Thursday, 16 November 2017

Who's Listening and How - the Latest

It's tempting to wrap up and send a copy of the latest MIDAS survey to every press columnist  for Christmas.  This jolly publication from the Rajar folk always offers some interesting data, which often contradict many of the assumptions from those innocents with the temerity to pen articles about our beloved medium.

In September, the intrepid researchers re-contacted just over two thousand of the long-suffering folk who'd already filled in a Rajar diary to dig deeper into their listening habits. We should thank Ipsos for their valiant efforts.

How is radio being consumed – and how are those methods of consumption trending?

Despite all the hullaballoo, live radio still commands an impressive share of ear-time for UK citizens. 75% of all the stuff on which we feast our ears - from online music streaming and podcasts to ‘listen again’, CDs or battered Agfa cassettes – is good old live radio. Everybody else’s share of that ear-cake is surprisingly about the same as two years ago, with only another 2 percentage points of live radio’s time being scattered across the many other options.  On-demand music streaming (OMS) accounts for 8% of adult ear-time now - and its consumption is daytime-led and male-driven.

The picture changes by demo, of course.  Although a very healthy 82% of 15-24s do seem equipped to turn on a live radio, they appear to get bored pretty quickly.  Only around half of  the ear-time of messy-haired 15-24s is taken up by live radio – compared to 77% for 35-54s. As can be seen, on-demand music streaming (OMS) is the single biggest villain eating the breakfast of those 15-24s.

The couple of standard Rajar radio audience graphs (below) indicate that live radio’s weekly reach generally amongst 15-24s has declined from 90% at the turn of the decade to 83% now, against a reassuringly stable 'all adult' figure. 

Weekly time spent listening amongst 15-24s across those years, however, has fallen a hefty 16% in that time down from  17 to 14.2 hours per week. 

We’re all spending a little less time with radio each week, though - falling in seven years by 11% for all adults, 12% for 35-54s and 4% for 65-74s. We've all got a lot more to do with our lives.

Back to MIDAS, podcasting only accounts for a small slice of all ear-time –  although taken together with listen again, it now accounts for 4%, much the same as last year. That’s certainly not shoddy for this thing with a funny name and it looks set to grow slowly - but it's not exactly disruptive. Podcast listening is younger than its 'listen again' sister - and more male. 

Live radio - and podcasts - both reach their maximum audiences between 8.00-8.15 am. On-demand music services see a high between 3:00-3:15 pm - and for 'listen again', the peak is between 10:15-10.30 pm. It's true though that 'listen again' rattles along fairly consistently through the day.

So – what do we listen to live radio on? Mostly on a radio-shaped radio.  There is little doubt, however, that AM/FM listening is gravitating to DAB. DAB has grown from 35% of listening in Autumn 2014 to 41% now – and FM down from 43% to 39%. 

If you draw a straight line graph based on the FM decline, which would be utterly foolish, FM dies out in the year 2036 - by which point Judi Dench will be 102. The UK was late to join the FM transmission party – but it’s lasted us over 60 years already, so let’s not moan. 

Maybe strangely, the amount of live radio consumption which is not on a radio set has stayed about the same (16% in 2017) across the last four years.

Around half of adults now have a radio app on their phone - about 8m more people than three years ago. Penetration amongst the demos are bouncing around – but overall amongst all adults the figure rises from 35% in 2014 to 49% in 2017. Perhaps as smart phones have become more affordable, the 15-24s have been catching up with their 25-34 balding brothers. Whatever 2018 brings in our changing and worrying World, we can relax knowing we’ll likely hear the news that many more Brits have a radio app on their phone than don’t.

We once paid non-listeners to listen to our station as part of a focus group exercise. One recalcitrant trotted back in the following week in a frayed crimson parka to say they couldn’t find us on their telly. Listeners expect you to be everywhere – and it’s an expensive business for our industry. AM/FM radios are unsurprisingly the most ubiquitous gadgets which people turn to - followed closely behind by DAB radios. 11.6% do use their TV for at least some of their listening. But to turn a stat on its head – just to make again the point that radio listening remains more traditional than folk think - 90% don’t listen to any live radio on their smart phones.  So – they may have a radio app on their phone – but they are not thumbing it too frequently.  Can we do more about that?

OK Google, we really should applaud smart speakers and buy everyone one for Christmas.  ‘Cos when it comes to using those, people are far more likely to ask Alexa to play a radio station than any other form of comparable audio entertainment (58% of device eartime). On i-pads and smart phones, folk are much more likely to get up to all sorts. 

Although it accounts for but a pint-sized proportion of radio listening time and by currently just 1.1% of adults - there is something hugely encouraging about the love affair between radio and smart speakers. The biggest - and most distinctive - radio brands will win - and current radio operators may or may not be running those. Analyst firm OVUM suggests 40% of homes will be 'smart' by 2021.

Radio remains a one to one medium. 51% of all adults suggest they listen to radio on their own, with 20% saying they listen with their partner.  Amongst the less -coupled 15-24s, there are a wider variety of possibilities -  just 43% listen alone, but 11% with families and 32% with colleagues

In-car listening is interesting. MIDAS suggests that whilst a majority of adults will choose to listen in on the move (57% reach), the share of listening attributed to those travellers is much less than columnists might expect, being outshone by the amount of time people listen whilst working or studying.  I often wonder whether we programmers take into account sufficiently when our light and heavy listeners are most likely to be with us.

Overall, MIDAS suggests, if you picture your listener serving an angry customer, reading a physics text book, driving to Ingoldmells, eating a microwave meal, scrubbing the grill pan or just chilling – then you’ve accounted for about 90% of all listening.  The column headings indicate, however, no-one has sex whilst listening to the radio. Most off-putting if it's your own voice-tracked show.

All data MIDAS, RAJAR/IpsosMori September 2017 unless otherwise stated.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Open Letter to Tony Hall

Dear Tony,

I’m delighted you have spoken so powerfully on BBC local radio tonight on the anniversary of its birth.

I was disappointed that the BBC Plan and, indeed, Ofcom’s draft operating licence, barely mentioned the importance of the service, so I’m pleased that you have now paid due tribute to its importance, past and present.

I wish that there had been more discussion about this whole area in recent months. The consultation on your new operating licence from Ofcom should have been a logical trigger for that; but the regulator confessed to me that, in part, they’d messed up on that process. They failed to include a clear summary of their thinking, as their own process demands. The process was accordingly impenetrable.

Whilst you have achieved far greater things than I have, I gather you have never had the agony of trying to programme a successful radio station. Rightly, you have been been impressed by the value of challenging journalism, not least following the awful circumstances at Grenfell, but the need for sound local journalism is not the same thing as the targeting of your local radio stations.

A radio station cannot target everyone. Radio 1 would be less successful were it targeted at everyone, and so would Radio 2. It does not work. You will create a radio network which is expensively-producing valuable output, consumed by ever fewer people. What’s Monday’s breakfast show agenda? 

You announce that budgets are not being reduced. Frankly, Tony, this is appalling. In such demanding times, every media outlet in the country is making economies. As I have demonstrated with granular detail at the invitation of your executives, BBC local stations could be managed more efficiently on far less money with greater success. You are wasting licence fee payers’ cash. Whilst many people on local radio work their socks off producing great radio, just about every employee could point to many inefficiencies too, if invited. Local radio will always be expensive, and this short -term announcement simply places local radio irresponsibly in long term peril.

Yes - there is a case for solid investment in local journalism and an addressing of the ´democracy deficit´. Should that journalism necessarily be the sole job of radio and define its output, I suggest not.

You suggest moving from a 50+ target. The BBC appears to believe it is appropriate to require a Radio 1 to target young - but not for any one of your services necessarily to trouble with those of us over fifty - radio’s most avid consumers. Not only a puzzling decision, but irresponsible. Commercial radio cannot target 50+ given it is simply not economically viable . You have just announced that BBC radio should no longer charge itself with the interests of those over fifty. Can that be right?

Every single piece of research on which you have spent licence fee payers’ money in recent years has concluded BBC local radio’s real value: friendship. Companionship. Bright, lively company aimed at people like them. Recent flawed strategies have diminished their enjoyment and diminished audiences; and this is another such move.

Whilst I welcome giving more responsibility to local managers, as the original BBC local radio guidelines suggested, we need to know that each of those individuals understand their audiences well and can run a duly efficient operation.

Your latest proposals risk reducing audiences further at greater cost and alienating the network’s most ardent supporters.

Yours sincerely,

David Lloyd

Related blogs:
Please take care of the BBC - it is precious
What future for BBC local radio?
Are you wasting your time with social media?
Who´s listening and how?
What future for the radio news bulletin?

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

What Future for Local Radio?

Fifty years ago this week, local radio returned to the UK, with an armful of pioneering BBC local stations, thanks to the steely determination of the truly brilliant Frank Gillard and a cautious BBC and Government.

During several welcome appearances on numerous stations to discuss the anniversary, one question was repeatedly put to me. Will local radio survive the next fifty years?

After all, these jolly stations with their very proper BBC voices arrived tentatively at a time when there were but three TV channels, bath night was once a week and dog poo was white. Given all that appears to have changed, why on earth should we still think the aged idea of local radio should survive?

In those sixties days, I’d be sent to Coopers’ at the end of our road to fetch a quarter pound of smoked bacon, a KitKat and 20 Park Drive Tipped. Our family really valued that shop and it became a real part of our community, the little bell over the door dinging as we entered. I confess, however, that nowadays, the range, freshness and price from the new gleaming Tesco down the road from where I now live is leagues ahead. It’s now my new corner shop and I’m not unduly alarmed that its head office is in Welwyn Garden City.

Radio has evolved in much the same way. For it to have retained such impressive popularity against ever growing competition is no accident. There are now beautifully-programmed stations for every taste and, crucially, every mood. They are available round the clock and can be consumed with increasing ease.

Local radio of all kinds accounts for around a third of all listening currently, down from almost 40% ten years ago. And an appreciable proportion of that ´local radio´, arguably now comprises little local content. Great national brands have been created, and each ekes away at the audiences of others. If local radio is to survive in any market, it must simply remember why it is there - or change to doing something else - or close. 

When small, independent businesses thrive on the high street, it is because they know why they are there and what need they fulfil. They offer something special, distinctive and valued. They don’t try to be Tesco.

Let’s examine a few radio answers to the ‘why’ question for our beloved medium, and consider which might pass muster in the years to come.

Location. Simply asserting that local radio is a good thing because it’s based above the kebab shop on the high street is not hugely persuasive. The great Radio Merseyside voices would arguably sound the same from a pre-fab in Stevenage. The FCC, UK Radiocentre, Government (seemingly) and I agree on this. Some self-indulgent stations just play at being local - they may as well be based on the moon. Whether commercial or BBC, if you are only local by virtue of where you pay your business rates, you may as well close.

Serving the right area. It’s either local or it’s not. Citizens define the area which relates to them. Regional is most often a concept invented by media organisations. If you’re not local to your listeners, you may as well be national. The early BBC local radio planners even agonised about how local London could ever be - and whether to break it up into smaller neighbourhood stations, or even ones aimed at certain trades.

Spirit and character. A presenter who knows their area lends real value. On a format which allows that to really cut through, it brings real listener affinity - the presenter is, or has become, ‘one of us’ and loyalty has been established. Local ‘spirit’ matters more to some areas than others. More to smaller areas, and more to proud, distinct larger areas which might otherwise feel a little unloved.  Great stations belong.

Friendship and Heritage. We trust people with shared common values and beliefs - hence the smile of recognition when some random in the hotel bar tells you they hail from your town too. Presenters are your lifetime friend. They know this place where you grew up and experienced first love; they know the pub where you had my first drink; and the garage where you bought your first car. When they allude to it, it chimes with your life and reminds you of your deepest memories. Here’s one reason why the local thing chimes more with settled, older audiences.
Context and Reassurance. Listeners tell us they value local radio for bringing local news and information but, looking to the future, are other media increasingly better geared for dissemination of immediate hard data? Is the real ongoing and irreplaceable value of radio to reflect and analyse whatever the news brings? And an understanding friend who puts their arm around you when times are tough. Witness BBC Radio Manchester after the MEN Arena bomb, or City Talk the day after the Hillsborough verdict.

Interesting company. People choose radio’s conversation because they find it company, and they find that company interesting. Just because an item is local, however, does not render it automatically interesting. Things have to matter. As a listener, I need to care. Great local stations don’t carry content just because it’s local and fills a hole.

