Monday, 26 September 2016

What made Terry Wogan a radio great?

“They’ll probably have to drag me away from the microphone when they decide to elbow me. I shall cling to it. There’ll be a lot of tears and screaming“.

It was a crackly performance on the Light Programme, ‘down the line’ from Ireland, which saw the voice of Michael Terence Wogan appear on the BBC for the first time this week fifty years ago.  

He had applied beforehand, only to be turned down by BBC 2 Controller, David Attenborough, who advised they already had one bloke from Dublin, thank you very much. Of course, Attenborough assured Terry limply that he’d pass the letter on to the head of presentation: “If a suitable vacancy should occur, he will get in touch with you directly“.

His voice deepened and lilted a little less in the ensuing decades at the Corporation, but he was to emerge as one of the radio industry’s favourite performers.  

After serving loyally on major BBC shows, Terry ascended the Radio 2 breakfast throne in the decimal days of 1972, entertaining the Nation with his ramblings, interrupted only by JAM jingles and pan-pipe music. Although television was to wag its beckoning finger for a brief brown-suited spell in the mid eighties, he returned home in 1993.

As the entertainment world changed  beyond recognition, Terry continued to rule. By the end of his early stint in 2009, he was attracting almost a fifth of all breakfast radio listening and almost 8m weekly listeners.

But what was it about Terry which endured?

He would explain the answer more clearly, more colourfully and with fewer cliches, but, in his absence, let's try.

He simply did well what radio does best.

His whimsical storytelling was profound. Tales founded on fact  would be embellished with a Wogan flight of fancy.  A few words from a 'listener' on Basildon Bond turned to gold in the hands of the master.  A river of vocabulary flowed effortlessly from his wryly smiling face.He recognised that radio’s intimate conversation continues in a listener’s head. “People think when they listen to radio; TV eschews thought, your thinking is done for you”.

Terry became an amusing, eccentric uncle muttering from behind his newspaper. He spoke to you and you alone. He did not tell me to get ‘my brollies’ ready as a weather forecaster insisted I do last weekend.  In the words of John Humphrys: “Terry liked his audience  - and they liked him. He wasn’t broadcasting talking to them, he was talking to them.”

That connection serves to explain why listeners' grief was so fulsome on his passing. Each listener in each corner of Britain had lost a friend. To say that you’ll miss someone is the greatest tribute of all: “Such very sad news, the world will be a lesser place without you Terry. Will miss you X”

He recognised too that the breakfast audience was, in his words, ‘susceptible’. Most great breakfast radio, even the most frenetic of formats, becomes sufficiently comfortable not to annoy you too much at a critical time of day.

His delivery impressed. ‘I can impose my own pausing, my own timing”. The Wogan pause meant that this high-earner took home almost as much for saying nothing as saying something.

He was himself on-air. Broadcasters only reach their true potential when they can be themselves. We acknowledge we witnessed a daily amplification of the most likeable and entertaining parts of his character, but we certainly know it was him. Radio exposes fake like no other medium.

Like many BBC greats, he tolerated the Corporation like an errant brother. Despite the annoyances, there was unconditional love and pride: "It's the greatest broadcaster the World has ever seen."

Terry protested that his was an easy job, whilst quietly recognising the skill involved.

"The proliferation of radio stations has led to a tremendous lowering of standards. The people are beginning to sound like blancmange. If what you are being paid for is to introduce a record must give it something more than..the hip phraseology ...a request....banality. If you are being paid to produce a record programme you must give it: yourself."

The delivery of his his famous farewell speech is a lesson to all broadcasters. I gather he was annoyed at the rabble of assorted bigwigs gathering in the adjacent control room to witness the end of an era. They were not even treated to a passing fond glance; his eyes were only for the listener.

"I’ve always said that I hope I’ll have enough sense to get off the beach before the tide comes", said Terry.  He did.  We'll miss him and we'll remember him.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Commonsense Call Charges Apply

In our adult lives we are required to perform all sorts of duties. We are asked to fill in tax returns or benefit forms; take the driving theory test; compare energy tariffs, fill in mortgage and job applications; and vote on who runs the country.

Yet it is believed we are too daft to know that when we pick up the phone to call a radio station or text, it might not be free…but might cost our ‘standard call/text charges’. Our ‘standard call charges’ being called ‘standard call charges’ because they are, well, ‘standard’.

