Wednesday 31 January 2018

Nottingham Gets a Voice of its Own

When the bongs of Little John rang out on BBC Radio Nottingham on the final day of January 1968, no-one knew what the future would hold for this new BBC local radio service in the City. 

Fifty years ago, Auntie was dipping her toe in local radio waters with what she dubbed ‘an experiment’, much to the chagrin of the determined early operators who preferred to call themselves pioneers.   There was much to pioneer, given our City council had to offer to chip in half the running costs to pay for the station as a cautious Corporation shut its purse.

The Post reported ‘Nottingham gets a voice of Its own’ and that the station would be informative, controversial and educational “but will not be a stuffed-shirt service and will cater for everyone’s taste”. The Postmaster General made clear programmes should ‘never be dull’.

As the station crept on air on that cold Wednesday evening in January, the lead story on its impeccably-delivered inaugural ‘Nottingham Newsreel’ trumpeted the Ratcliffe on Soar power station pumping its first electricity into the national grid. News, however, was not pumped into the new radio stations with similar energy, indeed the station had no newsroom of its own, instead calling upon local news agencies to bash out the latest happenings in Carlton and Clifton on a Remington and breathlessly deliver carbon-copies on foot - or on the back of a bicycle.

Programme listings in the early days boasted an enviable range of brief local shows hosted by members of the twenty-strong team, under manager Gerald Nethercott, ‘Big G’, an ex-squadron leader. Each programme was iced with a catchy signature tune and clever name - and usually presented with due professionalism. ‘Wednesday Club’, ‘Lunchdate’, the arts show ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Elevenses’ sat alongside ‘Bran Tub’, a request programme hosted by a cheery presenter and two squeaky toy characters ‘Squeq and Syrup’. ‘The Town Crier’ rang his bell and delivered updates on beetle drives in Beeston and barn dances in Bakersfield.

In a ‘timeshare’-type arrangement, the remainder of the programmes were selected from the BBC network offerings, so our local jolliness would be curtailed in favour of a visit to London for ‘The World at One’ with the booming voice of William Hardcastle.

Station identification jingles came courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, most famous for the hypnotic Doctor Who theme tune. With the brief being firmly ‘local’ for each station in the growing network, Sheffield was supplied with a jingle featuring percussion from knives and forks, and Nottingham got Robin Hood’s arrow, or at least the sound effect of one, likely conjured up with a few elastic bands by the clever minds in the tardis of this psychedelic Maida Vale Workshop.

As a young listener, I was enthralled by this remarkable addition to the radio dial.  Broadcasting was surely something ‘proper’ which came from London – but to have it coming from a building on Mansfield Road and hearing the words ‘West Bridgford’ through the loudspeaker grille seemed uncanny. Presenter Tony Church shared my childlike enthusiasm for the magic created by this £40,000 of investment as he reflected later: “it was a strange mixture of the feeling that Marconi must have had when he first got the signal across the Atlantic…so there was that technical surprise, as ridiculous as that was in the 60s”.

It’s claimed that Radio Nottingham also mounted the first ever phone-in on UK radio, calling upon listeners to volunteer their annoyance with officialdom in a segment called ‘What are they up to now?’. Even listeners were treading new ground as they debuted on-air, answering: ‘I’m in my house’ when questioned on their whereabouts.  As the audience warmed to their involvement, presenter John Holmes recalls that local telephone switchboards were temporarily disarmed by the sheer volume of calls.

Initially, BBC Radio Nottingham was confined to FM - at a time when FM was called ‘VHF’ and suitable receiver sets were rare and expensive.  After making good use of one my clever brother had assembled from mail order components, we alighted on a second-hand model from Eddy’s on Alfreton Road, the shop from which anything in our house with a plug was routinely obtained. Whilst the station could also be heard on Rediffusion channel C, the rarity of FM sets made delivering an appreciable audience a challenge, and in due course, an AM frequency was proffered.

No-one of a certain generation eating mushy peas in Victoria Centre market will fail to recall Dennis McCarthy, even more than twenty years after his death. After persuading the station to allow him to present a Cruft’s Dog Show report in 1968, he quickly graduated to ‘The Sunday Show’, where Dennis and his family would turn mundane features to pure entertainment. ‘I’ve got some hardcore and a storage radiator to swap for a three-bar electric fire, Dennis’ a caller would routinely say on ‘Swap Shap’, before his clever probing resulted in a quite unrelated, fascinating moment of radio.

Dennis owned his city – and broke the rules. His programme often included gaps you could drive an NCT bus through. If a caller said she'd seen an unusual bird at the bottom of her garden, he'd invite her to go to see if it was still there. Listeners would hear the click of the latch on her door - and await her return. Dennis felt under no obligation to say anything, often for minutes. The Dennis silence was strangely compelling.

Like many, I took part in a few Dennis shows on a variety of pretexts - not least taking part in an anti-car theft jingle contest organised in conjunction with the local bobbies. I was pleased to hear Dennis announce I'd won - albeit but second prize.

Dennis became the best-known presenter, but many other gifted communicators have passed through the station’s doors and become much-loved, not least John Holmes, whose long career endures. It is the mark of a great radio station that the voices heard become the listener’s friends. Also, over the years, Trevor Dann and Matthew Bannister have risen to the highest BBC offices; and Richard Bacon and Simon Mayo have become established on-air nationally, with the latter making a rare return this year to host a Trevor-produced programme about the station’s history.

Just as C60 cassettes, CDs and now music streaming have largely replaced vinyl in the home, the studio technology used by broadcasters has grown up too.  Interviews which used to be recorded on hefty, allegedly portable, reel-to-reel tape machines can now be grabbed with the recording facility on a mobile phone and despatched to the station within seconds. Editing is now a matter of gazing at a colourful screen rather than hacking off a finger with a razor blade when extracting the relevant comment from a lengthy interview on quarter-inch tape.  Records no longer stick - or play at the wrong speed and presenters no longer invite listeners to bang their phone receivers to clear a hissy line as Dennis routinely did.  These are digital days.

BBC Radio Nottingham moved from York House to its swish new home on London Road in 1999; and the station’s approach and style has moved with the times too. It leans more nowadays on topical news discussion, holding local decision-makers to account and spreading its wings increasingly into the digital media world.  But corners of the weekly programme schedule remain where tales are told and the City’s rich character reflected.

The station has played a proud part in its community. From the ‘Big Night Out’ initiative which encouraged listeners to return to their city to savour its evening atmosphere; to the many big names in music who have made their debut on ‘The Beat’. From Colin Slater’s thousands of beloved Magpies’ commentaries; to the ‘The Big Poppy Knit’ where listeners were invited to knit 11,000  poppies, representing the Nottingham men who died in the Great War. They produced well over 100,000.

Local radio is necessarily expensive, and cuts are frequently mooted as demands on the licence fee grow, but in a surprise announcement in November last year, a chipper Director General announced the latest savings plan lay in the Broadcasting House shredder.  Indeed, in a ‘renaissance’, there’ll be more investment, and station managers will be urged to carve out their own unique sound for their city.  The future of Radio Nottingham lies in its own hands.

In some ways, the new strategy sounds familiar. An aquamarine pamphlet published by the BBC in 1966 suggested listeners would come to regard their local station as “our station - not as the BBC station in our town”.  The BBC stated it would not impose a “central pattern” or “detailed overall control on its local stations”.  They would "do much to make listeners proud of their community and willing to take part in its affairs". 

I'm hosting a talk at Waterstones in Nottingham on 6th February at 7 p.m: ‘The history of radio in Nottingham from the 1920s to now’. Do join us - tickets available at the store or here.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Peering over the wall at Facebook

New Year 2018. Everyone is ill. Across the land, new radio station programme schedules are trumpeted. Corporate press releases tell us how ‘delighted’ the new smiling presenters are at their appointment; and the ones they replaced are congratulated for all their good work as they crawl around to find a new opportunity so they can pay the mortgage.

Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg has played around with what passes for a programme schedule in his world, his treasured algorithm. He wants to ‘fix Facebook’.

