Sunday 27 January 2013

Why is UK commercial talk radio a challenge?

"Sally's on from Croydon. Hello, Sally. "

The history of UK talk/speech radio is an interesting one, certainly for those in radio overseas, puzzling how the format has not been such a huge hit in Blighty as it is in the US, with its large, attentive and often more up-market audiences. 

The first commercial station proper, LBC in London, was an all-talk format.  Launched in the tough industrial climate of the 70s, with an over-eager regulator and government vacillating on commercial radio legislation, it was always to be a tough job. Not least, because for 50 years, the BBC had owned the talk and news territory. (Some fun history here).

Revenues were always challenging for the format too, with its audience falling outside the 25-44 UK commercial heartland, and well above the age of 22 year old skater-Ben, hot-desking at his London media-buying agency. The talk audiences were also, apart from TalkSPORT, only in certain markets (at most, Liverpool, Edinburgh, London), which is an ill-suited framework for a national client-brand seeking to use radio to market powerfully. 

We can maybe justifiably point a finger here at the regulators: had they been bolder in licence rounds in, for example, Manchester and Birmingham, UK commercial talk format scale could have helped itself along.  Whilst I am sure GMG was delighted to win the Rock-Talk licence in Manchester, even those who assembled the application concede it was a bizarre licensing decision.  The regulator felt it could address eminently defensible cases for both formats by combining them on-air. Madness. The BBC of course, benefited from years of heritage generating a hugely loyal audience; reception universality; more money to spend; and guaranteed, consistent income. And no problem with the age of that audience either. 

Do the UK's regulations on partiality impact on audience performance? I'd argue probably not.  The UK is accustomed to a more measured approach rather than 'shock-jockery'; and the existing rules, inversely, do allow 'due prominence' of views. This permits a stance which can be sufficiently antagonistic for British ears.  It certainly means the commercial sector can, at least, avoid the 'you might think this; or you might think that' approach, in favour of livelier conversation.

Many times in recent years, a 'competitor to Radio 4' has been mooted; and seized eagerly in glib press headlines.  Channel 4 had bold plans which they nurtured persistently for some years. Those of us in the sector at the time, not least those of us who were talked to about jobs there, walked away from interviews thinking 'if they offered me a job, I'd be a fool to take it'.  We could have saved them a lot of money.  If a listener wants Radio 4, they can have it. If you seek to do what it does, you will fail.  It is the World's finest radio station; and I would campaign on the streets personally with a fluorescent placard were there any risk to this rare, beautiful, beautiful, animal. 

What commercial radio must do if talk is to succeed is to do it simply and differently. Entertaining, intelligent communicators hosting strip shows, aided by a small number of the very best producers.  TalkSPORT has succeeded because it is a definite focussed offering.   LBC is again now succeeding, after years of neglect because it hires the right guys on-air, choosing its topics with the care of a skilled music programmer. Nick Ferrari is, quite simply, a leader in his field in the UK; as is James Whale. James O'Brien is now honing a distinctive act to perfection; and there are others on the roster who also excel. 

Doing great talk radio is not just a skill, it is an art. BBC Local Radio is at its best when it's not pretending to be a music station or Radio 4; but when it has entertaining communicators who know their patch and know their audience, their concerns and their loves. 

Great talk radio (as opposed to speech radio), recognises the value of the listeners' contributions. If you can get the right callers on-air and speak to them in the right way, you create the most brilliant truly un-substitutable radio.  With guests, it is as much about their personalities as about what they are talking about.  Like comedy, great talk radio sounds easy, but it is tough. The words you choose and the order you put them in are the difference between the next great caller calling; or not bothering.  And the difference between someone continuing to listen - or not.  It is what you say and what you don't.  Seizing the moment.  The instinct for recognising when a caller has something unsaid to say.  Like in real life, you need to be able to hop from laughter to tears in seconds without it sounding like a car crash; and be able to generate either whenever you want to.  It's about great stories; great conversation.  One must understand which of the topics the media identifies as 'news' are  really news; often feeding the heart as much as the mind.  In short, it's about always being aware of the real reason why people have chosen to listen. What is the real motivator?

