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Jan 17, 2014

Razer's defence of Triple J: it's all in the mix, and the kids like it

The arguments against ABC youth station Triple J -- from people too old and too white to be making them -- are back in print. A former JJJ presenter mounts a more knowledgeable defence.

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A hundred years ago when I was very young, the world was different. Women were yet to be freed from the yoke of compulsory pubic hair and everyday people were forced to survive on a bitter diet of a stuff called “sun-dried tomato”. They forced us to eat it on a doorstop-dough amalgam called “focaccia”.

A lot has changed. For example, people now believe the Foo Fighters are a “band” that makes “music” instead of the sound of retching into a corporate void of dread. But, some things are exactly the same. Like a Sunday Age/Sun-Herald piece that could have been written when I were a lad. Only the Names Have Been Changed.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même complaint.

The piece has been much-discussed. By which I mean “much-discussed by dudes in upcycled cardigans who write dreary songs about SSRI medication who have been so over-parented by their unjustly proud and unjustly rich white families that they possibly never understand that no one is interested in their lazy abuse of a banjo”.

I didn’t want to read to the end of a critique of my former employer, ABC “youth” station Triple J, because there was no need. I’ve read it literally dozens and figuratively dozens of times. From 1990 until the end of the decade, I must have said a weekly “fuck off” to journalists who rang me to ask “don’t you think you’re selling out?”.

I was not selling out and Triple J was not selling out. First, we were paid very little. Second, we participated in the stimulus of a pop-boom that saw some very average independent musicians buy some very nice houses. Third, the organisation that did then, as it does now, serve its young stakeholders with maximum efficiency. Back In My Day, the station represented a tiny portion of the ABC budget and I am pretty sure this remains unchanged. It’s cheap and it’s good.

But every week, someone who earned three times as much as I did called to ask me questions like, “Why don’t you play Mark of Cain?”, or my least favourite, “Isn’t it wrong that Triple J has a playlist?”.

We did play Mark of Cain on Triple J, but not in the breakfast program. This is because Mark of Cain sounded like a pneumatic drill slowed to the pace of a Fitzroy junkie looking for his tram ticket and so were only played after 9am. We called this dayparting. This is an industry term used only by people who know about music scheduling for radio.

But no one participating in the online discussion about Triple J as a result of the Fairfax piece knows anything about music scheduling for radio.  So I effing will. Otherwise, all you’ll hear are promoters and venue owners and brats with a banjo protecting their self-interest and unassailable belief that Triple J should be entirely programmed by them.

I know about playlists and how they are made and sustained.  I also know that everyone thinks they can successfully build one just as everyone thinks they have great taste. They can’t; they don’t. Successful music scheduling requires diligence and talent.

Triple J’s playlist is immense. There are so many songs in that music database there may as well not be a playlist. A rather funny piece on FasterLouder is the only one to identify a Triple J sound as a confusing “genre clusterfuck”. The data (songs) in the playlist are so abundant they have none of the meaning, or the benefit to musicians, that recurrence provides.

No journalist really ever wanted to hear about the need for a tightly rotating playlist at the national broadcaster. But I tried to explain it in any case.

“No one listens to Triple J for the seven hours a day required to get a real feel for the shape of its playlist.”

Why do you have a playlist? Because, if I didn’t have a playlist I would have just whacked Bikini Kill in the CD player for 15 hours a week. Why do you have such a small playlist? Because if I had a yottabyte of tunes (as Triple J does now) you’d never hear that great banjo song more than once because of maths.

Consider that even the primary listener spends just an average of 12 minutes a day listening to your radio station; usually at the same time each day and rarely for more than a continuous single period of seven minutes (these are rough figures; I haven’t had access to granular Nielsen data for five years). And because you only heard Oh My Idle Whimsical Fancy on banjo only once, you wouldn’t develop any affection for it or remember to Shazam it or buy it. Or go see its under-appreciated authors, Daddy Bought Us A Nice Van With Side Air-Bags.

Of course, audience reach is not the only consideration for the national broadcaster. The ABC has more policy documents than Daddy’s Van has pairs of vintage gabardine slacks and some of them contain good policy. For example, that which requires a 40% Australian music quota. And a commitment to music played by Aboriginal Australians; that’s another good one. And a commitment to unsigned artists. The Australian music community is very much seen as a stakeholder by Triple J. Always has been. Always will be.

Although I would rather eat Dave Grohl’s sick than ever have another go ’round in radio, I retain an interest in music presentation. This is because I sat in front of RCS Selector, still the standard radio scheduling software, every weekday for five years negotiating with the music director. It is pretty standard database stuff and there’s not too much arcane knowledge you need to work it. But, there’s a bit of wisdom that you need to make it work for your audience.

