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Audio Identities: Radio station themes

Robert Weedon | Radio | Wednesday 16th December 2009

The media's obsession with brand recognition and image have notably increased in the last few years. The BBC in particular uses musical idents on television to convey a distinctive theme which somehow identifies the channel, for example the descending punctuated three-note motif of BBC One or the "thwang-dung" of BBC Four. After all, what better way is there to illustrate a station than a piece of music? These short pieces of music can be changed to fit the mood of the ident and of the programme to follow - serious, light, cheerful, intense, solemn. A silent ident like the old spinning globe of BBC 1 or the white T W O would just look strange nowadays; or 'dull and worthy' as Alan Yentob's 1992 market research for BBC 2 discovered.

However, it is noteworthy that while musical themes for the primarily visual medium of television are all over the place, radio theme tunes and jingles have gradually been going out of fashion. Of course, the main reason for the lack of start-up themes nowadays is that radio stations aim to broadcast 24 hours per day, and in the case of jingles it is probably because they have come to be regarded as increasingly unfashionable and unsophisticated. One could argue that station recognition is now in the realm of the presenter, with stations such as Radio 1 and 2 notably employing DJs famous for being personalities in other media, for example Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross (perhaps not a fair sample).

Whenever people reminisce about the first broadcasts made by any radio station, they will usually tell you the year, the presenter, and what the first piece of music played was. It's often quite a good pub quiz question. Radio 1 is quite easy: 1967, Tony Blackburn, "Flowers in the Rain" by The Move - one point. The same goes for Classic FM: 1992, Nick Bailey, Zadok the Priest by G.F. Handel.

Technically, however, these answers are wrong. In both cases they forget to mention the respective radio theme tunes of both stations. For Radio 1, it was "Theme One" by George Martin, the producer (and arranger) for the Beatles. For Classic FM, it was the "Classic FM theme" by David Arnold, who, incidentally, isn't the David Arnold that writes music for the James Bond films or Little Britain, but another separate human being. Of the two composers here, only the former composed music for OO7.

Now that both of these have now been succeeded, for nostalgia's sake, let's have a look at which current national radio stations still have their own theme tunes, and discuss why they might have been abandoned.

BBC Radio 1
As previously mentioned, when Radio 1 was launched in 1967, the station had its own start-up music, imaginatively titled Theme One which was played at the start of broadcasting every day. Written by George Martin (the 'fifth' Beatle), it is a rather curious piece; part orchestral, part electronic, part rock. I must admit I rather like it.

It begins with a pipe organ solo, one assumes to subvert the impression of the BBC being a classical-music orientated station, before going into a stupor of phasing, then rather fashionable. The main theme is then played on a piccolo trumpet (that Martin also utilised in the middle eight of The Beatles' Penny Lane), accompanied by an eclectic range of instruments. In its full version it is unbelievably stereo as well, presumably to illustrate the new VHF frequency which would soon be able to accommodate stereo (or even quadraphonic?). There are also versions that focus on orchestral instruments or rock instruments, but the original is the best.

The piece was discontinued after a few years, from whence Radio 1 dropped the idea of a theme tune, although continues to use jingles to this day, albeit more 'talky' than 'melodic' in content. Strangely, though, Chris Moyles is arguably the only breakfast show to use a startup theme of sorts, albeit as a spoof in his "Brand New Cheesy Song".

BBC Radio 2
Radio 2 itself has never really had a theme tune, although has always branded itself around a sung version of 'BBC Radio 2', in which it appears in a variety of forms. Radio 2's jingles are interesting in that they date with incredible speed, and even mid-1990s jingles now sound incredibly cheesy (although to be honest, most of the current ones do too).

Radio 2's predecessor, the Light Programme featured for much of its existence a pleasant light orchestral arrangement of the London folk song "Oranges and Lemons", presumably to remind listeners where the BBC was coming from. Arranged by Jack Byfield, it begins sleepily before gradually crescendo-ing to a triumphant climax.

Perhaps I'm just old fashioned, but this is the sort of old tune I would quite like to hear at the start of a day's broadcasting - short and traditional. It does sound like a relic, but that's arguably part of its charm, in the same way as people have grown attached to "Sailing By" or "The Pips".

BBC Radio 3
Jingle? Theme tune? Radio 3? These words are incompatible! However, if they ever did, my guess would be some Bach in a 3/4 time signature; perhaps the Aria from the Goldberg Variations?

Rather like Radio 1, Radio 3's predecessor, the Third Programme commissioned a piece to celebrate its inaugural broadcast in 1946 from no less a figure than Benjamin Britten, then a relatively unknown composer. The Festival Overture, subsequently known as the Occassional Overture, was withdrawn by the composer almost immediately after its first performance under the baton of Adrian Boult, and Britten forebade its broadcast until after his death, which probably explains why it was never adopted as the station's signature theme.

One of the favourites of the Radio 3 Breakfast programme is the first movement of Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, so perhaps that would be a prime candidate - quirky, cosmopolitan, interesting. It does personify the station to a certain extent.

