Radio 1 DJ Reggie Yates is counting down the latest official top 10, as he has done every Sunday evening since 2007. I am excited – that childhood experience of sitting close to the radio, willing your favourite band to climb even higher than last week, possibly with a twitchy finger hovering by the ‘record’ button on the tape deck, stays with you. Yates is excited too – I can tell this by the increase in speed and volume in his voice as he nears the coveted number one spot, and also because I can see him.
I’m getting an early look at Radio 1’s “visualisation” of the chart show before it launches on Sunday, a bold new dimension in radio on the web for the UK’s top youth station, and the first opportunity to see the top 10 regularly counted down with videos and flashy graphics since Top of the Pops was dropped in 2006. We’ve seen Radio 1 DJs at work many times before on webcams, but that was extremely low quality and extremely boring. Now there are multiple real cameras in the studio and videos to be played, while star guests will either be filmed visiting the studio or seen on Skype rather than being heard on the phone.
Instead of playing MP3s, Yates will be cueing up DVDs for the first time. “It adds another layer. It’s an amazing thing,” he tells me. “To be the face of a show that’s doing something that no one else has done before, stepping into uncharted waters, is really, really exciting.”
The team have been doing the chart rundown this way for the past few weeks but haven’t yet shown the world. It’s one of these pilot episodes that I’m shown by Joe Harland, Radio 1’s Head of Visualisation – a job title that might sound like being Head of Stairs in a bungalow but is becoming increasingly important. He’s an upbeat man of 38 whose job description also seems to include being able to do uncanny impersonations of past Radio 1 DJs – I am treated to Colin Murray and John Peel. We’re sitting in Radio 1’s boardroom, a surprisingly small, scruffy, overheated space with none of the air of malevolence you might expect from a room in which a small band of tastemakers regularly decide that the nation has to keep listening to David Guetta for another week. He flips open his laptop and presses play.
I had expected something akin to the epilepsy-inducing barrage of split screen information offered by the Sky Sports News channel, but it’s simpler than that. Yates is seen in close-up on the left-hand-side, from the front and side, running down the list as he always does. On the right, in blue, pink and white, is a list of the previous five songs mentioned, while a ticker runs along the bottom with info about the current act. Twitter or Facebook feeds are nowhere to be seen. “Social media could feature but only if it is engaging,” says Harland. “We don’t want audience commentary for the sake of being able to say you’ve had it.”
What they’ve recognised, correctly, is that onscreen comments from strangers saying: “BRRAPP BRRAPP this iz mi nu jam shout out to da Hornsey crew :)” is really irritating. They expect people to pull up a second window on their laptop and engage with their own friends and followers while watching. “Being able to see the show online creates a far bigger appointment to participate.”
What with those legendary teenage attention spans, the visual element will only appear for the last hour of the show, but there are plans to expand to filming Fearne Cotton’s morning Live Lounge (where bands perform unusual cover versions) later in the year. “Not all programmes will work visually, but the young audience values it so much more if it has a visual element,” says Harland. For example, in 2010 the digital urban station Radio 1Xtra’s DJ Charlie Sloth hosted a live set from little known London rapper K Koke. It was heard by a few hundred thousand listeners at the time, but since being uploaded on video to YouTube it has been watched almost three million times.
On the chart show, Yates plays each song’s official video and shows clips of the stars being interviewed. If you’re listening in the car, all of this will sound the same as it always has. “Some people won’t choose to or be able to watch it, but I think it will bring in a whole batch of new people who might not have wanted to just listen before. From a young person’s point of view, this will feel natural. Being online all the time is their world,” says the DJ. “In the past few years there’s been nothing that offers that ‘play-record’ moment we used to have, that interaction that makes the chart really special.”
When the show goes live the number one act will often be in the studio, singing a live vocal over a backing track – just like they used to on Top of the Pops, I point out, before being told in no uncertain terms that this is definitely not the partial return of the much-missed show of our youths. “When we talk about visualising radio we have to be careful not to foster the expectation that it is TV,” says Harland. Yates doesn’t look at the cameras or act up – he just gets on with the same job he did before while we spy.
“This is something different, not Top of the Pops,” says Yates, who hosts the TV show when it makes its annual return on Christmas Day. “It’s found its little spot now, on once a year and feeling very heritage. The people in charge of TV aren’t commissioning much music programming now, which is slightly frustrating. It would be nice to see something new.”
The thing he’s looking for might be coming to Channel 4 next week. While Radio 1 moves to the web, one of the most successful British music websites is moving into proper telly. The Black Cab Sessions is one of those internet concepts that’s so simple it becomes addictive, like that blog with everybody balancing things on their cats. “One song, one take, one cab” is the slogan. They simply pick up a band from their hotel or venue, hail an ordinary London taxi and drive around filming a live performance stripped down to its barest essentials.
Among more than 100 participants since 2007 are The Flaming Lips, Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. A while back I had the pleasure of whizzing around Bloomsbury holding the microphone while My Morning Jacket sang so close to me that our knees brushed. Talk about an intimate experience. “I like the extremes, how you’ve only got two things to work with, my voice and whatever I’m playing,” the band’s singer Jim James told me. Bands enjoy doing it because it’s a challenge and a novel change from endless conventional interviews. Many have told their musician friends about it, which gave the organisers a contacts book big enough to tour America in a borrowed cab and film the best bands in six US cities for Channel 4.
The Black Cab Sessions on TV has expanded its concept to become an inspring travelogue. Interviews as well as the taxi gigs explain why bands gravitate to work in particular places and give a broad snapshot of current scenes, established stars and hungry newcomers. We see hip rapper Spank Rock in Philadelphia, the young garage rockers of Memphis, jazz heroes Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins in New Orleans, the ultra-cool bands of Brooklyn, Athens Georgia’s thriving scene, and the new Nashville bands being helped along by Jack White’s hardworking presence in the city.
“He’s a huge influence over there, so instrumental in this new underground that’s going on in Nashville,” says Chris Pattinson, Black Cab Sessions Director of Music. Their biggest coup was being told that White would perform in the cab if they could get there in the next 20 minutes. When they managed that, rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson hopped in beside him for a duet of The White Stripes song Baby Blue.
The two month trip sounds like it was a blast, so much so that they’re already planning a west coast jaunt from Seattle down to Austin. But this doesn’t mean the website will be abandoned – anything but. “The TV show puts the bands in more context, but the full sessions will then be appearing on the site,” says Pattinson. “We’re very much going to stay active on the site. It’s much more of a priority for us than the TV format.”
Because while TV can treat it as a late night afterthought and radio feels like it needs something extra to excite the kids, the web is now firmly established as the best place to experience and discover new music. Black Cab Sessions and similar sites like daytrotter.com, blogotheque.net and sbtv.co.uk, as well as the Vice empire’s new YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/noisey, all offer original content to drown in. Top of the Pops may be long gone, but music has migrated to a more exciting place.
The Official Chart with Reggie Yates live online, Sun 6pm at bbc.co.uk/radio1
Black Cab Sessions, Wed Feb 29, 12.10am Channel 4. Blackcabsessions.com