Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Radio Festival - presents "Radio Erectus"

It takes about week to absorb the vast amount of discussion, debate and dissection of radio that the Radio Academy's annual Radio Festival spews out.

So what did we learn?

Well without doing a session by session analysis, (which would be even duller than the 'DAB Audio Quality' session many of us endured) a few key themes seemed to emerge from the mist.

In no particular order...

Channel 4's entry into radio is a good thing
Commercial radio in the UK needs a extra shot of credibility in it's arm, and a broadcaster with 25 years track record of creativity, innovation and risk-taking can only improve the image of the sector and provide the BBC with even more robust competition in some key areas. Channel 4 Radio, E4 Radio and Pure4 all promise to be great stations and the return of Talk Radio to the multiplex, as well as Sky News Radio are welcome additions to UK's radioscape.

Digital Migration is thorny subject
Turing off AM and FM is a divisive issue. Many large broadcasters want it to happen pretty quickly. Smaller broadcasters are concerned they haven't secured carriage on DAB and never will. A 2 tired system of radio is going to create confusion for listeners , but the simulcasting costs for radio stations are prohibitive in the long term. Ofcom have promised to have a look at it! But drawing a roadmap for the future that everyone agrees on looks like being a tricky task. Radio is different to TV, so we can't just follow the Digital TV migration model... but likewise we need to ensure that radio is not the 'white elephant' medium that is outdated, out of touch and out of favour.

Commercial Radio has extended the hand of friendship to the BBC
The rivalry is fierce. The war of words erupts every quarter. The BBC versus the commercial sector? "Why can't we live together...?" asked Timmy Thomas in the rather excellent song from 1974? It seems Andrew Harrison, the new CEO of RadioCentre - commercial radio's trade body, had been listening to this tune for some time prior to penning his speech. The theme was something along the lines of 'working together for the greater good of the medium'. While there are many areas that seemed to make sense, eliminating pirates, looking at Digital Migration together etc... there were a few areas which raised an eyebrow! Collaborating on content is a nice idea... so you get a commercial radio version and BBC version. Somehow, I can't see the BBC giving up exclusivity on a lot of the areas of music they cover! But the spirit of the message was a positive one and hopefully the BBC understands the importance of a healthy commercial sector. The question is "how healthy" does commercial radio want the BBC to be?

'Non-Linear Radio' is important for everyone
There's been a podcasting session at The Radio Festival since the dawn of... well... the pod! This year it felt different. We heard from amateurs using podcasts as marketing. We heard from Danny Baker who does a daily show, which may make him a lot of money in the future! And we heard from practically every corner of the industry of the importance of making radio available to listeners whenever they wanted it. Podcasting is coming of age and stations without a strategy may well be left behind. Listen again, downloading shows and podcasts must now be viewed as core activity, and not as something on the periphery.

Of course, there were plenty of sessions which provided light relief. Russell Brand is a true personality who walks the fine line between genius and madness; Jeremy Vine is about as multi-media as you can get.... Is there anything he can't do well?; And Andy Parfitt has been spending a disproportionate amount of his time with teenagers! (But as he's the Beeb's "Teen Tsar", then that's OK!)

UK radio is at a watershed moment in its evolution. It will either miss the Darwinian boat and return to the primeval media swamp as some sort of lizard like creature which didn't quite manage to make it to dry land. Or, it will adapt to it's new surroundings, learn how to survive in the changing climate and eventually walk upright. 'Radio Erectus' could be on it's way!!

Monday, 9 July 2007

It's Festival Time!

So it's off to Cambridge for the annual gathering of the 'good, bad and very ugly' of UK radio. Yes - it festival time folks!

The word 'Festival' gives the impression of colourful jugglers, fire eaters, vegetable growing contests and a round of Miss Shropshire, but thankfully it's a much more sedate affair. Well... most of it is.

Lots of discussion will inevitably focus on Channel 4 Radio and their new little 'National DAB Multiplex' toy that they'll start to play with soon. Also, what's this Global Radio thing all about and what are their plans and ambitions?

I'm certain the bars of Cambridge will be awash with idle gossip, which of course I'll ignore, and just bring you the facts that matter!
And once the bandwagon rolls out of Cambridge and the expense accounts have taken a battering, I'll digest the words of wisdom and bring you the salient points for us all to debate!

"Welome to... yesterday's show!"

Johnny Vaughan's Breakfast Show on Capital now runs for 4 hours. Well... sort of...

