Monday, 6 April 2015

And the winner is...

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, even featuring live applicant interviews to build up the tension in true X Factor style.

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.

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".

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

Thursday, 29 January 2015

National Digital Radio - The Future

I calculate I have nineteen DAB radios.  It’s a little over the top I know.  Hats off to Hertfordshire’s Pure for doing some great early running on the sets; and to Yorkshire’s Roberts for their sturdy classics.  And to Psion for coming up with their spiky PC peripheral Wavefinder; and to Wayne Hemingway for designing ‘the Bug’, which is still my favourite aesthetically.

It’s all a far cry from 1993 when I sat in the offices of the then regulator, the Radio Authority,  at Holbrook House to be trusted with what would have been one of the first DAB sets.  With components and transformers nailed to a huge plywood board, it hummed nicely and smelt of Scalextrix.

Life’s moved on since then, and after a slower start than most had hoped, DAB is now attracting a quarter of all radio listening across the UK (RAJAR W3 2014, Ipsos-Mori, UK TSA).  With the recent brand extensions being spawned on the first national multiplex, Digital One, which is now populated like a student house, one feels, at last, that the time of DAB has come. 

Now, the second national multiplex is imminent; and, at last, this country is poised to enjoy the sort of   broadcast listening choice which has been denied to us for years.  Given the small geographic size of our populous country, we have not been able to re-use FM frequencies to the extent they have in other countries.

Clearly, with my day job being at Orion Media, I’m hugely excited about our own ‘Listen2Digital’ bid to operate that multiplex, which was duly dropped off yesterday at Riverside House.  The USB stick in a sturdy manila envelope does not physically seem to do justice to the sweat and toil which went into assembling the pages of the formal application document over many, many, months.  If you’ve ever assembled a licence application, you know it feels like the A Level exam from hell.

We evidently think it’s a compelling case, and across the piste it offers a fresh new approach for national DAB radio, both in terms of the players involved and the services.  We think the public proposals are exciting; and we hope Ofcom also nods vigorously at some of the format details we have submitted in confidence which, frustratingly yet thoroughly understandably, we cannot yet speak publicly about at this stage.  I should say a big well done too to the other parties involved in the consortium: the mighty Babcock, who’ll be assembling the transmission infrastructure, and our good friends at Folder Media and Sabras.

The other great news is that Gem, currently our East Midlands FM AC service, would go
national, as one of our 18 proposed services.  There is no AC brand on national commercial DAB at present, with Heart operating only on local DAB, so its service is not taken into account as the applications are judged by the regulator.  AC is, therefore, a gaping hole in national provision and we reckon we’ve got the very best answer to it.  The AC audience also sits in the female 25-44 commercial hot-spot, helping to ensure the success of our business, and contribute to much-needed growth and stability for DAB.

Adult Contemporary proved of huge appeal in our extensive national research.  It is a hugely popular format across the World; and it’s strange to believe that it did not really arrive in the UK until our Chairman, Phil Riley, launched the Heart brand in the West Midlands in 1994.  He had hair back then, as he started his 13 year tenure running the format, so it’s no surprise he knows what he’s doing in arguing the AC case with our investors.  Maybe we should have roadsigns at the edge of all our cities, East and West, suggesting that the Midlands is the birthplace of the AC format in the UK.  I’ll get my paintbrush out.   

I’m personally hugely proud, not least because I’m a Nottingham lad.  In three years, Gem has achieved huge East Midlands success, becoming market leader by hours in several audience sweeps, and beating all audience levels for any station ever on that 106 FM frequency.  Let’s remember that 106 was a love-child in so many acquisitions, and being batted from owner to owner, it has operated variously as Radio 106, Century and Heart.  We have done well, despite good old Heart remaining on DAB in the patch and no TV platform for Gem.

It’s won because it’s a great product, and Mike Newman and the team there, including Naomi Robson and Andy Price heading the marketing efforts deserve plaudits.  They’ve built an AC format with real spirit, and one commanding real engagement, judging by all the qualitative research and feedback we garner.  It already has the polish of a national brand.

Sam & Amy have played a great part too, aided by Dangerous Dave and produced by Paul Iliffe.  That show has turned into a national treasure, carrying off Radio Academy awards in categories populated otherwise by indignant London and national names. The real crown just has to be that ‘Personality of the Year’ award last year.  The programme is British breakfast radio at its best; and we look forward to twisting a version of that product round for the national service.

