Radio Conference 2016

Worldwide Always On: Beats 1 as Transnational Radio. A paper to the Radio Conference at the University of Utrecht, July 6th 2016

In this paper I’m going to be talking about Beats 1, the radio station created by Apple in 2015 as part of their repositioned music offering and considering it in a number of ways. Initially, reflecting on it as a fully transnational venture. One where both the creators and the listeners are dispersed globally. Also, and perhaps more significantly reflecting on the nature of Beats 1 as a product of the post-broadcast age, which has also placed people rather than data at the heart of the decision making process.

I was drawn to this as a topic as whatever we might think of Apple as a brand and a corporation whatever it does tends to have an impact. The mac computer changed home computing; the iPod changed the way we consumed music and iTunes changed the way we bought it. As downloads are turning into streams there is another shift taking place, one which posed a threat to the iTunes model.

So, when the Radio DJ  Zane Lowe announced he was leaving the BBC for Apple after 12 years at Radio 1  something clearly was going on. When it was announced he would be launching their online radio station the project became even more interesting!

As a station is sits between the active niche internet radio listener described by Chris Priestman and a shopfront for the Apple Music streaming service it sits within, but it is also a move which follows both Amazon and Netflix shifting Apple from being a content intermediary to an integrated content, technology and distribution business.

Of course doing internet radio is nothing new. There are thousands of internet radio stations and very few broadcast stations lack an internet stream. There are also stations with a global sound, but very few would have instant access to millions of users on day one.

In common with the theme of this conference this is a radio station that is transnational in nature. Distributed online via an ecosystem of apps on mobile devices and computers Beats 1 is produced in a rolling schedule from studios in London, New York and Los Angeles and currently available in over 100 countries and whilst there is often a distinctly western voice to this, there is a sense that this is intended as a global station.

We can see how they market this position in this trailer. Here we see a presentation of a disparate audience, listening to their devices in cities, on boats, at home and on the move. What appears to unify these listeners is music. Rather than a community defined by geography or genre this is one that appears to be a community defined by a love of music., where Beats 1 is the curatorial hub, with paid spokes of on–demand music, social spaces and genre streams

“In today’s streaming, all-access world, sometimes it feels nice to know that there are other people out there and feel like you’re tuned into something that communally other people are listening to,”

As this quote from Beats founder Trent Reznor indicates there is a deliberate attempt to here to present music as cultural glue, where music lovers are unified through their devices and the act of collective listening – reflecting the thoughts of Teppler and Hargittai who suggest that music “Discovery plays a role in facilitating friendships and relationships”.

We there might consider this to be a different form of transnational radio, where unlike the transnational radio  Michelle Hilmes describes as being one which was dominated by national production  “addressing a global audience”, this is transnational radio produced transnationally and articulated as such.

The internet permits listeners to tune to their home stations when travelling or get a sense of other cities by listening to their local stations. In common with these stations Beats 1 often makes a virtue of celebrating the sounds of the cities from which it is broadcast, notably New York Hip Hop and London Grime mixing this music from across Europe, South America, East Asia, and Africa.

Several respondents were convinced that most radio content and its use in the future would be very similar to its current form –some even suggested that, thanks to new channels, there would also be a renaissance of the most traditional genres and forms of content

Ala-Fossi et al, 2008, p17

In this 2008  article the researchers spoke to practitioners in 5 countries about what radio might be like in 2015. There many possibilities, all of which came down to content and what the listeners wanted to do with it. What it also suggested was a renewed interest in more traditional forms of radio.

Perhaps digital listening is a different type of listening where consumption is less passive, less background and more deliberate? Or perhaps rather than rushing to the crowded centre ground of broadcasting new platforms command either innovation or products that listeners really want.

Digital listening might therefore reflect a golden era, where listening was foregrounded, rather than passive, where more intricate listening can happen. This was a possibility raised by Marco Ala-Fossi and his co-authors and one which has been critical for the development of podcasting in the past 5 years.

The emphasis within Beats 1 of curation and diverse genres might reflect this well.

There are challenges for radio in this digital age. With Ben Cooper the controller of BBC Radio 1 noting the decline of radio ownership amongst the young and the impact this might have on the medium,  quoting research that suggests that: 1 in 3 young people in the UK have an iPad, yet only 1 in 7 have a radio. (Cooper 2014) writing just last week Cooper advanced his theme noting that the “converging evolution means that the mobile phone is the battleground for people’s time. That’s why you have to be unique and useful. You have to stand for something”

Therefore – at least in the UK – traditional over the air broadcasting seems to be the platform least likely to succeed in reaching younger listeners, whereas an app available across all devices places the ability to receive into wider ownership

By way of illustration, in the opening show in June of last year, where presenter Zane Lowe makes a virtue of his own transnationality.