It's not good enough to put some idiot behind the glass.  Great production is hugely important: to get the reluctant caller on air; to suggest the most powerful question; to help shape the angle of a topic; and never, ever, to get things wrong.  Although it's likely not on their job description, they also need to make the presenter feel a million dollars.  A producer who plays with their phone when the board is quiet whilst the presenter is in mid monologue needs to go find a job somewhere else.  Look up.  Appreciate.  The mood the presenter is in affects a show within seconds. They need to be supported, happy, confident and appreciated. 

Wisely, neither LBC nor TalkSPORT is pretending to be Radio 4 or 5 Live. As others have sadly found, alas too late, doing talk commercially without the revenues to pay the most gifted communicators means you will be asking the regulator if you can play some songs before long. And that's not really the answer either.

Talk radio is the purest form of radio. Microphone. Transmitter.  Listener.   It is one of the reasons why irreplaceable radio will, yet again, outlive its  seeming competitors. 

Follow my daily #radiomoments @davidlloydradio. Check my site too

Monday 7 January 2013

Hashtag Hell

“On breakfast this morning Matthew Gudgin wants to know do you think department stores should have more seating?”, announced my Twitter feed.

I’ve a story on that very topic.  I was in John Lewis the other day, and my legs almost gave way. Luckily there was a soft red chair a few feet away and I struggled to it. Not sure what I’d have done otherwise.

Actually, I just made up that compelling, dramatic tale.  But the Tweet is real enough, courtesy of Radio Norfolk.

BBC Local Radio Tweets are becoming an art-form. Norfolk often excels at rhetoric:

"Good morning! At breakfast today - rail fares are going up again. Is that fair? Do you get good value for money?"

Presumably, some furious listeners rang in to say it was disgraceful. Maybe a few even called to say they were quite happy, and roll on more increases. Who knows.

I do like the cheery salutations too, despite what follows:

"Good morning! At breakfast - have you ever been burgled? What affect does it have on your life?" (‘scuse spelling)

And a very good morning to you too.  They love that, do BBC Locals.  The false sense of comfy reassurance, then BOOM. Almost Shakespearean:

"Happy Boxing Day. @HarrietScott_ & Chris Rogers presenting breakfast this morning. Talking tube strikes, sales & xmas disasters", suggested BBC London.

Oh no. Thank goodness for the cheery reassurance prompted by others: 

“Worried about the "13" in 2013? The Bishop of Worcester says don't be, in his New year message on BBC H & W facebook page now. “

Phew.  Similarly, BBC Stoke, tempts us with:

“ On the Breakfast Show now...the Chief Exec of @SoTCityCouncil on his first three years in charge”

Then, the station usefully summarises the Chief Exec's appearance with a gentle:

“The chief Executive of Stoke on Trent City Council says the authority is making good progress”

That's nice.  Reminds me of the old ‘is there anything else you’d like to tell us, Minister’, interviewing of the 1950s.

Some stations do excel at Twitter.  Blending the local news and relevant information with genuine engagement.  Making good use of the fact that Twitter is social media,  not a broadcaster.  And one can observe easily the accounts which are well-managed; and where the station chats back to those who comment on its programmes or policies.  

The other great thing about excellent Twitter use is that it can harvest information; and sometimes you can prod that process with a stick, as did BBC Stoke:

“There's a fire at a Cattery on the A34 between Stafford and Cannock. Qasa is on his way but any updates would be great!”

Miaow. One expects, of course, that only a significant lonely and atypical minority of the stations' target audiences are likely on Twitter currently; and the medium is, therefore, probably best used 'business-facing' at present, rather than 'consumer-facing'.  Ergo, to receive information and investigate, rather than to address listeners at large.  Accordingly, to make a song and dance about Twitter on-air probably suggests a station which misunderstands its audience.

