Tuesday 27 August 2019

The Difference a Leader Makes

“Great people coalesce around great leaders – and who they can learn from.” (Simon Cole, former UBC/7 Digital exec)

Bookshops in airports are full of cheap publications on leadership, and I am ill-qualified to write another. It occurred to me however that many of the subjects I have interviewed for my RadioMoments Conversations series have volunteered some fascinating thoughts.

I cringe on recalling how I behaved as a new ‘General Manager’ at Leicester Sound in the 80s. Given my first management title, I thought that alone, with a few stern words, would be enough to motivate and direct the team around me - most of whom had more experience of radio than did I. They weren’t.

The gifted and sadly-missed John Myers remembered much the same of his early efforts: “I was more aggressive then (as a manager) than I am now” he told me. That may have been because, in his earlier career, he was managed by someone whose management style “looked quite vicious”. Role models matter, and like me, you may have observed those who are incapable of managing well, because they simply have never witnessed it.  By contrast, many of the senior figures in my Conversations interviews gush about the one person who truly inspired them.

John referred too to an early BBC local radio manager who "managed in the old Colonial style" – and would not even allow staff in the lavatory when he was using the urinal.

When faced with a critical early career decision in his BBC local radio days, Simon Cole told of a senior BBC radio manager who agreed to meet up with him to talk over the dilemma. Simon recalls that the lofty chap took the trouble to find out all about him, afforded him generous time and counselled wisely, even though that advice led Simon away from the BBC. Simon asserts how he “respects above all other” qualities” “the ability to give people time and to respect potential”. “We never know who the next great leader is until we spend time with someone who at the moment might not look like they’re going to be the next great thing”.

Great leaders persuade and influence. Simon Cole refers to another encounter: “like those great people in your life, he persuaded me that what he knew was good for me was the right thing to do”.

Simon recalls too making a text-book error as a producer at Piccadilly, prompting his MD Colin Walters to walk into the studio asking: “tell me, do we employ producers to ensure mistakes like that don’t happen?”.  “Yes”, murmured Simon. “OK”, said Colin: “Just checking”. There’s a way of making sure things don’t go wrong, and it’s not always telling off someone who’s already furious with themselves.

“It’s easy to know what you’re good at – more difficult to recognise what you’re not very good at", observed former Radio 1 Controller, Andy Parfitt. Former Chrysalis and Orion boss Phil Riley agreed: “I was never going to maximise my potential as an on-air presenter but I was quite good at organising other people and helping other people get the best out themselves”.

On managing change, a key job for any leader, Dirk Anthony (former GWR and GCap programmer) talked about the rigour and preparation needed: “My biggest interest in today’s world is leading change and how you bring about results through change in a way that’s safe - for people and for businesses, for organisations for shareholders”.

Whilst sound, reasoned judgement is key, few great leaders can demonstrate success without risk. In the words of John Myers, who was given 18 months to win licences or lose his job: “Life is a gamble”.  Many leaders embrace failure. The thinking goes that failure aids learning and if you’ve never failed you’ve never taken quite enough risk; and Simon Cole laments the way it is viewed by Brits.

"I've always been that elder brother - and occasionally, headmaster. I have never believed in giving people a real bollocking. I have a couple of times." - Tim Blackmore - early Radio 1 and Capital producer and programmer

It’s not a popularity contest. Famously, Margaret Thatcher said: "If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at any  time, and would achieve nothing". John Myers referred to an early boss who was “A lovely man - but probably the worst (manager) I’d ever met”.  Great leaders can polarise. Whilst so many I have interviewed have had some flavour of Richard Park story to relate, there is no doubt about the way he made people feel when he wanted them to feel good. Pat Sharp relates how Richard took him out for a lunch after his last show.

It’s stressful. Andy Parfitt described managing change at the network as “hugely stressful” and, on leaving the Radio 1 Controllership after 13 years, he confessed: “You get used to being slightly on that adrenaline trigger and that takes a long time to withdraw. The effects of that for a decade are not trivial”.  In politics, Prime Ministers are usually retired by their country or their party looking visibly older than when they took office. Do our radio station leaders know when it’s time to step down?

Leaders talk to their staff. John Myers’s PA recalls how long it would take him to get to his office when walking through the building as he’d stop to chat merrily to members of his Team.  Former Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas recalls how, in her early career, her Director of Radio visited her in her own territory: “she came to my tiny little office in the corner of the ground floor of Western House and sat down and said please will you stay for six months”.

