Saturday, 16 May 2015

A blog about a book: 'How to Make Great Radio'

Over dinner in my favourite Indian restaurant in Nottingham recently, I was rambling intolerably about 'my book' to one of my cynical but lovely radio friends.  I told him I'd learned loads whilst writing it. '"What like?", he asked, as he stuffed a naan bread in his face.

So, when the Jiffy bag finally arrived from the publishers last week, bearing ten lovely-smelling first copies of my humble publication, I thumbed gingerly through the pages, to remind myself what I hadn't known when I started to write it.

Every day in radio is a school day, not least when you're trying madly to justify, or disprove, those 'radio assumptions'.

I thought I was the only competition cynic until I stumbled across the words of legendary American programmer, Bill Drake: "We did a lot of on-air promotions at KHJ, and we did almost none at KFRC in San Francisco. Both stations were successful". In his opinion, "most contests are garbage".  He's surely right; far too many offer little in the way of witness value. They are either too demanding, too dull or too exclusive; with prizes seen as unattainable and mechanics focused on the minority taking part, not the majority listening.  Gone are the days when the radio station was the only place you could win a decent prize.  BBC Local Radio, which suspended contesting in the days when it was discredited, would likely concede that their stations are better without  many of them.  Cheers, Bill. Nice to stumble across substantiation for my prejudice.


Isn't it annoying when 'major names' pop up on radio who fail to grasp the 'one listener' thing.  That 'You' thing.  They drone on about "anyone out there'" and getting my 'thinking caps' on.  For goodness sake, anyone who knows anything about our great medium knows that the most important word is 'you'.  If it's good enough for Ken Bruce: 'People respond to one person – talking to them as one person’; and Wogan: ‘Radio engages because you talk to an individual’, it should be good enough for the rest of us. I also cite some early crackly recordings from the 'first' disc jockey, Christopher Stone, from 1927 who said in his show: 'I know you'd like to hear some more of that, and so would I".  Almost a century ago, and at the very beginnings of our medium, he'd nailed it.

Few candidates in the last General Election stood up to make a speech without offering an anecdote about the chap they'd 'bumped into' the night before.  We know that story-telling works.  The greatest presenters master the art on radio.  The greatest ads call upon it.  Vocabulary, pace and detail create colourful pictures.  In researching the book too, I was drawn too to the words of John Cleese, who spoke of the mental 'skip' the listener makes from the start of a tale to the punchline.  In that skip lies the pleasure and amusement. Too large, it fails, Too small it offers no satisfaction.  One word can make a difference.  Even if just a  swear-word: ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’

Why do some newsreaders whine every sentence and inexplicably draw out the last word, regardless of its significance?  Accomplished voice coach, Kate Lee, suggests that great reading is often about ‘sounding even more yourself ’. She observes how some readers appear almost intimidated by the importance of the material. Once they say to themselves ‘this is news’, she believes their brain then promptly ignores all all the natural nuances of conversation. Contemporary, conversational news delivery is a real art.

Fascinated by the way the 'mood' in a studio can change what comes out the speakers the other end, it was great to hear the anecdote about a leading performer who used to play the Cagney & Lacey theme tune before starting his show.  Off on that tangent, I then stumbled across how both David Cameron, and indeed Enoch Powell in his time, observed that a full bladder kept their mind alert and their speeches powerful.  Maybe not one to try.

I stumbled across some fascinating material about the voice and how it engages so well on radio.  Including the theory that the 'disembodied voice' on the radio connects with the listener as does a mother's voice to a child in the womb.


And who would not want to know the story of the birth of tight, Top 40 format radio in a bar in Omaha, Nebraska.  Next time one of your listeners complains about hearing the same song over and over again, you'll want to know that tale too. 

And so the list goes on.  I learned a little more about mic technique; commentary; interviewing; the psychological response to words; and getting callers on-air.  I mused about dealing with over-enthusiastic listeners; spoke to some great producers; and delved into the use of social media.  I stumbled across some brilliant old research about the relative merits of male and female voices; and I counted the words per minute which Wogan deployed as he said his last breakfast farewell. 

I was persuaded to add a chapter about how to get into our medium; and I volunteered another about how to keep your job.  And some necessary caution on risk-taking, 'stunting', research, law and compliance.

