London Review of Books | Vol. 29 No. 14 dated 19 July 2007
Before he discovered literature in a friend’s apartment in New York, Bob Dylan’s connection to the world beyond the narrow one into which he was born came almost exclusively from the radio. The radio is usually on somewhere in the background of his memoirs, and it’s always broadening his horizons, letting him know what American music could sound like, in all its unexpected variety. Now he has his own radio show – he started broadcasting in the US last year – and it should be no surprise that it is deeply nostalgic for the music of his own youth. What’s more surprising is that the show doesn’t sound at all dated. This is one of the wholly unexpected blessings of Dylan’s later years: it turns out that he is a wonderful disc jockey. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be better.
What makes Dylan such a magnificent radio presence is his obvious love of the medium coupled with his refusal to be bound by its conventions. His voice, for example, is almost a cliché in radio terms – its gravelly, nasal drawl is perfectly suited to the business of introducing records – but his delivery is very strange. Sometimes he mumbles, more often he over-enunciates, speaking a touch too slowly, regularly sounding as though he is reading a script. The result is weirdly rhythmical and somehow comforting. The format of the show is one of its many delights: it’s called Theme Time Radio Hour, and each week Dylan plays a series of records around a particular theme – marriage one week, divorce the next. Many of his selections are obscure to anyone under the age of 60, his taste tending towards the 1940s and 1950s over the 1980s and 1990s. But he is not wilfully obscure, nor is he a musical snob. For the divorce show, he played Tammy Wynette’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ For the show about fathers, he played the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’. For the show on coffee, he played Blur’s ‘Coffee and TV’ (but not his own ‘One More Cup of Coffee’). The pleasure of listening to pop music on the radio is always finely balanced between the wish to hear something different, and the hope that the next song will be a familiar one. Almost all radio stations tilt the scales heavily in favour of the familiar for fear of scaring people off. Theme Time Radio Hour doesn’t pander to anyone, and as a result it gets the game pretty much right.
Dylan also seems to understand the balance between the intimacy that is the essence of good radio and the more functional role of the DJ, which is to play the records. He often introduces or back-announces a record by simply reading out the first or last verse of the lyric in his incantatory style, making the words sound like poetry. But he also gives his listeners occasional glimpses into his own world. For the show about flowers, he talked about picking out his favourites at his local garden centre. For the show about cars he remembered the ones he’d coveted as a child. It’s never easy to know how seriously to take all this stuff, given his predilection for faking his own biography, but that is part of the pleasure (as it is with his memoirs). You often get the sense that he treats the whole thing as a big joke, and that, too, is part of the show’s easy charm. Occasionally, he reads out a communication from a lucky listener. In the show on the theme ‘rich man, poor man’, he told us about an email he’d received from, as he put it, ‘someone named Alan Dershowitz, who describes himself as a feisty civil libertarian from Harvard Law School’ (it’s hard to convey on the page the exquisite irony with which he spoke these words). Alan had an eager-beaver question about one of the records he’d been playing, and Bob was only too happy to help, though he warned Alan that he might be coming back to him ‘for some free lee-gal ad-vice-ah’. Who is the joke on here? Who cares? Sit back and enjoy the ride.
It may be that the reason all this works is that Dylan is Dylan, and simply hearing him do something as mundane as spinning a few records and reading out a couple of emails exerts its own magnetic pull. But radio can make the most interesting people sound boring if they don’t understand how it works, just as it can make the most boring people sound interesting if they do. Dylan succeeds as a DJ because of the respect he has for the DJ’s craft. In this sense, you could say that he had a lot in common with, for example, Chris Moyles. Moyles is the BBC Radio 1 breakfast DJ – the self-styled Saviour of Radio 1 – who has just published a volume of memoirs, The Gospel According to Chris Moyles.
Yet the book is full of interest, because it’s about how to make it on the radio. Pop radio, it turns out, can be done superbly by people who might otherwise appear to be charmless buffoons, so long as they take what they are doing seriously. This doesn’t mean they can’t be funny; it just means they have to be serious about what’s funny on the radio.
