Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Future for News


I can’t be the only person who watches the opening sequence of the Ten ‘O Clock TV news – and then promptly switches over.  It’s a far cry from when I’d sit there with a cup of tea and salmon sandwich, transfixed until the dying strains of the programme’s closing sig tune.

They’ve told me the headlines I need to know – and that’s enough.  As for the other stories they’ve chosen, they’re not the one I’m interested in – or they’re ones I already had had my fill of.

No offence to the BBC’s fine editorial team, maybe things are just changing.

Broadcast news began on radio in 1922, with Arthur Burrows chuntering through a few pages of foolscap - from a rowdy meeting with Winston Churchill to the billiards scores. In many ways, news has changed little since – with TV bulletins a video variant of the radio options. Sure, we’ve now got actuality, two-ways and frightening animation, but we are still force-fed hourly lists of stories on linear media. Some we are interested in, some we are not.

Now, we may feast our news appetite in several efficient ways, with news users drawing on an average of 6.7 different sources (Ofcom 2019). Which media will play which roles in the future? Do the broader range of sources make matters clearer - or do we become more judgemental in discarding seemingly conflicting accounts?

Criteria

In news consumption, I theorise a number of factors come into play, although those better qualified than me have likely written lengthy books on the matters.

  • Relevance and convenience
  • Immediacy
  • Perspective, trust and transparency
  • Analysis and depth
  • Investigation and challenge
  • Responsibility
  • Reflection, comfort and occasion

Has digital media has turned relevance on its head? We connect with the story about the school our child will attend - and we connect equally to a photo of a slain elephant in Zimbabwe and the story behind it. The communications democracy which now exists may be eroding that old journalist tenet about the relationship between distance and caring. A story has relevance because we care about it - or the treatment makes us care. It can affect us directly or emotionally – whether down the road or across the globe. What does that mean for local media - not least in pretend regions invented by broadcasters?

Immediacy: we want the news we need - now. When we hear a worrying bang outside, we turn increasingly to social media and digital, as neighbours pitch in with their accounts of what's happened - and their odd theories. Ofcom's 2019 survey suggest 66% (and rising) of adults 16+ now use 'the internet' for news, compared to 75% (and falling) using TV - with 'internet' leading by some margin amongst 16-24s (83% use); and similarly minority ethnic consumers.  

Then, swiftly, as conflicting reports emerge from the man on the street - we want perspective and trust. We need to hear from someone with ability and access to give reliable insight. The pedigree and reputation of the big news purveyors will likely be ever more important here. Heightened transparency on their funding may become relevant - and a better public understanding on how they are regulated - and a proud trumpeting of such regulation. The protagonists – the council, police, fire brigade etc – are also seen as trusted ‘experts’, now acting as their own publishers for the first time.

In general terms, whilst one can now assemble one's own online 'news page' from a variety of sources, most people still turn to familiar sources. They are not only trusted - they are convenient. News can be sourced anywhere - but to what extent can people be bothered to act as their own news editor - and do they know what they're doing?

Then we seek understanding through analysis and depth. What exactly happened? What are the facts? Why has this happened? What are the key players saying? What happens next? Whilst analysis has traditionally pursued ‘truth’, our world is increasingly more complex - and consumers show ever more suspicion. I witness the excellent Evan Davis on the PM Programme on Radio 4 increasingly ‘showing his workings’, as my maths teacher used to say: that was one perspective – and here is another – and you will form your own view. It’s correct that this is now seen as a perfectly acceptable approach rather than simply engineering an uncomfortable ding-dong. (BBC World Service explains here why 'covering breaking news is not enough for today's audiences'.) 

The case for the expensive business of proactive investigation remains.  Many matters need unearthing and scrutinising. Original journalism from curious and persistent dedicated professional asking the questions that no-one yet has.  There is clear case for challenge too, where an offending figure needs to be heard being held to account; justice being seen to be done. In the wake of Brexit, some broadcasters have begin the healthy process of scratching their heads wondering whether they actually asked the right questions.

Responsibility is a thorny issue, if it is not to confused with social engineering; and the work on constructive news/solutions-focusedjournalism is highly relevant. ‘What’s gone wrong here?’ may be an accurate story – but it does not represent the entirety of any topic. Even ‘duly impartial’ broadcast media can ultimately affect the world we live in by the stories it chooses to cover and how it covers them.

Finally, when something happy or troubling happens, people want to talk. They want to reflect, derive comfort - or share a sense of occasion. Are the evening local TV news magazines - which continue to attract good audiences - as much about companionship and belonging as news.

