Thursday 19 December 2013

Brand Integration. Are we making the most of it?

As 2010 closed, OFCOM confirmed the unthinkable.  The suits at Southwark Bridge cracked open another bottle of branded sparkling water to celebrate the sweeping away of decades of wordy compliance rules, which had caused generations of regulators to chew their Biros at the best of times.  Brand integration was to be legitimate from February 2011, even though OFCOM did not call it that.  The right move.  Full marks.

As far as I know, there has been no outpouring of indignation from Middle England.  One wonders why on earth we all put up with so many pointless rules for quite so long.  Now we can just about do anything commercial in most places within programming, so long as we mention that the clients are 'our friends'.  Of course they bloody well are. 

But have we truly embraced the new freedoms?  Some stations have, others have not.  Across British radio, though, one can still smell the legacy of rules which once existed.

A key example is the gratuitous competition.  The client who just wants a nice plug, gets a long, irrelevant, spurious competition with a long sponsor line nailed to the end.

Two things accordingly occur to me.  The sponsor line was originally created as it used to be the only legitimate place for a commercial credit outside an ad break.  It used to necessarily be: content  - sponsored by ‘client, who do a lot of lovely things’, or you were carted off to the Tower.

Now, provided the client is credited promptly, you can embed their values and proposition within the item in a natural way, whether in a promo or an execution.  You do not need an interminable, often nonsensical sponsor line.  Credits only used to be nailed on the end as an afterthought because, in the UK, they had to be.  In the US, Quaker Oats were merrily embedding their brand into radio content 80 years prior.  Now advertising does not always have to be interruptive, why do we make it so?

Secondly, why the obsession with competitions?  Yes, advertisers now in all media are seeing the benefits of ‘giving value’ rather than just shouting at listeners, but value can manifest itself in different ways.  Entertaining content is also value.  As I often say, ‘Our Tune’ on Radio 1 was clearly not sponsored, but it could easily have been.  Similarly, comedy is content, and clients can take the credit.  At Orion, in my day job, we’ve embedded clients into World record attempts. 

Hail Debbie Douglas on WRLD; and a contemporary live ad.

One of the skills increasingly required of a radio presenter is the ability to deliver commercial material to an engaging and entertaining standard.  Make that client brand live.

Radio enjoys an incomparable relationship with its audience. When listeners write to a presenter, they write as if to a friend.  When we sell deep brand integration, we are, in a sense, allowing the client to borrow that friendship.  We are all sufficiently proud of our radio brands, though, to make sure not any Tom, Dick or Harry is allowed in. 

So, having taken great care with the nature of the commercial marriage, why do some presenters deem it big and clever to sound as though anything commercial they deliver smells of dog dirt?  You’ve heard these characters on-air, I am sure. They shift after a pause and the rustle of paper from enthusiastic dialogue to sounding as if they are extremely bored with what they are reading badly.  In their crazy mind, the presenter thinks this sends a signal to their audience that the commercial material was not their idea, and their listener will accordingly forgive them, with a knowing smile.  What really happens is the listener just gets bored and likely switches off.

These presenters are also likely those who trumpet prizes less than enthusiastically, just because they are not a million pounds.  If they really knew their audiences, they'd understand that, on the contrary, Michelle Miggins from Mablethorpe is really quite chuffed to have won £25 in a sponsored competition with which to treat herself. What she does not think is: "oh, it's S & P, I don't like it".

In America, they’re used to this stuff.  They’ve been doing it for years; and seasoned air talent can waltz from programme to sell; and back again.  And they do it well.  Many presenters depend on commercial income rather than show fees to keep their lives running; and on the smaller stations, the breakfast guy locks up after himself, prints off a few ratecards and goes selling in the afternoon.

Goodness. Did ads really used to sound like this in the 30s?

A few years ago, I hosted a most enjoyable Sunday programme on Smooth in the East Midlands.
  That jolly show had a new sponsor, and I duly did my best to breathe life into the partnership.  Then an email arrived.  It transpired the sponsor was an old school friend.  He explained he’d put every penny he had in his new business venture; and second mortgaged his home to invest in marketing.  The second time I credited the sponsor, I pronounced it in neon lights as though my life depended on it.  His did.  Great brand integration should sound, after the regulatory nod, as though you are recommending something to a friend. 

Similarly, it’s great to hear people like Foxy & Giuliano relate an incidental anecdote about a visit to the sponsors of their ‘Thousand Pound Minute' on Free Radio in Birmingham.  It’s a great story.  It's entertainment.  Sam & Amy bicker naturally with a client theme as they recap a commercial message on the giant Gem 106.  Jo & Sparky on Free Radio reach out and personally make it their business to know about their sponsor’s business.  And David Francis on Free Radio in Worcester delivers a sponsor mention as if it’s a piece of news he’s just reminding me about.  It’s a skill. And how much more powerful when the presenter delivers it, rather than yet another disembodied voice.

