieve Radio 1’s aims, but that doesn’t make it purely pop station. After all, if pop was Cooper’s single requirement, the specialist shows would have to go, the daytime playlist would have to become less diverse, and then there’d be the matter of cancelling anything like the recent week-long rock takeover. And Radio 1 would probably have to take fewer risks on newer pop acts and sub-genres – the sorts of artists and songs that will make up the playlists of stations like Magic in ten years time.

Robbie Williams may well still be popular long after One Direction have split up, but that isn’t really the point. One Direction are popular right now, and their fans are Radio 1 listeners. OK, Robbie Williams is also popular right now, hence the number one single, but that doesn’t mean Radio 1 listeners are buying his records (the fact that he got little airplay there and still topped the charts suggests his record buying fans are already tuned in to other stations). And the fact Neil Fox has become Williams’ main defender in all this probably just confirms that Robbie is no longer a Radio 1 sort of act.

Of course at the upper end of Radio 1’s target audience age-wise (people like Grimshaw), you probably will find Robbie fans; people who likely grew up with his music. Though, if radio station demographics were as clear-cut as the industry would like, those listeners would be slowly drifting over to Radio 2 anyway, where, hey, they’ll find ‘Candy’ right there on the A-list. But amongst Radio 1’s younger listeners, you have teenagers who were barely even born when Williams released ‘Angels’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’. To them these are relics from their parents’ time, even if they think they’re alright songs.

When Robbie headlined three shows at Knebworth nine years ago he was already playing to a slightly older audience, and when he plays three nights at the O2 Arena later this month the average age of that audience will be older still – much like the audience at the shows he performed with Take That last year.

While Neil Fox claims that shunning Robbie is a bad move that will backfire, I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. I hope the tough decision not to give Radio 1 airtime to some of the world’s bigger popstars is one that is taken more often. Radio 1 should be the station that takes risks like that, because it’s one of the few that is able to. Of course, if the nation’s youth rise up and complain about not being about to hear the latest releases by Robbie Williams, Take That, Madonna, U2 or whoever on that particular BBC station, then those artists should definitely go back onto the playlist. But I suspect they won’t.

And I also suspect that, the more irate Neil Fox gets about the Radio 1 playlist, the better job the Radio 1 playlisters are doing. In fact, perhaps the first test for any artist being considered for the Radio 1 playlist should be a phonecall to Foxy to see if he’s heard of them yet.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

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