Thursday 29 August 2013

Are the sensible people at OFCOM on holiday?

I am unsure whom exactly OFCOM feel they are protecting by demanding the following sponsor line needs a ‘with’ in it to be compliant.

“Ambur Radio in Walsall has been found in breach of thebroadcasting code for not associating a weather sponsor with the weather clearly enough.

Sponsorship rules say it must be obvious that a client has sponsored a particular feature, by using the word “with” or “brought to you by” or “sponsored by” but in this instance, the station had the following:
Pre-recorded voice 1: “Ambur Radio Weather.”
Pre-recorded voice 2: “Attention all drivers, if you’ve had an accident, call One Call today, on [telephone number].”
Presenter (live): “The weather forecast on 103.6 FM Ambur Radio. Cold and mainly dry with strong easterly winds……”
Ofcom said, after a listener complained about it, that the announcement did not clarify that Ambur had a sponsorship agreement with One Call.

Who complained? I suspect someone with an atypical interest in this matter, for whatever reason.  That’s fine: it’s their right.  But one imagines they knew it was a commercial message, otherwise they would not quite have known about what to complain.

When a brand appears out of nowhere in a commercial radio context, listeners know what it is and why it is there, not least when it's delivered by a separate VO. It does not need a gold frame.  Transparency and distinction are wise tenets in the OFCOM Code and sustained through regulation of commercial communications generally; but listeners know what is advertising and what is not. 

When people see a sponsor logo on a commercial poster for an event, they are perfectly well aware what the relationship is, without any lengthy narrative.

It is suggested that listeners infer ‘commercial’ from “our friends at”. That phrase was a generous solution to help us get where we need to be in a changing world, and we thank OFCOM for it, it.  In fairness, though, it signifies diddly squat. I’ve seen no evidence that it tells a listener any more than  they can already gather.  Actually, it might even suggest the opposite of what is intended.  I have many friends who are not clients.

Long ago, the regulator quietly and wisely gave up on 'gaps' and 'jingles into breaks' to herald advertising because they presumably acknowledged that most listeners are capable of identifying what is a commercial message and what is not. We move merrily straight now from a presenter to an ad. Just as Ambur moved from a weather anno to a sponsor line and back again.

Listeners know when a presenter is talking freely about a personal experience with a commercial brand, and when money is changing hands.

Commercial radio stations now weave in and out of commercial messaging, commercial breaks, newslink ads, and sponsored material all the time. Had the offending words been just three words before, preceding the weather ident and at the end of the ads, this presumably would have been fine.  Only OFCOM executives understand the difference. And, as for a station name as the ‘separator', well station names are now often routinely part of commercial material.

The detail of the OFCOM Code is a useful thing. But probably not for listeners. They are unlikely to print off a copy and carry it on the bus with them lest they need to refer to it.  The might wisely print off a copy on firm card and use as shelter from the rain. They are likely blissfully unaware of the issue here.  And they are wholly aware that the sudden burst of commercial mention is exactly that. They are not thick.

I am not sure how many regulators have sat in focus groups with real listeners, and asked them about recall of material. Some struggle to recall something which has been on-air for five years.  They love what they love; recall what they like or hate; they zone in to what they are interested in, and zone out to what they are not.  RAB research suggests just that.  They perfectly understand what is relevant to them and what is important.  

They will neither know nor care whether this client was a 'friend' - or an enemy; and what words were used.  But when they recall that client's name, and I hope they do, I'll wager they know it's one of those commercial sponsor things; rather than some poppet popping up for no discernible reason to enthuse about his genuine love of a company.

That's why the smallprint at the end of so many ads is similarly futile and does not serve the listener. It simply protects the advertiser.

In every piece of research I have ever seen, listeners feel Radio 1 has too many adverts. I think I can guess why, but maybe OFCOM should act to correct this by sung idents chorusing: 'the following is not an ad'.  Just to make clear.  I’ll call Wise Buddah now.

If one were to ask listeners what they cared about, I suspect this issue would be low on the list of priorities. I suspect if you were to ask citizens about what they care about in their day to day lives generally, they would be rather more concerned about a whole host of life and death issues.