Foxy on Free Radio credits a sponsor with believability

And, the best brand integration, where the brand fit is like hand into glove, can be echoed and embraced off-air with ease and with power. A client brand becomes the radio station's friend. Witness Absolute and Wickes.

"Please, Sir. I want some more".  Should Oliver ask OFCOM for further titbits?  Maybe it’s just me that finds the distinction between ad breaks and commercial elements of programming a tad pointless and tough to implement usefully, give both have commercial paymasters.  I suspect that rule will rightly erode next time around, and I hope we are soon given an opportunity to say just that.

At the last liberalisation, admittedly at the eleventh hour, the radio industry took a sharp intake of breath and asked the regulator if news might be sponsored.  ‘No’ came the predictable reply, as it might ‘compromise content’.  I get that point, and frankly I’ve yet to make my mind up on this issue.  It’s how British listeners might perceive it, as much as the reality.  

Savour this! A 1944 US sponsored news bulletin.

I would suggest to the regulator, though, that if it feels that news sits currently in a palm tree-lined oasis, insulated from any commercial concerns or risk of compromise, it is wrong.  Sales execs and clients get very anxious if an adverse story regarding the advertiser risks appearing in a news bulletin.  They make their views known very bluntly.  I have, however, yet to work at any radio station which has given way to such pressure in its news coverage.  Ever.  Both enthusiastic exec and client are reminded very politely, by programme and commercial management alike, that whilst we sympathise, and will take every step to ensure that all sides of the story are heard, the editorial agenda will not be adjusted.  

The point I’d like to make is that we can be surprisingly grown up in areas like that. Because we care too.  As do our listeners.

But political advertising? Hey, why not.

Sunday 15 December 2013

How sweet does that DAB bouquet smell?

It smelt like a Scalextrix set.  It was certainly one of the first DAB sets in London. There it sat on my messy desk at the Radio Authority in London, alongside the pile of complaints about Talk Radio UK.  Huge transformers, circuit boards and other gubbins mounted on a 1/4" plywood base, assembled by the Authority's frighteningly clever engineering team.  It did not pick up very much, apart from test broadcasts, for this was the 90s.

Back then, the UK was some way ahead of the World in DAB.  The Broadcasting Act 1996 was a rare piece of law, enabling the UK to license digital radio multiplexes without further delay. I recall too working with the civil servants on that very legislation; and I recall with pride that one Clause of the Bill was drafted as a response to something I mentioned.  I forget which.  It wasn't that interesting. Those civil servants were genuinely clever guys too.  They talked to me, in enviable Received Pronunciation, about bright ideas they'd had in their drawing rooms. I was more impressed they had a drawing room.

Some folk muttered loudly back then that audio quality would set DAB aside. I remember finding that a bizarre conclusion.  Despite brilliant FM stereo broadcasts, those of us who'd come from the industry understood that most listeners were quite happy with a tinny 3" speaker in a battered battery transistor set in the kitchen.  

For an AM upgrade, DAB audio quality was an asset.  For FM, it was not.  The real benefit, to me, was a greater range of stations.  Unique content, like films and sport drove the array of satellite dishes along the rooftops on Belgrave Road in Leicester, not BBC1. 

Being such a small country, it's tough to provide as many stations on FM we might wish. There's
just not the room on the dial.  The East Midlands is a prime example: too close to other places with larger populations to re-use their frequencies.  It's likely apocryphal to suggest that David Vick, then the Authority's gifted Head of Development, didn't license many there as he found the region dull.  DAB is simply more spectrally efficient than FM, in that a whole cluster of stations can use a frequency.  Addressing a conference to the industry in DAB's early days, I explained how these 'bouquets' of stations would be licensed and regulated. Sadly that fragrant word has fallen out of use.  Let's bring it back.  Today.

It's all taken a very long time since then; and the World around us has moved at a frantic speed.  I remember speaking at a European conference in Brussels in the late 90s, the sort where they translate your jokes into 17 languages.  The message across Europe was clear: the technology was there; we just needed great content. The vicious circle was that few sets had been sold; and until they were, few radio operators were particularly interested in investing in content.

Another memorable Radio Authority decision was the selection of minimum bit-rates, about which there were rules in DAB's early days, to safeguard audio quality. This policy was developed at an earnest away day, as Authority members and staff were treated to excellent demonstrations just after lunch.  Listening to one bit-rate versus another, I remember feeling a little as I do at eye-tests when the optician asks: "Is thiiiiiiiis lens better.......or thiiiiiiis one?". "Erm", I say, "the first one". "I think".  Whilst some engineers will wince at some stations now, I don't recall too many listeners ringing in to me in my day job and complaining that Free Radio 80s is in mono.

