In Conversation With Richard Kingsmill
by ADAM BAIDAWI
Note: This interview appeared in the July 2009 issue of Tsunami, in response to the debates about the direction of Australia's national youth broadcaster, Triple J. The conversation was heatedly (hilariously) debated on Mess+Noise.
Start to finish – how does your day run?
Some days are different to others of course. Usually, I get up at 5:30, go swimming in the pool, I come to work, get breakfast, and by quarter-past or half-past seven, I’m at work doing stuff. I didn’t always used to be that way – I used to work late nights when I was doing programs. I was certainly a night owl then. I just find that if I get in a few hours before everyone else at the start of the day, beat the emails, beat the phones ringing, beat the people around the station, [that] I can get some listening done and get more work done – or a large part of it anyway.
It clears the table and starts things fresh. If I come in later, it ends up pushing the day back, because there are always people chewing my ear about something or other.
That’s essentially how I start my day.
Mondays and Tuesdays are sort of open door policy for three hours in the morning. People come in and present stuff: record companies, indies, PR people, bands…it’s a different vibe to the other days.
The remainder of each of the days is pretty much programming the music on the station for the next 24 hours, listening to a lot of stuff, answering a lot of emails. When people ask me what I do, I sometimes joke, “I answer emails” – some days are like that. You’re online, listening to stuff, listening to the station, feeding information to the announcers, seeing what the priorities are each day: where we’re at, what’s new, what’s exciting, what’s important, what events have we got coming up around the country?
At the moment, I’m kind of working 12-hour days, which is the nature of the beast because it’s just so busy, and so much stuff is happening. With all intentions, I try to leave work at sane hours, but generally, they tend to blow out. The music scene is really active – it’s a very vibrant scene. There’s lots of great stuff out there, and we just want to be the first to grab it, the first to put it on air, the first to get hold of it. That’s pretty much what I do day in, day out.
Do you tend to check out bands after work?
Yeah, once or twice a week I’ll go out and check out some live music at night.
Do you ever get spotted? Hassled?
Nah, not really. I’m not Dools, I’m not the Doctor…they’re high profile TV people as well. I think people might see my photo in the paper or a magazine once every six months or so, but I don’t really think they’d recognise me. A few people might, but that’s never usually that big a deal.
What are your ways of consuming new music? Do you look to blogs? News sites like NME? Pitchfork? The Hype Machine?
All of it. All of that. And also, you get a lot of tips – I’ve got a guestbook on my program page, and a lot of people contact me through that. I love getting listener suggestions. Listeners will be sometimes the most accurate ones to feed you tips about new stuff, which is great. Bands sometimes infiltrate that and try to dummy up a response – I get that a fair bit – but you can see through that, a lot.
I obviously get sent a lot of stuff – we’re getting boxes and boxes of CDs in each week.
I do try to get through it all, but it is impossible in this day and age. Three or four years ago, I used to get through everything, and now, I’m at the point of getting so much stuff that I just can’t get through it all, so I use my gut instinct. I used my bullshit filter as best I can to weed through the crap.
Then I’m online, looking at blogs, looking at Hype, looking at what community radio is adding, what the commercials are adding. It’s having a big antenna, spreading far and wide, seeing what’s going around, and seeing what’s getting us excited and what’s getting them excited
When you first got the position of music director in 2003, you did a story with The Age where you kind of laid out your MO:
“I think Triple J has the potential to be the best radio station in Australia, if not one of the best in the world. But we let ourselves down too often – we can be great one moment, but pretty average the next.”
Since then, where do you think you think the station has gone, what do you think the station has addressed and improved, and what are the challenges to work on?
Yeah, we were really inconsistent back then. I reckon we’re really consistent now. I think back to what my role is and what we’ve done and where I felt we were a bit flat in the sound of the station, and there’s very few occasions now where I listen back and think, ‘we’ve dropped the ball’ or ‘things sounded clunky’ or ‘we made the wrong choice with the playlist’. I analyse the feature albums and make sure they’re all winners and all that sort of stuff. I’m really satisfied with how we sound now.