Media solutions

The original news sources are changing, not least as newspaper circulations fall from 22m in 2010 to 10.4m last year.

Social media is growing, despite low trust levels (37% of users say it is impartial, vs 61% for radio). Facebook rules as the most common social media news source. The BBC remains the most followed news organisation, being used by just over half of Facebook and Twitter news users. New brands are breaking through, with Ladbible attracting 19% of Facebook news users, and Buzzfeed 17% (Facebook) and 14% (Twitter) - both ahead of established press titles. Of those who use traditional media, Global's radio stations reach a healthy 19% of traditional news media users vs Sky's 27% and DMGT's 25%.

What future for the news bulletin?  In a sense, they serve as a regularly updated landing page for the day and for the hour, helping us navigate the news of the moment through trusted eyes. We discover what's happened - and ascertain which stories we might want to hear more about.  On linear broadcast,  however, we only hear these updates at times the schedulers choose - on the hour or half-hour - and we are usually treated to at least a paragraph of further detail beyond headlines, whether we are interested in the specific or not.  And - on broadcast - if we seek further insight into a story, we must turn to different media - or maybe wait in the hope that it might feature in a full news programme if it exists on that channel.



Would radio stations have scripted lengthy news bulletins on the hour were the medium invented today? It's interesting that whilst a healthy 43% use radio for news, only 9% of those who follow news turn to radio for their fix of local news - despite the hundreds of stations broadcasting local bulletins. When we want to understand a topic, is the engaging informality of the Brexitcast podcast or Theo Usherwood on LBC more illuminating than a package, voicer or script?

Whilst we will continue to value the major broadcasters doing the dirty work of exploring of each day for us - and the necessary journalism – the trend to bulletin brevity will understandably continue. Whilst Ofcom will insist on preserving the news bulletin on music stations, arguably breakfast shows just pausing every so often to list the top stories - or the updated stories - would serve the same purpose. At present, someone waking up just after 8 and dashing out the house at 830 likely hears no news on entertainment radio.

As voice-activated grows, one can imagine a future where we can scream 'more' at a radio or TV headline and expect further detail to be delivered, before returning to the linear. Similarly, another instruction might prompt insight into a story background. Where is the country? Why are these people fighting?  And - could it offer immediate 'fact checks'?

Flash briefings on smart speakers are experimenting with the format, having concluded correctly that just seizing the radio model may not be the answer. Indeed, the brevity of a true ‘flash briefing’ as opposed to a full news bulletin is probably what the consumer seeks. But will they also become purveyors of specific news stories on demand: ‘Alexa, tell me the latest on Brexit’.

Who will own smart speaker content – today’s broadcasters or tomorrow’s communications companies – or trusted news anchors. 'Hey Huw Edwards, tell. me what's new'.  Who will be the Uber of smart news? Is the NHS/Alexa arrangement, where asking her for flu symptoms will now serve the official NHS view, an interesting precedent - whereas Google Home still merrily tells you 'a fact I've found on the web'. What role will regulation play in this arena?

Rolling TV news - and radio newstalk on stations like LBC - appears to meet contemporary expectations: when I want it - it's there. It ebbs and flows with the news agenda, and is not afraid to dwell exclusively on the key topic at the expense of all others when the occasion warrants.

Will scheduled TV news programmes on general TV channels survive? Whilst BBC One TV remains a huge news source, the percentage of people who use it has fallen appreciably from 65% to 55% since 2010. Will people continue to sit down to watch lengthy TV reports on topics in which they may have scant interest? In linear broadcast, maybe we will feel more acutely the absence of a ‘next story’ button to skip the stories which do not chime.

TV's broad linear audience, however, certainly has a role to play in helping a sense of occasion: the Olympic opening ceremony or the Royal Wedding.

What role does context play in news on social media? Those using it for news struggle to attribute the original source - and, whilst Twitter news users estimate 55% of their news tweets come from news organisations, almost half come from friends and family or others they follow, placing news is a specific personal context. In the same way, 45% of Facebook users accessing news organisation posts read the comments too. Popularity also plays its part, and the lists of most watched/read stories online can seem variously illuminating and worrying. Trending stories generate their own momentum.

How can the social media platforms better distinguish trusted content from the spurious – and who will judge them?  Should algorithms be the conscience of a nation, doing their best to serve us dependable content? What are the risks of that - and to what extent should regulation play a greater part? 

Press has endured a challenging generation as 18th Century titles have struggled to make a business in a digital world.  Some have chosen paywalls, others not. Some, like the Times, supply the actual 'newspaper' in digital form, which looks reassuring familiar and yet often behaves oddly. Others, like the huge Mail-on-line, opt for a dedicated digital space. To what extent will we continue to want to 'read a newspaper' whether on paper or online. Will a UK podcast with the power and penetration of the New York Times Daily be created?