Radio and TV programmes are replete with dull announcements saying the blindingly obvious. Wasting everyone’s time.

I can probably understand the merits of announcements suggesting I am going to be charged significantly extra than I might imagine, but there are even requirements to sing and dance about the amounts of pennies few would bother to pick up from the street. 

You don’t need to tell us that picking up the phone might cost us something. We know that. We don’t have signs outside shops saying that buying things might cost us. Or signs in pubs saying drinks might not be free. And I don't recall Jean Metcalfe having to bother announcing the price of a stamp when she requested Family Favourites' letters.

The final straw was the Twitter poll from the Archers. Deep into the current plot, which is being excellently delivered, alongside stunning digital media support, the Radio 4 soap chose to stage a Twitter poll.

If you use Twitter, you’ll have seen them before. It was clearly a ‘just for amusement’ question, with no prize listed - but it was evidently felt by Head Office that the poll Tweet had to be accompanied by a second Tweet with a link to a terms and conditions document. 

I clicked on the supplementary message, praying for a parody - but no.

We know such things are free.  We know they are run by Twitter. We know they are a bit of fun. Goodness, we know it all.

The painful prose was, no doubt, approved painstakingly in some nice central London office by people whose salaries we are paying. 

We probably have more cause to be alerted to the cost of unnecessary compliance procedures which have resulted from the over-regulation of this sector, when the pendulum swung too far from poor regulation.

Is it time to credit our citizens with an ounce of common sense and free our media from the sort of pointless coda which serves no-one?

Is it time for individuals to take responsibility for their own lives, and not expect the ASA's advertising rules to prevent us from eating too much; nor Ofcom's content rules to stop us being violent?

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Digital News vs Broadcast News - Who Wins?

As the reassuringly smart newsreader delivers their glossy, lengthy TV news programme impeccably from their hefty newsroom, they sometimes seem oblivious to the breaking story vibrating on my iPhone as I lie on my settee eating a Time Out.

I imagine their phone merrily buzzing in their inner suit pocket as they think ‘shit, what’s happened’, when reading a jolly cue into a ‘why so few butterflies nowadays?’ package or something.

I recall hearing on BBC social media of Anne Kirkbride’s death thinking, surely BBC TV news will mention it in the half-hour news programme somewhere, even if they do not have an obit poised. They didn’t. Given dear Deirdre was covered amply later, I concluded this was not a matter of news judgement but just because they oddly hadn’t got round to it.

I was curious to establish the role and efficiency of broadcast in a world where those same broadcasters have their own social media presences. How speedy is broadcast media and what does it add to the understanding of a story?

Accordingly, on a clement Tuesday 6th September, Migraleve tables at the ready, I surrounded myself with an panoply of news outlets as the day’s news unfolded. BBC 5 Live; BBC Radio 4; LBC (97.3); IRN; BBC News Channel (TV); Sky News (TV); the websites of BBC News and Sky News; and the Twitter feeds of BBC News; BBC Breaking, Sky News; Sky Newsbreak; LBC; LBC  Breaking; alongside the news alert notifications of Sky and BBC News.

At 1025, LBC Breaking Twitter declared the number of arrests following the protest at London City Airport. BBC TV showed live pictures from the scene. BBC Breaking Twitter communicated the number of arrests at 1029, with BBC News re-Tweeting. 

The arrests featured in LBC’s 1030 bulletin; and the story appeared on LBC’s Twitter and on IRN's 1100 radio bulletin, a bulletin which ignored Vaz speculation, in favour of matters like Obama being insulted by other leaders.

LBC’s hour on-air was dedicated to a typically beautiful James O’Brien ‘revenge porn’ angle on the Keith Vaz story. 

James paused to make clear, however, exactly why he was not bothering with the protest story. He said people will do silly things to protest and the more we talk about them, the more silly they will be. He has a point.  

LBC’s travel news, however, in great colourful and useful conversational style was keeping us in touch with the genuine implications throughout the hour in a 'matter of fact' way.

By 1133, LBC Twitter stated that protesters had been removed, and the fact was repeated in 5 Live’s headline at 1134. BBC News Twitter had got to it by 1139 and it was on the BBC TV news ticker by  1140.

At 1134, LBC Breaking Twitter had run with the guilty verdicts for the manslaughter of Elizabeth Edwards and her daughter. This was issued as a Sky Alert by 1143.