It’s funny, I can remember what kind of frame of mind I was in back then, and what sort of intent I had when I first made music director. I knew what the faults were as far as I was concerned. I just described it in my head – I wanted [the station] to be a tank. I wanted us to be this incredible tank that people couldn’t fire bullets at and make dents in. Just to be this huge beast of a radio station that was an authority on new music and an authority on great music – and do it while having a consistent sound. As a listener, you might not dig every track we play, but you wouldn’t be able to listen to us for half an hour and not find something satisfying about it or find something exciting about the music we were playing.
I think we achieved that – and I think we achieved that because we’ve just got a really, really great team of people working here, and because there’s a lot of perfectionism that goes on in this place now. There’s a lot of drive to make us work. Everybody was sounding out five years ago as the death of radio – and people still like to get online and in newspapers to talk about how irrelevant radio is – but we’ve got a bigger audience now than we had five years ago. We’ve got a bigger reach of listeners right around the country than we had five years ago. That is especially pleasing, given that a lot of people say that people are turning off radio – they’re not doing it for us.
And what do you think are the areas to improve right now?
Back then, the other thing was that were still unsure where we were focused, or where we were going. We needed to consolidate where we were focusing our sound and, as a radio station, where we were trying to hit the market.
Looking forward, to tell you the truth, we do so many great things each year…I think the standard is pretty high in terms of the events that we put on, the coverage of those city and regional type events, the focus right around the country in terms of the new acts we’re breaking, the smaller events we put on – the Home and Hosed type events…
Everything we do now, we work from the ground up and tick all the boxes before we do stuff. I think we have a really high success rate in terms of executing that stuff. I look at what we can achieve over the next few years and just think this is it – more of this.
Honestly, I’m in a much better mind than I was five years ago in terms of the sound of the station and what we do. But we all work together as a team – it’s not a few individuals – it’s all of us working together.
But again, what do you think the station could improve on? Where do you think the station could consolidate?
(A long pause) I can’t think of anything. Honestly…
Obviously, listeners will have their favourite announcers, listeners will have their favourite personalities…I think that the teams we’ve got at the moment working on the radio are really strong and by-and-large they all cover different areas and different themes and vibes and textures.
All our specialist programs are really strong, all our specialist presenters are really strong, our weekend programs are really good, our audience figures on the weekend are really good – there’s not much we’re doing wrong at the moment.
But, you ask anyone on the street: What’s wrong with Triple J?
‘Oh, I don’t like Dools.’
‘Oh, I don’t like breakfast.’
‘Oh, I don’t like Zan.’
‘Don’t like Vijay.’
You know, Sam Simmons, when he first started here, he used to divide people hugely. But his following is huge now – he’s one of the most popular people on our website and he’s one of the most popular people when he pops up on air.
There’re always people who are going to say, ‘Triple J is wrong, because I don’t like this person, or I don’t like that person’. That’s what radio is. You’re not going to find that everyone on the station is going to appeal to you.
So, I can’t tell you that we’ve got a weak link, because all those programs do well, and all of those programs are sounding good, and they’re all good presenters.
I’m happy with the sound of the station. There’ll always be people who say otherwise. A lot of older people whinge about the sound of the station. A lot of people who don’t like hip-hop whinge about the sound of the station. A lot of people who don’t like dance music, or heavy music whinge about the sound of the station.
But not overridingly do we get a huge amount of criticism for the sound of the station, but everyone will have their likes and dislikes – you won’t get a consensus across the board.
Yeah, honestly, it’s not to avoid your question – I just don’t think we’re doing much wrong at the moment.
Fairly explained. Triple J has always had the challenge of balancing alternative and popular music – the eternal struggle. It’s fair to say that the lines are starting to blur a little bit..
Yeah, they’ve been blurring the last few years.
Your Kanye Wests, your Lily Allen’s…stuff like Girl Talk…pop is almost back in vogue with really discerning people – bloggers, critics, and so on. As far as that push-and-pull battle goes, where do you think Triple J sits?
And the end of the day, you’re right – everything’s getting blurry. We justify everything in very specific ways. With all of the music that comes in, we do two things: we go, “Is it good or not?” – simple question, then the second question is, “Is it right or not?”