What could we have done differently? Just maybe it was wrong to try, at the outset, to replicate the analogue licensing regime of local/regional and national, given that, were we to start analogue afresh, we might not have done it quite like that either.  Now, as the regional DAB tier is collapsed to free more frequencies for local, that original model  is indeed changing.  Are we sure that the latest route is quite the right one?

If DAB were a route to ease the frequency shortage, did we pause to ask whether the FM paucity was a challenge of our own making?  Just maybe, in the boom years, too many different FM stations were licensed; many of which did not, and will not, make a living.  Were we using the FM spectrum  in the best way to provide the best quality services to the greatest number of people?

DAB was seen originally as a replacement for analogue.  If FM is to stay, alongside DAB, for the sake of the smaller stations, then one might, again, re-visit the model.  If we are to have DAB and FM radio, and most receivers can receive both, how can we license stations on both those bands to deliver the widest possible range of services?  Is it not time for a joined up policy?

Another worry for me, about which I am not sure Sir Humphrey has yet concerned himself sufficiently,  is what will happen to the vacant FM spectrum when big stations do eventually switch over.  Pirate stations already cause quite enough problems squeezing into FM holes, without being able to squat on high power at 95.8 FM the day after 'DAB Day'.  What sort of unsavoury characters might be able to address the Nation?  That, to me, is a real civil concern with possible consequences far more serious that an annoying whine of interference.

1975 research. 55% of cars have no FM
It's easy with the great 'DAB debate' to emerge either as a confident advocate, regardless of the challenges, or as someone stuck with a fond attraction to good old FM.  This is too complex a matter to be simplified in these terms.  

At the end of the day, operators will wish to do what is right for their businesses, and listeners will choose what is right for them.  Let's try not to put things in the way which will stop this happening.

If we only end up with DAB offering a marginally greater range of programming than analogue did, it will be a squandered opportunity.  Let's work to secure the route which takes advantage of all UK spectrum, using both FM and DAB, to deliver the best possible listening choice in a sustainable economic way.  At this crossroads for radio, that would be a great result for this incredible medium of ours.

For old time's sake, I shall sign off with an old promo where I tried to explain AM/FM simulcasting to Derbyshire. Ahem.

David multitracked - recorded off AM!.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Who's that on line two?

Spangles were so much fun.  Especially cola flavoured, with that fizzy taste which made your cheeks laugh.  Almost as much fun as a sherbet fountain.  Or maybe you preferred stretching out the Curly Wurly toffee from your mouth as the chocolate bits fell off.

Sadly, if you really want to get loads of calls on-air, the World's major issues are not the best route.  Old confectionery or the colour of crisp packets is a sure-fire option. I'm not sure what that says about this society of ours, but it's true.

I fear no-one has conducted a thorough academic study on which topics generate the best quantity of response.  Not that response volume is the best indicator of overall programme quality. As Scott Solder, my old LBC FM Programme Director used to say, if you want loads of calls, just ask 'are you feeling ill'. But, even though we all know that quality is the most important thing, there is something hugely reassuring about a 'full switchboard'.  You feel you are appreciated; and you can emerge from a show puffing your chest and saying to your friends that 'the lines were jammed', whilst carefully not highlighting that you only have eight lines.

I used to love Mint Cracknel, didn't you?

There's an unwritten rule in radio that great topics get few calls, and the unlikely ones get more. I have a theory that listeners hear the glee in your voice when you reveal a great topic and vow not to bother calling: 'I'll bloody teach him for being so smug'.

On the other hand, those curious, crazy thoughts which arise, en passant,  in the midst of a show seem to attract call volumes to overwhelm BT.  Just maybe it's because they are delivered so naturally, with natural curiosity. 

Listeners are clever. They detect when you are having  a bad show. Those days when you throw all your topics on-air in desperation one after the other; and then, perspiration dripping from your Sennheisers, you resort to your emergency list of subjects.  And, stubbornly, no-one gets in touch about anything.  Your poor show becomes a party that few people have turned up to, and those who have want to make their excuses and leave. They can hear the terror in your voice. On the other hand, you get those shows when anything turns to magic. Whatever the topic.

Weird too how you go off topics.  That great idea which had you all buzzed up three weeks ago when you were in a cheery mood in the office, but has never quite made it to air. You cannot even bring yourself to do it now. Actually, it feels as though you've already done it; and you cannot quite recall why it was a good idea in the first place.

"We're talking holidays today. Where are you going on holiday?  Where have you been this year? What's your favourite place? Maybe you had an accident on holiday. Or maybe there was an incident on your plane. Or maybe it was cancelled. Or maybe you ended up in a warzone.  Or a friend of yours went on holiday to a warzone.  And maybe they lost their luggage. Have you ever lost your luggage?"