1142 saw BBC Breaking Twitter reveal the  protesters had been removed; and Sky Newsbreak Twitter relayed the Elizabeth Edwards story. 1145 saw the protesters removal on BBC TV. At 1149, James O’Brien at LBC briefly repeated his stance on the whole protest affair.

1145 saw LBC’s Travel news usefully repeating the airport was now open.

I do love the BBC’s comfy reassuring and leisurely weather forecasts up the hour on TV. I sometimes wonder what level of story would be needed to displace it.

By 12.00, BBC TV news had live pictures following the protesters removal, although you couldn’t see very much apart from a distant plane and some Lowry type figures nearby. IRN had a live reporter in the 1200 bulletin.

The ‘will he or won’t he’ resignation story from Keith Vaz rumbled on through the morning.

By 12.00, Sky’s  Darren McCaffrey  had Tweeted on his own account that he'd heard from a committee member that Vaz would resign.  Sky duly followed with a Sky Alert ‘Vaz expected to resign’ and accompanying Sky News TV ticker and discussion.

At 1203 Sky News Twitter suggested Vaz would resign and Sky News Breaking Twitter followed at 1207.  Radio 4's 1200 bulletin suggested the afternoon might herald a decision.

BBC TV News joined in at 1210, with speculation and comment. The correspondent did not share the same source as Sky, indeed their correspondent was altogether more bullish about Keith Vaz’s likely ’carry on as usual’ obstinacy, but he conceded that there were many opponents to that strategy.

Sky’s line was ‘he’s expected to go’. Auntie was sticking with ‘we’ll hear later', as probably befits the style and approach of the two news providers. “Committee to urge Vaz to stand aside’ suggested BBC News online, whilst the Sky News website stated ‘Keith Vaz set to quit as committee chair’.

At 1215, LBC travel reminded us that the airport was still closed. It is important, sometimes, for news providers to remind normal people what they need to know to live their lives when the excitement of a story has died down.

1230 LBC news declared the runway had reopened. 5 Live's headlines did not mention the re-opening and nor did the ensuing travel news.

By 1235, 5 Live had moved into topical discussion, and reflected the Black Lives Matter protest story with an interview on the cause, but without an update on the state of the runway. Presumably this is the sort of outcome the protest group desired; even if they were duly  challenged by an unusually animated Adrian Chiles and risked Nick Ferrari's Taser. 

BBC TV news, was reveling in the airport drama, with a decent live Q & A about the protest from near the scene. I did like the commentator’s use of what appeared to be one white iPhone earpiece with the wire dangling down. I presume that was for cue and not because she got bored and was enjoying Drake as she waited.

Vaz is resigning! It's happening. BBC TV news was in front at 1239, with the confirmed resignation - and the full statement on screen. The resignation had arrived before news sources had indicated (1445). BBC TV won, but its tickertape slightly lagged the developing story.

At 1245, 5 Live covered the announcement and flashed efficiently to a correspondent. At the same time, LBC Breaking News tweeted it, and the main LBC account was Tweeting James O'Brien's angles.

At 1247, Sky TV were onto the matter, accompanied by a Sky News Alert and coverage on Sky Newsbreak Twitter. 

By 1249, BBC Breaking Twitter had seized it (ten minutes after their TV channel carried it), retweeted by BBC News Twitter. Sky’s tickertape still suggested it had not happened, contradicting the in-vision story for some time. 1252 saw a BBC News alert, with a Sky News Tweet at 1253.

LBC usually rule with breaking news on radio, in my view, but it  was 1253 before they broke this story. The report, however, was typically engaging, with a natural dialogue  asking exactly the questions normal people would ask.

By 1.00, all news sources were Vaz-aligned for their news bulletins.There was no agony about the lead - and even IRN joined in at last. 

Throughout the morning, Radio 4's news bulletins had updated hourly and artfully in the manner of an avuncular figure poking his head calmly round the drawing room door on the hour, gin in hand, to ask 'anything I should know?'".

Just as I was poised to give up the exercise and reach for a glass of chilled Macon Villages, the news of Anjem Choudary’s sentencing flashed up on a Sky News alert at 1309.

First to the post on broadcast media was LBC, also at 1309. Shelagh Fogarty interrupted a call to do what LBC seems to do best, hold whatever they are doing to tell you something. Just in the way a friend would naturally but politely interrupt a conversation.