Radio is a mad world – and the greatest presenters can, on occasions, be complex to handle.  Andy Parfitt insists on respect: “You (managers) have to like or love and have a passion for what they (the talent) do”. If as a programmer, you feel you have no faith in your station’s breakfast show, you really should be making a change rather than making the team’s life a misery. You have to believe in it.

Often top talent may be earning more than you are – and seemingly less dispensable than you are. With regard to Chris Moyles, Andy said: “I really got on with Chris and admired him. If you have an authentic admiration for what they can do – then you’re at the starting gate”. Lesley Douglas’s love for Chris Evans was clear to see. Regardless of reporting lines, wise leaders cultivate a special bond of trust with the talent who define their station: “It’s a ridiculous word ‘manage’ talent – because you can’t" said Lesley. "The only way to get the best out of on-air talent is to have an ongoing relationship, a consistent relationship. The important thing is to talk about things so they don’t become big issues”.

This ongoing relationship with key individuals point was echoed by John Myers speaking of his GMG boss: “He often just rang up to see how I was doing. Never work for anyone you don’t like or respect”.

Supporting your team is key. John Myers used to tell with a smile how he often did not show his presenters listener complaints “The reason I never told you is because I never agreed with the complaints”. The fruits are clear when talent and leaders reflect fondly on their firm but supportive influences, whether Chris Moyles on Andy Parfitt or BBC Northampton’s Bernie Keith on Stuart Linnell. Lesley Douglas pays tribute to a former Radio 2 Controller Frances Line: “incredibly supportive of me personally”.

“People call them the soft skills. In fact, they’re the hardest skills to learn”, said Dirk Anthony.

Great leaders are not threatened by the calibre of those they recruit: “Find the best people you can get – and go for them”, said Lesley Douglas. The legendary Jim Moir would say "cast up".

As a manager, you will become better. “I learnt a great deal about management and managing people.  I don’t think I got it all right at all – in fact, I was probably getting more wrong than right ‘cos I was just 30 or 31”, said Phil Riley. Support matters too: "I was a little out of my depth", confessed Helen Boaden (Radio 4, Head of BBC News, Director of BBC Radio) as she was promoted to her first senior role: "I was the most junior member of the management team. I had to make the first compulsory redundancies in news in ten years - and not a single BBC senior manager came to help me - and I have never let that happen to anyone else".

People need to be recognised. Paranoid, insecure creative types such as many presenters certainly do. If you are on-air, nurturing even groundless fears about whether your manager rates you, you are possibly not going to produce your best work.  You’ve got to believe in yourself to even bother opening your mouth on-air; and your manager should help that with genuine and specific approbation. Helen Boaden related with a smile the early feedback she received as a manager, when a programme producer implored her to start by saying something positive about the programme before launching into what could be better.

After a challenging year at Orion Media, Phil Riley sent me one of his hand-written notes. I know the exact words he used - as I have kept it to this day. Whether a note or an occasional smile and thumbs-up through the glass when you’re on-air - it all pays dividends.

In radio and, I guess many sectors, the spirit of the office counts for something. We've all worked in a building where a visit from a head honcho casts a cloud which can last months. “You’d have men walking about in suits – and as nice as they were on the surface, they weren’t Virgin and they weren’t Ginger”, said John Revell (Virgin, Ginger). On the other hand, regulator and programmer Martin Campbell spoke of how other leaders use 'scarcity' constructively.

What other qualities are needed?  Andy Parfitt attributed “Courage of conviction and intellectual rigour” to his predecessor Matthew Bannister.

Andy alluded too to the British military doctrine: 'Serve to lead'.  “You’re there as the boss - to serve your people - and that service might be sometimes dishing out a total bollocking when something‘s gone wrong that easily shouldn’t have gone wrong - but that service is also about supporting and mentoring and coaching  and so on…”.

Great leaders aim high, but things can get in the way. Andy Parfitt said: "We’re all a product of our limiting assumptions – and it took me quite a long time to undo those limitations" (as a comprehensive school kid).   He suggested: “ambition and investment and clarity of where you think you’re going is required”.  Similarly, John Myers talked of how he felt when being summoned to meet Sir Bob Phillis at the Guardian: “(I was) the Carlisle lad who left school with no education whatsoever heading down to London to Guardian HQ to see the guy who had been deputy DG of the BBC to talk about radio”.

Behind the public confidence of many great leaders lies some private and healthy self-doubt.