I remember years ago – maybe ten years ago – there used to be discussions about bands selling out because their music was being used in ads. All of a sudden the stations would shy away from certain bands that popped up in TV commercials. Now, it’s a huge revenue stream – it’s huge exposure. It’s something we just laugh at. With certain songs on our playlist, where we know that we’re the only one’s playing them…things like the Paper Scissors…
Yves Klein Blue on that Mitsubishi commercial…
Exactly. They’ll pop up on ads, and we’ll go, “Oh, that’s interesting”. Obviously, it’s a sign that everybody else likes it too.
So, yeah, those are the questions that we ask ourselves with the new music we get in. In our minds, there’s a big difference between Kanye West and Lil Wayne. There’re obvious reasons why we would want to keep playing someone like Kanye West – but, I mean, not everything. We didn’t think his last album was a massively fantastic record, but there was still enough tracks off that to make us want to pay attention to it. We played stuff off his very first record, and we were ahead of the game in terms that. Plus, he’s a well regarded figure in the hip-hop scene, does a lot of production work and has certainly crafted a sound in hip-hop in the last five years that has certainly been influential.
And sure, you’ll see him on a lot of other TV channels – a lot of pop formats – but if he’s making music which is still kind of interesting and challenging, which, by and large he is still doing, then we’ll dabble with it.
Lily Allen is the same thing. We chased her down early on when she was just an artist on MySpace, streaming stuff. We got on to her very, very quickly and started playing her stuff. You know, she’s sassy and she’s an intelligent pop songwriter – but she’s different to Rihanna. And we play her.
Sometimes people can’t see the difference: ‘Oh, Lily Allen, it’s all over commercial radio like Rihanna…why not play her too?’ You know…
It’s different. It’s different, and in our minds, if we can see the difference, then that’s enough for us.
Well, yeah, it’s almost to the point where you guys take it on a track-by-track basis. Triple J and DMG (Nova, Vega) might be spinning the same albums, but you’ll pick completely different tracks and tailor it to the station.
Yeah, we look beyond the single plan and the marketing format of the record companies, and we’ll find tracks that we want to find. Because we’ll occasionally play Lily Allen, or we’ll play another act that the DMG stations will be playing, you’ll still hear, ‘Oh, what are you doing? You sound just like commercial radio’.
I analyse the playlists of what they’re playing and what we’re playing and let me tell you, the crossover is incredibly minimal. And we’re not gonna stop playing Ladyhawke just because they’re playing My Delirium – I mean, we’ve played seven tracks off that record, and we’re still finding other tracks…we’re on Magic at the moment, and no one’s touched that one. They’re going back to Back of the Van, which is the very first, which came out 18 months ago, they’ve gone back because that’s the record company’s new single. We’ve been there and done that. We just set our own parameters of what we want to play from any given artist.
We do review things on a song-by-song basis, but we’ve also got core artists and people that we want to support. There’re artists out there that we’ve had long associations with, that keep on making good music that we want to keep on supporting. We’re mindful of that as well.
That’s what I sometimes say to people who give us tracks – we could add this, but I really can’t see us, in a years time, still supporting that artist.
It’s interesting, getting back to that idea that a lot of stations go by a record label’s single plan – you guys completely flipped EMI’s publicity of Lily Allen’s album when you started playing Fuck You three, four months before the album was out. It was only a demo at that stage…
Yeah, that was just one that we found on a blog – it just leaked. It was such a funny song that we just had to play it. Once again, for the whole chorus to be, “Fuck you”, it’s once again getting back to the difference between her and other pop artists – it’s clever and it’s confrontational. We got complaints, of course. It was quite ironic and funny. So yeah, when we find it, we play it. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the release schedule or not.
Of course, one thing we’re mindful of when we find things online is that we don’t want to find demo versions of the songs – we don’t want to find inferior versions of songs. For instance, Grizzly Bear album leaked a while ago, and it was an inferior copy – inferior for what the end product was going to be – so we just stayed away from it. We don’t want to hurt artists, and we don’t want to play stuff that we think sounds low quality. We let people know that we’ve found it, but we’ll get the best version of it before we play it on air. Otherwise, I just don’t think that’s fair for anyone.