Moyles spent his youth thinking about how to be a DJ. He studied the best he could find, including Kenny Everett and Steve Wright in the UK, and Howard Stern, king of the shock-jocks, in the US. All three were wacky, eccentric rule-breakers, and in the case of Everett and Stern risqué by the standards of their contemporaries. But Moyles saw that this wasn’t what made them so successful. Their secret was their attention to detail and their capacity for hard work. Wacky radio takes a lot of practice to get right. The pauses, the stuttering, the joshing around have to be seamless and have to have their own rhythm, because it’s only by getting the rhythm right that you can persuade the people listening to want to hear what you have to say next. But if you do get the rhythm right, you can say pretty much anything you like and people will keep tuning in. Moyles’s show, which is mildly risqué and effortlessly banal, is the result of a lot of hard work. Its zoo format – Moyles interacts throughout with a team of bantering underlings – is meant to make the programme sound as if it comes from the back room of a pub: in fact, everyone is standing up behind their desk like a Victorian bank clerk. Each show’s apparently formless sprawl is the result of hours of planning by Moyles and his team the previous day. Since he took over the breakfast show he has reversed a steady decline in listening figures, and the BBC is once again outpacing its commercial rivals. Moyles is now one of the jewels in the BBC’s crown, and is remunerated accordingly.
A thoroughly old-fashioned figure, Moyles is a throwback to the larger-than-life DJs – Tony Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis, Gary Davies – who dominated the nation’s airwaves and seeped into its consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s, despite being the kind of men many people might think twice about spending quality time with. Indeed, Moyles’s path to the BBC is so conventional it’s practically the Eton-Christ Church-Grenadier Guards of an old-school DJ education. First hospital radio; then Radio Luxembourg, which didn’t do much to broaden his horizons (‘I didn’t even know where the hell Luxembourg was. I thought at one point it was near Pakistan. It’s actually kind of in the middle of Europe between France and Germany and somewhere else. OK, I’m still not 100 per cent sure. I went by plane for Christ’s sake’) but taught him a lot about how to fill dead airtime; then local commercial radio, before he made it to Capital Radio and the big time. Even at Radio 1 he was made to graft in the graveyard slot at 4 a.m. before getting his chance to save the station by hosting its flagship show.
By contrast with this, it is only in the 21st century that Dylan could have reached the BBC in the way he has – his show currently airs on the digital-only 6 Music. Dylan was persuaded to try his hand at DJ-ing by XM Radio in the States, a satellite network that recruits big names, often for vastly inflated fees, in order to entice listeners to subscribe to its package of stations. XM’s main rival network is Sirius, which two years ago paid Howard Stern $100 million to switch from regular commercial radio in New York to a national subscription-only service. Stern explained the move by saying that it would free him from the attentions of the federal regulators, who have fined him a number of times for breaching their obscenity rules. On satellite, Stern can be as profane as he likes (though he knows better than to be too generous with the obscenities: it’s the thought that he might rather than the fact that he does that keeps the listeners listening). Still, for all his new-found artistic freedom, it’s possible that the money had something to do with the switch. It is not known what sums were dangled in front of Dylan to get him to sign up for his one hour a week on XM, but again it’s unlikely that he did it for the sheer love of sharing his record collection with the rest of us. What seems certain is that the BBC could not have afforded to hire him (or wouldn’t have thought it was worth it), but in the new world of satellite radio, the BBC can pick up at reasonable prices shows that other people have paid for, and then put them on their own fledgling digital stations to try to suck in new listeners.
It now turns out, however, that XM couldn’t afford the likes of Dylan either. Both XM and Sirius have been running at a massive loss for years, as cut-throat competition between them has forced up recruitment fees for star presenters while keeping down subscription prices. It has also put off subscribers who haven’t been sure which one to sign up for, and many have been waiting to see who comes out on top. Unable to take the pain any longer, the two networks have proposed a merger. XM is largely owned by big car manufacturers (General Motors and Honda), who have invested heavily in fitting satellite-ready radios in new vehicles, then signed up their purchasers for these services. The thought of a monopoly provider with deep links to the automobile industry controlling the satellite radio business has provoked outrage in a country that sees competition as the only guarantee of a decent product. But, as James Surowiecki pointed out in March in an article for the New Yorker, there are good reasons for thinking that a monopoly provider is just what satellite radio needs. It would bring all the various stations available together in a single package, keep a lid on inflated prices, and entice new listeners to take the plunge, without putting an end to competition, since satellite would still have to compete with terrestrial radio for listeners’ attention.