LBC Breaking Twitter followed almost simultaneously, with the line added to the BBC TV news ticker at 1310. 5 Live was engrossed in a package, but read the headline immediately afterwards at 1311, by which time BBC TV news was live from the Old Bailey. Sky Newsbreak Twitter was across it by 1312 and a BBC news alert was dispatched at 1313; BBC News Twitter at 1515. It was also on the BBC website at 1318, with Sky website just earlier.


It was an altogether exhausting exercise. I had in mind my old MD's comments that we shouldn't break our necks to be first with a story, as if they were listening to us they wouldn't know we were not first, although that rationale has diminished since social media descended. But, anyway, does five minutes matter - apart from to the puffed up chest of a heady journalist? Not least when accuracy is key.

The exercise did remind me of the importance of being aligned, and not forgetting a single ancillary channel as stories develop. Also, not allowing the rich and considered broadcast news and programming environment to impinge on the ability to interrupt, when necessary. That's what LBC usually masters. 

It reminded me too of the 5 Live dilemma. The station can, of course, ditch everything to deal with a huge breaking story excellently, but has more agony when a routine rolling story conflicts with the daily array of deep personal and engaging stories. And - if it can cope in daytime, it finds it impossible in times of football fixtures. Is it perverse that, despite the efforts of many in the BBC over the years, it does not have a rolling radio news channel?  

Could there a time when the excellent BBC Radio 4 non-news content sits online or on a dedicated channel, and Radio 4 becomes all news? That would leave 5 Live able to let sport lead.  

It might make sense on paper as an option, but I suspect the might of the Home Counties green ink combined with pressure from the commercial radio industry would quickly dash the plans. Being radical is really difficult for the BBC, and it demands real leadership.

I shall put to one side, for this blog, content questions of how media should report protests; and whether, in general coverage on Sports Direct, 'duly impartial' should require, at least, some nod in the narrative to the many businesses who use zero hours contracts fairly to the benefit of both employee and business.

My hours of analysis reminded me of the value of analysis, reflection and human response which our agile radio medium allows. It also brought to mind the extremely high quality of LBC's work nowadays, even though newspaper columnists seem to ignore its existence. 

More generally, how lucky are we to have what the Government would call 'plurality of views' in our news providers. They operate to a high quality with almost comparable speed and efficiency. 

There are countries in the World who would, and do, kill for what we sometimes fail to treasure.

BBC Home news online 0900

Sky online 0900

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Pride in the Brand

Isn’t it annoying, relaxing in your front room, when a rival’s TV ad interrupts your favourite programme? 

Your mind wanders from the escapism of X Factor – straight back to dreary work matters. It quite puts you off your food.  Even worse when the ad is truly stunning.

That’s how I used to feel in Birmingham in 2011, when the initial Capital TV ads descended.  It wasn’t just a single scud missile, the laydown of that campaign was a sustained war. The quality of the creative was enviable - and entirely on brand. 

The new Capital ad is, again, typically excellent. After a few star-studded executions, the creative has moved on. This time, the stars remain, but in a radio setting, without losing any of the class.

There is little doubt that Global has raised the bar for radio marketing. The degree of care and investment are a world away from some we have seen here and around the World. Their media buying excels too, not only terrestrial TV but canny digital buying too.  

At a time when our medium needs to be showcased well - and in a contemporary way, Global is doing it. If this medium is to enjoy future success, this investment targeting Capital listeners brings benefit to us all; and the same can be said for Radio 1's.

In the UK, as we began to use TV, tactical ads were once commonplace. Capital and BRMB trumpeted the Birthday Game or the Bong Game.  For some years, the original Virgin station led its TV creative with ‘Pay your Bills’, featuring Christian O'Connell knocking on doors. An appointment to listen. 

Contesting per se was probably a powerful approach in those pre-Lottery, pre-internet days days when your radio station would be the only place where big prizes could be won.   I know its impact was duly felt in Rajar. Now, the principal value in contesting is the witness value, not the taking part.  

Galaxy, at the time headed by the gifted Riley/Parkinson/Button marketing dynasty, probably led the way with brand radio ads.  The BJL creations had attitude.  Some campaigns at the time were supported by Outdoor creative that was banned, which, as we well know, is the best thing possible for any canny marketer.

At Free and Gem in my Orion days, we had the hamster. It puzzled some. Mind you, the ‘what has the hamster got to do with radio?' question would  proscribe just about all other TV ads for anything. 

