Monday 10 October 2011

Are radio ads getting better?

Is it unkind to quote the words of the first ad ever heard on Pennine Radio (Bradford) when it launched in 1975?  Probably.  Ah well.
It was for the Telegraph and Argus.  I’ll cut to the highlights, just when Mum starts getting really enthusiastic:
(Mum) “There’s always plenty of local news. Births; marriages; deaths; all small ads; and all sorts of articles on offer at a fiver an under.
(Daughter) ‘Mum, please remind me to take a copy ‘ome tonight. I know Bill’ll enjoy its sports news, so there’ll be summat for both of us.
(Mum) There’ll be something there for everybody, Sue. It always pays to take the T and A."

Click and have a listen if you don't believe me!
Bradford T and A - Pennine (mp3)

It’s taken a few years of making radio ads, but we’ve thankfully got past that stage where ‘people in the street’ volunteer an unhealthy knowledge about a product:  ‘and they’re open Thursdays 'til late’; ‘Really’; ‘Yes’. ‘What’s that phone number again?’.
As I write those words, it occurs to me how long ago it was that radio ads sounded like that.  Sadly, though, the perception remains that radio ads are naff.  The contrary is true. Whilst I have long thought that those creating radio ads could learn something from radio station imagers; I now feel the traffic should wisely be two way.
I have heard persuasive, brilliant commercial material of late.  Skilfully written; beautifully produced.  World class.  Compare the Market; Xbox; John Frieda: the list of current excellent creative is a long one.
We still need to do more to demonstrate the power of great ads; and to salute those who write and produce the Nation’s best.   I believe that UK radio advertising creative is reaching an all time high. Maybe the focus of winning business in an ever tougher climate has pushed our medium to prove itself more; or maybe, at last, our great industry is coming of age.
Of course, I am going to praise some home-grown fruit here, but I genuinely think we have produced some impressive material.  Our writers and producers grasp the potential.  The Worcester Racecourse campaign moved me: it was about winning and victory.  Powerful themes.  Some of the local further education material has been equally potent: real people talking.
There’s still room for improvement, of course.  One can smell a script written by someone who fails to understand radio from a mile away.  Thankfully, the CD with the Mastermind theme tune has been stolen. I think I stole it, actually. 

Can we also ban any ad which contains the words ‘thirty seconds’: ‘We’ve just got thirty seconds to tell you about’?  And, if you are even thinking about having the sound effect of pseudo-talkback, please, go and work elsewhere.  How many listeners know what talkback is?  These two devices spring from minds which cannot think beyond the carriage.  
Forget thirty seconds.  Forget talkback.  Forget studios.  Remember what radio is great at.  You have not bought thirty seconds; you have bought a space in someone’s mind – now take them on a journey.  Radio loves story telling.  Radio is great with real people’s voices.  Lean on what radio does best and you’ll create engaging, effective spots.

I gripped my steering wheel in anger on the M42 the other day when I heard a major national retailer boast discounts on ‘hundreds of lines’.  I’d love to meet the woman who returns from a shopping trip, laden with bags, boasting to her friend about the ‘discounts on all lines’ she had uncovered.  Those copy-writers would presumably have penned lines like: “We’ll employ force dispersal wherever we meet combatants’ for Churchill in 1940.  Words matter.  We would have likely lost the will to win the War without them.
Every programmer is fully aware of the power of the radio medium.  We know listeners will engage with us exactly as they would a friend.  The same language, the same closeness.  They talk to us about their good times, and the bad times.  I know I am not the only person in radio who has had a hand in pointing a listener in the right direction when their world seems a particularly dark place.  We know they feel that way because of the words we say each day.  The words in ads are potentially just as powerful.  A great copy-writer understands the relationship between listener and station.  It talks to them, not at them. 
DM here to ‘Call me Dave’. Dave, mate, can you tidy up the pathetic rules which require us to broadcast gobbledegook at the end of ads. No credit agreement is signed purely as a result of hearing an ad, for goodness sake. Yeah? Rgds.
Put your hand up if you are a great voice-over.  Keep your hand up if you are also a gifted actor.  Let’s cast the right people for the right jobs.
I’m not being snooty, by the way. We do need to flog stuff - and a memorable audio identity cuts through.  Jingles can really work.  We all know what two things Autoglass do: you have just brought their verbs to mind.  We need these ads to work, not just win awards. You have got to hear 'The Hungry Horse' on brmb.
The fact that Gav Jenks from Autoglass has thousands of Twitter followers tells its own story.  Listeners now are engaging with him directly long after a campaign has finished.  It’s still a shame he’s left Brum, though.
And when we’re finished, let’s be proud of what we’ve done.  We deserve to be.  Let’s play them on nice speakers and in a context.  I am sure no-one wheeling out a new TV ad to those they need to influence would play it on a black and white 14” screen with naff speakers.
So, here’s my official support, for what it’s worth, to the RAB in their quest to make the final step forward to World-leading radio creative which convinces cynical media buyers that our medium is exceptional.  No medium engages as powerfully as radio, and your brand can hop on our backs if you play the game with skill.
Did I mention free parking?
Follow me on Twitter @davidlloydradio