Given that text books are boring and the chances of any publisher agreeing to my autobiography are slim, I've littered the book with anecdotes from my lucky time in the business.  Lest I forget the two occasions when the police have called into reception; Dale Winton's interview techniques; or the words of advice Mrs. Thatcher's daughter proffered on programme preparation.

And there's the chapter about teasing.

As every 'author' will understand, the awful thing about writing a book is that the second your work is despatched to the publisher, you think of something you should have included. Plus, last Autumn, no-one new what Perisope was. Things now change by the day in our great radio world.

Many thanks to the likes of Matthew Bannister, Christian O'Connell, John Myers, Ben Cooper and Nick Ferrari for offering generous early reviews.  What's useful is that they suggest it's by no means just a book for beginners. 

Radio is rarely a matter and wrong. Some of the greats break the rules brilliantly.  And those who disagree with my mad assertions or theories will hopefully concede that the debate itself is likely helpful. Or they can write their own book.

If it helps, please grab a copy at £14.99 (£10.99 e-book) from my friends at Biteback Publishing.  Proceeds to the Radio Academy






Monday, 11 May 2015

Pictures from the Past

Disc jockeys are meant to be heard not seen.  But these pictures from the Getty archives really do sum up a time and a place.

Enjoy here, one of the launch pics from the opening of Radio 1 in 1967. Sir Tony staring into the camera lens, griping onto a pair of those funny BBC headphones. And what a fine bit of woodwork there from the BBC joiner.


Rosko was the rebel in those days, with his lunchtime show. Look, he's barely clothed here.  John Dunn famously introduced  his news bulletin in Rosko's show with: 'now the news. In English..."



And on the station's first birthday, the presenters famously gather feet away from Broadcasting House, to return to the steps of All Souls Church.  For many of the characters, it is the closest they'll get to singing hymns. The assembly was a little diminished from the parallel shot a year before, not least because the fledgling Radio 1 policy was to hire everyone on four week contracts and see who worked out best.  Canny approach.




Down the road at Capital, in a rare 1973 shot in his office at Euston Tower, Chairman Richard Attenborough is likely none too pleased as he peruses the company's early accounts. 





And the early team at London's LBC were no strangers to challenging accounting. In this shot, a tech op watches as Janet Street-Porter and Paul Callan present 'two in the morning' (get it?) on that launch day in October 1973.  I'd prefer to have been the tech-op, as he got to hammer the buttons on the ITC triple stacks.





Commercial radio, in a fashion, had been heard in the UK much earlier, thanks to the wobbly signal from Radio Luxembourg, after it returned following the War.  Its influence was sufficiently powerful to make stars of people like Pete Murray, later on Radio 2 and LBC. Even the Teddy Boys looked up to him. And Pete's suit looks a lot better than a sweat shirt with your name on which his descendants puzzlingly chose to wear.




Back at Capital, surely 1974 mid morning host Michael Aspel does not surely need quite so many EQ channels on his mixer.





And colleague, Kenny Everett, is evidently aghast at the contents of the Capital Radio manifesto.





As Capital's Graham Dene celebrated 5 years with the station, a cake arrived. With Michael Aspel in it. Thank goodness those rumours of radio being rife with back stabbers are false.  Technics turntables were poised  - alongside the classic Neve desk which was a stranger to PFL.





Kid Jensen arrived in the UK from Radio Luxembourg in 1975, lodging at Nottingham's Radio Trent for a year before graduating to Radio 1. Here he is, in a novel pose.  It is certainly better than clutching headphones, or pointing to an alarm clock or cheque. 





By 1976, the cult of Wogan had begun; and this talented Irishman began to relax and enjoy it. Just keep your feet away from those Gates turntables, Terry. They were truly the best.





Surprisingly little audio exists of Chris Tarrant, despite his long rule at the Capital London helm.  Maybe he was more of a listener's presenter than an anorak's - and there's little wrong with that. Thank goodness we have pictures though. Note how many more screens there are in this 2004 shot, compared with the 1960s BBC shots. 

Thanks to all the photographers through the ages who have patiently witnessed our medium. We are grateful.  

