Wednesday, 25 May 2016

No Stars in My Car

Another chapter begins and I start to sort out my life. Away from the luxury of corporate cushioning, I remind myself I really should buy and insure my own car.

The matter of insurance would be a simple one, I'd imagined. After all, I'm not a spotty 17 year old (I was going to write '17 year old glue sniffer', but I don't think the kids bother with that habit now). And I'm pretty clean, with just two doses of three points ever in my whole driving career. Admittedly, one of those was annoyingly recent when a happy chappy erected what appeared to be a personal speed trap just for me, given how quiet the road was on that annoying Sunday. Yes, I'd been offered 'the course', but anyone who knows my inability to sit in any meeting longer than an hour, will quite understand why I grasped the fine and points without as much as a 'by your leave', as they'd say in Corrie.

I alighted on the Swift Insurance website, remembering I divorced them amicably seven years ago ago, as the Orion Media adventure began. Having agonised over pages of questions with due honesty and dreamed up canny new passwords, I clicked the 'get me a bloody quote' button. Only to be treated to a miserable emoticon telling me that 'computer says no'.

No! What's wrong with me? They deem me 
uninsurable! Is it because they have decided that people in red cars with red seats are not to be trusted?  Or was it because my partner and I dare to work in the media? Harrumphing with radio friends later, I'm reminded that presenters and journalists alike suggest the quotes from most insurance companies appear to leap up when it's discovered we have a vaguely interesting job.

The reason appears to be, and this my be apocryphal, that insurers fear we might be transporting Lady Gaga to an interview or something. Who assembled this bizarre risk assessment for radio drivers? Had they been drinking?

Should any insurers be reading my blog, may I assure you that transport of Gaga or anyone else of note is highly unlikely. If we were to compile a list of star journeys in private cars since radio began, it wouldn't be a very long one. 'Thanks for interviewing me. Loved it. Now could you give me a lift to Waitrose?'. It doesn't happen and it won't happen. Lord Reith likely transported no one anywhere in his Austin 7. So give us a break. 

By the way, I'm sorted now, having explained my plight personally to a lovely young man in the Northern call centre of an alternate company. He was so excited to talk to someone in radio, he wasn't going to turn me down. 

(Since writing this, @beardedian points out that Swift have had a 'no entertainers' policy which backfired when Iggy Pop appeared in a TV campaign boasting the virtues of a company which, in practice, would not have insured him.)

Monday, 25 April 2016

How Are Listeners Choosing to Listen?

Listeners don't really care how they listen, provided it is convenient and they enjoy the content.

Rajar published its latest MIDAS study last week. That's where they grab hold of some of the Rajar respondents who completed the online diaries (as opposed to the good old-fashioned colouring books), and prod them with a stick for more insight about how their listening was delivered.

MIDAS, by the way, stands for 'Measurement of Internet Delivered Audio Services'. I'm guessing they made the words fit the acronym. Just like we do in radio-land. Title first, worry about the rest later. Sorry, I'm off on a tangent here.

The heading is 'audio' time. In other words, the study usefully examines how we consume audio generally. A 1978 study would have had 'record players', 'cassette players' and '8 track carts' on the list. Let's remember there has always been competition for the ear since the strolling mummers.

Folk spend 26 hours per week with audio entertainment, with live radio making up almost three quarters of that time. Get out the bunting. That's good news.  As we know, live radio reaches 90% of the population across the week. Although the volume of listening to catch-up radio and podcasts is relatively low, 8% of adults use catch-up and 7% podcast at least once a week. Podcasts are hugely speech-oriented.

Of the live radio proportion, how are listeners listening? 46.6% is to FM and AM. In other words, more listening is now to things other than an old-fashioned radio, but analogue broadcast remains the largest party in a minority government. However, to sustain the metaphor carelessly, DAB is the Lib Dems, supplying another 35% of listening, meaning that 'the radio set' remains in power.  It is the most important device overall by some margin (around 82% of all listening).

It's worth reminding programme teams who may listen atypically, being funky media chicks, that their audience is still more likely to be using a radio for the majority of their consumption.

Given Rajar have been busy with these surveys for the last three years now, we can establish how quickly things are changing. The MIDAS study in Spring 2014 (which I took to be broadly similar, although fewer respondents)  gave 53% of live radio listening to AM/FM (now 46.6%) and 32% to DAB (now 35%).

The reach of 'other platforms' for live radio consumption is now very high.  Just over two-thirds of us ever listen to radio online in any way, for whatever duration.

Who's streaming music? Blokes more than women.  In an average week 7.6m access an on-demand  music service, (compared to 48.2m listening to live radio).  On-demand music services account for 6% of all audio hours, which is 1.4 hours per week, tripling to 4.5 hours for 15-24s – 16% of all their audio.

By device, PCs and laptops are ours - with live radio producing the most audio consumed, closely followed by streaming services. Tablets are music streaming-led (30%) with radio at 17.6%. Add in catch up radio to that figure, though, and 'radio' leads. Smartphones have 'digital tracks' (downloaded music) leading, albeit with live radio closely following.

Brum brum. Live radio accounts for 84% of all in-car listening, compared to 1.2% for the on-demand music services. There's no slice on the pie chart denoting ear-time devoted to screaming kids in the back.

As always with research, I try to put it into a context.  As this sample is of those who have chosen to complete the on-line Rajar diary rather than the paper one, I imagine that the respondents are a touch more likely to be at the cutting edge of technology (although I note that provision has been made in the calculations to allow for those who are not on broadband etc). And I'd also caution that sometimes, as radio sets receive more than one platform and even flip from platform to platform automatically, and as people listen on ever more devices, the ability of any individual to know or recollect which device was used for which slice of listening  is open to question. 

In the States, the recent Edison/Triton Digital Survey suggests that 93% of U.S. adults listen to radio weekly. 57% of adults (12+) had listened to online radio in the past month.  The number of people who own a radio at home was 96% in 2008; it's now 79%.

Back to Blighty,  the whole MIDAS survey looks sensible and makes for interesting reading. It is another creditable and useful piece of intelligence by the fine folk at Rajar.

What does it tell us?  That most of what we radio stations make is still consumed live, and that which is not is often distinctive speech. It tells us that we need to be aware that listeners listen to us in all sorts of ways, and we simply must ensure that we are always where the listeners expect us to be, and easily found there, however expensive that increasingly becomes.  The radio in the corner or the car remains, however, hugely important, and it's much too early to presume that our typical listener is not listening to one for much of the time. But - we need to be across this whole area, it's changing quickly - and the pattern for younger demos ever quicker still.

It also reminds us that a new battleground is looming, with cunning new adversaries. We need to be alert to them, continuing to do what radio does best, and to miss no trick in distinctive content generation; powerful marketing for the medium and its content; and in influencing gadget design. It's an unprecedented battle, potentially more bloody than the one posed by television, and we shall have but one chance of winning.

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now, and available on Amazon

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Irate Listeners Sometimes Don't Listen

I handled an email a few weeks ago from an irate listener who was APPALLED at something they'd heard. 

Actually, the presenter had simply not said what the listener had suggested. The listener had clearly misheard. We wrote back politely; and heard no more. I suspect they felt a little humble, or. more likely, felt we were making up our response.

Another of our presenters was chastised a few years ago for being thoroughly homophobic on-air. The correspondent deduced that we, as station management, must all be too. I was not of the view the remark was homophobic at all and had been completely misconstrued.  I rather suspect the complainant did not appreciate the irony of the general presumptions and assertions about the particular presenter and management - not least in the context of the jolly array of sexualities alive and kicking with pride in the entertainment industry.

Programmer, Jane Hill, reminds me of the complainant who called  with deep concern about the song 'Eff Off'. Not least because the chorus just chanted the remark incessantly.  I'm not sure the Motors imagined their vocals were likely to be thus misinterpreted when they recorded 'Airport;' in 1978. You'll never be able to hear that song in the same light ever again.

On the jet plane way down the runaway.
And I can't believe that she really wants to leave me - and it's
getting me so,
It's getting me so.
Eff off -
Eff off, you've got a smiling face....
Eff off 
Eff off, you've got a smiling face...

I live in hope that listeners might just give their chosen stations the benefit of the doubt, before leaping into angry exchanges. We usually try our best to stay on the right side of things; and where we err, a polite nudge would be appreciated. Don't presume the worst of us, not least because we fully appreciate that you have a life to lead and your ears are not always Sellotaped to the radio.

The BBC 1928 handbook suggests:  "Hardly ever does a critic admit in so many words that he is expressing his own views only". How true. 

And for those music programmers getting furious with listeners convinced that a particular song has been played THREE TIMES in the LAST HOUR, rest assured it's not a new problem:

"There is, again, the impression that anything particularly disliked invariably predominates. To those to whom dance music is anathema it appears to be broadcast in every programme. A listener who does not care for talks cannot switch on without finding one in progress, and another who longs for variety entertainment is utterly bewildered at the interminable transmissions of symphony concert". (BBC Handbook 1928)

The BBC began to despair about listener behaviour. As smartly-dressed programme makers expended ever more effort polishing their performance, they got the view that some listeners just weren't bloody well listening properly.  

The 1930 BBC Year Book dutifully, therefore, issued this wonderful Good Listening charter (pictured), which suggested "you can't get the best out of a programme if your mind is wandering".  

It concludes famously:

"If you only listen with half an ear you haven't a quarter of a right to criticise".  

I shall attach the jpeg to my next reply to unwarranted criticism.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Accidents and Incidents

Not one of my carefully-crafted Tweets has ever attracted quite so much comment as my peremptory intolerance last weekend about an otherwise decent travel bulletin I heard, but which also assured me there were 'no accidents or incidents' to report.

Putting to one side whether it's sensible to retain a 12 inch travel news service when there's so little news around, that the long-suffering presenters struggle to find sufficient to say before they hit the first post in the travel bed, I'm more concerned about this 'accident or incident' business.

It seems to me to amount to a rather long-winded way of saying that there is, actually, nothing to say. 

'Incident', in this context, is an umbrella word which covers everything from ducks wandering into the path of your Vauxhall Astra to a multiple pile-up on the M1.  An 'accident' is a sort of 'incident'.  You surely don't need to say both, yet the tautology is spreading across UK travel bulletins like a fever. 

Mr Oxford English Dictionary insists: "An accident is an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury".

To be frank, if you are simply saying politely that you've nothing more to add, maybe you don't even need to tell me. We don't do that when a news bulletin ends. 'Why talk at all if there is nothing to talk about?' chips in @andymay.

I gather the Constables prefer the phrase 'incident' to 'accident' as they do not wish to intimate that anything was unintentional or done without negligence, whilst Morse is still scratching his head wondering who the villain is. The word is sometimes used in news bulletins too when things are unclear. Steve @SMartin describes 'incident' as a 'weasel word', used to 'vague up something that could be far more talkable if better described'.   Therein lies both its value and its uselessness.

@LouMitchell77 volunteered that accidents are bigger than incidents. I'm not sure that's true, given there have been many significant 'incidents' in history. People have died in 'incidents'.  It's arguably a very English way of talking about something bloody huge.

Some people argue there is no such thing as an accident. The brilliant @Danofftheradio disagrees. And I agree with him.

Gareth, @LookoutWales2, suggested we should always avoid 'incidents' - he prefers 'problems'. It’s likely what our listeners might say, which is always a decent start.

Presenters appear to be rather taken by its rhythm - and, yes, Paul Simon liked it too:

All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

My ramblings triggered a torrent of other pet-hates. 

@StrubCrouch reminded me of 'sheer weight of traffic'. Yes - the roads are busy because there are lots of cars on them. Arguably that 'sheer weight' business does tell me that there was no accident, but frankly, all I care about is when I'm going to get home.

@Suekcraft moaned about 'the roads are moving slowly'.  

@JuliecarJulie remarked that 'down here, one traffic reporter always adds 'for you' on the end. 'No incidents for you' or 'looking busy for you'.  Whilst I adore the power of the word 'you', let's agree that's over-egging a little.

As I've mentioned many times, don't trouble me with the 'earlier accident'? As opposed to that one just about to happen, one presumes.

And don't mention 'usual hotspots' to @MartP132. He hates them, not least when he's new to an area and cannot differentiate between where is hot and where is lukewarm. But, again, if you're not going to tell me detail of a hotspot, because you think I know it already, why bother telling me that you're not going to tell me.

Whilst we are busy with our lexicological Spring cleaning, can we ban this 'traffic and travel' nonsense for the same reason? Not least because the phrase actually denotes news/information about traffic and travel - rather than traffic and traffic per se.  But, as with 'accidents or incidents', 'travel news' may not always be 'traffic news', but 'traffic news' is surely 'travel news'. In commercial stations, sales execs rush around gleefully selling 'T & T sponsorship'. Let's just call it 'travel news'. It's shorter than 'traffic and travel'; it's more accurate; and 'travel' has more pleasurable connotations than 'traffic'. Sorted.

@TweeterStewart reminded me of my aversion to that one. He explains both offences thus: "One rhymes, the other is alliterative. So they sound 'good' without people thinking what they mean #DJcliche"

He's right. Let's think about the words we use on-air - rather than reach for the cliches on which your naive predecessors have alighted. In radio, words are all we have.

+ + + + +

Since publishing this, I've been reminded of these corkers:

"Fog is affecting both carriageways" (@blokeonradio)

"If you're heading southbound". 'No you're heading South, or you're Southbound'.(@stuartclarkson)

"If it's safe and legal to do so" (Andy Mitchell)". (David: Who thought that was worth saying? It's like saying: 'here's something worth watching on TV tonight, but don't steal a telly'.)