[Read More here] 

The sense by which this is a global venture is laid bear here. Programmes are produced in London, New York and Los Angeles with key tastemaker shows from each City together with additional live shows and hosted programmes with established global music artists.

As a station whilst all programmes are available for catch-up to subscribers the service is available for free to anyone who registers. Whilst it makes use of traditional radio techniques of station branding and live presenters, there is no news at the top of the hour, no breakfast show and the repeated rolling global schedule makes time-checks meaningless. Programmes are mostly live with a repeat later in the day. Each show responds (as you heard) to the music of the city it comes from, within a broader mix of genres and languages than might not be traditionally heard on broadcast radio.

Their choice of unknown band from Manchester as the first track also spoke volumes of their musical position.

Indeed, scrutiny of the music played during the 1st week showed that the majority of tracks were from artists who either unsigned or on independent labels.

In a review of the service radio consultant Tommy Ferraz posted  “a radio station with a young format needs to discover new artists, create hits, be bold, surprising and cool. Apple, with the power of its brand and its learning capability, is in the position to challenge traditional players in the radio industry. Globally.”

“We are everything but traditional. I want to get as far away from tradition as possible. I measure success now by noise. When I said to Apple, ‘What is success to you because I come from a ratings system which goes up or down?’ they said, ‘Noise. You go out and make as much noise as you can’, and that’s what we’re doing. We are loud as fuck right now.“

-Zane Lowe at Radio Festival, London: 29/11/15

Such was the interest in what Zane Lowe was doing at Apple he was invited to talk at the industry conference “The Radio Festival” in London last November. Talking to his former boss from Radio 1 it was clear that this was radio with a different aim.

Whereas the core directive to producers and presenters in commercial radio is to build hours and make sure listeners stay listening for as long as possible the aim here is different. This is a station that is about sharing passion for music and drawing listeners into the Apple Music ecosystem, where they can explore the tracks themselves and share them via social media. It’s about generating noise, rather than hours – where noise translates as subscriptions to Apple rather than Spotify.

In considering such services, Anderton, Dubber and James suggest that some form of recommendation engine is essential for music streaming services to allow the listeners to find music amongst the thousand available to them; whilst Mark Glantz notes that streaming sites typically have not used DJ’s or personalities, and as a result feel impersonal and less immediate (p45/6)..

In this regard we can consider Beats 1 as both a shop window for a service that might otherwise be daunting, and as an essential point of difference between it and other branded streaming experiences, in what otherwise might appear to be a counter intuitive move at a time when traditional radio was losing ground to personalised services

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Traditionally programmers use scientific techniques to select and schedule music. Where Formats make music radio a reliable utility, of which David MacFarland (1995, p38) says choices are made based “popularity rather than trying to discover the music’s underlying emotional mechanisms that appeal to the listener”. In effect the music on a radio station is a means to an ends; it’s there to fulfil a format that seeks to use consistency and predictability to keep the largest number of a particular type of listener engaged for as long as possible ..or as Jody Berland suggests it helps to create a commodity that can be sold to advertisers (183) with the techniques developed in 1950’s that are largely unchanged today. (Fisher)…

Or as Jahl Ahlkvist suggests here that programmers must compromise their own preferences to meet the less musically literate mass audience…. Or rather the need to select music that presents the least number of opportunities to tune out.

Programmers must compromise their personal preferences in order to satisfy the less sophisticated taste of the majority of the station’s listeners

–Ahlkvsit, 2001, p347

This means that core artists like Justin Beiber do appear on CHR stations like the UK’s Capital FM network with frightening regularity. As Ahlkvist suggests this regularity is not necessarily about judgements of quality, but of how music is used to construct an audience that advertisers want to reach.

The digital space creates room for innovation. Whilst passive listeners may still turn to commercial music radio, others may seek out diversity through streaming sites and independent online radio.

Research from Spotify suggests that streaming listeners are more attentive than radio listeners. Showing that Spotify is the most attention grabbing radio station in France, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Norway – when compared to commercial radio stations and can be placed as a top 5 radio station in several key US markets – suggesting that audiences value the opportunities to engage and explore diverse musical forms and that perhaps the device [used to listen] itself commands attention.

In this graphic Ahlkvist identifies 4 key drivers for music selection, which he used to map how radio stations choose music. Where programmers take positions as musicologists, surrogate consumers, research professionals or a conduit of music between industry and listener.

At present we might position many commercial stations towards the bottom left or bottom right, where metrics rather than instinct inform decisions. In these settings music choices are predictable and quantifiable. In considering Beats 1 (like in specialist music radio) the opposite may be true, where value judgements from presenters and producers inform music selection, and whilst close engagement with industry may skew decisions towards the left (rather than the right) a different pattern of choices does emerge

As a station Beats 1 does have a playlist, which it uses in in formatted programmes that hand between the 3 key daily programmes and the artists curated programmes present a more curated approach. In this mode DJs construct narratives around music and build musical identities that mirror the cities they are broadcasting from, as well as a wider appreciation of world music genres.

