Thursday 16 January 2014

No more green ink

“I hate the sound of your voice” said a listener text the other day to an old colleague of mine whilst he hosted a weekend show on a commercial music station. 

Listeners can be brutally honest. Actually, they can be downright rude. I cannot imagine walking into Tesco, not liking the decor and shouting at the manager ‘I hate your store’.

There is a sense of ‘ownership’ listeners have which leads them to believe that the station is for them and them alone. If you dare to do anything which displeases them, they feel thoroughly entitled to be abusive.

Once upon a time, we used to get complaint letters. As an on-air PD, I recall one wonderful one about me, to which I took some considerable pleasure in replying. Back then, sheets of Basildon Bond and calls on crackly lines were the only source of comment.  Now, minute by minute whilst on-air, sensitive presenters are subjected to real-time comment.  A rude text; a snide Tweet. When you’re not having your best show, they don’t help. Frankly, even when you are having an excellent show and getting great feedback, it’s still only that one snide comment you mull over painfully as you drive home.  I suspect actors and the like get the same live feedback now as they sit watching their own work unfold on TV.   Poor luvs.

Given such feedback is relatively anonymous in the first instance nowadays, much of it is not
shielded with the objective rational politeness which normal people would exercise in their day to day lives. That's a pity.

In commercial radio management too, we are rather in the frontline.  Shouty listeners ring to demand what on earth you are doing with their station.  The number of years they have been listening is in direct proportion to the volume of the complainant's voice. I suspect when such calls stop occurring, we should start to be worried about the diminishing power of radio. So I comfort myself, after another agonising half hour on the phone.

In the private sector, under the threat of the OFCOM gun, we are obliged to have a delicious page on our websites ‘the Public File’ in which we must detail exactly what we do on-air, how to make a complaint and who to speak to.  Who to blame.  The File even has a specific name and place on our websites lest listeners find our sites as tough to navigate as OFCOM’s own.  Most of us have other places on the site too which facilitate easy email comment which drops straight into the correct management mailboxes. 

I suspect that most sensible commercial station management place a priority on getting back to complainants as promptly as they can, and doing their very best to explain, correct or apologise.   Often, such complainants are so pleased someone has taken the time to call back and consider their comments, they become surprisingly constructive.  Some complainants make the most ridiculous points, others make thoroughly justifiable ones and are rather taken aback when one replies 'I agree with you'.
Is it ironic that the BBC, funded in the way it is and charged with public service obligations, does not carry a similar obligation for a ‘public file’ for its local radio stations, or any other public listing of those who run the stations?

If one has a BBC local radio beef, and presumably ventures to the relevant section of the BBC website, one finds a form. Eventually. It is a long journey. From the relevant radio station ‘front page’, it is the menu from hell, with no fewer than 13  enjoyable clicks and options  before one is allowed to begin depositing one’s tirade in the white box.  We’ve probably calmed down before then, having taken our frustration out with each keystroke. Maybe that’s the idea.

It’s just a form though.  No names, no-one to blame.  A trip to the excellent MediaUK site or relevant Wikipedia page might yield a useful contact name of some executive, but that is maybe not quite what a listener might expect.

The BBC complaints system is centralised, and comments are filtered before being referred promptly for action or consideration.  I have a hunch most listeners would prefer to pick up the phone to their local radio manager.  I suspect too that the best BBC local radio managers, frankly, would rather deal with things that way too. Should people in their local cities know the names of the people who head their local station? Some do indeed volunteer a public face wherever they can. Others are rather more reserved.

Some listener comments, of course, are very much the opposite. They fall in love with you. That’s often worse. x

Thursday 2 January 2014

Merry Radio Christmas?

Much has been made of the Christmas TV schedule  - but what of the fare in radio-land?

Some good stuff, actually, on the 'airwaves', as the press might say.

But some things puzzle me.  Why do presenters insist on saying they are 'sitting in' for someone over the long festive spell?  Given all festive shows are abnormal, you can claim them as your own rather than anyone else's.  On Christmas Day - you're hosting a great Christmas show which fits the mood and one of which your station should be proud. Why feel obliged to mention the talent who's not on?  You can treat every programme as a 'special'. Most folk don't even know what day it is, let alone who 'should' be on.

My best example may have been tongue in cheek from the great Tony Blackburn, when he said that Robbie Williams was 'sitting in for Dermot O'Leary'

Twitter was awash too with tales of radio stations doing commercial-free party shows into the new year.  Why, oh why, should commercial radio boast to its listeners that being commercial free is good?   If their listeners heeded that implicit message, then they'll all be off to the BBC.  Forever.  

