Monday 13 February 2017

A New Dawn for Commercial Radio

It’s been a long time coming, but many in the commercial radio sector, but not all, will be delighted to see today’s announcement from DCMS on the future regulation of commercial radio.

The pass was sold some time ago.  Those who seek detailed regulation of what is broadcast by commercial companies were disappointed many years ago.  We are where we are; and the remaining rules seemed to achieve little, apart from costing companies money and giving the regulator a muscle to flex when politically needed.

The consultation document today is significant and, for the first time, breaks the link between the present and the inherited regulations dating back to the industry’s earliest years.  The past is over.

No longer will Ofcom have an over-arching duty  ‘to secure a range and choice of radio services’.  It will simply have to secure the provision of news and other core information such as traffic and travel information and weather. This would apply to all national and local FM or AM stations, whether simulcast or not, and also to DAB stations upon FM switchover.  Stations will still need to continue to source local news from within the existing editorial areas.

The signals for this move have been around some time.  There is a worry that with declining local press, there is a threat to the scrutiny of local democracy.  This change will mean that solid journalism from commercial radio is preserved.  And don’t tell me commercial radio news is generally poor.  I have heard true, true excellence, sometimes outdoing the BBC in some markets.  

Be warned, however.  If regulation goes the way it usually does, one can expect Ofcom rightly to monitor this remaining news strand with huge, huge enthusiasm.  Ofcom will have more focused powers to set news/core information for digital stations too.

All other format requirements which apply to local or regional FM AM licensees other than news/key information will also disappear. So, stations can at last play the music they want to.

In practice, we are not too far from that now.  The industry is in very few hands; and, as we have seen with the panorama of Global services, they are more than happy to cover the waterfront.  They don’t need regulatory intervention.  They have little interest in cannibalising their own audiences – and are already playing everything that mainstream 15-55 audiences require and is commercially sustainable.

National and local multiplex operators will no longer need to ensure there is a range and choice of services carried on their networks. Few could argue that the existing DAB services fail to offer variety; and if services (provided as they are sometimes by third party contractors) are not sustainable economically, then what was the multiplex operator supposed to do if they failed anyway?

There is a hint that the small-scale DAB experiments will be rolled out – and let’s congratulate Ofcom on doing the running, in a very unregulatory sort of way, on that development.

Local commercial stations won’t be told where their studios can be. What will matter is whether their news and info is relevant.  Companies hitherto have been obliged to build separate studio complexes just to keep the regulator happy.  It was madness, particularly in a case I was familiar with where the matter boiled down to a matter of yards.  The only reason the rule was retained was because it could be enforced with ease. A political and convenient face-saver which suited a time and place in regulatory history.

DCMS don’t seek to make any changes to change the format requirements placed on the three national analogue licences (Classic FM, Absolute Radio and talkSport). All three have the option of renewing these licenses until 2023 and they have indicated willingness to do that.  DCMS is even asking if the licences should be extended further.

Content regulation will not change; the 'fit and properness' of licence holders will be examined in the same old way; but the current restriction on overseas-based radio services  on UK DAB multiplexes might be removed.  That was a nonsense, prohibiting, for example, the Irish service RTE from being broadcast here should a provider wish to propose it.

DCMS notes that if all the above is accepted, there will be little to distinguish between potential operators in any future analogue licence award processes, so views are sought on whether Ofcom should continue to offer up any new or renewed licences at all.  Just like in most right minded communities, the beauty parade is dead.

Overall, DCMS are satisfying themselves that these proposals strengthen the protection of the core public service purposes, ensuring that the sector remains dynamic and relevant, characterised by strong brands, offering increased choice of national and local services which are enjoyed and valued by listeners.

It notes that not all operators will wish to take advantage of all the freedoms.  As now, I can point to areas where just about all radio groups do things that they are not obliged to, because they think it’s better for listeners and for the business.

The consultation concludes with the final philosophical question about whether radio should continue to be regulated in the old-fashioned way when the World has changed beyond recognition.

They are right. It is time for those of my generation and older who grew up loving the old approach to realise that it can never be the same again.

As I sit here at 8.00 at night, I can access more radio entertainment than I have ever been able to.  I can tweet a presenter if I feel like it, even when they are not on the air, and probably get a response.  I can go online for efficient accurate school closure information. And if I want to swap an old telly for something, I go on ebay and swap it for cash.  I can also go and set up a community radio station if I really want.

