BBC Radio 1 Leader Ben Cooper Talks Beats 1, Losing Zane Lowe to Apple, Why the Beeb Needs to Stream

Ben Cooper 2015
Courtesy Photo

Ben Cooper

Taking place at the British Library in London, the final day of the Radio Festival 2015 conference saw BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra controller Ben Cooper reunited with his former employee, New Zealand-born DJ Zane Lowe, for an illuminating discussion about the latter’s new role as director and resident DJ of Apple’s Beats 1 digital radio station. Afterwards, Billboard sat down with Cooper for a one-to-one chat about the implications of Apple’s move into the radio space and why BBC Radio 1, the U.K.'s most popular Top 40 station, continuously needs to innovate and evolve if it is to maintain its national and global prominence.  

Billboard: BBC Radio 1 is intrinsically linked to Beats 1 through Zane Lowe. What impact has Apple launching a digital station had on the radio market and how do you see BBC stations evolving to compete?

Ben Cooper: I think it’s fantastic for the radio industry that Apple has decided it wants to open a radio station and I’m delighted that it’s Zane leading it -- taking ideas and inspiration from his time at the BBC. It’s good for him, good for Apple and it’s good for the BBC. Our job is to carry on creating the next generation of people for the industry, and to use the license fee money as seed capital to invest in great presenters, invest in great producers and to invest in innovation in how you create content around bands and artists, and how you listen to a radio station. Whether that is live listening, or on-demand listening, or the streaming of your musical choices. Radio 1 is vital to the cultural landscape of the U.K. when it comes to British music and that’s what I want it to carry on doing in the future.

In September, Tony Hall, the BBC director general, unveiled plans for a new BBC music streaming service that would make around 50,000 tracks available a month. Do you envisage that as a compliment to your existing radio offering?  

Absolutely. We have for nearly 50 years on Radio 1 broadcast through transmitters by getting our presenters in a studio and getting their live output through a transmitter to a radio. What we’re saying now is: We’re still excited about music and still passionate about new artists -- but we’ll do some of that through the traditional means and we’ll also do it through new ways. And streaming is a new way of getting our passion, our energy about new music and that curation of new music to audiences who want it in a different way.

The initial announcement of a BBC music streaming service drew some criticism over how it would be implemented. Can you see that service launching in the near future?

I think it’s a viable service. Part of our charter renewal is suggestions of what the BBC will be doing [going forward]. We’re in conversations with the music industry and the streaming industry, and I think if we can do it together, for the best of everyone and audiences, then it will see the light of day and should be brilliant.  

Do you regard streaming services such as Apple, Spotify and Deezer as competitors for BBC Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra’s youth audience?  

There always has been and is always going to be what I call passive listening and active listening. When I grew up, I would listen to Radio 1 in the morning, but then I would also listen to my records or cassettes. I don’t think that is ever going to change. There’s a time when you want to listen to the radio, and there’s a time when you want to listen to your music collection. It’s just that that music collection has gone from vinyl and cassettes to MP3s and now streaming. So they will always complement each other and you will always need someone to curate listeners' music because of that vastness of choice. You will always need that presenter that you’ve got a relationship with where you go: ‘I trust then to tell me what I should listen to for the next 20 minutes.’

The BBC has been under sustained attack from politicians and media rivals over the past six months for extending beyond its core, public-funded remit. Are you mindful of diversifying into other sectors, such as streaming, and stepping on other, privately owned company’s toes?   

I’m always wary of what our market impact might be. I’m always looking to see whether or not we can use the license fee to experiment and try things out, and always make sure that we listen to the music industry. [I believe] this is something the BBC can do for music in the U.K. that will allow all boats to rise in the tide. My view is that can use great curation that DJs -- like John Peel, or Annie Nightingale, or Zane Lowe, or Annie Mac -- have given us through the years to actually increase the number of people that are listening to music via streaming. So I hope the BBC’s plans going forward can actually make the amount of music that’s listened to through streaming increase, and do that in partnership with streaming services already in the marketplace.

Is the BBC’s existing online music curation and recommendation service, BBC Playlister, a good barometer of your intentions in this space?

Yeah, if you look at what we do with Spotify, Radio 1s Playlister [audience] is growing massively. I think that’s down to trust. People want a place where they can go where they trust [a DJ's] opinion and ears. I think that’s what our role is. To have that decision-making process so transparent that it can never be seen as being done through commercial needs. It’s purely about presenters choosing what they think is the best music -- the environment that the BBC creates to support that is fantastic.

On stage, you mentioned how you missed the inclusion of localized content when listening to Beats 1. Do you still see that as vital for radio stations in today’s globally connected media landscape?

I think it’s very important to have that identity and that sense of community. We might well end up having a situation in the future of local radio actually being national radio if we have more radio stations like Beats 1 being global. But that sense of: ‘I am a young person in the U.K. These are things that I like to talk about. These are the records that I love at the moment.' And having presenters that you can relate to you in terms of time of day or the things that have happened at the weekend, that is the social glue that I think is really important to Radio 1 and radio stations [everywhere] in today’s society for young people.  

As illustrated by the poaching of Zane Lowe, Radio 1 is no longer just a national radio station, but has a growing global presence online. How does that influence programming?  

On a general scale, you always serve the license-fee-paying public of the U.K. That’s who pays for you, so you must serve them. The fact that we are loved internationally is great and that gives you, if you like, soft power for the British music industry. If you look at our YouTube figures, about a third of our views are from the U.K., a third are from North America, a third from the rest of the world. So you can have conversations with the music industry and they know that you have real importance to a music-loving community. If I go to North America and talk to labels there, they will always say: 'We want to know what is on the Radio 1 playlist every week because we know that you have good ears. You back good artists and bands.' So that’s fantastic, it’s a great compliment to have. But it won’t change what we do day-to-day. However, on a real practical note, it’s really interesting that the higher volume of views that you get to a YouTube view from North America will make it more attractive to a U.K. audience. So from a practical point of view, we’re not changing anything because of our international status. We’ll carry on doing just what we’re doing. But on a micro level, you can see that actually it does have its advantages when it comes to new media and new platforms.

On stage just now with Zane Lowe, you asked him where he was when he accepted the offer to join Apple. Where were you when you first heard he was leaving?

I was in the room that we use at Radio 1 for the playlist meetings and I said [to Lowe]: ‘As a friend, all the very best. I’m really pleased for you. But as your boss, I hate you.’


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