Wednesday, 30 May 2018

What Can We Learn From the Bishop?

Watching the Royal wedding from the top deck of a cruise ship surrounded by enthusiastic Americans was a sight I shall not easily forget. Those sunny pictures of a chocolate-box Britain will likely do next year’s tourism receipts no harm.

And for us broadcasters, maybe there was a lesson at this Windsor gig from Bishop Michael Curry - regardless of our thoughts on the wedding, or on faith.

Here was a 65 year old preacher from Chicago - playing with the very vocabulary we have at our disposal each day, providing a memorable performance which is still being talked about weeks afterwards.  That’s a goal for us all.

What did he do?

He surprised. We’d had the wedding functionals, just like we have weather and travel in radio-land, and they’d played a few familiar songs.  But he made us look up. It wasn't quite what we expected.

The whole thing had been well-teased. We knew he was an American preacher - so it promised to be a tad different from Camilla's nuptials. But we didn't know quite what lay in store. We knew enough but not too much. And we wondered.  Curiosity is a hugely powerful thing.

He used the word 'you'. This was not some abstract lesson - it was about each one of us. "If you don't believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to centre around you and your beloved." We nodded. "Let me tell you something". 

He asked questions. "Anybody get here in a car today? An automobile? Nod your heads if you did…”

He’d prepared. Probably  a little better than some major presenters do for key links. He knew his theme well and he’d thought it through. He didn't wait for the last organ note and then wander into the pulpit hoping for inspiration.  He brought notes on the ecclesiastical iPad - but didn't always rely on them. He felt the mood.

His vocabulary was clear and descriptive. We could picture what he spoke about.
There was word repetition in this message - anaphora.  Great speakers rely on it.  19 uses of the word 'power' - and 68 of love.There's power in love. There's power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There's power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There's power in love to show us the way to live. But love is not only about a young couple. Now the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we're all here."

His delivery was beautifully-paced – from a  sombre stroll to a real gallop - and pauses for effect. Wonderful Radio 4 newsreader Peter Donaldson used to say pause "until it hurts".  Too many of us don't pause and give the listener time to think - and to respond.

There was humour.  Light and shade. Reverentially irreverent. "Two young people fell in love - and and we all showed up".  Like most radio, it wasn't laugh-out-loud, but a sprinkling of wry smiles. In many radio formats, amidst the most serious of topics, there are smiles to be had - and in today's world, we need them more then ever. 

He was himself. Yes he was in an unfamiliar place – and he adapted what he said for the audience, yet this was still him. He was authentic. There was passion - and we believed it. His boss had not written his words for him - although He had certainly influenced.

He played his voice like an instrument. Sometimes warm, sometimes verging on threatening. Sometimes a whisper close-up - and sometimes a bellow from afar.  On occasions, he smiled as he spoke. He caressed every word. When he said 'love' – it sounded like love – and 'fire' sounded positively inflammatory. 'Power' was powerful.

He was likeable. We don’t know him personally, but in the course of this short speech, we warmed to him.

He is experienced. The Bishop was ordained in 1978.  I suspect he is better at holding his audience now than he was back then. Simon Mayo is better now than when he was a callow youth on Radio Nottingham. Do we cast aside our best broadcasters too freely?

He knew his audience. This was Harry and Meghan’s gig – and the couple's contemporaries connected more with a mention of Instagram than the Daily Star.  He spoke our language; he knew we said car not automobile.

What would his PD have said? Maybe a bit long? Could he have shaved a couple of minutes off and achieved just as much if not more? Probably. Which just proves than even the very best of us can be even better.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Is Big Really Beautiful - A Hyper Local Future?

Big is beautiful. Unless you’re a BBC local radio station.

The larger the area, the lower the reach %. It’s not the fault of the folk who work at the larger stations – they likely work just as hard - and are also in more competitive cities with radio aplenty – and, in London, with head on commercial competition for the talk ears.

Are there other reasons? Is there something about larger communities which means they feel increasingly less ‘local’? 

BBC local radio in London, the West Midlands and Manchester has always faced a tough challenge; and the BBC has tried a number of approaches in those areas, with both format solutions (GMR/GLR) and opt-out services, for example, 'Heartlands' in East Birmingham from BBC WM.

