Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Christmas in the Radiohouse

In desolate tinselled offices, hard-working programmers wear their silly hats and ‘don’t disturb me’ faces. 

Not only do they have to look after tomorrow on the radio, they have to plan ahead the whole festive fortnight with military precision. 

Atypical presenters are set to host atypical programmes between atypical news bulletins coming from atypical places. What could possibly go wrong? And will there be anyone around to help when it does?  Probably not.

Is the 1500 on Boxing Day a network bulletin or is it local? Does Johnny Whatnot know how to put himself on-air and take the service out of network? Has he got a zapper to get him in the car park?

Will they need more songs in each breakfast hour, given you’ve only half a double act.

Whose bright idea was it to have a day of songs beginning with B on Boxing Day?  Cheers for that. All that bloody effort at a time of year when you’re unlikely to hit peak audiences anyway.

And what about all those millions getting a smart speaker as a gift. Will they really know what to do to hear us on Christmas morning? And will Sally remember to turn off her location when she tweets on the station account from Gran Canaria over Christmas?

For the big groups these days, it's like planning a moon mission. Canny managers have it all thought through by October - with, fittingly, a bible published of all the things presenters might need to know. Not that anyone will trouble to read it.

On commercial stations, are the ad breaks full or half-empty?  And, are they balanced across all the transmitters in the hours when they don’t usually need to be? Is the ad with the 'Open until ten, Christmas Eve' line set to die at 2200 on 24th? And is the breakfast sponsor credit changed for that awkward client who's booked from January 1st? And what about the skyscraper on the website we gave them last time we messed up? Are we bothering updating that?

Meanwhile, life starts to get a little quieter for the sales execs. After a frantic flurry seeing off December’s targets and making a good start on January, their self-made clients have disappeared to their overseas holiday homes. In the radio sales office, it’s time for banter, decanter and Secret Santa.

But whilst office staff have begun to wind down and their inboxes atrophy, the opposite is true for the product team.

Hot on the heels of incessant and exhausting Christmas light switch-ons, carol services and firework displays on cold dark days, the work starts on ensuring that the festive period on-air will be entertaining and trouble free. 

Everything needs mulling over. You really want to avoid the call from the Christmas lunchtime presenter, just as you’re microwaving the bread sauce, asking which fader network news is on.

You certainly need to know who’s staying nearby when you get the inevitable Boxing Day call from a hoarse presenter who claims to be ill. You try to sound sympathetic and tolerant, as you face the prospect of ringing everyone on your emergency list, but you don’t quite pull it off.

Newsrooms are busy trying to invent the news in advance for the lonely reporters who'll be on duty between Christmas and New Year. The bulletins will have returned, but the news won't.

Are we taking 'the Queen' or not? And where do we find her? 

And lets hope no popular public figure takes their last breath. Why do they wait for this week to die, of all weeks?

Some of the rituals of Christmas on the radio have sadly faded away.  Remember opening reception to give away batteries on Christmas morning?  What a great bit of Ever Ready marketing that used to be, in the days before sponsorship on radio was allowed.

I shall not miss recording the Christmas Eve Lincoln Cathedral Carol Service for Lincs FM.  I’m not sure whether it’s a sign of dedication that I, as PD, had to sort it out, or just poor delegation.  I’d record it on the Revox, then help lug the equipment back to base and edit out the verses no-one knows from the carols.  The tape would then be left on the desk with a accompanying note which the tech-op would, for some reason, make it his business to merrily ignore. 

Having said that, typing cues at nearly midnight when all civilised folk are making merry with family and friends is still the sort of sacrifice many radio folk have to make.

Sadly, Christmas is now without Ed Stewart. For me, his jolly voice just smelt like Christmas. For decades, he told us he was flying out his BBC ‘magic carpet’ on Christmas morning to visit hospitals around the UK, bringing cheery messages to patients. As a kid, I used to believe he genuinely had a magic carpet. No wonder I wanted to work in radio.

If you're on air this Christmas, make sure you sound as though you want to be there. It's a privilege.

So. Let’s raise a glass to the dedicated programmers, presenters, schedulers and journalists this Christmas across the UK. 


*Two Christmas present ideas below!  :)

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

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

Monday, 18 December 2017

Tomorrow's Commercial Radio

Thanks to the 67 folk who diligently responded to the consultation on future regulation of commercial radio.

Just over half favoured deregulation and, presumably about half didn’t. The half that didn’t embrace every shred of suggested de-regulation did include some radio stations.

In summary, DCMS announced today it proposes to press on with the de-regulation it had outlined in February 2017.

Ofcom are currently obliged to license a wide range of services. The view now that the radio market now takes care of this, and what’s more there are other places to go too. There’ll no longer be any obligation in this regard.