Championing. In the absence of local press, there’s been talk of a local democracy deficit. BBC local radio attaches importance to holding local decision makers to account, but could this be addressed just as well through investment in online news channels acting in the way press used to? Possibly - and the BBC local democracy reporter scheme, in some ways, takes this into account. Where radio excels is the more emotional business of championing an area. Local pride and involvement. Not holding people to account just because it makes today’s 8.00 a.m story, but trying to make life better round here forever. Mood is the single biggest reason for listeners to listen.

In summary, we must establish where local radio is an ongoing sensible prospect in each market; and, whether commercial or BBC, prepare to give up where it’s not. 

In the areas where it continues, it has to super-serve the people in its area. Not play at being a bigger station, but offer the sort of irreplaceable, distinctive visceral service where there is a demand for that service. Such a service must be wholly targeted at its most likely audience, and anchored by presenters and journalists who truly know what they’re doing, managed by managers who get it.

And, in fairness, that’s where it all wisely began in 1967.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments': 50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Are You Wasting Your Time with Social Media?

Maybe it’s just me who head-scratches when I see a pic of a colourful playout system on social media posted by an enthusiastic presenter: "I'm on the radio now'"  Yeah?  Or worse: "This is my view for the next three hours".

Similarly, a pic posted of a screen-shot of the next track they’re about to play/played some time before I saw it: "This is a banger"

It’s a little like saying ‘come and see my new car’ – and then showing someone a pic of the engine.  A car is sold on the pride, the speed, the freedom - not a pic of its engine. A song is not about its title printed on screen – it’s a three dimensional visceral experience. To reduce it to a prosaic line of text diminishes its promise - unless your accompanying social media remark truly adds value.

This really is the broader question of a digital strategy.  Why do stations and individuals spend their time, money and energies on their assorted social media presences and websites?

Station head honchos boast merrily about their likes, favourites, dwell time, shares, unique visitors, sentiment, reactions, page impressions and bounce rates. In a business once starved of measurables, we now have a surfeit of metrics – and they are all HUGE. When asked ‘what’s the strategy?’ ‘’Why are you doing all this?’, however, there’s a more puzzled look.  They’d rather boast of the number of Youtube plays they’ve had in Japan.

What is success? Are the likes and shares an end in themselves – or are they a route to a greater good? If the latter - what is that greater good?

In commercial stations, commercial directors will often shake their heads when asked the question "if digital traffic doubles, will digital revenues double?". Some are even pushed to suggest cash will even increase very much at all, whatever the growth. So, is growing the digital ticks the right goal, per se?

Clearly, there are huge benefits to digital manifestations of our radio brands and properties, but if we don’t know exactly what benefits are sought, in any given case, how can we know that the content we’re investing in is wise?

Some programme properties, stations and individuals nail it. You can smell the strategy by what is portrayed.

The best programme presenters create a brilliant ‘brand me’ on their social presences. They know that listeners spend more time with presenters they like, and you cannot like someone you do not know. The social media keeps their on-air presence alive around the clock. Each post is just personal enough – about you and your world – and each reference to station activity pitched as friend-friend-conversation. What’s the real goal here? Audiences. You want to make listeners seek you out and spend more time with you and your station.  @itswillmanning and @JoRussell_FM excel. A pic of your mixer may not fit this strategy.

Station profiles often rightly try to achieve a similar sort of station 'human' personality. They post random lifestyle funnies  under a jolly line of friend-to-friend introductory narrative. Some nail it - but too often it's written by someone who's not quite as funny as your overnight weekend presenter. The tone is certainly not the station tone. 

It's little wonder you can scroll down the Facebook pages of major UK radio stations - and find less engagement than randoms generate with their graduation pics on their personal pages. The algorithm has long since given up and gone home.

Great stations are a mix of assets, dependent on the format: entertainment, presenters, music, showbiz, information and news.  On-air they are likely imaged with care, with the right elements in the shop window.  Turn to their websites or e-mailshots, however, and that finely-tuned mix may be alarmingly absent. 

Devoting the front page on a commercial station's site purely to client activity can be eminently sensible, provided that traffic is as easily monetised as the listening hours. But are new and traditional approaches to advertising simply banging discordantly?  Pre-rolls and the like on audio are fine - but are you sure you are not simply annoying listeners who might have been more lucrative had you helped them to listen with more ease?  

Alternatively, if online traffic is ultimately expected to generate more listeners/listening, the failure to showcase the product equitably is unlikely to fuel brand comprehension and thus Rajar performance.

Again, either response is fine, and your economic model will suggest the right approach – but I worry not everyone is thinking it through.

I adore the Archers’ digital presence.  A true labour of love, helping super fans expand their loyalty to the radio soap and grow their relationship with its characters, alongside accessibility devices to hook in new and lapsed listeners. When the Helen and Rob Titchener coercion saga climaxed, digital efforts must be partly responsible for the noise the plot generated – and audiences. The content is rich – and the wry tone of voice always enviably fitting and consistent.

The BBC Charter requires that the Corporation’s digital efforts must simply boil down, ultimately, to the public purposes: news; learning; creative, high quality, distinctive content; and representing the UK’s diverse communities. That should lend for an easily-defined strategy – but one which cannot simply be measured by the amount of digital traffic. Do the many staff posting across the BBC’s many accounts really appreciate their mini objectives and their contribution to the overall good? 

Within many radio operations, there exists huge social media awareness and digital understanding - but too rarely is it expressed in a sufficiently pithy way which can easily be understood by the person who's going to post whilst lounging in their front room one dark evening.

There’s no one right answer to the ever-changing digital conundrum.  But if you don’t know what your strategy is – and how success will be measured – the chances are you’ll fail.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments': 50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Rajar Headaches

One great thing about being liberated from a day job is no longer being held responsible for Rajar figures.

We know that the clever folk at Ipsos Mori and Rajar do fine work in generating the most reliable data they can but, in the words of someone high up who shall remain nameless, as each adjustment to the methodology is made, it is but a piece of sticking plaster to help the currency survive a little longer.

There are alternatives – and they are being tested in other markets just as they have been thoroughly here. The fact is every system has its own flaws - and some flawed data is simply more expensive than other flawed data. 

What’s perhaps more critical is the fact that any new currency would suggest different  figures from the existing approach.  On publication day of the first data from any fresh methodology, the BBC would be hammered by the Mail for  either losing audiences/dominating the World – and commercial radio would have revenues slashed  by silly agencies for seemingly falling audiences/higher figures neither trusted nor paid for.

My thinning grey hair results from painful Rajar results days. They are excruciating.  You work hard all year round, trying to make your programming the best it can be and know fully well that you are sounding on top form - yet your figures then fall.  You have a problem quarter with no marketing, lose key presenters – and yet your figures go up.  Shit stations often post phenomenal results – and fine stations quietly concede they’ve not had their best survey.

The anoraks then merrily pitch in on social media suggesting that it was all so much better when we had a handful of monopoly radio stations named after local landmarks, with random songs and lists of lost pets.

It’s heart-stopping for a programmer when the figures cascade into your PC. You know it’s either going to be a great day – or a very naff one. Both will likely end in alcohol.   As your stomach churns on a depressed headline figure, you know someone somewhere will question your continued existence and your most annoying presenter is about to be particularly so.  You'll likely face delivering a Theresa May  post-election day speech when you feel just like sobbing into your Pret a Manger breakfast bap. Barrack-room programmers across the building will be telling everyone what you've got wrong – and the nice person from sales will wonder how on earth they are going to hit target and be able to pay for their kid’s new shoes.

And what of the poor innocent presenter who's largely doing as you tell them to. Yesterday they had loads of listeners, today it appears that no-one loves them.  It’s hardly morale boosting as they wander into the lonely studio with their Twix and headphones for their next programme.

For commercial radio, Rajar is really a trading currency  and is designed as such. It does not really tell us why things happen - and can be at odds with other research projects which do.  Amidst huge media change, however, our significant investment in a huge research sample generates figures which are still enviably trusted and underpin a stable industry. For the BBC, it’s good enough for headline stats for the annual reports, political dealings and a few broad brush-stroke graphs. 

Overall, they are inevitably a dated reflection of what audiences thought they thought they were listening to some time ago. And - when your Uber driver asks how you know how many folk are listening, it  rarely really seems to sound convincing.

Like your exam results, in a few weeks’ time,  you won’t  quite remember the grades you got and life will go on. Smile. It's radio. No-one dies.

Real-life Rajar heartache recounted in my book 'Radio Moments'.

Here's the true story of how Rajar is assembled on the streets.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

What Have We Learnt from BBC Radio 1?