BBC Radio 4
Perhaps the station with the most noisily-discontinued theme tune is Radio 4, which until 2006 had the UK Theme by Fritz Speigl (and possibly Manfred Arlan), an arrangement of several traditional songs associated with the four nations of the United Kingdom. The BBC Press Department release and subsequent website about the theme's demise erroneously stated it dates from 1973 (because they got their information off Wikipedia), when in reality it dated from 1978. The UK Theme itself replaced an earlier theme by Speigl called the Skipping Tune which probably was that recorded in 1973, and which is a mock-Baroque theme, surprisingly like the Classic FM theme from 20 years later.

As a result of the 1969 report Broadcasting in the Seventies, Radio 4 BBC stations underwent a frequency change as a part of the "new international frequency agreement", as warbled by the King's Singers in this curious piece of advertising. Until this point, Radio 4 was still a partial remnant of the old Home Service, having regional opt-outs during certain hours, or sharing its frequencies with the Third Programme, etc. With the rise of BBC local radio stations, the primary LW Radio 4 became known as Radio 4 UK, of which the theme was supposed to illustrate the new single entity and the scope of its coverage, hence the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish ballads.

Curiously, the UK Theme as heard initially was not the five minute long version familiar to early risers and insomniacs, but an almost completely different arrangement which does not include "Drunken Sailor" and "Greensleeves" and is 45 seconds longer. In the musicology world, this would probably be termed the 'b' version, or something.

Following Mark Damazer's intention to drop the theme in 2006, there was a lot of discussion generated in the press and even in parliament. However, with the power of hindsight, one wonders if this wasn't simply a clever bit of PR on the part of the BBC to announce to the world that Mark Damazer was the new controller of Radio 4, and that there was a radio station called Radio 4 that happened to put on some jolly good programmes. Had it been quietly dropped, I do wonder how many people were really up at 5.45 to miss it. The "public" reaction may have come as a shock to the management, although tales of a riot outside Broadcasting House were greatly exaggerated.

For my two-penny's worth, it does seem rather a shame that it was discontinued, as it did form a nice bookend to the end-of-the-day duo of Sailing By and the National Anthem, especially as all it was replaced by was another news programme, as if there weren't enough if those already. Zzz.

BBC World Service
The World Service famously uses Lillibullero, an 18th Century tune possibly written by Henry Purcell as its theme, or at least it did until 2008 when, perhaps as a result of the whole UK Theme thing, they quietly consigned it to the dustbin of history (although I gather it occasionally makes a faint gasp from the bottom). The reasons behind this are possibly political, given the tune's associations with Protestantism in Northern Ireland, which probably didn't matter when it was chosen in the 1950s, although it could just as easily be because real orchestral music on the radio and TV, for some reason, is considered to be rather last century. Several versions of this have been used over the years, although the last variant was an orchestral arrangement by one of the David Arnolds.

Since 2008, they have used a synthesized five note motif composed by David Lowe, the man behind the BBC News watchbeep themes, which while once innovative and fresh are after 10 or more years feeling a bit tired. (Incidentally, am I the only one to wish somebody in the control booth had to press the 'beep' every time the news theme is played?). Going back to the "World Service Prelude", though, despite not being particularly memorable, it does succeed in its task of reminding listeners of the worldwide scope of the station. There is a nice reassuring ring to the final sentence "you're with the BBC", or at least there must be if you're in a repressed country.

On the World Service, whichever theme they are using is referred to as the 'tuning signal', to allow a radio to be tuned correctly before the hour, although these are also in decline. Recently, the tuning signal has reverted to the Bow bells, a tradition dating from the Service's broadcasts during World War II. Other signals over the years have included Oranges and Lemons (again), the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (which apparently spell out a V in Morse Code) and some drums.

Classic FM
In many ways, I've saved the best to last. Classic FM, the only commercial contender on our list was the last nationally-available radio station to have had its own theme, and one that managed to stave-off (boom boom) the marketing men until earlier this year. Classic FM launched in 1992 with a mock-Baroque orchestral piece by David Arnold, which sounded like a cross between a Bach Brandenburg Concerto and Handel's Water Music. What was particularly exciting about this was that the station used its theme tune as the basis of its jingles, which I almost hesitate to call jingles - more 'variations on a theme', usually based on this motif deriving from the final bars:

Classic FM jingle 1992-2008
Other parts of the piece were utilised for other jingles, but ultimately all evidently derived from the same source, creating an integrated feel to the station.

These jingles were often inspired by films, with snippets of the theme appearing in anything from a parody of E.T. to a Schindler's List-escue violin solo. This even continued to its knowingly serious news theme, a Vivaldi Four Seasons-style bed for the weather forecast or the lush Rachmaninov-inspired rhapsodic introduction for "Smooth Classics at Seven". It was a terrific package.

After Classic FM became a 24/7 station, the original theme was featured less in its entirety, but the DNA was still evident, with even less-successful later jingles not composed by David Arnold still using the theme prominently. This tradition came to an end in 2009 with its replacement by this synthesized jingle theme by Hugo de Chaire, which although it perhaps looks more interesting on paper, owing to its lack of a base theme seems rather uninspiring when varied for subsequent station jingles.
Classic FM jingle 2008 onwards

Speaking about the new package, the MD of the station, Darren Henley, said that it "captures the very essence of Classic FM". All it sounds like to me is the last phrase of the song "I'll do anything for you" from Oliver, perhaps hinting at the increasingly market-research led playlists of the station? Maybe not.


Update: Classic FM have since reverted back to their original David Arnold jingles. You can listen to a selection of these on his website. - RW


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