Today, the main body of the show shifted from 7am to 10am, with the 'ole favourite of running the "highlights" of the previous days show between 6am and 7am.

On the plus side, if you're a fan of Johnny, you'll get an extra hour... well, you'll get some of the best bits you enjoyed the day before repeated.

When I heard about this move, it got me thinking (yes -painful as it was) about what the motivations for this decision were.

It could all be about ratings of course! In theory, one can argue that the cume of the show should now be measured between 6am and 10am... the duration of the entire programme. Adding in an extra hour will increase the total reach. However, we all know that most of the media will dismiss the first hour, coz it's not live, and compare the 7am - 10am hours instead. Having said that, the 9am - 10am hour usually generates far more audience than 6am - 7am, so whichever you cut it... the numbers should improve with this move.

(It feels a little bit like that old trick of reducing your measured survey area a little bit, to give you a better percentage overall!)

Extending the 'Johnny' brand an hour into the daytime so more people get to sample him could be an underlying theme, however I find this unlikely to be the lead factor.

With the rise and rise of time shift listening and non-linear radio, surely it may have made more sense to develop and promote a stronger 'listen again' proposition and get consumers more familiar with this?

The official press release said something like "This change mean that Londoners will be able to enjoy Johnny at whatever time they get up or travel to work" (Not strictly true if you get up at 10am... but we get the point!)

Although there's live news and travel in the first hour, I can't help feel that the audience are being cheated a bit.

In a world class city like London, where lots of people get up at 6am, having a re-run of yesterdays funny bits in peaktime, seems a bit cheap. How can the 'sense of the day' at the start of the day really be conveyed in editorial, when you're running gags from the previous day.

If they decided to run the 'best of' bits between 5am and 6am, I could argue the case that this would be acceptable... but from 6am? Sorry - I think Londoners deserve a fully live morning show from 6am.

The upshot of the move is a nudging effect for one of Capital's strongest benchmarks - Flirty at 9:30. It's been there for quite some time now, and it seems a double negative whammy to have to move this highly popular feature an hour later too.

I look forward to the next RAJAR press conference where there will undoubtedly be a bun fight over the figures!

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Global Dominance?

Richard Parks' appointment as Executive Director of the new Global Radio consortium is an interesting development for a number of reasons.

From a programming perspective, How will Magic 105.4 fare without him? How much of it's success was derived from the magic-dust that he sprinkled on the output... and how much was derived from the focused, dedicated and hard working team at Mappin House. (Let's remember that Graham Dene is moving over to Smooth Radio shortly too, so it may be hard for them to keep the momentum up losing a couple of key staff... despite being Number 1 in London!!).

Parky going over to the company that owns Heart, one of Magic's main competitors, will no doubt benefit Heart a great deal, with all the knowledge that Richard will bring with him!

As Global Radio sets out its stall, the reports of a deal to be done with Richard Branson to buy Virgin Radio back are also circulating.

Suddenly Global Radio has a potential group made up of the Heart, Galaxy and LBC branded stations, plus Virgin Radio too! And it's obviously very serious about it's ambition when it recruits someone whom many people see as the "Uber-Daddy" of Commercial Radio for a place on its board.

(By the way... Will the new Exective Director of Global Radio discuss the potential aquisition of Virgin Radio with the Virgin Radio Chief Executive? "Hello son.... Hello Dad!".)

The commercial radio consolidation game is still in full swing, and I predict there's a lot more to come too!

Monday, 2 July 2007

When Terror Strikes...

Local radio is great in times of disaster. At least that's what I thought.

On Sunday morning I listened to Radio Clyde (Clyde One to be precise) in Glasgow to get an update and local perspective regarding the events at Glasgow Airport. After all, it's (thankfully) not that often that a terrorist decides to drive a bomb through the revolving doors of your local airport.

I was hoping for perhaps bulletins every 15 minutes or so, as the attack was the previous afternoon... but as it was the start of the Glasgow holidays, lots of people would have been trying to fly away, so cue lots of local info.

And what did I get?

"Ross King... Live from Hollywood"

Surely some mistake?

Nope... Ross King was chatting away about nothing in particular from his LA studio and for a large portion of the show I heard, there was nothing relating to the events of the previous day. Had I missed all the action?

The midday news rolled around and at last, some local coverage... but not to the level and standards I would have expected from a station as large as Clyde, and with such a heritage of providing great news. The bulletin I heard could have been broadcast live from the airport, for example; Just something to make me feel that my station was connected to my area and the story that was still unfolding was being covered from every angle.