"My pet hate is when the preceding news bulletin focuses extensively on a major fire, only for the travel bulletin to reveal a road is closed "because of a police incident". It's not a police incident - it's a bloody fire..." (Steve Beech).

"I've always wondered why every road becomes TREACHEROUS when it snows. I've never heard a snowy weather traffic bulletin not use the word. Mind you, the time to be worried is when roads are "a bit treacherous". You never know where you are with those sort of roads..." (Andy Roche)

"Busy but moving". "That's to be expected for the time of day" (@blokeonradio)

Grab my pedantic book 'How to Make Great Radio' from Amazon now. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Sam & Amy - Ten Years On

It's said the average length of an American marriage is eight years, so ten years is a major landmark for a couple having to stare into each other's eyes at dawn each day on a breakfast show.

Sam & Amy break through that boundary in April - and enter their second decade of earlies, waking up the East Midlands.

They now rule their commercial market at breakfast-time on Gem, despite some powerfully-programmed local competition; and their mantelpieces are groaning with awards. They beat Norton & Evans to the Radio Academy 'Best Personality' award in 2014, were awarded.

A little like Terry & June or Jack & Vera, you could be forgiven for thinking they actually are husband and wife. Their chemistry is that of the bickering pair who are mutually forgiven for their seemingly intolerable behaviour because it is underpinned by an unspoken depth of affection which listeners know and understand. It's the same on and off-air.   Meet them together, and you see the chemistry is genuine.  See them making an appearance and you witness star quality, glamour and style.

They are, of course, not husband and wife, and their long-suffering other halves thankfully all get on well. Sam & Amy cringe and confess that they kissed once, a very long time ago. That admission is clear evidence of the authenticity which underpins this show. It's real, but it's also sexy. 

Criticism is often leveled at hastily-assembled traditional 'boy-girl' shows, not least when the 'girl' appears to be cast as a giggling sidekick. Amy is a woman, and she's not to be messed with. Through Sam's bluster and bravado, Amy's non-nonsense character is frequently in charge - and the value of this relationship is thoroughly 50:50.

In the words of annoyingly talented programme consultant, Francis Currie.

"Their loyal listeners have heard them go through different stages of their lives - all of them shared with the audience with the same combination of honesty, fun and self-deprecation that makes them such a joy to listen to."

They are entertaining individuals first, and radio people second. I think MC Pinkham would concede that he wouldn't win awards for his mixing skills. The vivid colour of Sam's story-telling means that his tales can be recalled months later. His delivery is sticky. He holds a room with his stories; and is able to do that on the air too, with enviable skill.

Good production sits at the heart of any great breakfast show, and I know they'd agree that they accept Paul Iliffe's authority, not quite with cheery alacrity, but with certain professionalism. As I said in my book, Paul suggested to me once that great producers are a little like shepherds. He gets them organised, brings ideas to reality, and helps them stay engaged. On natural shows like this, it is the absence of great production which would be most noticeable. And, in unsavoury dark dawn hours, it does take quiet brilliance to direct a pair who've had a taste of BBC Radio 2.

Mention should be made too of the third person in the relationship, the character of 'Dangerous Dave', played by the lovely David Tanner.  Little preppy Dave has now grown from boy to man and indeed to dad in the custody of this show, and this intelligent guy chips in with lines of top quality. A natural musician, his hastily assembled and brilliantly-performed birthday songs amuse the audience, delight the subject, and provide rich material for Sam & Amy's ribbing, which never, ever sounds like bullying - and the audience are on his side.

Corporate circumstances have been more than a tad complex. Sam & Amy bounded through the door on the show in 2006 on what was a relatively new Heart, then freshly acquired by Chrysalis from GCap and, indeed, the first 'Heart- conversion', having previously been Century. The station then became part of the foundation for Global Radio, before being sold to Orion in 2009. Sam & Amy were also in situ when the brand changed overnight to Gem in the early days of 2011.

I gather it was Gareth Roberts, now with the BBC,  who played match-maker when he put the two together in 2002/2003. Amy had been hosting Drive travel, and Sam was part of the then breakfast team. The pair then served their broadcast-courtship on the Drive show.

It's no accident that a number of programmers have seen merit in the show. Francis Currie heard them together on Drive in 2005. and full marks to him for having moved the show up the schedule. 

He says:  "Even then there was such a natural easy chemistry between them that they were the obvious choice for Breakfast when the opportunity came up.  Their skill and appeal on air more than made up for their (then) youth!  They have now worked together for (almost) ten years and the chemistry is even stronger".

