Tuesday 26 March 2013

Pointless rules

In that ‘gritty’ episode of Coronation Street, when the Rovers Return burnt down, there was a lovely ‘P’ on the credits; suggesting a healthy dash of ‘product placement’. 

Given the symbol was shown nowhere near the moment when the ‘placement’ happened, I’m still blissfully unaware what the commercial message was. Putting to one side the fact that the  mystery advertiser’s money would have been clearly better spent on radio, it does illustrate the folly of this ‘P’. Most viewers either don’t notice it; or don’t understand what it means. And, frankly, aren’t much bothered.  In OFCOM research*, over half of viewers appeared not to know Placement exists, let alone how it appears. Did C & A pay for Deirdre's lovely Crimplene frock? Who can tell.

There is a regulatory desire in the UK to separate ‘commercial communications’ from any other sort.  It’s a pointless pursuit, and one which stems from a heady mix of beautiful English conservatism and, to some extent, European regulations.  Regulators rarely move radically, they adjust things incrementally. In radio, it’s taken thirty years to get from the IBA’s menacing intervention to a regime of radio rules which are much more sensible, thanks in no small way to some thoroughly pragmatic folk at OFCOM.

In truth, the distinction between commercial and other communications can never be clear, as long as PR companies place stories, TV companies invent stories about themselves to grow their business, and most sporting events are riddled with advertising hoardings. Just about everything we see and do now has a commercial connection for which someone is paying a bill, and someone is benefiting.

If a Tweet is an 'ad', they’re supposed to say it has been paid for, but if a company influences some viral social content, then it’s fine. Maybe it’s time to give up and let most sensible people make up their own minds about whether there has been a commercial influence or not.

In radio, we're obliged to credit clients who’ve paid us with a pithy phrase like ‘our friends at’.  It’s a neat way round, and I thank OFCOM for the recent freedoms, but I’m not awfully sure that this ‘friends’ business shouts ‘we’ve been paid’ to any listener.  And the fact that we still have to ‘separate’ ads from, well, presenters talking about the ads is a bit crazy, really.  It’s all fine, and the regulations are, thankfully, sensibly implemented, but I’m not awfully sure they do anyone any good.

Then there’s the small print.  Those crazy disclaimers on credit ads. If listeners could press a  magic button on their radio and sign up instantly for a credit agreement, I’d understand the caution, but given there's a mountain of paperwork before any credit agreement is entered into, there’s ample opportunity for the detail to be considered. The obligation to carry this is a nonsense; and it makes things less clear not more clear. Not least when the material is delivered as quickly as if the VO is trying to get away to the pub.  Those who draft regulations should maybe pause to understand how radio works; and the depth of listeners' recall. 

Let's be honest, do the words 'terms and conditions apply' serve any useful purpose?  Do they really protect the listener; or merely the advertiser?  And if we are going to warn listeners of every possible implication of any product or service, should we not add 'kids may misbehave' on the fostering ads?

There was a time when the use of premium phone lines did indeed warrant tighter regulation.  Some stations were acting thoroughly improperly.  When I arrived at my grey, dusty desk at the Radio Authority in the early '90s, there was no rule in the Programme Code which required fairness in competitions. I drafted one, and I’m pleased that my legacy wording remains, about competitions being ‘conducted fairly to rules which are appropriately made known’, in the extant OFCOM code.

In those days though, the costs of calls ‘under 50 pence’ did not need declaring. Now, any possible incremental charge needs declaring.  Even a 25 pence charge for general texting requires a disclaimer every so often, to a formula best understood by Phonepay Plus. And don’t you just love the BBC announcements about landline numbers which might be free, or might not be. It’s all gone too far. I'm surprised our holiday advertisers don't have to declare that your holiday might cost you more if you live further from the airport.

I think listeners understand that when you pick up a phone, there might be a small charge. If it’s an appreciable one, then, yes, we should say something about it. The rules can be as simple as that.  

In bygone days, we never announced the price of a stamp for a write-in comp, or the price of a landline call when they were, actually, formidably expensive. Now, everyone e-mails rather than sends letters; and phone calls are proportionately much cheaper, yet we have this rampant catalogue of disclaimers.

I have a theory that every time there is a new regulation, the extra protection diminishes the original protection, which means that consumers see and hear less, not more.  Witness the 27,000 words in the i-Tunes terms and conditions.  The more rules and protective 'noise' there is, the more innocently we sign up to what we’d rather not.

*UK audience attitudes to the broadcast media, OFCOM. August 2012.

Friday 22 March 2013

Gazing at the navel in W12

"It's like endless pictures of a friend's baby".