Most of all, I can find a radio station here or somewhere else which is playing exactly the sort of music I love, all the time.   But I can still turn on the radio and hear news bulletins. They may be shorter than they used to be, but they are certainly more tailored to the needs of the audience.

Years ago, at this time of night, we’d be into the Country show by now, and there’d be nothing else on FM to choose from instead apart from Radio 2,3 and 4.

Life has moved on. A sensible regulator has moved with it. In the 50s, as TV grew, the BBC was not obliged to carry on broadcasting all its drama, quiz shows and light entertainment.  We need to ascertain where radio fits into a new world and do it brilliantly.

And then we can rest in the knowledge that radio can survive.  Make no mistake, some familiar radio stations need to make more profit, or indeed some profit if they are to remain on air.  We should congratulate the investment into the sector from all the major radio groups, and many others, and admire the enviable glitz Global have brought.  Without that passion and investment across the Board, this industry would be in a sorry state.

One final note. Market forces can sort out most things where there is enough supply and demand.  Audiences over 55 will not be well-served by commercial music radio; nor are they.  The BBC must address that huge gap proudly.

In my experience of these processes, flags are flown and a point or two is edged back by concession as proposals are tuned and implemented. But, by the scale and nature of these proposals, what is almost certain is the future will be a very different place.  Well done, DCMS, for producing, at least, some sweet treats which are not fudge. Let’s see how the consultation is responded to.

On World Radio Day, let’s celebrate another chapter for this great thing called radio – as it enters its third age.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

The Style Guide

As a young programmer, I'd often get pretty depressed. I'd kick off my shoes and try to relax at the weekend, only to hear one of my presenters doing something I felt should be done differently. They'd ignored what I'd said. These idiots, frankly, ruined my Saturday. Why on earth don't people do as they are told.

Come Monday, not gifted back then with very much skill in getting the most out of decent jocks with grown-up persuasive dialogue, I'd hammer out a note with a threatening title and lots of words underlined. Some in bold. Even a big font or two. I felt a lot better after that. The matter was sorted. Everyone would surely now do everything I'd told them.

This week, a screenshot of a format note for the Bauer City stations was posted on social media. Whoever leaked that internal memo originally shouldn't have done. I don't think it was very clever. If you don't like where you work, get another job.

I confess I nod, at least, to the intention of some of the note's content. If you really have jocks who think that a great tease is a list of the songs to come, then you really ought to do something about it. It's a British radio disease and we must find the cure.

Maybe we should help the talent to really understand what great teasing is - and how it works. If they really can't come up with anything on their own, maybe find some new jocks?

Let's not get sniffy about a format note per se.  Every sensible radio station has a policy or two to follow, not least when you're a music radio station scrapping over a popular audience demo. It's your Highway Code. Sometimes, the rules are written down; sometimes they're just carefully inherited. I'd wager there's even a memo somewhere about the Radio 2 'news in' procedure.

In my early career, I'd assemble a lengthy style guide. The Lincs FM version amounted to a stapled paperback with a glossy cover. It detailed every single hang-up I ever had about radio - riddled with frequent use of the word 'don't' and the phrase 'a dim view will be taken of...'. It was cathartic to write, but I suspect none of my recruits ever troubled to read it thoroughly, let alone obey it.

On the day your children become teenagers, you could stick a Post-it of "Dos and don'ts" on the fridge door and expect your offspring to do grow up to be perfect successful, respected individuals. You can rest assured that they'd likely take great pleasure in ignoring your edicts the second your back is turned. Alternatively, you could try to bring them up with a sense of values, respect and work ethic - and hope that they grow up well in their own unique way.

If you hire the right people, they'll be bright enough to take on board the necessary programme structure of daytime music radio if you explain well-enough what the goal is - and share some secrets and techniques with them as part of an ongoing coaching, supportive relationship. But as for the execution, I'd rather hope my jocks were funnier than the PD.

Radio 2 boasts some great names who are talented communicators, but there are techniques even some of them appear to miss.  I'm not sure anyone has ever taken the time and trouble to sit down with them and share a few thoughts. Their presenters are bright people, and I'm sure many of their faces would light up if they were treated to a little audience insight delivered in the right way. I suspect, however, that a memo wouldn't cut the mustard.

Without necessarily agreeing wholly with Ashley Tabor's reported view that there are simply not enough great jocks in the UK to have decent ones across the schedule on every station, there's probably something in it. There are people on air now who wouldn't have a radio job were there only fifty stations. They just wouldn't have made the grade. We compensate for those by issuing notes and telling presenters what to do. That approach probably reduces the opportunity for really bad radio, not least because we largely tell them to shut up.