And, using an increase in audience size and demographic diversity as our measure, we really made it work for our audience. Not to crow about it, but seeing numbers climb and taking more calls than we thought was possible from kids who had, it seemed, a wider and wider range of accents every day, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience of organisational success. Through assiduous and tight management of the playlist, we brought all the boys and their sisters to the yard.

A little algebra goes a long way.

For statistics freaks and anyone interested in mass radio programming: Triple J audience numbers peaked in the mid-1990s and then crashed at the turn of the century, continued a slow decline and rose again in recent years due, in my view, to some bang-on social media work and the sensible placement of talented broadcasters in essential timeslots. Around about 2000, the playlist, not yet under the control of the unfairly reviled Richard Kingsmill, had ballooned out of control. I could hear it and I could see it in the survey books and it pained me. We had worked so hard to get rid of the sloppy, snobbish approach of “let’s just play whatever we feel”, which was invariably some white boy complaint-rock like Sebadoh.

In recent years, the breakfast team of  Tom Ballard and Alex Dyson brought young listeners back. Kids had departed in droves after the ’90s and the station’s core audience returned to the 25-39 age range for whom it is not intended. Breakfast got 18-24s back; i.e. they were doing their job and not talking to old people. And not talking to loud old people who blog about the “decline” in “true quality” of a station I can remember them moaning about back in 1994. And not talking to loud old people who hate-listen to Triple J in a way that is as unnatural in its rancour and self-interest as it is in its “time spent listening” patterns.

No one listens to Triple J for the seven hours a day required to get a real feel for the shape of its playlist. No one, that is, apart from kids in bands and loud old people; obviously, at one time as this obsessive screed betrays, myself included.

Triple J is doing a lot right in terms of radio “science”. In old-time jargon, it’s recently managed to get two of the three Ms of music radio success absolutely right: mornings (6-9am, where the largest number of listeners are available), messages (the branding of the place) and music.

Triple J hasn’t got music right in years. But not because they won’t play Dad’s Van EVEN THOUGH his uncle was in Sebadoh and he has a Tumblr followed by John Zorn or what-have-you. The music is not right because its director programs too few songs. It is because he programs too many.

Triple J’s newest success, which was made eloquent in the Nielsen surveys last year — yes, I still read the radio books because #nolife — had little if anything to do with a lack of diversity in its playlist. The station has succeeded despite a kitchen-sink music programming style.

I should declare that I have, save for sentiment, no conflict of interest in publishing these thoughts. I left Triple J before my 30th birthday (everyone should, it ought to be like Logan’s Run) and I have just one friend who works there as a producer part-time. I have been booted out of the ABC on no fewer than four occasions and I am so terrible at sounding warm and interested in people and the success of their chia-seed baking that I do not qualify for one of the Lady jobs at Local Radio my superannuated contemporaries are lucky enough to enjoy.

“… if you’re not on the playlist, consider the possibility that your band is total pants.”

But, I have been thinking about these things for 20 years and when my friend and former Triple J co-host Mikey Robins called me this week — “Raze! They’ve written that article about not playing enough middle-class whiny horror upchucked by spoiled children with Gretsch guitars they don’t deserve AGAIN! I feel like it’s the ’90s. Quick, get everyone some Pearl Jam and a round of mojitos.” — I thought, it’s time to have a crack. And say what needs to be said: you griping little pricks are lucky to have Triple J. And if you’re not on the playlist, consider the possibility that your band is total pants.

In the piece last week, one unidentified Australian musician complained “it shouldn’t be this dictatorial thing where you’re not even allowed to criticise Triple J because that’s bullshit”. She claims she mildly rebuked Triple J for its fondness for playing a certain type of music and the station responded by not playing her.

I imagine any programming decision was based more on the merit of her music than it was on scandal. To be crass about it, if you’re halfway listenable and Australian and you don’t sound like Britney, Triple J is going to play you just to make the local-content quota. I remember standing with a colleague at a venue in Sydney’s George Street watching You Am I just kill it. It was a great gig diminished a little for us when Tim Rogers said something like “Triple J are a bunch of sell-out fuckety fuck fucks” and I looked at him and said: “Well, we still have to play the prick anyhow.”

But, the young unidentified lady remains convinced, as many do, that Triple J is in the pocket of Big Music; not that such a thing really continues to exist.