Regulators get little praise and lots of criticism. OFCOM, generally, deserves loud applause; it certainly contrasts well with other regulators with which we deal in our radio lives.  In radio, we should be grateful to enjoy a principal regulator which has, frankly, been utterly sensible about Code revisions and understanding a changing radio world.  That’s why this judgment surprises me.  ‘Resolved’ would have been a better verdict, if they had to trouble looking into it at all. I suggest listeners would wish them to spend their time agonising about more important things.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Muttering darkly over muffins

Sheila Borrett was said to be the first women  'announcer' on UK radio.  Despite the BBC's enthusiasm, the Radio Times was cautious when announcing her arrival in 1933.  It suggested that retired colonels might "mutter darkly over their muffins".

The predictions of unrest were correct and thousands of letters were received criticising poor Sheila.  Mainly from women.  After three months, she was moved on from the role; and one can but imagine the probation conversation with HR in those distant non-PC days.

80 years on, it's high time the topic was indeed back on the agenda; and Tony Hall is to be congratulated on doing rather more than floating an encouraging remark.

Thankfully, men and women are different.  As the best-selling book suggests, 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus'. They each have, in general terms, a different way of looking at the World around them; and they communicate in different ways. 

In the magnificent 'Watching the English' book by anthropologist, Kate Fox, she observes that women communicate in a group as one melee. When they assemble socially, they may all readily speak at once and enjoy a simultaneous conversation.  Men tend to shout through the gaps.  Kate's female focus groups lamented too that men are not good at gossip. It was suggested the guys miss out the crucial 'he said/she said' attribution; and use a 'flat unemotional manner'.

I muse that when son or daughter calls home, they chat to dad about 'what they're doing' and to mum about 'how they're feeling'.  Research suggests that male-to-male phone conversations last 4.6 minutes, versus a 7.1 minute average for a women to women call*.  Women can talk incessantly about a range of topics.  Men often resort to sport, jokes, work; or the pub argument.  The latter is safe territory and it frequently bores me stupid.

Over time, might it be that men on-air have learnt to compensate for the inadequacies of their gender?  They have adopted coping techniques from each other over the generations; and just maybe there are too few female role models for women to adapt similarly with ease.  I can point to a handful of stunning male broadcasters I emulated in my early days; and I borrowed  a skill from each one.  Given the paucity of women on-air, can a fresh women broadcaster draw from the same range of excellent performers with ease?

I have a hunch that on-air, men become the people they'd like to be.  They draw out the most favourable characteristics and amplify them, turning up the sympathy and emotions, and turning down the rough edges.  And succintness, well, that's blokes all over.  Women, being more social animals, are probably themselves on-air, and behave 'normally'.  Whilst 'be yourself' is a useful adage, every broadcaster knows that 'being yourself is not enough; and sounding 'normal' is an art.

Men are often less expressive than women in how they dress and how they animate conversations;  so little is absent when the voice is their only tool.  Women make much use of those additional dimensions, which are stripped away when only the voice remains as the sole communication conduit.

Women have shorter vocal chords and thus, generally, higher voices.  I'm sure you've heard about that mysterious bit of research which suggested that both women and men prefer listening to men on the radio.  I'm equally sure you've never seen a copy.  There is lots of research into recall of, and passion for, various tones of voices, although most data appears to lack the context of radio.  

Some of the earliest 'pop radio women', for example Annie Nightingale, did draw upon deeper tones; and we know that Margaret Thatcher was trainedto lower her voice by a coach from the National Theatre.  We also know that blokes on-air have a hissy fit if someone tampers with the butch settings on their EQ.  

'Deeper voices' may well be found more attractive but many great women on air have rounded, beautifully rich voices; and many successful men on-air have not.  Neither Jonathan Ross nor Chris Evans have perfect radio voices, but they've enjoyed a modicum of success.  

It is true, however, that radio listeners like the familiar more than the unfamiliar, and male voices on air have come to be expected.

There are some pretty awful women on the radio; and there are some pretty awful men. Statistically, there are many more awful men than awful women.

Radio 4's 'Today Programme' gender dilemma has been played out publicly. John Humphrys has suggested that when he eventually ceases his dawn harrumphing, his stints will likely be assumed by a woman.  Already, with Mishal Hussain's arrival, the jostling has begun.  