The DJ defines her/himself through music; it is a vital part of her/his life. This enthusiasm for the form is the basis of an ongoing campaign to make others aware of music’s potential. The DJ is constantly discovering new music and contextualizing older music within an ever developing canon.

–Taylor, 2003, p90

We can draw comparisons between the curatorial approach of Beats 1 and other alternative formats.

In the chapter referenced here Steve Taylor theorises his position as a presenter during the transformation of XFM in London  from an independently owned alternative station to a formatted station in the Capital radio group. He further locates the place of the DJ, which he suggests is different to that of a presenter in cultural fabric of a radio station; as the DJ define themselves through the music they curate, whereas mainstream presenters might rely on the more entertaining aspects of their personalities

This approach is common within many of the Beats 1 programmes and certainly key to new music formats globally.

He further notes that such programming (which he describes as being anti-radio) “bestows cultural capital upon the listener whilst strengthening the legitimacy of the presenter” (p96) and suggests that the format based criteria used to frame stations with more passive audiences are in-appropriate to DJ lead stations (p75).

This approach is common within many of the Beats 1 programmes and certainly key to new music formats globally. Whilst a playlist is apparent the anchor shows and artist hosted programmes present themselves as DJ curated, where the hosts eulogise about the music and present narratives around it. There is a close relationship here to public service specialist music radio and the aesthetically different forms of net radio (Baker, 234) where global sounds are important.

In an interview with the NME Zane Lowe further suggests that radio can be extension of the creative self, where the DJ chooses how to use the “real estate” in front of them – just as record producer would choose how to work with and what artwork should be used on their latest release.

Personalities already have a relationship with the audience and will possibly be able to attract listeners based on their established reputation and listener rapport.

-Stiernstedt, 2014 (p292)

We can consider the selection of presenters at Beats 1 in the light of this quote here from Steern-stedt in that by drawing established taste-makers  – in the shape of Zane Lowe from BBC Radio 1, Ebro Darden from Hot97 in New York and Jule Adenuga from the influential community radio station Rinse FM in London. Each were already acclaimed in their fields as being experts with judgments valued by listeners.

Beats 1 exploits previous connections to position itself as a gateway into music. In essence it’s a transnational hub for music fans. A place where they can gather to discover music through established tastemakers and connectors. Which as Malcolm Gladwell has suggested are both vital in the spreading of ideas and culture.

This fits in well with wider debates about the selection of music on radio, and the impact that radio play can have on putting singles into the charts. In his discussion of the relationship between radio and hit singles Gabriel Rossman suggests that although traditional is in decline there is still evidence to suggest that the music industry needs radio to break “hits”. Rossman notes that “even if it continues to decline, radio will remain an important medium into the next century” (92)

There are parallels here to Balaji’s findings on the relationship between Hip Hop fans and radio in Atlanta, where despite internet music sites the “local [radio] gatekeepers” remained an important factor in ensuring credibility

“We tried so many times to come up with a new term for it. Not because we want to separate ourselves from radio – I love radio and I’m really proud we can bring what we all love about radio into a music service – but this is different.”

Zane Lowe (Guardian: 24/11/15)

We can see that Beats 1 clearly brands itself as radio, suggesting that the term retains cultural meaning and value. Morris and Patterson in their evaluation of music streaming services had to navigate between casual listeners and music geeks (9), with a suggestion that the Beats that became Apple Music favoured the latter who were seeking to affirm and deepen relationships with already formulated tastes.

Whilst we can’t ignore the fact that this an attempt to establish brand identity, the decision to launch a linear a radio station seems to offer confirmation that the power of the live human voice to communicate ideas and generate a sense of community remains strong. Further, that despite the popularity of algorithmic (so called) radio stations there is still scope for human selection and curation. As this quote suggests that whilst finding a new term could help to separate it from our previous experiences of radio. It’s clear that radio still evokes a set of highly important culturally and emotional meanings

The decision to launch a linear a radio station seems to offer confirmation that the power of the live human voice to communicate ideas and generate a sense of community remains strong. Further, that despite the popularity of algorithmic (so called) radio stations there is still scope for human selection and curation. This strength has not gone noticed elsewhere in the streaming business with the addition of podcasts to Spotify and Deezer and Spotify’s recruitment of a former Radio 1 Head of music to manage content. As this quote suggests that whilst finding a new term could help to separate it from our previous experiences of radio. It’s clear that radio still evokes a set of highly important cultural and emotional meanings

Thank you for attending the paper. Comments have been enabled for your thoughts, or please tweet me. I was supported in attending this event with funding from the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland