The Changing Role of Jamaican Radio: My Two Cents

I started taking note with some anxiety a few years ago, regarding the changing role of radio in Jamaica and the fact that many didn’t seem to understand the major implications for our music business. I attempted to have some discussion on this at the first State of the Music Symposium (SOMS) in 2014 but it didn’t quite go as I had envisioned it. By year two of the SOMS, the matter was again raised but we remained on the outskirts of the issue while speaking from the perspective of the disc jocks who today are themselves producers and promoters.


A few days ago while listening to a particular station, I had to ask – who is the programme manager?!? I received a response and decided for the first time to air my concerns which I have expanded here.

For the purposes of confession, let me state here that I am an academic, have been involved at various levels of research on Jamaican music and culture and now serve in various capacities within government run entities based on my expertise. It is important to confess all this because, as many of you may have realised, in spite of all that, I use this blog (and social media accounts) as a space to say it as I see it, unencumbered even by my academic / social image and biases. So here we go.

When I was growing up, radio was a huge part of my experience and pattern of music consumption. It was radio that introduced me to Tappa Zukie’s ‘Rocksteady’, Half Pint’s ‘Greetings’ and Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love’. As I grew older and delved into the history of radio in Jamaica the following became clear. Access to radio period was limited and stations from the USA were periodically available so much so that U Roy told of listening to disc jock, ‘Jocko’ Henderson from whom he learned a few announcing techniques. Further, Jamaican music didn’t always have a space. Producers had to buy expensive radio slots to have their music aired. By the 1980s therefore when I became a real consumer and began listening to favourite artistes such as Madonna, Michael & Janet Jackson, Peter Tosh and Whitney Houston, we had entered a different, and more democratised radio era.

But there was something important about what was and was not being played on radio. In the period around the early 1970s to 1980s there was little opportunity to hear on radio Jamaican music which had not made its mark in a dancehall first via live performances. Whether it was U Roy, Yellow Man, Josey Wales, Lt. Stitchie, Shabba Ranks or Lady G, touching the dancehall stage and making a mark there was important success for transitioning to radio. Radio disc jocks therefore played music which had currency inside the dance and therefore among the populace. My grandfather’s shop with the Juke Box he bought after returning from England was one such space, redubbed Shanty Town soon after the song ‘007’ made Shanty Town a popular nomenclature. Records cut were acquired and played ad nauseum inside the shop as patrons came to dance and celebrate. This was before radio became a space of consumption for Jamaican music which still had not received the respect it deserved by the 1970’s.

Shanty Town (1967)
With that as a simple background, there is a huge difference in what obtains today. I tune in periodically and get discouraged like many others from listening radio. First, what plays on radio comes directly from an artiste or his/her team to the disc jock and often these tunes go unvetted without any intermediary to determine their suitability for radio. This is what results in complaints to entities such as the Broadcasting Commission, Jamaica, which has been making attempts to regulate the anomalies  of radio. But let’s focus on the intermediary for a moment and ask why such a person/s would be necessary. Many stations operate without programme managers. Where there is a programme manager, that person is unknown or does not have a substantial role that he/she can hold any sway in the organisation with disc jocks. Programme Managers often exist as de jure operants while de facto disc jocks are in charge walking in when slated with laptops afforded by the technological shifts which have made playing the domain of an individual and not a radio station.

Secondly, there are no repositories systematically organised for accessing selections, or playlists used by disc jocks, and where they exist access to them can take months. This has become such a challenge for rights holders and collective management organisations such as Jamaica Music Society that software is used to determine play in order to fairly calculate royalties for rights holders. I have identified a problem in the management around radio play and the way in which music is accessed beyond the domain of a ‘dancehall tested’ system. That is not all.

On occasion I have during particular slots tuned into radio and heard consistent play of anywhere from 6 – 11 tracks from one artiste as if there was an attempt at promoting such artistes while in some cases using tired playlists repeatedly, same format, no variation. Most critically, you can’t hear or develop an appreciation for what is being played because it is not announced or back announced, and as I explained earlier in some cases already removed from the dancehall because the radio disc jock has been entrusted with the task of breaking the tune.  This makes for radio that is not even as useful as a YouTube mix, and certainly not one which is interested in the promotion of Jamaican music.

