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Meet the Radio 2 playlist king

23 April 2014

From the Saga Magazine archives: Head of Music Jeff Smith is the man who's chosen the tracks that we've been listening to for years. Here Eamonn Forde discovers the secrets of the playlist. By Eamonn Forde.

BBC Radio 2's Head of Music, Jeff Smith, wears red headphones
Jeff Smith is Head of Music at BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music - photographed for Saga Magazine by Jay Brooks

In a quiet second-floor office tucked behind Broadcasting House in central London, the walls are lined with posters and silver discs for a variety of musicians – Pink Floyd, Amy Macdonald, AC/DC, Fleet Foxes, Robbie Williams, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart and the Senseless Things (a barely remembered indie band from the early Nineties).

Hanging in the corner is the sole indication of a life that is not completely devoted to music – an Everton scarf. Spotify is open on the computer on the desk, a stereo with piles of CDs sits to the left and just within reach is a book with a very simple but telling title, British Hit Singles.

This is where Jeff Smith, now in his mid-fifties, decides not only what music is played on Radio 2 – by some distance the most popular radio station in the UK – but also on 6 Music, the BBC’s digital-only station that has a public service obligation to unearth the most exciting and innovative new music. 

The musical Midas touch 

Wearing a black jumper, jeans, boots and glasses, with a few wisps of hair remaining atop his head, Smith is soft-spoken but is barely able to contain his buoyancy discussing the things he loves – music and radio. We met the morning after the Brit Awards: he’d spent half the night talking to Noel Gallagher, yet there are no discernible dark shadows under his eyes.

Smith has the musical Midas touch: 6 Music’s audience has doubled to nearly two million since 2010 and in the final three months of 2013, Radio 2’s audience rose to an all-time high of 15.5 million weekly listeners. The average age of the Radio 2 audience is 51, but Jeff says it is currently seeing huge growth in listeners aged 65-plus.

He has the task of finding music that appeals to perhaps the broadest radio demographic in the country. His audience wants a spread of new and old music – not to be left wallowing comfortably in nostalgia.

‘We always have to stay modern and relevant to our audience,’ he says. ‘A 50-year-old today is not how a 50-year-old was years ago.’

Besides, nostalgia is going to be different for those aged 55 and those aged 70. Radio 2 aims to find music that suits all of them and introduce them to new artists who are not defined solely by their age.

Timeless and melodic 

‘Whether an artist is 25 or 85, as long as they are making great music that fits our timeless and melodic remit, we should play them,’ he explains. ‘We look out for artists who either sound distinctive and new for now or artists who have a place in our easy-listening heritage.’

He firmly believes that musical taste is shaped when you enter your teens and Radio 2, as a result, uses this to refine its playlist retrospectively. ‘We have to backtrack 80-, 70- and 60-year-olds to when they were 13 and look at how that informed their music,’ he argues. ‘What you will always get in our mix at Radio 2 is rock’n’roll. But there’s a degree of interest in the Eighties again, for example, because it evokes great memories for today’s older people.’

The sound of the station is defined and refined on a weekly basis at its crucial ‘playlist’ meeting every Wednesday. Here the producers of the station’s daytime shows pitch about 20 new songs from a list of around 70. In turn, each is assigned to the A (15-20 plays a week), B (7-10 plays) or C (2-5 plays) list. 

Getting on the playlist 

Each DJ’s show producer has an input. Exceptions can be made: for example, if a particular musician is a guest on a show, then more of their music will be played. But, in the main, Jeff and his team decide on 99% of what is played on Radio 2 during the daytime.

‘When there is no clear decision or it’s 50/50, I will make the final call. Ultimately the whole thing lands at my door.’

An Engelbert Humperdinck and Cliff Richard duet was moved to the A list the week we met. At the same time, George Michael was added to the B list and new Dublin band PictureHouse made it to the C list – because the producer of Anneka Rice’s Saturday Breakfast show saw them live and liked them enough to argue persuasively for their inclusion.

DJ Avicii was recently included because he used country music in one of his mixes and Daft Punk made the grade because they’ve been working with old favourites Chic. Equally, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift’s more pop-leaning songs will be in with a shout.

Back in the Nineties, when he was a show producer at Radio 1, Jeff described his approach to music programming as ‘command and control’; the playlist committee would decide among themselves what music would make it onto air and the DJs ‘would just do what they were told and play what they were given’.

Make or break an artist 

Clearly, as head of music, Jeff has the power to make or break an artist. But the very set-up of the current committee – and his reputation as a straight-shooter – mitigates any attempt by a record label to influence or buy its way on to that list.