We’re getting used to Mark fiddling with our organic reach. Whilst we’re largely responsible for our own fate at Twitter, with our followers ditching us if we get dull, big brother Facebook has long since wagged its finger at us if we keep posting material with which few people engage.

This latest newsfeed update appears to be more determined. A real long term view of the Facebook business to keep it social – more friends and family. Brand pages won’t stop appearing in your feed, it will simply not show you the duller posts from the duller brands.  Adam at Facebook stresses the extent to which people react to, comment on and share are key signals about which content will ‘spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people’. The winners will be shown higher in the feed and prioritised over ‘public content’. He loves conversations between friends.

For radio stations, we need to ensure our Facebook content continues to engage if our efforts are to pay off. Scroll down the pages of some major radio brands, and you can see which excel and which really don’t.  It might even say something about how focused their on-air content is too.

Similarly it's a time to re-examine all our other social media presences.The latest Facebook changes are a reminder to us all of the risks of over-reliance in our marketing strategies on a platform we’re not in control of. Similarly, a warning to those using Facebook as a way of disseminating content. As the BBC engages sensibly in ever more social media, I imagine it scratches its head, torn between wanting to put its content where punters spend time whilst acknowledging that the identities of the people to whom the content is shown are controlled by others. It’s a dilemma for all of us, but more politically sensitive for the Corporation. Luckily, its scale and brand strength mean its content can live in isolation elsewhere with relative success where necessary.

Drawing the parallels between this social media and the good old one which is radio, are we as confident as Zuckerberg?  Would commercial radio ever pause and worry it is killing the goose that laid the golden egg through too much commercial content? Killing that valuable listener social relationship through too many one-sided dialogues in unduly long ad breaks?

Mark wants us to hear more from our friends and family.  Maybe our listeners do too. In the ad trade press, some agencies representing brands with a decent social presence are saying their Facebook presence will become more valuable after the changes because the environment has improved. Traffic may go down – but one imagines the price will rise. Oh, if only that could be true of radio too.

Would we be better off limiting the spot ad breaks on our medium in favour of more genuine entertaining and interesting branded conversations involving clients and our listeners which deliver real entertainment and interest value? Or is it too late.

And Facebook is demoting the pernicious click bait and polls which get a volume of response but not true engagement. Maybe we should similarly demote meaningless on-air calls from radio presenters for social media or SMS response - which deliver little value to the listener.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Sunday 14 January 2018

The Dreaded Voicetracking

Voice-tracking is the devil. The scourge of our industry. The thing that has de-humanised this once exciting living, breathing thing called radio. 

That would probably have been my view a few years ago as a spiky-haired awkward jock. Now, I believe it’s none of those things. Done well, it provides for impressive efficiency and high-quality output which helps to provide for the level of listening variety the UK now enjoys.

The first time you VT – let’s agree it feels odd. Imagining a real listener is quite challenging enough without having to imagine one who might be listening one foggy night next week. Mastering the art of the VT is a new skill which presenters have to acquire, where necessary. And like most things in radio, it’s a particular skill which some find themselves more at home with than others; and an approach which suits some formats better than others.

The efficiency is unquestionable. You can present a programme at a time of your choosing and only focus your time on the parts where you are needed. There's no need to sit drumming your fingers on the desk, moving around random sheets of paper and turning knobs needlessly up and down through nervous energy whilst you wait for Dua Lipa to end.

It also means that that you necessarily have to prepare well.  Opening a dry mic and recording a VT link without a direction in your head is impossible.  Preparation is necessarily done beforehand - and calmly, not hurriedly when distracted by a noisy song.

A presenter recording a show for the weekend simply has to summon up the sense and mood of the day to come, and what their listener will be up to. It’s a train of thought that too many live presenters find it easy to ignore. In a sense, with VT, you can only put the listener first. 

Similarly, VT radio demands perfect operational programme management too. There’s no room for the sort of stations where three people issue contradictory emails to presenters about what’s happening on the station - and what needs talking up and how.  You have to make your mind up promptly if the programmes to be recorded this week for next week are to be accurate – and issue definitive single notes on what’s what.

