In this paper I’m going to be talking the radio station Beats 1 and considering it in a number of ways. Initially, considering 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 places people rather than data at the heart of the decision making process.
I was drawn to this as an idea 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 Zane Lowe left the BBC for Apple something clearly was going on.
As a station is sits between the active niche listener described by 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 a pure 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. This was the first time a digital technology company was going to try and make radio… and more interestingly they called it radio.
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
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. As Teppler and Hargittai note 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. Whilst this is not unique or new, it’s distribution platform convenes a commanding position, which feels a world away from a 1988 study of international listening by Mytton and Forrester an environment where shortwave has been transformed by the internet.
Now listeners can 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.
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 did, perhaps, predict 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? In podcasting older formats and a more crafted, attentive form of listening is happening.. 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 the golden era of radio listening before television, where listening was foregrounded, rather than passive, where more intricate listening can happen. Thiswas 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 interviews reflects this well.
There are challenges for radio in these digital spaces. With Ben Cooper the controller of BBC Radio 1 noting the decline of radio ownership amongst the young and the impact that has on the digital strategies of radio stations like his. As:
1 in 3 young people in the UK have an iPad, yet only 1 in 7 have a radio. (Cooper 2014)
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 this is a sample of the opening show in June of last year, where presenter Zane Lowe makes a virtue of his transnationality.
[PLAY THE CLIP]
The sense by which this is a global venture is laid bear here. Programmes are produced in London, New York and Los Angeles with Anchor shows from each together with 2 additional live hours each day from each This is combined with a range of “artist” shows with musicians like Elton john, Drake, Dr Dre and Chari XCX. Programmes are mostly live with a repeat 12 hours later. Each show responds (as you heard) to the music of the city it comes from, but rather than presenting a single musical genre
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.” Which, if the aim is to drive attention to the music streaming service of which it is a part is a logical act. Whether it will challenge broadcast radio remains to be seen.
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 June. 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 traffic to Apple rather than Spotify or Deezer.
In considering such services, Anderton, Dubber and James also note 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 Glantz notes that streaming sites typically have not used DJ’s or personalities, and as a result feel less cold and less immediate – offering instead a sense of individual attention, which masks the algorithms behind it (p45/6).. In this regard we can consider Beats 1 as both a shop window for a service that might otherwise be daunting, as well as acting as lure keen to engage with global music tastemakers
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)
This means that core artists like Justin Beiber do appear on CHR stations like the UK’s Capital FM network with frightening regularity – hence this website that scrapes realtime data and formats it in a webpage. 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.
Data gathered by the Swedish streaming giant Spotify suggest that in attention terms it 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 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.
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 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. Unlike mainstream presenters who might rely on the more entertaining aspects of their personalities
He further notes that such programming (whish 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).
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.
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 – 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 etsablished tastemakers and connectors (Gladwell).
This is enhanced with music artists and producers also appearing on air as presenters and guests on-air and in online videos. In this Beats 1 makes direct use of our previous relationships with presenters and through financial muscle has created a station that has clear advantages in technology, marketing and experience.
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 “local gatekeepers” remained an important factor in ensuring credibility
Which brings us back to the question that will inevitably arise when audio content is delivered in a new way… is it radio?
In this we can see that Beats 1 clearly brands itself as radio and 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.
The decision to launch a linear a radio station seems to offer confirmation that the power of the human 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 – which like moves in podcasting suggest that post-broadcast digital listening enables a more focussed and attentive form of listening. As this quote suggests that whilst using a new term could help to separate it from the past might be useful, it’s clear that radio still evokes a set of highly important meanings
Beats 1 offers a presentation of a back to basics approach to radio, albeit one that has a different aim. The transnational cross-platform nature has allowed diversity and it’s position within an established ecosystem addresses some of the constraints facing internet radio, whilst at the same time recognising a changed post-broadcast environment where audience demands are shifting.
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)
Worldwide always on
Worldwide Always On:
Beats 1 as Transnational Radio
The Radio Conference, Utrecht: 6th July 2016
Richard Berry, University of Sunderland
"In today's streaming,
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,"
- Trent Reznor
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
“To 100 countries, broadcasting
around the world on Apple Music.
To the early adopters. To those
hungry for music. From town to
town, city to city, into the
unknown we go. This is your
soundtrack. I’m Zane Lowe, from
Auckland via London, now in L.A.
Beats 1. Worldwide. Always on”
- Zane Lowe, 2nd link on Beats 1 (June 30,
"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
personal preferences in
order to satisfy the less
sophisticated taste of
the majority of the
– Ahlkvsit, 2001, p347
Aesthetics – Quality Judgments on the music
Audience – What do the audience want to hear
Research – Using data to define the playlist
Industry – Taking advice from the industry
• 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
– Taylor, 2003, p90
have a relationship with
the audience and will
possibly be able to
attract listeners based on
reputation and listener
-Stiernstedt, 2014 (p292)
“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
References and Slides: