Listening to the Top 40 in my youth was important. Every Sunday afternoon I would faithfully load my blank cassette tape into my Hi-Fi, patiently wait for a song I liked and hit record with a military-like precision. It was an important music source for my beloved Walkman (and it became an early but paltry attempt at DJ-ing). It also secured me a certain level of cachet on the school bus.
However, no matter how hard I tried, hitting stop at the perfect moment to ensure I avoided capturing the presenter’s voice on my tape was impossible. I was trying to mix my favourite tunes into one another but it was tricky given my limited equipment and the fact I had no idea what music was coming up.
Fast forward 20 years and, rather unbelievably yet brilliantly, I find myself about to start presenting a radio chart show every Sunday evening. Except it’s one tracking news, not music.
The 5 Live Hit List will countdown the top 40 stories shared and interacted with across social media from the past week. A team of top sociologists and computer scientists from a cross section of universities have developed an algorithm to analyse keywords and hashtags in order to rank the impact of each story.
In short, news has finally caught up with music. The pioneering music Top 40, which hit the radio airwaves in 1978 (an earlier shorter incarnation – the Top 20 – began on Radio 1 in 1967 and the chart was first published by NME in 1953), did exactly this. Most other music radio shows were an indulgence to the presenter who picked the tunes according to their mood and taste.
However, the Top 40 shared no such hubris. It was and still is, a democratic process in which the listener, with their single purchase – now downloads and streams – of the week, played a part in dictating the soundtrack and who dominated the chart. And even if that meant that something dire, like the Mr Blobby song, nabbed the number one spot, as it did for an atrocious three weeks in 1993 (Noel Edmonds, I’m looking at you), that’s just how it was. Both the listener and presenter had to put up with it.
This will be the first time a UK radio station has created a comprehensive news chart and crucially, reversed the power structure. We, the journalists, won’t be setting the agenda and keeping up the tradition of paternalistic news where we tell the listeners what they should care about. Instead, we will reflect the reality of what news people have cared about enough to share with their mates on their social media of choice.
It is only since the invention of the internet that audiences have been able to effectively vote for their favourite stories with their clicks. Now seeing a story broken out into charts or lists is commonplace. Before news went online, editors could only guess what stories people had been interested in. They had no idea which news item had been skimmed in a paper or missed as someone decided to flick channels.
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For far longer the music industry had a mechanism which allows the general public to impact the influence of a track or band. The official music chart clearly reveals each week what songs the general public has backed.
Of course, people have always been able to contact newspapers or broadcasters with their views on stories but they still couldn’t sway what prominence an item had or how much attention it should receive.
While we still need media outlets to lead the agenda and create content for the masses to seize upon, it’s also important to understand what people are really interested in. The conversation between a journalist and reader/listener is now fully two-way.
So as I begin hosting my very own chart show, I’m expecting some big laughs and big tears. The stories will certainly be powerful, by virtue of how far they’ve spread. And while there is often a chasm between what people ought to be interested in and what they actually are, have no fear: I’ve seen some dummy charts already and I’m happy to confirm that we Britons don’t just care about cats on skateboards. We are sweating the big stuff too – even if we are the same nation that pushed Mr Blobby to the top of the chart which preceded all others.
The 5Live Hit List begins on November 9 at 7.30pm. Emma Barnett is the Women’s Editor of The Telegraph and a broadcaster