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.

Saturday 5 October 2013

The Top 20 RadioMoments AudioBoos

The Nation adores the tones of Alice Arnold, according to her Number One position in my AudioBoo Channel 2013 league table.

It's likely true that this way of evaluating audio popularity over the last twelve months would likely not pass muster with the IPSOS radio researchers, which is likely why this selection is so random.

But, here she is at Number One.  Alice Arnold.  And how she deserves that position.  Her Radio 4 farewell is the most played #RadioMoments AudioBoo in the last year, amassing around 7,000 plays. That sad gulp at the end as she realises that those last ordinary words spell the end of an extraordinary spell.  And, just maybe after giving away so little over the years on-air, listeners just wanted to hear that brief glimpse of the real Alice.

At Number Two, well, this is just an odd choice.  The briefest of bits of ancient, peaceful Radio 2 continuity.  In those cardigan days, this is how the Nation's lightest programme identified itself.  Put out the cat.  Put on a shawl.  Delightful.  Maybe why it has amassed over 6600 clicks.

At Number Three, another BBC farewell.  Radio does emotion well. This time, the valedictory words from
Robin Lustig, the chap who lent so much meaning to the phrase 'The World Tonight' for so many years on BBC Radio 4.

At Number Four, into the science of radio.  Whilst most radio stations already had talented folk programming the music with a careful ear on listener tastes, it wasn't until the advent of computerisation, that it became quite so obvious.  Some programmers welcomed Selector, others did not.  Presenters often hated it.  On this Boo, Clyde Programme Director Alex Dickson gave his thoughts in 1988.

At Number Five, the controversial chart moment. Should theBBC include 'The Witch Is Dead', in the week of Thatcher's death, in their Sunday Top 40 or not?  They did, sort of.

At Number Six.  A touch of geo-bias. A touch of commercial radio from my home town: the launch of Nottingham's Radio Trent  in 1975.  Just maybe I have so many Twitter followers from this great City, to whom the familiar voice of John Peters means so much.

More study at Number Seven. 3,900 plays for this piece on theAnnan Report; a 1977 BBC local radio piece on this report into the future of broadcasting.

Another launch at Number Eight.  Check this out.  The early moments in the life of BBC Manchester. And a song to die for. Little did those singers in 1970 know that their chanting would be a viral success forty years on.

At Number Nine, a fitting entry from the very launch of the BBC Local Radio network.  Manchester was nearly the first station, but such were the funding issues, that Manchester fell from the early list and BBC Radio Leicester claimed the crown in 1967.

And no Top Ten radio chart should be complete without paying tribute to Eddie Mair. This is hardly a bit of classic Eddie though, it's simply what he said after he heard that BBC 90th anniversary moment in 2013.

At Number Eleven, staying with the BBC's 90th anniversary theme, a medley I assembled to commemorate that same occasion. The audio skips through those 90 BBC years in just a couple of minutes.

Number Twelve sees BBC News move to Broadcasting House' and at Number Thirteen, the launch of Radio Victory, the unlucky Portsmouth commercial station which was later to lose its franchise. Fourteen, with almost 3,000 plays, brings the Godfather of BBC Local Radio: Frank Gillard in action as a War correspondent.

Number Fifteen brings another great BBC local launch, thistime from Merseyside; with the truly wonderful Marjorie Anderson at Sixteen, one of that very small band of woman appearing on BBC radio in its early days. 

The unmistakable pirate Radio London presenter, Dave Dennis sits at a surprise Number Seventeen, the chap who was later to run the National Broadcasting School and programme Radio Trent.  Another incredible voice is at Eighteen, that of actor turned BBC Chart presenter, Tom Browne, who added the sunshine to  those seventies Summer Sundays as he counted down what was the Top 20.  

Back to Nottingham for the Number Nineteen entry, some birthday messages assembled in the 70s for Nottingham Hospitals Radio, but the attraction being that those messages were from the then stars of BBC National radio.  Finally another commercial radio launch, with Plymouth Sound at Twenty. I guarantee that one will make you smile.  Oh, the determination of presenter, Colin Bower.

This data reflect tastes and interests over the last twelve months until October 2013.  Were it over the whole three years of RadioMoments, the brilliant on-air resignation of Greg Stepp from American station, WFYV,  would easily qualify, as would the life-story of pirate/Radio1/comradio Steve Merike and the  Chris Evans appraisal of Chris Moyles.  And, with getting  on for 2,000 plays, that indulgent 20 minute medley of the launches of commercial radio over its first 15 years.

Overall, over 850 clips, and almost a third of a million listens of special moments from the greatest medium of all.  Thanks, AudioBoo.  Top up the wine.  Click.  Keep scrolling.  Enjoy.

Clip titleTotal plays
Alice Arnold - Farewell from Radio 46961
Radio 2 continuity ID - 19776701
Robin Lustig - Last World Tonight6051
Alex Dickson - Speaking in 1988 on music scheduling5140
Trent launch3969
Annan Report - 19773904
Thatcher Ding Dong! - BBC Chart3904
BBC Radio Manchester - Launch3448
BBC Radio Leicester - the story3188
Eddie Mair on BBC 90th3058
90 years of the BBC2928
BBC Radio News moves to Broadcasting House2863
Radio Victory - Launch2863
Frank Gillard - In action as War Correspondent2798
BBC Radio Merseyside - Launch2667
Marjorie Anderson2667
Dave Dennis/ Neil Spence - Radio London, June 662602
Tom Browne - Radio 1 Top 20 19782602
NHR - Nottingham Hospitals Radio2537
Plymouth Sound - Launch2537

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