But - when it comes to informed conversation and commentary, comfort and companionship,there will surely never be a medium to match radio.







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Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Radio Universe - Who's Listening Now?


As ever, the headlines on Rajar are about the launches, losses and large growths.

Up above those headaches and smiles, we can pause to reflect on the bigger figures. The weekly reach of ‘all radio’ remains at 89% - and monthly reach greater. That’s a huge, huge proportion of this country’s citizens, and much greater than some annoying press commentators and ad agency folk appear to acknowledge. Radio is everywhere.

But – it’s 89%, whereas it's often been at 90% – and sometimes higher.


There’s something bloody annoying about 89% (or 88.65% actually).

Clearly, there’ll be rounding up and down and population changes, but in broad terms, a full percentage point is around half a million folk. And – for the record - it bounced down to 89% on occasions 20 years ago when this Rajar methodology started, so radio is remarkably resilient. In the last five years, when taken to two decimal places, it's  trended marginally down.

As someone once said, if you want to punish a child these days, you don’t take their radio off them. I don’t have children, but parents tell me that their kids don’t have quite the relationship we used to. The medium’s penetration amongst younger audiences is falling – and that trend is clear. Let’s not malign ourselves too much though - back in the '70s and '80s, there was not a great deal else to do in life. There’s just more competition generally for time.  Although at an all time low - radio still commands a phenomenal (79%) reach amongst those tough-to-reach 15-24s - and 88% of kids aged 10-14 tune in too.



In terms of engagement levels, people are spending less time with radio.  Again, life has changed in twenty years – and radio’s ownership of people’s life still remains enviable. Over twenty years, the average time spent listening per week by adults (15+) has fallen from a high of around 25 hours to about 21 (but it was only at around 22 in 1999). For 15-24s it’s down more substantially from around 20 to around 13.



Twenty years is a long time to analyse anything in our fast-changing world  and these observations serve to illustrate how remarkably resilient we are – but nevertheless, there is some food for thought.

It’s great that Radio 1, Capital, Kiss and Fun Kids are generating exciting, relevant content for younger listeners. Other local and community stations go into schools and make a fuss - and that all helps too. Arguably, the BBC could do even more (without treading on commercial toes). This is important for the future of our medium. No-one really knows whether kids will grow into the radio habits of the Boomers. Frankly, I suggest they won't.

The other question is about on-demand listening and podcasting. Whilst Rajar generates hugely useful data on platform listening and on-demand habits through its excellent ancillary MIDAS study, listening to non-linear radio is not accounted for by Rajar in the same way as a live hour.  When I listen to Radio 4’s PM at 11.00 at night, as I often do, poor Evan Davis gets no Rajar credit for it.

Whilst I’m told that Rajar is looking actively at how podcast listening might be accounted for specifically, there are no imminent moves to add listening hours of on-demand content to the linear published figures for that programme. The job of the Rajar currency is already hugely difficult with so many stations – any new approach would have to be devised, agreed by its many partners – and paid for. I recognise it’s not an easy job.

But who would not admit that the time is coming when all this listening must be captured in one place – and value extracted from it. Radio was once linear because it had to be. Now it’s not.

Destination programming (as opposed to consistent music radio) will increasingly be consumed on-demand. Frankly, in future generations, it'll be odd that a radio station suddenly demands I think about the Athenians' vote to kill all the men of Mytilene at 9 in the morning just because Melvyn Bragg wants to - even when I’m really not in the mood. Talk content and specialist curated music content will increasingly be consumed when I feel like it, not when a station feels like transmitting it.

When running LBC, I spluttered with surprise at the number of listeners who were happy even to pay to listen to Steve Allen at a more sensible time of day. Failing to account for this listening appropriately will increasingly produce a phantom loss of radio’s audience.

I, and many others, have argued passionately that all the curated audio we bung into people's ears is ‘radio’ and I look forward to the time when it will all be measured and acknowledged equally.






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Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Today at 7.00 - Something is Happening


When a non-radio person gallops up wide-eyed  and says: “Have you heard Radio 1 this morning?  I just wanted to carry on listening but I had to go to work”, you know the station has nailed it.

Radio 1's #Hideandseek is back - and the game is on.

‘There is a crack team of seekers back at Radio 1 HQ who you can contact with any leads by texting 81199 or tweeting @BBCR1 using #HideandSeek. If you’re onto something, they will be in touch’

Greg James started his show this morning in suspicious mood - and promised his audience: "We’ll all find out" what’s happening. He confessed it may be a "mess of a broadcast - and that’s fine every now and again".

