The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Britain, sad music floods the airwaves as radio mourns the queen

Somber songs by Adele, Coldplay and the Cars are being broadcast to meet the mood of the nation

A mourner is overcome with emotion as he pays his respects at the gates of Buckingham Palace in London. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

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

Ben Cooper, chief content and music officer at Bauer Media Audio UK, a company that operates dozens of British radio stations, said that, at the time of the queen’s death, blue “obit lights” flashed in radio stations around the country. Long-standing protocols, known as “obit plans,” quickly kicked into gear. There would be no more advertisements. No on-air competitions. Prepared playlists flooded the airwaves.

As the country was still processing the death, British radio had already turned down the dial on the pep and begun providing listeners with more somber sounds: Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” for example, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” The Cars’ “Drive” and a lot of Adele, Cooper said.

The tonal shift was happening not just at Bauer’s stations, but across the radio landscape as well — from major broadcasters to local stations. Even Fun Kids, the British equivalent of Radio Disney, switched to playing instrumental versions of children’s movie music to reflect the national mood, said station manager Matt Deegan.

For many in Britain — where, according to a recent survey by Radio Joint Audience Research, almost 90 percent of the adult population listens to the radio for, on average, about 20 hours a week — the expectation was clear: The country is in mourning.

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

Such sensitivity isn’t legally mandated but is widely expected, Cooper said. “Radio stations are the soundtrack for society. And you have to reflect the mood of the nation. It boils down to the fact that this was someone’s grandmother, someone’s mother, and the British population has a huge affinity and love for her. And so when someone dies, you don’t want to play loud music or be in a celebratory mood.”

Deegan, of Fun Kids, said the British Broadcasting Corporation has set high expectations for radio’s response to troubling times. “Here, radio is such a part of people’s lives, and we’re very fortunate to have the public’s interest, so we work very hard to give them something decent to listen to,” he said. “I think that’s why we may be more reflective on a point like this.”

For his station, complying with such expectations can be tricky. “Kids’ songs are upbeat,” he said. “They’re about dancing around, having a laugh, singing along, and so when you want to do something else, you have to think hard 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 said.

For industry insiders like Cooper and Deegan, the death of the queen is a moment for which they have been meticulously prepared. Cooper has worked in radio for three decades and says the protocol for a major death, such as that of the queen, is “drilled into you.”

“It is something that has been in the back of my mind throughout the whole of my career, that this is something that you have to get right,” he said.

Cooper worked as a producer on a pop music station at the BBC at the time of Princess Diana’s death in 1997 and remembers the grief mounting across several days. “You had to mirror that sadness,” he said. “It lasted pretty much all the way through to her funeral.”

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

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

Some listeners applaud the change. When Polly Sharpe, a 45-year-old lecturer in journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, left the house for the first time after hearing of the queen’s death, she found solace driving to the reflective 1990s music that Bauer’s Absolute Radio was playing. “It was quite nice to have the music to allow me to think about it rather than having the reporters talk to me about how we should be feeling,” she said.

Sharpe heard songs by the English rock group Elbow and other soothing music and thought about the sense of stability the queen had brought her in anxious times. “It felt like we were this tiny island, but at least we had this amazing woman.”

Not everyone agrees about how best to honor the queen. Lex Wilson, 19, who lives outside Newcastle and listens to the radio at work, says the tone doesn’t feel quite right. It’s not that she’s against the queen, she explains, but that the music programming misses an opportunity. “I feel like hearing all of this sad music, it’s not reflecting the celebration of what was such a great and long rule by Queen Elizabeth.”

James Ward, a journalist based in Bristol, simply doesn’t get the fuss. “It’s been absolutely bonkers,” he said. “As you walk down the street, every 20 yards you see the picture of the queen. It’s insane. This is the kind of thing that we make fun of North Korea for doing.”

Listening to the radio, Ward has heard local DJs with no national media experience struggle to meet the moment.

“They’re just dragging out anything that they think sounds plausibly sad,” he said. “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’s not their responsibility to grieve on behalf of the nation, but that’s the task that they’ve been given.”

Ward is alarmed by the way the media has abandoned stories about, say, the energy crisis, which could kill people who cannot afford to heat their homes this winter. “There’s a real kind of sinister side to it,” he said of the incessant mourning. “The lack of impartiality. The assumption that everyone in the country wants this.”

Although such sorrowfulness might send Ward to Spotify, Cooper believes this kind of event can actually increase loyalty to radio.

“We talk a lot in the media about streaming services and playlists, but radio is so much more than a playlist,” he said. “It is that connection to the zeitgeist and capturing those feelings in the ‘live-ness’ of radio. I think this moment shows the power of the medium.”

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