The creative was thoroughly in line with the brief. Orion's Andy Price was on set with the real hamster, which was rather cheaper than the accompanying CGI commissioned from the War Horse creators. 

The ads attracted phenomenal scores in the Milward Brown testing, by which many TV ads are researched. The conclusions of that test were right. After the heavy terrestrial TV campaigns, the social media chatter abounded, amplifying the impact. Hum-Free was thoroughly loved, to the extent that one listener even filmed it off her TV and bunged it on Youtube. That, plus the official versions amassed 170,000 views. 

In breaking the new brands, the hamster did well, and rivalled Capital’s ad for immediate recall, with an impressive legacy tail. Importantly, it was also distinct from Capital's work. You don't confuse Rhianna with a furry thing.

Magic moved on in five years from its deliberately sleepy positioning to a more feelgood approach. As is the case, thankfully, with most radio campaigns, the sophistication grew. I wonder how many alarm clock radios have featured in TV ads for stations. And who has one nowadays, anyway

I did enjoy their 'listener pictures' concept for Magic at Christmas, but I have to confess, I would have tampered with the language and staging of this promising execution - and the abrupt music fade.

Mind you, music is always a challenge. Find the track you really, really want, then then take a seat and a deep breath as you are faced with the cost of licensing.

Outdoor has also been a key medium for the marketing of radio. In many cities, the smiling faces of the breakfast hosts peer menacingly from 6 sheets and the sides of dirty buses.  I am of the view that when you hire stars, or when you are consolidating success of a duo which an area loves, the faces can work, if they look half-decent.  An unknown ugly pair launching their new breakfast show is unlikely to score.

The current Smooth outdoor flags campaign featuring presenter faces puzzles me. Smooth is a stunning brand now, and its 'relaxing music mix' is actually one of the very few propositions where its phrase is correctly attributed by listeners (according to research we did some months back). Listeners join that great station for its music, mood and lack of interruptions. Faces, particularly if not instantly recognised, is not a tactic I would have chosen.

John Myers launched a few stations in his time. His media planning was instinctive and typically blunt. 'More bus backs, m'darlin'', he'd growl down the phone.  John maintained that the backs of buses are seen more than the sides, and if you're going to use a medium - own it. Century's colour and blunt, bright messaging did the business at the time.

Ads work client-facing too. I recall one customer, based hundreds of miles away but doing business in our towns, calling in to book airtime. 'I drove through last weekend. You are everywhere'.

We are in radio advertising. We glibly tell clients that being 'a family firm', 'established for 17 years' means little to anyone. No-one is bothered. Yet, for generations, we produced ads about ourselves rather than implying the benefits our stations bring to listeners.

As a fan of words, I cringe when I see careless language on Outdoor. Wasted words and unnecessary detail. They've likely spend months agonising over the visuals and two minutes on the language. If anyone knows words make a difference, we should. BBC local radio knew that less is more.

And, for any agency dreaming up a campaign using song lyrics. It's been done.

Heart gets it right, with a consistent brand expression over the years. The logo and look was designed generations ago under the guidance of the gifted Stevie P, in the face of lively debate with the grumpy Company Chairman, as I recall with a smile. The 'More Music Variety' line says it all, and they owned that position first . They do go with faces, but usually by the time casual listeners are many in number and have grown curious. 

The bright Heart TV campaigns focused on feel-good in real life and that brand essence is still what listeners infer from that station sound and visual identity. Some of the early ones were filmed in South Africa - cheaper and sunnier than here. More recent executions, like the Olly Murs creative, lean more on celebrity, as the brand seeks to maintain its contemporary relevance to thirty something women. Go on. Give it some Heart.

There is no doubt that radio marketing has shifted up a gear from the tentative early days. Prompted originally  by squabbling amongst ourselves, we are now genuinely thinking about true brand advertising as we face bigger battles.

Whilst currently in a good place, a better place than some suggest, the future for radio is uncertain as rival entertainment offerings become ever more attractive and accessible.  

Great marketing for any radio station does us all good  - and we need to take our own marketing responsibilities seriously for the future health of our medium.

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is available now. 

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Ten Commandments of Great Radio

It was a cop out, I confess.

Preparing a training presentation for which I’ve been commissioned, I turned to Twitter for inspiration for the ‘Ten Commandments of Great Radio’. They always say, with social media, you should ask questions. It works too well, frankly.