As music availability online recalibrates listening habits, so the role of the playlist committee has become more collaborative. ‘We have to reassess how we programme music radio today,’ he says. ‘And what radio stations and programmers have become experts at is understanding what the audience generally wants to listen to at a certain time of day.’

While Radio 1 increasingly looks to social media and online popularity (YouTube, SoundCloud, Twitter) to help to decide which new acts to back, Jeff says Radio 2’s choices still stem from gut instinct. ‘We don’t need to have that sort of data to deliver what we’re doing,’ he says. ‘We don’t do any formal audience research.’

Radio 2’s audience is not rigidly segmented into ‘buckets’ in the way that most demographic-based audience research tends to be (55-64 over here, 65-74 over there and so on).

‘I have talked to people who are now in their eighties about music and they love stuff like Nat King Cole, and if you play a track by him to a 30-year-old they’ll just say, “What a fantastic piece of music” and will enjoy it, too,’ he says. ‘But that 80-year-old who loves Nat King Cole from their youth also loves Fleetwood Mac.’

A great melody 

So how are new artists introduced into this mix? ‘For modern music, as long as it’s got a great melody, such as Passenger’s Let Her Go, it will work for our audience,’ he explains. ‘The recent Pink and Nate Ruess record, Just Give me a Reason, went down very well too. Whatever the age, the audience will get it because it has a great melody.’

For Jeff, mood, not genre, is what defines a station – meaning it can freely jump across artists, genres and eras without feeling restricted by artificial parameters.

‘The difficulty we have for the future is finding new artists who can be Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac and The Carpenters – the ones we have always depended on,’ he explains. ‘That’s why we have got excited about acts such as Rumer, Caro Emerald and The Pierces, as we are hoping they will be our next line.’

He believes that a mix of new and old is the sweet spot for the station’s playlist. ‘It’s important not to presume that because people are older they just want nostalgia,’ he says. ‘We describe Radio 2 as timeless and melodic in terms of our music policy – but it’s how the melody fits in. For instance, in the past couple of years, we have been able to play AC/DC. They have never been on the A-list, but they are in the mix.’

Middle youth 

Generational divides are crumbling as ‘middle youth’ is now stretching from your forties into your eighties. ‘People of my age have lived through it all and we can live with anything now!’ he laughs.

‘I’d like to be surprised and hate something that my teenage son likes. That would be quite refreshing but I think it would be hard to do now.’

His children give him a distinct advantage. Callum, 18, loves everything from Neil Young and Elliot Smith, Nirvana and early Nineties grunge right through to new bands such as Fidlar. Ellie, 14, introduced him to bands such as The Neighbourhood and American Authors, and ‘the phenomenon of artists who don’t seem to want to be signed and exist very successfully solely on YouTube’

Born in Fleetwood near Blackpool in 1960, the son of a bus driver and grandson of a trawler skipper, Jeff Smith could see the Radio Caroline North ship from the shore. Locals could also hear Manx Radio, American Forces Network and RTÉ in Dublin. His father, who died when Jeff was 14, introduced him to Nat King Cole and Lionel Hampton. Then he started working in local record shops. ‘It was lucky I did make my own way because there wasn’t much money around.’

He then moved into mobile discos with a friend, lugging their growing and eclectic record collection around in suitcases. ‘Something for all the family,’ he jokes, ‘which has helped with Radio 2, I can tell you.’ After building a rudimentary station at home – where his listenership’ was his mum and young sister – he went to college and over the years bounced around jobs at Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, the World Service in London, TFM Radio in Stockton-on-Tees and then to Radio 1 where, in the early Nineties, he and DJ Mark Goodier searched for new acts, sticking out like sore thumbs when the station was dominated by the likes of Simon Bates and Bruno Brookes. 

Great music - new and old

He defected to Capital Radio in 2000, then worked at music-streaming company Napster (a precursor to Spotify), returning to the BBC in 2007 as head of music for both Radio 2 and 6 Music.

‘What 6 does is keep me fresh,’ he explains. He migrates music from 6 Music to Radio 2 and is looking at how the Arctic Monkeys can be brought onto the station’s playlist.

‘I think Radio 2 says to an act they have really entered the mainstream and are getting to a big, big audience.’

His thirst for great music, new and old, and equally great radio has never left him and that enthusiasm is infectious. I ask him if the record shops he worked in as a teenager were those terrifying places where the staff sneered at customers’ choices. ‘You couldn’t look down your nose at anyone in Fleetwood,’ he laughs. ‘You’d get beaten up!’

And in that memory he defines what his job today is and what it has always been – finding great music, trumpeting it to as many people as possible and taking pleasure from lifting someone’s day with a song that echoes down the years.


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