You hope it’ll be seamlessly social: a nice, natural flow from online to on-air and back again, with social features that are as confidently crafted as the on-air stuff. Not endless shout-outs and retweets, no ‘in the next hour’ or ‘how was your weekend?’ updates. No blather, no cheesy vanity activity from presenters.
You probably want a visual element – something to watch on your phone that’s not a ‘studio cam’. Something that expands on the in-your-ears element without attempting to be TV.
You’ll want smart integration of on-demand, downloads, streaming music. Producer and presenter working to extend the life of the programme outside the slot, carrying it over onto other platforms and into other contexts, growing the show’s footprint.
But really, more than all that, you’ll want it to cut through – to feel current, confident, connected. All the tricky-to-define stuff, the real magic of a great music show that’s about authority, empathy, exactly the right blend of warmth and energy.
As ever, the laboratory for all this stuff is Radio 1, where the Saturday night schedule (which is a simulcast with 1Xtra) has just been refreshed. Younger voices, brought from other parts of the schedule, with all the stress and tension and the weight of expectations in their first night voices.
You could almost hear the senior management lurking in the studio, trying not to overstate the urgency of the update, being cool about it, reassuring everybody. But it’s a pretty big deal. Saturday night is where the competition is at its most intense, where innovation has to work hardest to sustain radio’s relevance. The stakes are high.
I love a bed. I should leave it to a radio production expert to explain what I mean by a bed, but since I don’t have one to hand, a ‘bed’ is the radio term for sound (usually music) played under the presenter’s voice during a link. In music radio it stops things going dead, keeps the pace up and provides a bridge between tracks. Sometimes it’s specially-recorded – and then it’s usually the kind of super-bland library music that’s designed to be unobtrusive, secondary to the presenter’s message.
But that’s old hat. Current practice (at least in pop radio) is to use a real track (an intro or outro) and to play it pretty loud. I think Zane Lowe‘s beds are the loudest in the business (go on, contradict me). He plays his bed so loud he has to shout to be heard over it. And that’s the point.
He sets up a competition with the music. It’s as if he’s challenging the music to a fight. It’s exciting. An adrenaline rush. Check your pulse after a really noisy Zane Lowe link – your heart will be racing.
You need to be confident to do this, though – a rookie DJ couldn’t set up that fight for fear they’d actually lose. So as Zane gains experience and stature I think his beds are actually getting louder. Pretty soon you won’t be able to hear him at all:
6 Music‘s new boy, Gilles Peterson, likes a fairly loud bed and in his new show I’m pretty sure they’re louder than they were when he was on Radio 1 (although I’ve only got one week’s output to go on, so don’t quote me). Is he trying to tell us something? Is he starting as he means to go on? Kicking things up a gear to make an impression in his new job?
I’m going to be listening. If his beds get quieter from now on it might be because he misjudged and overshot to begin with. If they get louder or stay the same it’ll be because the show is a hit and he can take more chances, push things a bit – especially in his more forgiving new home on the digital station:
This week’s best bed wasn’t really a bed at all. It was the lush and frankly rather disorienting background noise during John Humphrys’ links from Liberia on Wednesday’s Today Programme on Radio 4. It’s a marvellous idea: Humphrys is going to present the programme from Liberia several times over the next year.
The programme is exploring the idea that Africa is on the verge of a boom, that things are about to change for the better – and quickly. And they’ve chosen Liberia because, although the country’s struggling in all sorts of ways, it’s not a hot-spot. There’s no war, no famine. It’s ‘Middle Africa’.
So, unless someone in Liberia builds a sound-proofed studio soon, we’re going to get used to the lovely bed of crickets, birdsong and passing traffic that brightened Wednesday’s programme substantially.
And in radio terms, it’s a hard-working bed. It’s providing information about the context (“hey, we’re in Africa”) and a useful contrast with the programme’s acoustically-sterile home-base back in London. And it provides authenticity – the kind of auditory cues that prove the programme’s on location and make the output more vivid. I’m really looking forward to the evolution of Today’s Liberia bed. Will it be eliminated? Or will it evolve to represent the programme’s location in interesting ways? Will the sound vary? Will it remain the same across the whole year?