Elsewhere, there has been a mix of approaches over the years. The BBC has amalgamated some services, only to choose to split them off again later. Others have remained amalgamated after previous rounds of budget cuts - and others retain some degree of sub-localisation.

It’s interesting looking at the context of other media. Around the country as daily press titles in significant cities fall, some pretty decent online hyper-local titles rise, seemingly well supported by local readers and businesses. With no printing overheads, they can serve small communities where a local press title would be unsustainable.

Whilst youngsters adore their city living, families may choose to start their families in the suburbs. This is ‘where they live’, not the big city down the road. Their high street is the one where they push the pram in then morning and meet their friends later.  Town centres which once pulled down the shutters at five o' clock now have bijoux restaurants with blackboards outside and thriving pubs which stay open late – at which time the revellers can stagger home.  At a time when arguably cities are becoming more homogeneous, is there a new sense of pride in smaller communities?

It’s apparent that smaller areas can love their radio stations. The station is a real symbol of pride.

Despite the excellent performances of top notch commercial and BBC stations in my home patch of Nottinghamshire, Mansfield FM, the commercial station serving a town some 15 miles from Nottingham’s centre, punches a great 28% reach. 

BBC local radio’s 40 stations use 93 FM transmitters. Whilst there is some split frequency use, there is the potential for more. Putting to one side any relevant OFCOM operating framework considerations, could there be merit in the BBC implementing further localisation, at a time when commercial radio is taking steps in exactly the opposite direction for quite understandable reasons? Yes, it's been done before in some areas, but times change. And how well was it done?

Could BBC local stations originate significant additional hyper-local programming for proud distinct areas, where they naturally exist, opting in and out of the mother ship for parts of the day or week?

As my old colleague Keri Jones illustrated to me, this happens overseas. The tiny ABC South West Western Australia generates a breakfast show for the small, remote town of Bunbury. When they are not doing their own thing, they relay ABC South Coast in Albany which offers programming for a slightly larger, but still rural, part of W Australia. When ABC South Coast isn’t creating local shows, they relay ABC Radio Perth from the state capital of Western Australia. ABC Radio Perth provides local content until 10pm, then it’s national local radio programming overnight.

So, in dinky little Bunbury, the programming hierarchy is: Bunbury – Albany South Coast – Perth – National.

This is eminently deliverable from existing BBC local premises and infrastructure, and I believe existing resource. With DAB simulcasts too, the ‘home’ service could continue to be broadcast across the whole area, if desired. Or – the 128 kbps multiplex DAB capacity could even be split too – providing more than one service at once, albeit across the whole patch.

And, as BBC local radio listeners start to listen to more content 'on-demand', will there be further opportunities to create and disseminate hyper-local audio which is not even broadcast?

At a time when we can personalise all our media choices, should radio be offering something a little more tailored? Would radio which sets its stall out to 'do local' do better if it were more local? 

Find the broadcaster who really knows and loves their subsidiary town and get them on-air to their neighbours.

And now the news where you are. Or maybe not quite where you are - but a big city down the road.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Friday, 4 May 2018

When the Polls Close

Election broadcasting is a real sport. An endurance test for the presenters, commentators and contributors.  Pace yourself. When to sleep. What to eat.

It's also a fine British tradition - and what presenter on-air does not feel in some way they are an echo of a bespectacled towering broadcasting figure from yesteryear as they begin their nocturnal marathon. There's certainly a temptation to indulge in the role as one self-importantly choreographs the future of the nation personally.

Given the rich tradition, I wanted to highlight LBC's excellent, fresh offering last night with Iain Dale and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. There was something in its good-humoured tone and approach which was an immaculate example of quality contemporary talk radio. 

Rather than General Election-lite, it was an enjoyable, informed grown-up, human conversation. Pointless and repetitive political sparring was replaced by honest, insightful dialogue amongst contributors who sometimes agreed. When they differed, it felt more like hearing the adult way politicians tend to debate on Portillo's sofa on This Week rather than simply witnessing a politician being roasted - which can feel as uncomfortable as watching your parents argue. 

Whilst there are times on media when hard challenge is utterly justified, it can often simply be annoyingly gratuitous. Journalists looking for a fight. No thanks. I'd rather you helped me understand something better. Great radio brings value.

Is there much to gain by journalists simply haranguing candidates who might not have fared  as well as they'd expected. Behind each victory or failure, there's a human being. LBC's approach reflected today's complex politics which can no longer be reduced to political parties, left and right. Life is much more complex than that. 

