The BBC Anti-Playlister

In which The Author decides to hack the system

The BBC has been plugging a new piece of technology recently, primarily on Radio 2, but also between TV programmes. It’s called the Playlister, and has probably come about as a spin-off from the spread of DAB radios and online listening.
I haven’t tried it out myself, but in theory it sounds like a great idea. If you hear a song you like being played on the radio, you can go straight to the BBC Playlister and add it to your ‘personal jukebox’. You don’t even need to remember the details, because it’s all done for you. How many of us have scribbled down vague notes of half-heard titles, only to draw a blank later on? With the BBC Playlister, those days are behind you.
I say that it sounds like a great idea in theory, because the Radio 2 playlisting policy seems to have changed radically over the past few years. Britain’s most popular radio station has been actively chasing a younger audience for several years now, driving established listeners away by a process of gradual attrition.
One of the station’s elder statesmen, Terry Wogan, was shunted from his weekday breakfast show to a Sunday morning some years ago; his place was taken by the frenetic Chris Evans. There seems little doubt that Terry took the majority of his TOGs with him. I wonder how many Radio 1 listeners followed the hyperactive ginger nut to his new home.
Meanwhile, Sir Michael Parkinson’s Sunday chat show has been dropped altogether. Michael Ball and Richard Madeley have tried to emulate Yorkshire’s master of the intimate interview, but without success. Long-established favourites like Listen to the Band and The Organist Entertains have been moved around the schedule so often that not even the presenters seem sure when they’re going to be on the air. Only Brian Matthew’s Sounds of the 60s seems to be safe in its Saturday morning slot – for the time being, at least.
Some of Mr Evans’ former colleagues, like Trevor Nelson and Sarah Cox, are now presenting regular shows on the sister network. I assume that the station bosses are hoping that their Radio 1 audience will follow them to their new home.
If their output doesn’t drive away the existing audience, there’s worse to come. Following the 6 Music débacle of a couple of years ago, much of the new Radio 2 schedule is a relentless campaign to bring ‘new music’ to the people – as demonstrated by Dermot O’Leary’s Saturday afternoon show. If I was feeling generous, I’d say that 70% of the ‘new music’ sounds scarily reminiscent of old music. (Since I’m not feeling generous, I’ll revise that figure to at least 90%.) In fact, as I told my friend Gareth E. a few weeks ago, the only genuinely new music on the BBC can be heard on Radio 3’s Late Junction. Try as I might to keep an open mind, it seems as though these forty-something ears have heard it all before.
Therefore, I’ve decided to try and hack the system. It’s an idea which I came up with a few years ago, when one of the online jazz stations introduced a similar feature. Apparently their interactive feature would enable you to customise your listening experience by foregrounding your favourite artists (Miles Davis, say) and shoving others (George Benson, to pick a name at random) onto the back-burner. It occurred to me then that the idea had legs, as they say in the business. It didn’t go far enough, though. Here’s where the Anti-Playlister comes to the fore.
The Radio 2 Playlister seems ripe for hacking. I don’t know how it would work in practice, but that’s an issue for my IT-savvy friends. The way I see it is something like this: if Radio 2 were to play a song which you really, really disliked, the Anti-Playlister feature would mute it – not just on that one occasion, but every single time Radio 2 decided to air it.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Radio 2 announce that they’re going to play ‘Dakota’ by Stereophonics. As soon as that opening riff kicks in, I hit the ‘Kill Song’ button, and I get three minutes or so of dead air until Ken Bruce or Jeremy Vine pick up where they left off. Any subsequent plays of that song will immediately fall silent for the duration. If I did the same with ‘Have a Nice Day’, ‘The Bartender and the Thief’, and ‘A Thousand Trees’, the system’s smart software would learn my listening habits and automatically kill every song by Cwmaman’s finest. Sounds like a good plan, doesn’t it?
In addition, the software would be smart enough to recognise patterns and linkages. Over time, a true Expert System could be compiled. There are plenty of online and print resources in existence already, using reliable sources like Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees and Martin C. Strong’s incredible Great Discography series of books. We could draw on these and similar sources to build up a vast relational database of musicians, bands and songwriters. This would allow the system to make connections for itself, and extrapolate an enormous potential playlist to suit the listener’s personal tastes.
Let’s say (for example) that it was possible to blacklist every Fleetwood Mac song made after Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer left the band. A really smart system would extend that to include all of Stevie Nicks’ solo output and Lindsey Buckingham’s egregious single ‘Trouble’, among others. As the user’s tastes became established in the system, Fleetwood Mac’s daytime output from his/her own radio would become vanishingly small.
The beauty of this proposal is that the vast resources of the BBC’s archive could be fully exploited. They say that somewhere within their enormous vaults, there’s a copy of every record every released in the UK. If that’s true, and Radio 2 scheduled a blacklisted record of three minutes and twenty-six seconds’ duration, the software would instantly select a candidate to fill that exact gap. Out go Danny Wilson*, in comes…
Well, that’s the interesting part.
The potential for pleasant surprises is almost infinite. Imagine what would happen if (say) Earth, Wind and Fire were on your personal blacklist. While the rest of the country grooved to some old-school disco, you might experience the terrifying rush of ‘Death Valley 69’ by Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch. With the Anti-Playlister fired up, records which have been forgotten by just about everybody not involved with the bands might pop up out of nowhere.
Here’s a hypothetical example: My friends’ old band City Giants released a self-financed single, ‘Little Next to Nothing’, way back in 1987. That might get some unexpected airplay courtesy of the Anti-Playlister. I can just imagine the look of shock on their frontman Andy Matheou’s middle-aged face when his minuscule PRS cheque arrives in the post, nearly three decades after he and his bandmates buttonholed John Peel outside Brainwashing Broadcasting House and asked him to give their disc a spin.
It doesn’t have to end there. Anti-Playlister 2.0 would be even smarter, not only discarding every post-Green/Spencer Fleetwood Mac song, but also that new Nell Bryden song which sounds like a discarded session from Rumours. Meanwhile, totally unnecessary cover versions (q.v. Calexico’s carbon copy of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’) would never darken my door again. I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken.
Anti-Playlister 2.0 could herald a uniquely tailored listening experience, pulling lost nuggets from the ground and giving every individual listener the music they want, while leaving the speech content completely unaltered.
I don’t have the programming skills to make this idea into a reality, as I’m the first to admit. However, I’ve got a pretty strong background knowledge of music and musicians, which would help build the core of the expert system. I just need to recruit some friends of a similar kidney to work on the details of the system. On paper at least, I think it’s a goer, and would certainly shake things up a bit. Radio 2 could actually live up to their boast of bringing you ‘new music’, all day long, seven days a week. Who’s in…?
* Note to Rob H, my regular proofreader: Danny Wilson were a Scottish pop group, not an individual, so the noun and verb do agree!

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