Thursday 25 December 2014

A Wonderful Christmastime

I always fear that Christmas day on the radio will once again be stuffed with dull pre-records and friendless second-tier presenters saying they are 'sitting in' for someone better; and sounding as though they really would prefer to be somewhere else.

It's been truly lovely this year, though.  Mind you, radio should get Christmas right. 108 years ago, on Christmas Eve 1906, the first ever radio programme transmission happened to coincide with the festive season.  Good old Reginald Fessenden planned 'Oh Holy Night' on the violin, together with some passages from the Bible, to be beamed a mile through the newly discovered airwaves.  BBC Local Radio management will be delighted to learn his wife, Helen, was indeed down to co-host; although she became so frit as the red light went on, she backed out.   Reg had to grab the good Book off her.

UK radio plc has delivered a great Christmas 2014. Radio 2 let Paul O'Grady off the lead, sounding just right on this most special day. Warm and companionable. Some performers don't make the transition well from TV to radio, but Paul, maybe given his groundings face to face in some of the UK's more eccentric clubs,  is a born communicator.  Not to schedule Paul on Radio 2 on Christmas Day would have made me question the sanity of the Controller.

To hear Radio 1 play Eartha Kitt on Christmas Day was a delight.  I love the fact that, for one day, the station was sufficiently confident in its skin to say 'fuck the format, it's Christmas'.  Imaging on the station featured the great Guy Harris (@santamessages) as Father Christmas, sounding just a tad younger and a little less ho-ho than he does on (my own) Free Radio, where his irreverent branding sounds a million dollars this year.  On Free today, I enjoyed that same Santa, for there is only one, interviewing Noddy Holder.  Noddy was quizzed on , amongst other things, his bank manager's annual Christmas delight.  The question could easily have been reversed, given how Guy is rightfully carving out a brilliant reputation as the voice of Christmas.

Capital was largely true to format, yet sounded upbeat and clearly in party mood, with Bassman enjoying himself and reaching out to those who've had to slip on their DYMO badge and work uniform for the day.  Classic FM sounded typically warm and welcoming with the truly lovely Anne-Marie Minhall wearing a silly hat and playing Christmas requests.

Heart boasted Olly Murs in fine form.  Like TV stars, some music personalities sound great when listed on the schedule, but they just cannot manage the radio thing really.  Olly can - and there is the sniff of real potential there, should he ever get sick of the singing malarky.  His show today was well-produced, authentic, with promising storytelling, and utterly feelgood.  Again, Heart, which is leaning just a tad more credible nowadays as it clears demographic room for its Smooth sister, cast caution to the wind and bunged on Robbie & Nicole's 'Somethin' Stupid'.  Olly observed he hadn't heard it for ages. I suspect it might be ages before they play it again too.

Clyde 1's Kate and Stu faced the tough task of waking  up Glasgow on a Christmas Day too many families will rather forget as they reel from last week's tragic accident.  Warm and involving, with callers and just the right range of Christmas songs,  this was the sort of radio the City needed, and which many commercial stations got spot on this year.

Kenny Everett was a Christmas present to the Nation in 1944, so it was eminently fitting on what would have been his 70th birthday that many stations paused to mark his contribution to our medium.  The Kremmen episodes were dubbed from Racal Zonal and aired; and Paul Rowley's documentary on BBC 4 Extra imagined what mischief this pensioner would be up to now were he still on the schedule.

BBC Local Radio has a real place in the heart at times like this. Those stations attract vast numbers of 55 pluses, steeped in radio.  Those individuals  are not ancient, but they do seek conversational, engaging radio and not a youngster saying the bleeding obvious and shouting 'tweet me, tweet me'. Many stations got it right, with carol services, a nod to faith and a friend in the room.  My other half, Paul Robey, is entertaining with aplomb through Christmas afternoon on BBC Radio Nottingham, and the wealth of contributions shows the appetite  for warm communicators on those stations.  