And on that special New Year's Eve, shall we all stop imagining that listeners are likely to put your station on whilst they party. When did you last go to a party like that?  Let's play to radio's strengths and entertain and involve in either an upbeat mode, or reflective as your format befits.  And, as I recall the great, late Ray Moore, I know I'd take the reflective route on Radio 2 and BBC Local, bearing in mind the sorts of listeners who're likely to be listening at that time on New Year's Eve.  Alone, frankly, wanting a bit of company.  And how great is radio at providing that.

Just heard  BBC Local Radio just now trumpet that 'normal programmes are back from Monday'.  Is that an apology or a boast or what?  Not sure it's much at all really. To me, normality is boring, it's like 'back to school'; and who wants that.  Sound excited about something.  

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Don't take Pringles to Focus Groups

My favourite focus group participant ever was the woman in the brown parka who returned to the room just afterwards and asked if she could take home the unopened packet of Pringles.

Focus groups are seriously bad for the health.  Some contributors make you want to pull your hair out.  But they can inform strategic decisions, help air talent coaching, and frequently challenge radio 'wisdom'.

The sorts of people you want to hear from are wisely recruited with care, usually via a capable third party.  Sometimes the right candidates are loyal listeners, but more often they are casual or competitor listeners; and the sorts of listeners you aspire to own.  Having said that, no matter how often you tell yourself that you have paid to hire people who don't love you very much, it's utterly demoralising to sit through endless hours of chatter from those who, well, don't love you very much.

I recall some of my first groups, held in about 2001 in Yorkshire.  We conducted two simultaneous assemblies, one comprising 'Galaxy listeners aged 20-29'; and the other made up of 'ILR listeners, aged 20-29' who were Aire or Hallam devotees.  The groups waiting in the lobby could be distinguished just by their dress sense.  One group pulled off the art of wearing tat; and the others wore slacks from Burtons. It was a divisive decade.

In those days, we commissioned a proper facility in which to house the discussion, equipped with cloudy one-way glass through which we stared angrily whilst a calm pro with a clipboard conducted the discussion to our specification.  Nowadays, I prefer to use a hotel room with a dozen recruits, and conduct them myself.  That way, I can ask the questions I really want to; and the invaluable supplementaries.  Fuelled by years of watching quietly, I feel I can now just about pull off the art of posing as a random bloke from a research company with little interest or knowledge of radio. 

You get the quiet ones in the room.  You get the noisy ones who dominate, including possibly one anorak who knows a little too much.  And you get the one who said he was going to the loo after being paid, and disappeared.  I have your phone number, Sir.

But, mostly, you simply get a sobering insight into how people really feel about your station and your competitors.  I know exactly which words they will use when I ask about all the radio brands.  I also know that listeners remember all the things you thought they would not, and they forget those things you spent years planning.   You have to control yourself as a listener talks utter rubbish; and suppress the inward cheer when a perception you have sweated blood shifting has indeed changed.  Some listeners you want to kiss with joy

They know a lot about some presenters and little about others. I often wade innocently through a list of presenter names, from our stations and others, and I fear that some nationally-established  names would be shocked to know that 70% of people may not actually know who on earth they are.  Then again, when a presenter's name and life is duly recalled, and stories flow from a listener's mouth about something  the presenter did on-air a year ago; or they tell of a competition and even mention the sponsor, it's gratifying.

It's not just about the station. It's how radio fits into listeners' changing lives; and that's something we all need to comprehend.

Here's a guarantee. There will always be at least one key finding.  A gem of a remark which will change the way you do something fundamentally - forever. 

On the BBC 5 Live review of 2013, I heard the wonderful Geoff Lloyd worry that radio now relies on focus groups and the like, and therein lies one of its challenges.  I'd suggest the opposite. Often it is the views of real listeners which can over-turn predictable, conventional radio wisdom in a refreshing way.  Just do not ask listeners to predict their future behaviour. Just like you and me, they really cannot. 

Without insight like this, it's tough to remain confident you have a decent idea of what listeners want to hear.  Not least when you are too young or too old to be  amongst your own target audience.  

Rajar's a lovely thing, but at heart it is but a dusty trading currency.  By the time a programmer gets hold of those historic figures, it tells them what a few people think they might have been listening to quite a few months before.  It does not tell you why; or how vulnerable that audience is.  If, for that necessary qualititive data, you rely simply just on the views of those who choose to get in touch with your station; or those you bump into at a WI meeting; or the instinct of a rather too detached manager or programmer, then you may have an issue.

We love radio so much, it is tough for us to be objective.  Listeners  can be brutally so.

What can radio learn from how it has handled COVID 19?

In times like this, you turn to your friends. And radio is a friend. Day or night, it’s there to pick-you up, to comfort you, to explai...