Saturday 17 March 2018

Our Biased Mainstream Media

Today, it’s ‘hat-gate'.  Auntie stands accused of doctoring a pic of Jeremy Corbyn and laying it against a Kremlin background.

Across all social media, dreary threads are often to be found where angry people insist there is bias – and trot out examples to suit their case. The BBC, it is suggested, is part of the MSM (mainstream media) plot to influence the political direction of the country.

Similarly, when I issued a friendly tweet about how impressed I was by the diverse range of callers of all ethnicities witnessed on LBC one day, I received a barrage of unrelated responses. These posters, usually employing a puzzling version of their native tongue, claimed that LBC producers sit in the control room trying to find callers to suit a political agenda.

If anyone genuinely thinks commercial talk radio producers aim to find callers who simply agree with the assertions of the presenters – they are odd.

The callers’ voices heard on LBC truly reflect a range of fresh perspectives, and the eye-witness first-hand accounts on some of the topics of the day offer enviable insight. Insight that has changed my mind more than once – and sometimes the presenter’s mind.

Some comments even suggested LBC presenters were all Tories. I smiled.

I wish the social media warriors would pause for a while to question their own assertions with the high standards they demand of others. They claim a well-organised plot exists amongst media owners to deliver on an agenda. How do they believe this is organised? Not least when some folk claim the bias is Left – and others Right.  

If this is a conspiracy, it’s not a very good one.

Is it alleged all UK broadcast journalists convene periodically in a huge conference room in some Holiday Inn, with those funny room partitions propped open?  Sitting through an endless Powerpoint presentation featuring colourful clip-art prime ministers and bullet point edicts. Addressed by a sweating chappie, lanyard dangling, they are instructed on the agenda, and subsequently assessed on political point-scoring in their pesky annual staff review.

No. This MSM is staffed by human beings of all persuasions with all their frailties and doubts.  Journalists are people doing a job – who go home at night and face for themselves the dirty challenges and choices of life.  They are trying to make sense of a complex world - and work out which stories to cover and how – and make the treatment of those stories vaguely interesting.

Most are probably a bit like me. I’ve voted for more than one party in my lifetime.  I loathe some politicians from all sides - and I love some politicians from all sides.  I agree with one party on one thing; and yet am wholly uncomfortable with their view on another matter. Hell - the finest politicians don’t always agree with their party. That’s why they bother with Parliamentary votes.

Life is not naturally tribal. It is not just about Left and Right - as the theorists suggest with their alleged concrete agenda – it is about shades of grey.  As tomorrow's voters mature - we should be helping them to understand the nuances. It is not about choosing a side.

Given the numbers involved, all journalists cannot possibly all be of the same political persuasion. 

It’s time to calm down.

Does sub-conscious bias risk creeping into newsrooms – in story selection or treatment or language?  Given journalists are human beings, it is impossible to say it doesn’t. In my thirty years in the business, however, I have yet to meet one of these proud individuals who does not try their hardest to be duly impartial. 

Does the nature of the individuals attracted to a media career affect their perspective a tad?  Possibly.  That’s why the ongoing efforts of all broadcasters to improve the diversity of their staff are to be commended. Said me, the working class Midlands chap with few qualifications.

The safeguard at all times is regulation. I was interested to hear a Russia Today journalist boast of their Ofcom licence - from ‘the strictest regulator in the World’.  The BBC – and others -  will get it wrong sometimes - and complaints have been upheld. These rare upheld complaints do not prove the conspiracy - they prove the system is working. 

If you have a well- founded beef - there is a channel open to you if you genuinely care. Your random and often offensive Twitter assertions suggest you don't.  Don't be surprised that 'everyone agrees with you' either. Most people sensibly don't follow you.  Imagine how your son or daughter would feel, as a journalist, if they received the bile which some individuals have to suffer.

When a particular flurry of social media fire then graduates to an unworthy story in a press title, thoroughly entitled to be polarised, the social media warriors then convince themselves their paranoia has been legitimised.

To suggest that to change the hue of the Corbyn shot is a plot to make him appear closer to a far-off regime, is to forget that it’s probably just a hardworking gifted creative person, proud in their work, who wanted to make it look a bit better than bunging a pure colour shot lazily on the usual background. They were likely thinking more about getting down the pub after the shift than causing a political revolution.

Broadcasters are getting wholly sick of ill-founded and often wholly irrational allegations. Social media gives a voice to indecent people who have rarely troubled to read the substantive article linked to any Tweet.

Please go away. Read some books. Study some articles. Speak inquisitively to some people you don’t agree with. Open your eyes. Go do some good. 