I do hope at least some stations are just as warm and engaging as we hop into the New
Year. If I wanted a non stop party, I'd stick my iTunes on. Some listeners will indeed be sat alone, and many of a certain age will  look to radio for a companionship no other media can provide.

So, a great Christmas Day 2014 on radio. Good scheduling and some great presentation on what should be the best ever day to be on the air.  Presenters at their most relaxed, audiences in a good mood, and a recognition that, on this one single day, there is no such thing as a target audience.  Just about everyone is wearing a silly jumper and hat, talking rubbish and singing the same songs:  prince or pauper,  north and south, old and young.

In closing, may I just express the wish that stations adopt the 'twenty-fifteen' pronunciation for next year. We've had five years to get this right.   In marking the 100th anniversary of WW1, no-one refers to 'One thousand nine hundred and fourteen'.  Can we agree 'twenny-fifteen'  as a rule for next year?

Unless you are Olly Murs, in which case 'Two farzand n'four'een", replete with glottal stop, sounded strangely attractive. 

(And well done to you wherever you are, on air, in the newsroom or 'behind the glass' today. Thank you)

Monday 15 December 2014

Sales Execs are from Mars; Presenters from Venus

I'm lucky to have worked in some truly great radio stations where the commercial and programming teams get on with mutual respect and understanding, regardless of the often very different characters involved.  I've also worked in ones where open hostility has been declared. Most stations live in a healthy place some way in-between.

It is easy to be perplexed about the way those in commercial teams on radio stations sometimes just don't appear to comprehend their colleagues across in the programming team.  And vice versa. 

The commercial animals might watch the programming elves wander in cheerily, dressed scruffily, half way through the day and then witness shrieks of laughter as the jocks banter in their messy corner of the office. They must deduce that these folk really don't do much work at all.  Meanwhile, the programmers watch the sales exec turning up in a daze after a day off sick, having sold something which really doesn't fit on the station which the relevant exec rarely listens to.  They can both wind each other up.

A sales person rightly focuses on their financial target like a fighter pilot.  Unlike presenters, they don't earn the amounts they've become accustomed to unless they succeed.  They have to be well-informed and doggedly persistent.  They are trained to overcome objections too; so the way they seek to overcome programming's objections is hardly surprising. They want to smash their target, get notes from appreciative clients and carry off the bonuses around which they have built their lifestyles, then wallow in the respect that their success brings. 

Meanwhile, the programming team just want to be number one by Rajar, by having fun and producing the best content they can.  A surfeit of less-than-fascinating commercial content can seem to get in the way of victory. They like the bunce too, but maybe more a symbol of recognition than the key benefit per se. Unlike sales execs, their fees stay much the same from month to month, whether they have great shows or not.  But it can all end very suddenly. 

Different goals, so hardly surprising they approach things differently.

In many stations I have worked, management meetings have concerned themselves with dreary AOB points about how we can get departments to understand each other more.  Regular 'update emails', lavish bowling nights and cheap buffets are devised to lubricate better integration and comprehension. Everyone turns up merrily at the social events, only to gather in their usual cliques.  

The fact is that these people can often simply be very different sorts of folk.  Those who take great pride in sealing a sales deal may not derive the same satisfaction from a smooth segue. The reason we end up sitting at different desks is because we are likely quite different individuals.

Why are journalists not quite like their paranoid yet jolly programme-hosting colleagues? How can one expect a journalist, trained to look under the bonnet at every spurious press release, to open a rabble-rousing 'all-staff' email from management and say 'Gosh, that's fabulous'. They are more likely to say 'Hmmmm. what are they not saying here?'. It's exactly what this intelligent bunch of talented people have been trained to do.

Presenters get annoyed when the tools of their trade don't work. They reported it last week to the technical team; and it's still not fixed.  Meanwhile, three engineers are gathered round a new cardboard box which has arrived bearing the ingredients for new toys. I wonder if Marconi paid more attention to mending his mother's toaster or by generating sparks in his loft. Thank goodness, for all of us, that engineers are wired as they are.

We are driven by different things. Here's my rough and ready 'Shun' theory: Sales execs - Commission; Presenters - Recognition; Journalists - Suspicion; and Technical staff  - Innovation. 

