Thursday, 29 May 2008

"Difficult Is Worth Doing"

If you’re a programmer working in commercial radio anywhere in the world, how many times have you either sat in a focus group or listened to results of a research project where listeners are dissatisfied with the quality of commercials that your station runs?

Many listeners see commercials as a necessary evil and the ‘opportunity cost’ of listening to commercial radio, but few listeners extol the virtues of many commercials.

In a changing mediascape, broadcasters continue to face challenges to make commercials connect with their audience. In a world where ad avoidance is rife, how do you make the spots more compelling? Many radio programmers pretend there’s nothing you can do about what’s in the ad breaks… but imagine a world where you could influence that, perhaps by having stronger relationships with some key clients or advertisers?

The reason I mention this is tonight in the UK, Channel 4 and Honda are staging the first ever live advert on British TV. At 8:10pm, 19 skydivers will jump out of a plane over Madrid and attempt to spell out the word ‘Honda’. They have 3 minutes 20 seconds to do it. It ties in nicely with their “Difficult Is Worth Doing” strapline. This, to me, sounds quite difficult. It’s probably worth doing because I’m writing about Honda for the first time ever.

What a great way of getting people to actually engage with an ad. Make it a bit of engaging content with some jeopardy attached to it. It might work… it might not! Hopefully no skydivers will end up splatting into a Spanish field before the 9pm watershed. Afterwards… no problem…!!

Could this be adapted to the radio world. Perhaps… yes. Live ads on the radio were commonplace in the 50’s on US radio and were the early forerunner of sponsorships and promotions. But imagine working with an innovative client creating live radio spots that sat within a break, or were even the only spot in the break. Naturally, they’d have to sound like ads and also like the semi-suicidal Honda guys and girls, there would need to be a compelling bit of content to hook listeners in. But the theme of creating better, more memorable ads is something worth exploring more I feel. Otherwise we’ll continue to get listeners telling us the commercials are rubbish. And you know what… they’re right! Some of them are!! Here’s a little teaser film from the Honda guys as they practise heading towards the earth at 300mph head first! Nice!!

Friday, 23 May 2008

'Networking' - A Trump Card?

As soon as UK media regulator Ofcom announced in February that it was relaxing the rules on the amount of local programming it required stations to broadcast, it was only a matter of time until the bigger radio groups took advantage of this. ‘Global Radio’ were the first out of the traps with the move to network all output across Heart, aside from breakfast, mid-morning and Drivetime. ‘Galaxy’ have kept local Breakfast and Drivetime shows, but networked everything else.

Next was GCap (soon to be Global, so they’re pre-empting the inevitable really) who announced a new 3 hour daytime show across the One Network, details of which are still a little sketchy to be honest! And recently the three Xfm stations in London, Manchester and central Scotland announced they’re going to network another three hours of programming on weekdays, taking the local output from 10 hours to 7 hours. Lots of smaller UK radio groups are also taking advantage of the rule change and going a step further to relocate stations in central ‘broadcasting hubs’, with the obvious economies of scale that this brings.

So far Bauer have resisted the temptation to go for any daytime networking, with their ‘In Demand’ evening show being the only real networked programme. So what’s the deal? Is this good for listeners… good for the radio station… good for advertisers? Who benefits?

Yesterday, at the Radio 3.0 Conference in London, outgoing GCap Chairman Richard Eyre had some thoughtful insights about networking.

"Piping in a mega-DJ from London would mean sacrificing the key element of local radio: localness. The economics of radio in 2008 will mean that companies will not be able to resist. But it's still handing over one of our best assets to reduce costs. The economics say delocalise. But the relationship says keep it local."

With comments like that, it seems a shame that he’s the outgoing chairman really. I can’t help thinking that despite the best efforts of some radio executives to convince me otherwise, it’s all about saving money in the short-term during an economic downturn, and not thinking about the long-term effect of stripping localness from radio. I’m sure Global Radio have in their top drawer a plan to turn lots of their newly acquired GCap stations into the ‘Heart’ brand. How long before we hear a station’s positioning change to … “Fox FM – The Heart of Oxfordshire”. And we all know what comes next.