Local elections are also just that, and LBC went to great pains to reflect that these elections were not just about London. That's a real achievement for a station which was once simply a London offering. Again, that chimes with the national mood - at last there appears an awareness that life exists outside London, and LBC reflects that naturally. 

There were also a lot of women's voices, not least Jacqui's own. All well-cast.  Elections have traditionally meant endless mumbling from sweaty dull bald blokes in suits, and it was so refreshing to hear a different tone, energy level and perspective. This was addictive listening - and engaging within seconds. This was the party you wanted to be at. Great informed company chatting away as events unfolded, as if from a Gogglebox settee. Really human radio - doing what radio does best - alongside a judicious spine of reliable reporting.

Casting double acts is as challenging as finding the right marital partner, yet Jacqui and Iain are made for each other. Neat, well-timed interventions from each. The pair fell into each other's arms on the Sky News papers review - and that endures on their excellent  'For the Many' podcast.  It's interesting mulling over whether beginning the relationship on the podcast alone would have been sufficient to build the chemistry to radio's standards. It likely would - and that's an interesting thought for radio programmers hungry for the next great double act but no radio day-part free to air and hone it. 

Politics has changed.  It is right that political broadcasting should too.

One reason I felt duty-bound to highlight this programme is because few radio critics will likely trouble so to do. 

I despair of  how commercial radio content is so often ignored by many such individuals.  It would be unkind to suggest they just rifle through the Radio Times to find something easy to write about, but it sometimes appears that way.  They seem oblivious to the fact that 65% of UK adults catch some commercial radio every week; and that almost 80% of adults do not listen to Radio 4 even weekly. 

When I dared to express such a view on Twitter, one respondent questioned what on earth can one write about a sector which comprises mostly music radio. Well, if you cannot think of anything to write about LBC's array of innovative content; the way in which local stations respond to crisis; music policies; the new digital radio offerings; platform consumption; audience battles; key brand changes; or breakfast talent moves, you really should get another job. 

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Disaster at the Lectern

When a dear radio colleague lost his life, I was invited to speak at a fitting post-funeral celebration. His wonderful brother suggested I might present a tribute of the individual’s radio career, spiced with vintage audio, video and poignant pics.

The presentation was lovingly assembled in good time, but I harboured some doubts about the multi-media facilities at the beautiful old church.

A battered old PC, with cables dangling across the aisle to an antique projector, was charged with the task of coping with a jumbo PowerPoint presentation. What’s more, the startled tartan-skirted church assistant seated at the AV trestle table failed to fill me with confidence as she stared at the PC desktop with the look of someone who’s frightened of a mouse.

My painfully-chosen words of tribute flowed - before gently pausing to introduce a clip of dear John in full flow. A poignant moment. Hearing his distinctive voice resonating through this building in the village he loved.

Or it would have been, had the audio worked.

I improvised around its absence. A much easier task over a music bed up to the news on a radio show than it is in mid-funeral. And then the second item failed too.

All turned out well in the end, as we adjourned and tried again, and I hope we gave dear John a send off which would have made him smile more than was anticipated.

But we should forgive the Church. I rather hope they have more important things on Earth to worry about than my Clipart* I guess.

We don’t.

The multimedia presentations we give always have a critical goal. Every time we trouble to stand up in front of a few folk, we are there to help them to think, feel or do something. Otherwise we wouldn’t be there.

How often have you sat writhing on a hard seat at a radio conference, witnessing a nervous speaker fiddling with the laptop on the podium long after their welcome applause has ebbed away.

Rather than be moved by their great opening line, we witness an embarrassed cough and a reference to those bloody ‘gremlins’. Ahem. ‘A few technical issues here.”. Nope. Not technical issues, it’s just that somebody along the chain didn’t plan well enough. And then when we see the presentation, it's full of blurred badly-cropped pics and over-wordy slides which the presenter insists on reading to us.

As for the audio. There’s a pregnant pause and a desperate second attempt at cueing it in. Or it’s the wrong bit. Or it’s distorted. Or you can’t hear it. Or it’s played to an audience of 100 on your laptop’s tinny 3” speaker. Or they can't find it on the desktop, visible to all, where it sits next to bobappraisal.pdf.