We recall the redoubtable Sue MacGregor and lament the fact that we have yet to hear any other woman on that programme recently with quite her conviction and ability.  Mind you, I could similarly, frankly, draw my own league table of the blokes on the programme too. The weaker links in the male chain, and they surely do exist on that programme, will wrongly attract less scrutiny than the women.

Witness too the wonderful  Anne-Marie Minhall on Classic FM; and, I have to say, there was something endearing about Sarah Kennedy's ramblings.  Jane Garvey has talents to die for.  Gloria Hunniford is sadly lost to radio, but I would cite Vanessa Feltz as being one of the more  interesting characters on-air.  Whilst I would not say I am a huge fan of everything she does, the challenges of her own life have enriched her act.  Her openness and thus seeming vulnerability help a listener feel that they know her.  Caroline Martin at BBC WM also shares that 'flawed' charm; and it's a huge asset for both sexes.  Too rarely do you hear women really being women on the air.  Too many pretend to be men; and that's a shame.

As I write the above paragraph, I smile and think of women I know who despise some of the above-named with surprising venom.  Are women more critical of each other than any man would wish to be?

In commercial radio, there are few  lead women presenters on breakfast shows.  Jo & Twiggy, however, was one such act on Nottingham's Trent (now Capital), which enjoyed huge success and a mantelpiece of awards.   UK radio has shifted from 'performance' to 'real'; and the women on-air now are rightly picked for their story telling and humour rather than just as a giggling sidekick.  Might it be that women have better abilities at bantering  with real people (as a co-host) than as a sad solo presenter just pretending to talk to someone?  If that plays to a strength, then let's not ignore it.

What of the early days?  Lots of male presenters begin their radio lives as anoraks, sitting alone with  their acne in their bedrooms, listening to radio and growing to love it.  They then pursue that hobby with unhealthy energy.  Women strike me as generally less obsessive and altogether more balanced and sensible.  I know few female radio anoraks as sad as I was; although Beccy Adlington would hit me with her rubber swimming hat and remind me that there are successful female obsessives in other fields.

Skillset suggests some women make a "conscious decision to care for their children full-time or enter a different and less demanding industry". I have to say I am utterly in awe of  women I have known in senior positions who have balanced their families with huge responsibilities and jobs which are rarely 9 to 5.  I don't know quite how they do it, but they have proven they do.  In sales and often in newsrooms, there is a decent gender balance; although there is often a paucity round the Board table (17%, suggests Skillset**).  As a bloke unable to talk about football, I can quite see why women might not feel at home.

I don't count the number of audition MP3s and Soundcloud files I get sent each week, but I would hazard a guess that  well over 90% of unsolicited auditions come from lads.  When more high quality auditions are submitted by women, more will be recruited.  And we programmers must not nurture that irrational fear of two successive women on a programme schedule. 

Is it appropriate to engineer a 50% ratio of women on BBC Local Radio breakfast programmes by the end of 2014?  I would question that tactic; although I welcome a strategy. 

Is it correct to aim for a better gender balance and benchmark how the situation evolves over time? Absolutely. 

Mind you, let's remember that this self-op, multi-source, single-header breakfast show is possibly one of the most complex gigs in UK radio, and a challenge for anyone new, regardless of sex.

Listeners want their programmes to be the best they can, whomsoever presents those shows.  I wonder whether target listeners might prefer  BBC local radio to focus its efforts on how old the on-air staff are and how abreast they are of their 50+ audience rather than whether they wear a frock or not.  The BBC's first obligation is to its licence payers.

I would commend the efforts being made by the BBC to identify more female presenters; and to offer training and support to encourage those women to hone their talents.  I only hope the BBC finds within its ranks those with the skill and instinct to help coach in the above areas.  Just maybe that's a time to look outside BBC News, to which Local Radio is strangely assigned,  for those with a real insight into how radio engages if the gender imbalance is to remedy itself genuinely.

*Smoreda & Licoppe (2000) 
** Women in the UK Radio Industry, Skillset 2011

Saturday 17 August 2013

Why do we love John Humphrys?

John is the lead singer in that boyband of populist, seemingly 'say what you think' public figures. In this colourful Venn diagram of rich characters, he overlaps with Ken Clarke, Clarkson, Boris and Paxman; and little with the politically correct remainder of the UK.  So out of  fashion, he's in fashion.  So old, he's trendy.