‘Be real, tell the truth, speak to one person and smile’, suggested Little Nicky Horne, quoting the great Michael Bukht.

Dave Rhodes leant on Nick Bailey from Classic FM’s advice along the lines of ‘Smile. Segue. Shut Up’.

Matt Deegan was on a roll. ‘If in doubt, play another song’ and ‘Thou shalt not use words no-one uses in real life. Like thou’. (His gag. He’s funny.). He also advised ‘Remember to those listeners, you're the one that chose all those songs – be sure to tell them why with  passion’. Philip Lickley also wagged his finger and muttered: 'Don't criticise the songs on the playlist'.

Made me think of a comment I heard on BBC local radio last week: ‘Cor. That song goes on and on- gets a bit boring doesn’t it’.  A colleague and I spluttered out tea in amusement. That chap should just shut up.

John Myers was up for the challenge: ‘If you can’t say anything positive or interesting, hit Next. No-one ever complains about too much music’. He added ‘A menu is for restaurants. Radio is built for content with occasional surprises and those with a love of words’. John’s gone off menus generally of late, actually, and his weight loss is thoroughly impressive. Well done, Sir. You look a Bobby Dazzler.

Oh yes,and ‘Practise asking questions in one breath. Anything longer and you’re waffling. Umms are errs are the tools of fools’.  I shall ignore the ensuing debate about – er - Fluff.

I quite grew to like Alex Healey over the course of the evening’s discourse. ‘When lacking content revert to biscuits”. Ah yes. What are those little red wafery ones called? Yummy. And whatever happened to Wagon Wheels? No. Don’t. 

On a serious note, Alex suggests: ‘listen to the radio’. He is surprised that applicants don’t have much idea of what stations do when they roll up for a job. He’s right. Tush. Kids today, ey?

Alex also insisted we say ‘tops of’ when discussing the temperature; and 'play Katrina &The Waves when the temperature exceeds 15C'.  

On music, Jon Gripton just says ‘no matter what the research says, never play Simply Red.

The truly wonderful Richard Murdoch reminded us ‘never fade Bohemian Rhapsody’. I actually have a lovely faded instance of that preserved for posterity. Remind me to play it to you.

Philippa Sawyer had her organising head on: “Assign programmes to teams, not individuals’

Richard Horsman is a thoroughly wise, sensible, serious educator who also adores the fun of radio. A rare breed. ‘It might be wacky or satirical – but it’s still contempt, even if you’re funny’, he counsels.

The talented Simon Grundy reminded me ‘don’t refer to children as kids’. I rather think he’s smiling wryly as he remembers a Lincs FM 1992 edict, where presenters were hanged in Witham Park if they broke the rule. Depends on the context, I reckon. But ‘cops’ in news. Hmmm. I’d rather not.

My old mate, patient producer Tom Reeves, said ‘Always put the listener first and work backwards'. Spot on.  Diolch yn fawr.

It had clearly been a long day for John Dredge: 'Engage, entertain and...Englebert Humperdinck'.

Titus Jennings reminded us of Everett’s rule: ‘Sound like you’re having fun that’s the secret to great wireless’.

Mark Hickford’s a cautious bloke ‘Always have a back up plan. If something breaks, you need to cover the silence’. Isn’t it funny when someone happens to play the song which is the first one on the back up ‘tape’ and everyone runs around wondering what’s gone wrong.

Mark also had a thing about rivals: "Thou shalt not slag off (or really even mention) other stations".

Lovely Chris Hubbard took the opportunity just to ban ‘A very good morning to you’.  ‘No-one says that’, he asserts. He’s right of course.  

And if I hear any of Eddie Mair’s correspondents talk just to Eddie and not to me, I’ll scream. #R4PM

Rod Whiting (what a voice) is in poetic mood. ‘Turn up the colour and contrast and own it’.

Last Word today goes, not to Matthew Bannister, but to the wise Glyn Jones: "Never forget that what you do is the most important thing in the world and, at the same time, joyously trivial".

This was not a contest, but lines have now closed.  Your text may be wasted if you text in now.

The above bears little similarity to the presentation I’ve really assembled, but it’s certainly given me a few gags. Many thanks. 

If you want to see me host the presentation, I charge nowadays. But it’s worth it.

I've also written a  book: 'How to Make Great Radio'. Get a copy or download now

Monday, 18 July 2016

BBC Annual Report 2015/2016 - Comment

The two sides of the BBC published their annual report last week. In the blue corner, the BBC Trust in 'end of term' mood - and across in the red corner, the hard-working operational BBC Executive.