I concede I am generalising wildly.  Some more complex individuals do command a great understanding of more than one area.  Some of the greatest technical minds now have a refreshing ability to grasp how presenters think.  Some of today's best sales execs are utterly brand aware and understand programmers and radio.  Some self-employed presenters are truly commercial animals, looking after their station's business as diligently as they do their own. 

Those individuals who do acquire a 360 degree view of how things work are those most likely to end up rising up the tree as they realise that, in the end, everyone really is working for the same ultimate objective: listening figures and profits. 

As commercial content grows ever closer to programme content and vice versa, it is important for the programming folk to understand that execs need to hit targets and to appreciate that it's tough to tell clients what to do.  It's important, similarly, for sales execs to listen to the radio station they work for.  Saying 'loved that bit this morning' to a jock will help make that next bit of commercial content really glow.

The other solution is inter-departmental relationships. Sleeping together does have a remarkable impact on cross-department understanding. But that, rightly, is unlikely to be an action point on many management meeting agendas

Wednesday 10 December 2014

An Academy Fit for Radio's Third Age

No-one much seemed to take much notice of BBC 6 Music. Until they threatened to close it. It has never looked back.

The Radio Academy AGM felt a little like that tonight. As Chairman, Ben Cooper (Controller BBC Radio1 and 1Xtra by day), mentioned in his own warm-up, usually one has to strong-arm a few mates to make AGM's quorate.  This one was seething with bristling radio folk. 

Of all the words Ben spoke tonight, quorate was the only one he struggled with. It is a silly word.

This was the meeting when the membership demanded answers. What had happened to the Academy they loved? Why? Why so suddenly? Why, oh why, on why. 

It was a meeting convened on the seventh floor of the stunning new BBC building, but the passion in the room could easily have filled the six floors below.

Ben opened, observing that this was the room in which he conducted Radio 1 presenter meetings, before listing a few presenter names, for the sake of the older folk in the audience. Of whom there were many. I suspect jock meetings prepared him well for this, the gig of his life.

Prepared statements were delivered by Ben, acting interim CEO Gloria, and deputy Travis. They were carefully crafted, and all said as much as they clutched the Radio 1 huge mic shield, beneath which we presume was a microphone.  Each statement told us how difficult it all was. Sad. Tough choices. Hard times. Changing times.  Everybody had worked hard. Very hard. Hard times. Tough times. 

Radio's polite audience listened, well, politely.  Then questions began. Half an hour was promised, although Ben suggested they need not necessarily take that long. I suspect he harboured a dream they might not.

Question by question, the room warmed up. Founder members spoke up, confessing they had not had an awful lot to do with things of late, but it all seemed a bit odd. They sought clarity. Some clear clarity which would clear things up clearly. 

John Myers, ex head honcho, was summoned for a cameo, with typical Myers northern bluntness shining through when it came to the topic of awards. Not to have any, he suggested, would be a "sad indictment of our industry".  He's right. You can do awards in many ways. What matters is your work being judged fairly by peers across the industry. There is no need to be paying an arm and a leg to be sat a mile away from a Park Lane stage, unable to hear the PA properly, eating a chunk of animal unknown.

Ben answered questions with the tact one expects of a politician of his stature, riding the bucking horse which is the Academy Chair's post. Just imagine that gig. Behind closed doors, you chair an organisation which is funded by, essentially, three factions which are at war during the day; and have to reach accord over warm orange juice by night. 

The questions became more incisive. Members had come to see a movie, and we seemed only to have seen the opening credits.  If the 'branches doing their own thing' model was to be adopted, who would co-ordinate? 'We will decide those things early next year' reassured Ben in his measured tones, with a gap between each carefully chosen sentence, long enough to play a JAM shotgun in. 

In short, this is an organisation people in radio love. They aren't quite sure what it is always, but they love it anyway. It is an organisation in a fast-changing world, finding it tough to continue in the present climate, with sponsor cash falling away and patrons' cash by no means assured. Each patron member too is now big enough to do its own big things if it wants.  Like every single radio station in the United Kingdom, it cannot continue functioning in the way it has for thirty years.