What Surowiecki doesn’t say is that there is already a model which suggests that a subscription monopoly (in this case a compulsory one) is good for listeners. It’s called the BBC. After all, even critics of the licence fee will often say that they wouldn’t mind paying it for the radio stations alone. Usually when people say this they mean Radio 4, which remains the market leader with no competition in sight, and they often go on to suggest that Radio 1 should be cut loose, since this is a service adequately catered for by the commercial radio stations. But pop music coverage on BBC radio is as good as it has ever been, and it, too, is better than its domestic commercial rivals. Radio 2 is almost unrecognisable from the big-band and tea-dance station of its early days. It now does what Radio 1 once did, recruiting the best DJs it can find (including the peerless Steve Wright) to play the pop music that it thinks most people want to listen to, leaving Radio 1 free to recruit the best DJs it can find to play pop music that only really appeals to people under the age of 25. And 6 Music has Dylan, along with much else besides. The digital revolution has allowed the BBC to broaden its scope without diluting its quality, and as a single provider with a steady income stream it is able to balance the services it offers while maintaining a pretty high standard across all of them. It still has to compete with commercial radio of course, but it doesn’t have to compete in the way the commercial stations do, all of them desperate to catch the attention of any passing listener in an increasingly crowded marketplace. For now, at least, BBC radio, including its pop output, is better than its rivals because it is adapting fast, but doesn’t seem panicked by the changes.
What has gone is the traditional magic of pop radio that came, as Dylan describes it in his memoirs, from the experience of tuning the dial and having to settle for the best you could find. There are no more dials to tune. Instead, on digital radio, you can flick through the names of every station you might possibly want to listen to. Choice is wonderful for extending variety and driving up quality. But the downside of choice is that the listener has to choose. This might not matter so much for people who know exactly what they want; for them the digital revolution is a godsend (the internet can find you a station for any interest under the sun, with the promise to come of stations personalised to individual listeners’ tastes). But when it comes to pop music interspersed by relatively mindless chat, choice spoils things. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the skill Chris Moyles devotes to being reliably zany and boisterous 60 hours a month, but it’s hard to stick with it knowing one could be listening to almost anything else. Moyles is a better DJ than Tony Blackburn ever was. But there was a good reason to listen to Tony Blackburn if you wanted mindless chat in the morning: that’s all there was.
Theme Time Radio Hour, which is unimprovable so far as pop radio is concerned, is scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Friday night, which is not a good time to remember to tune in. But it’s also available for download from the 6 Music website throughout the following week, which means you can listen to it at the moment of your choice. But still, you have to decide that the moment has arrived to make that choice. To stumble across Dylan’s selection of music by chance would indeed be magical, the sort of magic that Dylan remembers from his youth. But the reason his show sounds so contemporary is that it is almost too good to be true, part of a new golden age of radio in which tunes of impeccable quality and taste are piped into your home as and when you want them.
Then there’s the business of choosing what to listen to the radio on: you can listen on your phone, your computer, your iPod, your TV. At the same time, radio is no longer limited just to listening. Many shows broadcast live feeds of the studio and other related video links on their websites, which is one way stations have expanded their listening base (as newspaper circulation and TV viewing figures go down, the reach of many radio stations is going up). In the 1980s, video was going to kill the radio star, but now it turns out that it is helping to save him. To complain about any of this seems reactionary, and futile. But given the choice, I listen to the radio on the radio; what’s more, I increasingly listen on an old portable radio with a broken aerial that I never got around to replacing. I can’t get FM on this radio, never mind digital, and so I am restricted to very few stations: BBC Radio 4 long wave, BBC Five Live, Virgin and BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Then, a few months ago, someone snapped off our car aerial, which means that in the car we can’t even get Radio 4. Virgin is a pretty mindless station, which plays a very restricted playlist based on listeners’ votes for their all-time favourite tunes (the song that came top this year was ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol, which gives you the flavour). It is relentlessly attention-seeking and remorselessly upbeat. Five Live is highly professional, and its sports coverage is excellent, but its news is very much oriented to the vox pop approach – nothing is allowed to pass uncommented on by text or email. Radio Cambridgeshire isn’t always completely parochial, and the presenters and their choice of music aren’t always so dull as to confirm Chris Moyles’s view that almost all local radio DJs are ‘frankly, thick as fuck’ (Moyles might just be thicker than some of them). I don’t think I would listen to Radio Cambridgeshire by choice, or to Virgin very often, or even to Five Live. But we haven’t replaced our car aerial, and it’s in the car that I like listening to radio most. I don’t worry that there might be something better on. I am just grateful for the diversion.
David Runciman teaches politics at Cambridge. The Mask of Power will be published next year. A collection of essays, The Politics of Good Intentions, includes some of his pieces for the LRB.