Friday 30 November 2018

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Magic has gone 'fully festive' for 2018. Take That - with a little help from Wham - kicked it off at 9.00 today (30th Nov).

Although we've had a cracker-full of dedicated Christmas stations in recent years, it's the first time a key UK FM (in London) station - as opposed to an ancillary brand - has flipped format. 

In other words, this is the first time a major UK station has taken the risk of sudden format flip, with a plan to return to its traditional format in a few weeks' time.

Does the mood of Christmas suit the Magic brand? Like a hand into a glove.

In the US, the flipping trend dates back to the mid '90s. The audience figures there suggest it works - and it's thought to build cume. 168 US stations went 'all Christmas' in 2015. 

Is radio different in the United States? Yes. There, listeners are accustomed to changing formats overnight - and there is no BBC, whose particular advantages mean that the gains from any UK radio risk can be diminished. Talent also jumps ship more there - and listeners appear to follow.  Over here, as commercial radio, at last, enjoys national scale, resource and something approaching platform equivalence, talent swapping is just starting to happen - but station/'button' loyalty here appears to be peculiarly high.

If you are going to flip, you need to be sure that the niche is big enough - and your brand is strong enough.  In London, it likely is - and on FM where the majority of cume is still built, for now - Christmas is territory no-one else occupies. Is Magic a famous enough brand to be able to 'play away' for a few weeks - with listeners probably coming back in January if they don't like it? Yes - and listeners still have their excellent sub-brands too to lean on.

Does it make the brand more famous - yes.  And, as Magic sits in London at 13% reach (similar to where it was as Melody in '98) - some way away from its 19% high seven years ago, with reinvigorated Smooth competition and indeed from Magic's own sub-brands , maybe a shot in the arm for Magic brand conspicuousness in London could be a good thing.  It's also something fresh to talk about with the ad agencies too - and a way of accessing identifiable budgets.

In the UK, Smooth Radio was one of the first to present an all Christmas format on a new ancillary DAB channel in 2011. Since then, such brands as Free, the Wave (Swansea), Pulse and Signal have joined in too through re-purposing frequencies. Last year, Magic Christmas arrived on DAB - and also Heart Extra Christmas.  

Whilst Rajar cannot easily measure specific fresh Christmas service ratings in the UK, their respective parents likely benefit from heightened brand might. Magic, of course, will carry on registering directly as a station this month, of course, and owing to its scale and three monthly distinct figures, W4 2018 will generate a thoroughly interesting set of figures.

How many people will be asking Alexa or Google to play them a Christmas station - and which will they think of first?

It's all about Mood

On average, Christmas songs make up 6% of all the music on commercial radio each year (PPL) - so there must be something in it.

Already, some listeners are moaning about the change at Magic.  But they always moan about change - and the day that stops, we should all be worried. Those of us who've lived through challenging decisions in the past know well that noise and audience behaviour are often very different things.

In the United States, audiences seem to value the shift.  It's about mood, and radio does mood best. The number and popularity of Christmas stations showed an upturn after the dark days of 9/11. In a New York Times article,  Gary Fisher from Equity Communications pointed to the benefits of the format flips: “Christmas music is comfort-zone radio for a lot of people”, “Given everything that has happened in Atlantic City and in South Jersey, this music really is a link to better times. That’s why we feel it works for us early”.

Without drawing any inappropriate parallels between 9/11 and Brexit, does the UK need to get away from it all this year, of all years? Yes.

We know Christmas is a time when a lot of people get very happy.  Being Britain, we also recognise that those who are not happy thoroughly enjoy moaning about it.

We know too that music, particularly Christmas songs, affects people emotionally.  EMR qualitative research concluded: "For three quarters of people, Christmas music has a very powerful impact, helping to surface strong emotions - it remind them of happy memories".

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, disagrees - suggesting that festive tunes can impact on mental health. She agrees that music goes straight to our emotions and 'bypasses rationality', but fears that it simply brings on the worries of the duties and obligations to come. Linda suggests that shop assistants have to expend much energy in zoning out of the music which is being drip-fed to them.