One final shot.  How delicious is this. As the BBC moved premises in 1932 from Savoy Hill to the newly built Broadcasting House, a photographer paused to film the removal men at work. But why has than man got a crate on his head. And who is in the coffin?





Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio'. Published by Biteback.

Monday, 6 April 2015

And the winner is...

U
The regulator used to call you cheerily if you’d won a radio licence. The phone would ring at precisely the designated time and you’d duly jump and down with joy, and hug puzzled colleagues, if the news was good. 

If the phone didn’t ring for a few moments, you anticipated the result was unlikely to be good.  Your number was self-evidently second or third on the regulator’s scribbled list.  As the minutes ticked by, gloom would descend as you realised you’d wasted a whole slice of your life.  No matter how well wrapped up in regulatory pleasantries, nothing can make the failure to win a licence feel any better.

There are no runner-up prizes, not even a licence in Macclesfield. On losing, disappointment is total. It’s a little like losing your seat in an election.  

There is the indignant surprise of failure. If you did not passionately believe that you had the very best chance of winning, you simply would not have entered the arduous race.  Blood, sweat, tears and significant expense form part of every decent licence application. Every word is caressed.

Even in the best-planned projects, there are moments of drama along the way.  I recall losing the chance of a Leicester FM licence in a pitch battle. We’d had the rival changing management at the last minute; potential board members getting strange things through their letterboxes; supporters changing side; and all manner of colourful happenings.  The licence, though, was safely returned to the incumbent.

What adds to the annoyance is you cannot really let off steam by portraying the opponent as the bad guy. Typically, every infuriating rival bid features some good friends, and involves some people you might wish to work for one day.

Despite the passion, anger and, on some occasions, legitimate concerns, few have challenged the radio regulator's vote in court and no-one has yet been successful in so doing. Those busy bodies have, it seems, been a little better at their jobs than the rail regulators. 

The day after that Ratae defeat, I simply grasped a spontaneous day's holiday and wandered around Abbey Park morosely in the sunshine, kicking the leaves, considering what might have been.  Licence wins and losses change the course of radio history and they surely change careers.

There are the occasional spurious licence applications where even those submitting them did not feel they had a cat in hell’s chance of carrying off victory, yet they did.  I shall let those lucky individuals tell their own story. There are also the winners who truly did not deserve to win and history tells its own story of those.

The current FM (and AM) local licensing regime is a ‘beauty parade’, that is to say we are invited to stroll up and down the catwalk with only the text of our licence applications to preserve our modesty.  Decisions on our relative attractiveness are based on the infamous Section 105 of the Broadcasting Act 1990, which bears a handful of dull statutory criteria.  Which applicant can best: broaden listener choice; appeal to local tastes and interests; attract local support; and be sure to sustain itself for the licence term? 

I am privileged to have served as a suited regulator for a short period in the 90s, when the
job of licensing fell to the Radio Authority, housed in its grey partitioned building close to Holborn Tube.  My department was called upon, inter alia, to feed what was then an enormously lengthy licensing process.  It even featured live applicant interviews to build up the tension in true X Factor style, although no-one was invited to Tony Stoller's house.

The Authority’s executives, most equipped with brains the size of Emley Moor, would diligently evaluate the applicants’ proposals with a huge degree of skill and, contrary to the beliefs of some, utter fairness. Then we would all march in to the meeting room, jackets on, ready to help inform the decision of the Authority Members.  These Members, always with a capital M, were an interesting crowd; and, as is the case with every Board, some took their responsibilities more seriously than others. And, again, just like in any Board meeting, discussion could sometimes leap off into wholly legitimate yet unexpected territory with surprising licensing results.

Is there an alternative route which would avoid this painful process? Not least because the winner can often buy the loser anyway. 

Independent National Radio, of course, was decided by the size of a cash bid in an envelope, just like the TV licence auctions in the early 90s, where some bidders overpaid whilst lucky Central sumbitted the minimum £2,000.  Had the highest FM radio bidder, Showtime Radio, got its backing together more successfully in 1991, then the gifted Anne-Marie Minhall would have been playing High Society rather than Handel by now.