That's how @DeeeDoc described, on Twitter, the BBC coverage of its move to its stunning new premises in Central London.

There are those who, like me, who have a touch of sympathy with that view. No matter how much we love the BBC, its excellence and its rich history, one must concede that the Corporation is inclined to navel-gaze.

For days we've been treated to details of the last bulletin from TV Centre; the last programme; the last weather forecast; and so the list goes on. Everybody's been allowed a teary farewell. That's before we have the list of 'firsts' from the new home. And we even had Nick Higham (for whom I have much respect) guiding viewers round the new empire like a chirpy estate agent. I could have accepted, with ease, the odd smiley aside and a touch of reflection. That was thoroughly justified. But it just appeared to go on and on.

A typically beautiful package of TV Centre sepia memories had genuine integral value for the News Channel, but this, and its sequel, were followed by interviews in which much the same ground was covered. Can this depth and volume of coverage be justified?

This was a week in which Cypriots had monies stolen from their accounts. Like many Brits, I rather worried whether the same might happen to me in the UK. It was a budget week; and one in which the press were regulated more strictly than in living history. It was also one in which every parent related to the tragic story of the father and son killed on the mountain. And we reflected on what happened in Iraq exactly ten years ago. It was not a quiet news week.

We work in media. We are inordinately interested in it. We know that. We also know that our normal friends sometimes glaze over when we talk incessantly about a world we care deeply about. And they might gently suggest they are 'busy' when they know a night out with you and your 'media friends' is in prospect. So, when determining the news agenda, we must be aware that our finely-tuned news judgement filter has the potential to be flawed. Can we measure this 'TV Centre moving' story by our usual journalistic tests, and then honestly suggest it warrants such an extensive volume of coverage?  Is there a reason why any balanced appraisal of this huge public investment is absent from all reports?

Here's a test. Let's host a phone-in: "call us with your memories of and views about TVC" and witness the response. Especially if it's aired in, let's say, Newcastle, away from the media bubble.

Yes, there is a market for this expansive commentary. For us in the media, and people with a keen interest, we should be able to feast ourselves on this great achievement. Social media and online coverage offer a great place to do just that. Like many of us, I love seeing it there.

Maybe it's the same flaw which results in broadcasters talking so frequently about the 'studio' they are in, ignoring the fact that to a listener or viewer, the presenter is not in a studio, they are in every single home. The temptation for radio presenters to talk about their headphones, when there is a whole world outside to talk about. And the same reason that newsreaders apologise for the lack of 'VT'. Thank goodness radio journalists no longer have cause to explain  that 'the cart has gone down'. The language is alien: it's easy to forget that viewers and listeners do not live in our world.

 Maybe I should concede some bias. I work in the commercial sector, and get a little annoyed when I see the BBC speak of itself where the merit is absent. Forgive me for tutting when the BBC TV announcers nod sagely and suggest I listen to 'my local BBC local radio station' late on a snowy night, even when I know the staff there have all gone home and yet some commercial radio is still broadcasting live and locally. And when the local BBC TV channel bothers to film a major commercial radio fund raising event yet misses any station credit. It's less likely to forget to mention any of its own initiatives.

The BBC loves to talk about itself in good times, and feels equally obliged to trumpet its less favourable escapades at equal length. That's a great shame for such a magnificent organisation. A touch more restraint in both chest-thumping and self-flagellation might be wise. And eminently sound journalism.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Gigs from Hell

I smiled when John Myers Tweeted that he had been booked to 're-open'  the refurbished Spar shop where he'd officially cut the ribbon twenty years before.  He'd probably been paid back then in Spangles.

On stage with Erica in Nottingham
When we get into radio, we dream of being booked to introduce our fave act on stage in front of thousands at the O2; but the truth is that the public appearances we do get invited to are a little more everyday.  

Most radio jocks are now, quite rightly, seen by listeners as 'normal people'; rather than as uncomfortable  'cheap, local  mini-celebs', so even the invitations to 'open' local events don't flow in at quite the same rate nowadays.  In short, just not quite so many coffee mornings and Summer galas to open as there used to be.  Phew.

Peter Tait, rest his soul (Trent/Aire/Magic), often related the tale of one event he'd been asked to open, where he was paid live on stage in full view.  "Just before we go, we'd like to say  a  big thank you to Peter Tait. Thanks, Peter for coming.  This is from the committee'.  As the PA crackled, they proceeded to count out crisp tenners from a dirty envelope into Peter's hand, whilst still on-mic:  "Here you go. Five; ten; fifteen; twenty....'. Applause.

