Monday, 4 January 2016

Smooth Radio?

Smooth Radio is the name of one of the few radio stations available in my local area. The UK has never had a lot of radio stations. The airwaves have really always been tightly controlled and the authorities have always been scared of sanctioning the broadcasting ambitions of the people at large. Britain likes control. Radio is a quite conservative area of UK media on the whole where "the same old thing" is likely to be broadcast no matter what station you turn to. You have your oldies stations which are stuck in the 60s-80s, more modern stations which have a "better music mix" (a slogan, not a fact) which are the same as the oldies stations but with more recent chart music, classical stations (very few) and then talk radio which is very staid and middle of the road in the main. There is no UK version of Howard Stern because in the UK you are polite and well behaved and you stick to the mainstream script. The UK has no constitution proclaiming freedom of speech.

Smooth Radio falls into the category "oldies station". I mention this because today I had need to cook myself some dinner and so I decided, quite out of character, to put the radio on whilst I made my shepherd's pie. I couldn't listen to the station it was tuned into because this was the local BBC station which is a constant mix of talk radio for the conservative over 50s. I am neither conservative nor over 50. I have no interest in flower shows, jumble sales or the traffic jam on the A612. So I needed to find a station playing music. I couldn't listen to the local modern station because it would play modern chart music. I don't even know what modern chart music sounds like but I know that I don't like it. The national stations were out because so much BBC. This left Smooth Radio. Little did I know what I was getting into.

In the course of my browsing Twitter recently a few tweets had gone through jokingly referring to the fact that this is, apparently, a time of year when people cast off their old, unused or no longer interesting partners and go looking for new ones. As I listened to the songs that Smooth Radio was playing one after another (which they kept telling me was part of the chilled, relaxed Monday afternoon music mix) I began to wonder whether I was being embroiled in some sort of deliberately planned conspiracy. Every song was about lost love, or missing someone or about how the singer needed someone else or that they should please not go, etc, etc. ABBA's SOS played - "the love you gave me, nothing less can save me". Elkie Brooks played - "Fool if you think its over". The Real Thing's "You to me are Everything" played. On it went. Carly Simon with "Comin' Around Again" - "I know nothin' stays the same but if you're willing to play the game we'll be comin' around again". The Walker Brothers played with "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore".... WHEN YOU'RE WITHOUT LOVE!!!

It was by the 6th or 7th song that I realized they must be doing this on purpose. After all, who plays maudlin love song after maudlin love song by accident? Bob Marley played... "I don't want to wait in vain for your love"!! The thought occurred to me that the programmers at this station must be playing on the fact that couples split up and people go looking for others at this time. They were hooking into this social phenomenon, I surmised, and milking it for all it was worth in terms of listeners. After all, those bathroom tiles that got advertised every 15 minutes weren't going to buy themselves. I decided that it must only be a matter of time before Harry Nilsson told me that he couldn't live if living was without me and KC and his Sunshine Band told me to please not go.

I had been aware when switching to this station that they had a playlist. It has killed radio as a creative force in the UK that nearly all stations pick the same 50 songs and then play them ad infinitum for a whole week. And then they pick another 50. But I didn't expect to be co-opted into the romantic traumas of a nation. And then I started to think how this one radio station, which surely doesn't exist in isolation, fits into the society it is a part of. This station was basically broadcasting the idea that being in a couple is the aim of adult life all afternoon. Life, for the programmers at this station, is about finding a partner, going to work, paying your taxes... and buying bathroom tiles at your local Wickes (a UK home improvement store). I considered for a moment how this might strike someone who was single by choice. It would seem at odds with their view of the world. I considered how someone unhappily single might feel (they would be reaching for the bread knife and making sure it was sharp). 

Smooth Radio is unthinkingly and uncritically middle of the road in every sense you can think of. It is Radio Inoffensive, Radio Bland. You may consider that your local oldies radio station does not have the job of critiquing society or providing biting social analysis in its choice of music. And you'd have a point. But that doesn't thereby mean that its broadcasts are inert or neutral or unpersuasive. Smooth Radio acts as a relatively unseen broadcaster of propaganda for the status quo. Listen to it for even an hour to find out what is considered, in that horrible term, "normal". And then ask yourself if you fit within it. I don't. Smooth Radio is the marker of what is inoffensively OK (saying that without someone to love there is something wrong with you) and, consequently, what is odd and strange (that you feel fine and aren't missing anyone at all). That's why making my shepherd's pie today was quite a disturbing experience. I learned just how far from what is considered normal I have drifted in my single, non-conformist ways. In this world of social media and connected devices these days you can choose what comes into your life by tailoring the feed of everything you are connected to to your own taste. But when you put on the regular old radio station you still get what someone else thinks is "normal". You get the big wooden spoon of socio-politcal normality rammed down your throat. Does it taste nice?

And so today I had a dose of how media shapes society, how it broadcasts not just dodgy love songs from the 1970s but the values implicit and explicit within them. When knitted together, one after another, this becomes a pervasive narrative of normality, a boundary delineating who is normal on the inside (those who share our views) and those who are abnormal on the outside (those who think something else). Media is a way of inscribing values, of saying what is expected and what is frowned upon. Media is not outside the fray of everyday life, it is part of the fabric of it, unseen, unsuspected. The dangerous thing is that you don't have to watch Fox News to see this happening, although it may seem more obvious to you if you do (unless you are one of their target audience already in which case try National Public Radio). Every media is like this. Every media is broadcasting values in everything it does. They are writing the script of what is expected of someone in society. They are doing this most especially when they imagine that's the last thing they are doing which I would guess is the position Smooth Radio would take. (The ones doing it on purpose are very easy to spot but only serve as cover for the ones you'd never think were doing it.) 

At the end of the day, I'm glad I cooked my dinner and could turn the radio off. I can go back to being fed the values that I'm happy with in my tailored feeds. The scary thing is, what am I being fed that I might agree with but that, exactly because of that, I don't see? We need to develop a critical self-consciousness and stay aware. There are no neutral media or broadcasters who do not have a view of the world. There aren't any people who have no values. What are the values the broadcasters you watch, listen to and read are pushing? Do you even know?

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