'Radio 2 reimagined': Head of music Jeff Smith on the new music policy at Britain's No.1 station

'Radio 2 reimagined': Head of music Jeff Smith on the new music policy at Britain's No.1 station

BBC Radio 2 says its new schedule has got off to a flying start. Despite stiff competition from Chris Evans’ new Virgin Radio breakfast show and Lauren Laverne’s 6 Music breakfast debut, station head Lewis Carnie told Music Week that he “couldn’t be happier” with the new line-up, which includes Zoe Ball at breakfast, Sara Cox at Drivetime, Jo Whiley back in the evenings and Trevor Nelson in the late-night slot.

“All of the shows sounded, and continue to sound, confident, warm and bright,” said Carnie. “It’s the biggest change in the network’s history, yet all of the shows feel settled already.”

Ball has also told Music Week that her opening run of shows has been “an absolute dream”.

But, while most of the media attention has focused on the revamped presenter line-up, there have also been some changes behind the scenes to Radio 2’s music policy that will be of huge interest to the music industry. Carnie told Music Week that head of music Jeff Smith’s “mix of the best of today’s new music, coupled with a huge range of popular tracks from the past five decades, continues to provide listeners with a brilliant musical soundtrack to their day”.

But, in fact, that soundtrack is being subtly but decisively tweaked. So Music Week sat down with Smith – who will brief the music industry on the changes this week – for an exclusive discussion about what’s new at the UK’s most popular radio station…

How would you sum up the changes to Radio 2’s music policy?

“I’m defining this rather grandly as Radio 2 music reimagined – if it’s good enough for The Greatest Showman and Take That, it’s good enough for Radio 2! Our heritage position has always been that Radio 2 plays timeless and melodic music, we want to build on that and, with our new line-up, it gave us an opportunity to refresh. So, alongside playing timeless and melodic pop, what we have been doing recently is playing the best of the best adult pop music, new and old, with a broad appeal to a family audience. You’ll still hear those great songs but we’ve looked at our balance and range in both gold and in currents.”

How will that change the music heard on air?

“On the current side of things, the playlist continues as ever it was, the same meetings with a slightly different group of people attending now, because we’ve got new producers on new shows. We’ll introduce the new pop establishment to our audience – Dua Lipa, Jess Glynne, Calvin Harris, Clean Bandit; those people who are coming through and have established themselves, but maybe would be new to our audiences. And, as radio comes into a new era, we’re matching the mood of our audience, so we’re ensuring that the best songs reach the right ears at the right time, making sure we get it right in programming and scheduling for the right time of day. In terms of gold we’ve slightly dialled down the ‘60s and ‘70s era and dialled up the ‘80s, ‘90s, noughties and today, because we know we’re looking at that 35-54 audience and trying to connect with them a bit more. Radio 2 has been doing great with all audiences over 35, but we know we could do better with the younger end of that demo, so we’re looking at that without trying to risk alienating people. We want to make sure that everybody still finds something in Radio 2 as a family station. That focus is particularly sharp Monday-Friday, 5am-7pm.”

What will it mean for new music on the station?

“We’re required by Ofcom to deliver over 20% of new music and over 40% UK artists, so what I wanted to do is banner the music as ‘New To 2’, so when we talk about it on Radio 2 people straightaway understand that this is new. The audience will know that we’re playing new music on Radio 2, which is a good message for us to get over to people. We’ll continue to establish distinct new artists for our audience: you know what we’ve done with The Shires, Jack Savoretti and Ward Thomas. We’ll keep finding them and promoting the new and emerging. We’ve had a great hand in supporting the likes of Grace Carter, Deva Mahal and Tom Speight.”

Will this lead to greater crossover with Radio 1?

“There’s a bit of that, but that’s not always a bad thing. In terms of the way the music industry can view this, the development of music across Radio 1 into Radio 2 is a good way for artists to develop and build and establish themselves. That’s something needed in the music industry at the moment. We don’t want every record on the Radio 2 playlist to be on Radio 1’s. They’re going to be playing some stuff before us and we’re going to be playing some stuff before them, but it shouldn’t stop either of us playing the records if we think they’re right for our audiences.”

Has the music industry been asking for these changes?

“Well, they haven’t been screaming at the door asking for it. It’s primarily a decision by us as the BBC to match the requirements of our audience. But it does serve the industry well to know the BBC is very aware of how important that support for artists [is]; being able to deliver artists and bring them through in their careers. It should help with a more cohesive response from the BBC to delivering music across our platforms.”

Radio 2 has become an important platform for artists that don’t get hammered on streaming services. Will that continue?

“Yes. We’ll carry on doing our bit for distinctive artists that are new and emerging and may well stay with us. But we’ve all got a lot to gain from other radio stations picking up where Radio 2 leads, whether it’s the commercial A/C or CHR stations or BBC local radio. We can lead where others will follow and that’s always a good thing.”

Is streaming a threat to Radio 2?

“In some ways. You’ve always got to be aware of what the competition is. We just need to be in as many places as we can be. We’re in a good place and radio is making its case even more clearly for the future that it’s a really strong medium and can certainly fight its corner against any streaming competition.”

* To read Music Week’s full, exclusive story on the new Radio 2 – featuring the only interviews with Smith, Carnie, Ball, Whiley, Cox and Nelson, see the new issue of Music Week, available now, or click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music industry story, click here.

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