Thursday 6 October 2011

BBC Local Radio - A personal view

I was eight.  Shy. Nice short trousers and a braided jacket with badge.  The poem was ‘the Great Fire of London’; and when BBC Radio Nottingham’s ‘Magic Microphone Club' visited our local infants school, I was called to the front to recite it into a huge microphone with a red foam pop shield bearing a smiley face.
As my own voice trickled out of our huge old FM ‘VHF’ radio in 1969 (the only one in our street), my relationship with radio began. A huge love for BBC local radio evolved into a love for all radio and a hugely happy lifetime spent largely in the commercial sector.
In those days and through the ‘70s and ‘80s, BBC Local Radio was a formidable force.  It knew what it did.  Gifted communicators, usually from their own parish, talked to their audiences; and their audiences listened and engaged just as they would with a friend. Good conversation, sometimes serious, sometimes not.  Sometimes issue-driven, often not.
The BBC’s research project ‘BBC Local radio 2010’ highlighted what really appealed to listeners and potential listeners. Lively, friendly, entertaining conversation. Company.  Yes, news was hugely valued, but not the principal driver. Not the reason for turning on the station.  The results echoed a very similar study I had been involved in when running London’s LBC just five years ago.
In 2008, as I found myself temporarily unemployed after years in commercial radio management, I was touched to be invited to host some regular weekday shows on BBC local radio in my home-town. As I walked through the door, trembling as I passed the BBC logo for the first time ever in my thirty-plus year radio career, I remembered 1969.  The poem and the braided jacket.   My mother would have been proud.
That time, plus a regrettably short spell in BBC management just afterwards (three weeks!), curtailed because of an unmissable and appallingly–timed fresh opportunity in the commercial sector, afforded me a privileged insight into the BBC.
My BBC time was hugely enjoyable; and I met many incredibly talented and hard-working, gifted people.  My sympathies this week are with people just like that, often tarred with the errors of those around them.
What alarmed me was what I witnessed.  Appalling people management.  Laughable operational efficiency.  If any of my commercial companies produced the staff survey results which some areas of the BBC produce, I would, as a manager, expect to be out of a job.  Individuals who understand neither radio nor management, are paid to do both.  Forever. ‘No-one ever gets sacked from the BBC’, I was told.  Not true, of course, but if that be the perception, well.  More commonly, those whose performance is rather too left-field find themselves in imaginative new jobs.  Poor attendance levels are rarely scrutinised; bad performance poorly-managed and the sheer number of people in the management chain led to unclear decision-making and operational errors.  Some individuals struggled even to explain their own job to me. 
e-mail inboxes are full of navel-gazing BBC contemplation and systems.  The BBC spends as much time running itself as it does producing output.   Individuals are shunted from one city to another, and 'attached' here and there, regardless of the collateral damage, creating uncertainty of ‘back-filling’. Talk to anyone about what their job is and the answer will be complex: ‘I’m here filling for X for six months, as she has gone to Y, and we are not sure if B is coming back from Z".  Whereas those in BBC Local stations used to love the area they serve, I am alarmed that some interviews for BBC Local Radio posts, in my experience, rarely demand much (if any) knowledge of the area.  As for interviews (sorry, ‘boards’), the undue obsession with ‘procedure’ mitigates against getting the person best suited to the job.
BBC Local radio has lost itself in ‘news’. As adumbrated earlier, news and sport information is of huge value, yet it is not everything. For some inexplicable reason, BBC Local Radio management cannot distinguish between the role of a great journalist and a great presenter. The two jobs on this format have overlapping skills but a different focus.  Those lining the streets of Nottingham in 1996  were marking the passing of a great broadcaster – Dennis McCarthy - not the axing of the 7.00 p.m bulletin. BBC Local Radio is run as a news operation because it sits, erroneously, within BBC News.
I was moved to write a paper in my early days, alarmed by what I had seen. I suggested that if BBC local radio were ‘cut off’ from the BBC machine and afforded an income stream and left to get on with it, yet able to buy in BBC material and functions as it wished, it would produce better programming at half the cost, provided it were managed by a skilled manager.  I recalled the programming costs of LBC vs BBC London: at LBC, we produced around double the audience from a very similar talk format at half the cost.  With a rolling news service on AM thrown in.  As the inevitable programme for identifying BBC efficiences began its slow journey in 2008, I offered to help them, aided by my experience of ‘both sides’.  Nope, they were fine, thank you.
Meanwhile, at the front end, some great people are getting out of bed trying to produce great programming.  They know they will get little appreciation, little inspiration, and often not even the support and resources their programmes warrant. In many areas of output, there is no ‘bloated’; they should command greater resource.
Hints of regionalisation are worrying and rarely the answer.  Where the shows work, it is often simply because one station has hired exactly the sort of person which every station should.  Regions do not exist; only in media-land. Nottingham people are usually less interested in Derby because it is their neighbour, rather than more so.  Similarly, Manchester and Liverpool. The closer areas lie, often the larger their rivalry.  Local is local.
Every time I speak to any BBC folk, as I often do, I am careful not to be portrayed as a ‘BBC basher’.  I need have no fear: so many of the huge numbers of ‘good folk’ there are more frustrated and outspoken than anyone on the outside. They feel powerless.  Decades of mismanagement have allowed the BBC to descend into a place it does not deserve to be.  It is thanks to human nature and a love for the medium that still there is so much output of which it should still be hugely, hugely proud. 
I adore the BBC and everything it stands for. I would join those on the streets campaigning for the right areas to be retained. Grown. I am moved to tears when I hear great moments of BBC output, just as I am with output from my own stations.
Here’s my local radio plan.  Get modest premises; hire a great manager; identify some gifted local communicators; find the best journalists who love their job and are capable of reading. Get on with it.  Remember Frank Gillard’s vision: there is nothing 1967 about it. Better output can be produced and huge efficiencies realised: the two things are not mutually exclusive.
At a time when commercial radio is regionalising, there has never been a better time for great BBC Local Radio in many areas to fill the gap with enthusiasm.