What is the difference between this and the radio stunts of yesteryear? And why did it capture the UK last year, when Greg and Grimmers were found in Liverpool after over 22 hours in hiding – and why is it doing the same again?

If authenticity is the key word in today’s radio, this activity has it in spades. No flashing lights. No huge idents in booming voices. Just some mates having genuine fun together and letting you get involved. Seemingly rough around the edges, but delivered with huge skill. 

The presenters play themselves, and the listener believes that. Whilst we in the world of radio understand that things always need a little planning to sound unplanned – one gets the feeling that presenters were genuinely only told the absolute essentials. We used to do this with contesting, wherever possible, and the results shine through on-air. Radio exposes fake so easily.

There is rivalry and jeopardy - the hiders and the seekers. And given the honest innocence of the seekers, they can speak freely on-air about their suspicions and, just like your maths teacher used to instruct: 'show your workings out'.

“Last time…we didn’t know it was going to be any good.  We didn’t know if we’d enjoy it  - or if  anyone would care. It felt proper lawless and felt naughty”  (Grimmy)

Radio 1 presenters take Hide and Seek seriously. But they also take the piss.

It is effortlessly across the station. There is a role for everyone - and everyone is involved. And they all seem to get on, creating a party you don’t want to leave. That's true stationality.

The plot grows naturally – and the listener excitement grows at the same pace. Not hyper to start with - like the noisy table in the restaurant you really don’t want to be part of - but a conversation in which you cannot help becoming engaged. 

It’s simple and easy to join. Who doesn’t know what Hide and Seek is. And the re-setting through the breakfast show with Scott – and later through the day with everyone - is flawless. The activity ebbs and flows - across the schedule; its presence at just the right level. There's no need to trouble with all the 'join us tomorrow' teasing - listeners will instinctively not want to miss anything.

It’s about the audience as much as about Radio 1. This is inclusive - and the listeners have true equity in the journey - at whatever level they choose. ‘We need your help…please send all sightings, suspicions and theories to Radio1 HQ’ (Scott). Listeners Anna and Carlene were confident that they’d seen Greg in Bishop Stortford. 

It uses social media perfectly. Helping listeners to get on-board; and to follow the thread to catch up when they've had other things to do in life. And wherever you look online it’s across all the visual presences - with an enviable attention to detail.  But for the real spirit, you have to turn on the radio.

It’s feelgood. And radio is all about mood. It’s why listeners turn us on. And we need that more than ever just now.

And, of course, this has benefited from immaculate operational production; and the health and safely folk have also been creeping sensibly all over it. On-air, however, the precautions are delivered by your caring elder bro not your mum:  “we’re not in hospitals, a fire station, police station… we are somewhere safe…not in a collapsing building or scrap yard".

But most of all, this activity features presenters listeners like - and care about. Radio 1’s current line-up have developed impressive audience chemistry – so their listeners care about what their mates are up to. Without that – this would fail. Eager breakfast crews on stations across the UK often try to pull off thoroughly praiseworthy feats, but so do people across the World each day who are not on the radio. Sadly, we only really care when we connect with the individuals taking part.

I'd argue these arcs and plots create more memorable radio than many huge cash contests; and certainly more than the "...go online now to win" activity. There are more views on these areas from many other programmers and presenters in my latest book, which is out this week ‘Radio Secrets’. One programmer says ‘radio is no longer propped up by tactics’. 

Activity like this helps to keep radio famous – and we all benefit. Whether Hide & Seek, Pass the Pasty or Absolute's wonderful Blockbuster Video story arc, UK radio is arguably delivering some of the most compelling activity it ever has. And - in the most competitive radio environment we have ever witnessed - the stakes are high.






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Tuesday, 9 July 2019

'Broadcasting in the Seventies' vs Broadcasting in the Twenty Twenties


Fifty years ago this week, the report ‘Broadcasting in The Seventiesrolled off the Roneo duplicator, penned principally by the BBC’s incoming MD of Radio, Ian Trethowan. Although drawing on work dating back to 1967, in many ways, it could have been written last week.

One familiar impact was that it created "a big banging type of explosion" (BBC exec, Gerard Mansell) both inside and outside BH. Indeed, 137 BBC staff were so furious, they wrote to the Times to vent their spleen.


Listeners have not changed much either. Wise Frank Gillard (then director of radio) had warned the chairman of the governors: “the radio audience is the most conservative audience in the whole wide world, and you don’t come out with a great big statement that we’re going to make all these changes. What you do is you infiltrate them slowly and gradually and people get used to them, they take them in their stride”.