There are exceptions. Next Radio is always a fast-moving, impressive and well-disciplined conference. Roger’s done good things with the RadioFestival; and RadioDays Europe addresses its international challenges well. But too many really don’t go as well as they easily could.

It’s the same in smaller internal meetings too, whether a staff meeting or a presentation to a few clients. The intended enhancement that presumably our presentation is designed to provide is diminished by ten minutes staring at the backside of the implicity-blamed chap from IT.

How much UK productivity is at risk because someone forgot to think through their performance. Or bring an HDMI lead.

Why is it that the one thing that’s rarely right in radio-related presentations is the audio. 

One of my roles currently is as chairman of Notts TV, based in the impressive Confetti Media premises of Nottingham Trent Uni. Arriving early and preparing a room alone for a presentation one morning, I looked up to see a smiling angel enter with a straggly beard. ‘I’ve come to check you have all you need in this room. Does everything work. Do you need any help plugging in?’. It transpired that this is policy in this immaculate organisation. Meeting rooms booked for presentations get this courtesy call from IT. Whilst I’ve been lucky to have had some brilliant IT support since they invented it, in my 35 years of working in media, I have never experienced quite this degree of proactivity. 

A few minutes of planning before a presentation and arriving that little bit earlier to make sure it works as you imagine is probably the difference between people leaving the room feeling as you wished - and not. It should not be a challenge to get it right. One meeting can change the course of a business.

Or, of course, live without  the props. That can work perfectly well too, if you are ready to shine.

Hey - next time we’re in a badly planned session, maybe we should just boo and walk out. 

*Just a gag. I never use Clipart. Certainly not at funerals.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Goodbye, Dale

Dale was always going to be a star.

He told me as much, as we sat in the Radio Trent offices in the early ‘80s.  His dream was specific. He told that a tacky game show would be his big break and he talked about the people he wanted to call his friends.

In time, his dream was to become a colourful reality. Supermarket Sweep was to be the break, reinventing daytime TV. I recall he clutched the VHS demo video as he emerged from Tottenham Court tube station as I bumped into him again. ‘This is it, David’.  It was.

Dale had lived a complex life. His mother, an accomplished actress, committing suicide.

He didn’t necessarily want to work in radio, he just sought fame. He was nevertheless gifted and ahead of his time at the wireless art. His beginnings were in the clubs, and then the closed circuit biscuit factory Radio, UBN, before graduating to Radio Trent in 1977. 

He grew to own his city and Trent listeners would seek only to speak to him. For a period he was Radio Trent. He would screech up to the station just before the programme started, run downstairs in a variety of outfits rarely seen In provincial cities and deliver energy and perfection. He perfected feelgood Radio before we knew what it was. A true Gemini, this highly social charismatic animal could get away with anything.

On leaving the Trent job in a typically dramatic Dale style, he retained his status. One memorable night, he came across to us in a restaurant, flicked his head back and introduced himself to my friends ‘I used to be Dale Winton’. Dale owned any room he chose.

From Trent to Beacon and beyond. Life again was challenging. His earnings and inheritances dwindled, not least because he’d always lived the life of a star, and Dale looked at normal jobs to make ends meet.

With support from close friends, which he always garnered readily with his charm and the generosity of his company,  he secured early TV opportunities which grew into Supermarket Sweep, a programme he quickly made his own. On the National Lottery, his now less chubby figure and smart suit would quickly become well-known. The Cilla he’d idolised became a confidante.

Dale had become ‘our Dale’ and the public recognition he’d sought so long radiated.

The period beyond I know less well, although he opened up about his challenges on Loose Women. Dale was always going to be a man of highs and lows.  In my mother’s words, he would never make old bones. That’s just not Dale. He will leave in the headlines, as he would have wished.

He was an inspiration. His life told you can achieve anything you want if you try hard enough. But that you need to be careful .

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Our Biased Mainstream Media

Today, it’s ‘hat-gate'.  Auntie stands accused of doctoring a pic of Jeremy Corbyn and laying it against a Kremlin background.

Across all social media, dreary threads are often to be found where angry people insist there is bias – and trot out examples to suit their case. The BBC, it is suggested, is part of the MSM (mainstream media) plot to influence the political direction of the country.