The national stations were originally licensed to provide particular sorts of fare (e.g. non-pop or majorly speech). Existing stipulations will remain on all three. Whilst it looks like there was some sympathy for AM (Absolute 1215) being able to do what it liked, that all understandably seemed a little too complicated at this stage of the lifespan of AM.


No more fun debates about whether ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is easy listening (as one licensee once suggested to me when I was a regulator). Do what you like. This area has already been hugely liberalised – and will now go a step further. DCMS however are giving further thought to whether specific protections are needed for Asian music.


Ofcom will have powers to set clear guidance on the provision of national and local news and core information such as travel news. The requirements may differ dependent on the size of the target audience for each station.  DCMS concluded there is no need for Ofcom to have the power to set more demanding news or other local requirements in the ‘nations’.  

"To be credible (news) has to be sourced locally and be locally relevant".  "we believe there is merit in the new national and local news and information requirements containing clearer requirements as to local news sourcing." "We also think it is important for the the commercial radio industry itself to come together with a clear cross-industry commitment to promote best practice in the provision and continuation of high quality, locally sourced and locally relevant news."

There are calls for greater clarity on what ‘locally-sourced’ news means - and DCMS is looking to Ofcom to produce guidance. 

Current guidance insists on a station having ‘direct and accountable editorial responsibility' for covering its area and ‘appropriate provision of professional journalistic cover, based within the licence area (or approved area)'In the latest statement, DCMS recognises the values of newsroom hubbing, but also insists on the value of locally-sourced news (as part of the general thrust of thinking on the ‘democracy deficit’). 

Minister of State for Digital

The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP

I cannot imagine Ofcom being any more prescriptive and requiring 'de-hubbing', as that would cut across the deregulatory thrust, but nor do I imagine it would be more generous in its definition. It will likely seek to define what ‘appropriate provision’ is - and will draw a less woolly distinction between the 'sourcing' of news and the location where the bulletin is delivered.  I hope it is not tempted into prescribing bulletin durations or onerous definitions of what local news is - or hyper-local definitions of where journalists might sit at their desks.

With the emphasis on news provision, there are further questions about on whom a new obligation might fall after digital switchover: the multiplex operator or the radio station.  DCMS will engage with the radio industry on this matter. It may likely be a bit of both, once the jar of regulatory fudge is opened.

Overseas broadcasters

Powers will be sought to enable Ofcom to license overseas services to broadcast from afar to here, starting with permission for broadcasters in Ireland. Thus, RTE would be able to be broadcast on DAB in the UK. Then after Ireland, maybe a nod to other places in Europe, if the operators behave themselves. Irish citizens living here may cheer if RTE does choose to surface on DAB here, given they'll no longer be able to hear the station on Long Wave after 2019.

Local programming

DCMS is pressing ahead with the removal of localness (locally-produced programming) requirements.

You no longer will have to broadcast your station from its odd-shaped ‘approved area’.  It’s always been a bit of a nonsense – given once you are not in an area most listeners would define as theirs, you might as well be anywhere. There is some DCMS caution on whether, say Scottish stations, should still be required to broadcast from Scotland. It seems that Ofcom hope such stations will so do, and the news requirements and the general mood of licensees may help secure that. 


DCMS asserts that it helps the transition to digital if Ofcom are no longer allowed to license new analogue services. DCMS were also persuaded that you should be able to hand back your analogue licence when it seems no longer particularly useful, without fear that a rival can apply for it. FM coverage may be improved for existing operators where helpful - but the vacated FM won’t go to new community stations.

Across this transition to digital, DCMS recognised the need for 'significant flexibility' in terms of renewals and extensions for licences. For smaller stations and community stations, an open-ended approach is mooted with licences renewed across a period covered by a future radio switchover

Until now, analogue licences have been renewed on the strength of a dollop of DAB enthusiasm.  DCMS is now persuaded by the arguments put forward by smaller stations that the requirement for them to choose between going through re-licensing and hopping on a major multiplex is not healthy. DCMS however is a tad worried that without a clear incentive to secure carriage, some multiplexes may fail. It’s mulling over whether the smallest stations could be exempt from compulsory carriage – and about some further flex on just how much of your licence area you need to serve on DAB to bag your renewal.

A multiplex operator seeking to change its bouquet of services currently has to go on bended knees to Ofcom. They won’t have to any longer. Similarly, there is an appetite for liberalising the application process for multiplex operators.

Next steps

The next phase is for DCMS to bring forward legislation prior to analogue licences coming up for renewal in 2022. It recognises that this is a tough job, not least because Parliament is busy with, ahem, other things – so it suggests that Ofcom does its bit to change whatever it can now, in anticipation of longer-term reform.

Its going to be a long journey. And one imagines there's just the chance yet of some political obstacles.

What does all this mean?