A lot of people say that Triple J is scared of mainstream. One of the quintessential examples that Sydneysiders, and others on message boards use is that Connie Mitchell’s first band, Primary, was heavily supported by the station, whilst the still independent but more commercially successful Sneaky Sound System has been completely ignored. Sneaky Sound made music in a pretty similar vein.
(Sighs) They didn’t make music in a similar vein. I supported Primary really early on, and Connie was a really interesting character, I interviewed her on the Australian Music Show. They were a much edgier band – much different to what Sneaky Sound System are.
I wish them well, and they’re a quality Australian pop band, but they really don’t need a place on Triple J – and they don’t have a place on Triple J. They’re everywhere else on mainstream radio. You might as well say that we should’ve played Savage Garden back in the day.
Well, just because something is being played everywhere else on mainstream radio, does that mean that it doesn’t deserve a place on Triple J? Deserve the airtime?
Well, we’ve got a brief; we’ve got a charter that says that we should provide young Australia an alternative to what they’re getting elsewhere, to a certain degree. That’s a big part of our charter – that we don’t just mimic what is already out there in the marketplace. Mind you, it’d be good if commercial stations that get new licenses could also abide by that…but that’s another conversation point.
Coming back to those artists that are being played on commercial stations elsewhere: Kanye West, Lily Allen, Ladyhawke, Cut Copy, the Presets…all of those acts were started by Triple J. All of those acts got their first airplay on Triple J. All of those acts have had absolute consistent airplay on Triple J – every one of their songs have hit the mark, and we’ve played every single album they’ve put out, or tracks thereof. Now, with the Sneaky Sound System stuff, we didn’t support them in the beginning. We felt like that band was going to go somewhere else. That band was designed for commercial radio. There was no need for us to go there.
So anyone that criticises us for not playing them – just because they’re Australian, just because they’re independent: fuck you.
They’re not right for us. We made the call, and we were right. Move on thanks, they’re popular, they’re getting played by everyone else. Did we need to go there? I am glad we never added them. We never playlisted them, because we gave all that attention to bands like Faker – and we saw what happened to them, five years after we supported them…and all of these other bands that were eventually groomed into being something else, and became popular.
You know, we’ll admit when we’re wrong and when we’ve made the wrong judgments on them, but if anyone keeps on yabbering on to me about how we should’ve played Sneaky Sound System – and I’ve had this argument with Angus [McDonald – Sneaky’s songwriter/producer], I’ve emailed him and I’ve just said, “Pull your head in”. It’s just like, fuck, you’ve sold millions of records, and you’re popular – why are you whinging about us not playing you? They’re getting played everywhere. So fine – everywhere else can have them. They never felt right for us, so we never added them.
I think we were vindicated – they didn’t turn into Radiohead, as far as I know…
Suppose by supporting Primary and boosting their and Connie’s profile, you guys helped Sneaky Sound System become what they are today.
Yeah, whatever, quite probably. Primary were right for us at the time.
I get this other thing from certain bands who will make a really great record which we support, and by the tail end of that record they would’ve had commercial support and then because we don’t their follow up, everyone will start saying, ‘Oh, you didn’t play it because it’s gone commercial. What about all these other commercial acts you play?’ and then all of a sudden you get all of these jibes being fired.
The simple fact of the matter was – you made a worse record than the first one, that’s why we’re not playing it. We don’t like this new record because it’s not as good as the last record. We had this argument with the Alex Lloyd people when Alex Lloyd made his follow up: we played bits of that record, but then the next record, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s where it’s going’. It wasn’t a very good record. If it had been a great record, we would’ve played it.
We’re not fickle – we don’t go, ‘Oh, they’re too commercial now for us’.
It’s a bit of an oversimplification it.
It is an oversimplification of it. We judge every record on the same merits.
The next Kings of Leon record, if it’s a really, really fantastic record, we’ll play it again. We’ve played every single release of theirs. If it’s an average record, we’ll review it differently. It’s about the quality of each release that comes through.
