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RNZ interviews Network News Music's Victor Vlam

E. R.

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So Radio New Zealand changed their tune a couple of months ago, and people were up in arms because it was composed outside the country.


What makes a good tune to go with the news today? Big, bold and bombastic? Subtle and smooth? Trad or mod? Mediawatch asks a journalist with world’s biggest collection of news theme music - and get his picks of the world's best and worst.  


Recently RNZ changed the tunes they use for news - and not everyone was happy because they engaged a specialist commercial composer in Australia. 


Incidentally, the public broadcaster there - the ABC - has used the same tune for its radio news bulletins since the 1950s. 


Majestic Fanfare was written by British composer Charles Williams back in 1943 -- and it sounds a bit like it. 


Last month the ABC news show Backstory reported that every effort to retire the tune has met with stiff resistance. 


When the ABC started up a youth network called Triple J back in the 1990s they remixed it so heavily for their news bulletin that it doesn't even sound much like a fanfare anymore. 


So in 2022 is it best to go trad or mod for news music? Is old fashioned horn-heavy bombast still the order of the day? Or do we need something smoother and more subtle? 


One journalist who's heard more news themes than any other is Victor Vlam in the Netherlands. 


He has the world's biggest collection of news music from down the ages, including hundreds of themes on networknewsmusic.com.


Recently he told on Mediawatch making good themes is much harder than looks -- or sounds.


“There are stories of successful composers who have been asked to do music for television and who basically just can't do it.” he said. 


“You need to make your point very quickly, very succinctly. It is an art form in and of itself. News music is heard every single day for most pieces of news music. Some newscasts are on multiple times a day even - and it still needs to sound interesting to people,” he said. 


“It really needs to be able to withstand the test of time,” he added. 


What makes a good news theme?.


“It gives some gravitas to the show. It makes it sound important and people know that something important is coming up,” Vlam told Mediawatch.  


“Traditionally there's a lot of brass and a lot of strings. But some newscasts may want to emphasize the fact that they are very urgent, that they are on top of all the latest news. So they might have a very fast news theme with a lot of electronic elements. It depends on how you want to position your newscast - as opposed to other newscasts - which style you'd use,” he said. 


Typically US news music is more orchestral and Europe is more electronic. How come?  


“It is changing in the US. The theme the CBS has been used for the past three years has a lot of electronic elements. 


Australian news music has copied a lot from the US. The Channel 9 theme in Australia is a theme that was used by many ABC stations in the US from the movie Cool Hand Luke. 


“One of my all time favorites is the BBC News Theme by composer David Lowe. It's really a fantastic ‘countdown’ theme 90 seconds long which gets more and more intense. But it has the traditional BBC sound. It's changed news music, essentially and it's been used on the air since 1999. I always listened to that with a lot of enjoyment.” said Vlam. 


What's the worst news he;s [sic] ever heard?


“There is an ABC station in Philadelphia that has been using the same music since 1972 - and they they are still using the same exact recording to this day. It has lyrics and it's I guess people like it because it can be a bit catchy - but unfortunately, it sounds so incredibly dated. It’s unbelievable that this can still be used,” he said. 


“I think it just really horrible cheesy 1970s commercial music. I really hate it,” he said. 


“I think a lot of people have nostalgic feelings for the music that was used during their childhood years. I understand that but it's important the genre moves forward.”


So why did he get into collecting news music?


“From my early childhood, I just started recording music from television. I think it was six or seven years old at the time. As I got older, I started contacting the composers on the internet and asked them if they wanted to share it with me. 


Is there a community around news music? Or just Victor?


“Actually there is a bit of community there. I would say about 200 people collect news theme music, including some people who work in pretty high positions in the industry,” he told Mediawatch.


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