The report valiantly sought “to adapt our (the BBC’s) service to a changing world to meet changing tastes and needs”; and “to live within our prospective income for sound broadcasting in the next five years”.

It outlined the recent changes in BBC radio and the latest additions to the clan, including the Music Programme (part of Radio 3); Radio 1; and local radio. Now, it sought to “rationalise and reshape” to serve the audiences of the concrete seventies. Much like today's digital adjustments, however, it agonised over past changes being “grafted piecemeal on to a tree planted in an earlier age of broadcasting”.

The report insisted the BBC should not just concern itself with the biggest audiences but also with "positive responsibility". Whilst that phrase is not bandied around much in NBH today, the territory is utterly and increasingly familiar.

Like recent reports, the BBC was concerned at the end of the '60s about changing audiences, albeit radio’s dirty competitor back then was TV, murdering radio’s evening audience peak.

Representing the regions of the UK was key too, with “the success” of the local radio experiment opening up “new opportunities for broadcasting outside London”. The report  alluded to “centrifugal forces” apparent in “society as a whole”, yet “growing resistance to the apparently inexorable magnetism of London". It concluded that “not only Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (which) look for a separate identity”.

Familiar challenges. Familiar objectives. One difference is the number of licence fee payers: up from 18m, at the time of the report, to around 26m now. (There was a radio only licence at £1.5s or combined radio/colour TV at £11. Radio-only licences ended in 71).

Radio’s path ahead appeared ‘more complex’ than TV. Indeed, the Chairman of the BBC Governors was so excited about the BBC2 colour set in his drawing room that he guiltily conceded: “we’ve got to talk to the public about radio and have a big drive on radio”. Quite right too.

One key focus would be audience targeting, recognising that many listeners now expected a “specialised network, offering a continuous stream of one particular type of programme, meeting one particular interest”.

Accordingly, Auntie suggested that all the things it had been lukewarm about had actually been jolly good ideas all the way along, with Radio 1 “amply” confirming that there is a demand for pop music, as distinct from the more traditional styles of light music”. It attributed any deficiencies in the new service to a lack of resources, not because of BBC “inhibitions” Perish the thought.

She also conceded that amount of programme sharing between Radio 1 and 2 was a bit silly, or in the plummiest of BBC terms: “the ride is not always smooth”. I suspect the next line was written after a BBC sherry: “to their respective fans, Emperor Rosko and Eric Robinson barely inhabit the same planet let alone the same air waves”.

So, hurrah for Radio 1 which was promised as much more unique programming as could be afforded. Radio 2 meanwhile was promised: “a new clear focus as another all-music network, presenting all that is covered by the umbrella of 'light music' - anything from Sinatra to Lehar. (It is sometimes suggested this should be called the 'sweet' music channel, but light music offers more variety and continuous saccharine)”.  To do this though, the report cautioned that needle-time issues (which limited the amount played) would have to be sorted, and some familiar Radio 2 programmes would be shunted to Radio 4 (which some duly were, such as Woman’s Hour).

The report muttered about the cost of Radio 3 (still, to this day, expensive per listening hour by comparison to other networks). Sensibly, it planned to stop messing around with two stations on the same frequency (Music Programme and Third Programme) and just make it all Radio 3. Clear branding for a station now dedicated to ‘music and the arts’. The more factual programmes from the old Third Programme  (documentaries, current affairs)  seemed “likely to fit better into a reshaped Radio Four”.

Radio Four would thus become the network we recognise today - largely a speech network with “a strong emphasis on news and topical programmes”, spiced with a few general entertainment programmes.  PM, The World Tonight, Start the Week and Analysis were to be launched following this plan.

Use of frequencies will always be a thorny topic. In 1969, The Government had appeared keen on identifying FM frequencies for Harold Wilson’s beloved Open University, but the BBC proposed instead squatting on Radio 4’s FM frequencies (let’s remember that using FM in 1970 was a little like using a DAB slot ten years ago).

It saw stereo for radio much like colour for TV, and so indicated it would certainly strive to put BBC local radio in stereo. It would also try to add medium wave support for BBC local which had been launched only on the new FM band, by “reallocating the medium waves now used for Radio Three as part of a general pattern of providing improved medium-wave support for the other networks and local stations”. In due course, the  BBC was persuaded to hand some to the commercial sector.

In local, it had a dig at those ne’er-do-wells proposing local commercial radio: “No human organisation should claim infallible prescience, but we may fairly argue that the BBC was championing local radio before some of its present advocates found their voice". Of course, history suggests the BBC had not actually bent over backwards to rally the local cause.  In proposing to grow the number of local stations to 40, it proposed chopping the regional opt-outs from the national networks.

