About ten years ago I shunned music radio. It no longer reflected my musical tastes, so I turned to speech radio stations instead — all on the BBC.
After a while, I began to get into BBC 6 Music. I was still interested in the speech elements of the station more than the music. Adam and Joe became a regular listen, but I also began to appreciate the music output more. Programmes like the Freak Zone and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service simply would not exist on another station — which is why there was so much outrage when it was suggested that the station would be closed down.
But when considering alternative options in the event that 6 Music closed, I realised that the outlook was perhaps not as bad is it might seem. As a commercial alternative, Absolute Radio wouldn’t be a bad option.
Shedding Virgin Radio’s dad rock image
In the space of just two years, the new owners of what used to be Virgin Radio have given the station a completely new lease of life.
I would never have considered listening to Virgin Radio. Its playlist was limited, repetitive and fusty. It was wall-to-wall dad rock.
Looking back, the transition to the new-style Absolute was quite steady. But the day it ditched the Virgin brand was the day it could move on from that albatross and the Smashie and Nicey image. Today, I think it is easily the most interesting commercial radio station around.
More than music
The key selling point of Absolute Radio, as opposed to Virgin, is that it is now not just about music. Now it’s an “entertainment” station. When you tune in, you are more likely to hear a comedian than a dusty old Status Quo song. Its current presenters include people like Dave Gorman, Iain Lee, Frank Skinner and Richard Herring — all much better known for being funny than being fanatical about what Virgin always called “real music”.
It’s a template that has been successful at BBC 6 Music ever since it started. Its original breakfast presenter was Phill Jupitus, while other high-profile presenters have included Russell Brand, Craig Charles, Jon Holmes and… Richard Herring. And it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Absolute’s weekend morning programming has been heavily influenced by the success of Adam and Joe on 6 Music.
The really impressive thing about how Absolute have gone about it is the fact that Dave Gorman appears to have more influence over the music that is played on his programme than Adam and Joe ever did. As a whole, Absolute is more accessible than 6 Music, but it is a station that is unafraid to step out of the mainstream on occasion.
Determined to try different things
But gradually, Absolute is becoming something more than a commercial 6 Music-lite. Its deal to broadcast English Premier League football matches is a bold move to for a music station to make, particularly since Radio 5 Live and TalkSport are so well established in this area. Apparently it is the first time a music station has broadcast top flight football since Capital Gold brought Jonathan Pearce to the world 20 years ago.
Absolute have launched some interesting spin-off stations as well. In addition to Absolute Classic Rock, there is Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s (that is a way to make me feel old — my decade is now for proper nostalgia!). There is also Absolute Radio Extra. The best thing is that the latter three are all available on DAB.
There was also Dabbl, an experimental station where users chose the content. It has closed down now, but it is nonetheless a sign that Absolute is determined to experiment with radio.
Doing new things with radio
The people behind Absolute Radio have a great website, One Golden Square, which takes you behind the scenes of Absolute Radio. The openness of the website is wonderful. It is a great insight into what makes them tick, and it’s all very encouraging.
Absolute are always at the cutting-edge, thinking about the future of radio and different ways to listen to it. That is no wonder — the traditional 1215 medium wave frequency is very poor quality for a music station, so it helps them to investigate alternative ways of broadcasting.
One Golden Square are also behind the wonderful Compare My Radio. This website is a heaven for radio and stats geeks — perfect for me.
It is a treasure trove of stats about radio output in the UK. You can see what tracks and artists are popular, search for artists to find out what stations play them, and even compare the output of two radio stations — with Venn diagrams and everything.
A lot of people turned to this website to learn about 6 Music. Many defended the station on the basis of statistics collected by Compare My Radio. You can see how 6 Music compares to Absolute Radio.
The website is a fascinating service that must take a bit of work to maintain. It’s great that a radio station can take a step back and fairly allow others to compare it with other radio stations.
All-in-all, you get the impression that the people behind Absolute Radio are seriously passionate about radio. As a bit of a radio fan myself, that is a big winner for me.