I love those talk shows where we are given a list of things to talk about. A long list.  And each
topic on that list boasts a list of colourful tangents. Your listener has just started answering the first question in their head, when the presenter moves on to the next.  And just as the poor listener gathers courage to call up, once they've heard that valuable first call reassuringly aired, they don't bother because they fear you've already moved on to topic number six.

Those list-like shows are almost as good as the ones where a presenter tries to spin off a topic from a topical angle.  And, as the Radio Times might say, hilarity ensues.  "Police figures out today suggest that gun crime is rising. Have you ever been shot?"

Don't always know the answers.  Listeners love to be smart.  When you think you may well know the answer to something, suggest you maybe don't, and I can guarantee they'll want to tell you.  Or prove you wrong.  Similarly, got a killer call with 'the best/biggest story?  Don't air that first, let others join and build the story to a crescendo.

I smile when I hear shows launch with a a panoply of phone numbers, website addresses, Facebook pages, Twitter handles and text numbers.  At that moment I, as a listener, have no intention whatsoever of getting in touch.  Why should I? You haven't made me want to yet.  

Make me care first.  This order seems to work best, as far as I can see: a) The/Your story; b) You can kinda join in; c) Here's how.

Radio has a hunger for topics, whether BBC local stations or the best music radio breakfast shows.  If you don't jot down a note about the best ideas when they occur to you in Tesco, you know you'll forget them.

Spotting the topic is a gift, and framing it successfully an art.  We know that specific works. "Have you ever been on holiday in Turkey" gets more calls than "have you ever been on holiday?". In seeking to make a topic appeal to the maximum number of people, you lose the laser-targeting  which would have made a listener think 'yes, they're talking about me'.  Work out what you want to talk about; and then establish the wording of the real question.  Carve out the words of that proposition with the care of Eric Gill.

We've heard the tricks too, with a smile.  'One line has just become free, so if you want to call, call now. But yes, the art is often about making a show feel like people are joining in when they have not quite started yet.  It's like making sure your best friends arrive half an hour before the party starts.  And, thankfully, social media now means you can have access to such friends, ready to make early, relevant contributions to your prog. So long as they don't say 'thanks for calling me' at the end.  Shhhhhh, for goodness sake. Play the game.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

I would of liked to write about grammer, spelling and pronounceiation

I almost choked writing that headline.  All over social media and online, a generation seems unable to write 'would have', and prefers the nonsensical 'would of'.

In years gone by, those on many radio stations rarely needed to write much down, apart from scribbling some hasty notes on their music log: 'Edna from Norwich - wheelie bins'.  Now, life is different.  On-line and social media writing is part of our lives; and part of our jobs.  It's as important to craft the written word off-air as carefully as we select the spoken word on-air.  Few in radio now do not write consumer-facing material, whether producers, journalists, presenters or those in the commercial arena.  Much of such material is conversational in tone, but even writing that is an art. There's a difference too between conversational or necessarily truncated - and wrong.

What surprises me is how intelligent people can leave their school and university gates without a grasp of the basics.  I stare in  amazement at some frighteningly bright young things with whom I've worked over recent years when I glance down at a piece of their written work which befits a 12 year old. Is our education and parenting so bad, we are incapable of teaching our own language?  Those coming here from other countries appear to have a better grasp of the basics of our language than we do.  The time we should be spending polishing writing tone and style to complement our media brands beautifully, we are simply using to make basic corrections in red ink.

Is spelling 'definitely' correctly too much to ask? Or not baring all in 'I can't bear to see'?

The ability to use English to a decent standard is now crucial in our industry.  In the commercial arena too, things have changed.  Where once a suitcase full of dog-eared contracts and half-empty cigarette packets sufficed, sales execs now need to assemble great presentations.  How often are they spoiled by a glaring error in font 48, Comic-Sans?  At a time when we are writing more and more, the emphasis on that very topic is being diminished in the educational system.  Am I wrong to expect a graduate, in whatever subject, to have a decent grasp?  Said David, sans degree and with chip on shoulder.  Broken Britain. Harrumph.

As for the apostrophe, I'll concede that predictive text's dogged insistence on maliciously deploying the wrong usage is unhelpful, but one hopes that a grasp of the basic rules would mean most errors are corrected, certainly by the time content graduates to website or external email. It's fairly simple when you look at its place. Mind you, I'm almost giving up insisting on the correct apostrophe absence in 60s, 70s and CDs, such is the tide of examples where folk think that to use one is correct.   Thank goodness Absolute Radio gets it right, otherwise we'd really be in a pickle.  The bloke selling pea's from a van just outside M & S in Nottingham may just need a quick reminder, though.

