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Audio Identities: Radio news themes

Robert Weedon | Radio | Thursday 2nd September 2010

Last month, in a slightly shameless plug for his new album, Simon May, the composer whose greatest achievement is probably the awful Eastenders theme tune, came on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to offer them a theme tune.

It wasn't really very suitable, sounding suspiciously like GMTV's 1993 theme tune (the poor bloke hasn't really had a serious TV commission since about that time, after he wrote the theme to Eldorado). The presenters tactfully refused it, saying "it was just a tiny bit light" and "lacked a certain gravitas", which probably meant they thought it was rubbish.

The segment did throw up an interesting relic, though, as they pointed out that the Today programme briefly had a theme tune in 1983 written by the late, great Johnny Dankworth of all people.

I rather liked it - it sounded urbane, complicated and interesting, which is probably to be expected from one of the country's most respected jazz composers (who also composed pieces for Tomorrow's World, The Avengers and Rediffusion London). Even May had to admit it was much classier than his effort.

But even that was thought to be a bit 'light', and it got me thinking once again about the difference between radio and television themes: it's difficult to imagine TV news programmes without a theme tune, and the opposite for radio.

On Radio 4 in particular, the hallowed GMT Pips or the Big Ben Bongs are always seen as an infallible point of reference for the start of the news. Compare that to Newsnight or Channel 4 News, the television equivalents of Today and PM, both of which have famous, serious theme tunes.

Of course, the main problem is that whereas on television, there's a nice graphic to go with it, on radio a theme has to go underneath speech. In addition, Radio 4 prides itself on not needing jingles or music (with a few famous exceptions). But what do other national radio stations do, and could Radio 4 benefit from a news theme?

Radio 1

Radio 1, being a place that has always liked jingles has produced a variety of different news themes over the years for its Newsbeat bulletins, although at first there was a strange syndicated newsfeed intended for both Radios 1 and 2, which clearly threw Bob the newsreader.

After this shared service probably didn't workout, Radio 1 introduced its own news bulletins called "Newsbeat". As we've already seen with George Martin's Theme One, in its early days Radio 1 had a curious habit of using classical and baroque instruments in unconventional ways, and the first theme, (which sounds very 1960s) even has a Randall and Hopkirk-style harpsichord in it.

Later in the 1970s, this was replaced by a jingle which sounds like it may have been played on an early synthesizer, or may have even been a product of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

For the 1980s, Radio 1 switched to a more conventional vocalised jingle style not unlike that of Radio 2 at the time. In common with its predecessors, it keeps the driving "beat" element.

In the 90s, we find a more motley crew of keyboard/computer synthesized jingles, which are more familiar to the style that we might find today.

For a brief period in the 2000s, Radio 1 caught the BBC News bug and commissioned David Lowe to create a shameless rip-off of his own bleeping theme for News 24. This didn't last long, and the latest two Newsbeat accompaniments have become increasingly ravey. Indeed, the last one is so loud and over-compressed, it's any wonder that the speech can be heard over the top. Maybe that's the intention?

Radio 2

Radio 2 is perhaps more familiar territory, as it has maintained a more consistant style of news introductions over its 40 years.

Of course, before we get to 2, there was the BBC Light Programme, which most famously used Arnold Safroni's march "Imperial Echoes" march as the theme tune to its daily Radio Newsreel, which was broadcast on both the Light Programme and the World Service. This was not a specially composed piece, but a march written in 1913, and later found in a music library. This was used for nearly 30 years, and became synonymous with radio news. However, by the time of Radio 2's launch, the slightly colonial implication of the title was probably not considered particularly appropriate anymore.

As we've already seen, when Radio 2 was launched, it shared bulletins with Radio 1. The first example of a Radio 2 news theme is from the 1970s, and is really rather good, using a ubiquitious repeating xylophone motif that possibly inspired the theme to John Craven's Newsround. Xylophones are odd instruments, and they seem to mean two things in the popular consciousness. News. And bones. Perhaps those are connected somehow?

The 'bed' of repeating sections to accompany the newsreader's speech was dropped after this jingle, and during the 1980s, a news sting was introduced that seems to be the embryo of the Radio 2 news stings to the present day. Unlike previous news themes, this was also part of a station-wide jingle package.

The basic theme continued into the 1990s, albeit without the vocals. However, the melody still implies the station's other jingle identities.

