Sunday, September 26, 2021


My parents still listen to BBC Radio 1. They always have done – they have been listening to it since they were children, in fact since the station began in 1967. They still listen because they have never had a reason to change the channel - they want to hear new music, they don’t want to hear the same songs played all the time, and it’s one way to keep up with the grandchildren.  

However, for a radio station formatted to play the most modern pop music, and current pop hits, their target listener age of between 15 and 29 means my parents should have moved elsewhere even before its dramatic realignment towards a younger audience not fully served by BBC radio, from 1993, away from catering to practically everyone. But just because a station needs to move with the times, it doesn’t necessarily mean its listeners’ habits change.


There was a time in British music history when the top 40 chart was king, and its main outlets were “Top of the Pops” and Radio 1, which had been introduced as a legitimate outlet for all-day pop music, after the closing of a legal loophole outlawed offshore pirate stations. Before then, pop music was only heard in snatches on the BBC Light Programme, for which any music only formed part of its schedule, while Radio Luxembourg was only heard in the evening. Commercial radio of any type only began in the UK in 1973 and, even then, obligations to provide non-music programmes were only dropped in the 1980s. 


For a very long time, Radio 1 was the only game in town, from playing the most popular songs by day, to breaking new artists through live and recorded tracks in the evening and at the weekend. But the shows that were attracting audiences of up to 20 million into the 1990s were those playing music that now could be found elsewhere, including on MTV. Furthermore, through old Radio 1 DJs remaining with the station like Alan Freeman, Simon Bates, and Dave Lee Travis, people listening to the station as teenagers continued through their thirties.


The station’s current focus on current music is what has helped to distinguish it from commercial radio, for which most stations have no commercial impetus to play anything over than proven hits, often classic tracks first championed in previous decades by Radio 1. The BBC committed in its most recent Annual Report to measuring the overlap in its hundred most played tracks with commercial radio stations, and the breadth and depth of artists and genres it plays. 


The moment at which it was proved that pop music had essentially moved on was when the band Status Quo issued two writs against the BBC – one was for damages, following their decision not to play their latest song on Radio 1, and the other was to instigate a judicial review over the song not being played on a radio station that still claimed to play songs in the top 40. The song was a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun,” performed with the Beach Boys, a song that wouldn’t have been played by Dave Pearce even if his job depended on it. 


This happened in February 1996, following the Britpop boom, and one year after the chart battle between Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’s “Roll With It” – I swore it happened in about 1993 or so. “Fun Fun Fun” entered the chart at number 24, when another Oasis song, “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” entered at number 1 – the rest of the top 10 included “Children” by Robert Miles, “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz, “Spaceman” by Babylon Zoo, and the Lighthouse Family’s “Lifted”. “Fun Fun Fun” left the Top 40 chart the following week, meaning it no longer qualified for “Top of the Pops” either. The writs were settled privately and confidentially, but I don’t think it was in Status Quo’s favour.


I stopped listening to Radio 1 in 2012, when Chris Moyles left the breakfast show – my musical tastes had developed away from the pop chart, which even the BBC played elsewhere, on Radios 2, 3 and 6 Music, the latter of which began in 2002 to provide a space for rebroadcasting the archive sessions recorded for Radio 1. Usually, if I do hear Radio 1, it is because my parents have the radio tuned to it.

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