The purpose here is not to bash Clyde, as I'm hoping they did lots of marvellous bits of radio I didn't hear relating to the terrorist attack. In fact, I'm sure they did. The point is, if something major happens in your broadcast area... GO BIG!

Never underestimate the audience's thirst for knowledge and their desire to turn to their trusted local radio station as a friend in time of crisis. You can really reinforce your stations credentials as THE local station to turn to.

It works for things like extreme weather (The Radio Forth Snowline in Edinburgh was hugely important for many years) and national stories with a local angle... like murders, kidnappings, riots etc. (A happy topic this one isn't it!!)

I was Programme Director at Capital Radio in London on July 7th 2005 and the attempted bombings in London last week brought back the memories of that day. The skill, dedication and commitment of the whole team at Capital meant that Londoners got all the information they needed to know at any point that they tuned in during and long after the attacks of July 7th. News Editor, Matt Schofield was instrumental in driving forward the information agenda for the station, and Capital regained many lost friends as a result of its actions on, and after July 7th.

I'd rather that people didn't try and blow us all up, that the kidnapping of children didn't happen and that floods didn't cause bodies to float down the river... but if these things do happen, I want my local radio station to really over-deliver in every way possible. That's surely the benefit of being local.

And while we're at it... Ross King wasn't very good either!

The Future of Radio...revealed!

So what is the 'Future of Radio' then?

That was the question posed to a panel of the finest minds at the cutting edge of broadcasting last week, as part of a Radio Academy sponsored session at the music industry conference 'London Calling'.

After persuading the technical guy that "Yes - it is pretty important that we have the sound working" (!) Chris Kimber, who is Managing Editor of BBC Audio and Music Interactive gave an excellent demonstration of what the BBC is currently very good. Namely, producing content that may start in the radio sphere... but morphs seamlessly onto other platforms.

Radio One's 'One Big Weekend', Glastonbury coverage and 6Music sessions were all paraded in front of a salivating audience who started to realise what their licence fee got spent on!

Chris believed that the future of radio would involve producing content that sat on lots of platforms and virtual places, like MySpace and Facebook... and that creating more engaging content with visuals was an integral part of how radio needed to progress.

James Cridland, the Director of Digital at Virgin Radio and soon to be the BBC's Head of Future Media and Technology, Audio and Music, tended to agree. He eloquently delivered a record 46 slides in 7 minutes explaining that the visual element of radio needed to develop further and that 'glanceability' to a screen whether online, on a mobile device, or a fixed point radio was essential to the future of the medium. Just displaying the frequency is no longer an option. Consumers want, expect and can deal with more visual content. James also delivered a passionate defence of FM radio, rubbishing suggestions by some sections of commercial radio that there should be an analogue switch off by 2015. FM works well and consumers still like it. Commercial radio are trying to tip the scales in their favour and using it as a ploy to gain the upper hand in the ratings battle. And he's got a point...!

Finally, the soothing tones of Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora took to the podium to tell us that online bespoke music services were the future. Well he would say that wouldn't he! He shared some great stats about the growth of Pandora and how he really viewed it as a 'music discovery' service, which helped disenfranchised music lovers in their late 20's and 30's still discover new bands and purchase products. He saw the movement of these services into the mobile environment as offering the consumer more choice, but did realise the distinction between a content rich, information led, 'DJ' radio station... and a wall to wall music offering. Yet it's all radio really. Well... just about!

I've listened more and more to Pandora recently and creating about a dozen custom stations (with my Marvin Gaye / Bananarama hybrid being a particular favourite!) and to me it is radio, but radio that is driven by your mood. If you want no interruptions, but a few musical surprises along the way, give it a go. It's like Magic without the DJ's... or ads... or repetition... or news... or weather... or Michael Bolton. Actually, it's nothing like Magic. Scrub that!

So what can we glean from staring into our crystal ball then? I believe traditional radio, web, TV and mobile will all converge (as they currently are) at a greater rate. The consumer will dictate what technologies they want and the responsibility of programmers worldwide will be keep pace with the technology and create cross platform content that works in these different arenas. A 2 tiered system will be created based on the level of content. Those who opt out of the content game will have a harder job to compete, but can do so providing they have a USP top their product (e.g. / Pandora).

One final thing. If you can start a company that can do 'conference sound' that...

a) works
b) is audible to humans... and
c) doesn't feel like you're trying to conquer the north face of K2 by asking someone to connect it up

...then you'll probably be able to retire to a large island in the Caribbean by this time next year, as the demand for your services should be enormous! Good luck with it.