There was a memorable baby show I once judged on a steaming hot 80s Saturday. Never judge baby shows.  You make enemies.  The organiser hissed in my ear just prior to my announcing my finalists, demanding I pick a blend of colours and continents amongst my finalists.

My forsaking the L plates on my Ford Escort came late in life, so I'd arrive at gigs by taxi.  When duties were done, I'd wave like a star before running round the corner to hop on the bus home. I always felt uncomfortable taking the usual £25 Trent  expense payment, so often refused it.  By the time I'd spent a few polite quid on the  tombola, I was  usually out of pocket anyway. How can you take £25 when you know they're probably only raising £150?

Invited to open a new bed-shop
And there was the police 'It's a knockout' I compered on the wettest day in history. Thames Valley Police v Leics Police.  In a bid to brighten up the proceedings, I was disparaging of all competitors throughout.  They took it in good spirit, until the end.  As  I made my final announcement, they nodded to each other and ran for me in a concerted terrorist attack.  Never try to escape from an entire police force.  Having caught me, I was lowered unceremoniously into one of the huge water obstacles.  I walked away from the event in a dirty old over-sized police track suit.

Isn't it frightening seeing women fight. I once opened a charity event in a pub in a less salubrious part of town: a rowdy 'do', where I had to shout to be heard.  In the absence of any stage or PA system, I balanced precariously on the two arms of an armchair to declare the event, such as it was, open.  Shortly afterwards some dispute erupted over by the trestle tables and I cowered in the corner as two women shouted, spat, slapped, thumped, hissed and pulled hair.

You get accustomed to having to organise events yourself. Whilst  some are beautifully choreographed, with a full briefing dispensed on arrival; others require that you take off your satin jacket with your name on - and turn into event manager. They have clearly given nothing any thought at all.  Similarly, they struggle to remember who you are and where you're from as they prepare to they introduce you.  On the luckiest occasions, they trouble to hiss quietly 'who are you again?' before grabbing the, usually faulty, mic.

Then, of course, the unreasonable requests. You've been asked to open a Summer Fete.  On arrival, you discover they want you to draw the raffle. In six hours time. There are seventy three prizes; and most winners have sensibly long since departed.

Not being a driver meant people gave me lifts home; or organised taxis.  I recall one afternoon after a  Summer's afternoon gig, waiting in the organiser's kitchen.  Being a well-brought up boy, after finishing my tea, I washed my cup.  The handle came off.  What do you say? And then, and this is 100% true, I waved farewell and got into the car which had slowed down outside. It turned out not to be the taxi I thought it was.  I know the listener still remembers, as she got in touch ten years later.

Don't remind me of compering Miss Radio Trent 1985. There I was in sparkly suit, with a blue-dicky bow and matching patent shoes, trying to lend a sense of occasion to the proceedings at Nottingham's Commodore International. That was the sort of venue where  orange fluorescent posters boasted all its on-stage musical acts as being 'the fabulous...'.  As I described the young lady's attributes, which had been usefully written down for me lest I not notice, her heel got caught in the hole between two of the stage blocks.  She fell over.  I laughed uncontrollably. She wasn't a happy beauty queen (not the one pictured).

Groupies too; some truly frightening (that's quite another blog altogether).  You get the one person who simply follows every movement in your life with alarming tenacity.  If you announce you'll be in a park in Arnold at 10.30, you know they'll be there at 10.00, armed with a carrier bag of dubious contents.  The innocent organisers, delighted to be getting enthusiastic  visitors, allocate them a front row seat.  If you are dismissive of the 'fan', you are seen as 'not very nice'. If you encourage them, well goodness knows what will happen.

Wish I could remember more about the dogs' fancy dress show I judged.

And what about Long Eaton Carnival?  They suggested they would fly me in by helicopter.  This was exciting.  This was the Big Time.  Not as it turned out, though.  On this grey windy day, after touchdown,  I descended from the helicopter, swaying and spewing.  This was not the Bay City Rollers arriving at a Radio 1 roadshow. 

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Managing Truly Top Talent

Talent is a funny word.  Often used in a sniffy sort of way.  I remember first seeing the word used when DOS Selector software arrived in the 80s: the presenter schedule on the software was (and is still) called ‘Talent planner’. Blame the Americans.

No-one is a true expert on Talent management; least of all me.  So, when I received a surprise invitation from the BBC to pop across the road to give a talk on ‘Talent management’, I paused to ask a few presenters about how they like – and don’t like - to be managed.   
I harangued some of those I work with currently; and also begged the views of others I have worked with in bygone days on other major stations.  Many of them earn much more than me; so I respect their views.  It was also useful to be reminded.

