HITS Daily Double


Interview: Bud Scoppa

As the top music executive for BBC Radio 1, the U.K.’s national radio station, which boasts a massive audience of 11 million, 49-year-old George Ergatoudis may well be the most influential radio programmer on the planet. The son of a Cypriot father and a Welsh mother, Ergatoudis grew up in Leeds and was studying architecture at university when he realized his true passion was music. He started a fanzine with a fellow student and after graduation launched a short-lived magazine before getting involved with BBC local radio. He then landed a job as a training producer at Radio 1 and did a year of training before switching to the label side as club promotion manager at 4th & Broadway, Island’s urban and dance label. Realizing then that radio was his true calling, Ergatoudis latched on with KISS, a popular dance music station in London, producing the specialty and daytime shows there before jumping back to Radio 1. Following a few years working on mainstream daytime programs, he started 1 Extra, the digital urban music sister station to Radio 1. Ergatoudis was named Radio 1’s Head of Music in late 2005.

What was your reaction when The Guardian described you as the most powerful man in the music industry?
Obviously, you can’t ever start believing stuff like that or even thinking about it. At Radio 1, we’ve got a huge responsibility to the public, to music fans and to the music industry—that comes with the territory. At the BBC, we’re in a very lucky guaranteed-funding position; therefore, we’re in a very powerful and privileged position to make a difference, and we have to make sure we are doing that. It does mean we can take chances, and we’re not tied into just supporting a limited number of genres—we’re open to anything we believe is relevant to young audiences. We’ve got a significant amount of money to invest in live events, live recordings, sessions. So whether it’s a huge event like The Big Weekend, which we did in Glasgow this year, or the Live Lounge—we spent the whole of September doing a Live Lounge every single day—we’re able to generate a great deal of unique content. I’m going to be a music fan till I die, and it’s what I’ve always dreamt of doing, making a living in music, so I’m very fortunate to be in this position, and I don’t take it for granted.

Seems like your specialty is R&B and dance.
When I started the fanzine, my interest was very much informed by John Peel on Radio 1. I loved the fact that it wasn’t necessary to be pigeonholed into one type of music. And I was buying alternative, punk and post-punk music, dance, electronic music and hip-hop. But my biggest passion was just music you could dance to, and at the time, that was right across the board. To this day I have very eclectic taste, but my taste was formed by The Beatles, who were the first thing that I grabbed onto when I was a young kid. As I matured, I got into club culture. But I’ve always been open-minded. I was at one of the very first Smiths gigs, cuz I loved The Smiths from the very beginning. Now my personal taste is absolutely all over the place.

There’s you and there’s Nigel Harding, whose title is Music Policy Executive. What’s the difference between your gigs?
Nigel’s my deputy; he’s my right-hand man. And then, at the end of the day Nigel’s got great ears and he’s a great sounding board for me as well. And ultimately, he’s a brilliant asset on my team. I take the lead on music strategy, and the buck stops with me in terms of anything to do with music both on Radio 1 and 1 Extra. I’ve got the most senior-level relationships with the music industry, whether it’s managers, label CEOs and presidents, people in the live music business, etc., Nigel’s got great contacts too—that’s a big part of what he does too. But the key part of the overall input on Radio 1 has to be music; we’re a music-led station. So there’s a Head of Programs, a Head of Music and a Controller driving the overall look, feel and direction of the station. I’m also heavily involved with what we do in technology, whether it’s our YouTube channel or the BBC Radio 1 iPlayer that we just launched. I chair the playlist meeting on Wednesday afternoons, which is where we make the crunch decisions about what gets played on daytime.

What happens in those weekly meetings?
Our specific brief, broadly speaking, is to appeal to a young audience, so we’re filtering everything through that. Also, we’re not specifically chasing one or two genres—we’re very diverse. So when we come to the table, we’re bringing a combination of gut instinct and as much market intelligence as we can gather. We have amazing specialty music shows from 7 o’clock in the evening. And across that we have a whole range of people, whether it’s dance music experts or Zane Lowe, who’s looking at absolutely everything from alternative to rock to hip-hop to dance. So these are gatekeepers and curators, and we’ve got great dialogue going on with them. And then, I’ve picked people with a broad range of styles, backgrounds and tastes, and it’s half men and half women, which I think is important. So we sit down and discuss tracks like an A&R meeting. And what we bring up every time we listen to a track is, where have we been before with that artist, how is it doing on YouTube or Soundcloud, what’s going on in the live music space? The Shazam charts are very powerful for us now, and in certain cases iTunes and sales charts—although a lot of U.K. stuff isn’t on iTunes until we’re well committed to playing it. Largely speaking it’s not really data that’s available to us, because we’re driving sales as opposed to sales driving what we’re doing. So it’s a combination of factors that build up to our radar system of identifying what’s relevant to us, what’s exciting, interesting, dynamic and new—and we need to break new U.K. artists in particular. We’re guaranteeing that a minimum of 40% of the artists on the playlist every week are from the U.K.