Some stations do excel at teasing, though; and one cannot but help reach for the wireless knob when BBC Radio Manchester ‏tempts us with:

“Nxt, a blind author from Stockport tells us how he ended up on a balcony wearing nothing but his pants. And he's a#WorldRecordHolder!”

Sometimes, despite the fairly routine minor story unfolding, there is a sense of urgency  to the plea to listen.  An illustration from BBC Leicester:

“It's hoped a new plan to solve a dispute over the use of a former scout hut in Leicester will bring months of protests to an end.104.9FM now”

NOW! Goodness.  Don’t miss it.  Do as you are told. 

In some stations, the Managing Editors appear to be busy assembling torrents of news Tweets on their private accounts; which the station account re-Tweets. I’m not awfully sure whether they should be busy managing or something instead.  They are the sorts of stations which just have news on their feed.  No chitter- chatter, oh no, just: ‘Bar stabbing victim 'improving'.

It might be argued that station accounts should reflect something of the rich character and conversation of the station, rather than just shouting news headlines.  Without going as far as pointless jolly tripe.  Just doing news Tweets is rather like someone just popping up from behind the cushion and shouting news headlines at you; before retreating. Without so much as a 'by your leave', as I think they say in Coronation Street.

BBC Stoke likes to go overboard with a few pleasantries:   Have a good friday!”

They also trouble to offer up those crucial titbits, without which we’d be lost:

“A Staffordshire German Shepherd has been named the top police dog in the country.”

Some of the detailed info proffered sounds mundane;  but for some listeners it’s actually going to be useful. Knock this if you like, but you’d be wrong to:

“#SOLENTTRAVEL:Work at Newport bus station from 9.00am. Bus route 1 then goes from Stand A. Temp stop opp Morrisons for 2, 3, 6, & 8. Judy”

Mind you, listening to BBC Solent does, on occasions sound demanding:

“What were you doing 20, 30 or 40 years ago this month? The Cartridge years areJan 1973, 1983 & 1993 from 2 “

Goodness.  How many memories have I got to think up? It may take me some time.  They should pay ME the licence fee.

Compare that with the more engaging: 

"Harry Worth was in panto @RoyalNottingham and this is Kirkby Bentinck station in our Golden Year @BBCNottingham from 12"

Now, let's just celebrate; with cheery BBC Stoke:

“Morning All! Stuart & Katy with you for Breakfast and Katy's brought her camera!

Katy looks pleasant enough; and there was probably a back-story for her having a camera; of which I am ignorant.

Then there’s there’s the international incident which opens up scope for parallel listener tales:   ‘X has happened, and we want your stories’, sort of thing.   Witness the strategy of consultant, Valerie Geller.  She used to suggest that few people are particularly interested in opinions, but everyone likes to poke their nose into a story.  She might have a point. After all, are any vox-pops remotely interesting or illuminating, unless there’s a funny one at the end?  So, the thinking goes that  whatever has happened, you MUST have a related personal story.

BBC WM takes this to the max; and if I were offering awards, they would win:

“An American family forgot to bury Grandma 17 years ago and had left her in a storage unit! Have you ever forgotten something? 08453 00 99 56.”

It did prompt some response tweets, with tongue firmly in cheek, from @Ian64:

“Every day, people wake up or go to bed. Have you ever done it, or know people who have? We'd like to hear from you. 08453 00 99 56”

WM had the graciousness and self-deprecating good humour to re-Tweet.

I shall actually leave the final word to Ian too:

“Have you ever rang Radio WM? If so, why not call us and tell us why you did it in the first place? 08453 00 99 56.”

