Over the years, we’ve been asked a lot about how we put together our weekly playlists. We’ve happily answered, usually as part of a workshop or those ‘talks’ media folk are occasionally invited to give. But for whatever reason, never online. Which is odd given that, over the years, message boards and blogs have theorised about the process, often making assumptions that are reasonable and correct while occasionally getting it wrong. So for what it’s worth, and for those who care to read what is quite a lengthy and formal piece, here’s Rigsy with a little insight into how the Across the Line team decide what music is worthy of a play of a Monday night.
It used to be a neat little pile of envelopes. Which was, in hindsight, a fair bit easier to deal with. They magically appeared in our office and lived in a little tray near the corner of our desks. Now tracks are in an uploader, linked on twitter, uploaded to our facebook or an old email account. Still the odd envelope as well or the odd CD pushed into our hands at a gig. I’ve started noting down who’s sent me what and to where.
Tracks that really stand out are listed in pencil and underlined. Next, the ATL gig guide is consulted and particularly important gigs (EP launches, major supports - that type of thing) will get underlined. While on the ATL site, the news section is checked for a reminder of bands who may have done something to warrant a play - released a snazzy video or announced a tour, for example. They’re added to the list. Sometimes underlined. Standouts from our first play slot ('That New Band Smell') are often added as well.
At that point, the other two members of team ATL get involved. I’ll sit down with Amy and Paul on Friday afternoon and they go through their own pitches. A mixture of particularly strong acts that have come in via the uploader and caught their attention, maybe an act they’ve seen at a gig or have read about somewhere or just a track they love and worry we've forgotten about. All added to the list. Following that, I’ll make a playlist template, complete with the show’s features and estimated timings, which allows me to work out how many slots we actually have for plays. Usually it’s around 18-20.
At this point, it’s all about priorities. Underlined tracks go in first, obviously. What we deem to be the most ‘radio friendly’ (doesn’t mean they’re the best, mind) are slotted in at important junctures. These would be at the opening of the show, off the 9pm news, after a big chunk of speech - that type of thing in order to rein people in and/or keep them listening as best we can. Of the tracks that don’t make it, some we’ll cut into clips for the gig guide or news section of the show with the rest saved as ‘extras’.
We do make sure the playlist is nice and varied. Female voices should be dotted throughout as should tracks that are heavier, quieter and dancier than the majority of the playlist so things don't sound too samey. A draft is sent to Paul and Amy. The feedback is usually regarding a band who’ve been ‘played too much’ (and thus can be rested) or to do with one of their picks being left out. It’s tweaked right up to and during showtime.
We should also point out what it is we're actually looking for. Across the Line's remit is to play new Northern Irish music and that's what will always make up the vast majority of our show - unsigned tracks no more than a few weeks old. If an older, established act are in the news or playing a show (that can be anyone from Therapy? to Cashier No. 9) we may play an older, even a 'classic' track. There's usually a small handful (say two or three) tracks from south of the border - acts coming up North to play a show or something we just feel our listeners would really enjoy.
As for genre, that's where it all gets a bit murky. Lets face it - local indie and rock makes up the majority of our playlists. That's a good thing as this massively popular style of music isn't fully represented elsewhere on our station. But we're always on the look out for a little hip hop, perhaps some poppy electro and the type of folky music not being played on other shows. Techno, house and any form of beats is more Paul Hamill and The Dance Show's territory - though we'll play the odd
track for sure. Straight up singer songwriters do feature on ATL - but if we feel that they are or could be represented elsewhere on Radio Ulster, that can sometimes 'free up' a space for something else that only ATL would play. In many cases, ATL should be a springboard to wider plays, right across BBC Radio Ulster, daytime included. Rest assured we do constantly hustle other production teams and the management, lobbying for plays for Irish bands that we feel would fit well on their programmes. TV shows regularly raid our playlist for new, fresh sounds from here for theme music or plays over sports montages.
There are other, more serious ‘rules’. For a start, no swearing. Its zero tolerance on Radio Ulster. Tracks can be edited, of course - but excessive profanities usually result in a version so chopped up it becomes unplayable. Very frustrating. Bonus points to bands who supply their own, presentable radio edits, needless to say.
Arguably even more important is our rule about personal relationships. Over the years, following sessions, gigs and polite chats at gigs, we get to know bands reasonably well. That’s okay, we reckon. However, if any of us know a band or any of it’s members outside of general gig going and
‘business’, that’s a concern. For example, I believe my former flat mate has released one of the albums of the year - but I can’t and won't play a track from it. Similarly, if any of our team is involved with a gig as a performer or promoter, we make sure that these shows aren't promoted, beyond even the BBC's editorial guidelines.
After all that, we’ve a running order, some clips and our extras. Off we go. Even then, tracks we've planned to play will sometimes be dropped if an interview or feature over-runs.
Our method for compiling a playlist, just like every method for compiling playlists on radio shows throughout the entire world, is flawed. Bands many would say are very worthy of a play on our show, perhaps with a fanbase and an impressive work ethic occasionally get left out because, simply as individual people with our own in-built likes and dislikes, don't dig what they do. Its impossible to redress this, short of playing every single thing sent in and we wouldn't have the time in our little slot to do that either. We appreciate this is hugely frustrating for them and their fans and probably seems very unfair. The odd gem slips through the net and we'll kick ourselves.
However, we only have two hours a week to represent as much new music as we can and properly establish certain acts we deem worthy. Someone has to draw a line, and you’re stuck with us three, working as a collective. We're an approachable bunch, although if we're running with a panic-stricken look on our faces towards a big BBC truck during an ATL recording it's maybe advisable to not try to nab us for a ten minute chat!
We do genuinely realise how much effort goes into making music and how little reward there can be, especially these days in a troubled music industry. It is appreciated, even if your music doesn't make it to air. Please, keep the music coming.
You can hear Rigsy on Across the Line every Monday night from 8pm on BBC Radio Ulster.