Schooled in the University of life, his career began in press, then commercial TV in Wales. He joined the BBC in Liverpool in the mid 60s, moving on to a spell as foreign correspondent.

John reporting on Gary Gilmore's execution in 1977

Back home in the early 80s, John was soon a familiar face on the BBC TV Nine O' Clock News.
In 1987, on went those cute little black BBC headphones.  When John Timpson's seat round the Today desk fell vacant, John was summoned in a midnight phone call. He went on to sit alongside the crusty and excellent Brian Redhead, whose overcoat he was later to slide on as the years flew by.


John is not impressed after playing an obligatory trail

Rather like those mentioned in the opening paragraph, his humour, stature and immense popularity allow him to ride the crest of any criticism.  A little like Prescott, with whom he loved to spar, he could probably actually thump an interviewee and get away with it.  He's made his own headlines on the 'dumbing down' of TV and on politicians in general.
On the Today programme team, after over a quarter of a century, he is, certainly to the listeners, primus inter pares.  Like LBC's brilliant Ferrari, he masters each subject and ices the overall package with a dash of well-judged humour and a squirt of amusing intolerance.  His 'believability', rooted in his Welsh deprivation, and his humour set him apart.

A surprised John takes a famous call from Thatcher

But, like Robin Day, he is best known as the inquisitor most feared. If you have something to hide and you've an 0810 with John Humphrys, you may as well get out the bottle of Quink and write your resignation letter.  Some suggest he generates rather more heat than light, and contest he fails to allow an interviewee even to complete a relevant sentence, but it certainly makes for compulsive listening. In 1995, Jonathan Aitken famously accused him of "poisoning the well of democratic debate". 
John volleys until he wins.  Sometime he does not even give his opponent a racket. One of his most famous recent performances was his November 2012 interview with the embattled BBC DG, George Entwistle. It was clear who was to win. Not least because the BBC has made an artform of self-flagellation; but in this case the interview would have been severely criticised had the tone been anything other than it was. 
One gets the impression that he's happy to shake hands after a duel; and later coverage suggests he and George did just that, although one imagines few politicians are quite as stoic as George.

Like many great radio acts, it's easy to imagine they have always sounded as they now do.  Hearing his voice on the Thatcher call above though, and listening to his programmes this week, one hears the voice has become a touch more rasping over the years; and he has perfected his harrumph. His tones now burr beautifully from every Hacker in the Home Counties.
I do not know what John is like to manage; but may I guess?  Given his on-air demeanour appears so natural, I imagine he is unlikely to turn off his argument-winning skills at 9.00 a.m: so I suspect he won't be too happy if his car is late; or a youngster makes a basic error in a cue.  Just sometimes, I imagine he prompts his 'managers' to shake their heads tolerantly, yet in disbelief.  I suspect he never listens back to himself; is supremely confident to colleagues; and yet, away from base and after a programme is put to bed, he might, alone, critically consider his own performance in his own head.  And, away from the pressures of the coalface, I suspect he's a warm heart.  Then again, I'm just guessing.

He is careful never to portray himself as perfect, ensuring that others may not swoop in to point out his own human failings.  He writes freely of his failed farming escapade; and is not afraid to have a joke at his own expense.
John is no stranger to awards. He won the Sony Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement, on which the citation read: "He has truly changed the face of radio and the nature of the radio interview for an entire generation".  But, he is no means just an elder statesman; his work shines through still on its own merit, as demonstrated yet again at the 2013 Sony awards when he was declared 'radio journalist of the year'.  
Happy 70th birthday, John Humphrys (written in 2013).  Why do we love him?  In an ever more sanitised world, where every view has to be measured, and each statement qualified, he appears to be the honest voice of the people.  Each morning, this grumpy uncle slaps all the people who appear to have ruined our lives, educated our children poorly, devalued our houses and stolen the family silver.

Friday 2 August 2013

In celebration of Wogan

He really confused one of my old overseas radio consultants.

How on earth did this eccentric, quietly mumbling man attract an audience of millions?  No teasing.  Little ‘sense of the day’.  No callers.  No stunts.  No giggling sidekick.  Not slick. No crazy competitions.  No showbiz.  Few weather forecasts.  Incestuous talk about his radio team.  Interminable ramblings about the mundane.