A member of the audience dared to suggest Ben lacked vision. His Chairman's mask fell. "You know how to get me riled", he said. A few people laughed. It was not a joke. 

Ben then assumed the tone one presumes some presenters have heard several times before when they ignore the music log or don't turn up. He spelt out his passion, his pride, his general visions in life. He added what his vision might be for the Academy, but insisted it was not just his view that counted. This was the Thatcher moment. No, no, no. His monologue was Shakespearean. His performance immaculate. He got my Oscar. From that moment on, everybody knew the score. FX applause. 

Things have to change. Radio has. The Academy has to. I write as one of its earliest members, and a lover of radio past. But the Trustees are correct. This uncomfortable juxtaposition of chandeliers and showbiz, gentleman's club and entertainment conglomerate cannot continue in this confused way. It's not where we are any more. Those who just object to change because it's change really have to get a grip. 

Most in the room felt that the early communication and handling of the challenges could have been better addressed. Ben's response illustrated how difficult that process would have been. Most in the room felt a huge debt to the outgoing team in the Academy office who have been, from my view, just stunning. Most thought, quietly, don't we still need at least some of those talented folk, and let's hurry up and work out a way how we can fund them to coordinate the great things we need to do.

2015, I hope, will bring a confident, sustainable and cohesive new Radio Academy, which will have some form of awards, some considerable devolved activity, and an event which celebrates this great medium, reflecting the changing backdrop in which radio sits, and educating the huge number of people in ancillary worlds we need to persuade about radio's exciting present and future. Plus lots of chances to meet new contacts and to learn a thing or two. A place to meet old friends, and one in which the next generation will feel welcome.

I suspect Ben's having a drink tonight. You deserve it, matey. We look forward to reviewing the considered options once we've got this horrible year out the way. 

Once again, when it comes to passion, no-one does it quite like radio. 

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Spooky stations

The unmistakable sound of someone being sick in a toilet.  It’s not the most attractive sound, but one which sensible late night disc jockeys at Nottingham’s Radio Trent claimed to hear in the depths of night, when alone in the station’s 1794 building.

That was just one of the odd things reported from this former women’s hospital, which had clearly witnessed its fair share of deaths in its early period.  Others reported a ghost wearing a hat frequently gliding through the main studio; and an old woman wobbling a table.  Maybe not too surprising when one remembers the subterranean studios were once the hospital’s mortuary.

Castle Gate, the home of the UK’s13th ILR station, was not the only set of premises which was said to house an extra ghostly freelancer. Back in the early days of commercial radio, it was almost mandatory to find a building with a rich past, regardless, it seems, of how unsuitable it was for a fast-moving media business.

Wiltshire Radio, later to become the lead player in GWR, was housed in a 17th Century house. The first MD’s PA reported a pipe-smoking chap appearing in the Lime Kiln studios complex, only to be heard falling, leaving behind just that unmistakable smell of pipe smoke. On another occasion, it’s reported that the plug to an electric typewriter was pulled out its socket, held aloft, before being replaced. I also gather in later years that a ghost was said to turn on the TV to adult channels late at night. Were they not the days, though, when stations had uniformed security guards sat there alone in the wee small hours?

Beacon Radio’s original premises on Tettenhall Road in Wolverhampton had been a roomy orphanage, and again the home of some considerable teary bairns through the years.  One spooky room was said to house the ghost of a poor baby who passed into the spirit world back in the 19th Century. Little wonder paranormal investigators would routinely ask to spend some time in that building; and it was to be featured in 'Most Haunted'.

Surely something spooky happened in the 1876 ecclesiastic Leicester Sound building next to beautiful Victoria Park?  Indeed.  In this Downton Abbey house, I gather someone hanged themselves on the stairs, in its life before radio.  Gazing at the stained glass windows on the first landing, in the light of the 40W bulbs, it’s easy to imagine. Upstairs on the top floor, in what was believed to be the nursery, poor little mites, stricken by the many illnesses of a century past were said to live on; sat, no doubt, on a pile of paper ad logs and playing with the daisy wheel printer.

