Saturday, 19 January 2019

Is it time for journalists who write about radio to listen a little more?

How wonderful it is that radio is once again dominating the headlines.

This quiet giant has been so often overlooked. Despite around nine out of ten adults spending almost a full day a week of their lives with it, and forming a relationship unrivalled by any other medium, it’s rarely credited with the scale and influence it deserves. Although tributes are fulsome when a leading broadcaster dies, it’s rarely recognised that the medium itself must be pretty special if the demise of one of its own generates such a sense of loss.

Listeners love radio. They define themselves by it – readily dubbing themselves ‘a Heart listener’ or a ‘Radio 4 listener’ in a way no human being would proudly proclaim they were an ITV viewer.

Now, with the national radio shenanigans, radio is earning acres of enthusiastic coverage – and that’s a great thing. 

Is it just me, however, who reads some of the scribblings and breathes silent fury.

Articles appear to be written by someone who just got a radio for Christmas - or has not listened since 1980 – or owns one of those puzzling sets which only pick up BBC programmes – and who lives in London.

This week, in Campaign, we read of the Evans move shaking up breakfast commercial radio “after years of nondescript nobodies, tightly regulated in what they are allowed to play or say".

It’s a lovely alliterative line. It’s also nonsense.

As a former regulator, I can assure the author that the regulations are broadly the same as they were decades ago. As far as what is allowed in terms of 'offence', the rules are much the same as ever through the IBA, Radio Authority and Ofcom, with interpretation moving in line with audience tastes and opinions. There has been no sudden shift.

As far as 'nondescript nobodies' are concerned, the last few decades have been as full of the greats as ever. And, in the most competitive broadcasting world there has ever been, many of them have had to be on top of their game like no other generation.  The amount of work from breakfast show presenters and teams across the country in the last decade or two often exceeds the effort and thought that was expended in prior generations. They have been aiming to produce distinctive radio which their audience will remember.

The 'highly regulated' 'nondescript nobody' Chris Moyles is doing his thing on commercial Radio X – and has been for four years.  I’m sure he sits there with laminated copies of the rules.

And Chris Evans himself, of course, was on commercial radio in the 90s - presumably the very time when the journalist suggests it was a land of nobodies

Sam & Amy (now on Virgin – and for years on Gem) carried off the awards time after time, in the face of BBC and commercial national radio shows, with their blend of honest me-too moments and the sort of open conversation people of their age have. Much as I love them both, I doubt either of them would have bothered turning up if tightly regulated. And to call either of them a nondescript nobody is laughable. They hold a room – on and off air.

The multi-Gold award-winning Christian O’Connell on Absolute Radio was tightly regulated for sure, as I’m sure David Cameron would agree when he dared to use the word twat on Christian’s show . The complaint was not upheld.

What of the great local shows. The North East loves Steve & Karen. They’ve been on-air eighteen years together, now on Metro, and own their market. Broadcasters who are nondescript nobodies do not earn the level of love and engagement they receive. 'Hirsty's Daily Dose' in Yorkshire was huge for over a decade, making the station the largest outside London.

And you will not speedily walk down any road in Coventry with John Dalziel from Free Radio. If this nondescript nobody is not recognised in 100 yards, I’d be surprised. And let’s not forget the Scottish greats too like Galloway.

Radio in recent years has been creative, considered, and more authentic than ever. Highly amusing moments - and poignant moments like never before.

Far from the ‘primacy of the DJ’ about to be revived, their influence has never gone away. The influential broadcasters cited in the article - from Tony Blackburn  to Everett and Robbie Vincent - thoroughly deserve the acclaim, but there has been great radio since too. 

I wish the article were a rare example of nonsense.  Whilst there are columnists who write sensibly and Gillian Reynolds’s writings on historical matters are flawless, many others simply suggest laziness.

I recall the one which concluded that Radio 4 was losing out in audiences to podcast and 5 live. There was no mention of the giant LBC – and the fact that 5 Live audiences had actually been in a decline. So, no facts; indeed, the contrary.

