Thursday 29 January 2015

National Digital Radio - The Future

I calculate I have nineteen DAB radios.  It’s a little over the top I know.  Hats off to Hertfordshire’s Pure for doing some great early running on the sets; and to Yorkshire’s Roberts for their sturdy classics.  And to Psion for coming up with their spiky PC peripheral Wavefinder; and to Wayne Hemingway for designing ‘the Bug’, which is still my favourite aesthetically.

It’s all a far cry from 1993 when I sat in the offices of the then regulator, the Radio Authority,  at Holbrook House to be trusted with what would have been one of the first DAB sets.  With components and transformers nailed to a huge plywood board, it hummed nicely and smelt of Scalextrix.

Life’s moved on since then, and after a slower start than most had hoped, DAB is now attracting a quarter of all radio listening across the UK (RAJAR W3 2014, Ipsos-Mori, UK TSA).  With the recent brand extensions being spawned on the first national multiplex, Digital One, which is now populated like a student house, one feels, at last, that the time of DAB has come. 

Now, the second national multiplex is imminent; and, at last, this country is poised to enjoy the sort of   broadcast listening choice which has been denied to us for years.  Given the small geographic size of our populous country, we have not been able to re-use FM frequencies to the extent they have in other countries.

Clearly, with my day job being at Orion Media, I’m hugely excited about our own ‘Listen2Digital’ bid to operate that multiplex, which was duly dropped off yesterday at Riverside House.  The USB stick in a sturdy manila envelope does not physically seem to do justice to the sweat and toil which went into assembling the pages of the formal application document over many, many, months.  If you’ve ever assembled a licence application, you know it feels like the A Level exam from hell.

We evidently think it’s a compelling case, and across the piste it offers a fresh new approach for national DAB radio, both in terms of the players involved and the services.  We think the public proposals are exciting; and we hope Ofcom also nods vigorously at some of the format details we have submitted in confidence which, frustratingly yet thoroughly understandably, we cannot yet speak publicly about at this stage.  I should say a big well done too to the other parties involved in the consortium: the mighty Babcock, who’ll be assembling the transmission infrastructure, and our good friends at Folder Media and Sabras.

The other great news is that Gem, currently our East Midlands FM AC service, would go
national, as one of our 18 proposed services.  There is no AC brand on national commercial DAB at present, with Heart operating only on local DAB, so its service is not taken into account as the applications are judged by the regulator.  AC is, therefore, a gaping hole in national provision and we reckon we’ve got the very best answer to it.  The AC audience also sits in the female 25-44 commercial hot-spot, helping to ensure the success of our business, and contribute to much-needed growth and stability for DAB.

Adult Contemporary proved of huge appeal in our extensive national research.  It is a hugely popular format across the World; and it’s strange to believe that it did not really arrive in the UK until our Chairman, Phil Riley, launched the Heart brand in the West Midlands in 1994.  He had hair back then, as he started his 13 year tenure running the format, so it’s no surprise he knows what he’s doing in arguing the AC case with our investors.  Maybe we should have roadsigns at the edge of all our cities, East and West, suggesting that the Midlands is the birthplace of the AC format in the UK.  I’ll get my paintbrush out.   

I’m personally hugely proud, not least because I’m a Nottingham lad.  In three years, Gem has achieved huge East Midlands success, becoming market leader by hours in several audience sweeps, and beating all audience levels for any station ever on that 106 FM frequency.  Let’s remember that 106 was a love-child in so many acquisitions, and being batted from owner to owner, it has operated variously as Radio 106, Century and Heart.  We have done well, despite good old Heart remaining on DAB in the patch and no TV platform for Gem.

It’s won because it’s a great product, and Mike Newman and the team there, including Naomi Robson and Andy Price heading the marketing efforts deserve plaudits.  They’ve built an AC format with real spirit, and one commanding real engagement, judging by all the qualitative research and feedback we garner.  It already has the polish of a national brand.

Sam & Amy have played a great part too, aided by Dangerous Dave and produced by Paul Iliffe.  That show has turned into a national treasure, carrying off Radio Academy awards in categories populated otherwise by indignant London and national names. The real crown just has to be that ‘Personality of the Year’ award last year.  The programme is British breakfast radio at its best; and we look forward to twisting a version of that product round for the national service.

May we plead that Ofcom put all else to one side and make this licence award as quickly as possible. We’re anxious to get on with the job.

Monday 5 January 2015

The Darkest Moments

There used to be a dusty folder on the windowsill at Radio Trent in the '80s, marked ‘Obit’.  Inside lay a bundle of dog-eared typed sheets bearing instructions on what to do if someone significant took their last breath. 

