Sad music floods British radio stations as the U.K. mourns the queen

If anyone in the UK was prepared for the emotional fallout from Queen Elizabeth’s death on Thursday, it was the country’s DJs and radio producers.

According to Ben Cooper, head of content and music at Bauer Media Audio UK, a company that operates dozens of UK radio stations, at the time of the Queen’s death, the blue obituary lights” flashed on radio stations across the country. Long-standing protocols known as “obit plans” are quickly being kicked into high gear. There would be no more advertisements. No on-air competitions. Prepared playlists flooded the airwaves.

While the country was still dealing with death, British radio had already turned down the dial and started feeding listeners darker sounds: Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” for example, Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” and Garfunkel, The Cars’ “Drive” and lots of Adele, according to Cooper.

The change in tone was happening not only at Bauer’s stations, but across the entire radio landscape – from major broadcasters to local stations. Even Fun Kids – the UK equivalent of Radio Disney, according to station manager Matt Deegan – has switched to playing instrumental versions of children’s film music to reflect the national mood. For many in Britain – where, according to a recent survey by Radio Joint Audience Research, 89% of the population listen to the radio an average of 20 hours a week – the expectation was clear: the country is in mourning.

Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled the UK for 70 years, dies aged 96

It goes beyond the radio. During the official 10-day mourning period, some sporting events and festivals have been cancelled. Comedy shows have been removed from television programming.

Such sensitivity is not legally mandated but is widely expected, Cooper says. “Radios are the soundtrack of society. And you have to reflect the mood of the nation,” he explains. “It boils down to the fact that she was somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother, and the British people have a huge affinity and love for her. And so when somebody dies you don’t don’t want to put on loud music or be in a festive mood.

Deegan, from Fun Kids, says the British Broadcasting Corporation has set high expectations for radio’s response to troubled times. “Radio is so much a part of people’s lives here, and we’re very lucky to have audience interest, so we work very hard to give them something decent to listen to,” he says. “I think that’s why we can be more thoughtful about something like this.”

For his station, conforming to such expectations can be tricky. “Children’s songs are upbeat,” he says. “They consist of dancing, laughing, singing, and so when you want to do something else, you have to seriously think about it.” But you don’t want to be caught playing a song like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” right now, he says.

For industry insiders like Cooper and Deegan, the Queen’s death is a time they have been meticulously prepared for. Cooper has worked in radio for three decades and says the protocol for a major death, like the Queen’s, is “drilled into you”.

“It’s something that’s stuck in my mind throughout my career, that it’s something you have to do well,” he says.

Cooper worked as a producer on a pop music station to the BBC at the time of Princess Diana’s death in 1997 and remembers the grief that built up over several days. “You had to reflect that sadness,” he says. “It lasted pretty much until his funeral.”

Now Cooper oversees Bauer UK, which has stations ranging from pop-centric KISS to a station focusing on hits from the 1970s to 1990s – all of which have started playing their format-specific sad songs: Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ , for example , or “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley.

According to Cooper, stations should start introducing more midtempo music in the coming days, but will return to dark tunes for the day of the funeral, September 19. He encouraged producers and hosts to monitor the emotional pulse of their audiences.

Some listeners applaud the change. When Polly Sharpe, a 45-year-old journalism lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, first left home after hearing about the Queen’s death, she found comfort in listening to the music 1990s thoughtful song played by Bauer’s Absolute Radio. “It was kind of nice to have the music to allow me to think about it rather than having reporters talk to me about how we should feel,” she said.

Sharpe heard songs from English rock band Elbow and other soothing music and thought of the sense of stability the Queen had brought him in anxious times. “It felt like we were this little island, but at least we had this amazing woman.”

Not everyone agrees on the best way to honor the Queen. Lex Wilson, 19, who lives outside Newcastle and listens to the radio at work, says the tone doesn’t sound quite right. It’s not that she’s against the Queen, she explains, but that the music lineup is missing an opportunity. “I want to hear all this sad music, it does not reflect the celebration of what has been such a great and long reign of Queen Elizabeth.”

James Ward, a Bristol-based journalist, just doesn’t feel like it. “It was absolutely crazy,” he says. “Walking down the street, every 20 meters you see the Queen’s picture. It’s crazy. It’s the kind of stuff we make fun of North Korea for.”

Listening to the radio, Ward heard local DJs without national media experience struggling to meet the moment.

“They just drag out whatever they think looks presumably sad,” he says. “I don’t even know how to describe it. Songs I’ve never even heard, like power ballads from the 80s. There’s this charade of solemnity. It is not their responsibility to cry on behalf of the nation, but it is the task entrusted to them.

Ward is alarmed by how the media has dropped stories about, for example, the energy crisis, which could kill people who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter. “There’s a real dark side to it,” he says of the unrelenting grief. “The lack of impartiality. The assumption that everyone in the country wants this.

While such heartbreak can send Ward to Spotify, Cooper believes this type of event can actually increase radio loyalty.

“We talk a lot in the media about streaming services and playlists, but radio is so much more than a playlist,” he says. “It’s this link with the spirit of the times and the capture of these feelings in the ‘liveliness’ of radio. I think this moment shows the power of the medium.

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