My more serious Twitter observations here.
And do check too.
Follow me on Twitter for daily #radiomoments @davidlloydradio

Saturday 5 January 2013

Day One - The Launch

The presenters wore smart pastel shirts and stripey ties on the launch day.  In fact, we wore them every day.  It was the view of the Chief Executive of  Lincs FM that clients might fear we were a pirate radio station if we wore a T shirt.  Mind you, his own livelihood relied hugely on the station's success, so he had the right to insist we all wore pink frocks, had he wished.

Such was the hubbub in the green office from the civic guests and clinking glasses on that first morning that the assembled throng nearly missed the opening words.  I cranked up the amp in the office and yelled 'shhhh' in an impatient sort of way, maybe forgivable from someone who's been up most of the night.  I still cringe at some of my edits and mixes on that launch sequence. Not that it helps now.

You've given birth.  You are a proud parent of something which will increasingly do what it wants, rather than what you want.  One day, it will no longer need you; and will likely continue in some form long after you're dead.  Click on the links in this blog; and enjoy some of those memorable moments.

Some stations make a three course meal of their launch day, talking incessantly on-air about how special it all is.  Compulsory remarks include: how tired they are; how long they've been practising; how nervous they are; and how the people in the office are drinking champagne.  But that they're not allowed to consume alcohol as they're on the air. Tee hee.  Radio Wyvern read out a message from  seemingly every single person in Worcester.

Other stations just jumped right in. The edict from Trent's Programme Controller in 1975, Bob Synder, was 'behave as if you've always been here'. 'Imagine you were around, you went away, and now you're back'.  One witnesses a thoroughly proficient music radio sound on that station from Day One. No indulgence, John Peters just got on with it. The same was true at Beacon.  Despite the huge commercial and regulatory challenges of those two stations in their early days, they were probably decades ahead of their time in music radio formatics.  That was evident in the fact that someone had drawn back from the navel-gazing mood of the moment to consider 'what do our audience really want?'.    Contrast this US-influenced clean music programming with the more sedate launch of stations like Radio Hallam, with its BBC DNA.

In fairness, apart from a typical Blackburn gag or two and Arnold woofing, Radio 1 in 1967, more or less got on with the job straightaway too; and one cannot help but admire Controller, Robin Scott's countdown to the two new services; "5, 4, 3, Radio 2, Radio 1. Go."

Many stations allow the Chairman a rare outing on air, come launch day. He typically invites himself to utter a few scripted words in true RP, sometimes introduced by the presenter who is at a loss just  how to introduce this strange man; and probably not awfully sure what he does.  Ocean Sound did it. Radio 210 (2-Ten) in Reading even sat him down in a pair of Beyers when they turned on a new transmitter.  Red Rose Radio was maybe the only one to have the Chairman at launch, with an ad in the same hour for one of his own businesses.

Radio Clyde was philosophical, with beautifully-carved words; and Moray Firth had a prayer.  The voice of David Symonds was almost choked with emotion as he began his round of thanks on the UK's first official commercial (ILR) station, Capital, in 1973.

Is the station's launch a news story, per se?  Every decent journalist will probably say 'well, it depends what else is around on the day's news agenda'; but probably the majority include it in their own bulletins. Some as a brief 'and finally' softee; others what appears to be an accidental mini-documentary. Witness Fosseway Radio.

If ever there were a case for a long station jingle, you may as well make it for the launch. Radio Manchester had a jingle to die for. Wyvern had its own song,   Some stations opt for the ethereal strings from nowhere and some scripted words of portent.  Southern Sound played its lengthy theme proudly and mentioned its origins; and BBC Radio Merseyside mused a little about its idents, made by the BBC Radiophonic workshop.

BBC Locals are indeed a different kettle of fish.  In the '60s and '70s, the local clock chiming and a Mayor with chain clanking was as good a place to start as any. BBC Radio Nottingham even called upon the Town Crier (mind you, so did the commercial Mix 96 in Aylesbury).