A grasp of the meaning of words is also useful to those who work with them every day.  As we do. A senior BBC editor has just related the tale to me of how the Telegraph reported last week that "people were evacuated". And there the sentence ended.  As he points out, that would likely have created rather an unsavoury mess.  Where is the line between conversational and misuse?

Pronunciation also appears a challenge. Or 'pron-ounce-e-ation', some insist on saying. I guess we can blame the influence of American media for giving us 'loo-tenants' rather than 'leff-tenants'.  The Americans also gave us 'skedule'  (schedule) rather than 'shedule', although most in radio now use the latter off-air so frequently each day, I suspect I'm fighting a losing battle there. Mind you, we really should stop Sellotaping the sound of a gratuitous 'k' at the end of 'something' and 'nothing'. And I'm rather averse to hearing 'adverse', when they really do mean, well, 'averse'. 

Grammar on air can induce shock too.  Since first drafting this blog, one fellow Tweeter mentioned he'd heard: "Wasn't you going to ask me for a song" and the impressive: "what I done earlier".

It would likely render the topic too broad were I to to mention the way some media recruits
appear not to display the degree of 'general knowledge' one would expect of curious individuals. And a general shrugging of shoulders when that becomes evident, rather than an embarrassed sucking in of breath through teeth, and conceding 'I should probably have known that'.  Did I really hear 'Corps' pronounced as corpse?  I fear I did. Particularly unfortunate given the nature and context of that report.

Does it matter? Well, getting it wrong clearly annoys some people, and why would you want to do that?  It also sends off a 'we don't really care that much about getting it right' message, which is likely unhelpful.  And, yes, the wrong spelling or pronunciation can impact on comprehension. And, bigger yes, the best words and style really enhance meaning.  Language does indeed mature and evolve, but this is not about evolution, it's revolution. And its rong.

People frequently ask: "What should I study if I want a career in media?".  After some painful decades in management, I might smile and suggest wryly: 'psychology and social work'. But, thinking about it, 'English' is a another good response.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Words - The Most Powerful Drug used by Mankind

When the redoubtable Julia approaches your table with a welcoming smile, she has but a twenty word opportunity to influence how you feel about your time in her lovely bijou Birmingham restaurant; and whether you plump for a bargain single course, or treat yourself to a tasty a la carte selection.

The way she'll smile and talk to you about the lovely lean cut of beef, the delicious chilled French wine, or the mussels being fresh in that morning.  Not just pepper, but "a splash of pepper".  It all matters.  

Yes, corporate copywriters in some restaurants have maybe over-drizzled the menus, but this is important stuff.  It's her restaurant. She cares about it. Julia wants you to enjoy your time there, spend a decent amount - and pledge to return. Yes, the food is crucial, and so are the words. 

Just as TV now does food porn, words can do it too.  When I write the words 'sizzling fillet steak', just try to stop your mind dwelling on that bloody cut of beef, smeared with English mustard. 

There. You can't.  It is the brain which causes salivation, and yours just has.  In radio, just as in the kitchen, words matter.

You can always hear when a presenter is holding a newspaper cutting when they tell a story. The sentences are wrong, the words are wrong.  The grammar is wrong.  Hear them relate that same story, from memory, to a friend, 35, over a glass of Pinot later that night, and they'll choose the perfect words.  Presenters gripping a cutting will try to put the item in their own language, but as long as the printed words are in front of them, you'll find the tabloid language seeping on-air like the disease it is.

Travel news is classic.  If I hear again about my journey home being delayed by 'an earlier
accident', I'll scream.  What the hell is one of those? As opposed to what?  A lorry about to keel over?  As a motorist, I do not care whether my delay is caused by the lorry still being there, or whether they are just now sweeping up the glass.  I am simply delayed because there was an accident.  If I were to ring a friend and tell them of my delay, I doubt whether I'd use the phrase 'earlier accident'.  All accidents were earlier.

Whilst we're on travel news: "drivers are asked to take the A5 instead' is not quite how you'd share that info by text with a friend.  You'd more likely choose active language: "you need to get off the M1 at junction 2".  On BBC national TV news tonight, a reporter whined that 'the public are being warned tonight'. Does that include me or not?  Sounds as if they are talking to someone else.

Unless, of course, you are rehearsing to be a police press officer in which case you must indeed master the art of plodding passive material like 'members of the general public are asked to...'. 

When I hear a news story refer in the third person to 'people in (area)', it sounds to me as if they are presuming they are not broadcasting to people.  Maybe to dogs and cats, I presume. And 'electricity users are being faced with price hikes...'. must come as reassuring news to the many folk listening who rely on candles and gas mantles. On conversational news bulletins on contemporary radio stations, the word 'you' is fine. 

Having said that, there is a danger of taking this inclusiveness too far.  There was a classic genuine example when one journalist delivered the line  'this weekend the police have staged a knife amnesty, so take your knives and guns down to'...