There's a peculiar pride in giving birth to a breakfast show and then watching it continue to succeed from afar.

"More than anything it is their easy, natural charm that makes them such a killer combination".

Owing to the fact that they certainly don't have faces for radio, the show is now in vision too, thank to a bright idea from James Brindle at Notts TV, the well-run local TV station. From 6-9 each day, you can see them live on screen in the region on Freeview, Sky and the likes.

I have to declare an interest, given I am part of the parent company of Gem, but I give all credit to Sam & Amy, Dave, Paul, their programmers past and present, Mike Newman and James Brownlow; and today's supporting cast including the news-team, the interns, and hard-working Matt Smith, who help weave the brand tapestry on which they've made themselves comfortable.  Gem now enjoys all time high audiences.

I could write effusive volumes about a number of Orion presenters of whom I am hugely proud - and I shall do in due course - but it would be remiss of me now not to shout from the rooftops about this particular class act as they hit their decade.

Pics from Kris Askey/Orion

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is available from Amazon. Proceeds to Radio Academy

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Virgin is back

So - the Virgin brand returns to UK radio today. That familiar red star is back.

I gather that the last vestiges of fond memorabilia have been erased from One Golden Square as the Virgin's son arrives. In Christian O'Connell's words on Twitter "It's like having your ex back in your life". I liked the confident, contemporary way he, presumably with accord from Absolute management, handled the new friendly format adversary.

It's odd really. Different songs, largely. Different presenters, largely. Different frequencies. Different management. Different building. And yet Virgin 'is back'.  Radio's a funny old thing - with the place in the listener's heart almost insulated forever.

There is certainly a seed of rasping 1215 DNA in there - and you can hear that spirited, rough-edged, friendly informality on-air today. Despite Virgin being, amongst other things, an international radio brand, this version is authentically British, connecting with our guitar roots.

It's another of the recent nods too to attracting the loyalty of the male British ear, with much of the music radio sector dominated, quietly, to female appeal.

It wanted FM, it got AM. It now has DAB. It was the brand that missed out on a generation of transmission tech.

Enjoy the first moments on-air - from a train. Good luck, Virgin. Excitement in the industry is good news for all.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Trust Report - BBC Local Radio and Local News and Current Affairs in England

Another day. Another BBC report. 

In the context of its specific perspective, the report seems relatively sensible, although the contents illustrate yet again how the poor BBC gets in a tug of love from assorted strategies and priorities.

The part of the report dedicated to BBC Local Radio reminds us at the outset of its BBC Service Licence: "a primarily speech-based service of news, information and debate to local communities across England. Speech output should be complemented by music, and the stations should have a strong emphasis on interactivity and audience involvement. The target audience should be listeners aged 50 and over, who are not well served elsewhere, although it may appeal to all those interested in local issues".

It states too the latest Rajar figures: "BBC Local Radio reaches a large proportion of its target audience and has a high level of unique reach; it is clearly focused on serving its target audience . BBC Local Radio was listened to by 15.5% of adults in England each week in 2014-15".  Amongst the target over 50s, it reminds us that "nearly a quarter of them listened to BBC Local Radio each week, making it the BBC’s third highest reaching radio service among this age group, behind Radio 2 and Radio 4".  For reference, although not stated in the report, Radio 1 enjoys a 39% reach in its highly contested 15-24s.

The report makes reference too, however, to the fact that the service "may also appeal to all those interested in local issues”, so there is a secondary audience, given there is no local BBC service for the under 50s.

The Trust remind us how unique the audience is.  As we might expect from life, older people are less promiscuous.

The crucial question is whether these service are serving the 50 pluses. The Trust says an unequivocal 'yes' in its conclusion in large gold lettering, although there are some points of note in the detail. I am not surprised that "Local Radio editors and staff have told us that serving an older, local audience is of key importance". If I were one of those, I'd certainly say that to the man from the Trust when he grabbed my lapels.  It is suggested that "audience figures illustrate this", and I'd agree that  "weekly reach is particularly high among listeners aged 70 and over: at 30%", but, again, I'd point to Radio 1 figure above. For maths students, the median age of the listener is 58. 

As we know, weekly audience reach is highest out of mainland Britain and in rural areas (like the fine Radio Shropshire), and it performs less well in the big cities, as has been the challenge for generations, although the BBC is arguably no nearer a satisfactory solution. BBC Radio London has the lowest proportionate reach at just 4.1% of adults in the transmission area; "although it reaches a higher number of listeners (478,000) than any other BBC Local station".

