The Sunday Telegraph

The beat goes on – but driven by an algorithm

- James Hall

Glancing at the schedules for Absolute Radio’s stable of stations is a surreal experience. On weekdays 6am to 10am, Absolute Classic Rock transmits Dave Berry’s All Rock Breakfast. 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 The Dave Berry Breakfast Show.

He gets around, that Dave Berry. Welcome to the “one presenter, several playlists” model. 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, 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 in the opposite direction.

The myriad online radio channels launched in recent years are hyper-tailored to listeners. Take Boom Radio, the online and digital channel launched this year for the UK’s 14 million “Baby Boomers” (born 1945 to 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 drum beat. Meanwhile Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM plays the kind of genre-hopping melting pot of global music that has gained him a vast following. With a laser focus on listeners’ tastes, these stations are lifestyle brands.

Further, we’ve entered an era when stations need to fight 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 53,000,000 podcast episodes to listen to. It’s no wonder OFCOM found 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 harsh on Absolute Radio Country. One of its (actual) presenters Baylen Leonard is a country aficionado who on Friday interviewe­d Sheryl Crow ahead of a livestream. There are other specialist­s, too.

But some fans feel short-changed.

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