It’s quite easy to be snobby about the quality of some stations when you have a portfolio that includes well resourced brands like Heart and Capital on your books. And yes, the quality of the smaller stations could be improved in many places. But is the answer just to network this ‘mega-DJ’ from outside the area. Surely investing in training and development of new talent and programming skills on a local level is a more important long term objective? Go to places like Liverpool, Manchester, and Leeds and imagine a world where Radio City, Key 103 and Radio Aire were pseudo-national stations with perhaps a local breakfast show as the only indicator of their true parentage. Sure you can use smoke and mirrors all you like to give the impression the output is ‘local’… but for me, you can’t beat the real thing. It doesn’t matter how good your smoke screen is, because local radio is best when it’s local… and not pretending to be local.

The next 12 months will see the inevitable ‘character-stripping’ out of many truly local stations, with some of their output replaced with no doubt well-produced, slick, but rather soulless programming. The radio landscape will be painted magnolia… designed to cause least offence, but not engender a reaction of any kind. Is this the type of local radio listeners want?

One of the great clich├ęs about succeeding at programming a local / regional station is “Play the local card”. It seems that the deck is about to be rigged.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

"If Winning isn't Everything, Why do they Keep Score?" - Sony Awards 2008

The starter was a nice warm vegetarian tart of some description… the main course was lamb… (I think) … and frankly the desert could have been anything, as by that stage a good quantity of the ‘table wine’ had been consumed!

I’m of course referring to the obligatory meal that accompanies UK radio’s annual back-slapping fiesta, otherwise known as the Sony Radio Academy Awards, or Sonys… or as most of the newspapers like to call them, the ‘Radio Oscars’! (It helps people understand it’s an awards ceremony I believe!)

The BBC traditionally does very well in these awards for 2 reasons. First, they make really good programmes and second, they don’t have much competition in areas such as drama and features and their news output is plentiful to say the least. This year didn’t disappoint for them, with the Beeb picking up around twice as many Gold Awards than the commercial sector.

A glut of famous names picked up some top awards, Jonathan Ross (who’d obviously been tipped off because he doesn’t turn up if he doesn’t win!) for Music Radio Personality, Russell Brand (who’s show I’m now warming to) for Entertainment Award… and Chris Moyles for Breakfast Show. His speech was a little like his show… very funny in parts, but there was no-one there to say ‘enough… move on!’ Even host Paul Gambaccini was unnaturally lenient in allowing the ceremony to drag on endlessly as Chris introduced his team one by one. Mind you, as he said himself, he’s unlikely to be there again, so he’ll make the most of it. The presentation of the award by his Mum and Dad was either really quite a sweet moment that brought a tear to the eye, or a hideously naff stunt designed to create a very crass ‘This Is Your Life’ moment onstage. You can watch it again and make your own mind up!

Commercial Radio did well in categories more suited to it’s natural home, like The Competition Award, Promo Award and Community Award which was picked up by Capital’s rather wonderful ‘Lights Out London’ initiative. Two awards that are normally very dominated by the BBC are Music Broadcaster of the Year and Specialist Music Award… but it was nice to see that the former went to Andi Durrant of the Galaxy Network, and the later to Krystle, a DJ I had the natural foresight and wisdom (!!!) to put on the air several year ago when I was PD at Forth. Being mentioned in her acceptance speech was really lovely and I have no doubt she’ll move on to bigger and better things in the years ahead. Well done Krystle. And beating Zane Lowe is no mean feat either!!

The list of guest presenters was varied as ever ranging from Joan Collins to Christopher Biggins… Boris Johnson to Tony Benn… and a genuinely moving appearance on stage by Edwin Collins, who’s still recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage he suffered several years ago. It kinda put the whole thing into perspective for me.