First the headlines, as Huw might say. Dum Dum.  2015/16 was the penultimate year of the ‘Delivering Quality First’ (DQF) savings programme, which has delivered £621m savings by the end of March 2016. The programme remains on track to deliver a total of £700m in annual recurrent savings by the end of March 17.

The Trust Chairman, Rona Fairhead, assures that “It is clear that there is no public appetite for fundamental change to the BBC’s scale and scope”.

She’s right.  We’d vote to keep the BBC as it is. Not that I’m suggesting a Referendum. We’ve all had quite enough.

Despite both the reputational challenges of recent years and much competitive media, BBC satisfaction remains high, and the BBC’s own polling, Charter consultation and the Government’s own consultation bear this out.   Most people would likely rate the BBC highly and feel it is value for money. 

More savings are needed, however, and listeners and viewers might fear they will eat into quality. Talk to most people on the ground at the BBC, however, and they can easily volunteer further savings which would likely make programme quality and staff morale higher not lower.

The report concedes that, of all the BBC’s ‘purposes’, the ‘nations, regions and communities’ purpose remains challenging.  Average performance scores, however, have grown from 44% in 2008 to 51% now, with the importance of that area growing to 51% from 44%.

There were some declines seen for ‘content that is for people like me’ (59% vs 64% last year) and ‘representing my nation/region in news’ (54% vs 59%).

The Trust recalls that in its review of BBC Local Radio and local news and current affairs in England, it recommended that “the BBC give greater explanation of local political and policy issues on its local services and continue to work collaboratively with other local news providers”.

The cost of BBC local radio in England rises to 119.8m from 115.6m. Its weekly reach declines from 15.5% to 15%. I calculate than (pan UK) ‘BBC Local Radio’ reach amongst 55+ remains at 27%.  Although that is stable, it remains significantly lower that oft-criticised Radio 1 in its sub-34 demographics.

Appreciation of BBC radio overall remains high, now up to 80.9%. It is better rated than TV or online (the latter said to be “affected by relaunches of the Homepage and News sites”.

The familiar warnings on younger listeners are despatched: “radio makes up a much smaller share of audio listening among younger audiences: 15 to 24 year-olds’ time spent with live radio is 49% of their total; this rises to 57% among 25 to 34 year-olds, 81% among 35 to 54 year-olds and 89% among those aged over 55.” As a medium, we need to take this seriously. Not in a defensive way, but simply recognising the reality.

Anyone with kids will tell you that life is not the same as it was when we would have been bereft about a flat PP9 battery. The BBC’s reach is lower among young adults (15 to 24 year-olds) at 55% and this has fallen just slightly, from 56% last year.  So, Rajar suggests than just under half consume no BBC radio whatsoever, and it’s fallen.

Ben Cooper can sleep at night. They are confident in Radio 1’s efforts to rejuvenate:  “Our service review, published in March 2015, concluded that Radio 1 is clearly focused on serving a young audience and discussions we have had with the BBC this year confirm that this remains the case.”

Further up the scale, Radio 2 is clearly a titan of a station, but its audience of ‘35+’ is not so much a target as a whole dartboard. I note it’s doing better with its younger, rather than older shoulders.

Amongst 65+, I calculate that BBC radio reach has fallen from 76% to 74% in a year. Over a quarter of those aged over 65 seemingly find nothing of interest in any BBC radio service, a demographic largely untargeted by commercial radio. Whilst there is much daytime TV and rival attractions for the older vote, this may seem to ask a question about whether BBC radio overall is doing its job for these 11.5m people as well as it might.

The service review of Radio 4, Radio 5 live and their sister digital stations was favourable: “audiences consider the stations to be high quality and distinctive and that they appreciate the range of programming on each station. Many stakeholders agreed with this and said that Radio 4 and 5 live both demonstrate public service broadcasting at its best.”

BBC 5 live gets favourable comment although the Trust says: “In our service review, we asked the BBC to consider how it promotes Radio 5 live, and to give greater emphasis to its news remit so that its reputation can strengthen in this area alongside its reputation for high quality sports coverage.” As any programmer knows, you simply cannot do both. If a news story hits at the wrong time, and we’ve had more than our fair share of late, you have tough choices. In times of crisis, you know what Sky (TV) and LBC will be doing, but unless it’s a major crisis you may have the Archers on Radio 4, a footie match on 5 Live, and a man pointing at a weather map on the BBC TV News channel.

