‘Clueless DJs who have no idea’: Country fans despair that music on beloved radio station is now being chosen by AI

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You’ve tumbled outta bed and stumbled to the kitchen, but something strange has happened to your country music station.

Listeners to the station formerly known as Country Hits Radio have expressed their dismay after its new owners filled the breakfast and drivetime slots with DJs who appear on nine stations simultaneously and make no mention of country music.

Nor do the presenters have any idea what records they are playing. When it is time to play some music, they press a button and music chosen by a computer programme – according to an algorithm that matches tempo and mood to songs from a master list – automatically plays.

The genre of music is tailored to the audience of each station – country, classic rock, Sixties, Nineties and others – owned by the Absolute Radio network.

During Dave Berry’s Breakfast Show and the Bush & Richie drivetime show, the songs are synced so they play for exactly the same length of time. In the case of Sixties songs, which tended to be shorter, two will be squeezed into the slot.

Dave Berry

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It means that listeners who tune in to an Absolute station because they like a specific type of music are being given a show that, apart from the songs, makes no acknowledgement of that genre, with a DJ who never introduces any of the records.

The system – dubbed ‘Project Banana’ by Absolute Radio bosses, as shows are ‘split’ between stations – has been in place for several years.

However, complaints have been made after Country Hits Radio was taken over and rebranded as Absolute Radio Country last month.

“These guys have no clue about the music, they never talk about the artists,” said one. “I want DJs with knowledge, not generic for every station,” said another. In an online forum, a listener asked: “What happened to country DJs who love country? Where is the country news, the intros and features?”

Listeners in recent weeks have heard Berry discussing Oasis and Euro 2020, but making no mention of country music.

One fan of the station’s previous incarnation said of Berry: “The DJ isn’t listening to any of the music, he’s just pressing a button and the AI does the rest. No wonder he never mentions bluegrass or gets wistful about country mountains.

“And the music is worse because the computer is limited by finding things that are a certain length, and are the computer’s definition of country, which sometimes strays well away from the genre.”

Absolute said the majority of listeners were happy with the changes, as social media engagement has risen since the takeover last month and the station has enjoyed record figures for streaming.

A spokesperson added that presenters with a country music background remain prominent on the station at other times of the day.

‘I can see how some country music fans feel short-changed’

Glancing at the schedules for Absolute Radio’s stable of stations is a surreal experience, writes James Hall. 

On weekday mornings between 6am and 10am, Absolute Classic Rock transmits Dave Berry’s All Rock Breakfast show. Over on Absolute Radio 70s at the same time, listeners can tune into Dave Berry’s 70s Breakfast. 

Meanwhile on the recently-launched Absolute Radio Country, the morning slot is occupied by… The Dave Berry Breakfast Show.

He gets around, that Dave Berry. Welcome to the ‘one presenter, several playlists’ model of radio. This is Absolute’s quirky strategy under which the ubiquitous Berry anchors nine channels simultaneously while different songs (chosen by computer algorithm) are slotted into the gaps between his chat. 

They’ve been doing it for a while, and it’s known as Project Banana.

I’m amazed they haven’t slipped up. Because having one presenter covering primetime shows across an array of themed channels is a pretty blunt instrument (the afternoon drivetime show also uses the format). It seems particularly eccentric as the prevailing radio winds seem to be blowing in the opposite direction.

The myriad online radio channels that have launched in recent years are hyper-tailored to their listeners. Take Boom Radio, the online and digital channel that launched earlier this year for the UK’s 14 million ‘Baby Boomers’ (approximately those born between 1945 and 1963). 

Boom Radio features veteran household name DJs such as Graham Dene and David Hamilton, and it venerates all things ‘real’: the DJs tap their vinyl and rustle the liner notes. They probably think an algorithm is a far out type of drum beat. 

Meanwhile on Worldwide FM, Gilles Peterson (below) plays the kind of genre-hopping melting pot of global music that has gained the DJ a vast following. With a laser focus on their listeners’ tastes, these stations are almost lifestyle brands.

Further, we’ve entered an era when radio stations need to fight harder to keep their listeners. We live in an ‘attention economy’ in which the most valuable commodity ­– our time – is being fought over like never before. As well as radio stations and Spotify playlists there are video on demand TV platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

Then there are podcasts. There are an estimated 53,000,000 podcast episodes to listen to out there in the ether. It’s no wonder that research by Ofcom found that one in seven adults have stopped listening to the radio since lockdown began. Radio stations need to do all they can to hook their listeners in.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Absolute Radio Country. One of its (actual) presenters Baylen Leonard is a country afficionado who on Friday interviewed legend Sheryl Crow ahead of a live stream that evening. There are other specialists too. But I can see how some country music fans feel short-changed. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if they Do-Si-Doed away.

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