Running a lot of stations is a challenge: sadly, you don't have a lot of time for subtlety. But the best approach is to hire the right people - people who are more entertaining than you are - and have grown up conversations not about what to do, but why. Then build the atmosphere for them to do their best work.

On teasing, if they understand why we do it, and that the overall objective is simply making their show difficult to leave, and they have heard great examples, they'll do it better than you ever could. If they understand how Rajar works, and its importance to their career, they'll probably make damn sure the station name sticks out like a neon sign.

Selling in new music is what John Peel did instinctively without any format commandments. It's what human beings do to their friends. One of my good PDs used to pull off a great example and play it at a presenters' meeting, embarrassing the jock concerned by heaping on the praise. His colleagues jeered, whilst vowing quietly to out-shine him next time.  As for incessant positioning statements, I'm a bit of a cynic.

On every issue, when the penny really drops, presenter behaviour will change forever. It's not about format policing, it's about quality coaching and great support. Presenters need to be loved and believed in. It's not so much about notes or style guides; it's about sharing insight, appreciating the good stuff honestly, building productive relationships - and pure inspiration.

Quality coaching of good talent will produce incomparable, memorable radio. And, as I say to every jock I trust, if you break the rules but it's brilliant, I'll be the first one to applaud. Name one radio great who hasn't been a rule-breaker.

My book is a bit of a style guide. Well, just food for thought really. 'How to Make Great Radio'.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Bye just now, Desmond Carrington

To be on-air at the age of ninety, hosting your favourite sort of radio, is something most broadcasters dream of. Desmond Carrington managed it.

When he announced in September 2016 that his last programme was to air in a month’s time, it was clear that his familiar voice occupied a special place in the Nation’s heart. Hardly surprising after seventy years on-air.

"Love this guy. Sad to see the show end".

"An absolute legend. One of our greatest radio voices. I shall miss him terribly".

"How I'll cope without him completely I don't quite know."

Like many broadcasters of his generation, born as radio itself was born, his performances began on stage. At his professional debut at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, in 1942, he played opposite Noel Johnson in ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’. Noel was the voice of radio’s Dick Barton.

Following the War, Desmond persuaded his way on-air at BFBS in what was then Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

On his return to the UK, alongside some independent radio production for the BBC and Radio Luxembourg, he was to return to acting, this time on TV, playing the part of the hearthrob Dr. Anderson in Emergency - Ward 10.   He even was the chap who asked you to swap your normal washing powder for Daz in the 60s TV ads.

He was first heard on BBC Radio in 1946 as a member of the BBC Drama Repertory Company and later began broadcasting on the BBC Light Programme with ‘Movie Go Round’ and programmes like Housewives’ Choice.

October 1981 saw the start of 'All Time Greats' on BBC Radio 2. This Sunday lunchtime programme became a familiar part of the English Sunday tradition. He moved in 2004 to Tuesdays, as ‘The Music Goes Round’ before settling in 2010 in his familiar Friday evening slot. Desmond broadcast from his home in Perthshire, where he was able to draw upon his own rich personal record collection of over 250,000 tracks, spanning every genre of music from the last century.

Originally pre-recorded, he began broadcasting live on the day Princess Diana died in 1997, feeling, rightly, that a live programme would better reflect the Nation’s mood that day.

Desmond was voted British Radio Personality of the Year in 1991 – and was awarded the Gold Badge of Merit in 1989 by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

The trend for today’s radio is authenticity. Desmond was authentic. Yet his programme was a warm reality, a chap playing his favourite songs fondly to friends from the comfort of his own home, his cat by his side.

“I’m one of the luckiest people in showbusiness – at home in beautiful countryside, doing what I love. It’s not work, it’s pleasure. Why should I stop?” 

He did stop, with reluctance, as he said on-air as he announced his departure: "I wasn't too well after my 90th birthday and it has been a bit difficult to carry on”. His remark was an understatement. He’d battled cancer and lived with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, suffering a second heart failure on Christmas Day 2015. “I’m eternally grateful to the superb doctors and nurses of the Scottish NHS for saving my life”.

With Desmond’s departure, another silvery sliver of that comfortable, warm, reassuring Light Programme sound flitters off into radio history. Radio will never be quite the same again.
Bye, just now.

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