Why the BBC won't play 4'33"

Why the BBC won't play 4'33"


norman lebrecht

December 21, 2010

Idealists the world over will be aware by now that John Cage’s posthumous bid to launch a Christmas number one was defeated by the X-Factor machine and other forces of darkness.

Still, against overwhelming odds, the release of 4’33” reached the creditable – indeed, amazing – height of #21 in the UK pop charts – only to run in to a wall of resistance at BBC Radio 1, where producers and DJs refused to play the track in full on their chart shows.
Challenged by Bob Dickinson, one of the Cage activists, a BBC executive composed the following excuse, exquisite in its public-service prevarications. In order to avoid another Wikileaks hoo-ha, certain details have been withheld.
“Please let me assure you that we did carefully consider the option to play the track in full at a production meeting last week. The final decision was that if the track entered the Top 20 we would play it unedited, however it entered at No. 21 and as… a result a short extract was played instead.

… In reality only 15,716 people actually paid for the track compared to the audience for the Official Chart Show which is at least 1.4 million. We decided that while most of them would like to know where the single charted they would be significantly less interested in hearing 4 minutes and 33 seconds of near silence. I completely understand your frustration, but in this case the decision was about pleasing the majority of BBC Radio 1’s listeners rather than a minority”


  • JT says:

    “Forces of darkness”?! Talk about pompous!
    For once, the BBC didn’t succumb to the puerile forces of cultural postmodernism

  • KevinH says:

    In fact Radio 1 plays plenty of tracks that sell far less than 1.4 million, far less than 15,716 too!
    NL: Give us more stats, Kevin….

  • AVI says:

    I wonder if there is a technical reason too, though one would think “a BBC executive” would have been quick to grasp it as an excuse if so. I vaguely recall a discussion some time ago about the problems of playing ‘tracks’ with large silences in them (and I imagine that 4’33” would fit that category”: automatic radio transmission gear senses the silence, interprets it as a lack of signal, assume hat there’s a technical fault and automatically starts to play a pre-set programme / track to fill the time. I wonder if this is still the case?