Needless to say, the merriment continued after the ceremony. Why the resident DJ feels that by playing the cheesiest 70’s disco records the dance floor will fill up is still beyond me, however he persisted with ‘Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel’ and ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ until some poor 'Tape Op' wearing a rather ill-fitting dinner jacket was dragged onto the floor by a tanked up Sales Exec to begin what, at best, could be described as “shit dancing”!

And as the strains of ‘Rock the Boat’ wafted through the barmy May night, and the queue of cabs lined up hoping for an expenses funded fare to Reading, we left it for another year, safe in the knowledge that we’ll all be back again in 12 months time.

Ghandi once said that there are two kinds of people… those who work and those who take the credit. He suggested being in the first group, as there was less competition there. On the evidence of Monday night, there are plenty of people who work, and work very hard… and it was nice to see them actually get the credit for a change.

Monday, 5 May 2008

RAJAR Qtr 1 2008 - "Story of The Blues"

Every set of listening figures tells a story beyond that of the immediate numbers, and the latest set of figures in the UK issued by RAJAR last week are no exception.

Actually, it’s a story with several tales to tell.

First, the main theme. The BBC is starting to pull seriously ahead of commercial radio, with almost 57% of listening verses Commercial radio’s 41%. Depending on which side of the fence you sit on, you can either see this as just rewards for investment in content and talent… or a blatant abuse of a privileged position designed to drive any commercial rivals into the ground… and stand on them hard! The BBC is long used to allegations of this sort, and to be fair, has to walk a delicate line of being successful… but not too successful, because “that’s just not fair”!

Perhaps it’s also tied into that peculiar British disease. We like success, but then when we see something becoming too successful, we cry foul, and denounce it as terribly unjust and really not very… well… ‘British’. Odd. To give a parallel example in the world of retail, I need only mention the word ‘Tesco’! ‘Nuff Said!

With Radio 1 back above 11 Million listeners and Radio 2 at 13.6 Million, there is no doubt that the BBC has made further inroads into the beleaguered commercial sector.

Virgin Radio’s resident number cruncher (and generally all round good-egg) Adam Bowie has written a very thoughtful piece on his personal blog about this topic and illustrated the theme with a rather good graph, which I've "borrowed". (I'll give it back whenever you want Adam!)

I think I need say no more on this topic, as the lines speak for themselves!

Another theme in this great RAJAR story is the tale of woe that continues for GCap. Capital has now slipped to 4th place in terms of reach with Kiss 100 now cume-ing an audience of 1.583 Million a week compared to Capital’s 1.563 Million.

Despite Kiss being a strong listen, I expect this to reverse itself over the remainder of the year as the ‘Denise’ effect kicks in. Word on the street is that the internal research is very strong for her and it’s only a matter of time before this translates to RAJAR. The fact of the matter is she’s a far bigger star than Johnny now. But how long can Capital hold on to her for? Hmmmm…

Elsewhere in GCap, Xfm’s worst nightmare has come true. Its market share is under 1% (at 0.9%) and its audience dropped a whopping 26% to just 379,000! (That “let’s get rid of all the DJ’s across the day” was a cracking idea wasn’t it!!) Is it time for that brand to be “humanely euthanized”? The boys at Global Radio certainly have a full ‘in-tray’ when they take over from the GCap!

And finally to a more subtle, yet highly significant tale: The number of people listening to some sort of digital radio continues to grow. Almost a third of the population (31.4%) listens to digital radio at least once a week, with DAB being the dominant technology. Sure… most of this is to analogue stations on digital, but it was great to see Planet Rock cume well the half million mark! Even The Jazz signed off with over 400,000 listeners. A bit too hasty to switch that one off? Over 27% of the UK’s population has a DAB radio, so it seems although the commercial sector is in turbulent times over the economics of DAB, the public still quite like it.

So, what’s the morale of our story? Simple really - invest in content! Easier when you have guaranteed funding I accept, but nonetheless, it seems to be a bit of a no-brainer really. And what is commercial radio’s answer to the current situation? Networking. Hmmmm – is this really investing in content? More on that to follow I think…