The sad state of Danish radio

Independent radio producers are left in the dust, unable to compete with cashed- up state broadcaster DR. No wonder music radio in Denmark is so beige, says former DR host Le Gammeltoft

It’s seven in the morning and DR’s alternative channel P6 is rolling out tunes to early risers under the tagline “the best and broadest soundtrack for the morning hours”. ‘Broadest’ is generous – glitchy indie pop is followed by sad men with guitars and an uninspired electronic track. It’s a familiar setlist, the kind churned out by interchangeable radio programmes across the country, easily digestible for any sleepy listener fumbling their way through the morning.

For Le Gammeltoft, it’s a sign of despair. “It’s so beige,” was how the former DR presenter described Denmark’s music radio scene to Politiken in March.

“Pop stars like Medina, Marie Key, Lukas Graham and Rasmus Seebach dominate newspapers and magazine covers, while on radio it’s their hits on high rotation, alongside the international commercial stuff.”

I get in touch with Gammeltoft, to find out if she remains critical of DR’s musical direction, the answer is a resounding “yes”. Gammeltoft left DR in 2014 to create the radio platform Heartbeats, where she presents the kind of alternative music she claims has disappeared from Danish radio altogether. She argues that DR is pandering to commercial interests and mainstream tastes, rather than fulfilling its public service duties. The result? A bland radio landscape.

“DR gets millions of kroner to play music. Instead, they use the funds to compete with commercial radio and end up sounding just like it. So every radio station in Denmark sounds the same,” she says.

However, she’s not the only one to point out the slim musical pickings of public service radio.

“Why is half the music on DR’s P3 station by the same 200 artists?” says Kasper Vang, cocreator of the web radio The Lake.

“Why would you want to listen to new music that mostly explores the same western pop song structure that we’ve heard a million times before?”

That’s the question posed by the radio producers dedicated to curating diverse music outside of the commercial and public radio arena.

Le Gammeltoft

Le Gammeltoft

Unalternative alternatives
In the Politiken article, DR responded to criticism that P3 is too commercial by pointing listeners towards its alternative music channel P6. But Gammeltoft doesn’t think the radio station deserves the title ‘alternative’ at all.

“Now, ‘alternative’ means playing old Cure and Foo Fighters tracks – I can find that on Spotify, I don’t need radio for that.”

Tor Arnbjørn, Head of Radio at DR, disagrees. He believes DR still maintains a diverse setlist in comparison with commercial stations.

“I can understand how a real music aficionado might feel the music profile could be improved, but compared to the rest of the market, the music that we play is still far more challenging, with more space for new music than anywhere else.”

He also explains that P6’s profile shift was a response to low audience ratings. For all of the station’s alternative promise, not enough people were listening when it launched.

“We started P6 four years ago and for the first couple of years we had a very alternative, very distinctively-branded, but ultimately not a very popular radio station. Then we tried to develop the profile and saw listenership pick up, while sticking to the strong brand and high quality.”

Gammeltoft, however, disagrees that they’ve upheld P6’s original mandate. Worse, she believes there’s something more sinister going on than just a boring setlist: DR deliberately dumbs down its content.

“As a presenter, I was told not to show that I knew too much about music,” says Gammeltoft, who quit DR after it axed her P6 show Unga Bunga. She adds that when shows don’t communicate a passion for new music, they become shallow.

“Especially on P3, the experts are being pushed out to make way for a new generation of presenters who just care about being famous,” she says. “And they’re shit hosts.”

The rise and fall of album
Unga Bunga isn’t the only alternative program to part ways with the statebroadcaster due to creative differences, the same happened to former P6 program Album.

“Ever have one of those nights with a friend where you get hammered, listen to a record, and shout in each other’s faces about how great it is?” asks Ralf Christensen when describing his cult radio show. “This is the sober, well-researched version of that.”

When Christensen set out to make Album with his pal Kristian Leth, the premise was simple: play a record through and chat about it. Fusing friendly rapport with music know-how, the presenters drop endless cultural and historical trivia wrapped up in a yak about one album.