Many in the first tranche of these BBC 'home town stations'  included a familiar speech from the Postmaster General who issued the injunction:  "Programmes must always be lively, never dull".  Maybe more fittingly, others featured words from their real father: Frank Gillard.  There's also the ambitious OB; as attempted by Radio Merseyside, from 'high and low places'.  Maybe just a touch over-ambitious, as is transpired.

Radio Birmingham symbolised the birth with some random baby crying.  Some, more recently, tried humour, with the presenters at BBC Radio Gloucestershire trying to act out a little comedy drama.  Always better to be a proper actor if you're going to make a good fist of that, in my view.  Radio Teeside chose a listener to bid welcome, which is as good an approach as any for that format.

Despite the  best preparations, things can go annoyingly awry.  Too many omit to fade up the news jingle promptly; or fade up the IRN bulletin too promptly. Roger Day probably still shivers when he hears the Beach Boys vinyl wow in on the first moments of his first show on Piccadilly.  Mind you, it did not stop him tempting fate with the same song (albeit likely from CD) at the Pirate FM launch.  And whose bright idea was it to call a hospital on the launch day of Plymouth Sound?  Presenter Colin Bower sought to speak to a Nurse on the ward where a child had been born at the same moment as the station.  Whilst one admires his determination, he maybe should have given up a  touch earlier.

Another classic moment was Metro's playing in of a tape at the wrong speed.  Video does exist and one can see head in hands.  Seems funny now. I suspect it did not on the day.

What of the first song? It appeared for a time that there was a regulatory edict requiring Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best'.  Star FM simply had to start with Rose Royce 'Wishing On A Star' (introduced by Peter Dickson before his X-Factor days).  For other reasons, the legendary John  Myers  just had to launch all his own Century and Real stations diffidently with 'A Star is Born'.  I recall being in the huge marquee as Century 105 launched in Manchester, and that occasion brought home what a poignant moment a launch is for not only the station's presenters, but more so the tired engineers, the worried management; and their respective long-suffering partners.

The launch of Trent 945 in Derbyshire was thoroughly enjoyable.  Assembling the pre-launch test transmissions and the launch moment was my way of having fun.  Without fear of a disciplinary process at this late stage, may I confess that I returned to the studio the night before launch in March 1987, admittedly fulled by a few glasses of wine.  I opted out of the test transmission music tapes, and played all my promos and every one of the station jingle cuts back to back on-air.  At least I re-cued the carts as I threw them in and out the triple-stack.  

It's easy to look back dewy-eyed at the bygone decades of commercial radio.  Listening back to some of the launches brings one back to reality with a thump the weight of a Uher.  These inaugural minutes probably include just about everything one would wisely not do now.  Successive hugely-long incestuous links with little entertainment or informational value within; shopping lists of show features; the names of unknown presenters later on that day; combined with over-long news bulletins; and  songs we've never heard of.  If a station like that were to come on-air today against a significantly more competitive backdrop, with the BBC now more mainstream and Radio 1 on FM, well few would notice.  Because few would listen.

Witness, though, some more recent approaches. The inspired poetic launches of Isle of Wight Radio; and of Xfm South Wales. Maybe Kerrang 105.2's was a touch long an indulgent; but it had some nice touches of which they should be proud. TeamRock's in June 2013 was also inspired - and beautfully done.

Whilst we should all probably spend our time on engineering programming excellence across the output over the first months as  a whole, and accept that just three men and a dog may be the likely audience at dawn on Day One, maybe it's just human nature to want to do something a touch special to mark the moment.   Then again, with DAB stations  opening and closing more frequently; and analogue stations re-branding more often, just maybe launches in future won't seem quite the same as the day of your wedding any more.

If you do decide to do 'a launch', just don't bother with a 'countdown'. It's been done before.

Enjoy audio from well over a hundred stations launching on my site here.  Thanks to friends old and new for contributions, including Paul Easton and Andy Walmsley.

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