In getting more cash through the door, the BBC was going to tackle those who failed to cough up their shillings. Maybe it planned to install licence detector gubbins in a new fleet of Ford Capris. But, as now, the BBC was also keen to highlight how much more was being done with licence fee cash: “Since 1946, the licence has risen only once, by 25 per cent. Over the same period output of radio has gone up by 55 per cent”. Also like now, it also flagged up staff reductions. It considering too disbanding some of its orchestras, which was to prove one of the most contentious proposals. Hell hath no fury like a BBC radio listener scorned.

With these proposals we believe we are offering a service which would cater for at least a range of listeners' requirements as at present, spanning the generations and the cultures, capable of meeting any competition, and fulfilling the BBC's distinctive responsibilities as a public service broadcasting organisation.”

In many senses, the media landscape has changed beyond recognition since 1969, yet the BBC executive thumbing through this report on foolscap in 1969 would likely feel oddly at home now wrestling with today’s contemporary challenges, although hopefully he’d notice those round the table better reflected the diversity of UK citizens. He would, though, question why that the BBC‘s vision cannot still be summarised in 13 pages.

Sadly, I just cannot imagine quite so much attention being given to the BBC’s radio output, despite its audience reach being likely greater now than it was then.



email: radiomoments@radiomoments.co.uk
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Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The BBC Annual Report 18/19 - Radio Summary


Another BBC Annual report and Accounts appears - for the year 2018 to 2019. Those of us who have assembled such things know that it is what is left out and the nuances of how things are described which tell the real tale. Let´s wade through, alert principally to mention of our beloved radio.

BBC Sounds

The app is thoroughly trumpeted in the report: 'A part of our ongoing commitment to reinvent the BBC for a new generation…a brand new audio product bringing together our live and on demand radio, music and podcasts into a single personalised product'.  I admire the thinking behind the app, but I wish it was not the only thing about radio the Chairman deigned to mention in his preface.

Later, the report adds that BBC Sounds had a great start with more than 2 million app downloads.  Its ability to personalise is much-vaunted, although I confess I am hoping for further strides in this area, and also tighter starts to listen-again, so I don‘t get a random two minutes of the Archers before my chosen listen.

Awards

The DG is rather proud of his mantelpiece of 36 awards which 'swept the board' at the Arias (no mention of the Radio Academy).  There were some worthy winners for sure,  with Radio 1 as National Station of the Year.  BBC Radio Leeds was mentioned too, as Local Station of the Year. Other programmes recognised include Rabbi Lord Sacks’s Morality in the 21st Century on Radio 4 and New Age of Consent.

Elsewhere, Matt‘s excellent British Podcast Awards get a mention. Brexitcast is even honoured with a pic; and is dubbed 'irreverent but analytical' and 'unashamedly geeky'.  It certainly deserved its accolade, and, as I tweeted, is actually some of the very best 'radio'. If 5 Live sounded like that itself more frequently, it would grow its audiences. I think Chris Mason was correct on the Radio Today podcast when he suggested that styles will seep from podcasting to radio, and vice versa. That is good news as Brexitcast’s informality has oodles of the relaxed authenticity which today’s best radio features.

In 2018, podcast downloads for Radio Wales and Radio Cymru combined saw a 50% increase year-on-year.  Radio Current Affairs is mentioned too, albeit sans mention of Mair, for continuing  its daily podcast reporting from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

News

Whilst a general comment, rather than radio-specific, the DG talks of how determined he is ’to explain the news as well as report it. We’re taking more time to explore the context behind the events – the why as well as the what’. I believe the BBC´s efforts in this arena are impressive, and a tribute to the correspondents who have been working in unprecedented circumstances.  The BBC’s research suggests the opposite, however, with the proportion of people who think BBC News and Current Affairs is effective at helping them understand what is happening in the UK/world today dropping from 73% to 70% and those saying it is ineffective rising from 12% to 15%.  Maybe our country is simply becoming more difficult to understand.

I still feel the BBC could be bolder in defending itself and presenting the evidence of its processes, against the tide of hugely ill-informed and often downright nasty comments about 'bias' and its journalists. Indeed, in general terms, I think we should see and hear more from both the DG and Chairman on this and other matters.

Quality

Those who feel BBC radio is decent quality falls from 81 to 75% and distinctiveness falls from 77%-73%. Cited in this section as good examples are The Reith Lectures  BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind and the BBC Loneliness Experiment. The Infinite Monkey Cage is mentioned again this year, marking its 100th episode.