In an analysis of radio election coverage, I recall being shocked that journalists had not thought to dip into LBC to highlight its excellent, fresh offering with Iain Dale and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

There is the implicit argument too that if you’re not saying a lot, it’s tightly regulated and low quality.  Anyone who thinks that good music-intensive contemporary radio with tight links is easy is wrong. It is an art. The people at the top of the CHR game now, particularly at Capital, are doing some of the cleverest and most considered ‘top 40 radio’ that the UK has ever heard.

Then there is the ‘everyone is podcasting now and no-one listens to live radio any more’ narrative.  Podcasting is growing – and that’s great. But let’s acknowledge that almost nine out of ten of adults don’t bother with it at any stage of a week.*12% weekly reach Rajar Midas Winter 2018)

Thank goodness for Eddie Mair’s arrival at LBC. The Radio Times now acknowledges commercial radio at last.  In the years until now, any radio commentary in that organ was largely confined to trumpeting obscure drama on Radio 3.

When I was last being grumpy about this - one BBC chappie suggested to me there was not much one could write about commercial radio. Well, if you cannot write about the big personalities, their chopping and changing, the beautiful ad-hoc moments of listener interaction, platform matters, new formats, crisis coverage, the battle for supremacy, the changing music mix, the brand battles, the takeovers and examples of impressive commercial brand integration - then you shouldn’t really be writing at all. 

The sniffy ‘local commercial radio is a bit naff’ suggestion does not stand the test when one looks at the size of its audiences and the level of engagement from shows which rule their patches.

'Video killed the radio star'. If you haven't been able to think of a better headline since that song was released in 1979, go get another job.

Too many journalists and columnists appear to bully radio. And certainly commercial radio which a staggering 65% of UK adults sample each week.  It’s time for the authors to pause before writing – and commit to the level of investigation and consideration that one hopes they’d invest in any story. 

Radio deserves better.

And good luck, Chris.

Stop press. Nice radio reviewer on Radio 4 (18.1.19)  talking breakfast shows tells us all about 'Radio 6'.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via

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. Available in paperback or ebook.

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

Need a conference speaker? I'd love to work with you.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Farewell, Network Chart

At 7.00 on Sunday night (30th December 2018), the final, united, commercial radio chart with Marvin Humes faded away; and commercial groups prepared to plough their own Sunday night programming furrow. 

Whilst the Big Top 40 continues on Global stations, now with the great Will Manning; Bauer will have its own show; and the Wireless Group grow their Total Access property to a Top 40 offering with Olivia Jones. 

It’s the end of an era – and a decision one can thoroughly understand in the climate and structure of today’s commercial radio world. But it’s also a chance to salute the architects of the animal which has served commercial radio superbly for generations.

Sunday nights on BBC radio through to the 1980s had become an impenetrable tradition. Although you knew which artist was up and which was down - given the chart itself was published during the week - Sunday was the chance to hear all the songs one after the other in their entirety.  What’s more, the show was aired on AM and FM, as Radio 1 stole Radio 2’s FM transmitters for the weekly appointment. UK listeners slotted in their C120 cassettes so they could later ‘listen on demand’. We radio freaks recorded the shows just to hear the JAM jingles in stereo - and marvel at the art of the countdown delivery from the likes of Tom, Simon, Tommy, Bruno, Mark and Tony.

Meanwhile, commercial radio trotted out a host of distinctive Sunday evening programme offerings.  As was the case with commercial radio generally, some of those offerings were superb, and some decidedly less so.  They most certainly offered listener choice. Some stations had created their own chart shows, others eschewed the tactic. I fondly recall Trent’s first home-grown-chart which briefly adopted the novel approach of starting at Number One and working up to the least-selling song.