Of course, Triple J is not perfect. And, I am not saying In My Day it was, either. For starters in the ’90s, we had an almost 100% white, anglo-celtic staff. The one published critique of Triple J that actually hurt with its accuracy popped up in about ’95 — I think it was in The Sydney Morning Herald — and asserted, quite rightly, that we did not play anything by anyone darker than the pasty guitarist from Sebadoh.

That was an entirely valid reproach. We were at this time performing a disservice to many of our stakeholders in withholding music they might actually enjoy. We had engaged very large numbers of white “Bs and Cs” (i.e. working-class people) by playing stuff like Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine and Silverchair. All bands, by the way, that were condemned by editorials identical to this week’s as not sufficiently “indie” (i.e. of interest to tertiary educated REM and Pavement fans). I didn’t give a toss about serving the interests of a snotty middle-class; that’s what the rest of the ABC is there to do. But I remain ashamed we didn’t play to the diversity of the audience.

I’d actually say that Triple J’s music is more diverse now, albeit spewed into chaos by its database in such a way that does not excite interest in listeners unfamiliar with a particular artist or genre of music. (This is getting super-nerdy, but there are techniques of high-contrast programming where, say, you’ll follow really roaring dubstep with really quiet folk or a really well-known song with a new artist thereby pleasing and educating your core while welcoming new listeners and keeping the playlist — which ideally should be high-turnover and small and not, as it currently is, slow-turnover and immense — dynamic. People in their late-teens want familiarity and novelty in equal measure. That is who they are: a demanding, delightful and demented demographic to serve.) So, as to the charge that Triple J’s sound is homogenous, I’d say it’s more heterogeneous in its embrace than ever. They just need to employ someone who can work the software. And possibly undertake some research in those demographic profiles they may be failing. Which do not include, I’ll bet, white middle-class young people who love banjos.

Or, well-to-do slightly older people who all joined the chorus of Triple J loathing this week.

But, the legitimate criticism that Triple J is not sufficiently diverse is not the one being made. Again. For the nth time, we see another gripe so imitated, uniform and conventional in its HOWLING to “play more good Melbourne bands” that the people making it are unable to see their absolute self-interest.

It was a long way down for me after Triple J and so, I know how bands must feel when no one wants to hear what they have to sell any more. One of the many service jobs I worked after the ’90s was in the Cherry Bar in central Melbourne. I was the coat-check girl and, for a couple of years, I’d sit in a booth that smelled of Jägermeister-sick exchanging coats for tokens and, occasionally, my dignity for a Triple J-led fall from grace. “You were that loud bitch on the radio,” they’d say. “This is a pretty shitty job.”

Actually, it wasn’t. The boss was a nice bloke and, one night, Noel Gallagher came in and remembered me from across a radio console a few years before. “You’re a lippy bint, you,” he said. This is a reasonable assessment of my person and I was flattered I had stayed in his memory.

Cherry was full of the white indie-rock boy-bands and whimsical ladies now complaining, as they were in the ’90s, that they just Don’t Get Heard. And they do this because that’s what spoiled, entitled kids believe; they’re never getting sufficient attention.

If there was complaint, such as that I read in the SMH years ago, that the station was failing its diverse young audience and not playing sufficient hip hop or wasn’t making a fair indigenous Australian quota or was playing music that was too white and middle-class, I’d listen.

But as it is, a ToneDeaf piece from the new owner of the bar where I once checked coats is one of the loudest voices demanding more straight-ahead white-person rock of the sort played for decades.

I can’t say I’ve seen any the bands the author claims are being marginalised by Triple J — save for Airbourne and they sound like AC/DC as interpreted by Jet — but I did look for videos by these proponents of “quality rock songs from Melbourne”. While some of these were creditable, all of these were of a sort beloved by the only demographic so long over-serviced by Triple J. To wit: straight white rockin’ men just a bit too old to be hanging out in places intended for young people. James Young writes:

“The station say they’re ‘looking for quality music’, I say bull-fucking shit they are. They’re sitting in their air-conditioned office taking meeting with major label reps who are kissing their arse and taking them through their weekly release schedule over cafe lattes.”

He sounds, to be frank, a bit like Nick Cater in his intolerance for a particular kind of beverage that ceased to be a signifier for the bourgeoisie more than 10 years ago.

I haven’t had much that is flattering to say here about the work of Richard Kingsmill, but I do remember that when he took the job he was vocally and sincerely opposed to payola of even the merest kind. It’s a cheap shot to accuse a man widely known as decent of yielding to temptation. I have seen Richard’s discomfort with corporate culture first-hand and I can’t imagine that this has changed or, indeed, that any of the people levelling accusations of free-loading do not also know the man as upright.