One recalled they’d been told: “When it comes to dealing with presenters, it helps if you have children of your own".  They reflected:  It's sadly true. But, you build them up and cosset them and then can't work out why they're stark raving mad.”

Empathy.  They asked that their lives be understood.  Planning a 4.00 p.m. meeting involving breakfast Talent, without prior consultation, is a huge flag which suggests: ‘I really do not think or care about you’.  As one said to me: ‘If I reply to an invitation like that, I ask if they are free for a 4.00 a.m. meeting instead’.  If they send an annoyed note about issue A, they are comforted when you are sufficiently sage to understand it's really about unrelated issue B.

Specific.  They’re not keen on vague comments – positive or negative. Even ‘great show today!’ needs another line to say what it was exactly which truly was great. Talent can identify hollow praise from a million miles away. "We are sensitive needy people, whose egos need the occasional massage. Many colleagues over the years have said to me they are managed too closely and then still complain if they are left alone. As a manager, you may feel as if you can't win, but strike the right balance and you will be respected and held in high regard by the broadcaster."

Paranoia.  Some Talent may behave, on occasions, as though they think they are the ‘bee’s knees’. Whatever they are.   Sometimes intolerably.  But deep down, they realise how lucky they have been in life. One day, they expect it will all collapse. They’ve seen it happen to friends around them; and feel convinced that one day their time will come.  So, when you happen to ignore them because your mind is on something else; or cancel meetings; or make a remark about something, they suspect an agenda. 

Snoop.  How I hate that word. I never use it.  Playing back bits of shows is often important and useful, though.  What I find annoying and completely pointless is when a manager will tear apart an aspect of the show without any solution to how it could have been done better and make it better in the future”, cautioned a colleague.  Another great Act volunteered to me that a great athletics’ coach would never just simply applaud a fast lap and say ‘that was great’, they’d help you get it half a second faster.

Having said that, there was a comment which suggested:  The best meetings are where the boss says, that was a fantastic show, go and do it again tomorrow, or even better, "that was great....let's go and get breakfast”.  It is true that some great days there is not much to say;  those are, maybe, days for listening to someone else’s show, or talking nonsense.  Creative talent is easily bored, so different approaches/formats/locations to ‘meetings’ do help.

Food. Studies appear to suggest that people are more pre-disposed to being amenable where food is involved. I’ve yet to meet any Talent who do not like a nibble.  Not least ‘cos the likelihood is they are on-air when people normally eat.   Try a fairy cake.  (When did they become cup-cakes?)

Respect.  You probably expect a degree of respect for your experience and skills; and so do they.  You have made your mark in the management thing; they have made theirs as a presenter. They are as successful as you are; probably with a rarer skill.

Support. They like you being concerned about them and what they have to cope with.  Whether it’s a studio fault or someone around them not supporting as they should: “let me look after that – leave it with me, I’ll sort” are words I am assured Talent like to hear.

Calm.  I want to be led by a manager who never loses his cool, especially in the face of adversity, even if inside he's about to pop!’.

Timeliness.  One person related to me the story of how he nipped to the loo during a show. Whilst in mid-stream, his manager from the adjacent cubicle called out: 'Y'know that last link? Don't do it like that again".  There is a time for critical feedback; and, unless it's a matter of life, death or legal action, during the show is probably not the best time. Nor when you're in the loo.

Honesty.  Talent will likely say they want it.  Many concede they’d like it wrapped up nicely by someone they trust whom they feel is a ‘fan’ of the show.  One person suggested their partner was their biggest ‘fan’.  Their partner loved their show (and presumably them too), but was shamelessly critical when need be.  That’s the sort of relationship maybe to aspire to: the relation you love enough to allow them to slag you off.

Support: “If I feel like my boss will go into bat for me when the shit hits the fan, then I feel liberated”.  That sort of sentiment was echoed by many.  Being ‘on my side’ said another.  Not ‘red corner and blue corner’, ‘working together’, ‘consultant’.

Not all Talent is the same. “Any manager who does that is naieve” said one person I spoke to.  Many of my respondents correctly observed that managing Talent is not a ‘one size fits all’.   In that vein, some like to be treated a bit different from newbies; yet others feel uncomfortable when they are singled out for better ‘facilities’.  All views are probably compatible.  It’s about getting to know the individual, and being alert to their feelings.  Other team members end up resenting the talent and the talent ends up having an inflated opinion of themselves”, recognised one.