“We’re friends, we don’t do scripts, we just put on an album and freak out about it. Of course, we also both do research before the show and hope that we’ll dig up different information,” says Christensen, who is also the music editor of Information newspaper.

Despite its popularity on P6, the off-the-cuff show ended after two seasons. In a show dedicated to talking about music, DR said the hosts talked too much.

“They wanted us to put a five-minute cap on conversations between songs,” says Christensen, adding that the pair left DR amicably because the restrictions would have compromised the spirit of the show.

Fortunately, Album found a home on The Lake and has just wrapped up a third season. The pair used fundraising site Kickstarter to finance the show, making it the first crowdfunded radio program in Denmark.

Talk ain’t cheap
Gammeltoft, however, wonders why alternative radio struggles to generate private funding, while hefty sums are directed at the state broadcaster.

“It should be possible for smaller radio to get funding, but if you want to do something different there is no money. Meanwhile, DR has closed down the more alternative shows, so there’s no way to play diverse music with them, either.”

Lars Banke, Head of Media at the Danish Agency for Culture (Kulturstyrelsen), disagrees. He points out that his organisation allocates 43.8 million kroner to cover operational costs of non-commercial radio.

Gammeltoft argues, however, that sum doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of applying for a radio frequency. To get nationwide coverage, broadcasters are looking at a bank guarantee of 3 million kroner.

Vang agrees and adds that he believes it’s hard for radio initiatives to promote themselves as a worthy investment to Kulturstyrelsen.

“It seems that a lot of cultural funding goes towards events and festivals, because it is somehow easier to see a ‘measurable’ outcome. Continuous projects seem to find it more difficult, even if they could have a much larger impact in the long run.”

New radio platforms can easily find a home on the internet, but they still need to pay royalties to KODA and Gramex to play music. KODA represents the rights of composers, while Gramex collects fees for recording artists and record companies when music is broadcast.

The cost depends on the type of broadcast. For KODA, it involves calculating the amount of music used annually, with an additional fixed minimum fee per hour, based on the number of potential listeners. For non-commercial radio, Gramex charges at a rate of 0.46 kro- ner per minute.

The royalties system is good news for musicians and their rights, but can be tough for radio to cough up.

“DR and big media houses pay large, fixed amounts every year, which is fine and fair – it supports musicians for their work. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an obstacle for small radio stations,” says Christensen.

For Christensen, more public funding for smaller radio ventures is critical to ensure fair wages for creatives and freelancers.

“Otherwise people are vulnerable to a media elite exploiting the fact that people are hungry for exposure and will work for free. You can get away with that in Denmark because of welfare system, but it’s inherently unfair.”

Gammeltoft believes the limited options available to new independent radio projects leaves them with little room to become financially self sufficient

“There are really only two options for small, independent radio: a) get enough listeners to make money on advertising as commercial radio or b) be supported by a big media-house to get public funding.”

However, she believes the option of cooperating with DR isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

“DR are arrogant – they will not listen to anybody. They are not open to criticism.”

Arnbjørn disputes this, arguing that the criticisms haven’t fallen on deaf ears.

“Yes, we have listened, but we would have proceeded in this way anyway. Our aim is certainly to have a dialogue about the future of the Danish music scene,” says Arnbjørn.

“We need high quality Danish music, and we’re interested in taking on initiatives which strengthen the scene.”

Kristian Leth, one half of 'Album'

Kristian Leth, one half of ‘Album’

DR’s duty
While independent radio struggles, last year DR received 4.3 billion kroner in public funding, far more than any other media in Denmark. Most of DR’s funding comes from the 2,460 kroner annual licence fee that is paid by any household with a television or internet device. Being publicly funded, it’s implied that the state broadcaster needs to cater to as many people as possible.

“It [DR] is about social cohesion,” DR’s Secretary General Maria Rørbye Rønn told Berlingske. “Having a place were we can meet, discuss, disagree and get to know each other.”

DR’s public service role is detailed in its contract with the state, which demands that DR strives towards “quality, versatility, and diversity in its range of programs”. The license fee and other forms of public funding are therefore meant to ensure that DR can fulfill its duties without having to pander to commercial interests.