"Call me with your stories", invites the presenter. It's certainly better language than was employed a generation ago. 'Me' is good, 'story' is excellent. But why the plural? As a presenter you have likely set a topic and you want your listener simply to get in touch with their one great story. 

Why make things conditional? 'If you want to win/take  part/got a story', gives the casual listener an easy option to shake their head and say 'no, I don't'. Presume every listener has a story or a desire and wants to take part. After all, aren't those listeners the very people you are really addressing at that precise moment.

Off-air too, words make the difference as to whether your BA persuades the great caller to go on-air or not.  At the outset, the nervous contributor might be more agreeable to "having a word with Sue" than the frightening prospect of being '"put through to the studio'/'going live on-air".

Isn't it great to hear someone say 'first time I've got in touch'.  Makes you feel warm inside.  Something you said made them call in that day. And,  given that most topics come round again and again, it was probably the way you expressed it that day which prompted them, at last, to want to speak to you. On every previous occasion, you had failed to motivate them.

The enduring radio puzzle is why some subjects floated for listener involvement work, and why others don't.  The sure-fire topic may often sink; whilst the obtuse accidental topic flies.  Similarly, the stunt you spent years planning is forgotten within days whilst that surprise aside is recalled a year later in a focus group.  Maybe it's because the language in the latter was wholly natural - and the pacing of discovery for you and the listener were utterly aligned.  That's not to say preparation is futile.  When you know what you want to talk about,  it takes real skill to finesse the proposition to generate the optimum response.

And those lovely cliches: 'with you through until 10'.  Someone once felt it was appropriate to trumpet the end of the show. What exactly is significant about the end?  I fear you'd never hear about Coronation Street being 'right the way through 'til eight'.  And 'one lucky winner'.  As opposed to an unlucky one?

As a broadcaster, all you have is the words and the way you say them.  To fail to consider vocabulary is a sin.  Peel back the layers to enrich your story, and change that picture from black and white to colour.

Comedians do it all the time - vocabulary and delivery.  When I interviewed the gifted Jon Holmes recently, at a jolly Radio Today away day at Alton Towers, we touched on how specificity works.  In an anecdote, a Tesco carrier bag is funnier than a carrier bag; and 'a Jack Russell' lends more humour than 'a dog' . And there's that good old rule of three, where lists of three are inherently funnier and more satisfying. 

Many broadcasters have wisely studied comedy rules, and some of the greats have soaked them up inadvertently and employed them in their story-telling. The heightened impact of the funny word being deployed the end of the gag - and the fact that some words simply sound funnier than others.  

An anecdote with 'Greggs' in is funnier than one with 'O'Briens' in.  Words matter.  

Lest you wondered, by the way, the quote at the head of this blog is from Rudyard Kipling; and Julia's canalside Birmingham restaurant, JuJus, is genuinely well worth a visit. 

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio', published by Biteback

Thursday 17 October 2013

Whose bright idea were Vox Pops?

If I wanted to find out how some randoms felt about an issue, I'd wander up to my nearest bus stop and ask a few.  It saves on the licence fee, I get a larger sample size, and have a great deal more fun.

Someone, somewhere, once thought up the idea of the vox pop.  Maybe it was simply a way of occupying trainees.  Go find some people.  Ask them a question. Bring back hours of rambling material and edit it. Here are some helpful hints in doing just that, if you must. And, yes, it is a great training exercise. And it surely sorts out the genuine work experience folk from the MD's sullen son.

I have yet to hear, however, any vox pops which add any insight to a topic.  Grumpy blokes in stained Puffa jackets uttering ill-informed platitudes; ample women in spotty head scarves nodding along with their friends and completing each other's sentences.  Whether on radio or TV, they truly are pointless.

If you're very lucky, there's a funny one to conclude.  Without that, there's simply a pause before the ensuing story, as the newsreader muses 'not sure why we did those'.  It feels a little like those uncomfortable moments after a speech where no-one applauds, or the silence after a joke that fails.

There is a case for soliciting specific views from an identified selection of people. I am interested in hearing whether the neighbours of a murderer suspected anything.  Or listening to those angry commuters  who have just hopped off a train which was delayed for seven hours. I was interested in hearing from bristling party activists attending party conferences as to how they viewed what they had just heard, as Radio 4 allowed me to on the incomparable PM programme. That is insight.  They bring something: a direct experience I may not have had. But they are not Vox populi, they are Vox vicĂ­nis, or Vox viatores or whatever.  I knew my Longman's audio-visual Latin would come in use one day.

Stories are interesting - and those latter views are part of a story being told. Opinion is not usually quite so interesting, unless those views are passionately held.  When someone volunteers to call a show about a topic, they have a real interest in it, and there is often a painful and personal story behind why their view is so polarised. 