The intrepid organisers of this year's Student Radio Conference invited me to speak about 50 yrs of Radio One. That was kind.

Much as I would have thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing fondly in front of the bored faces of bright young things, I thought it might be more useful to use the Radio One story - then and now - to illustrate a few radio 'truths'.

There’s a time and a place to launch a radio station.  Seizing the zeitgeist gives welcome momentum. The 1960s was ripe for a spirited spunky rebellious upstart.

Identify a poorly-served and sufficiently large market. In the '60s, life was simple. No-one was targeting younger listeners, save for nightime Radio Luxembourg. Now, Radio One still attracts over a third of 15-24s, listening, on average, for over six hours each - and around a quarter of 10-14s. It's not a shoddy achievement - in such a different world.

Understand your audience. There is no doubt that Radio One at launch - and now - has its particular audience front of mind and goes to pains to understand how they live their lives. Derek Chinnery, Radio One Controller 79-85, described One's audience as "a man working in a small garage...two or three mechanics clonking around with motor cars but have the music on...And then there is the dreaded housewife figure who I think of as someone who, perhaps last year or two years ago, was a secretary working for a firm, who is now married and has a child. She wants music that will keep her happy and on the move.” 

Draw upon the best influences. Steal. Don’t be shy.  Radio One targeted the old pirate audiences and it chose as its model not the original pirate station Caroline, but the polished US-backed Radio London. Where can you learn from - at home, around the world and in different media?

Sound as if you’ve always been there. As Arnold barked and Blackburn said hello on Saturday September 30th 1967, he sounded as if you’d joined him when the party was in full swing, but a party at which you felt immediately at home. Great stations never sound like an exclusive club.

Get on the right platforms. Whilst FM spectrum was available in '67 - and shortly to be used for the first BBC local stations - FM ('VHF') sets were rare. Radio One broadcast only on AM at launch - universally available on the cheapest radio sets - and where the audience had found its pirates.  The BBC, however, fell behind the curve on eventually finding FM spectrum for Radio One, much to the chagrin of its Controller. It is now usually ahead of the game.

Brand confidence. Radio 1 has usually led rather than followed. It's what makes you distinctive.What do you stand for?  Is it an aspiration with real listener appeal? Do your listeners know that distinction the second they tune in - by what you say and DO?  What listeners infer about you is what your brand really is.

Look for the best talent in the right places and try them out. Radio 1 at launch took on a swathe of ex-pirate presenters, already well-known.  At a time when few were likely to be offered gigs elsewhere, it had the luxury of being able to offer a bundle of short term contracts whilst it polished its plans.  Since then, the Radio 1 talent machine has always excelled and sought to identify the right places for the candidates it needs to position the station where it desires. It's now plugged well into university radio, the music world and social media content creators.

Good looking talent. Even in its early days, Radio 1 identified that it needed to look good as well as sound good. 24-year old Tony Blackburn was a pin-up. Via TOTP, appearances, its presenters were in vision long before the digital days.

Get the visuals right.  Wonderful Radio 1 in '67 looked fabulous in a swinging London. Through its ages, it has always updated its visual identity just enough.  Through the red white and blue seventies through to the more serious positioning of the '90s and today.

Great stations now care about how they look - and Radio 1 almost always has. Its roadshow quickly looked the part, at a time when many of its  commercial competitors cared little about how they expressed themselves off-air.

Great on-air imaging.  Some stations just identify – others truly image. Radio 1 has always done the latter – from the fine work from the World’s then greatest jingle company, PAMS in '67, to the array of impressive production houses it calls upon today from Wise Buddah to Contraband or Daniel Mumford.

A remarkable breakfast show is critical – the best at what it does.  Breakfast shows make a real difference – and some great stations even concede that their flagship show may not  be entirely on-brand – but close enough. The breakfast battle is a different one from the rest of the day. Blackburn, Read, Smith, Mayo, Edmonds, Evans, Moyles

Some presenters don't suit breakfast. As the great Mark and Lard and Steve Wright illustrated - you can be an inventive, gifted jock, but find breakfast a peculiar gig. Some presenters are not at their best at the crack of dawn - and listeners sometimes just can't tolerate at breakfast what they can handle in other dayparts. It's not your fault.

