Thursday 19 December 2013

Brand Integration. Are we making the most of it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foxy on Free Radio credits a sponsor with believability

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

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

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

Savour this! A 1944 US sponsored news bulletin.

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

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

But political advertising? Hey, why not.

Sunday 15 December 2013

How sweet does that DAB bouquet smell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David multitracked - recorded off AM!.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Who's that on line two?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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