The report states that weekly reach of BBC Local Radio has fallen by around 10% from 17.3% in 2010-11 to 15.5% in 2014- 15; and that this loss has been fairly even among all age groups; albeit actually marginally greater (-11%) amongst the over 50s. The context being that "overall radio listening among over 50s has remained broadly stable in the last five years, as an average 91% listen to some radio each week. Total hours per listener have fallen just slightly, from 25.7 hours per week in 2010-11 to 25.1 hours in 2014-15".  So the mature radio market is relatively stable, but local radio's share has fallen.

In fairness, let's just remind ourselves that the world has moved on for 50+ listeners, as with all demographics.  Years ago, there was no Smooth or Classic FM  - and daytime TV would have amounted to an occasional  cricket match or an open university programme given by a bearded Maths teacher in a cheap nylon shirt. Audiences can now choose from all manner of TV and radio channels, with much daytime TV aimed at older audiences - and indeed choose from programmes previously  broadcast. This simply will eat into the amount of time spent by over 50s on radio; and eke away at the edges of reach.

That's my view. The Trust suggests that The BBC has also sought to understand why reach of Local Radio has declined to this extent. "Its research indicates that, as the number of sources of news and information increases, BBC Local Radio listeners are increasingly using other sources for ‘utility’ news and information. Audiences also have greater choice across a range of media". It concluded that "BBC Local Radio must deliver its public purposes and, in particular, its remit of local news, in ways that are more engaging for listeners, delivered with warmth and personality. It hopes that this new approach will encourage audiences to stay with the stations for longer and may help reverse the decline in reach". 

I'm not convinced there is evidence that BBC local radio's audience is rushing to Twitter for its news or anywhere else. I'd attribute any decline, actually, to how well the stations overall are targeting programming at the audience.

Sections 64 and 82 seek to reassure anyone who heard David Holdsworth talk of warmer programming that his plan is more a matter of tone than anything more. "The BBC’s revised editorial approach should not reduce the stations’ focus on news, nor change the fundamental scope of the Local Radio offer". "We are clear that the remit of BBC Local Radio has not changed, and we have been assured by the BBC that its new approach will not reduce the services’ focus on news, nor will it change the scope of the Local Radio offer – news-focused, locally produced and focused speech radio. And we have seen no evidence that this has begun to happen".  The Trust sees no reason to vary the definition of the target audience.

Appreciation is high, especially high among older listeners, "particularly for its companionship role and its balance of music and speech". 

Audience comments are interesting, as ever. These people, who generally liked the services according to top line findings, described them as "warm, friendly and inviting" in qualitative studies.

I was delighted to see, as the first point under 'quality and distinctiveness' a suggestion of  "much appreciation for (its) accessibility and praise for presenters – particularly those who are felt to be knowledgeable about the local area, as well as entertaining".  That's key.  Get that right - with presenters of the right vintage and talent level - and the audience challenges will begin to fall away.

There was, however, a feeling from some respondents that "presenters can lack local knowledge". I wonder how many BBC recruitment boards (interviews) for candidates who may, as part of their post, end up hosting a programme, pause to probe a) knowledge of the target audience and its cultural references and b) the understanding of the locality.

Section 74 suggests that the BBC was asked to consider measurement of quality across its services, but concluded the cost was too high.  I can suggest some very cost-efficient solutions.  It's critical that every single person inside a BBC station knows what its audience thinks.  I find there is simply no substitute for that education when programming. Once digested, such findings influence every single decision.

Compliance levels are high, boasts Section 78.  They are.  Now, the time is right to forget Russell Brand and stop wasting time and money on auditioning pre-recorded music programmes for compliance reasons, and having someone sitting someone through the glass purely as a second pair of ears for accomplished presenters who probably don't need it. Listeners would wish you to spend that effort on more worthwhile pursuits.

The report concludes that BBC Local Radio is distinctive.  I believe, as it seeks to re-build audiences, it should not be tempted to ape the approaches of other stations. It should turn right and not left - and pursue its own 50+ audience with vigour. That will be the right route to growth  - and ever more distinctiveness.

Section 84 confirms BBC Local Radio "is not meant to be a rolling news service". Indeed. 

It stresses that "audience interaction is very important to Local Radio’s role as companion and a friend to its listeners".

Listeners suggest that the quality of news at present is good. I would agree.  It suggests, however, a ‘performance gap’ when audiences are asked how well BBC Local Radio “helps me understand politics and decision-making in my local area and holds decision-makers to account”. There may not be a performance gap, if one adds a degree of healthy caution to listeners' expression of hunger for such information.