Another complaint that comes up ad nauseam is the claim that Triple J centralises itself on a few core genres – your indie rock, your dance, your hip-hop – whilst other genres are ushered into specialised shows, despite having huge fan bases. What’s your response to those criticisms?
Well, we can’t be everything to everyone. If we play too much heavy metal in the day, or too much hardcore punk or anything that’s really divisive, you’ll see the audience plummet, and people will criticise us for losing the audience. The really divisive stuff – the stuff that’s got a fanbase, but when you look at the whole picture of Triple J and who listens to it, is really a small percentage of the listener base of the station – we’ll give it airplay to a certain degree, but then we’ll go, ‘Hey, if you’re into this scene, here’s three hours on radio. Website here, blog here, stream here’. We’ve got the programs there and they exist, which is far more than a lot of other radio stations are doing.
It’s not like we’re broadcasting to no one – ten o’clock at night is the same as ten o’clock in the morning. It’s not like we’ve turned down the power of the station and nobody can hear it. That’s just common sense – it’s just common sense. We cover a lot of different areas of music – you know how much music’s out there. We can cover as much as we can cover, and then we analyse what we do each week and say, ‘Did we do a good job at covering the best stuff that’s out there?’ Specialist programs serve their purpose, and we dabble with those in the rest of the sound of the station. But if I program too much hardcore stuff early in the morning, it’s going to drive people away.
So it comes back to cohesion?
Of course – exactly. It’s just common sense programming. We try to service everyone, but that’s what the specialists are there for. We whack ‘em on in the daytime, get them to come in a and talk about what they’re going to play. It’s not like we hide them away. We have promos, we have playlists on the website…we have them there as much as we can, which I would say is a lot – it’s a lot.
You talked about the Triple J charter – what are that station’s key responsibilities when it comes to unearthing Australian artists? The core responsibilities?
We’ve got a 40% self-imposed Australian music content, week in, week out. That’s what we need to do: each week we need to reach 40% Australian content. Unearthing music is a big part of what we’re here for – to expose new talent, to give them a leg up, to give them exposure nationwide…we’ve got a huge responsibility.
Unearthed has been a really wonderful initiative and has served its purpose really well. We’re constantly on there trying to find stuff from all parts of Australia, and once again our success rate has been really good recently with unearthing some really interesting acts. Tom Ugly from Unearthed High last year have given us three really, really strong songs and they haven’t even finished school yet. The main guy in that band is going to be a real, real talent, and is just going to keep his band going far and beyond once he finishes school this year.
We’re really happy with what we’ve discovered. We’re playing a lot of artists. There’s lots of stuff out there, and it’s a big part of what we do. The station’s been founded on that – 30 years ago it was a big part of the station, and it still is now. Unearthed is just a vehicle for it.
Another criticism that so often comes up on blogs, message boards, Facebook…ad nauseam is the idea that you and one other person are essentially programming the entire station…
Yeah. It comes up on blogs whereby bands who have been denied playlisting get on there and whinge. It tends to be a very small group of people who have been put out because we’ve decided that their song wasn’t deemed worthy enough to be on the playlist. Now, as soon as they invent a robot that can detect the good music from the bad, and can be a reliable filter, then I’m sorry but you’re just going to have to deal with the fact that radio stations are made by people, decisions are made by people and those decisions are made by gut instinct and the best judgments of those people.
We have a group of three people who channel all the music that we listen to each week, and all the input from the specialists and all the other announcers into our heads via email, notes, feedback, playing stuff on air…we bring all of that. We list the songs – each week we get about three pages of new songs that’ve come in. We sit down and pretty much go though and say, ‘What do we need to add to cover all the bases?’ Australian content, what’s hot right now, what’re the artists that everyone knows and loves? We go through and talk about it. It usually lasts about an hour and a half each week.
It’s done with everyone’s input. I don’t just sit there and go, ‘I don’t like this record, we’re not playing it’. If a record’s a bit funny, or I don’t get it, I’ll hand it around to people – if I don’t get a good idea of it myself. There’re all sorts of artists that I’ll email off to people: ‘What do you think? I’m not feeling it – are you?’ – there are lots of discussions going on around the place.