Radio’s distinctiveness is partially defined in the ability to communicate with an audience, take them on a journey through music or whatever means. To achieve this it cannot become monotonous by repeating playlists and playing certain artistes without even as much as meaningful interaction around what is being played and why. Where did the possibility for engaging with the audience about the provenance, distinctiveness or quality and reach of a song go? This is the 21st century. Not all disc jocks use the same style but whatever the hour there is just as much potential for engagement of an audience. That is radio’s effect. I dare say it is not being effectively used in Jamaica. I might as well listen to a YouTube mix. 

While there is an understanding that radio is about a particular sound, number of spins and making of hits today, with structured playlists determined by strategists who are interested in increasing appeal consistent with the business of music of which they are apart, Jamaican radio which forms the source of my concern because it highlights so much of what is currently wrong with radio, has to rethink its role. Radio has taken over as a space for artistes to ‘get a buss’ whether through payola or not, for some artistes to be promoted over others, instead of a space for sharing the rich repertoire of music available from Jamaica first and then elsewhere. Radio has eclipsed the dancehall as the space to break artistes and their music, while disc jocks are sometimes the very persons producing such music. 

Sadly, there are destinations inside and outside the Caribbean such as Bermuda where Jamaican music which is not played in Jamaica, somewhat forgotten or not accessed by our disc jocks, is heavily consumed. This is a travesty considering the seemingly unlimited repertoire of Jamaican music, even before we get to pop generally, which is available to disc jocks. These and other challenges also explain why within periods such as Reggae Month visitors to Jamaica wonder if they have landed in Malibu or Kingston.

I was the chair of the subcommittee that worked on the submission to UNESCO for Kingston to be designated a creative city for music. That application’s success had less to do with the application than with the facts about Jamaica’s contribution to a global music landscape. Kingston was already on the map and assessors had to contend with other city presentations  that used reggae even while Kingston was a contending city. The projects within Kingston’s submission did not identify radio but it is no less significant in the scheme of Kingston’s entertainment culture. Something is wrong if people are choosing to consume music via YouTube while radio stations continue to push at the limits of what is viable in an era made for millennials who are not interested in radio.  What we do with music on radio and elsewhere is of great concern to me especially because we are the nation that has given the world seven distinct genres of music in the latter half of the 20th Century.

We must get it together and the ball is certainly not solely in the regulator’s court.


13 thoughts on “The Changing Role of Jamaican Radio: My Two Cents

  1. Very interesting blog on Jamaican Radio. While all the points and observations can be found somewhere at sometime, it cannot be implied at all station are guilty of all these transgressions. There are over 28 stations in Jamaica now that have a variety of formats and niches to meet different tastes. So there will be some that play a mixture of foreign and local, some that play dancehall and at least two that play exclusively reggae 24/7. Listening patterns have also evolved as well as tastes, hence its hard to compare with radio of the seventies (2 stations operating) or eighties (4 stations operating).

    Having said all of that, there are criticisms and suggestions that can be great tools to radio managers in general to keep in focus some of the short comings and some of the expectations of listeners.

    This is worth more debate ! Hope we get the opportunity.

    • Thanks for your visit and comment François. As someone on the inside of the regulatory system for radio by virtue of my role at the BCJ, in touch with the listening patterns of teenagers and adults around me as well as what obtains internationally I think there is room for much improvement in Jamaica. I’m very much aware of the radio landscape but chose to write from the perspective of s listener. I hope for more debate and more importantly writings from persons like yourself who can help significantly.

  2. As a parent , I am appalled by radio offerings. I am not sufficiently ancient to forget my own “over consumption” of Radio: particularly of the party formats since I was too young to attend real parties (Hol Plummer Sat Night Programme; FAME when Francois and Patrick Lafayette ruled that scene) . So I am not anti so called “hip” formatting. But there is something radically wrong with the level of vulgarity (both hosts and music) passing for radio these days. Yes tastes change. But radio in my mind informed consumption…not necessarily the other way around. I think the untrained DJ’s/announcers, the lack of appropriately clean songs, the deifying of vulgarity are all sending the wrong signals to youngsters. Forget Adults. We have already grown up and been shaped by whatever influences…But it is sad to think that I can ONLY rely on my Ipod playlist to ensure that my kids know their culture, have enough current “hipness” and still experience a wide range of music (including world beats, classical, jazz). Otherwise, I am constantly muting volume/changing stations, because I cannot trust the integrity of the playlist. I look to the market leaders (with the rich history of broadcast excellence) to set an example, and I remain constantly disappointed.