I guess that the art of assembling good old-fashioned competitive licence applications will soon go the same way as roof thatching; as FM licences are routinely renewed whilst DAB gears up -  and the DAB system itself licenses the landlords not the tenants.  That’s going to save a lot of us a great deal of time, effort, worry and expense; and we'll probably live longer.


Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio' - published by Biteback


Sunday, 1 March 2015

And here's this week's Number One...

In our school, bringing in a radio was an offence for which you could be hanged. It was even more serious than wearing platform shoes or the wrong colour shirt.  Nevertheless, just as in totalitarian states, we ignored the law because radio meant so much.

Admittedly, we only risked the wrath so we could hear the chart, rather than the latest news from the Empire. This was a period when Tuesday lunchtime was sacred. Paul Burnett would effortlessly run down the BRAND NEW chart.  

Anxious to hear who was up and who was down, we would assemble in frozen huddles, rather hoping the marauding teachers would pursue the smell of smoke from neighbouring miscreants rather than the sound of JAM jingles from our small crowd.

Back then, blackberries, apples and oranges were confined to orchards; and radio was the only way to get the news. 

Having caught the update between Geography and double Maths on a Tuesday, we could then look forward to Sunday.   It was actually the only exciting thing about a day on which all shops were closed; the lukewarm weekly bath was taken; and that back to school feeling would hit the pit of the stomach when the miserable theme tune to 'Sing Something Simple' rang out as you searched for your PE kit.

6.00 pipped, and mother busied herself ironing and prepared to watch 'Upstairs Downstairs'.  Meanwhile, in our icy bedrooms, we would crank up the radio to enjoy the FULL Top 20. It was broadcast in stereo.  Not that anyone had a stereo radio, but mono FM was certainly better than AM.  Back then, Radio 1 was not on FM, but hijacked Radio 2’s frequencies on occasions at the weekend, presumably when the Light's delirious management had gone home for a sherry.

Like Blue Peter presenters, you can tell someone’s age by the chart show presenter they loved the most.  Some respected radio brethren go dewy-eyed at the words ‘Bruno Brookes’. Others wet themselves if anyone mentions Tom Browne.

Sunday evening was self-evidently inspired scheduling for the chart.  It had not always been thus. When Alan Dell first took a Biro to a copy of the music press in 1957 and ran down the numbers that matter most, it was scheduled late on a Sunday night.   

David Jacobs then started to assemble something more akin to our current chart, broadcast on Saturdays, before AlanFreeman barged in and appeared to prefer to work Sunday teatimes.  From that moment, whatever its name or the programme in which it was housed, the ‘chart’ has been part of our Sunday evening ritual.

The BBC possibly thought, with good cause, that the fragmented commercial radio network would never be able to assemble  a nation-wide chart offering.  Some stations had charts. Some did not.  Trent in Nottingham was allergic to anything resembling chart shows in its early ‘credible’ era, before eventually installing one which peculiarly began with the Number One.

Eventually, commercial radio’s trade body (then the Association of Independent Radio Contractors) played Kofi Annan and co-ordinated a 'Network Chart' chart offering across the commercial network of stations.  Back then, networking was rare across any stations, let alone the whole country. 

In those pre-satellite days, the chart was originally despatched down the mono ‘IRN line’, so it sounded little better than ‘Dial a Disc’ (Ask your granny about dial a disc).
David ’Kid’ Jensen was its first host, known as a ‘national name’ from his time at Radio Luxembourg  and BBC Radio 1.  Nescafe was to be its first major sponsor, although the coffee folk could not be mentioned in the programme title itself. The programme evolved, as the sponsor changed, to the Pepsi Network Chart, to the Pepsi Chart and then hit40Uk and now the Big Top 40.

It worked though. The commercial radio chart is now bigger than the BBC’s. Both are huge. 569,000 adults tune in as the BBC’s chart begins, with another 68,000 runny-nosed kids eavesdropping too.

There are few mass-appeal destination shows now on British music radio.  The days of gathering round to listen to ‘Music Whilst You Work’ are long gone.  The chart show remains the single best known appointment to listen.  It's ironic that maybe the only other is 'Pick of the Pops' on Radio 2, a retro version of the chart itself, bearing an original name.