Manage the talent well. Radio 1 has not shied away from making use of talent who might be a tad challenging on occasions. That's no reason not to hire them. It just needs talented management who fight the corner for the likes of Everett, as Johnny Beerling did, or Moyles. Show them love and support them - but know when to move on decisively.

PR and 'Statement Moves'.  Radio One has usually managed its image with care. Throughout history, whether it's 'banning Quo', 'ditching jingles' or the trumpeting of talent on the schedule who send off the right message at the right time, it's all helped.

'Brand me'. Most up-and-coming jocks now already have an image and impressive social media presence before their first major radio berth. Similarly, the early Radio One presenters also brought their own followings and were careful to portray their image with care. Relatable enough - but aspirational enough too.  The mate you'd love to have.

One thought - one link, said a notice on the wall of Radio One as it fought against a growing commercial sector.  In breakfast radio on busy commercial stations, that’s a tough call, but the objective is sound.  Do one thing well – and your link will be remembered.

Get the music right. Early Radio One producer Tim Blackmore confessed to me that he, Johnny and Tony dreamt up the original Radio One breakfast music policy (see pic), based on the American-inspired music policy of pirate Radio London. Music scheduling is more sophisticated these days - and the insight available into music trends and consumption ever more detailed. A coherent approach, fuelled by the best intelligence, interpreted by the best brains.

Ratings by day - reputation by night.  Radio One was king of this at its height - when the biggest ratings were the key objective. The great specialist shows maximising off peak audiences - and adding credibility to the brand - but not lessening daytime share.

Evolve the brand. Radio One learned the hard way, in the mid nineties at a time when politics had no patience, that audiences don't like revolution. Elsewhere, relative stability has been a hallmark of Radio One - and listeners value that. But do worry about what your audience think of you - and worry about what the target might think of you in five years' time.  Adjust with care and take the listeners with you.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Farewell BBC Local Radio AM

Scarborough - pic by Mark G7RJV
The BBC has announced it is to shut down the AM frequencies of its local radio services. It will close 13 medium wave transmitters in January 2018, with BBC Sussex, Surrey, Humberside, Wiltshire, Nottingham, Kent and Lincolnshire no longer available, and reduced coverage for Devon, Lancashire and Essex.  

Cue nostalgic formal announcements before a jaunty Radiophonic Workshop news jingle - "This is BBC Radio Nottingham on 197 metres medium wave, 94.8 VHF and Rediffusion Channel C".

From my experience, the AM frequencies have rarely been mentioned in recent years on many BBC local stations, and one imagines the audiences are low.  Experiments in some areas of switching them off as an experiment to see if anyone moans has been useful – producing little response in some areas and more significant in others, such as Merseyside.

It’s a no brainer, in my view, and I suggested switch-off to the BBC in 2009 as part of a raft of easy cost-savings.  Now, the BBC has its FM, often equipped with enough power to reach Poland  - and DAB – and online streaming. There is really no need to continue to transmit on AM.  

Let's recall that AM was only intended to be a shoulder to lean on for BBC local radio. The first stations were launched solely on the new VHF (FM) in the late '60s, a little like launching on DAB in the 90s when sets were sparse. In Autumn 1972, the valiant pioneer stations - and the newcomers -  were offered AM back up, just to make sure they could be heard more widely.  FM can now stand on its own two feet, surely, not least now with help from its digital brothers.

Yes, a small number of people will have to re-tune, or invest in a bright new DAB radio, and a small number of others may lose the signal entirely – but this is radio, and we accept by its very nature that there will always be poor spots in all transmission footprints. However, the beauty of DAB is that extra transmitters on the same frequency can boost signals where they are really needed – and there’s online streaming too as a fall-back.  If the FM/DAB MCA is insufficient in any specific area owing to geographic factors, then they should be topped up, rather than relying on vintage AM tech.

I have to say it surprises me that BBC local radio is on Freeview these days, albeit in mono. (Blog amended). I gather the cost of implementation is low - although it would be interesting to know how low - and whether there is an opportunity cost.  Whilst it's a sound and thoroughly understandable vision to appear on 'all platforms', a cost-benefit analysis is, of course, needed for each.

And I'm sure someone will remind me why we need BBC Radio London on satellite. There must be a jolly good reason.