John Lewis is predictably cheery.  Alongside the Coca Cola truck, the arrival of its TV ad has become a seasonal landmark. There's no doubting the emotions such campaigns stir, and no doubting the enthusiasm of viewers for exactly that feeling.  'On Brand', which works with some major UK brands and shopping centres, agrees with the power of Christmas music - and suggests that the retail Christmas begins on the 15th November and ends on Boxing Day. 

When thoughts of Christmas are evoked, listeners feel good – and feeling good is likely one of the reasons they came to you.  So much research over the years recognises that listeners value radio as it ‘cheers them up’. 'Mood' is an increasingly recurrent theme as an audience driver.

Impressive research from the RAB, the Radio Advertising Bureau, suggests people are happier when consuming radio, that when spending time with any other media.  And they are happier with radio than with no media, with happiness levels climbing 100% and energy levels up by 300%. 

So, what better music to play than a Christmas song?  The first chord whisks you back to your toddler times, Advocaat with grandma, or partying with friends.  And it reminds you of that end-of-term feeling: the rare period in life when you can be off work and the emails are not mounting up as everyone else is off too.

When to start?
If you're not going 'all Christmas', when should you start sliding in the Christmas hits, where the format and brand values permit?

Some happy-go-lucky jocks cannot wait to get stuck into their festive songs; others yawn. Programmers too are divided.  Some sensibly evaluate the tastes and moods of their audiences alongside their formats and brand values; other grey suits just seize a rare opportunity to take out their frosty miserableness on their listeners.

Heart certainly goes with the Sleigh List fairly early and, judging by what I judge their brand values to be, that’s eminently sensible.  The AC Gem in the East Midlands revels promptly in the warmth too.  From what I heard of some BBC local radio stations in years past, however, they did not rush out with the tinsel tunes until Santa was stuck in the chimney just a week before. 
Research consultant Roger Wimmer asserts: "If you plan to play Christmas music and you give a rat’s tail about what your audience thinks, then you had better ask them. The only way to know the answer is to ask your own listeners".

Let’s remember that people are talking about Christmas in every workplace by mid November.  The Christmas party emails have gone out, and you’ve likely started to choreograph your Christmas with grandma, the kids and your ex husband.  By the start of December, it’s got to be time to nod to what your own listeners are feeling.  For the rest of the year, most listeners do not notice the odd song you have chosen not to play, but they do notice if you are not ‘sounding Christmassy’, and they will tell you so.

You might imagine Steve Penk, of 'Radio Dead' fame might be a cynic, but, on Radio Today, he said:

"The reason I have always played Christmas songs early on the radio, throughout my career, both as a presenter and station owner, is because I always remember as a child instantly feeling Christmassy when I heard Christmas songs being played on the radio, and this feeling has stuck with me since being a kid."

In some online research about shopping habits and the like, conducted  by the then Orion Media in 2013, we asked around 600 listeners (15-54)  when they wanted Christmas songs.  Yes, it‘s a flawed question in the wrong research methodology for this topic, but we tried the best we could.  Something along the lines of ‘when do you want to start hearing Christmas songs on the radio to help you feel festive, yet not so early so you get fed up with them?’.

I expected listeners to seize the opportunity to be miserable on a dull September day.  They didn’t.  Witness the graph  though - that 'start of December' lead seems pretty decisive.

The identify of the listener's  P1 station choice appears not to make an appreciable difference to their views.  The demos do show variances; with even more of the younger demos wanting their celebrations to begin before December.  Amongst those 45+, however, the decisiveness of the 'beginning of December' vote leaps ahead even further than amongst all adults.  In fact, if you leave it any later than a month before you reach for Chris Rea, three quarters of your 44+ audience are going to be disappointed. 

If your music format allows it, why would you not want to spin a few Christmas songs at the beginning of December, enough for your P2s and beyond to catch one or two?  It also allows you to give some of your regularly rotated songs a holiday.

Last year, by November 2017, some songs were already  creeping up the UK Spotify chart (Maria Carey and Wham). Youtube too saw the Carey kick right at the beginning of November.

In the Philippines, streaming figures suggest the season starts on September 1st, with other countries not really joining in until November 1st.  Pre-Christmas listening of Christmas music surges at the weekend. 