Yet with all that funding and leeway DR receives, the richness and diversity of music has been leaking from the airwaves. And as it does the criticism that DR is failing its public service mandate gets louder.

From DR’s perspective, however, it’s a matter of balancing interests and ensuring that resources aren’t wasted on channels nobody is listening to.

“As a public service broadcaster, we need to make sure that there is something relevant for everyone, but we can’t play everything,” says Arnbjørn.

“Of course we shouldn’t be driven exclusively by ratings, but we also need to produce programming which resonates with an audience. Since everybody is paying for programming via licences, we need people to feel that there is a channel that they like and find relevant, and doesn’t just play very challenging music, which nobody really listens to.”

For Vang and Gammeltoft, however, that balance is tipped too far in terms of mainstream music, and doesn’t give listeners enough of a chance to experiment.

“I think something is fundamentally wrong with the concept of public service if the institutions only creates a middle-of-the-road product for the broad masses,” says Vang.

“I think you should be able to demand just a little bit out of people. Have some ambition. Also on behalf of the listener.”

Gammeltoft agrees, arguing that DR’s approach entirely misses the point of music radio. “We’ve got a market pushing for new music all the time and what you need is a curator, to curate everything out there. I don’t have two hours per day to research new music releases, I need someone to curate it for me. That’s what radio is supposed to do, and it isn’t.”
But the state broadcaster may be doing more than just unravelling its own mission statement. Gammeltoft argues that DR’s narrow vision is influencing the music industry and musicians.

“There’s a ‘mafioso’ attitude in the music industry. Record labels also don’t want to piss off DR or their artist won’t be played, so they bow to the broadcaster’s whims.”

It’s also tough on musicians in Denmark. There’s the cyclical problem posed by music royalties: if musicians get paychecks from the royalties, they’re losing out if their music isn’t played on a major broadcaster. It might also push them to produce more mainstream music.

The second problem for musicians is getting their music out there. “If you’re not a pop star like Medina, or part of one of the few genres favoured by radio, then you have zero exposure,” says Gammeltoft.

Sound smart
New digital platforms like Heartbeats and The Lake are trying to plug the gap and give expression to a more nuanced music culture in Denmark.

Heartbeats invites guest presenters to curate a show in their genre of expertise, while Gammeltoft herself has created different episodes dedicated to every single subgenre of electronica.

The ethos is about discovery and hidden musical gems:

“Heartbeats is about sharing music and discovering the album tracks that haven’t been played to death. If you have a major Cure single – they’ve played it 2,000 times on mainstream radio – it’s more fun for me to dig out the hidden album track.”

One problem for niche radio – the kind that divides electronica into subgenres – is that it risks alienating audiences if they are seen as solely the domain of hipper-than-thou music aficionados. Indie radio must ensure that it does not exclude, or undermine its ambitions by forcing an ‘us and them’ binary between the alternative and mainstream.

With The Lake, Vang isn’t concerned about classifying tastes. He just wants to be a starting point for curious listeners:

“Music streaming services all start with an empty search field. You have to know what to look for. The Lake is an attempt to say: here is a rather large pool of sounds that we like, let us organise it and share it with whomever finds it interesting too,” says Vang.

Producing on a smaller scale may better connect radio with its listeners, and as Chris- tensen considers his funding options for a fourth season, he adds that scaling down actually improved the show.

“On P6, Album was created through a byzantine network of decision making and editorial staff. We are now making the program because people paid us because they love the show. It gives us a different kind of responsibility.”

A more diverse set of voices are articulated by these new radio platforms, including non-western musicians without a footing in Danish music culture. Christensen points out that over the past few years, there hasn’t been any sign of music from the developing world on DR.

“That is to me a very clear sign of an unhealthy mainstreaming process, which has gotten out of hand,” he says.

It’s something The Lake hopes to rectify, by providing a space filled with “a random mix of sounds, voices and music from all genres, all parts of the world, all times, and in all languages.”

In a landscape aching for colour, these radio producers hope their digital platforms will push the boundaries of music radio. That’s why Gammeltoft thinks it’s crucial to support these new initiatives. Denmark’s musical mindset is at stake.

“If you make dumb content, listeners get dumber.” M

Features, Culture

By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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