My book, 'How to Make Great Radio', is published by Biteback

Sunday 2 October 2011

Why is Twitter so much like radio?

Word economy matters. Twitter's 140 characters is a remarkable discipline.  Just when you think you cannot tell a whole story in so few words, you manage it.  Wow.  How many bits of radio could have been  just as powerful with fewer words. If not more so.

Every word matters.  Substituting one word for another in a Tweet will affect whether someone bothers to smile or find it interesting; and whether they choose to respond or re-tweet.  Or unfollow.  It's the same in radio.  One changed word in a topic proposition is the difference between getting a listener bothering to respond - or not.  A different phrase in a promo/trail is the difference between it working or not working.  Don't get me started on badly written promos.
Teasing works.  What makes you bother to click on the Tweet link to the article, audio or video? The way the words on the Tweet 'sell it'.  Sometimes you are cajoled into reading something which is not that interesting, but the words made you, at least, try it.  Again, the same as radio: 'throwing forward' is all very well, but is what you are saying really going to make someone want to listen?  Would the same words have made them click on an attachment? I always remember Eddie Mair doing the 'Later, we ask one of the Labour leadership contenders - would you sack your brother?'. I can think of a million common and less powerful ways that interview might have more typically been flagged up - but few more powerful.  Eddie teases on-air with the skill of a gifted music radio presenter equipped with years of making the rather more mundane (songs and sponsored activity) sound interesting.

