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Barakan wants InterFM to dial down the talk

by Steve McClure

Special To The Japan Times

While station-surfing on my car radio several years back, I chanced upon a program about Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. The disc jockey said Page’s solo in “Stairway to Heaven” was among his best.

The familiar strains of the Zep classic soon filled the air, and I cranked up the volume in anticipation of Page’s magnificent fret-shedding.

But as the solo began, the DJ began describing how totally awesome it was. I turned off the damned radio before losing control of the car. What a jerk of a DJ.

Japanese DJs’ tendency to talk instead of letting the music speak for itself bugs a lot of people. Peter Barakan wants to put a stop to that.

Last September the bilingual Barakan was named executive director of struggling Tokyo station InterFM. His assignment was simple: Revamp the station’s format to get more people to listen to it.

Of Tokyo’s three commercial FM radio outlets (it’s hard to believe that a city of 13 million people has only three FM stations), InterFM is in last place in terms of ratings and advertising revenue. And overall radio listenership is way down, as music fans flock to the Internet.

InterFM went on the air in 1996. It was a subsidiary of The Japan Times, which later sold it to TV Tokyo. The Kinoshita Group, a Tokyo-based real-estate developer, took a majority stake last June.

Apart from a 2006-09 hiatus, Barakan has been associated with InterFM from its start in 1996. Like most graying baby-boomers, he has a passion for radio — which is how most of us discovered the music we love. Barakan’s new-look InterFM debuted April 1.

One reason why radio is less important a medium in Japan than North America is that most people here commute by train. Canadians and Americans stuck in traffic on their way to and from work, in contrast, are a great captive audience for radio.

But that doesn’t explain why radio is healthier in Europe, where commuter behavior is more like that in Japan.

The bottom line is that radio has never reached its full potential in Japan. Why? Well, in a nutshell, it sucks — big time.

One reason, as Barakan points out, is that in Japan, the DJ is just an announcer: “A director picks the music and a writer writes the scripts. So you have three people, where you only need one. DJs don’t know music, and it comes across that way.”

Then there’s all that nagging, noisome talk. I used to think it irked me because I couldn’t understand it, but as my facility with the Japanese language developed, I realized I was wrong. I simply became more aware of what banal blather it is.

“There’s always been a lot of talk, but it’s getting worse,” Barakan says. “On a music station, the norm is to play music. In Japan, you have two people (on air). You can’t help having a conversation.”

Barakan’s goal is to cut down on the talk, have more music on the air and get DJs more involved in their own playlists. “It will be a real music station,” he says.

It’s important to remember that the government — stung by criticism that it didn’t provide information in foreign languages to Kobe’s non-Japanese community after the 1995 earthquake there — awarded a broadcasting license to InterFM on condition that it serve Tokyo’s foreign community.

“If a disaster hits, information first goes out in English — then in Japanese,” Barakan says.

Now what about money? If you assume Barakan’s vision for InterFM includes making the station profitable, think again.

“I’m not interested in making InterFM profitable — I’m interested in making InterFM good,” he says. “In radio now, you don’t get advertising. The advertising pie has deserted radio. A survey last year found that less than 6 percent of the Japanese population listens to the radio regularly. Once you see figures like that, who’s going to want to advertise on radio?”

Barakan says Kinoshita’s goal is to instead develop “synergies” between InterFM and other media, as well as with parts of the music-business, such as the live-music sector. Which sounds a bit fuzzy to me — but hey, it’s early days yet.

The new and improved InterFM concentrates on contemporary Western rock and pop. J-pop will comprise about 20 percent of the music played on the station. That’s the exact inverse of Japan’s foreign/domestic music-sales ratio these days.

“InterFM has to be part of an effort to preserve musical culture in Japan,” Barakan says with missionarylike zeal. “The younger generation in Japan has been fed a diet of J-pop for the last 20-25 years. The vast majority of people are unaware of the wealth of musical culture outside Japan. I don’t want quotas. And ‘pay-for-plays’ are out.”

Barakan certainly has his work cut out for him. Can InterFM get its mojo back? Stay tuned!

For more details, visit www.interfm.co.jp.