Portland Radio Group suggests “It can never be too soon to deck the halls. And when it comes to Christmas music on the radio, it's never too early to begin the reindeer games”. EMR’s research in 2013 spoke to several hundred UK respondents aged aged 15-54. For 85% of people, they suggested, "Christmas without Christmas music wouldn't be as good".

In the US, ‘Christmas Creep’ means some stations fight to be the first to play Christmas songs. Traditionally, it's the day after Thanksgiving - which places the start of the American festive season in late November. And let's remember it's still around 25 degrees in Arizona at that stage.

Witness the online offerings too. Not least SantaRadio, from the wonderful Guy Harris who  has carved out a well-deserved reputation in recent years for being the best 'radio santa', appearing on so many different stations, with an 'on-brand' Santa for each: cool or fruity; naughty or nice. On Santa Radio - hear the kids' content too - fed in via the app. Some really interesting thinking here - also proving how truly brilliant a well-run voice-tracked station can be.

Dublin's Christmas FM first went on air in 2008, joined by other parts of Ireland in ensuing years and diversifying into themed offshoots. The main quasi-national FM station doesn't carry ads on this temporary additional channel, supported by a hundred volunteers, but does include sponsorships; and has raised  an impressive 1.25m for charity to date. It came on air this year on November 28th, raising money for Temple Street Children's Hospital

When  to stop? I'm a fan of Boxing Day; and blogger Hugh McIntryre points out that 4 out of 5 US stations flip formats back on that day.

Which songs to play?

Spotify's data scientists suggest seasonal trends in music consumption, with Winter dominated by "Spoken word recordings, "mellower" subgenres, and music associated with particular countries".

Top Spotify Christmas songs in 2017

1. Maria Carey - All I want for Christmas is You
2. Wham - Last Christmas
3. Michael Buble - It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
4. Justin Bieber - Mistletoe
5. Ariana Grande - Santa Tell Me

From overseas (US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), iHeart Radio collated data from listeners in 2016 giving the thumbs up or down as songs played on-air. Thumbs up went to: Winter Wonderland; Sleigh Ride; Let it Snow;  All I want for Christmas is You; and It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas. Thumbs down went to: Happy Christmas War is Over; Do They Know It;'s Christmas; I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus; and the Christmas Song

Back home, of all Christmas songs, PPL suggests that 'Merry Christmas Everybody' by Slade is played on the widest variety of stations.

PPL Top Ten Christmas Songs over the last 10 years (to 2017)

1. Fairytale Of New York - Pogues featuring Kirsty Maccoll
2  All I Want For Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
3. Last Christmas - Wham!
4. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday - Wizzard
5. Driving Home For Christmas - Chris Rea
6. Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade
7. Merry Christmas Everyone - Shakin' Stevens
8. Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney
9. Do They Know It's Christmas? - Band Aid
10. I Believe In Father Christmas - Greg Lake

Make of it all what you will.  But remember: unless you are Radio 4, people likely turn on your station to lift their mood (and sometimes R4 listeners do that too, frankly).  So, if your format and brand can stretch to it, don't be miserable. Do Christmas. Your listeners would agree. 



 Here's a Christmas gift for a radio-loving friend. 

My book Radio Moments tells of the last fifty years of radio - from the inside.  A  very personal account of growing up with radio, before becoming a tetchy jock  and then a hassled MD and programmer. The laughter and tears of an  unrepeatable era.

    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      

Monday 26 November 2018

Radio TechCon 2018 - Overview of the Day

There’s probably never been such an exciting time to be involved in radio technology since the medium was invented. What we do, who does it and how we do it is changing by the second, and technical teams across the world are addressing new challenges each day.

The level of change and innovation, and the energy with which it is being tackled was certainly evident today in this year’s Radio TechCon. It’s all in good hands was my conclusion.

Audio Transformation and the role of Public Service

The EBU, the European Broadcasting Union represents public service broadcasters in 56 countries. In the words of the keynote speaker, Judy Parnall (pictured), the EBU’s new Chair, it's all about "making public service broadcasting indispensable". Judy was keen to point our that their 'Europe' is not the EC from which we are poised to part.

She kicked off reminding us, lest lazy journalists forget, just how strong radio is, with 85% reach across Europe last year, and 82% of the challenging 15-24s. It’s true,of course, that loyalty has fallen appreciably amongst 15-24s over time. But it’s still better than folk think.