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Thursday 8 August 2019

The Future for News

I can’t be the only person who watches the opening sequence of the Ten ‘O Clock TV news – and then promptly switches over.  It’s a far cry from when I’d sit there with a cup of tea and salmon sandwich, transfixed until the dying strains of the programme’s closing sig tune.

They’ve told me the headlines I need to know – and that’s enough.  As for the other stories they’ve chosen, they’re not the one I’m interested in – or they’re ones I already had had my fill of.

No offence to the BBC’s fine editorial team, maybe things are just changing.

Broadcast news began on radio in 1922, with Arthur Burrows chuntering through a few pages of foolscap - from a rowdy meeting with Winston Churchill to the billiards scores. In many ways, news has changed little since – with TV bulletins a video variant of the radio options. Sure, we’ve now got actuality, two-ways and frightening animation, but we are still force-fed hourly lists of stories on linear media. Some we are interested in, some we are not.

Now, we may feast our news appetite in several efficient ways, with news users drawing on an average of 6.7 different sources (Ofcom 2019). Which media will play which roles in the future? Do the broader range of sources make matters clearer - or do we become more judgemental in discarding seemingly conflicting accounts?


In news consumption, I theorise a number of factors come into play, although those better qualified than me have likely written lengthy books on the matters.

  • Relevance and convenience
  • Immediacy
  • Perspective, trust and transparency
  • Analysis and depth
  • Investigation and challenge
  • Responsibility
  • Reflection, comfort and occasion

Has digital media has turned relevance on its head? We connect with the story about the school our child will attend - and we connect equally to a photo of a slain elephant in Zimbabwe and the story behind it. The communications democracy which now exists may be eroding that old journalist tenet about the relationship between distance and caring. A story has relevance because we care about it - or the treatment makes us care. It can affect us directly or emotionally – whether down the road or across the globe. What does that mean for local media - not least in pretend regions invented by broadcasters?

Immediacy: we want the news we need - now. When we hear a worrying bang outside, we turn increasingly to social media and digital, as neighbours pitch in with their accounts of what's happened - and their odd theories. Ofcom's 2019 survey suggest 66% (and rising) of adults 16+ now use 'the internet' for news, compared to 75% (and falling) using TV - with 'internet' leading by some margin amongst 16-24s (83% use); and similarly minority ethnic consumers.  

Then, swiftly, as conflicting reports emerge from the man on the street - we want perspective and trust. We need to hear from someone with ability and access to give reliable insight. The pedigree and reputation of the big news purveyors will likely be ever more important here. Heightened transparency on their funding may become relevant - and a better public understanding on how they are regulated - and a proud trumpeting of such regulation. The protagonists – the council, police, fire brigade etc – are also seen as trusted ‘experts’, now acting as their own publishers for the first time.

In general terms, whilst one can now assemble one's own online 'news page' from a variety of sources, most people still turn to familiar sources. They are not only trusted - they are convenient. News can be sourced anywhere - but to what extent can people be bothered to act as their own news editor - and do they know what they're doing?

Then we seek understanding through analysis and depth. What exactly happened? What are the facts? Why has this happened? What are the key players saying? What happens next? Whilst analysis has traditionally pursued ‘truth’, our world is increasingly more complex - and consumers show ever more suspicion. I witness the excellent Evan Davis on the PM Programme on Radio 4 increasingly ‘showing his workings’, as my maths teacher used to say: that was one perspective – and here is another – and you will form your own view. It’s correct that this is now seen as a perfectly acceptable approach rather than simply engineering an uncomfortable ding-dong. (BBC World Service explains here why 'covering breaking news is not enough for today's audiences'.) 

The case for the expensive business of proactive investigation remains.  Many matters need unearthing and scrutinising. Original journalism from curious and persistent dedicated professional asking the questions that no-one yet has.  There is clear case for challenge too, where an offending figure needs to be heard being held to account; justice being seen to be done. In the wake of Brexit, some broadcasters have begin the healthy process of scratching their heads wondering whether they actually asked the right questions.

Responsibility is a thorny issue, if it is not to confused with social engineering; and the work on constructive news/solutions-focusedjournalism is highly relevant. ‘What’s gone wrong here?’ may be an accurate story – but it does not represent the entirety of any topic. Even ‘duly impartial’ broadcast media can ultimately affect the world we live in by the stories it chooses to cover and how it covers them.

