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.