We look at all the data that we can, but again, gut instinct very much still drives what we do—good ears. That’s a massively important part of our decision-making process. We’re looking for the It Factor—that combination of voice, songwriting ability, lyrics, charisma, the body of work itself in terms of whether they’ve got multiple strong songs, live performance ability—and if there’s a hint of originality, that’s a powerful thing as well. And we’re always looking for gaps in the market, like Magic! with "Rude" this year. We had been waiting ages for the right song with the right reggae feel to come through, because there’s a real gap there, and that song absolutely nailed it. The moment I heard that record for the first time when I was in the States back in April, I told RCA, "That’s a hit—that’s a smash for us."

Are you looking primarily at artists or songs?
We’re looking at both. And obviously, we’re living in a world where, probably more than ever, there are artists that are only gonna have one or two hits in them, and we accept that. But we like developing artists, we like to break careers, we want to be doing that—we’re in a symbiotic relationship with the music industry. It’s important for a number of reasons, including the health of the music industry, but also in order to have content on the station that resonates with the public, you need artists and characters for the public to care about. Whether it’s through live performance or guest spots, the stronger the artist brand, the stronger they’ll resonate; the more they mean to the public, the more the public will buy the content. So, yeah, we’re in the artist development game as well.

Can you specify some acts that you jumped on early?
Mumford & Sons
was one, without any shadow of a doubt. I got introduced to them damn early, and I immediately sensed there was something special about the act. They were in a space that hadn’t been really in the market for a long time. They had a fresh sound, they were phenomenal live, great musicians and a charismatic act, but ultimately they had had some brilliant songs that really had the potential to resonate. They were resonating for me personally, and other people here got that, and we believed in them. And the truth is, with the first two singles that we put on to maximum rotation on Radio 1, when we looked at the audience research, the audience was saying no—they didn’t get it. But we held on, because we believed that we would get there. And on the third single, through a variety of factors, including Radio 1 belief and support, it tipped. And then they were able to go back on the early singles, and the public perception of that band and acceptance of them totally changed.

But, there’s countless stories of acts that we’ve championed from the beginning. Calvin Harris is another interesting one. Radio 1 loved the guy from the beginning and we worked with him all the way along. So we’re very pleased we were able to help him have a career. Ed Sheeran was another one. He was getting support on 1 Extra very early on, but I had "The A Team" when nobody else was really looking at it or even knew what was coming. Or Clean Bandit this year. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this job. We’re getting music early, we’re able to help the artist, we’re able to help the fans discover their music—and that’s a massive privilege.

This seems like a good point to talk about the specialty shows, the gateway in for certain kinds of songs and artists, right?
They’re a critical part of what we do, because we’re looking for taste-making DJs that can build their own brands as global purveyors. That’s difficult to do, but we’re making good headway there. Pete Tong is a legend in dance music, Annie Mac is rising and Zane Lowe has got a global reputation. So we’ve looked for curators that can cut through and attract an audience who believe that the music they are choosing to play is gonna be exciting to listen to. And there’s so much media now that for them to choose to listen to the radio, in a lot of cases it's a very specific choice; it’s less likely to be passive background listening. More active listeners will track down the rock show, for example, because they want to know what’s going on in rock music. They’ll put Zane on because they want to find out a whole range of exciting new music. He has exclusives pretty much every night, which is an amazing position for us.

The production teams that work on those shows are monitoring audience responses to the tracks they play. Radio 1 drives an incredible reaction on Shazam. If there’s a track that we’ve played that’s gonna resonate at scale, we usually see that on Shazam the following day, alongside texts, emails, Twitter and Facebook. So we’re able to gauge some level of public reaction to songs, and these guys have got good ears in the first place. So it's a brilliant system and an important part of what we do to help build a story. It’s always a judgment about how early to back a project or how far to go with it so that it’s not too much exposure too soon. But we’ve figured that out over time, and we tend to get it right.

Can you explain the distinctions between the A, B, and C Lists and In New Music We Trust?
Anything that’s published on that playlist you will hear any time of day. So from 4am to 7pm, roughly speaking, pretty much every day, you’re gonna hear right across the board of what’s on those lists. The In New Music We Trust list is an onramp representing exciting new songs or artists that have been championed by our specialty shows. Sometimes things move up the ladder, sometimes it’s just the first introduction to an artist or a song that maybe later on we come back to. But from the C-List onward it can be like a step ladder of rotation. So you start on the C; if it’s working and we believe it can go further it climbs to the B; if it’s working on the B, we climb it up to the A and maximum rotation. B-List records and most of our A-List records get about 26 plays an average a week. That’s a very different scenario from commercial radio.