The die is cast, and the commercial radio industry is just about free from the last vestiges of monochrome 1970s regulation.  Some will cheer at that, others will despair. In truth, much of the remaining regulation likely provides little real value to listeners.

What can happen immediately?  I suspect Ofcom will have taken legal advice on how far it may go within the current statute. Their lawyers will stroke their chins and conclude that Ofcom may go a little further than they currently do.  They’ll charge a little more for saying that though than I just have.

Where Ofcom have latitude – they will bend it further. Where the Acts are utterly prescriptive, they will not be able to move - for now.

In due course, what is outlined will likely and largely become reality. If you’re a journalist, I suspect this is all good news. After several regulatory changes which have resulted in smaller (but efficient) newsrooms, your jobs will likely be supported by tougher rules.

I suspect one early advantage for companies will be studio locations. Those stations anxious to move into premises which happen to sit the wrong side of the track will, at last, be allowed to call for the removal vans.  Ofcom have already shown some latitude in this respect – and can probably conjure up a little more with a few weasel words.

Similarly, the amount of local programming. The figure in Ofcom’s current '7 hours a day local programming' requirement is of its own making. It could equally well be 3 – at breakfast or drive. To allow stations to be wholly de-localised at this stage might be a step too far for Ofcom  without the primary legislation change.

When the law changes, will all brands necessarily choose to nationalise their output and close down local bases? Probably not. I suspect that some will – and some won’t – and that’s likely good for both. 

Whilst Radio Trumpton may stop originating programming from its fine stately home in the approved area of greater Trumptonshire/Camberwick Green, it might still have a local sales team and some local journalists in a mobile home in a convenient lay-by. Their rivals may take an opposite stance, putting up their local flag on the Town Hall and choosing to make more of local revenues and reputations. Some presenters may, sadly, feel a little more unnerved than they already do in our uncertain world. 

Will any brands change music format?  I suspect that most now sit in territory where they are happy and strategically sensible. There may be a few brand swaps, with groups choosing to organise their frequencies more sensibly - and also one or two isolated major stations which would more sensibly carry a brand which would attract greater audiences - or audiences which are better monetised.

A view

Overall, this is a sensible piece of work which helps commercial radio fight the battle for the ear this century, amidst unprecedented media change. Our industry now is largely in the hands of a small number of passionate operators, with refreshingly different approaches, who are producing programming of high quality and which still enjoys enviably-sized audiences.  

It all feels very different from how commercial radio began - and for the sake of tomorrow's listeners, it's right that it does. I am not of the view that radio stations will only choose to do the bare regulatory minimum. I don't think they ever have.  

The next year or two will be an uncomfortable time for companies - and indeed Ofcom - as they wrestle to do what most agree upon, but to which her Majesty has not yet been able to give assent.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

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

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Radio - and the Smart Speaker

It’s tough to believe that radio effectively used to require pin-code access.  You had to remember a string of random digits if you were to find your favourite radio station frequency on the dial. And, given sometimes you even had to change waveband too, it’s a real wonder my mum ever managed to track down Waggoners’ Walk.

Push-button FM, and now DAB sets, have made life much simpler.  Just in time too, given the number of stations available. Mind you, my car DAB radio still seems to be over concerned about which multiplex stations are sat on.  Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hoorah for smart speaker technology. However - and wherever – that tech is housed in the future, it is a real breakthrough for our medium. Radio is your friend – and all you now need to do is call its name and it’ll come and throw its arms around you.

What challenges and opportunities does that pose?

Firstly, listeners likely need to know the name of your station.  That should be easy, one imagines, but I cannot be the only programmer to have had angry emails from a rude listener demanding we supply a tardy prize which they actually won on a rival radio station. And, thinking of focus group respondents, after half a dozen radio station names cited top of mind, most folk start to struggle.  Yes, even with the BBC’s being conveniently numbered.  Is your station famous enough?

Thankfully, the smart technology, if well devised by informed folk like RadioPlayer, can recognise most variants of your name, so it’s not too much agony for the listener who insists on still calling you what your 1985 jingle package did. But they’ve got to call you something.  

Your station needs to be top of mind. When the listener is in the mood for whatever, your brand has to be the one literally on their lips.

Yes, smart devices can know your last station. But that may have been your girlfriend's wine-fuelled choice – so you still may have to shout it to play your favourite station – until such a time as the devices presumably can tell your voices apart.

This plays into the strategy which many groups have adopted.  Their stations are genuinely brands into which significant monies have been invested across large geographic patches.

Once, if you were on FM, you were effectively on the radio high street. Listeners might find you as they wandered down the band.  Now, you have to be asked for by name from behind the counter. You need a space in someone’s mind.