Judy set the scene for the day, with mentions of all the other ways audio is now consumed, reminding us that the UK enjoys 11% smart speaker penetration, accounting for 1% of listening - and the US stats suggest that a majority of people who have such things just listen to more audio.

After a wry ‘if 5G is the answer, what’s the question", we were reminded that trials are underway in the Orkneys, where islanders are lumbered with poor internet connectivity and no DAB - so it's a decent place to try something new. Dynamic shared spectrum access with parties from the ‘connective fishing industry’ to schools and ferries, this 5G ‘rural first’ DCMS-supported pilot will surely inform.

Norway goes Digital

Having personally just helped the fine team at Celador migrate their Town 102 audience in Ipswich from FM to DAB, it was fascinating for me to hear from Bjorn Aarseth from NRK in Norway who aided the task of taking Norway’s 5.3m population from analogue to digital. He clarified that it was more than an ‘FM to DAB’ transition.

Norway, we are told has awkward terrain, and FM on the road network is not good. It also costs $25m to transmit. Like the UK, they have a relatively young commercial radio industry, beginning in '81, with the first national station in '93.

The goal for DAB was 99.5% population coverage, with 95% for the commercial networks. The base figures suggested that half of the population had access to DAB in 2009, with 94 trials.

Now, they suggest plans are on target. Most stations are on DAB+ with the locals squatting on FM until 2023. Mind you, he conceded that some pirates were rebroadcasting the DAB service content on FM. How great to have someone else paying your simulcast fees.

A theme to recur later in the day reared its head, that of loudness, with Bjorn suggesting Norway’s DAB was normalised to -15 LUFS. He observed too that in Oslo all stations were +/-1 LUF - compared to the recalcitrant UK, where he claimed the comparable range was +/-10%! Radio listeners have a lower comfort zone for loudness changes than TV viewers, he reminded us.

Bjorn (which means 'bear' he told us) mentioned the importance of linear production, so everything is done in a consistent chain from production to airing, but suggested that his programmers knew pretty swiftly if something sounded odd.

There seemed no great enthusiasm for traffic flags; DAB’s vertical polarisation was a challenge; most DAB listening was mono; and cheap car dash cams from China interfered.

He suggested engagement with the audience was key - making sure you help them on the journey

What will happen to the FM spectrum when it's been emptied, asked one delegate. ‘Stuff’ was the reply. No-one had any real idea what sort of stuff.

Over coffee, several engineers suggested to me that the UK really does need to get on with a switch off/over date.

How LOUD should podcasts be?

Adrian Wisbey from the BBC highlighted research suggesting that 50% of listeners reacted when the change in loudness was greater than 3LU. That may mean switch you off.

He suggested normalising to -18 LUFS at production, and be aware that ‘broadcast’ channels such as Apple will change what you dispatch. He said YouTube reduces loudness if it's too loud, but doesn't trouble to lift it if it’s too soft. He pointed out too that many devices are limited as to output volume, so if your podcast is too quiet, then it may be impossible for a listener to correct it. Listen to how other podcasts in your genre are processed, he advised.

LEDs and DAB - not a happy marriage

My mum used to indulge in Waggoners Walk when Radio 2 was on Long Wave. All wonderful until Georgina next-door switched on her twin-tub and interference reigned. 

Now, it seems, LED lighting is the villain for DAB – according to Rob Webber from the BBC. Essentially, don’t trust cheapo lights - it’s the power converter that does the damage.

He displayed how the noise floor changes as floodlights were turned on near a DAB radio set, and, surprisingly, how a car’s DAB reception was affected by the DC hazard lights on a passing lorry.

Sadly, there were not many solutions. Indeed some consumers were showing much DAB suspicion, according to the Mumsnet page flashed up the screen. It’s just about advising listeners to check these things. Maybe there is a case for a bit more advice in this area to UK radio listeners, just as we used to be told where to point our FM aerials.

A new studio - in a month

Mark Farrington and Hannah Austin from Bauer were understandably chuffed with having built a new studio - in a month. A glass box in the corner of the office is now a useful studio which apparently Claire Sturgess loves, equipped with a specially selected Neumann mic. 