It's never perfect - but we truly have some of the finest, most objective journalism in the World.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Friday 16 March 2018

How Significant is the Bankruptcy of US Radio Groups?

The two largest US radio station owners have filed for bankruptcy - iHeartMedia (owner of iHeartRadio, formerly Clear Channel) which owns 850 stations and its rival Cumulus, with 445 stations.

Does that send out a worrying signal for the radio industry generally - and a harbinger of things to come here in the UK? Our own industry is fast-changing and there have been casualties, just as in any sector - but the US challenges are simply about the cost of debt. As seasoned UK radio executive Phil Riley, reports here in this guest post, the underlying radio businesses are solid.

Phil is Chairman of Koala TV and a director of Celador Radio. He is former CEO of Orion Media and Chrysalis Radio.

“Clear Channel was a crazily leveraged buyout in 2008, almost completely debt funded, with no real shareholder’s equity, just at the wrong moment. Timing is everything (see also Toys R Us and other buyouts in 2007-2008).

Normally in a leveraged buyout of a mature business like this, you’d spend the first two to three years cutting costs and using hopefully increased free cash flow to cover interest payments, but crucially also start to pay down some debt. However, they immediately hit the financial crash in 2008-2009, ad revenues went into decline (or at least stopped growing as fast as the business plan might have suggested). 

A highly operationally-geared business like radio (high gross margins but high fixed costs) stops throwing off cash in those circumstances.

Once you get in a situation where the interest on your debt exceeds your free cash flow, you are snookered. You can’t bring your debt down, so interest payments remain high. This debt had double-digit interest too -so you end up running fast just to stand still.

The debt started at around $18bn and was standing at $20bn when they defaulted 10 years later, so the debt hadn’t increased by much since the buyout, suggesting they could just about cover interest payments each year.

The default has allowed them to wipe off half of that $20bn debt. With debt halved, so too will the interest payments. If they could just about cover interest on €20bn, the reduced interest payments on €10bn will allow them to use any residual free cash flow to start paying that €10bn debt down. Not good for debt-holders, or the existing equity-holders, but good for the business. If the debt had a double-digit interest rate (which I think it did, and this would have been pretty standard in 2007-2008), debt-holders will still have received interest payments over the last decade equal to their initial loan, and still hold some debt which will probably be paid down, with interest, over the next 6-7 years, so it’s not a total disaster for them.

There have been some pretty uninformed comments on Twitter about this. It is the debt, not radio’s declining popularity, that has triggered this default event. Radio at an operating level is pretty robust, and certainly iHeartMedia looks operationally pretty strong, so I suspect iHeartMedia has a great future ahead.

When we were selling Chrysalis Radio in the spring of '07, there was serious private equity interest. That would have been debt-funded, with double digit percentage interest payments. It’s public knowledge that Global paid £170m, but these other bidders weren’t far behind, Had we sold in that structure, I would have been running a business in 08-09-10 with declining revenues and impossible to meet interest payments.

Shortly after I left Chrysalis, I teamed up with some Private Equity houses to attempt to buy Emap. Bauer were successful of course, paying £422m; and again we weren’t far behind. But, had we been successful, I’d have been in the same situation in '09-'10, as I’m sure revenues and profits would not have been sufficient to cover interest.

I was personally lucky to avoid being at the helm of an over-leveraged radio business as the world hit the credit crunch, and the radio industry itself in the U.K. was fortunate to end up in the hands of private, family-owned businesses like Global and Bauer, who could afford to take a long term view of success.

Those asset prices in '07-'08 were very very high, and the drive by PE houses to do entirely debt funded deals with double digit interest payments is the cause of much ongoing grief and misery across many sectors.

I was lucky to have dodged two bullets. My LDC experience (at the Orion commercial radio business in the Midlands '09 - '16) was entirely different, with a sensible purchase at a sensible price able to pay its way and grow shareholders equity over time.

Timing is everything."

Follow Phil on Twitter @RadioRiley

Sunday 11 March 2018

Authenticity and Character

Rarely has radio been quite so authentic.

In previous generations, it was enough to have a ‘voice on a stick’ as one of my colleagues used to call it. That smiling deep disc jockey voice, broadcasting seemingly from a parallel mid-Atlantic world.

Now – you tune in and you hear real life. Presenters opening up about themselves, their hopes, dreams and personal problems. Never before has radio’s conversation with its audience been quite so honest.

Jolly radio stunts used to be enough – usually at the expense of listeners – or random presenter silliness which frequently attracted little audience recognition or recall. Now, it’s altogether more authentic.