That is wholly different from walking up to any old idiot and saying: "you are going to appear on radio whether or not you have much of value to say or any interest in the topic at all". In fact, those producing these random vox pops seem to go out their way to find people with as little knowledge as possible. 

"We asked the people on the streets of Bristol what they thought".  No you didn't, you asked a few bored folk en route to Gregg's. It would not pass muster with IPSOS-MORI. It's neither statistically sound, nor enlightening. 

Some BBC folk may mutter something about the benefits of hearing a range of voices on-air.  Keep such cliches for your next Board.  I know what you're getting at, but I can hear a range of voices on the train I am about to jump on too. I'd rather you gave me insight.

If I wanted to hear the views of the man on the street, I'd ask one. 

Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.

And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.

(In a letter from scholar and teacher Alcuin to Charlemagne (Charles I and King of the Franks) in AD 798)

Monday 7 October 2013

Who was Lazy Susan?

I have a great fondness for LBC, but you have to agree that its 1973 launch sounded as if we were about to go to War.  In some ways we were. This was the start of a battle to recapture listening from the Corporation, entrenched for half a Century.

And - without sustaining a military metaphor which ill-suits me - our poorly-funded, disparate army had: few weapons; un-tested leadership; little co-ordination; vacillating government support; a frequently revolting workforce; and, well, it was probably raining.

Despite the power-cuts and deep recession, the early '70s weren’t all grey.  Resplendent in my bright orange nylon shirt, I twiddled up and down the FM dial. This ‘new’ waveband was one of discovery.  On long hot nights, in-between police messages, you’d hear not only your local station, but the far-off test transmissions of stations about to launch in neighbouring cities.

Each one was so different, dependent on its genes.  There were those, not surprisingly, with the BBC influence: formal, yet professional, like BRMB or Hallam.  And there were those run by colourful characters who simply sought a foothold in commercial radio, seizing the opportunity to launch in whichever  franchise area they won.  The Sunday Telegraph compared Beacon's 'flashier youth-oriented studios' with "BRMB's dull, business-like atmosphere".

On-air, the differences between stations were clear to hear.  Whilst Trent closed down at night with a loud Sassafras track and a long brilliantly-produced jingle with drums to die for, Hallam went to bed with a fireside chat redolent of the Light Programme. And the National Anthem. 

Those obtaining a treasured franchise had to curtsey to the regulator, the IBA.  A lean-to marked ‘radio’ had been nailed onto the remit of the television police, and the tough TV rules were Sellotaped to the foreheads of their new charges.  I recall being reprimanded for mentioning the Mini Metro too much; and sitting round the table as the IBA’s tartan-skirted Local Advisory Committees told us where we were going wrong.

Like most things, including your staff and programme schedule, "going 24 hours" required IBA approval; and rather more of the limited music ‘needletime’ than was allowed under the ancient copyright regulations.  The vast majority of stations, accordingly, closed down through the night.  There was, though. something amazing about opening up next morning.  You switched off the tone on the racks room; and dashed into a studio buzzing just  with FM fizz and crackle.  The studio was put live; and you fired the tape cart bearing the station theme.  As the drums crashed through the silence, another day was born.  And you’d started it.

Many of those involved in this first phase of commercial radio had UBN (United Biscuits Network) provenance. This closed-circuit network entertained a Jammie Dodger workforce from its Osterley sudios.  It became a honing ground for the likes of Graham DeneDale Winton, Adrian Love, Roger Scott, Mike Baker, Nicky Horne, Steve Allen, Neil Spence, Giles Squire and John Peters.  That UBN sound was clear to hear across the new network: a warmth and energy; a slight mid-Atlantic flow, if not accent; and an emphasis on sound rather than content.  And often that slight familiar ‘shhhh’ at the ends of wordsssssshhh.  But these guys knew what music radio was about.

With the IBA peering over your shoulder with a machine gun, most stations did what they were told, or risked not having their franchise rolled, as happened with the renegade Trent and Beacon.  Hence, most sensible programmers eventually created a successful compromise music radio station, which was fine when there was no-one down the road doing anything else.  Seventies Soul would be segued with slices of speech, despatched through lists of ‘what’s ons’, lost and founds, ‘swapshops’ and late night or lunchtime phone-ins.  And the weekly phone in with the Doctor/Vet/Lawyer.  At Trent, we even did a monthly one with Bill from the DHSS. Thankfully, Bill was a star and thus the hour flew by a little more quickly than it otherwise might have.

