UK Radio: Cultural or Commercial Development?

Radio has become almost entirely unavoidable in recent times with the development of large name UK Broadcasters including the BBC, Heart and Capital FM and the simplicity of connecting through the development of technology widely accessible by the general public. Many radio stations claim to cater for a wide demographic but what I find very interesting is the apparent diverse target audience and how this is managed, along with the developments of the UK Radio scene over more recent years. There are no simple answers to these points that I am posing as the development of Radio within the UK and on a wider scale is multifaceted, but there has been some focused research conducted in this area which aims to break this down and to expose the many potential reasons behind the development of the UK Radio scene.

What is music?

Humans by our very nature are able to choose what we listen to and to avoid what we don’t want to hear. Byrne (2012: 125) argues that We have the ability to selectively hear just the stuff we’re interested in and make the rest recede into some distant acoustic background. This tends to be true in many parts of our lives, not necessarily linked to music. This can apply to our day-to-day environments as well as more focused music environments including radio. This may relate to the cultural environment we find ourselves in with various genres of music relating to different periods of time and external influences. However, the development of technology from around 1950s onwards seems to have had a huge bearing on the development of the music scene as a whole in terms of what we should and shouldn’t listen to. The concern is that we are becoming accustomed to listening to certain music and may also be developing skills to listen in a certain way. We are often very critical of the music we hear and set exceptionally high expectations which has both good and bad points.

Developing Technologies

Wall (2013: 248) aruges that Too often people believe that the technology determines what people do and so they suggest that listening technologies determine how people listen. The opposite is usually the case: cultural needs shape the development and implementation of technology to allow new forms of listening to take place. This highlights the power of radio to give us new ways of listening including allowing multiple generations to join together in a communal listening environment. This shows the developing response to new cultures including commuting where breakfast radio shows are created eg. BBC Radio One, and Internet Radio stations in order to allow people to experience popular music at the touch of a button. However, this does not necessarily emphasise the importance of one over the other and instead suggests that the cultural development is as important as the technological development.

The Importance of Radio

Radio has become an additional sector within the Music Industries and has become increasingly popular for many reasons including the ease of use, little or no cost for listeners, and the promotion it gives to the recording industry. There are many additional factors present in the development and importance of radio, which has become a very complex matter, however, for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on the promotional and collaborative benefits for the recording industry and music industries as a whole. I have focused on the development of the radio sector in general, but with some focused detail on its development within the UK.

Percival (2011) aruges that the relationship between both the radio and record industry is symbiotic meaning that it is beneficial for both in terms of interaction with each other. However, this is an over-simplication of a more complex set of relationships. He goes on to argue that The power of music radio extends beyond simple promotion of records and artists. It has a profound influence on the sound of popular music and the shape of popular music culture.(2011:455) This suggests the difficulty faced when determining whether the development of the popular music culture has developed mainly beacuse of the artists involved in its creation or whether this has some deeper level marketing focus which shapes what we hear and the way we hear without us really knowing. Percival goes on to suggest that Radio in the UK is dominated by the BBC, whose primary objective is reaching audiences as an end in itself. (2011:456) He also suggests that due to the BBC dominance, they are able to create more specialist shows such as the Radio One Live Room which is a clever marketing tool for both the recording industry and the radio station. It is seen as a multi beneficial show, enabling the artist to create a one off live performance for Radio One, and it is also special to the Radio itself in that they own the particular recording and are able to use this at future points. However, my concern here is with the shaping of the popular music scene and how this has been dominated by radio in terms of what they will play. Big names such as the BBC can be very particular in what they play and can often make demands to record companies in order for them to tailor music specifically for the radios target audience. Radio playlists are vitally important and as Percival suggests, these can become predictable or safe if the music that they are currently playing is bringing in a large amount of listeners. This can make radio stations very particular in what they play with record companies often having to meet the requirements of music radio before their music is played out. Feedback from radio can have a direct influence on a single, or an album order. This has led to many smaller scale radio stations following suit and becoming predictable with their playlists, with limited ways in for undiscovered artists who may not ‘fit the mould’ in terms of genre specific characteristics.

Byrne (2012:220) questions this by stating What exactly is being bought and sold? In the past music was something you heard and experienced. It was as much a social event as an aural one. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity or even hear it again. Technology changed all that in the twentieth century. Music came to be regarded as a product — a thing that could be bought, sold, traded, and replayed endlessly in any context. These changes upended the function and use of music, transforming it from something we participated in to something we consumed.

To me, this highlights the shift in our perception of music by highlighting our selectiveness on what we want to hear, and what we hear by making music something of a commercial product rather than a cultural experience. I believe that consumers as well as those producing and distributing music are all guilty for in some way allowing this to happen. The public may be hearing what they are told to hear or may be choosing to listen to specific styles in terms of personal preference.

There are many more factors that come into play here including financial matters and artist exposure. Record companies receive performance royalties from airplay on Radio stations which allows artists to receive an income from their work being played out publically. However, another factor here is the exposure which artists receive when their work is played and this in turn keeps the record companies happy with an increase in album sales. The downside here is the input which Radio stations are demanding in the music that they play as highlighted by Percival. Radio stations may have a detrimental effect on the music, with artists often changing substantial parts of their work or creating new mixes suitable for a wide variety of radio stations. This can be said for Radio stations within and outwith the UK. The USA presents a wide variety of radio stations including Urban, Adult Contemporary, Alternative/Post Modern an Country. However, these all have specific characteristics which the music must fulfil and therefore leads us back into the issue of artists drastically changing their work just to get airplay.

Looking more specifically at the Aberdeen Radio scene, there are a variety of Radio stations out there including (but not limited to) Radio Northsound, Original 106fm and SHMU who generally have a commercial outlook in terms of playing the ‘top 40' as well as specific genres including 90's classics, Rock and Post Modern. But what I find most exciting about the Aberdeen Radio scene, is the diversity involved in SHMU radio, which varies from contemporary popular music to more specialist shows including favourite songs of DJs from various points in the 1900s. This adds more variety to what is available city wide, and encourages input from listeners in what they would like to hear. This is not to say that this doesn’t happen within other radio stations, but it is one part of the Aberdeen Radio scene that may be more appealing to a more diverse audience and is something which I will explore on a more national basis.

Cultural vs. Commercial

The factors involved in the development of Radio have been a combination of cultural and commercial elements which have lead us to the current state of play where the top 40 culture is prevalant in the industry but that this benefits both the recording and radio industries. However, with the emerging specialist shows across radio stations internationally, this may give artists more exposure to the music they have created without the need to adjust their music to fit specific requirements. Nonetheless, with the big name radio stations having a very competitive nature, it is often difficult for artists to stay away from the radio’s input in their music, with artists often releasing radio edits of their songs. This is a very complex topic, with multiple factors involved but what remains central is the need for culture to continue to influence the commercial development of the radio industry and to continue to expand upon the potential avenues for artists around the world including the exposure created through internet as an expansion on the avenues already available to artists.


Anderton, C., Dubber, A., & James, M. (2013) Understanding The Music Industries. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. pp. 125, 220.

Percival, M. (2011) Music Radio and the Record Industry: Songs, Sounds, and Power, Popular Music and Society. ISSN 0300–7766. pp. 455 — 456.

Wall, T. (2013) Studying Popular Music Culture. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 248.

Wikström, P. (2013) The Music Industry: Digital Media and Society Series. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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