"BBC Local Radio can initiate powerful community initiatives".  Yes, it can - and it should. Hats off to my beloved Radio Nottingham for, as cited in the report, its World War One centenary programming, when it launched a “big poppy knit”, asking listeners to "make flowers representing those from the county who had died. More than 100,000 poppies were made and were turned into an art exhibition and then sold in aid of the British Legion". More of that please.

"Respondents in our qualitative research told us that they feel it provides a voice for the region, and that local accents and the breadth of subject matter covered helps them feel connected to the local community. It also highlighted that BBC Local Radio’s role as a companion is very important, particularly for older listeners. Listeners feel it helps them feel more involved with the local community, provides a comforting and reassuring voice/friend, and that it can help some people feel less isolated". It is interesting to examine the words listeners utter when offered an open-ended question. 

Sport fares well, although the Trust accepts that coverage may now increasingly be found elsewhere.  The findings suggest that "its perceived performance is higher than its importance, resulting in a positive ‘performance gap". Do I take it that the BBC is doing more than its audience feels is necessary?

The service licence sets a limit for current and recent chart hits of no more than 15% of weekly music output. The BBC estimates that an average 9.5% of its music output in daytime is current and recent hits. The Trust  concludes "that older listeners are content with the music on Local Radio and they are happy with the balance of music and speech. They typically prefer more speech to music, and this is more likely to be the reason they tune in". 

Onto the money. The BBC spent £115.6 million on BBC Local Radio content in 2014-15, against a service licence budget of £118 million. When adding in BBC Local Radio’s allocation of the BBC’s distribution and infrastructure/support costs, its total cost was £153.8 million in 2014-15. Overall, each hour of BBC Local Radio costs 3.8 pence per listener. This is up from 3 pence in 2011-12, albeit  largely due to a reduction in listening hours.

Overall, this is a sensible report, quite understandably addressing the scope of the consultation, rather than focusing on the broader BBC local radio questions.

As always, the poor BBC is a rose caught between rather more than two thorns.  It is beaten up for not sustaining reach, whilst being urged to do more challenging radio and calling 'decision  makers to account'.  Whilst listeners might suggest this is what they want, we all appreciate the difference between what consumers say they want and what they then go on to consume.  Similarly, it is criticised in this report for the small amount and pace of online news, whilst being challenged elsewhere for treading on commercial toes. And - it must target the 50+ with vigour - but is also asked to remember everyone else who lives locally and any specific appetites from BAME audiences.

Overall, I'm pleased this report highlights how BBC local listeners value the talk more than the music, and they value informed, warm, talented, entertaining presenters who know their locality.  They attach importance to a great spine of local news, including challenge in its reporting where warranted, and the station playing its role in it community. The Trust also recognises the value of stations doing more to understand their audiences.  

Where from here?  The cost of BBC local radio will always come under scrutiny - and I believe that thinking must advance on how to deliver all the above and more on a budget which simply must decline significantly in future generations. I suggest that will take a wholly different model from the familiar approach - but it is eminently achievable.

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

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

I Missed the 'Friend in the Room'

Life without radio would be pretty dull, I reckon.  Thankfully, the research published today by Ofcom, assembled by Kantar, to fuel Government thinking on future commercial radio regulation, suggests much the same thing.  

Kantar conducted lengthy focus groups and allied exercises with over 150 patient radio listeners across the country. As part of the project, the poor souls were asked to live without radio for a lonely day, simply to disrupt their lifestyle and establish the role radio genuinely plays. It's a good research concept.  As we know when our other half walks out the door - you don't miss them until they're gone.

We knew the answers. Phew. Radio is a companion; it lightens and lifts mood; it generates a positive atmosphere; and creates a soundtrack to social events and the workplace.  
It creates ambience. 

“I missed the friend in the room’

The study suggests that radio provides relationships with presenters and allows for 'effortless consumption' of local information. It forms a 'background noise' which is missed when absent. Presenters renowned for being entertaining were 'missed', as were the information updates. Yes, online info is useful too, but respondents suggested pounding away at the keyboard 'required more effort' and, indeed, an internet connection and a battery with juice in. Our beloved medium benefits from inertia – and long may it continue.

Listeners do get news from social media, but the 'tone' of the keyboard warrior discussion around that was concerning, as was the level of likely accuracy. We are trusted.

Presenters were valued, but more for the quality of entertainment - and their being 'well informed' rather than for whether they were based locally.  One of the considerations from Ofcom was to establish whether or not listeners cared about programming being 'locally-originated', which forms a key part of current local radio regulation. They don't.

Local news bulletins and local information updates were perceived as more important than locally-based presenters, although all these areas were seen as of some importance (when prompted).