Then in September 1984, commercial radio came together for ‘the Network Chart’. Politically, getting all stations, back then owned by a multitude of colourful companies, to agree on carrying a single programme was a coup, pulled off by the then Association of Independent Radio Contractors (AIRC) – the trade body for 'Independent Local Radio' stations, the equivalent of which now is Radiocentre.

Growing audiences and commercial radio stature was an aim, but also this was principally about creating a huge property which commercial radio could sell to significant national brands who would only trouble with radio if it offered real scale. Commercial radio had achieved just a 2% share of all UK advertising and a catalyst was needed to kickstart growth.

There were technical hurdles in those pre-satellite days; and the option chosen for dissemination to stations was an IRN news distribution line. As was the case with the national ads at that stage fed to stations in the same way, this was mono. It didn’t sound great – but most listeners on their trannies didn’t care too much – and an appreciable proportion were still listening on AM anyway.

At the outset, the programme was superbly hosted by Kid Jensen, who offered a fresh enthusiastic approach and a slightly less functional tactic than the BBC’s established fine option.  It had energy and presence. And, for a time the commercial chart was more up to date than the BBC chart. It also included an element of airplay stats.

"No-one took it seriously in the those days" (Kid Jensen speaking in the late 80s)

In terms of revenue, sponsorship was not quite possible at the outset.  At that stage, the regulations did not quite allow such sullying of our airwaves. The regulator did, however, allow a clever loophole: 'co-funding'. Within strict parameters, you could credit the funder of a show – but the show itself could not be defined by the funder, nor was any commercially-inspired funding allowed within.

Thus, after a brief foray with a De Beers Jewellers relationship, Nescafe came on board.  The show became the pithy ‘Network Chart brought to you in association with Nescafe’.

Kid put his life and soul into the programme, and those of us around at the time recall him journeying tirelessly around the country to help boost the show’s profile, armed with the sort of merchandising that few local stations could afford, proper sweat shirts, T shirts and the list went on. This was the big time. Although those of us on the local stations worried a little about having our local hours snatched, we quite liked mixing with this huge Radio 1 and Luxembourg presenter. And we liked the free sweat shirts.

Kid left the show in 1993, and Nescafe gave way to Pepsi as Neil Fox took the helm. By that stage, the rules were relaxed and the show really could be announced as ‘The Pepsi Network Chart’, later ‘the Pepsi Chart’. To have Pepsi as a brand on-air across the UK was a real achievement for the network. The show evolved into hit40uk and, in 2009, became The Big Top 40 Show, then enjoying a long relationship with Vodafone

The show’s personality changed too, with Neil, at first, injecting more star-laden talk content to the show, setting it further aside from the BBC offering, which in turn evolved too. The reveal day of the BBC chart moved in 1987 too from Tuesdays to Sundays, with Bruno Brookes.

There were interruptions along the way as radio groups ran off with their mistresses. The Smash Hits chart replaced the network chart for a period on EMAP (now Bauer) stations. And the A list and the Fresh 40  approach was a brief attempt to separate by format, so that the huge newer adult contemporary  stations could enjoy hours of 'chart' music which better fitted their formats. Each time, however, the stations eventually returned to the family - with the single all-format, all station offering which we recognise until last Sunday.

Commercial radio audiences had grown, to the extent that the BBC’s Sunday night lead was utterly extinguished.  In July 2015, the BBC countdown moved to Friday nights with Greg James. By that stage, Radio 1's audience reach on Sunday at 18.00 was 492,000 - commercial radio's reach was 2.3m.

Now, commercial radio groups announce they are going their own way rather than share the same chart.  In some ways, the chart mechanic itself has lost some of its stature. No longer are record shops phoned to establish sales stats - leading to some breathless weekly on-air announcement of real note - the climax has thus evaporated to some extent.  With streaming now a key element, data is real-time. It's right that the great British Sunday tradition of chart shows should take the next step.

But most importantly, the structure of commercial radio is such now that it can do what the chart did - all the time.  From the days when the chart was the only significant cohesive music property commercial radio could sell to client brands, the large groups now each have their own properties of scale. They would likely prefer to put their efforts into producing and selling those rather than boost their rivals. It also means that each group can engineer its own programming to suit its own formats. 