I empathise with the frustration, though; I got old and saw the things to which I had attached myself as a youth die, too. One of them being my career. But one adapts and, if one is very lucky, one delights in being on the margins of a new pop culture where the privilege of being at its centre doesn’t even matter.

I will not fight for my generation nor for my class to have its voice on Triple J. I will not whine because I believe that my taste in music is anything more than a social filter through which I re-establish my class identity.

I hope Triple J never plays another boring rock song again. I hope they give Nazeem Hussain and Aamer Rahman the drive shift. I hope they play music I don’t understand from countries I will never visit. I hope they have every afternoon shift hosted by an angry gender-queer teenager who would rather eat Dave Grohl’s vomit than ever play anything that sounds like the Foo Fighters.

This entire week of blowing air at Triple J for failing to play the white-bread music it has for so long has a Men’s Rights stink to it; it smacks of people panicking at the loss of their cultural primacy. Move aside with grace and acknowledge that not everything that happens will appease your social group, nor can it reflect the flattering vision of yourself you hope to see.

And rock is dead. And Kingsmill, who is a few years older than me, should probably think about moving on. And I believe the children are our future.

Helen Razer — Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and Broadcaster

Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Saturday Paper, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian.

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44 thoughts on “Razer’s defence of Triple J: it’s all in the mix, and the kids like it

  1. Dogs breakfast

    My formative teen years were in the beginning, JJ and quite a bit later JJJ. Frankly, they always looked like nerds trying that little bit too hard to appear cool, much as Razer can often appear to be.

    I didn’t listen to them that much, and when I did always seemed to be in that period where the entire playlist was obsessed with the latest cool, but not so cool to be popular, crap music. Rap just went way overboard, Heavy metal, so much rubbish, so little time.

    These days should be perfect for JJJ. For the first time in our history you can be both independent and sell records (oops, downloads) big time, perhaps even merging into popular (oh god no, get that tune off, other people like it)

    JJJ has always suffered from trying too hard to be cool, while trying at the same time appearing not to be trying at all. You all know it, it’s true, and it hurts to have someone say it, but I’m a party spoiler.

    On the up side, I’m 52 now, and I think JJJ is just coming into it’s own. These are the days where anyone can make music, and by fluke or planning or sheer quality, actually get it heard. Only the punk era came close in that regard, but there is a big difference now, and it is this.

    These days, these kids are leaving school, or barely even that, and they are producing fantabulous music of real quality. Punk was bullshit, always was, just banging away, 2 chords was one too many etc, farking noise (with occasional quality accidentally slipping through)

    These kids today, they are accomplished freaking musicians and they are barely out of their teens, not even. My kids ‘rock band’ program last year was astonishing in its quality.

    This should be the golden age for JJJ. They are reaping some of the benefits of being in the right place at the right time.

    And good music is always good music. I’m loving being re-introduced to fresh sounds, and not a little surprised that so many fresh sounds are still there to be made.

    Maybe Homer Simpson wasn’t right about rock being finished in 1974.

  2. Robert McCabe

    Helen, I have only one question for you that’s been gnawing away at me for decades:

    Although I’m not a huge fan of your writing or much of anything else you’ve done, at 16 I started listening to The Three Hours of Power which I believe you were the inaugural presenter for. I have to admit – you were really, really good at it. You opened me up to a lot of music that fell under the very widely-defined umbrella of a heavy metal specialist show. Hearing Megadeth, Mudhoney, Poison Idea, Bathory and Suicidal Tendencies all in the same hour is an unthinkable radio-programming proposition nowadays; and yet back when you were presenting, that was all in a night’s work.

    So my question is: why the hell did you move on? When Francis Leach took over, the show was still okay. But towards the end of his run, the then-cutting edge extreme metal genres seemed to start getting phased out and replaced with the by-now-standardized “white rock” genres (Pearl Jam, Silverchair, Soundgarden, RATM et al) you have mentioned. All that stuff got played incessantly on JJJ during the daytime and just barely classified as “metal”; so it was always a mystery why it needed representation in the playlist of a late-night metal slot.

    As each presenter after Francis Leach took over, that disparity seemed to grow, to the point where there almost was no “metal” in the classical sense of the term left on The 3 Hours of Power. I can’t speak to what happened after about ’94 because that’s when I gave up on it.

    But why did you leave, Helen? I can’t help thinking the 3 Hours of Power would have retained its potency – at a time when alt rock ruled and metal really could have used the exposure – if it retained you. What happened? Did you just get bored of the music? I really hope you see and answer this.

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