Similarly, when I issued a friendly tweet about how impressed I was by the diverse range of callers of all ethnicities witnessed on LBC one day, I received a barrage of unrelated responses. These posters, usually employing a puzzling version of their native tongue, claimed that LBC producers sit in the control room trying to find callers to suit a political agenda.

If anyone genuinely thinks commercial talk radio producers aim to find callers who simply agree with the assertions of the presenters – they are odd.

The callers’ voices heard on LBC truly reflect a range of fresh perspectives, and the eye-witness first-hand accounts on some of the topics of the day offer enviable insight. Insight that has changed my mind more than once – and sometimes the presenter’s mind.

Some comments even suggested LBC presenters were all Tories. I smiled.

I wish the social media warriors would pause for a while to question their own assertions with the high standards they demand of others. They claim a well-organised plot exists amongst media owners to deliver on an agenda. How do they believe this is organised? Not least when some folk claim the bias is Left – and others Right.  

If this is a conspiracy, it’s not a very good one.

Is it alleged all UK broadcast journalists convene periodically in a huge conference room in some Holiday Inn, with those funny room partitions propped open?  Sitting through an endless Powerpoint presentation featuring colourful clip-art prime ministers and bullet point edicts. Addressed by a sweating chappie, lanyard dangling, they are instructed on the agenda, and subsequently assessed on political point-scoring in their pesky annual staff review.

No. This MSM is staffed by human beings of all persuasions with all their frailties and doubts.  Journalists are people doing a job – who go home at night and face for themselves the dirty challenges and choices of life.  They are trying to make sense of a complex world - and work out which stories to cover and how – and make the treatment of those stories vaguely interesting.

Most are probably a bit like me. I’ve voted for more than one party in my lifetime.  I loathe some politicians from all sides - and I love some politicians from all sides.  I agree with one party on one thing; and yet am wholly uncomfortable with their view on another matter. Hell - the finest politicians don’t always agree with their party. That’s why they bother with Parliamentary votes.

Life is not naturally tribal. It is not just about Left and Right - as the theorists suggest with their alleged concrete agenda – it is about shades of grey.  As tomorrow's voters mature - we should be helping them to understand the nuances. It is not about choosing a side.

Given the numbers involved, all journalists cannot possibly all be of the same political persuasion. 

It’s time to calm down.

Does sub-conscious bias risk creeping into newsrooms – in story selection or treatment or language?  Given journalists are human beings, it is impossible to say it doesn’t. In my thirty years in the business, however, I have yet to meet one of these proud individuals who does not try their hardest to be duly impartial. 

Does the nature of the individuals attracted to a media career affect their perspective a tad?  Possibly.  That’s why the ongoing efforts of all broadcasters to improve the diversity of their staff are to be commended. Said me, the working class Midlands chap with few qualifications.

The safeguard at all times is regulation. I was interested to hear a Russia Today journalist boast of their Ofcom licence - from ‘the strictest regulator in the World’.  The BBC – and others -  will get it wrong sometimes - and complaints have been upheld. These rare upheld complaints do not prove the conspiracy - they prove the system is working. 

If you have a well- founded beef - there is a channel open to you if you genuinely care. Your random and often offensive Twitter assertions suggest you don't.  Don't be surprised that 'everyone agrees with you' either. Most people sensibly don't follow you.  Imagine how your son or daughter would feel, as a journalist, if they received the bile which some individuals have to suffer.

When a particular flurry of social media fire then graduates to an unworthy story in a press title, thoroughly entitled to be polarised, the social media warriors then convince themselves their paranoia has been legitimised.

To suggest that to change the hue of the Corbyn shot is a plot to make him appear closer to a far-off regime, is to forget that it’s probably just a hardworking gifted creative person, proud in their work, who wanted to make it look a bit better than bunging a pure colour shot lazily on the usual background. They were likely thinking more about getting down the pub after the shift than causing a political revolution.

Broadcasters are getting wholly sick of ill-founded and often wholly irrational allegations. Social media gives a voice to indecent people who have rarely troubled to read the substantive article linked to any Tweet.

Please go away. Read some books. Study some articles. Speak inquisitively to some people you don’t agree with. Open your eyes. Go do some good. 

It's never perfect - but we truly have some of the finest, most objective journalism in the World.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

What Can We Learn From the Bishop?

Watching the Royal wedding from the top deck of a cruise ship surrounded by enthusiastic Americans was a sight I shall not easily forget. T...