Some stations boasted the luxury of a music policy and target audience, others appeared not to worry too much.  Many felt that a song in the charts must be played.  And Number One certainly so.  At Trent, we had the sort of sensible music programming on which Selector was later based: two boxes of vinyl, each divided into A, B, C and D sections.  Each day and show alternated the boxes.  Each hour then had a paper clock which told you when to spin an A, B, C or D.  Oldies were free choice, but their vintage was stipulated.  On Friday lunchtimes , I played oldies, not because we thought that was a great idea (although I enjoyed playing the Four Tops), but that was the hour when the playlist boxes were refreshed.  We also had a ‘record of the week’. Yup.

The joy of computerised music scheduling by Selector was predictably divisive.  Nowadays, few jocks on a commercial music station would expect to choose many of their own songs, but back then you looked forward to a lively argument.  For well-programmed stations it was a logical shift, but for the less organised, it made for a moral dilemma. Hear here Keith Skues from Hallam and Alex Dickson from Clyde discuss that very topic in 1988 from the safety of history. As one programmer once explained to me: “some presenters can probably programme better songs consistently than Selector can, but most can’t”.

You and an embroidered Radio 2 were the only FM inhabitants and, given there were no other pop-pickers in  town, many of these stations enjoyed appreciable success.  Reach within the part of the UK covered hit 32.9% by 1978, largely by individual stations.  

In those days, if you were on the radio, you were a star. Most presenters can relate tales of those listeners who got just a little bit too close.  One of mine wrote daily, perfumed letters to me, sometimes  20 pages in length, declaring her undying love.  Every song I played was for her, she thought. She drew diagrams of what she’d like to do with me.  Every gig, she turned up at.  Ah, gigs.  You’d be recognised when you opened your mouth in the newsagent, and be called upon to open all manner of coffee mornings and galas.

There was no IT department, but the waft of flux sailed from the engineering department, replete with engineers of all shapes and sizes, poised for those frequent OBs.  Studios were inspected and IBA-approved, and built to ensure that the sound of a nuclear explosion in a neighbouring street would not drown out the Classical music show.   A Features Department chopped up all the non-news talk; and secretaries huddled over their golf-ball typewriters.

They were carefree days on-air.  I was never sure whether we had hit audience or sales targets, although I did notice when there were few ads.  Back then, there was a legal limit of 9 minutes per hour, and until the mid 80s, absolutely no sponsorship or promotions. 

With just 19 stations, and rarely an overlap in your market, talent battles were
largely absent.  Fees remained low, and presenters stayed in one place for a long time.  We did change our names, though. Usually to a double Christian name or something alliterative.  I was nearly Paul Prince until my mother suggested it sounded like a dog.

On the management floor, bosses sweated over the challenges.  You were one station of very few; and none in shared ownership.  Each MD had a very different idea of what commercial radio was all about; so an aligned view on any topic was a real achievement.  For a national agency to buy a national airtime campaign was complex.  Although national ‘sales houses’ were springing up, the environment in which ads were played, and the audience delivered, varied hugely from market to market.  And, of course, even if they bought time on every station, vast swathes of the country would still not hear the ad.  

We could always rely, though, on those solid local advertisers.  The press back then, however, was a formidable opponent, and every sales exec’s desk was littered with Ryvita and display ads chopped out the local rag.

Unlike the US, where radio had been part of the advertising evolution for decades, radio was new here; and advertisers failed to grasp its power and influence.  Trust in the new medium was  low, and an early survey by ad agency, Benton & Bowles, concluded LBC and Capital "failed to achieve listening levels which even remotely justified the rates they were charging". In spite of all this, by 77/78, all the first stations had pushed into profit.

Mind you, the ads were fun. Not least when two people explained an exciting new product to each other over the garden fence.  Each ad, of course, was recorded onto a separate tape cartridge, and for each break, you’d retrieve the relevant handful of ‘carts’ from the wire rack.  A ‘Lazy Susan’, that thing was called, for some reason.  Mind you, that was as close to the jock’s microphone that a woman usually got back then.

As in so many industries in the concrete 70s, strife was rife; and sometimes, in radio, the segs went un-segued.  Several stations were frequently taken off the air by strike action; and management stepped in.  During one strike, the Trent PC, on-air one Sunday night in the absence of any other staff, announced he was ‘off to get a pizza’ as he played in a favourite long album track.  On another occasion, the Managing Director read a news bulletin in which he reassured listeners that he’d checked with the Fire, Police and Ambulance Service, and that "all was quiet".

Memos were typed.  There were not too many of them. They said much the same as now.  Don’t take drinks into the studio.  Don’t mess with the music. We've fired the breakfast guy.  They never said 'we've been taken over'.

How many of the challenges of today’s industry can be traced back to these heady days? Alas, too many; but with some pain, this obsessive industry is now assembling itself for life after 40.  A second marriage, and more success to come.

Hindsight, though, is a wonderful thing. The last 40 years have been an incredible journey and an absolute privilege to be part of. 

Enjoy a 20' dash through the first fifteen years.

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