This thing called 'localness' was probed in a fascinating manner, with respondents invited to bring in an object or image that represented what their local area meant to them. Thankfully, the 'older' female from Salisbury chose to bring a picture of Stonehenge rather than a slab of stone.  

Rural respondents took a pride in their surroundings and recounted tales of happy walks with their dogs, whilst city dwellers were more likely to bring in gaudy football junk and talk about the nightlife. 

It was interesting to read that, as far as where 'local' is, older respondents deemed it to be drawn in more narrow geographic terms than younger folk. Having said that, listeners' personal spheres of interest are larger than what they had defined previously as their 'locality' - so the approach of confining radio content solely to the listener's back-yard seems ill-judged. Interestingly, BBC local radio was seen almost as more regional than local (perhaps because the network enjoys loyal listeners who catch more off-peak networked programming).

Listeners, when completing their listening jotters, were surprised at their high level of radio indulgence - consumption of this thing which brings ‘noise to otherwise quiet spaces'. It's almost poetic.

They relied on radio to help structure their day, not just time-checks, but to 'remind that a working day is nearly over'.  It also provides companionship, escapism, education and is mood-enhancing. It's a drug.

It’s good too that this 'zooming in’ to passive radio content, as cited many times by RAB advertising studies, was recognised.  You are absorbing information even if you don’t realise you are - because it's on in the background. Listeners observe too that radio can tell you things you would not normally search out. It broadens the mind.

Listeners can differentiate between stations - they recognise musical differences and the demographic targeting. They do not appreciate that we are all chained to a dog-eared colourful Ofcom format - and why should they. They volunteer that stations do have different personalities - so Ofcom is correct in assuming that freeing music formats would still provide for popular variety.

On networking, listeners recognised the new networked brands for what they are, and provided they had not lost their 'old' local brand too recently, they felt pretty relaxed about things, not least because local news and travel info was still evident. 'Few expressed any concern' about where the local content was made, so long as it was relevant and accurate. The listener wedded to her old station 'Radio Broadlands' was clearly so fond, she pluralised it.

Whilst having a presenter being local, per se, was not hugely valuable, listeners did recognise the value of one who understood "the local cultural and geographical nuances and even the particular sense of humour".  And they got mighty pissed off with the mispronunciation of place names. 

Respondents liked the 'emotional connection' of local presenters, but still considered it more important that they were 'talented, entertaining and well informed'.  The 'societal' impact of presenters being local ('it is a good thing') - was higher than the benefit listeners confessed to attaching personally. 

News is important. Radio’s bite-sized approach was appreciated, and listeners whose attention was 'piqued' were happy to follow up on anything crucial by grabbing their phone.

Travel news is also hugely valuable.  I'm always surprised that travel news emerges so popular in studies of this sort. Listeners' belief in its value is almost a religion. They trust it, and like the fact you can hear it on the move. In fact, I think radio's delivery of it is more unique and valued than the summary letter from Sharon White at Ofcom to DCMS's Ed Vaizey on this issue suggests.

The vast majority of participants considered music to be highly important. They mainly listened to local radio for the music played: an 'effortless way to discover new music and rediscover old favourites'. 

Information was valued too, but quizzes and contests less so. As with all the other research I have ever even, music and entertainment is the driver, with information being a valuable collateral benefit. What's more, the quality of the music selection was more important than the location of the station's cheery pre-fab studios.

Streaming services were used, but practical issues and hassle were cited, although younger listeners were more inclined to be keener adopters, not least when they were deprived of radio.

Presenters were divisive. Honey to some, and  an unwarranted intrusion to the music to others.  Similarly, local accents were appreciated by some listeners, whilst other argued they reinforced negative local stereotypes. It's perhaps a reflection of a more cosmopolitan world 

It's hugely frustrating to invest a shed-load of cash in some research, only to thumb through the findings to find little you didn't know already. But when a regulator publishes a wad of text which corresponds to the research you've done yourself and your general intuition, it's reassuring.  

This is a quality tome, illustrating the healthy place of radio in people's lives today. The medium is valued by the many who listen to it, but listeners recognise its changing ecology.  They see a place for both the corner shop and the supermarket, and they know why they visit each.  They are not too bothered about how it is delivered - they are more concerned about the quality of the entertainment mix, and a trusted spine of relevant information.

As far as educating Government on future commercial radio policy, it's a good starting point. As we say the last rites to a licensing system devised over a quarter of a century ago, these 110 pages will hopefully pave the way for a sensible regulatory framework to ensure that radio can survive and compete for the generations ahead.

Letter from Ofcom to DCMS
Research report