diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 28, 2020

[You may want to click here to listen to two minutes of countdown music while reading today's post]

The radio programme Pick of the Pops has been running, on and off, since 1955.

It's been on Radio 2 since 1997 and has been presented over the years by Alan Freeman, Dale Winton, Tony Blackburn and (currently) Paul Gambaccini. If you're not familiar with the format it's basically two Top 20 rundowns from two vintage years, one hour each, along with some erudite commentary. Here are the pairs of years picked in this month's programmes...

 7th November: 1986 and 1999
14th November: 1978 and 1989
21st November: 1981 and 1993
28th November: 1983 and 1994

As a regular listener I've long wondered whether there's a pattern to the years chosen, how often they repeat and what the range spanned is. So I decided to undertake some in-depth research, checking back through the archive on BBC Sounds and tallying all the years played.

Here's what I found by analysing all of the shows broadcast in 2020.
(other than the week they did the album special)

Finding number 1: the range of years picked in 2020 runs from 1963 to 2000
Finding number 2: every year from 1963 to 2000 was picked except 1974 and 1996
Finding number 3: every year from 1976 to 1993 was picked at least three times
Finding number 4: the only years to be picked five times were 1982, 1984, 1987, 1988 and 1989
Finding number 5: the 1980s were picked 42% of the time (the 1970s 24%, the 1990s 20% and the 1960s 13%)

Pick of the Pops appears to have a firm 1980s bias. This won't always have been the case, because time moves on year by year, but at present the music you're most likely to hear is thirty-something years old. The producers could have picked every year from 1957 to 2006 twice if they'd wanted, but instead they bunched up in the middle. Nothing more than 57 years old got played, ditto nothing younger than 20, because Radio 2 know their target audience.

But I was fairly certain things hadn't always been like this and that the 60s and 70s used to appear rather more frequently. So I scoured back even further, thanking the BBC archive for being so comprehensive, and tallied all the shows from the last five years. It took a while.

Finding number 1: the range picked over the last five years runs from 1957 to 2006
Finding number 2: every year from 1957 to 2006 was picked except 2001
Finding number 3: every year from 1964 to 1992 was picked at least ten times
Finding number 4: the only years to be picked twenty times were 1982 and 1984
Finding number 5: the 1980s were picked 34% of the time (the 1970s 30%, the 1960s 19%, the 1990s 15% and the 1950s and 2000s 1½% apiece)

The 1980s have been the preferred decade for a while, but the 1970s used to be a lot closer behind. Over the last few years the 1990s have comfortably leapfrogged the 1960s. The 1950s used to be on PotP's radar but they haven't appeared on the show since September 2017. And although the producers flirted briefly with the 21st century three years ago they haven't nudged past 2000 since. When you have an hour of radio to fill, a random week in 2005 simply doesn't cut it.

The bottom line is that Pick of the Pops almost always plays music from between 55 and 25 years ago. Currently that means the Beatles to Take That, but it used to mean Elvis to Madonna and before long it'll be Slade to the Spice Girls.

Next I investigated the gap between the two years played in each show. It's often just over ten years.

 7th November: 1986 and 1999 (13 years)
14th November: 1978 and 1989 (11 years)
21st November: 1981 and 1993 (12 years)
28th November: 1983 and 1994 (11 years)

Over the last half-decade the average gap between part 1 and part 2 has been 14 years. Two-thirds of the time it's between 7 and 17 years. But there was a show in July 2016 when the chosen years (1977 and 1981) were only four years apart, and another in November 2017 (1960 and 2004) when the gap was as wide as 44.

Finally I investigated the interval between successive reappearances of each individual year, and I can confirm there isn't a regular pattern. Today's show features 1983 and 1994, for example, but whereas 1983 was last on the show in August, 1994 hasn't been played since September last year.

But the producers do generally attempt to space things out. Here are the last fifteen appearances of 1986.

2016: February, July, October
2017: January, April, December
2018: March, June, September
2019: June, September, December
2020: May, August, November

Notice how every month of 1986 appeared at least once, which meant a different selection from the Top 20 could be played each time. Also notice how each appearance tended to happen three months after the last, with a longer gap every so often to provide some balance. But I should say that other years haven't generally been as well-behaved as 1986, so for example 1992 popped up in March 2018 and March 2019, and then again in August 2019 and August 2020. Also 1986 has been selected again next Saturday, so that's the pattern smashed.

My research suggests there's nothing predictable about any of this, so it's only the producers who can determine for certain which two years will be chosen next week. But there is some method to the apparent madness regarding which Pops are Picked, cunningly ensuring that the same tunes don't come round too often. Expect Billy Joel and Baby D to top the charts this afternoon.

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