If the BBC do re-paint this national treasure, I wish them well.  The great thing about BBC radio is that it can be first to try stuff out, without risking millions in revenue.  Rightly, their decision will be unaffected by my fond ramblings above and more influenced by the tastes and interests of a complex and savvy new generation. It would be an unnecessary cheap gag to suggest that some of those listeners nowadays would find counting to 40 a challenge.

Sunday night is a time when people are available to listen to radio, and that possibly means more than being ‘first’.  In the short term, I imagine commercial radio would benefit from the displaced audiences.  The new flavour of BBC chart would, however, find an important new place in a new generation's heart and would likely still be the one the TV shows come to when they want to do a piece about the Christmas Number One.

Presenting a chart well must merit a mention some loud applause here. It demands huge delivery skill, precision and rhythm. Maybe not quite as much skill as in bygone years, when one had to find the records, time them, then add up all their durations, and those of the ads, on the back of an envelope. 
Every word counts.  As I played back Simon Bates's first Top 40, aired in November 1978, I observed he boomed 'This week's British..." before playing the 'Britain's Number One' jingle.  With a smile, I noted in the write up that he would have kicked himself for doing that.  He tweeted to let me know he had. Let it go, Simon. Let it go.

Whilst radio will remain powerful and special for a good few generations yet, I cannot help feeling that no 15 year old would ever bother breaking a rule for it nowadays.  What I am sure of, however, is that this very Sunday, some teenager would have listened to Marvin Humes or Clara Amfo and thought "that's what i want to do when i grow up".


Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio', published by Biteback


Thursday, 19 February 2015

If editorial integrity at the The Telegraph is questioned - what about radio newsrooms?



Here's a great interview question to pose to a candidate for a radio station MD post. 

Your Head of News has rushed in to say they are about to carry a less than complimentary story about your biggest-spending advertiser.  The hungry journalist is insistent on its accuracy and relevance, just as your understandably huffy sales director is similarly determined that significant revenues will be lost at a stroke.

It's a dilemma which has been exemplified in press this week, as Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator resigned, accusing the dear Telegraph of a "form of fraud on its readers" for its coverage of HSBC and the Swiss tax-dodging scandal.  He suggested in his lengthy valedictory note that the paper did not give due prominence to the HSBC story because of commercial interests.  Meanwhile, the man from the Telegraph responded that "distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business", and they refuted allegations to the contrary.

If such questions challenge the mighty British newspaper titles, surely local UK radio stations will simply bow down and ask the journalist to press 'delete' firmly with their sweaty forefinger on coverage of any story which might appreciably affect income.

It's not my experience, thankfully.

Every now and again that text book situation has arisen at radio stations I have worked at over the years, to the letter.  Similarly, there have been calls from clients after a story has been carried, demanding it be removed, not because it was inaccurate, but because it was unhelpful. After all “we're your partners, and we spend a lot of money”.

On every occasion, having scrutinised the facts of the story, and ascertained that it is fairly balanced, accurate and relevant to the audience, it has been duly carried.

I don't blame the advertisers for their pleas. If I owned their company, I'd likely be just the same.  Neither do I blame the committed sales executive, hitting target is what they've been born to do. And I don't blame the news teams for pursuing a decent story for which they are getting hassle. It's all thoroughly understandable.

Sensible news editors, and all mine have been sensible without exception, are sufficiently sympathetic to alert management to the looming risk; and to give the nod to the relevant sales executive, so that they are across the facts when their client's name flashes up on their mobile. They are prepared for the fallout.

In my experience, where the story is solid it has indeed been carried. And long-term business has rarely been lost or affected. 

Maybe we’re lucky.  In the calm of the following week, after emails in bold have been exchanged, phones have been slammed down and dummies spat out, decent clients quietly recognise that the trust that radio enjoys, and the reason why listeners trust radio advertisers is partly because of the integrity of its news service.  It's not for nothing we are more trusted than press, online or TV. (OFCOM 2010)



What's more, if that anxious client really believes that one 20" nib in one 11.00 news bulletin on one station one morning is powerful enough to ruin them, then maybe they should be paying a great deal more for their 20" ad spots.

"News, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality". (OFCOM Broadcasting Code March 2013, Section 5.1)



Other news-related blogs:
What future for the radio news bulletin?
The Art of Newsreading 
And a very good morning to you

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio', published by Biteback