I take no delight in announcing the demolition of old West Canal Wharf building from where the ill-fated CBC (later Red Dragon/Capital) was launched. Even though launch PD, Dan Damon, did say he’d get back to me about a job I’d applied for in 1980.  Still waiting. That old place is said to have had its fair share of apparitions.  Maybe they set fire to my rejection letter before despatch.

Let's not forget good old Red Rose radio (now Rock) where hardened journalists would fear the late shift. Booooooooh. And BBC Radio Lincolnshire's home to this day, the former Radion cinema on the edge of the historic quarter, which is said to house a lone usherette to this day, serving lukewarm Kia-Ora orange juice to enthusiastic BAs.

It's not just here in the UK. These things appear to happen around the world. I gather a station in Jasper, Alabama also claims its own resident ghost. Like Trent, it uses the loo.  But let’s not worry unduly, though, about WDIE, where every single breakfast host died within three years of being given the peak show. 

Given there is no definitive book on radio ghosts, I am certain this list is not exhaustive.  Do feel free to add your own.  

Thursday 16 October 2014

What future for the radio news bulletin?

News bulletins have adopted much the same production recipe since 1922.  Whether the 6.00 immaculately-presented nightly feast on BBC Radio 4 or the hourly juicy snack on much commercial radio, maybe smothered with a funky bed.

Arthur Burrows, who delivered the first ever newscasts on a dark November evening in 1922, would likely recognise the bulletin formula were he still around and taking any interest in such things.  In essence, every hour, to this day, a bundle of successive scripts are toasted and served, seasoned sometimes with reports from gifted colleagues or a dash of illustrative audio. The newsreader duly reads out the contents of the 'newspaper' before a colleague returns to put on a gramophone record.

Had dear Arthur wandered off in a strop that night and the news bulletin had never been born at that time in that way, would we be doing news now like we do?

In the halcyon days of this wonderful medium of ours, families gathered round their Bakelite sets, bathed in the warm light of their standard lamps, to eavesdrop in wonder on the World.  Apart from the odd World War and too many incurable diseases, there was little else to distract.  Radio was a spectator sport.  Programmes and programme items were appointments to listen. Listeners joined them at the start and likely sat through respectfully to the end. Now, we know listeners dip in and out of the majority of programming.

Journalists agonise over the identification of the lead story. They even argue amongst themselves, which is tremendous fun to watch. The listener may well have a different view altogether of what's important to them.  Some may have missed the start of the bulletin, in any case.  Radio bulletins do not have a front page.

We know too, from much research, how listeners zone in and out of radio even when they are 'listening'. The mind is cleverly able to filter out what is relevant and what is not, so they may not even 'hear' the lead story.  At the very moment the reader thunders in with the voice of authority over the crashing cymbals of the news jingle, the listener may well be mulling  over their imminent hot week in Majorca.  When the story about airport disruption is pumped out as story four, that's when the listener hears their lead.  And, if you do believe in 'the lead', is it not a puzzling objective to make the content of a bulletin deliberately less interesting as it proceeds?

Since when has the BBC's 'most viewed online' story list corresponded with the order of any BBC news bulletin?

What of this 'on the hour' business'?  Radio was once first.  Its content was a day ahead of the local Chronicle and likely some considerable way ahead of the heavy TV cameras trundling out to see what's happening.  Now, those who like to keep up to date glance at their Twitter feeds to see the latest, and their friends become their personal news editors, sharing the stories they feel are important.  Such content is 'broadcast' and received within seconds.  Your friends, and indeed news organisations, do not sit drumming their fingers on the desk until some arbitrary time to despatch a social media update.  Why do we afford our social media audience the luxury of priority service, when we make our loyal radio listeners sit and bloody wait for the next bulletin?