The manila file included a list of the Royal Family, bundled into neat categories, depending on their relative importance, from Her Majesty the Queen downwards.  Back then it was the job of the regulator, rather than the broadcaster, to determine just how upset we might be in each case; and to tell us exactly what to do.  Just below the names of great blue-blooded Royal nieces lay the names of less significant individuals like the Prime Minister.

In all my early days on-air, we were poised nervously for the death of the Queen Mother, then well into her 70s.  To a spotty broadcaster, that seemed very, very old and I expected the grimy red obit light to flicker in the studio half way through my list of ‘lost and founds'.

As she bounded through the decades in ruddy health, regardless of our plans, I recall wondering whether the IRN celebratory documentary commemorating her 80th birthday seemed to include a few tributes in a puzzlingly sombre tone.

In those days, the UK had emerged from decades of Royal deference into a new cynicism.  When we rehearsed our plans to take the needle off the Boney M song in favour of the National Anthem and a touch of Mozart, many wondered whether preparations were a touch over the top.  Would anyone now, apart from their loving relatives, really have an appetite for much more than a quick news flash and maybe a toning down of any adjacent trite content? 

Then Diana died.

We all remember where we were and what we were doing that day in 1997.  I was awake at
night, for some reason, hearing the story unfold on BBC 5 Live.  By then I was a regulator, although one which had sensibly moved on from prescribing procedure.  Those I knew in radio called me frantically, asking "what do we do?", seeking a regulator to blame for their actions.

Stations were cautious about following their instincts and responding in a way which reflected the mood of the Nation.  The majority rightly did, in both BBC and commercial sectors.  Regular programming was suspended, in favour of newsflashes and segues of sensitively-programmed music. Radio 1 broadcast ambient tunes; and Capital famously went near-Classical.  Presenters spoke from the heart.

On that day, broadcasters learnt the way contemporary stations should respond to a crisis.  Ask yourself how much does it mean to your listeners; and respond fittingly.  Such broadcasting can be compulsive listening.

Within minutes of Bowie's death, stations had to ask themselves what the artist meant to their audiences - and to the country  - at that particular monent.  The scale of an artist's relevance can seemingly change within seconds - and stations need be equipped to catch the mood. A little format flexibility may be the appropriate tactic, and your listeners will forgive you.

Sensible stations prepare well. Speech stations will, of course, have ample produced material at the ready for any likely casualties; and music stations have broad provisions in place.   

What is key is a broadcaster able to switch to the required pace and style; equipped to summon the right words to chime with their audience on that day.  It is the mark of a great broadcaster to be able so to do; regardless of what they do usually on their shows.  Some of today’s broadcasters can manage that switch. Witness our own young Adam Wilbourn (Free Radio) on the death of Nelson Mandela.  Having delivered the breaking story minutes before the hourly junction, he had to fill to the news bulletin with material which necessarily had to be about Mandela. The broadcast marked out a man with the intelligence to do the job.

Clearly, broadcasts needs to be informed accurately too, with news coverage and comment of a volume which befits the format. And a line signalling the time of the next news update; preferably not throwing forward to an ‘update on the death’, given a death is the final word.  Reaction to the death may, of course, be possible.

The regulators no longer tell you what to do.  Ofcom point to the over-arching common-sense requirement that you do not offend with your approach; and the BBC Editorial Guidelines state: “It is important that individual output areas are conversant with their own rules concerning the treatment of obituaries". Each format and each media outlet is charged with taking responsible decisions and for preparing suitably.

Sadly, there are all too many cases when presentation talents such as these are required.  Clyde 1 and the Scottish stations had to rise to respond sensitively to the news of the refuse lorry crashing into the pedestrians on the streets of Glasgow.

"My fellow Glaswegians  pulling together right now, it's times like this, we're like one big family". Clyde 1 23rd December 2014

Forty years on from the Birmingham pub bombings, our presenters at Free Radio in the Midlands nodded to the day with sensitivity, alongside excellent news coverage and a documentary assembled by Dan Dawson.

Fifty years on, exactly, from the death of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965, it’s interesting to listen back to the announcementstyle of a bygone generation.  ‘This is London’.  ‘Here is a newsflash’.  ‘This is London’ (again), with each of those three lines delivered at the speed of a hearse, with portentous gaps between, sufficiently lengthy to dash off to retrieve a Purcell LP from the gram library.   

Preparations had been well rehearsed, given the former PM’s illness and age; indeed, draft scripts had been written three years before:

“The words are like great boulders falling silently down a cliff into the sea.”  Robert McKenzie, BBC World Service Script 1962

One day, some words you need to utter will be like those great boulders.

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