Your personality really matters.  A great Tweeter will 'find' themselves. Some broadcasters never do.  A great Tweeter releases a blend of their personal and professional lives. They are known for their richness of consistent yet surprising character and they are always true to it.  No character or no consistency equals few followers.  Similarly, those who have no discernible genuine 'personality' on-air will never become a personality listeners want to spend their valuable lives with.
It's personal.  Great companies Tweet as if from a human being talking to another human being.  Not as a 'Company voice'. Great broadcasters show they are believable human beings too.

You never know what will work!  One can send three thoroughly fascinating Tweets and
reap few responses or re-Tweets. Yet an innocuous Tweet can touch a chord and go wild.  Just as in radio, that carefully-planned sure-fire link earns a disappointing response; and your brief spontaneous aside about something and nothing puts the phones into meltdown.

Put your head above the parapet.  When you  stand for something, then you stand the chance of losing some followers.  You must accept that.  But, the gains are probably greater than the losses if your topics are of sufficient appeal.  Great broadcasters may well be divisive on air, but on balance the appeal of what they do is great enough to generate a larger audience than those they irritate.  In every great broadcaster, there'll be something not to like.  Always be bland and you'll never have lots of followers; and you'll never be a memorable broadcaster. But watch the mix.

Know your audience - and be consistent.  If you create a Twitter account with a lot of bee-keeping updates and attract bee-keepers to follow you, then you'll probably lose a few when you start ranting about the Conservative government.  There needs to be a focus and distinct personality for a Twitter account just as there is for a radio station.

Response helps. Great users of Twitter respond and engage generously.  Great broadcasters take the time to interact personally with their audience howsoever and whenever they can. They let others sometimes have the last word, whether a co-host or a listener.

Depth and detail matters. We know that Tweets with attachments fare well.  A picture, a bit of audio. Similarly, the colour and detail when story-telling on radio turns the sound picture from black and white to colour. A brand name can make an anecdote funnier.

You. A Tweet can use the word 'you' powerfully.  You want one person to read it, feel it's talking to them, and reply once. When that to happen many times, you've scored.  No-one usefully starts a tweet with 'anyone out there...'. Nor do great broadcasters. They speak to one person.

Context. Just like in real life, you don't need to justify starting a conversation on Twitter. You just do it.  If it is interesting, people join in.  The same art is best demonstrated on-air by presenters who do not feel the need to justify why they are talking about something. Thankfully, protracted journeys from song title to topic are nowadays rare on British radio. But, we do still get presenters feeling the need to explain the tortuous or simply needless journey to a topic when it has long ago started to set its own context.
ObserveHow many great Tweets simply talk about an observation on life which chimes with you?  That makes great radio too. Am I the only one to feel that some presenters send funnier Tweets than their links?  Daily life has always been a better source of entertainment than 'The Sun'. Great radio broadcasters realised that long ago.
Unfollow is turn off. Says it all really.  You've been dull or mis-judged your audience.

Topicality. Some of the most re-Tweeted material is topical.  When something big happens
which occupies a space in every person's mind, some bright spark just manages to conjure up the post that inherits the momentum. There are numerous excellent corporate examples too. The great users of social media likely have seconds to get that thought together, and get it out there.  Great radio also hits those same topics  - now. The sense of the day.  Just repeating a known story is not sufficient, it's that twist which wins.

Repeat content. Tweeters often re-post. Different words. Different times. Radio content is re-used too; again, re-framed at different times, sometimes addressing different audiences. I've re-posted this blog twice.  Yes, of course, I've changed it, just as  you'll change a link when you repeat it.

Practice makes perfect. Your first shows sound pretty awful when you listen back.  Your inaugural Tweets likely look just a wee bit innocent now too. Listening to other great performers can educate; and studying the great users of social media may also.

Listeners like a bit of fame They like to be retweeted or followed by a celeb. They like you to mention them on the radio. It feels special.
How is Twitter different from radio?  On radio, you don't know who's listening. Thank goodness. Imagine you are just about to open your mouth on-air and you realise you have just been joined by two new listeners. You know who they are and what they look like: one very attractive person who lives down the road and seems to be interested in what you have to say; and the Controller of Radio 1.  It might rather affect your next link.  Mind you, the great thing about radio is that you never know. Those listeners may indeed have actually just joined you.

Enjoy some fun Hashtag Hell in another blog!
Follow me on Twitter @davidlloydradio

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