Local News Partnership

The Local News Partnership has ’succeeded beyond all expectations’ with more than 78,000 stories supplied.  The report says the approach is now attracting international attention from other countries keen to replicate its success. I am in Germany at present, and there were questions about it (not that I represent the BBC). I would say that the TV channel I chair makes use of this source. The BBC reminds us that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, has paid tribute to the scheme’s success and its contribution to local democracy,whilst the Cairncross report on the future of UK media called for it to be extended. Beyond this report, I gather the BBC is keen on a broader local democracy foundation, with funding from such sources as silicon valley.

The World Service

The World Service merits a mention, owing to its landmark year, with the ’biggest expansion in over 70 years’, now operating in 42 languages and growing its audience to 319 million from 279.  Like our Prime Ministers, the BBC seems to get more fair recognition abroad than back home. The BBC would blush on hearing what I witness being said about it when I am overseas.

Local Radio

The DG has a wry dig at commercial radio “As others move away from local radio programming and replace it with shows based in London, we are investing more and creating new shows on our local stations’. He cites the 150 new shows in the evening on BBC local radio ensuring ’local radio stations better reflect the communities they serve’. ’More than 80 of the new evening shows are presented by people new to broadcasting and many of them are now being featured elsewhere on our output’.

As I have written elsewhere, I am sure some great new talent and some excellent output is included in this development, but BBC folk around the country mutter to me about its varying quality. And, as John Myers said, are evenings the right place to start when you are reinvigorating a network.  And as I said, I worry about radio stations with a lack of focus in a competitive world and question whether audiences will find the new offerings.  I suspect someone will also work out the cost benefit too in due course which, whilst rightly not the sole criterion, will be questioned as economies are demanded.  The new programmes help the amount of BBC Local Radio and nations radio hours of output in England (excl. London) rise to 236,870 from 222,946 hours.

In explaining BBC local radio strategy, the report stresses the need to 'champion' all audiences across England, 'particularly underserved audiences. This means we have to transform the BBC’s audience offer as well as helping to grow the creative and economic impact of BBC England. In Local Radio our mission will be not only to provide local news but to reflect and connect with audiences by owning the local conversation. We want to provide opportunities for those new to broadcasting and be a place that seeks to constantly innovate'. Ironically, the very word 'champion' was taken out of the operating licence as it transferred from the Trust to Ofcom. After two years without a clear audience target, I am pleased to hear of one at last. I shall be more reassured when I can ask any member of BBC local staff what their objectives are, and get a really decent answer.

Commercial radio´s changes in Wales are also cited: ’it was a year of significant audience and industry change in Wales with both major commercial broadcasters ending locally-produced breakfast programming. BBC Radio Wales marked its 40th anniversary in November with a major expansion of its FM footprint, but the radio audience landscape continues to be challenging, leading to changes to the Radio Wales breakfast news programme’.

Music, Comedy and Sport

’Our Classical Century’ is highlighted, ’an ambitious year-long season of documentaries and concert broadcasts...joining up all of the BBC’s classical services and performing groups for the first time in one big idea’.

Across on  Radio 1, ’Live Lounge Month in November brought listeners performances from the biggest and newest music acts including The 1975, Mumford and Sons and Jorja Smith, and 1Xtra continued to champion UK artists who get little mainstream media support’. BBC 6 Music featured ’new and alternative music from the UK and beyond and gave significant support to emerging artists. Lauren Laverne at breakfast is singled out and the renewed focus on the amount and range of music played in daytime, with at least 30% of music played in daytime being new.

BBC Introducing continues to provide a weekly platform on BBC Local Radio for the best new musical talent. The BBC does some great work in this area, but I am not sure they have nailed its branding and promulgation. It is worthy of a bigger stage and profile.

In comedy, Dead Ringers is mentioned with its satirical take on the world of politics and Newsjack’s ’topical comedy with sketches and one-liners submitted by the public’.
BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra ’offered a wider range of sports than any other UK broadcaster in the last year’, with  comprehensive coverage of the World Cup in Russia being  complemented by exclusive interviews in the World Cup Daily podcast’ and ’more Premier League matches than any other UK radio broadcaster, Test Match Special covered every England home cricket match and we broadcast live UFC for the first time’. Meanwhile, BBC Local Radio has more than 80 commentary deals with football teams.

Figures

The BBC radio reach figures look a touch lukewarm with every single demographic/social class falling in both reach and time spent listening.  Women fall the most in reach, down from 62 to 59%. Of interest is the reach amongst C2DEs for BBC radio falling from a low 56% to 53%. 55 pluses show the highest reach at 72%.