And - as the medium gets ever more competitive - it's been complex deciding which stations can carry the chart - and it's certainly felt odd enthusing about a presenter who's on your station on a Sunday - but on your rival during the week.

Listeners will have more choice.

In a sense, the chart proved the point.  Scale is everything, if commercial radio is to be seen as an increasingly serious advertising medium.  Now, at last, commercial radio can deliver scale across the board - with the cohesive and polished major brands it has painfully assembled after 45 complex years. Good luck. Farewell, Network Chart - and all who sailed in her.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via

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. Available in paperback or ebook.

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

Need a conference speaker? I'd love to work with you.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Radiomoments of 2018

As 2018 draws to a clement close, which #radiomoments were the most memorable for you?

Greg James

The unprecedented level of change looming in UK breakfast radio is set against a backdrop of a relatively new breakfast show on Radio 1 which launched on 20th August 2018. 

The first show had an immediate presence. Greg's first words, where he spoke of the privilege of hosting the programme, chimed with many of us. We heard the lad from student radio with wireless in his blood who had quietly and quickly risen to do something remarkable of which he’d only dared to dream.

The programme’s already settled into being an original, natural, well-produced animal which should serve the station proud in the challenge it faces.

Chris Evans

The Chris Evans Radio 2 farewell on Christmas Eve is a deserving late entry into 2018’s finest #radiomoments.  The programme overall boasted the presence which Evans shows always display – but a heightened sense of occasion. He employed all the tricks in the radio book – tears, kids, stars and wives.

The tearful ‘goodbye’ moment was cannily-timed a little earlier than the final link, offering journalists an opportunity to write about it promptly - Chris has always been the perfect PR machine. Its scheduling then allowed Chris then to get on with enjoying the final moments.

Chris’s broadcasting secret was evident throughout in the valedictory show – chatting as if your best mate, but a best mate who happens to have Nicole Kidman popping round. 

His goodbye announcement was clearly well thought-through  – and a lesson to complacent presenters everywhere. Even Chris Evans thinks about how he’s going to handle critical moments.

Eddie Mair and Iain Dale

Eddie Mair has been radio’s quiet titan for years.  Although he presented Radio 4’s PM programme almost daily, displaying his skills as the cleverest of operators with his trademark iterative interrogation and gifted teasing, he has never sought the headlines afforded to many lesser mortals. 

His departure from the BBC said something of the Corporation's challenges, with its public salary announcements, the way it understands and treats its talent and the general frustrating complexity typical of big organisations. It also said something of the new might of commercial radio, now able to offer a platform for the greats.

His last programme was claimed to be an accidental one. Sort of: That sounded like a decent way to end so let’s not come in tomorrow’. 

Eddie’s new LBC show has moved quickly from a confident and enjoyable first edition to a really enjoyable and distinctive offering.

Eddie’s arrival at LBC displaced Iain Dale who moved to later on the schedule. Iain has led a varied and rich life in politics, publishing and pushing over protesting pensioners on the prom, but the loving relationship he has quickly forged with radio was evident in his goodbye from his drive slot. Although he was only moving down the road, he waved farewell to his neighbours with tears in his eyes.

Noel Edmonds

Noel Edmonds was the second ever breakfast presenter on BBC Radio 1. Since then, he’s enjoyed TV success owing to Mr. Blobby, ‘Deal or No Deal’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity’. 

Noel was Stephen Nolan’s guest on 5 Live in February 2018, telling of the dark place he was in when he lost his business amidst banking scandal. Nolan called on all his trademark tactics to create the space for some riveting radio from the mouth of this complex figure.

Hits Radio

Whilst Global Radio strategies are clear and swift, Bauer is a little more cautious. The German-owned company owns some excellently-operated national brands,but sticks largely to a more traditional model for the majority of its stations in their localised patches. 

