In January, the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, announced that the corporation intended to shift away from making programmes enjoyed by older members of the public to concentrate on the ‘lives and passions’ of young people, in particular 16- to 30-year-olds. Of course Hall was not the first BBC employee to take an obsessive interest in young people, and nor was his mantra anything other than the norm in a country where older people, who are comparatively well off, pay their taxes, commit little crime, consume like crazy and indeed pay the licence fee, are held in a certain contempt.
A month before Hall made his statement, the BBC had devoted considerable airtime to yoof and its wants, needs and aspirations regarding the general election. It was the only section of the population singled out thus. Meanwhile, the political parties had also targeted the young, demanding a younger voting age (to which I always reply: no representation without taxation!) and generally kowtowing to the gibbering inanities spouted by ambassadors for this intellectually challenged tranche of the population, such as Stormzy.
When the general election came around, though, it was the coffin dodgers wot won it. The young were still more disinclined to vote, as ever, and the balance of power was held by the working-class over-fifties; the greatly despised near-dead. That should have sent a message to all those determined to pursue young people with dubious promises — the politicians, the BBC, the media in general. The young have scant amounts of the following — money, influence, ability to concentrate etc. The desperate pursuit of them is more often than not fruitless and rankles with those who pay the bills, i.e. the rest of us.
For the BBC this is especially true: the young pay no attention to it. But then they never did. The BBC’s rock-solid audience is middle England — over-fifties middle England, people who still have a collective memory of the BBC as it once was. Why, then, piss them off further by telling them they are going to be ignored (and then scrapping the free licence fee for nearly all over-75s)? Is it a kind of existential hatred they have for the old from managers who think they are the reincarnation of Benjamin Button?
As I say, this lusting after the young is nothing new. When I was editor of the Today programme (1997-2003), I was continually enjoined to woo da yoof, given that the average age of our listeners was a repulsive and decrepit 57. The reasoning was that these people would, in ten years, be 67. And then 77, with incontinence pads and dementia. And then dead. And so nobody would be listening to my programme at all. They did not grasp that sooner or later these young people cease being young and their mindsets and tastes change. The demographic of Today programme listeners has not changed much since I left it, almost 20 years ago; the no-longer-young now tune in.
I was reminded of Lord Hall’s announcement when reading about the demise of Q magazine, which was set up in 1986 to cater for people with old-school tastes in rock music. It was, for a long while, as spectacularly successful as it was spectacularly unhip, retaining monthly sales of well above 200,000 even into the present century. Its last sales figures were about one-tenth of that amount and it has now bitten the dust. Its editor, Ted Kessler, blames Covid — and that undoubtedly had an effect. But not that much of an effect. The even less hip Mojo magazine is still going strong-ish on 55,000 sales. Its less-hipness is the important point. There are an awful lot of well-heeled people out there who like to wallow in the music of their younger days and would actively welcome a long feature reminiscing about the ghastly Steely Dan, or the making of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. So serve them. Ditch your own self indulgent aspirations to be ‘relevant’ and ‘with it, daddy-o’ and serve the people who might buy your magazine.
The same is true of the rock and pop sections of our national broadsheets, especially the weekend publications. Pathetically — given that I now have a senior citizens’ rail card — I try to keep up with what’s happening, baby, in popular music, scouring the net for new bands and performers, delving into as many of the subgenres as I can without going insane. And yet when albums are reviewed in the daily and weekend press, I recognise the names of only about 50 per cent of the artists.
The average age of readers for these newspapers is only a few years behind mine. But the critics — and this is especially true of rock critics, ironically, given that it is a deeply conservative and gradually dying medium — wish to be cutting-edge and hipper than thou. So the readers are treated to reviews of people of whom they have never heard — and all written in that peculiarly overwrought and hyperbolic prose which will be familiar to those who once thought, mistakenly, that the New Musical Express was a kind of bible. (That print magazine has bitten the dust too. The writing was on the wall in the mid-1980s when, tiring of opining about stuff as ephemeral as music, the journos decided they were a cross between Jacques Derrida and Che Guevara.)
Lord Hall departs the BBC in a month’s time. He has courted the youth and ethnic minorities. New layers of bureaucracy have been bolted on to ensure that these sections of society are catered for adequately. But the BBC’s quest for survival depends upon the broad support of middle England, which is tiring of being disdained. Lord Hall is a charming man, but everything he has done has been wrong.