May we plead that Ofcom put all else to one side and make this licence award as quickly as possible. We’re anxious to get on with the job.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Darkest Moments

There used to be a dusty folder on the windowsill at Radio Trent in the '80s, marked ‘Obit’.  Inside lay a bundle of dog-eared typed sheets bearing instructions on what to do if someone significant took their last breath. 

The manila file included a list of the Royal Family, bundled into neat categories, depending on their relative importance, from Her Majesty the Queen downwards.  Back then it was the job of the regulator, rather than the broadcaster, to determine just how upset we might be in each case; and to tell us exactly what to do.  Just below the names of great blue-blooded Royal nieces lay the names of less significant individuals like the Prime Minister.

In all my early days on-air, we were poised nervously for the death of the Queen Mother, then well into her 70s.  To a spotty broadcaster, that seemed very, very old and I expected the grimy red obit light to flicker in the studio half way through my list of ‘lost and founds'.

As she bounded through the decades in ruddy health, regardless of our plans, I recall wondering whether the IRN celebratory documentary commemorating her 80th birthday seemed to include a few tributes in a puzzlingly sombre tone.

In those days, the UK had emerged from decades of Royal deference into a new cynicism.  When we rehearsed our plans to take the needle off the Boney M song in favour of the National Anthem and a touch of Mozart, many wondered whether preparations were a touch over the top.  Would anyone now, apart from their loving relatives, really have an appetite for much more than a quick news flash and maybe a toning down of any adjacent trite content? 

Then Diana died.

We all remember where we were and what we were doing that day in 1997.  I was awake at
night, for some reason, hearing the story unfold on BBC 5 Live.  By then I was a regulator, although one which had sensibly moved on from prescribing procedure.  Those I knew in radio called me frantically, asking "what do we do?", seeking a regulator to blame for their actions.

Stations were cautious about following their instincts and responding in a way which reflected the mood of the Nation.  The majority rightly did, in both BBC and commercial sectors.  Regular programming was suspended, in favour of newsflashes and segues of sensitively-programmed music. Radio 1 broadcast ambient tunes; and Capital famously went near-Classical.  Presenters spoke from the heart.

On that day, broadcasters learnt the way contemporary stations should respond to a crisis.  Ask yourself how much does it mean to your listeners; and respond fittingly.  Such broadcasting can be compulsive listening.

Sensible stations prepare well. Speech stations will, of course, have ample produced material at the ready for any likely casualties; and music stations have broad provisions in place.   

What is key is a broadcaster able to switch to the required pace and style; equipped to summon the right words to chime with their audience on that day.  It is the mark of a great broadcaster to be able so to do; regardless of what they do usually on their shows.  Some of today’s broadcasters can manage that switch. Witness our own young Adam Wilbourn (Free Radio) on the death of Nelson Mandela.  Having delivered the breaking story minutes before the hourly junction, he had to fill to the news bulletin with material which necessarily had to be about Mandela. The broadcast marked out a man with the intelligence to do the job.

Clearly, broadcasts needs to be informed accurately too, with news coverage and comment of a volume which befits the format. And a line signalling the time of the next news update; preferably not throwing forward to an ‘update on the death’, given a death is the final word.  Reaction to the death may, of course, be possible.

The regulators no longer tell you what to do.  Ofcom point to the over-arching common-sense requirement that you do not offend with your approach; and the BBC Editorial Guidelines state: “It is important that individual output areas are conversant with their own rules concerning the treatment of obituaries". Each format and each media outlet is charged with taking responsible decisions and for preparing suitably.

Sadly, there are all too many cases when presentation talents such as these are required.  In recent weeks, Clyde 1 and the Scottish stations had to rise to respond sensitively to the news of the refuse lorry crashing into the pedestrians on the streets of Glasgow.

"My fellow Glaswegians  pulling together right now, it's times like this, we're like one big family". Clyde 1 23rd December 2014

Forty years on from the Birmingham pub bombings, our presenters at Free Radio in the Midlands nodded to the day with sensitivity, alongside excellent news coverage and a documentary assembled by Dan Dawson.

Fifty years on, exactly, from the death of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965, it’s interesting to listen back to the announcementstyle of a bygone generation.  ‘This is London’.  ‘Here is a newsflash’.  ‘This is London’ (again), with each of those three lines delivered at the speed of a hearse, with portentous gaps between, sufficiently lengthy to dash off to retrieve a Purcell LP from the gram library.   

Preparations had been well rehearsed, given the former PM’s illness and age; indeed, draft scripts had been written three years before:

“The words are like great boulders falling silently down a cliff into the sea.”  Robert McKenzie, BBC World Service Script 1962

One day, some words you need to utter will be like those great boulders.