Finally, when something happy or troubling happens, people want to talk. They want to reflect, derive comfort - or share a sense of occasion. Are the evening local TV news magazines - which continue to attract good audiences - as much about companionship and belonging as news.

Media solutions

The original news sources are changing, not least as newspaper circulations fall from 22m in 2010 to 10.4m last year.

Social media is growing, despite low trust levels (37% of users say it is impartial, vs 61% for radio). Facebook rules as the most common social media news source. The BBC remains the most followed news organisation, being used by just over half of Facebook and Twitter news users. New brands are breaking through, with Ladbible attracting 19% of Facebook news users, and Buzzfeed 17% (Facebook) and 14% (Twitter) - both ahead of established press titles. Of those who use traditional media, Global's radio stations reach a healthy 19% of traditional news media users vs Sky's 27% and DMGT's 25%.

What future for the news bulletin?  In a sense, they serve as a regularly updated landing page for the day and for the hour, helping us navigate the news of the moment through trusted eyes. We discover what's happened - and ascertain which stories we might want to hear more about.  On linear broadcast,  however, we only hear these updates at times the schedulers choose - on the hour or half-hour - and we are usually treated to at least a paragraph of further detail beyond headlines, whether we are interested in the specific or not.  And - on broadcast - if we seek further insight into a story, we must turn to different media - or maybe wait in the hope that it might feature in a full news programme if it exists on that channel.

Would radio stations have scripted lengthy news bulletins on the hour were the medium invented today? It's interesting that whilst a healthy 43% use radio for news, only 9% of those who follow news turn to radio for their fix of local news - despite the hundreds of stations broadcasting local bulletins. When we want to understand a topic, is the engaging informality of the Brexitcast podcast or Theo Usherwood on LBC more illuminating than a package, voicer or script?

Whilst we will continue to value the major broadcasters doing the dirty work of exploring of each day for us - and the necessary journalism – the trend to bulletin brevity will understandably continue. Whilst Ofcom will insist on preserving the news bulletin on music stations, arguably breakfast shows just pausing every so often to list the top stories - or the updated stories - would serve the same purpose. At present, someone waking up just after 8 and dashing out the house at 830 likely hears no news on entertainment radio.

As voice-activated grows, one can imagine a future where we can scream 'more' at a radio or TV headline and expect further detail to be delivered, before returning to the linear. Similarly, another instruction might prompt insight into a story background. Where is the country? Why are these people fighting?  And - could it offer immediate 'fact checks'?

Flash briefings on smart speakers are experimenting with the format, having concluded correctly that just seizing the radio model may not be the answer. Indeed, the brevity of a true ‘flash briefing’ as opposed to a full news bulletin is probably what the consumer seeks. But will they also become purveyors of specific news stories on demand: ‘Alexa, tell me the latest on Brexit’.

Who will own smart speaker content – today’s broadcasters or tomorrow’s communications companies – or trusted news anchors. 'Hey Huw Edwards, tell. me what's new'.  Who will be the Uber of smart news? Is the NHS/Alexa arrangement, where asking her for flu symptoms will now serve the official NHS view, an interesting precedent - whereas Google Home still merrily tells you 'a fact I've found on the web'. What role will regulation play in this arena?

Rolling TV news - and radio newstalk on stations like LBC - appears to meet contemporary expectations: when I want it - it's there. It ebbs and flows with the news agenda, and is not afraid to dwell exclusively on the key topic at the expense of all others when the occasion warrants.

Will scheduled TV news programmes on general TV channels survive? Whilst BBC One TV remains a huge news source, the percentage of people who use it has fallen appreciably from 65% to 55% since 2010. Will people continue to sit down to watch lengthy TV reports on topics in which they may have scant interest? In linear broadcast, maybe we will feel more acutely the absence of a ‘next story’ button to skip the stories which do not chime.

TV's broad linear audience, however, certainly has a role to play in helping a sense of occasion: the Olympic opening ceremony or the Royal Wedding.

What role does context play in news on social media? Those using it for news struggle to attribute the original source - and, whilst Twitter news users estimate 55% of their news tweets come from news organisations, almost half come from friends and family or others they follow, placing news is a specific personal context. In the same way, 45% of Facebook users accessing news organisation posts read the comments too. Popularity also plays its part, and the lists of most watched/read stories online can seem variously illuminating and worrying. Trending stories generate their own momentum.

How can the social media platforms better distinguish trusted content from the spurious – and who will judge them?  Should algorithms be the conscience of a nation, doing their best to serve us dependable content? What are the risks of that - and to what extent should regulation play a greater part? 