When Greg James called off his ‘Pedal to the Peaks’ owing to unprecedented weather conditions his disappointment on air was palpable.  One imagines, maybe unfairly, that had such a stunt been conducted through TV, a convenient conclusion might have been engineered. But this was radio.

“So. We can’t continue to Ben Nevis. So. Errr.  I can’t even. I don’t know really. I don’t really know how to talk about it”, said a crestfallen Greg as Adele hugged him audibly. That might seem an odd quote to cite from a radio programme. But – his voice and the pauses said all they needed to. Listeners knew exactly how he felt – and it was real.

Your best mate tried something – and it went a bit wrong. You like your best mate all the more for having a go.

When Claire from Capital Drivetime in the East Midlands mounted her Triple Marathon for Global’s Make Some Noise, you couldn’t help but care. Someone you felt you’d grown to know on the radio was trying something hugely outside her comfort zone – 80 miles of running. 

As she struggled through the final of the three finishing lines, the listeners eavesdropped on what she simply would have said to her best friend had she been in their arms rather than those of Tom, her supportive co-presenter. “Every day I thought I couldn’t do it’ she sobbed.  More recently, Ben Sheppard at Capital North West has similarly been running his 150 miles in 5 days.

Authenticity doesn’t mean an absence of production values.  They are all the more important if the listener is going to care a jot. Producing the challenge in such a way that the listeners witness all the stages of the real journey - with all its ups and downs – and they’re kept close enough to the action to care. Even the most casual of listeners needs to know who you are, what you are doing, what stage you are at - and the reason for YOU doing it. And your co-presenters need to know when to shut up and let the reality breathe.

Good social media plays its part too – and presenters of music-intensive shows can deepen the  listener involvement – and enhance the noise - through savvy use of parallel media. Great radio station digital media features people - not pictures of mixing desks and playout systems.

Voices too are now more natural, more authentic. No longer are the blokes on radio trying too hard to sound oddly deep.   I was fascinated to read the findings of one psychologist recently, who suggest that the voices of (male) world leaders have moved higher in range in recent generations (Blair/Clinton) making them sound more empathetic – rather than  booming artificially.

At the end, the listener relationship is deepened. They know one more thing you cared about. And if it didn’t go according to plan – your vulnerability is exposed – and the listener’s trust in you grows.

An undeniable societal change has become evident. People are now beginning to open up more about how they feel. Whether it’s women who’ve just had enough of the way they are treated – or men opening up about their sexuality or an illness which was once never spoken of.  Maybe it’s not surprising that radio, the most trusted and intimate medium of all, is playing its part too.

Stephanie Hirst chose radio to speak of gender dysphoria, and Iain Lee has famously used his own programme on TalkRADIO to explain how he really felt at a moment in time “It’s miserable and I feel weird after Australia. My head’s all over the place”.  

James Whale spoke of his kidney cancer - and, more recently, his wife's illness: "I have to be honest', said James his voice, thinner and less rasping than usual, "I have been living with the fact that Melinda, my wife, has had stage 4 lung cancer".

The audio blogs from the Media Show's Steve Hewlett were so quietly powerful on Radio 4's PM as he sought to conquer his oesophageal cancer - and Jenni Murray announced at the end of a Woman’s Hour programme in 2006: “I shan’t be around in the new year - because I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

As presenter contracts end, the goodbyes too are now heartfelt.  It’s now commonplace for talent to announce their own imminent on-air demise - and then often go on to conduct their own ‘funeral’. The listeners are left in no doubt as to how they feel.  “You have given us the most privileged job in the World”, croaked an emotional Louise as Andy & Louise announced theirdeparture from Signal 1. Wise programmers know that sometimes it can be better to allow the teary goodbyes these days.

And away from the problems – I still cherish the radio moment on the then Xfm Manchester, with Tim Cocker and Jim, when Jim told on the breakfast show of becoming a dad for the first time. The fact that he moved from laddy gags - to tears - in the course of two minutes was powerful to hear – because that’s what blokes do.

Radio interviews too now, in the best hands, can also be much more candid than before.  Witness Martin Lewis's conversation on BBC5Live with Tony Livesey about the death of Martin's mother. "The great joy of having my own daughter - and wife has become mummy can mother's day finally become something that I can actually cope with.." 

Pauses are fine. The reassurances from presenters. The cracking voice of the interviewee. Our medium is currently generating some of the most honest and emotional content it has ever done.

Can you go too far? The listeners will decide. Can it create powerful radio – yes.

Can it actually do some greater good too – certainly.