Doing it well is an acquired skill.  Like most things in radio – one gets better at it with practice. The tone of links - how they begin and end - and delivering just the right energy each time. Sounding natural and getting the pace just right, even if it is the seventh time you'd had a bash at the same link.  On music-intensive formats, repeatedly delivering much the same message in a fresh tone and vesting real meaning in your station name; on chatty formats, delivering mountains of fresh content all at once. Presenters who truly master all the tricks can hear the full show in context in their head.  

Some days, links are instantly flawless, and a show is dispatched within minutes.  Other days, one particular link feels like a loose tooth you keep wobbling with your tongue even though it hurts. The difference with VT is that the listener doesn’t hear the version of the link that wasn’t very good.

It might be argued that VT means sanitised radio - a pre-packaged convenience food without any topical relevance. With good thought, it’s not. Indeed, content can be updated with ease when appropriate. The impressive Matt Deegan who runs Fun Kids, wholly voice-tracked with Zetta, says “Generally presenters are recording between 3 minutes and 3 days before their shows go out”.

As a passion project, I appear on a VT easy listening station called Serenade Radio on weekend afternoons (under the nom-de-radio of Ben Golding, named after the nurse two minutes into this memorable station launch!). When, after recording, the death of a treasured artist is announced or the Grand National won, it is simple to to insert a relevant replacement link.  I suspect this voice-tracked station is sometimes more ‘up to date’ than many live presenters sat insulated from the world on air in their concrete studio.

Many good community stations use VT well too.  Running on small staff, they can whizz around gathering fresh content whilst the output purrs on. Remotely, they can insert links and freshen stories, as they wish. And, let's face it, even the finest BBC current affairs programmes pre-record chunks.

It's not lazy, cheap radio, it can actually be richer, maximising the value of personnel.  As Matt Deegan points out: “With presenters not being paid to waiting for songs to finish, we can then use their time in better ways - like building a YouTube channel around the breakfast show presenter with 100,000 subscribers and over a million views a month”.

There are, of course, notable examples too of how VT stations can sound truly awful. Outdated content being repeatedly aired, or missing chunks and car crash junctions. But is that not simply about poor operational management?  VT, operated well, should result in fewer technical and editorial errors, not more. If a station cannot manage its automated output well, it shouldn't really be on the air.

Isn’t radio about interaction?  Clearly, VT stations cannot respond to listener interaction in real-time, but they can respond a great deal more quickly than they did in the days when you wrote in for a request in the so-called golden days of radio. Listeners can get in touch via the website or app, and content can be cleverly channelled and incorporated if necessary, within minutes.  You can’t get callers responding on-air live in quite the same way but, again, many 'live' programmes routinely incorporate pre-recorded segments. 

And -  of course - there is no dispute about live radio always having its place for particular programmes or formats.

RCS gave us intelligent voice-tracking many years ago, offering a chance to hear the last
bite of the last song before performing  - and also other studio software like Genesys from Broadcast Bionics offer it too. There are also hugely impressive cost-efficient options: Station Playlist, Playout One or, from Germany, DigAS - from which the lovely Pat Sharp dispatches his content for his Norwegian shows. 

Many systems also allow for presenters to record remotely in their home studios too. Yes, away from the team spirit - but also away from the politics and the business end of radio; and a way of securing talent who would not be available 'full time' for you. Kenny Everett spoke of his idol, the great Jack Jackson, and the accidental value of him recording his shows from his holiday home in later years, away from all the things which put presenters in a bad mood.  The future for many stations may well be virtual. Alone with your listener in the back bedroom. That's intimate.

As a former jock, I’d agree that nothing can beat the kick you get from a live show. But is that kick more yours than the listener’s?

How often do you have the live show from hell, which everyone else tells you was the best one ever? We are not always the best judge of how a programme feels when we are in the midst of it.  When you listen in to your own voice-tracked programme as a listener, however, when you’ve forgotten what you’re about to hear yourself saying, your assessment of your own performance is altogether more valuable.

This voice-tracking lark isn't as bad as I'd feared. Let's raise a much-deserved cheer for the people who really master it.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

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