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.

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