This year however, it created a new national CHR brand across the UK in Hits Radio. Maybe creating virtue from necessity and economy, the new brand was based in Manchester, squatting on the FM frequency formerly owned by Key. 

Its opening moments were well-produced; and we wait to hear how the strategy fares nationally in 2019 against unprecedented competition. 

Back home in Manchester though, as Key 103, the  station reflected fittingly the first anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombing.

Christian O'Connell

2018 saw a farewell from one of commercial radio's nationally known names.

Christian O’Connell bravely chose to leave UK national radio in favour of a career in Australia. After 12 years on the Virgin/Absolute breakfast show, he announced his goodbye from One Golden Square. Dave Berry took over, making a typically impressive start as befits the man.

Christian's debut programme on Gold 104.3 in Melbourne showed his trademark determination to succeed; and the announcement of some audience success subsequently was clearly a welcome relief.

Ed Doolan

We’re losing the greats one by one. 

Australian-born Ed Doolan was hugely-respected broadcaster in the West Midlands. After wrestling with vascular dementia, he passed away on 16th January 2018. 

The nature and volume of tributes after his passing said something of his stature. From Caroline Martin on BBC WM itself to Eddie Mair on BBC Radio 4 – and fellow broadcaster Les Ross on BBC 1 TV in the Midlands.

More Greg James - and Richard Bacon survives

Greg James merits further mention in dispatches for 'Pedal to the Peaks'

In the 21st Century, radio’s stunts have given way to authenticity. On-air, listeners heard their mate Greg try something amazing, with all the ups and downs, gasps of amazement and tears of disappointment that real life brings.

Authenticity is key on radio these days, with presenters opening up like never before, once the listener bond has been built. Richard Bacon very nearly did not survive 2018, and appeared on his first love medium of radio to explain why.

Greg’s 'pass the pasty' challenge on Radio 1 was also radio at its best. After hearing that a listener from Aberdeenshire had never eaten a Cornish pasty, the presenter took it upon himself to get one to her, by passing it like an Olympic torch along the 675 mile journey.

2018 has been Greg James’s year.

Zoe Ball, Sara Cox and Women in Radio

On the breakfast changes, ‘who will take-over at Radio 2?’ became the battle of the women as Zoe Ball and Sara Cox were tipped for the Wogan House crown. The debate culminated in the big announcement on the Chris Evans show in October.

Without doubt, 2018, a hundred years on from suffrage, has been the year when women broke through barriers in UK radio, in the numbers of women on-air, the stature of their appointment and the money they are paid. Carrie Grace made her stand in January.

Whilst us middle-aged white blokes need to accept that this has all been far too long coming and the re-alignment may cause a few male noses to be put out of joint in the short term, few people agree that the short-lived Radio 2 drive show with Mayo and Whiley was a canny programming decision - and both of those talented professionals likely agree.  The final edition was aired on 20th December 2018 , before Simon himself waved farewell the following day. We await his 'startling' news in 2019.

Digital Radio success

Digital radio smashed the 50% listening figure in 2018. Debate now begins on when the debate proper will begin on whether and how to switch-over from FM to DAB. 

There's going to be no rush, but it's clear that now, just as with FM by the '80s, digital platforms are so commonplace that broadcasters can make maximum use of both FM and DAB, with unprecedented choice for listeners. We look forward to DAB-only stations making some money.

As the audiences to digital stations grow, so does the content.  After some live moments on special occasions, BBC Radio 4 Extra went live properly for the first time on Saturday 8th September 2018. Jake Yapp hosted the programme, with superb intervention from Kathy Clugston, more usually heard on continuity announcer or newsreader duties. As can be heard, she rather enjoyed herself.

Dale Winton

Dale Winton's sudden death was major news in 2018. For those of us who worked with him, it came as a great blow, yet it was worryingly less of a surprise than it might have been. 