Smart technology does offer sampling.  It can get to know what you like and can supply alternatives – and in time will develop even better abilities to supply examples of a genre RadioPlayer is better than TuneIn here by some margin - that's good news as we believe that listening by 'mood' is becoming increasingly important.  There is the chance of discovery here, but also there is risk. A listener might just like the substitute station better than yours.

The algorithms which control where you are pointed are in the hands of the people who make and programme the gadgets and skills, so it’s good when the gatekeepers are part of our clan and understand UK listening habits.

Early findings suggest that people are listening to more audio thanks to smart speakers.  Seven out of ten (Edison 2017, United States) of those who own a smart speaker say they listen to more audio at home since acquiring it. Whatever they did before, whether radio, podcast or streamed services, they do more.

Rajar (MIDAS study, Autumn 2017) suggests  that live radio enjoys the lion's share of audio delivered on smart speakers. Whilst radio's dominance is reassuring, it may also remind us that here is a chance once again for others to steal ‘our’ clothes.  

Major brands could provide well-programmed branded audio streams which just might be more famous than ours. Such streaming services are about to become ever more readily accessible (if, of course, they are, themselves, financially viable). Free of all the complex history of our medium and now offered an easy platform and simple access, could they disrupt?  They could - but thankfully, radio’s a touch more difficult to do than it sounds – and we are the experts.

Those who say that anyone can programme a streaming music service to the quality of a radio station don’t fully appreciate  radio's science and art  – and where there are bits between the songs, we certainly know our stuff, whether links or imaging.  But if proud new investors are really spending money on quality 'radio' channels which do attract appreciable audiences, that’s probably good news for our industry and our job opportunities.

‘Alexa – Open the BBC’

Yesterday, the BBC launched its first full voice app for voice-controlled smart speakers, an Amazon Alexa skill for Echo devices, with other smart speakers to come. This brings access to the BBC’s full range of live radio stations - and podcasts.  It’s intelligent and I like the vocal sonic BBC identity as you open the thing. It does find the most recent Desert Island Discs or ‘previous’ or ‘previous’ again – but still can’t track down the Judi Dench edition - or indeed the shipping forecast - by name – a challenge RadioPlayer has also faced in its fine work, making earlier content accessed with ease. 

That will come.  In the very long term, does that beg the question whether stations like the Radio 4 of today have a linear future, if streaming were ever to replace 'broadcast' significantly?  I’m a heavy Radio 4 content listener, but Today, as a news programme, is the only regular one of the programmes I consume live. How much of radio necessarily needs to be live and where does live really add value?

As Matthew Postgate, Chief Technology and Product Officer, BBC, said: “Today we’re making sure audiences can find what they love from the BBC on any device they use through a single, easy-to-use service. But there’s potential to do more and we’re just scratching the surface.”

Stand by, I suspect, for ‘Alexa - open Global Radio’. They were canny long ago about creating a reputation for the parent brand. Invocation names, I suspect, will become as treasured as good website names. 

Let’s be mindful though that if life gets too confusing - with a choice of rather too many sovereign ‘radio listening’ skills - listeners may simply use the default one in the device, which may have questionable allegiances. That’s a good reason to be wholly supportive of the fine technical and political efforts of RadioPlayer.

For commercial radio, anything which allows even readier re-tune can be a challenge as a station enters a lengthy commercial break. For this, and so many other reasons, it’s time for a cool clear look at monetising radio – and that’s a topic for a future blog.

Our medium has always aroused much emotion from listeners, yet we, as broadcasters have demanded they remember text numbers, phone numbers, and spell our name correctly on social media if they want to get in touch.  The vast proportion of listeners are casual ones, however, and the least likely to trouble to learn how to contact us - yet they are the ones we would like to hear from most.  Smart speakers offer the listener an instant way of speaking an immediate message to the station or presenter, as demonstrated recently by RadioPlayer. That's a real win and plays to our strengths.

Opportunities abound too in the heightened intelligence about  listening habits which these new devices will offer us.

Let’s remember that now and in the immediate future, it’s all still a niche affair. Only a small proportion of radio listening is streamed at all (8% of all live radio listening, but including TV - with voice activated alone at 1%, RAJAR, MIDAS Autumn 2017). But, with faster broadband and 5G on the way, that proportion will grow. If, as is expected, most homes quickly become smart, one can expect voice-activated radio to grow alongside. I guess even ‘turn on the radio’, where the radio is a traditional hefty DAB/FM set could easily be commonplace.

For a medium which relies on audio, it’s hugely encouraging to welcome a device which treasures it too. Thus, radio - in whatever form -  is set to be centre-stage for its second century.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

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

News Content on Smart Speakers - an Opportunity - or a Threat to Radio - and Democracy?

I just shouted a cheery good afternoon to my Google Home - only to be assailed by a 3-minute BBC news bulletin. Then Sky news barged ...