It’s another distinctive achievement for this wonderful old trusted thing called radio - when in the hands of the best communicators and their most gifted producers.

In this arguably more compassionate decade, on balance at least, we have moved away from taking the piss out of listeners to something much more powerful. As ‘radio’ forges its own future, as distinct from music streaming services, watch this space.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Thursday 1 March 2018

Seize the Snowy Day

Isn't it great being on air when it snows.  You feel as though you are running the World. 

You are in control of the information - and telling listeners where they can and cannot go, and what they can and cannot do.

This is a moment when radio really comes into its own. No other media is quite so good at conveying key information speedily and immediately to mass audiences in local areas – and also offering a friendly voice of reassurance. It puts its arm round its audience.

If you’re a back-to-back music station and this is not your bag – that’s fine.  You are welcome respite from all the chilly messages. I’ve no problem with that. The great thing about today’s unprecedented radio choice is we don’t all have to do the same thing.

If, however, you are setting out your stall by being ‘the local station’ which really addresses the snow and all the complications it brings, then let’s consider what radio really does best. 

Are we any longer the best place for interminable lists of school closures? Many schools now text all parents – and councils appear to be getting their heads around websites which stand the strain on busy days.  Many no longer see contacting radio stations as their top priority, which means your list will never be particularly accurate. 

I appreciate (having run many stations across varied patches with all manner of school policies) that each area is different. Were I broadcasting to a frosty island with a handful of schools, I’d likely mention their names. Have you taken your own circumstances fully into account? And if you conclude you are best-poised to assemble the huge volume of data, is a list online on a resilient website a better way of distributing it, alongside generous on-air promotion? Here's how commercial radio coped this week. Decide your policy and discharge it impeccably.

Radio is a brilliant thing, but knowing how listeners use it, it’s never been the best place for a lengthy list, not least when broadcast in staggered bursts over many hours.  You know what it’s like, even when you read out school names, parents still call in to ask if you have mentioned theirs.

The longer your list of very specific information of limited appeal, the longer listeners wait to hear more critical major flashes. 

I have an unhealthy affinity with the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4, but if it did not already exist, they arguably wouldn’t invent it now – and I doubt they’d schedule it at breakfast time.

Data is all very good. But data is black and white. Radio is colour.  The more black and white you do, the less colour you have time for.

Colour is hearing the voice of the person who’s been sat in their car all night; the nurse who walked five miles to work; and the woman who has been up to all sorts to help someone in need.  The funny relatable story about what happened to you last night. The entertaining observation.  The impromptu story arc about one listener with a challenge which you prompt another listener to help address (check out this today on BBC Radio Lincolnshire).

Witness the engagement here of the BBC 5Live and social media coverage of the delightful Mr Snow, a genuine headteacher, who staged a pupils v teachers snowball fight.

Colour can be hearing directly from the person from the electricity company about the prospects of the power returning. Like a pilot on an aeroplane, it’s good to hear whether you trust the sound of their voice.

Lincs FM’s group director of programmes, Sean Dunderdale, remembers being on-air years ago when he had a helpful vet on the phone volunteering vital information to a farmer attending to a pregnant goat in distress. These were different pre-mobile phone days, but you get the picture.

And it is a picture.

The pictures you paint on the radio will be the ones I remember next week, next month and next year.  People want to post their snowy pictures online – and you have to do the same thing with your words. Carpe diem. Every piece of research I have ever seen about radio is about emotion – the way our beautiful medium makes people feel.

Great friends are there when you need them - and like the health and emergency services - I think as an industry, we are pretty good at turning up and doing our job when conditions are tough - and making solid contingencies to make sure that is possible. And adjusting and extending programming - not stopping just because our shift ends. Great friends hang around.

Signposting is critical too. When you are broadcasting more information than usual, listeners easily lose track. When is your next weather forecast? When is you next key travel update? When are you repeating the 'need to know' critical headlines on the situation? Have you told your busy, distracted listeners?

Let's remember too you may well have useful curiosity cume at times like this - and a rare chance to re-introduce lapsed listeners into your fold. Are you also showcasing what you normally do? 

Spinning across the stations in the last few hours, I’ve heard some great radio, but I’ve also heard some disappointing radio - where there is information without empathy. This is a dramatic day – it should sound that way.  If you are bothering to be on-air and to go the extra mile – make sure you have seized the drama of the day.

Put your best broadcasters on duty. Stand down the others.

Decent production values mean always asking the question ‘why?’. What is our station strategy in times like this – and why?

Do let me know if you’ve heard some compelling memorable snowy radio, I’d like to copy it off and add it to this blog.

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.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

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