With the exception of newsflashes, radio can be a good 55 minutes away from the ability to
insert a news story.  Whilst radio is better than Twitter at bringing home the emotion, background, voices and analysis in a useful way, for many people, social media like Twitter has broken the story.  Why do we hold up the news to broadcast it on the hour?

Audiences are larger on the hour, surely. Rajar indeed suggests that the first quarter hour is more heavily consumed. Most sensible people would likely agree, however, that this says more about the way radio is measured in the UK than  how it is consumed.  In markets around the World where radio is monitored by meters, there's a rather different conclusion.  People are just as likely to listen to each of the four quarter hours. They are as likely to have missed your bulletin as heard it.

Listeners value news hugely. They tell us so in every focus group I've ever attended. So, when that news jingle chimes, one imagines that attention levels soar. As the Jam or Wise Buddah singers chorus the station's name, surely listeners say to themselves: 'hey, come on, something important's happening'.  No, suggests Peter Niegel, who troubled to analyse audiences to a station called P3, a service from one of Denmark's national public service broadcasters, which used PPM (metering) research.  He observed that, whilst listeners insisted they valued the news,  “there was a big difference between perceived listening and actual listening”.  When they studied actual  behaviour, they noticed  listeners  tuning out when the jingle came on:  "The top of the hour is a natural switch-off moment because it’s an appointment time.."  "Every time we ran the news jingle, people would say: oh my God, it’s eight o’clock, I have to go!”. 

Pavlov understood about conditioned reflexes. Whilst we hope the reflex is to listen attentively when the  news jingle airs, are we sure the contrary does not occur?
When a major news event occurs, it's likely listeners do find it useful to know when they can find out more?  Does that suggest a wise policy of news detail on the hour in exactly those circumstances?

Radio is great at many, many things.  It's probably not so hot on lists of detail.  I challenge anyone to listen to the twelve inch version of the weather forecast and then tell me whether I'm going to need my coat tomorrow. So, why do we assemble the most demanding content and broadcast it all at once.  Given most of us can barely remember a large round of drinks, how many stories are safely recalled half an hour later by the average busy listener? Ironically, it might be suggested that story memorability from the longer news programmes, where time is taken to paint the pictures at which radio excels, is likely much higher.  Had the tradition of hourly newscasts on all formats never begun, would we not do it in bitesize chunks on many of them.?

I recall one foreign visitor asking me why our news bulletins are always the same length. 'What if there's not much happening?', they queried.  Of course I told him how silly he was being, but between you and me, he had  a point.  We recall with a smile that tale of the Good Friday bulletin in 1930 where it is suggested the BBC declared that there was no news and treated us instead to some piano music.

Regulators used to have a fetish about bulletin lengths. The difference between a 2' bully and a 4' one could have amounted to the deciding factor about whether your company won the licence to broadcast or not.  Long was good.  Longer was very good.

What's more important, the news or the weather? What is the most significant to listeners' lives really, in the long run?  On most music stations, one hears the weather, rightly, repeated over and over again on the hour. The news, often bearing matters of life or death, is confined to its half hourly island.  A twenty minute breakfast listener, and there are many of them, will presume you don't actually have a newsroom.

The BBC's brilliant Lyse Doucet
Owing to the very nature of this 'performance piece' on the hour, it is usually presented by someone different from the programme hosts. The general presenters are, therefore, less likely to notice and alight on the importance of a story.  Were they charged with delivering the titbits as they happened, like a friend tugging at your sleeve saying 'hey, look at this', they'd likely repeat some stories many, many times in the hour, on merit. When a despatch on a crucial story is available from a reporter in the field, you can guarantee too it would be readily trailed if the presenters 'owned' the news.  Given the role of the journalist and that of the newsreader demand such different skillsets, maybe such a strategy could, accordingly, free journalists to go do journalism.

Has the time come to take a fresh look at this thing we call the news bulletin?  We know news content is hugely valuable currency.  What on earth should we do with it on radio in our much-changed world?  Should our news coverage take its inspiration from social media in frequency and format, rather than the newspaper?

Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio'. Published by Biteback.

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