BBC local radio spends 11% of its overall budget on distribution (16/17) - and a further 10% on distribution and support. 

DAB is clearly a good idea, although I imagine someone is scratching their head and wondering whether the reserved 128 kbps stereo (the same as Classic FM or Radio 1), with its commensurate cost, is really needed for the speech-intensive local radio format - and whether each of the stations really needs to invest in such hefty capacity.

The local network needs to make savings - AM is a sensible one.

Grab one of my books:

Radiomoments: 50 years of radio - life on the inside

How to Make Great Radio - Tips and techniques for today's presenters and producers

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Uniquely-gifted voice artist Peter Dickson and I ended up chatting about changing vocal styles when we met to record his edition of the Conversations series

As soon as he mentioned BBC Home Service stentorian newsreaders like Brian Perkins or Peter Donaldson, I could hear those influences in his own voice work. There is little doubt in my mind that their DNA exists in his own vocal range, and as he gets psyched up to assume the character of the X Factor voice, it does appear to me to be reminiscent of how Peter Donaldson might have sounded when shouting on the touchlines .

As we went on to agree, there is something of our radio heroes in all of us. Like a mongrel dog, we merrily assume all manner of genetic make-up from the voices which inspired us. We naturally season it with something of ourselves and create the person we are on-air. And, as those genes are passed down again, so the style of on-air presentation across the country evolves.

In this country, we did not really experience too much of the ‘bossjock’ radio sound of 1950s/60s US radio, with its booming, slick voices – a presentation style which is almost more about the sound and energy than it is about the words.  But many early music radio presenters liked that sound from what they’d heard on recordings, or indeed on Radio Luxembourg from the likes of Bob Stewart (often cited as an influence in my Conversations). Maybe this is why early music radio disc jockeys were often accused of faking mid-Atlantic accents.

In the 60s, Tony Blackburn arrived with an interesting style, influenced, he says, by the likes of Pete Murray, but a touch of US influence in there too, perhaps owing in part to his love for American music. But this was still, overall, a very English sound, characterised by the smile in the voice. It wasn’t 'received pronunciation', but you knew he’d been to a decent school. 

Was it his real voice? It certainly is now. Like many of us of that generation, as time marches on, the real voice and the on-air voice fuse.

Then - in the 80s - demo tapes all started to sound like Steve Wright.

The United Biscuits network was an early berth for manypresenters who were to turn up in the first wave of UK commercial radio. The UBN sound manifested itself in the slickness of the approach and also the residual ‘sssshhhh’ at the end of words by the likes of Graham Dene and Roger Scott - and the many, in time, influenced by them.

The BBC Reithian sound remained for years, and news and programmes right up until the '70s often bear that hallmark. One by one, those presenters have been replaced by those who still have the Radio 4 air of authority, but sound very less plummy.  Sarah Montague on the Today programme these days is different from Margaret Howard or Sue MacGregor.  Side by side on Woman’s Hour, Jenni Murray is certainly a tad more 'proper' than the truly brilliant, heir to the throne, Jane Garvey.  

One thing’s  for sure, never again will our news delivery sound like the fascinating speedy, high pitched and clipped delivery of the Pathe newsreels.

Even where the individuals remain, their delivery changes during their career, as has society around them. Just as the Queen's cut-glass voice has changed hugely from her first radio appearances to the more conversational speeches these days, John Humphrys careful early efforts at a very proper BBC sound has evolved into a much more authentic listen. 'Received Pronunciation' speakers now are said to account for less than 2% of English speakers, and that's become the case on British radio.

Authenticity is now key in radio. Energetic music radio now does not boast the deep ‘radio voices’ of yesteryear - and the US influence has waned. Delivery now is more real, albeit often shouting at the level they would in a busy club.  Regional accents have now been rehabilitated, and class impacts less.  Away from fast music radio, neither Jonathan Ross or Chris Evans could be said to have the 'classic radio voice'.

Radio now hears ‘real’ voices - and that's probably a good thing for such a personal medium. The natural changes in delivery which are evident in British society generally are aired too: the 'uptalk' at the end of sentences; 'vocal fry'; and, notably, CapiTULL now has the ‘T’ it never had for its first thirty years.

Grab one of my books:

Radiomoments: 50 years of radio - life on the inside
How to Make Great Radio - Tips and techniques for today's presenters and producers

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