Dale and drama were always hand in glove. Dale was never going to be one to while away his final toothless days drinking lukewarm tea from grotty green mugs in a nursing home. In this special edition of my Conversations series, drawing on archive audio, hear Dale tell of his life and fears.

Vicki Archer 

BBC Radio Shropshire presenter Vicki Archer died suddenly at the age of 41 in August 2018.  A finding of suicide was recorded by the Coroner.

Here, you can hear a segment of her bubbly on-air performance in her final show, before the news was announced the following day by Eric Smith. Her co-host Adam Green also pays his tribute. 

Vicki worked at The Pulse, Century FM and on the Magic network. She had hosted the afternoon show on BBC Radio Shropshire since 2010. Social media tributes afterwards from colleagues through her on-air years illustrated her popularity.

Mental Health 

BBC and commercial radio stations around the UK united on 15th May 2018 to broadcast a one-minute message about mental health.

The historic 'Mental Health Minute' featured globally-famous voices. With over 300 stations taking part, broadcasting to one of radio’s biggest collective audiences with an average listenership of 20 million, the initiative was led by Radiocentre and The Radio Academy, with content created skilfully by Somethin’ Else.

Radio needs to do more of this united work - both in the name of worthy causes and otherwise. Our medium deserves more acclaim than it ever receives and we need to do more to raise its profile and prove our engagement, contemporary power and relevance.

Back on mental health specifically, in recent days, Iain Lee's call on TalkRADIO from a Plymouth man lying in the street after taking an overdose was proof again that people's relationship with their radio and its presenters is like that of no other medium.

Happy anniversary

2018 saw the fortieth anniversary of the major frequency changes, with BBC stations all shunting about - and commercial stations moving just a KHz or so in line with the new international frequency agreements. A generation recalls receiving stickers through letterboxes to help us. We were easily amused in those days. 

1978 also saw the birth of Radio Scotland and Radio Wales proper - and it was good to hear Anita Morgan, who'd hosted the first show on the latter, return to join in with the breakfast show forty years on.


Nicholas Parsons dared to have a week off from his impeccable 'Just a Minute' programme on Radio 4. Mind you, he was 94 at the time - and he'd been chairing the show for 51 years 

And Finally 

With platforms equalising, both BBC and commercial radio can now battle for the best programming and the biggest names. Headlines will continue to be made and innovation and positive disruption will be evident. News UK will certainly flex its Virgin muscles. Commercial radio has a new confidence and is emerging from a positive financial year, re-gaining its title as the fastest-growing ad medium.

The BBC will face new market pressures and must make its talent on and off-air feel loved and supported. It will need to be well-led to cope with this task - and, in other news, it must do ever more to explain to its audiences what 'due impartiality' is and how it - genuinely - tries to achieve that. In good hands, the BBC's reputation in news here and around the World will continue to be rightly recognised. 

The BBC will also need to be more efficiently run. That means less and better management. And thus, as most BBC staff will tell you, those lower costs will generate better radio, not worse.

With the 1970s legacy rules swept aside at last by Ofcom, commercial radio will be equipped to do what it feels is best for its audiences and, therefore, clients. Stations which may not have been sustainable in a changing world will have new resilience and fresh options.

As podcasting, streaming and audio on demand continues to grow quickly, from its current low base, our medium will be further invigorated. As I've said before, it's really all 'radio'. Voice control, currently responsible for but a fraction of listening, will grow too - and here again it's about recall of the biggest brands and performers. Unless the gatekeepers themselves wade in with quality offerings.

114 years on from the first ever radio 'programme' - comprising piano playing and bible readings beamed to a few lonely ships at sea -  there has never been a more exciting time for this wonderful medium. Whatever the future holds, people will still have two ears and will look to occupy them.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via

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. Available in paperback or ebook.

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

Need a conference speaker? I'd love to work with you.

Is it time for journalists who write about radio to listen a little more?

How wonderful it is that radio is once again dominating the headlines. This quiet giant has been so often overlooked. Despite aro...