A touchscreen mixer lies at the heart - one which is beautifully resistant to tea poured down it. Now THAT is useful. The room turned out to sound better than they’d imagined. 3D printing helped establish prototypes for other facilities, including the headphone splitter. Problems? Well, people on the same floor clomping round like elephants. A stiff
management email will surely stop that instantly.

Lights, music, action

Just when we thought radio studios could get simpler and cheaper, along comes visualisation (It was fascinating, by the way, to talk to the gifted Global guys over coffee about the thinking that's going into the LBC studio look, with new ideas soon to debut).

Jeremy Roberts from ETC and Dan Aldridge from Stage Electrics reminded us that lighting is key. Their presentation kicked off with double Physics and Biology, reminding us that we see colour in mid-light, it is impaired by too much or too little.

Your eyes have cones and rods - just don’t overload the bloody rods. Eyes are most sensitive to amber and greens, which is why emergency clothing uses those colours. This is why I enjoy TechCon. Did you know that as Man evolved, he couldn’t see blue at first.

We then witnessed Jeremy wandering round - shining a huge light onto his tolerant colleague’s face, helping us understand the difference between poorly and well-lit. The placing and angle is critical too, from a height is good, and don’t illuminate the bits you don’t want. Light for the purpose too:  is this supposed to look like a TV studio, or something more casual? 

Watch the windows. Can you cover them up, or bounce the light back? Or prepare to light the subject’s dark side with equivalent brilliance.

Diversify or Die

Diversify or die, cautioned the Radio Academy’s new chair, Dr Yvonne Thompson. Whilst acknowledging the Ofcom depressing stats suggesting that 81% of radio's technical staff are men, there was evidence that attitudes have changed - and that shift in attitude will preface a change in behaviours. 

Diversity, of course, is about more than just appointing women, it’s about social class, ethnicity and sexuality. A healthy pre-prandial debate ensued.

It’s also worth pointing out how TechCon has changed in my many years hosting it. Once the province of highly-intelligent blokes, there is now, without doubt, a much greater diversity in the audience, aided too by the bursaries. The range of high quality speakers this year was incomparable. Delegates were urged again to sign up as a STEM ambassador to give talks on their world to inspire tomorrow's techies.

AI in Broadcast

Cordula Schellenberger from Veritone showed us the work flow of how they ingest audio material and transcribe it. Whilst a medically ‘trained’ bit of software will understand medical terms - and a sporting one will understand 'Man U' - their clever software uses multiple differently-trained engines from all sources. This collaborative approach raised correct transcription rates to 75%.

The session nodded to the use of voice-activated services; and showed how the software above can search words in audio content with enviable accuracy. 

Commercial programmers will delight at its ability to track down every mention of a client so you can pull off all random brand mentions with ease.  Alas, no time for questions. I was wondering what will be the best thing to call your podcast, if it’s going to be requested by voice - and I also worried how easily stations will be tracked down by lawyers now able to find out exactly what’s been said about their client on every station.

Hacking Festivals

Hacking’s a good thing. In this enthusiastic session, we were reminded that we need to agree on tech - and compete on content. Technologists should co-operate - and talk to anyone and everyone about their work.

We witnessed scenes from the Electromagnetic Field festival. Like a music festival, but people getting together in a field with three stages to listen to each other - and hack. The photos said it all, with real energy and discovery from makers, engineers and artists - a festival for the inquisitive. Kids loved it too - with their festival badges being a software defined radio. 

One result was shown, a voice-controlled radio which uses DAB, FM or online sources to deliver the requested station. Not revolutionary in its elements, you might argue, but it’s Apple-like simplicity and ease would have made a great gift for my old man. The hacking fraternity was able to deliver proof of concept.

Object-Based Audio

Object based audio has been a regular TechCon subject: how listeners can choose the mix of the sound elements of any programme. The audio objects are collected and metadata assembled - so we know what’s what - then rendered to the listener’s taste. How much chocolate do you want on your cake?

Headphones cause 'internalisation' it seems, where the mind thinks the sounds come from inside the head. 'Binaural auralisation' offers a remedy. In other news, speech intelligibility rises 12% when you can see the lips move. Try this one at home. But where the voice appears to come from makes a difference.