Let’s go there. Do you view Capital FM or the other commercial stations as competitors, and vice versa?
Live, linear listening to radio is still enormously successful in the U.K., and around 80% of 15-24 year-olds are listening to radio every week. So radio is still very much working in the U.K.; it’s still seen as a powerful medium. Therefore, anybody trying to attract the same kind of audience as we are we see as competition, and they see us as that as well. The BBC has the benefit of not having to generate revenue, and as a result we have a certain level of stability in terms of what content we can create and what budget we have to create our content. Commercial radio has an imperative to attract as large an audience as possible to attract advertising revenue, to generate income. It’s just a very different game. For Radio 1, as I’ve said before but it’s absolutely worth repeating, we’re trying to offer something very distinctive from commercial radio, in terms of a wide-ranging musical point of view, the fact that we’ll take risks, that we will champion artists and songs very early, that we don’t have specific genres in mind. It can be any new genre; if we think it’s relevant and reaching a point where it should cross out into the potential wider market, then we’re going to be representing that. Commercial radio isn’t very interested in any of that. And then, again, we’re here to champion U.K. artists and U.K. music, which they don’t care about. From their point of view, it’s whatever works, even if it’s 99% U.S. material.

Is there a prioritization of exclusives for either of you?
Broadly speaking, Capital FM is building itself on Top 40 hits that in many cases are hits in many territories around the world. With those tracks, it’s really hard to get an exclusive; either they’re released simultaneously to the global market, or an American station may have a very strong connection with that project or artist and get it first. And often, those are the kind of records that Capital’s playing. So they don’t really get very many exclusives, but we’re also not getting many either. Where we do tend to get exclusives is in newer, breaking projects and artists, or artists that are a little bit more alternative and their natural home isn’t in commercial radio anyway. So we’re gonna have artists that’ll do phenomenally well but clearly commercial radio isn’t make or break for them. And it could have been something like Rudimental or Clean Bandit, where commercial radio will usually sit back and wait and see if it’s a hit, whereas we probably would have had first play on those tracks. Zane Lowe is managing to get an exclusive first play every evening Monday to Thursday for his hottest record, and he’s getting in some incredible records. And we’ve got some amazing relationships with artists—you do want to come to us first with new product—so we’re in a privileged position for that. Also, it’s worth saying that for the very mainstream listeners that Capital has, most of them are not thinking about music in the way a lot of Radio 1 listeners do. I think we have a slightly more enlightened and eclectic mainstream listener.

So you’ve got at most 25-26 plays a week on your A List. Capital will hammer a song like 75 times, which resembles U.S. Top 40.
If you take a 30-day window and look at what they’re rotating, it’s roughly around 190 songs between contemporary hits, previous hits and a little bit of catalog. That’s it, full stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With Radio 1, it’s around 3,400 unique tracks in a month. So there’s an inordinate level of difference in our universes. They’re very, very focused all day long on their product, which is largely a hit-driven format. We are trying to do something completely distinct and different, and it works—we’ve been very successful at it. Some people out there don’t get it. Their very simplistic approach to it is, why does the BBC need to have a Pop music station? Doesn’t commercial radio cover that? Well, if you actually look in any detail at what’s really going on in the market, you’ll swiftly realize the enormous difference between what we do and what commercial radio does. Let’s look at daytime, the playlisted hours. In a typical month on Radio 1, you’re gonna hear at least 850 different songs if you’re a daytime listener. With Capital it’s about 140. So even looking just at playlisted shows, we’re massively different again.

What’s the nature of your target audience?
The most common age of the listener to Radio 1 is 23. And we are pretty close to a 50/50 male-female split, which is excellent, and we have around 40% of 15-24-year-olds in the U.K. listening to us every week. So, we’re asked to reach a young audience, we’re still reaching an enormous number of 15-24 year olds and we’ve still got around 11 million listeners tuning into the station every week, which means a fifth of the U.K. population aged 10 and above. So we still have massive penetration into the market; we skew heavily young—that’s what we’ve got to do.

One last question. Karen Glauber wonders why you didn’t play Hozier’s "Take Me to Church" after raving about it at Glastonbury.
We have; we playlisted it. We’re supporting Hozier. [In fact, Radio 1 played the track 92 times; the station’s most-played tracks this year are in the high 300s.]
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