Hours spent listening amongst 16-24s falls further - down from 4’39 to 4´20, with reach falling from 53% to 51%. This clearly remains a challenge, but I hope the Corporation does not fall into the trap of icing everything with youth appeal. That is not the answer.

The length of time UK adults (16+) spend with BBC Radio each week falls from 10.03 to 09.33.

BBC local radio spends 6m more than last year and its reach falls to 13.1% from 14.3%.

Over the long term from 2013 to now, average time spent listening to BBC radio per week falls from 10.33 to 9.28 per week, commercial radio is marginally up to 8.32, and streaming grows from next to nothing to 2.32. Of course, listening to CDs and the like has declined in that time. Weekly reach of BBC radio goes from 64.2 to 62.4 in the year, with commercial radio staying constant at 65.4. Music streaming jumps to 25%.

The DG is chuffed at audience figures following ’some bold choices’. ’Zoe Ball has hit the ground running as the new Radio 2 breakfast host as part of a refreshed schedule, while there was new record reach for Lauren Laverne in her own new breakfast slot on 6 Music….Jess Gillam, former Young Musician finalist, as its youngest-ever regular presenter’.  As far as the big shows are concerned, it is probably a little early to claim victory, but were I Tone, I’d have mentioned them too.

The overall picture suggests most BBC radio is costing more, with fewer listeners. Prices are rising of course, and the competitive backdrop has become increasingly vigorous. 
Radio cost 504m, up from 480m.

Compliance

Ofcom found the BBC to be in breach of the Broadcasting Code for one Radio 4 matter, where ’the presenter should have been prepared to provide challenge and context to Lord Lawson’s views on climate change’. That’s an impressive compliance record for the entire radio output, and the lone complaint suggests too that Ofcom regulation can bite when it needs.

Technical

The report marks the end of the installation of Vilor, and the introduction of OpenMedia, the new newsroom computer system. I was shocked to hear from other sources of the annual cost of the news predecessor ENPS, and would have been tempted to rollout a replacement before waiting 20 years. Maybe it was a long contract.  I would welcome updates in the report on major IT projects including budgets, actual costs and timescales. I would be interested to see the figures on actual spend on Vilor, including all installation, training and support.

People

The thorny topics of  gender culture and career progression at the BBC are highlighted, and the BBC claims progress. The efforts on-air are to be applauded and Mrs and Mr licence payer are now thankfully more used to hearing and seeing women doing all the things which once appeared puzzlingly to be the province of men.  Outside of the report, the BBC Women group has suggested that the reviews in this area remain painful and slow. If they are anything like my contact with BBC HR or payroll, I can quite understand what they mean.  "Stories featuring strong female leads and dramas from female writers featured throughout the year on TV and radio."

It feels naughty seeing the salaries but we all have a peek, albeit this topic is well covered elsewhere. And whilst genuine fairness is essential, I hope it does not stop the BBC paying more to those with considerably more experience and higher listener profile and value.  It is odd seeing just how few programmes a Today presenter hosts (140), compared to the likes of Scott Mills or Nicky Campbell. With a few anomalies, as probably happens in all our salary lists, the remuneration looks as i would expect and has parallels in the commercial world. (Frankly, I would try out my newer presenters on Saturday mornings for the Today Programme rather than trouble John H, but maybe he likes the Saturday jaunt).

The freelance tax matter is covered too, and a 12m sum has been classified by the NAO as irregular. ‘Whilst we would clearly have preferred not to be in this position, the Board considers that the approach being taken (including the settlement proposal which has led to the provision) is the most fair, and best protects the interests of licence fee payers’.

Five sexual harassment cases are reported, along with 81 bullying and harassment. 52 are closed, 24 ongoing with 10 withdrawn. The Average time to close a case is 108 days.

I would be annoyed this year were I Jeremy Vine.  Again this year, despite his hosting a top-notch popular show each day on Radio 2, doing all the things the BBC should and all the things at which radio truly excels, his only mention is in the salary list. And what of Greg James’s contribution? This is where I start to fear whether the folk at the top actually get good radio.

"Without great people, the BBC is nothing. Our outstanding programmes, services, radio, podcasts and journalism are only possible because of the dedication, skill and knowledge of the people who work with us – whether for a few weeks as a freelancer or for many years." 

The BBC is always lovely at saying these things, and evidently well-intentioned, but my experience and what I know of others' suggests it simply is not sufficiently well-led or organised to make people feel as valued as they should when they work for the world’s greatest broadcaster. There is work to be done.


Coming in late July


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