A demo on this session showed how a spatialised audio drama, using mobile phones, could generate immersive audio without the bother of 5.1 array.

Brilliant Students

Two incredible women from University Radio York showed off their app, in which students could save their university from an alien invasion.  It's a game, by the way.

This was full scale, physically interactive audio demonstrated by Rebecca Saw and Sienna Holmes, with students marching the campus and making decisions which affected the outcome of what they heard. 

The project had been a true collaborative effort across the disciplines, with much problem-solving and some degree of personal investment.  The TechCon audience liked the app, and warmed to its presenters, two energetic and highly capable women. I would have hired them tomorrow.

Emley Moor

A show of hands suggested that about three quarters of the audience had been up the Emley Moor 330m tower, the highest free-standing structure in the UK. 

The mast was built originally like a ball-point pen, with the antenna shoved through the mast and upwards like a ball point pen ink and nib, before the column was then filled with the necessary infrastructure to be able to ascend the mast.

But! Tony Mattera from Ofcom dropped by to explain how they’d had to build a second mast to replace old Emley to free it for work on the 700 MHz clearance programme.

The feat was illustrated with breath-taking footage of the helicopter flying in to deposit the latest section of the temporary mast, looming as high in the sky as its older sister. The video embedded above wasn't the actual helmet cam footage which made us feel giddy, but gives a sense of the task.

A skilled team from Helirig hovered over with a 2.5 tonne sections of the mast dangling, to be grasped by the determined team working at height in their fluorescent garb. Do Emmerdale viewers and Capital listeners really appreciate the risk to life and limb that their programmes require? 

The helicopters, apparently, often hail from Chile - as Chileans love BIG helicopters. Or Russian ones – given their double rotors.

Anyway, it’s up now, ready for the big frequency re-jig which needs antenna work on the main mast. This will take a matter of months  - but no-one will notice because Emley 2 stands poised. A brilliant job. They should show the erection video between programmes, frankly.

Small-scale DAB

Graham Plumb, Director of Spectrum Broadcasting at Ofcom updated us on Small Scale DAB, the new budget small DAB approach pioneered by Rash at Ofcom itself, and soon to be a home for community and smaller commercial radio operators.

The experiment was a success, with around 70 unique, mostly fresh, stations transmitted in ten areas – delivering real experience to ten small multiplex operators.

Expressions of interest are now in for the permanent  multiplexes, and Ofcom is beginning work with DCMS on the relevant legislation and process.  Technical guidance is being reviewed, and the plan is to draft it in such a way it can be easily understood. Ofcom will then work on frequency planning and consult on the licence award process. It is confident it has the resource, and has ‘lots of people’ working on it.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aside from Stephanie Hirst’s traditional excellent ‘what can you remember about today’ contest, the last session was down to accomplished sound ‘imagineer’ Dirk Maggs.

Having created the original Hitchhiker's Guide in 1978, the BBC brought him back to create some 40th anniversary material. 

Bubbling with enthusiasm as ever, Dirk shared stories of his conversations with Douglas Adams (“A 6 foot seven 10 year old boy”) and their shared dreams. He told of his plans years ago to create Dolby Surround sound, and how cautious engineers crossed the road when they saw him coming.

In short, here was an original premier-league sound creator who masters his craft to this day. As he saluted the technicians of today and yesterday - and gave them due credit for their contribution to UK radio creativity, it was a fitting end to a remarkable day. Tomorrow’s technology, discussed in the building where the BBC had made its tentative steps in the 1920s.

Congrats to Ann, Aradhna and all the TechCon committee who delivered this event this year. A real success . Thanks too to all the sponsors who made it happen – with Broadcast Bionics at the front of a committed queue. There's a debt too to Savoy Place, the IET's home, and a plug is warranted for the IET's Multi-media network.  

I am not a techie.  I was simply the host, wearing a silly suit. If anything is factually incorrect in this quick round-up, please drop me a line and I'll change it.

I work with radio stations around the world in a range of areas. From programme strategy to research, key brand work and marketing strategy. From presenter training to compliance, consultation responses and licensing. Talk to me via

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