It was replaced by a new theme in the late 1990s, which has continued to the present day. This uses a fairly serious-sounding instrumental version of the current Radio 2 jingle. Despite being quite drum-heavy, it's pleasing to see the station hasn't succumbed to the bleepy fad. It also sounds good when played after the GMT Pips.

Radio 3

Once again, no news themes to report.

Radio 4

Whereas the Today programme only briefly had a musical introduction, its early evening equivalent PM always used to have a theme tune right from its launch in April 1970.

Although its website states that it was the first radio news programme to have its own signature tune, as we have seen with the Radio Newsreel above, this isn't strictly true.

However, it is a very early example of a specially composed news theme as opposed to a "found" piece of suitable library music. Indeed, in some ways this piece is the grandfather of modern news themes - it was probably from this piece that the morse code-influenced news themes of the 1980s drew their inspiration.

Having said that, I don't really like it very much. Although it probably sounded very up-to-date and innovative in 1970, with its morse code bleep and twangy guitar, not to mention the Doctor Who theme-like spangly arpeggios, it hasn't dated particularly well. (Incidentally, the Doctor Who sound isn't particularly surprising, as it was composed by Paddy Kingsland of the Radiophonic Workshop.) Interestingly, though, because it was influential as an early news theme, it now sounds quite ordinary to our ears.

That's more than can be said for the theme introduced in 1984. Once again, in an attempt to be up-to-date, the piece sounds like it was composed on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I have to admit, when I first heard this, it made me laugh out loud. I especially like how it's supposed to be 100% serious, but because of the awful synthesized instruments it turns it into a cross between a computer game and a fairgound organ. The tierce de picardie on the end adds to the jollity.

In 1996, there was another attempt. This one is more familiar to our ears, and sounds exactly like what it is - a news theme from the 1990s. In fact, it sounds very much like the theme that Simon May came up with for Today last month. What's interesting is that the synthesized orchestral music in a major key does have the effect of giving the it a "magazine" quality, which is unlikely to be what a serious news discussion programme really wants. For the record, though, I quite like it. The trumpet solo is nicely sycopated.

This theme was taken off air during the week Princess Diana died (the week the country went collectively berserk with grief if we're to believe the tabloids), and for some reason never returned. Judging by this response by Eddie Mair it doesn't look like it (or any successors) will be coming back anytime soon.

Of course the "major" problem is just that. Because its key makes it sound cheerful and optimistic, it doesn't seem very appropriate when preceding stories that are sad/tragic/serious/important. As that covers 95% of news content, judging the tone of a piece of music is a big problem.

Radio 5Live

Because this station is essentially News 24 AM, almost every jingle it plays probably precedes a news report. This is their generic station music, which is fairly bland, but at least feels quite serious.

BBC World Service

As noted before, this station sometimes plays its classic theme "Lillibullero" before news reports. As an aside, to create a sense of continuity, when BBC World Service Television was launched, it had a clever "news" variation on Lillibullero for its news programme, which could have been a good way to go for the radio version:

However, it has recently started using a new package by David Lowe, which, if not especially exciting, at least feels fairly modern and homogeneous, which I expect was the intention.

This package features a number of pieces. "World Service Prelude" goes before a GMT Pip burst, and does a nice job of reminding people that the World Service really is broadcast around the globe (although I really hate the stereo phasing effect at the end of it). The second is the generic news theme, most familiar to insomniacs who are joining the Service overnight after Radio 4 has "Sailed By". The last is the weekend variation for the discussion programme The Forum, which has a nice improvised feel, although is perhaps a bit too jolly if it's going to precede a story about an atrocity.

Classic FM

Classic FM has always had a "serious" sounding news variant of its David Arnold jingle, once again utilising xylophones to imply news.

For ages, Classic FM used to have its own special news programme at 6:30, Classic FM Newsnight. This was dropped due to...laziness, and replaced by a longer "Smooth Classics at..." programme. All that appears on Classic FM now are short news bulletins, a bit like Radio 1.

In line with the rest of the station, these have now changed to a serious version of Hugo de Chaire's new ident package, which sounds like a cinema chain advert, but does have a sufficiently "serious" feel.

So there we are, should Radio 4 have a news ident? Well, as this little trawl through the archives has shown, there are some genuinely good pieces that feel sufficiently "newsworthy" for their respective stations. Of course, none of them project the gravity that Evan Davis is probably looking for in the Today Programme, and in line with the World Service, if they did commission a theme it would probably be from David Lowe, meaning that he would have almost a complete monopoly on BBC News themes. That wouldn't be a good thing, so should the Today programme have a theme tune? Probably not.



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