[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early Aughts, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]
The Curious Appeal of British Commercial Radio
Growing up in America in the ‘70s, radio was my faithful companion. Be it portable transistor, home stereo, or car dashboard module, I was forever twisting a dial or punching a channel pre-set button, searching for the music I loved. Commercial radio was my connection to the tunes of the day for a long, long time, the first place I heard Blondie, Parliament, Lou Reed, Devo, Prince and countless other musical heroes. But as I got older, that connection frayed. Big corporations gobbled up my go-to stations, once-diverse formats were focus-grouped into narrow niches, and the number of ads per hour ballooned. I grew to loathe the inane blather of those Morning Zoo Crews and dreaded slogging through a dozen commercials to get to one or two songs, which were inevitably cut short by more dumb DJ chatter. And the tunes that actually got played were repeated ad nauseam. I drifted towards the more adventurous, commercial-free college stations left of the dial and, as technology progressed, tuned into internet stations and then got hooked on streaming. By the time I moved to England in the autumn of 2016, I thought I’d given up commercial radio for good. No more Zoo Crews. No more hearing “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas 15 times a day.
But the transatlantic transfer has afforded me the chance to experience many things from a fresh perspective, radio included. Shortly after we settled into our rental flat in Portsmouth, we inherited a mint-green radio which we put in our kitchen. One evening, I was washing the dishes and turned it on. I couldn’t find anything interesting on the usually great BBC stations, so I dialed past them, seeking something chill to accompany the chore. I landed on one of those non-taxing, safe-for-work adult contemporary stations, a very corporate national channel, and I heard a song by the Beautiful South. Minutes later, the DJ announced a tune by Aztec Camera. Intrigued, I returned to the station the next time I washed up. On that occasion, a Squeeze song came on. We’ve all heard the band’s signature song, “Tempted,” a million times; it’s a fixture on those “Classic ‘80s” radio programs in North America. Surprisingly, this wasn’t “Tempted,” but “Labelled with Love.” I own the album it’s on and play it regularly, but I can’t remember ever hearing it on the radio before. “That one went to number five in 1981,” the DJ said as the song faded. Suddenly I came to a glaringly obvious realization. They have different hits here!
I know, just call me Sherlock. Still, it’s something that I hadn’t really considered until I flipped the switch on that mint-green box. Many of my favourite musical acts have achieved far greater chart notoriety in the U.K. than in North America and have endured as playlist staples on British radio. The Jam, for instance, racked up four British #1s, but never charted significantly in the U.S. Radio listeners stateside know Blur from the grunge-y ‘90s hit “Song 2,” but according to Wikipedia, it’s just one of eight Top 5 singles for the band in the U.K. It’s a real treat for me to hear songs that I love that I either haven’t heard played on the radio before or heard only on those college stations. Sometimes I’ll discover a vintage U.K. chart-buster that never reached me across the pond. The other day I stumbled upon “The Only Way Is Up” by Yazz & the Plastic Population on a local ‘80s channel and now I can’t live without it. Ditto Paul Weller’s 1995 single “Broken Stones,” which I heard recently on an adult alternative station.
I know that a huge part of this is just the novelty of being in a new place with new voices and new terms. The British DJs still jabber on inanely, but they have delightful sing-song-y accents and they chat about subjects that are unfamiliar to me. “What’s all this palaver over David Beckham?” one DJ wondered recently. I don’t know, but do tell me more! There are still scads of ads—or adverts—but they’re pitched by people who sound like Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent. Even the traffic updates are exotic. Where is this M-20 in Kent? What amazing things happen there? It sounds like a magical place.
Unfortunately, repetition, seemingly the MO of corporate stations around the globe, remains an irritant. I’ve heard a certain Robbie Williams ballad many, many times in the five months that I’ve resided here. And there are a lot of drippy Ed Sheeran knock-offs, as well as drippy Ed Sheeran himself. Some of those played-to-death North American oldies have winged their way over the Atlantic too. You’ll hear Lionel Richie and Wilson Phillips and Whitney Houston on the station that played “Labelled with Love.” And how far away do I have to move to escape Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer?”
So, some caveats, and I should point out that I’m talking about the local classic rock, classic pop, AC, and adult alternative stations, the ones geared more for my aging ears. The few times I’ve sampled the current pop stations, I’ve found them to be every bit as depressing as their North American counterparts, desolate musical dystopias brightened only by sporadic flashes of Bruno Mars’ brilliance. But as I turn the dial on that kitchen radio and find Nick Lowe’s “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” on one station, Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” on another and Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” on a third, I can feel my old love for radio stirring after a decades-long slumber.
At the very least I haven’t heard “Smooth” here. Yet.