Music News

Radio 2 music chief: Piano Room, New to 2, and why country music boom isn’t slowing

BBC Radio 2 head of music Jeff Smith has spoken to Headliner about the roaring success of its Piano Room series, the station’s ongoing commitment to new music, and why the country music boom of recent years is showing no signs of slowing down.

Taking place from Monday, January 29 to Friday, February 23 as part of Vernon kay’s mid-morning show (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-12pm), Piano Room features 20 top artists perform live accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, playing a new song, a classic, and a cover version. Among those performing this year is Bruce Hornsby, Beverley Knight, the Libertines, PP Arnold, Rick Astley, Crowded House, Paloma Faith, Elbow, and more. You can see the full line-up here.

Meanwhile, Radio 2 continues its broadcast partnership with the annual Country 2 Country (C2C) Festival, which returns from March 8-10. In addition to the regular programming from the London and Glasgow events, hosted by Bob Harris and Edith Bowman respectively, and for the first time there will also be coverage of the C2C Belfast event, hosted by Connor Phillips.

Speaking to Headliner about the rise in popularity of country music in the UK in recent years, Harris hailed the willingness of new artists to bring new ideas to the table, citing that as a key driver behind its seemingly ever-growing appeal amongst new audiences.

“The past 15-20 years have seen another generation come into country who are happy to bring in other styles to their music,” he said. “Country music has always been known as a big church and now a lot of the younger artists feel very comfortable pulling other streams of music into it. That’s such an important thing because it’s widening the base and bringing younger people into country music, and that ensures its future.”

Here, Smith discusses the history and evolution of Radio 2’s Piano Room, why country is still getting “bigger and bigger”, and how the station is doubling down on its new music focus with New to 2…

Tell us about the history of Piano Room and how it has evolved into its current iteration?

My history goes back to working at Radio 1 in the ‘90s when I set up the Live Lounge. So, I go back a bit with that concept of trying to bring artists’ music to life on the radio above and beyond commercial recordings which is generally what everybody else does.

When Piano Room was first mooted, Elton John had very kindly given us his Steinway piano and it started to be used for what became Piano Room. It was just an intimate performance that would be performing into our mid-morning show. It was popular, but the real breakthrough came when Helen Thomas came in as head of station. Her idea was about getting the best of what we can do at the BBC with a 24-piece BBC Concert Orchestra, using our own Maida Vale Studios with our own presenter, and we deliver this unique experience across all of our platforms. Hence, the Piano Room evolved, and we began delivering it in these big one-month chunks.

We’d seen with Live Lounge Month that that kind of intensity of delivery of content was warmly welcomed by the audience, and there was a great opportunity to juxtapose iconic and well-known artists with newer artists. For me it was great to curate with them on the songs they chose. The other day we had PP Arnold in and it was my thought that as an iconic artist from the ‘60s it would be great for her to do a contemporary song. So we chose Flowers by Miley Cyrus and that’s something we try to do more an more. Tony Hadley just did a cover of Lana Del Rey’s Young And Beautiful inspired by his daughter’s taste. That juxtaposition is not only special to the listener but also defines why the BBC is distinct from anyone else. At the heart of it is a joyful and joyous experience.

I've never seen country music moving like it is now. Jeff Smith, head of music, BBC 2

How have fans responded to Piano Room? Are more people coming to it each year? And do the sessions help introduce new listeners to Radio 2?

It’s increased year-on-year. Everything is increasing in terms of people consuming this content - whether it’s via iPlayer, Red Button or BBC Sounds, they have all increased. And we are finding that new audiences are coming to us. You see some of the comments on Instagram and you can see the response people are having to it. People really seem to appreciate what we are trying to do.

What have been some of your favourite Piano Room covers?

This year so far, we’ve only done six so far (at time of interview). I thought Tony’s was exceptional and very brave to take on something very new, and he’s a male vocalist taking on a female vocalist’s song. And previously we’ve had things like Michael Bublé doing drivers license by Olivia Rodrigo, and it’s moments like that which highlight what Radio 2 is all about – it’s finding timeless and melodic music from today and the past. And there is still excellent music being made by newer artists, and that gets it’s showcase with a 24-piece orchestra alongside it as well!

How has the new Vernon Kay mid-morning show been received by audiences?

The audience is really happy and has become really engaged with Vernon. He really connects and we’re getting a great response. And he really connects with the music. He loves music so he’s delighted with the line-up we have on Piano Room and he’s really engaged with the format. It’s just been brilliant.

Your partnership with C2C continues to roll on. Is the country music boom we’ve seen in the UK in recent years continuing to grow or are there any signs it’s slowing down?

It’s going to get bigger than ever before. I’ve never seen it moving like it’s moving now. Over the years Radio 2 has been supporting country music and working with the CMAs and C2C, and we’ve been singular in supporting country music for a long time, Bob Harris particularly.

One of the things we thought a while back was that country needed to evolve a little bit more into pop. And that’s really been happening. I’ve been to Nashville a few times but when I went last year I was really knocked out by the diversity of artists and the range of people making music now. The question is, can we develop acts in the UK that can do this? We’ve worked with artists like Ward Thomas and The Shires and I’d love to see more of that, and there are a few bits coming through, but you can’t force the issue. At the moment a lot of fans are quite engaged with the reality of what these American artists are offering in their music. But I don’t want to downplay what we can do in the UK. We can come up with these sorts of artists as well, because to a certain extent, this music is the prime example of timeless melodic music. Well written songs performed well. All in all, country music is in the best shape it’s been for a long time.

Tell us about New to 2. What does this initiative say about Radio 2’s support for new music and artists?

Last year we played 15,000 different tracks on the station versus the market average on commercial radio, which is less than 2,000. Of that 15,000, 25% were new and 64% were from UK artists, and we’re really proud of those statistics.

New to 2 was developed by me around 2019. We’ve always had our new music playlist, which remains strong, and we wanted to add to that. So rather than ad hoc spot plays, we wanted to make sure the record industry knew there was support for new artists during day time between 6am and 7pm. New to 2 was just a way of me badging new music for the presenters and for us to use on socials, allowing us to work with artists and labels to help push through new artists.

What’s on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?

My main focus looking at day time is Romesh Ranganathan arriving in April. I’m really excited about that. It’s one of our biggest shows and a huge job taking over from the brilliant Claudia Winkleman, so I’m really excited. Saturday morning shows for me have always been a day for music discovery, and I think Romesh will bring such a great style to it.

Hear Piano Room Monday to Friday until Friday 23rd February at 11.30am in Vernon Kay’s show on BBC Radio 2 – and watch them all back on BBC iPlayer and listen on BBC Sounds. Bob Harris, Edith Bowman and Connor Phillips present Radio 2’s coverage of C2C from 8-10th March in London, Glasgow and Belfast.

Catch up with all the Piano Room performances so far – on BBC Sounds here and on BBC iPlayer here.