As Controller of Radio 1 in the late nineties, Matthew Bannister orchestrated a major shift toward a youth-orientated market, placing renewed emphasis on burgeoning music and talent. He recently returned to the University of Nottingham to give a lecture entitled ‘A Very Personal History of Radio: From My Dad’s Crystal Set to My New iPad’, prefaced by a short Q&A session with students. Matthew was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions afterwards.
IS: You oversaw British radio at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Did you anticipate any of the bands you championed in their early days would go on to become giants of the industry?
MB: It wasn’t my work, first of all. It was the work of DJs, producers, the heads of music policy at the time. We wanted to get the best and most interesting new music onto the station. We were championing bands either long before commercial radio or that commercial radio wouldn’t touch. In fact, our argument for public funding was (and still should be) that it was a major public service. As long ago as the 1980s, Stuart Copeland [drummer for the Police] said there were two things that made British bands disproportionately successful: one was the social security system and the other was Radio 1. And so it was that kind of spirit that we wanted to rekindle – not the social security stuff but the platform for new artists!
[The record industry] felt we had become a less effective platform if the audience fell. But I think we ended up with an audience who were passionate about new music and they were the very people the artists and the record companies wanted to contact. We wanted to make a great radio station that was in touch with new music, but it had the side effect of creating careers for people.
IS: Of the talent you personally signed or assisted in signing, who are you most proud of?
MB: [Laughs] I’m proud of lots of people for different reasons and it’s invidious to single any of them out. The one thing I do say when I’m asked this question is that the programme I’m most personally proud of having commissioned is ‘Blue Jam’ by Chris Morris – which was extraordinarily weird. It was like drifting in and out of nightmares and made you feel deeply uneasy. I had all kinds of terrible debates with myself and with him about whether it was acceptable broadcasting. But it was a brilliant use of the medium.
IS: If you look at that as a very experimental show and you look at, perhaps, some of the artists that John Peel recorded for the Peel Sessions, do you feel that today’s radio is safer by comparison?
MB: I think it probably is. People in the BBC have a piece of rhetoric about the fact public funding allows you to be risk-taking and point to various things that they do they say are risk-taking. But we genuinely took risks and the proof of that is, we failed sometimes. I think you can only see that someone has taken risks when they have some dramatic failures as well as some dramatic successes. We put people on in particular parts of the day when they wouldn’t necessarily have been there. We took risks with the music too. I think that perhaps some of that heritage has gone to 6 Music rather than to other stations.
IS: Online subscription radio has been a soar-away success in the United States. Do you see the same happening here, or do you think British audiences are too used to the idea of radio as a free commodity?
MB: I don’t want to say definitively that it’s not going to happen in some form, but I think people just believe that it’s free and it’s going to come out of their set in some way or other without payment. Because of the size of the American population, you could get quite a large minority subscription base to make a success of it, whereas here the minorities might not be big enough. So it’s not something I foresee happening any time soon.