It sounds pretty exhaustive.
It is. Look, I don’t ever want to make the wrong decision about artists. I don’t want to ever turn down an artist that potentially, in a years time, could be one of the biggest artists in Australia…and I don’t want to ever read the artist saying, ‘Yeah, we sent our songs to Triple J, but they didn’t like it’. That is what I don’t want to read. Reading whinges on blogs from people who have been denied airplay – they’re dressed up as audience, as, ‘Oh Triple J used to be so much better’…that kind of bullshit, I can do without, and I really don’t give a shit about it. It’s the artists who then prove that they’re worthwhile and that we got it wrong in the first place, that’s what keeps me awake at night. That’s what I’m mindful of.
There’s stuff I can listen to and go, ‘That’s shit, we don’t want to play it – it’s not good, there’s a million and one things better than it’, but when there’s line ball decisions where I can’t quite get it or I need another set of ears, we talk about it, we hand it around. I’m always talking with Zan and Vijay and Nick, our assistant music director…we’re all constantly talking about certain artists and whether they matter, you know – are they any good?
So, the decision making process is channelled through a lot of sets of ears, and at the end of the day I sign off on it with a lot of different input. Those conspiracy theorists out there who think that I’m a big bad ogre who sits on top on my pile of CDs casting judgments, well, a lot of thought has gone into it and a lot of discussion. We don’t reach any decision lightly.
…I mean, what would people rather: would they rather a station that has priorities and that gives people what they think is the best stuff out there, or would they just like us to play everything that comes in and give it a few spins then move on? None of it would stick, none of it would mean anything to anyone and no one would fall in love with it. You as a music fan would know that some of the best music that you come across takes ten, sometimes twenty listens before you get it.
Finally, what is your opinion on the growing group of people on Facebook saying that Triple J should split into two stations?
Oh, it’s a revolutionary idea that we hadn’t thought of twenty years ago. I’m sorry…hello? Radio One, Radio Two? The BBC? Oh! Jeez!
We’ve talked about this thing for years – obviously we’d love it. Take for example Jarvis Cocker: we play Pulp and they were going in the early ‘80s, reached their peak toward the end of the ‘80s and into the early part of the ‘90s. We were there – as a radio station – playing them, exposing them…now, Jarvis Cocker is still a really interesting musician, but obviously he now only going to appeal to people maybe, 30 to 35-plus, and probably won’t appeal to a lot of 18-24s – maybe a few, not a lot though – but he’s a really great, credible artist. Doesn’t get airplay on Nova, doesn’t get airplay on Vega, doesn’t get airplay on the public stations anymore…doesn’t get airplay by anyone. No one plays him. No one plays Jarvis Cocker.
And yet he’s still churning out really interesting solo albums.
Yes – still really interesting! So wouldn’t it be great if there was a radio station out there that plays artists in that kind of mould? We’ve talked about this for years. It would be fantastic.
Is it money?
Of course, it’s money. We’re not stopping the process. There’s no money – there’s barely enough money to fund this station. We’re a national station running on a minimal, shoestring budget that a commercial station in one market alone would use as their marketing budget for a year – that is our sum operating total budget. And we’re a national station. And we’ve got to do all of this sort of stuff.
Why should people throw stones at us and criticise us – it’s like, man you’re beating up David in this equation. I mean, there’s Goliaths out there that aren’t doing their jobs, and you’re beating up David. That’s why I just sometimes view it and think, ‘You guys have got this all upside down’.
So, the idea of having whatever it would be called – Triple J 1, Triple J 2 – it’s not a new idea. These bunch of people who set up on Facebook – once again, primarily driven by a lot of artists whose latest records we haven’t supported…and I’ve gone on to [the Facebook group] and I’ve read all of the comments there and they all contradict each other and they’re all misfiring…they come up with all these conspiracies and they come up with all this stuff…none of it is true, none of it is right and none of it is in the ballpark.
The potential idea is not a bad one, and it’s not one that we would oppose, but if you can find us the five million dollars to set it up, take it to the board of directors of the ABC, find us the frequencies and transmitters, find us all the operating costs…well, we’ll get it started…we’ll get it started.