Press has endured a challenging generation as 18th Century titles have struggled to make a business in a digital world.  Some have chosen paywalls, others not. Some, like the Times, supply the actual 'newspaper' in digital form, which looks reassuring familiar and yet often behaves oddly. Others, like the huge Mail-on-line, opt for a dedicated digital space. To what extent will we continue to want to 'read a newspaper' whether on paper or online. Will a UK podcast with the power and penetration of the New York Times Daily be created?

But - when it comes to informed conversation and commentary, comfort and companionship,there will surely never be a medium to match radio.

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Thursday 1 August 2019

The Radio Universe - Who's Listening Now?

As ever, the headlines on Rajar are about the launches, losses and large growths.

Up above those headaches and smiles, we can pause to reflect on the bigger figures. The weekly reach of ‘all radio’ remains at 89% - and monthly reach greater. That’s a huge, huge proportion of this country’s citizens, and much greater than some annoying press commentators and ad agency folk appear to acknowledge. Radio is everywhere.

But – it’s 89%, whereas it's often been at 90% – and sometimes higher.

There’s something bloody annoying about 89% (or 88.65% actually).

Clearly, there’ll be rounding up and down and population changes, but in broad terms, a full percentage point is around half a million folk. And – for the record - it bounced down to 89% on occasions 20 years ago when this Rajar methodology started, so radio is remarkably resilient. In the last five years, when taken to two decimal places, it's  trended marginally down.

As someone once said, if you want to punish a child these days, you don’t take their radio off them. I don’t have children, but parents tell me that their kids don’t have quite the relationship we used to. The medium’s penetration amongst younger audiences is falling – and that trend is clear. Let’s not malign ourselves too much though - back in the '70s and '80s, there was not a great deal else to do in life. There’s just more competition generally for time.  Although at an all time low - radio still commands a phenomenal (79%) reach amongst those tough-to-reach 15-24s - and 88% of kids aged 10-14 tune in too.

In terms of engagement levels, people are spending less time with radio.  Again, life has changed in twenty years – and radio’s ownership of people’s life still remains enviable. Over twenty years, the average time spent listening per week by adults (15+) has fallen from a high of around 25 hours to about 21 (but it was only at around 22 in 1999). For 15-24s it’s down more substantially from around 20 to around 13.

Twenty years is a long time to analyse anything in our fast-changing world  and these observations serve to illustrate how remarkably resilient we are – but nevertheless, there is some food for thought.

It’s great that Radio 1, Capital, Kiss and Fun Kids are generating exciting, relevant content for younger listeners. Other local and community stations go into schools and make a fuss - and that all helps too. Arguably, the BBC could do even more (without treading on commercial toes). This is important for the future of our medium. No-one really knows whether kids will grow into the radio habits of the Boomers. Frankly, I suggest they won't.

The other question is about on-demand listening and podcasting. Whilst Rajar generates hugely useful data on platform listening and on-demand habits through its excellent ancillary MIDAS study, listening to non-linear radio is not accounted for by Rajar in the same way as a live hour.  When I listen to Radio 4’s PM at 11.00 at night, as I often do, poor Evan Davis gets no Rajar credit for it.

Whilst I’m told that Rajar is looking actively at how podcast listening might be accounted for specifically, there are no imminent moves to add listening hours of on-demand content to the linear published figures for that programme. The job of the Rajar currency is already hugely difficult with so many stations – any new approach would have to be devised, agreed by its many partners – and paid for. I recognise it’s not an easy job.

But who would not admit that the time is coming when all this listening must be captured in one place – and value extracted from it. Radio was once linear because it had to be. Now it’s not.

Destination programming (as opposed to consistent music radio) will increasingly be consumed on-demand. Frankly, in future generations, it'll be odd that a radio station suddenly demands I think about the Athenians' vote to kill all the men of Mytilene at 9 in the morning just because Melvyn Bragg wants to - even when I’m really not in the mood. Talk content and specialist curated music content will increasingly be consumed when I feel like it, not when a station feels like transmitting it.

When running LBC, I spluttered with surprise at the number of listeners who were happy even to pay to listen to Steve Allen at a more sensible time of day. Failing to account for this listening appropriately will increasingly produce a phantom loss of radio’s audience.

I, and many others, have argued passionately that all the curated audio we bung into people's ears is ‘radio’ and I look forward to the time when it will all be measured and acknowledged equally.

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