People I did not speak to
I floated this topic to one of the best record reps in the business, given he’s had to cope with the strops of artists in his years.  He suggested that there are fewer Divas around. Why?  Maybe social media, he suggested.  It means fans know if an artist has behaved unreasonably: they now have to answer to those fans.  Just maybe there is an accountability lesson there for radio talent too; and a useful device for Talent management.

Back to broadcasters.  I loved this: “the secret is making the broadcaster feel like they are loved and wanted. It's their food and water, give them just the right amount and they will perform all day long. Don't give them enough, and they will become troublesome. We all get grumpy if we don't eat”.  No wonder the person who wrote this is a success story.  And they are.

Huge thanks to all who bothered to reply to my spurious questions.  I would credit you, but thought you’d prefer to stay anonymous, given I did not suggest I’d steal your words for a blog.  Cheers.  Shout up if you’d like me to credit your name to your great words in this epistle,

To those with whom I currently have the pleasure of working, who used this invitation to tell me things they needed me to know.  You were right to.  Message understood.

The final canny observation has to go to this great Talent who made me smile so much more than they ever made me scream: 

Essentially all Talent is insecure, paranoid and delusional.  If they're not when they start, the system will ensure they become so.  Treat them as you would a confused elderly relative: with kindness and care.  After all, you sent them nuts”.  

With amusing, deliciously self-deprecating insight, little wonder this individual is truly one of the best performers.

Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio', out now from Biteback

Saturday 2 March 2013

Commercial Radio - Still Public Service?

At Euro Parliament (Andrew Neil wrestling behind)
When you speak in the European Parliament, there's an embossed silver sign in front of you  saying 'speak slowly'.  I tried my best last week to do just that last week, when I honoured a welcome invitation by UK RadioCentre to speak in the European Parliament at the Association of European  Broadcasters' Convention.  The theme of the session was public service in commercial radio.

How reassuring it is that radio listeners the world over seem to behave the same.  The Irish and German contingents merrily reeled off tales of listeners who look naturally and immediately to their radio station to know the answers to any of life's questions. Anyone who's ever worked at the coal-face taking listener calls will know this to be the case.  If you want to know what time ASDA closes, erm, ask ASDA, not us.

I took the opportunity, naturally, to highlight the work of our own Free Radio team.  Last year, our West Midlands stations raised around £3/4m for local hospitals and related causes.  Surely one of the most significant fund-raising events in UK radio.  How great it is that around 20,000 listeners got out of bed on a Sunday morning to walk miles and miles for charity.  And what a great reflection of the relationship presenters have with their listeners that it was radio which persuaded them to do it.  Similarly, at our Gem 106 station last year, the Give It Up appeal persuaded listeners to relinquish a small luxury in life in favour of cash for the local hospital. Another £70,000 raised. 

We're not the only ones.  My many friends across the industry too have given up their time through the years.  Help a London Child from Capital speaks for itself; and has branched out into Help a Capital Child.  The Have a Heart Appeal has already raised over £200,000 this year alone to make seriously ill children's wishes come true.  Similarly, Real and Smooth Radio recently presented a cheque for over £1million to the Help for Heroes charity after four years of fundraising.

It's not just funds where radio helps.  I recall vividly the email  we received from a Black Country family, whose 42 year old mother was suffering from stomach cancer.  The worry was that Yvette would not live to see her favourite time of year with her family: Christmas.  The presenters were moved; as were the listeners.  Within days, plans had been laid by the station and its listeners to bring Christmas Day forward. Neighbours, friends and relations gathered with the presenters at her house as presents arrived, complemented by artificial snow, carol singers and a jolly Father Christmas.  Yvette died the following day. Radio had helped make her last moments as she wanted them.

It's easy to look at commercial radio as it grows and evolves, and suggest it's not the same as it was. It isn't.  But there is ample evidence that it still does enormous good.  We don't have to do charity appeals. But we do.  We don't have to work through the night to help listeners cope with the snow and school closures. But we do.  As I added a few school names to our online list at 1 am a few weeks ago, I mused that in some ways, with social media and online aiding the on-air effort, the quality and reliability of the service many stations provide in some areas is actually better than it has ever been. 

As a radio-obsessed youth, I still probably spoke on-air to but a handful of presenters in the whole of the 1970s; and then only after dogged persistence. And I sent in scrawled postcards (or the back of a sealed-down envelope! Remember those?) for a few competitions. That was the level of my engagement.  It was all I could do.

Now, there is consistent dialogue night and day, by SMS, email and social media.  Listeners expect the person on the radio to talk back to them. Personally. Although radio itself may now be on a larger and often network scale, individual listener dialogue with presenters has never be closer.  That helps radio retain the beautiful trust it enjoys; and makes sure that when we call upon listeners to help, they do.


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