Whose turn it it? BBC

Why BBC Radio 1 is forever young at 50 years old

BBC Radio 1 is celebrating its 50th birthday – and the party is set to last all weekend, with fans treated to 50 themed “golden hours” of archive material.

The special broadcast promises to be a nostalgic treat for those who grew up with the station. But you won’t hear it on Radio 1. The BBC is shunting the 50 hours of birthday coverage off to a special pop-up digital station, Radio 1 Vintage.

The thinking, presumably, is that a 50th birthday party is the last place Radio 1’s target audience would choose to spend their weekend. If forced to attend such an event, they would be found standing in the corner, nursing a Red Bull, checking their phones for something more interesting and relevant.

Admittedly, I’m guessing that Red Bull is the drink of choice for today’s 15-29 year olds. But if I wanted to know for sure, I’d ask someone who works at Radio 1.

Having been lucky enough to work there from 1998 to 2002, I believe that no station knows its audience better. Radio 1 is relentlessly, ruthlessly focused on people aged 15 to 29. Back then, if you fell outside its target demographic, as much of its audience did, Radio 1 genuinely had no interest in your listening needs.

Returning to the station now as a listener, it is clear that focus remains. It has to. Without it, Radio 1 has little chance of surviving. For much of its life, the sharks have been circling. Commercial rivals and free market zealots argue that £50m of licence fee payers’ money could be saved every year, with little discernible impact on its listeners, if Radio 1 was sold off.

Strangely, the calls for privatisation have become louder during the past 20 years as Radio 1 has evolved into a service the private sector would be unable – and probably unwilling – to replicate.

Its supporters would certainly struggle to make that case for the first half of its existence. Bold, brash and very big, Radio 1 was credited with increasing record sales by 10% in the year after its launch on September 30 1967.

By the 1970s, it was the most listened-to radio station in the world, with audiences of more than 10m for some shows. The DJs, known as “the turns”, became huge celebrities – as famous as the pop stars whose music they played. They were given weekly television exposure as presenters of Top Of The Pops on BBC1 (peak audience 19m in 1979) and their antics on tour with the Radio 1 Roadshow filled tabloid gossip columns.

The Roadshow became an institution and was emblematic of the station’s 70s and 80s peak. The invention of producer (and later controller) Jonny Beerling, it was an annual tour of mostly seaside locations around the UK, at which DJs played music and subjected audience members to humiliating “contests”, broadcast live to the nation on summer weekdays.

In his memoirs, John Peel described a 1978 road show in Leicestershire when frogmen rescued hysterical Bay City Rollers fans from a lake, while Tony Blackburn waved to adoring crowds from a speedboat piloted by a Womble. “Look on this and marvel,” Peel remarked to his colleague Johnnie Walker. “You will never see anything like this again.”

In 2000 the Roadshow was replaced by weekend music festivals for the young people Radio 1 had decided it was there to serve.

Radio revolution

The station’s transformation into today’s incarnation as the BBC’s youth brand began with the appointment of former newsreader Matthew Bannister as controller in 1993. He took over a station that had become a laughing stock, with dinosaur DJs lampooned by comedians, playing music loved by the parents of the people it was trying to attract.

The likes of Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis and Steve Wright were shown the door in a bloody revolution. Listening figures initially nosedived, but the signing of Chris Evans as Breakfast Show host in April 1995 won over the tabloids. When Status Quo announced in 1997 that they were suing Radio 1 for refusing to play their records, Bannister knew the battle to re-position the station had been won.

The change under his successors, Andy Parfitt and Ben Cooper, has been more evolutionary. But its effect has been to make the case against privatisation unanswerable. Radio 1 has become the gateway through which the BBC reaches tomorrow’s licence-fee payers. Unlike just about every other content provider encountered by these young consumers, Radio 1 is not trying to sell them anything.

It has constantly led the BBC in the way it reaches audiences. Alongside the station’s 9.5m listeners, its YouTube channel has nearly 4m subscribers. Its reporters are now video journalists, making documentaries to accompany their radio reports.

The nation’s noticeboard

None of Radio 1’s commercial rivals can match the ambition and depth of its news coverage. In the 50th anniversary week, there have been special Newsbeat reports on the eating disorder diabulimia, and inter-generational attitudes.

Nor does any other radio station do as much to discover new music. Controller Ben Cooper claims the total of 4,000 different tracks played every month is ten times that of most commercial stations.

When I worked at Radio 1’s Newsbeat, we were particularly pleased by one comment emerging from the endless audience focus groups. “They’re like mates” someone said of the Newsbeat team, “but mates who know a lot.”

The same can be said of today’s Radio 1 team. Broadcasters including Annie Mac, Greg James and Chris Smith combine the intimacy that only radio can achieve, with a passion to share new music and information with their listeners.

Station staff photo, 2001, with author in the back row. BBC, Author provided

Radio 1’s first female DJ Annie Nightingale describes the station as the “national noticeboard” for young people. In troubled times it enables them to express and share their feelings in a way that an algorithm never could.

This is perhaps the key to remaining relevant in the age of Snapchat and Spotify. And it is why those of us enjoying a nostalgic blast of Radio 1 Vintage this weekend should be thankful the station’s future depends not on its considerable legacy – but with the current generation of “mates who know a lot”.

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