  3. There is very little with which to disagree. I will only add that instructions have already been prepared for amendments to the broadcasting law to make it a statutory requirement for licensees to, inter-alia: (1) appoint a suitably qualified person to be responsible for programming, where this is not already the case; (2) establish a mechanism for the recipt, evaluation and approval of content for broadcast via a library or equivalent method; (3) generate playlists and music sheets which must be accessible to the regulator and rights societies); and (4) criminalise payola, applying fines of up to $5 million. Breach of (1), (2) and (3) will also attract financial sanctions.

    In relation to Reggae Month, over the past four months there have been meetings involving influential industry players (including radio, tv and cable operators, Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA), Andrea Davis of International Reggae Day, Broadcasting Commission, and the Reggae Studies Unit, UWI) on the preservation of Jamaican music (our oil) and how to colloborate on paying adequate and appropriate homage to our music during Reggae Month and International Reggae Day. Based on the voluntary commitments so far, I am optimistic that there will be a quantum leap in treatment during February and July 2016 and the periods leading up and after.

    My final two-cents is that some of the personnel who have been employed in broadcasting lack the cultural and other abilities to meet the expectations that you have highlighted. Incidentally, contrary to what some persons think, regulators do no certify or approve persons for employment as broadcasters, nor would it be desirable for this to be so. The conflict of interest should be readily discernible.

    Perhaps now that ‘anyone’ can present an internet programme, those who hold broadcasting licences will see the value proposition in reserving the traditional space for persons who are trained and capable (and properly remunerated), leaving the less capable or desirable ones to personal online services where they can experiment, unencumbered and hone their skills.

  4. With internet penetration still relatively low nationally-even mobile- and the telecoms data plans programmed to ‘clean’ megabytes before the tube in Youtube can be typed into the search bar, radio still has nuff ears. The stations know this and also know streaming won’t be a real threat for a while. To my mind, that is why programming is ‘leggo’.
    Advertisers also don’t seem to care much, they just want outlets with ears & since Jamaica does not have very demanding consumers, radio ‘as it is’ will always have ears.

    Also, most DJs have broadcast and ‘open air’ careers. Necessary, as the income from their slots at the stations cannot a family maintain. Several probs here:
    + Ltd time to research new music;become highly dependent on what reaches them
    + No time to listen logged library music
    +The listening audience does not complain loudly about the repetition
    +’Opportunities’ in the ‘open air’ transcend to broadcast demands

    Mr. Green’s last para suggesting boating the untrained to the unregulated internet would work well if the stations were ready to make the post of ‘broadcast music DJ’ a viable career but there is no evidence that is the direction. Trained musicologists would therefore find no home on radio, except for the love of it…after retirement.

    I have heard of a new shift at stations where DJs who may be perceived employees/ contractors are now clients, of the stations, purchasing the airtime & playing whatever- they like, produce, perform or have been paid to play. I suppose this circumvents traditional payola since they ‘own/lease’ the spots (though still not declaring)

    Another problem I must throw in, is the unprofessional nature of some local content creators who will send in music with inadequate / incorrect metadata. When the station/ DJ purchases from iTunes metadata can be auto updated on various servers/ playlists- hardly the case when local creators blast music-clean is really raw, track 5 has track 3’s title can be a real challenge for programming managers &DJs; pre release administration is missing in our space.

    In the end
    *consumers must demand better
    *stations must reevaluate whether they still have their intended/perceived they competitive edge & adjust programming as necessary
    *Broadcasting Commission must persist
    (though I will never agree with 5 mil for payola until other fines are adjusted up)
    *Music promotion must not be left to creators & radio it is our oil as Mr.Green has said
    * The industry must learn from Adele & quit rushing substandard productions to market
    *Nationally we need to grow to appreciate creative talent & make this evident in the compensation
    *JARIA must push to make Reggae month so impactful we don’t notice March1


  5. I have much to say on this issue…radio as now
    has been of major concern to me for a few moons….would love to be part of a quorum to discuss many of these (valid) points outlined by @ÇultureDoctor … BTW Cordel feel free to link/involve me in any think tank re Reggae Month and how we celebrate it. Its something I’ve always felt falls short of it potential and needs to be addressed.

    • You’ve expressed a sentiment shared by many concerned. I really hope it doesn’t come to that. A friend of mine posits the Japanese will be said to have invented reggae at the end of the day and Jamaicans won’t even know because the actual and proverbial writing will be in Japanese and lost in translation incapacity.

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