The Trust states: “Our review of BBC Local Radio and news and current affairs in England asked the BBC to improve its local web offer further. We found that audience expectations are still not being met in this area despite improvements such as the introduction of Local Live feeds, which provide more dynamic and up-to-date local news by combining short news updates with links to longer form content from the BBC and other local news providers”.

I agree. I’m not confident the audience has noticed these new initiatives. They are not easy to find. Search a city name and 'local news', or similar, and you get to a different page than the actual dynamic feed, with often aged stories. It’s not obvious that you need to click on ‘Live’ for refreshed content. And, in any case, who follows a rolling news blog of random stories (not least one which shuts down when the digital person goes home)?   

It’s a topic for another time, but I’m thoroughly unsure that the BBC has yet mastered the web/social media/broadcast relationship for local news in a way that really squares with the journey of how real people seek their information. In my past lives, we discovered our journalists would spend ages assembling news copy for the website, but page views were minimal, apart from those stories we had pointed to from social media, so we turned the strategy on its head.

I concur, therefore, that ‘The BBC will need to continue to improve the speed of its local news reporting and flex the ways in which stories are made available in order to meet changing audience expectations’.

Moving to the ‘Executive’ section, the DG of the BBC itself says “Let’s also not forget the essential role our local radio stations played in keeping their listeners and the whole country informed about the floods. And they do so much more besides”.

"So much more besides"?

Am I being suspicious in suggesting that sounds to me as if the DG is not altogether sure what this great thing called local radio is - or does  - in general terms? It does that flood service thingy and...  Disappointing. I know, alas too well, that you cannot build a lasting radio 'business' just out of being relied on in crisis. 

BBC local radio needs a higher profile and a deeper understanding within the BBC.  It remains as unloved now as it was in 1967.  If the BBC really does not want to do it, maybe it should spin off the funding to someone else to love and provide it without the head office migraines.

Maybe that would feed into the ‘proposal to open up BBC Radio to more competition from independent producers and…deliver savings, whilst remaining focused on the quality of our output’.

The BBC trumpets its specific initiatives – and so it should.  Radio 1’s #1millionhours campaign; Radio 2’s ‘500 Words’ and commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain; and Radio 3’s seasons like Northern Lights and Why Music? And the list goes on. We want the BBC to give time and effort to deliver rich content and have dedicated resource to do it brilliantly. Some material we see and hear is breathtakingly good.

Spend is down across radio, apart from at Radio 4 and the Asian Network. 4 Extra incurs a significant drop but its growing audiences have evidently not noticed.

BBC Radio Cymru remains the most expensive radio service, up from 21.1p to 22.3p per user hour. The next most expensive is right down the scale with Radio 3 at 5.5p per user hour, with BBC local at 3.9p.  Diolch yn fawr.  BBC online is at 9.6p, so more per user than any radio service, and that presumably is for a single use, not necessarily an hour.

BBC local radio content costs as much as Radio 1, 2 and 3 added together. In many ways a high cost is thoroughly understandable. However, as the Corporation seeks to make further savings in the next Charter term, this cost will again come under scrutiny.  There are other ways of delivering great local radio across the towns and cities of the UK. Nibbling into the budget inch by inch without making significant strategic changes means there will be nothing left for dinner.

Heads have rolled. The number of senior managers at the BBC throughout has fallen to 356 from 484. I’m glad the role I briefly had has disappeared. It was clear to me on Day One it was unnecessary, and I’m pleased that the equivalent roles are now being expanded to replace other positions. I suspect the post-holders are less bored too. Having said that, the executive pay at the top of the BBC is not over-generous.  There were just far too many of them.

The last year has been one of the most complex ever for the embattled BBC, with some buttock-clenching disputes, a Charter to sort, World Service costs to absorb, a tough and changing political climate, budget reductions, heightened scrutiny, the binning of its ‘regulator’, and a Referendum to cover.

In my ‘Conversations’with Roger Mosey, he reflected how the BBC has 'chewed up and spat out' its DGs over the years. It’s a tough job. 

The BBC is getting a lot right. At this critical time, it needs to be bold, proud and visionary.  Inspire. Let its leaders lead. Devolve. Let its managers manage.

Do what it is supposed to do with energy, efficiency and creativity.