But, like most great breakfast shows, he broke some of the rules and won.  The phrase ‘radio legend’ was made for Terry Wogan. 

Despite his audience of millions, Terry enjoyed true intimacy with the listener.  Every listener felt he knew them  - and that he understood them.  From the shawled-pensioner in an icy semi to the savvy student from a magnolia flat; each listener heard a different show in their own head.  Although he likely earned a touch more than either of them, they felt this seemingly self-effacing man was still ‘one of us’. Like Blackburn, this man grew not to take himself too seriously, with some success.

The Wogan vocabulary was his weapon.  With enviable skill, he carved each sentence; turning a mundane anecdote from a black and white photo to a colour film with a beautiful array of words, delivered with vocal warmth through a chocolate voice.  

Tales founded on fact  would be emebellished with a Wogan flight of fancy.  A few words on from a 'listener' on Basildon Bond turned to gold in the hands of the master.

His artful pauses too.  Terry has possibly made as much money in his career from saying nothing as saying something.

A little like Bernie Taupin, his rich career began with a chance newspaper recruitment ad.  Charming the interviewers presumably, he was signed up to RTE.  As the early recordings of Moyles suggest too, distinctive  broadcasters do not begin their careers with their trademark styles; but you can hear just a hint of the endearing Wogan to come on this early clip from the Emerald Isle, courtesy of the ever-helpful Andy Walmsley.

When work began to dry up in Ireland in 1966, he typed a quick missive on the Remington to the BBC.  Auntie responded with the offer of a few programmes ‘down the line’ for the Light Programme, before a fledgling Radio 1  beckoned.  In the days when programmes had titles, he hosted the wonderful ‘Late Night Extra’, a programme recalled fondly by a whole generation.  After some relief presentation, afternoons became his home, simulcast on Radio 1 and 2.

Terry ascended the Radio 2 breakfast throne in the Decimal days of 1972, entertaining the Nation with his ramblings, interrupted only by JAM jingles and pan-pipe music.

He signed off from Radio 2 in 1984 to dedicate more time to his TV career, wearing those brown suits we all wore back then.  Whilst he did TV possibly as well as most radio folk, he was still at his best when, as in the Eurovision, we couldn’t see him.  Like many in the radio fraternity, you got the feeling he did his best work when he felt no-one was really watching.

Come January 1993, he returned home.  Terry was one of very few presenters ever to host two long spells on a significant breakfast show.  By now, he’d become the eponymous hero of ‘Wake Up to Wogan'; and he'd truly found his act.  That's the stage at which a performer truly matures; and the audience give them permission to behave unthinkably on-air.  One got the feeling that detailed show prep was not high on his list of priorities, but it mattered little.

As a professional, he's carried himself through his career with skill.  Being sufficiently true to himself when speaking about the Corporation, but stopping short of going too far.  His humour and presence softening comments on music policy, radio, or BBC antics which might have sounded unwise from others.

His handing over the Radio 2 breakfast baton to Chris Evans at the end of 2009 was text book.  One could witness the smell of two performers respecting each other’s very different talents.  I suspect it was well managed too; but one got the distinct feeling that he agreed with this unlikely plan.  If he did, he was right.  Here he was, letting his radio ‘son’ have a play now, probably shaking his head lovingly at the Evans antics like a tolerant father.

If proof were needed of his talents, watch his farewell speech below. Radio is rarely perfect, and that’s why we love it.  But this is.  Truly perfect delivery. As mentioned in my book, the pace is 165 words per minute, a little faster than his normal speed, but slower than most broadcasters. Terry delivers every valedictory word from the heart, as if to a close friend sat together in the living room. In truth, Tel is surrounded by producers and the nosey, gazing at a typed script, and reads every word.  Immaculately.  Note how he gazes into the eyes of his listener throughout, never those milling around; possibly the secret of his art in those 28 successful years on earlies. 

Wogan returned to Radio 2 in 2010 for Weekend Wogan.  Whilst a live audience situation was arguably not the best home for the Wogan skill, 30,000 people were said to have applied for a seat in the audience, gazing at his mastery.

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

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