Monday, 13 February 2017

A New Dawn for Commercial Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Style Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Bye just now, Desmond Carrington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Being You

When Neil Fox opened up on-air on the mighty Capital about the death of his father, colleagues were amazed how this familiar, powerful voice appeared suddenly so ‘honest’. 

Similarly, he shared his delight on-air following the birth of each of his children.

Putting to one side ‘the bullshit and the fun', as he called it, 'when people relate - it is to the other stuff'

'Being you' on-air, amidst the other stuff, is a key part of being a great presenter.  It's harder than it seems - and doing it well sets a broadcaster apart.

The day to day 'relatables' chime with audiences, as we know, and sharing the bigger matters deepens the relationship further. Each listener's life is not all champagne and roses - and the life of their friend, the presenter, cannot be either.  When you've a problem, do you confess to someone with a seemingly idyllic life, or a close friend who's been through the mill too?

I recall Xfm Manchester,  with Tim Cocker and Jim, when Jim told on the breakfast show of being a dad for the first time.  On-air, as he told his story, one heard him change generations in the course of a single link from a laddy lad into a quivering, delighted, tired, emotional, grown-up dad. The East Midlands Trains ticket collector wondered what the hell I was listening to as I sat in carriage E in tears, with the tale unfolding in my earphones.

James Whale is known for his plain-speaking.  When he was  diagnosed with kidney cancer in February 2000, he opened up on air. Not in a schmaltzy way, but typical brutal honesty. Just as he invited in his surgeon to discuss the operation in colourful detail.  He played it his way.  Did his audience think less of this irascible debater for showing a chink of vulnerability?

To this day, every day’s a happy day on the Tony Blackburn Show. So, imagine how his Radio 1 audience felt in the 1970s, as they tuned in to hear him open his heart following his split with his wife, actress Tessa Wyatt.  As he played  R and J Stone's ‘ Thrown it All Away’, he confessed: "This is the story of my life at the moment".

He later said: "I don’t know anybody who goes through a divorce who’s happy about it. I had to live it whilst I was doing my radio shows. To be honest, I was boring the nation stupid with my marriage breakup. Somebody should’ve told me to shut up. I wasn’t getting any guidance."

Maybe Tony is wrong with his self-effacing critique, on this rare occasion. Even decades later, that outpouring is vividly recalled by its generation, despite the lamentable lack of any surviving recordings.  It deepened his relationship with his audience. Similarly, after his recent challenging spell, 'Good Lord, I'm back' over the piano intro of 'I Will Survive, was just enough. 

When we hear Tony now, we are cheered by the energy and smiles, but we feel we have a relationship with him. Like us, we know he’s had his ups and downs as he has lived his life in parallel to ours on this real-time medium. And he's sounding better than ever.

In time, in the words of Mark Goodier, you 'find your own voice', and become a better communicator. When he had the duty of following the Radio 2 news bulletin bearing the tragic Wogan news, he was himself, not Mark the disc jockey. That day, he was a guy who had lost someone he knew and respected deeply  - and the tone was spot on.  As Mark readily concedes, that ability to just 'be you' is one which grows with age. 

Last week, we witnessed Andy Potter on-air on Radio Derby, telling the awful news of his cancer. "We're breaking the news to the listeners at 8.15am on Radio Derby,", he said to a friend. He knew his listeners would want to know. It was right he should tell them. And I imagine they will be a huge comfort to him in the months ahead. 

What other media almost demands this honesty from its contributors?  When the Media Show's Steve Hewlett opens up about his cancer, as he does to Eddie Mair on BBC Radio 4, it is this normality of the conversation which really cuts through. No faux sympathetic TV furrowed brows - just honesty and black humour.  Radio is the most intimate story-telling medium, and the listener attaches their own personal pictures, fears and experiences to the story. 

In 2013, when Kidd Kraddick, the nationally syndicated US radio host, collapsed and died, aged 53, at a golf tournament, his team were faced with hosting the show he'd led with one empty chair. They responded from the heart. The result was a piece of radio that teaches a hundred lessons - and Kidd would have been proud. As they half- conceded.

When Tony Prince brought Luxembourg listeners the news of the death of his beloved Elvis, he joined their grief . You could hear it in his voice. He let it show. Listeners knew they were eavesdropping on an important moment in someone's life.

Its not easy to do it well.  Being natural, as Neil Fox also said, is one of the hardest things in radio: 'you learn as you grow older...and things have happened'. It’s not about over-egging something, it's about talking about it well. When you feel the time is right. And if you can’t do that, just play another song instead – or get another job. 

Whether it's a high or a low point in your life, if you can share it, when the opportunity arises, you really should. There are good broadcasters who've been on-air years who could become great were they to open the door. 

Stephanie Hirst chose to break the news of her gender dysphoria on radio, via BBC 5live. It was compelling.  To say it may have saved a life or two is probably true. I do suspect, though, that she really wishes she'd been allowed to tell her listeners live on her own Capital show.  Just like friendships, the listener relationship needs to grow before you can really start to open your heart. 

Sean Goldsmith at Bauer (Bauer City 2 breakfast) opened up both about being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome; and confessing he'd never told his dad he loved him. Just before he did just that.  Paul Robey's listeners to BBC Radio Nottingham know he lost his mother; and how much some of the songs he plays on his nostalgia programme mean to her and him.  They know that he understands how they feel about their own losses. 

People struggle to define radio, but one thing it delivers incomparably, in capable hands, is a human connection in the most incredible way.   

Authenticity in voice and content is key in this generation of radio. Of course, there's a place in radio for hot jocks on formats which wisely demand tightness; and there are current affairs formats where detached objectivity is necessary. But, if you seek to be a broadcaster with whom a listener will want to spend today, tomorrow and all of next week - and be missed when you're gone - just from time to time, they probably need to know who's inside.

In Foxy's words, 'it's this stuff that makes you good'.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Why Do We Still Bother With Hospital Radio?

The poor hospital radio station in Tunbridge Wells, which has enjoyed a rich history and spawned a few current radio presenters, is under threat of closure.  There's just not enough money.

Seizing that as the angle, BBC Radio Kent merrily invited me on-air to talk about the future for hospital radio.  They called me a 'radio historian', as they introduced a half-awake me.  I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or annoyed.

Like many, I’ve a very soft spot for my time at the hospital station in Nottingham, NHR. Lena Martell's 'One Day at a Time' was the most requested song.  I can even remember the catalogue number. Judging by the pic, I clearly spent more time remembering that than co-ordinating my clothes.
These were the nylon-shirted seventies though. Back then, patients in their gowns stared at magnolia ceilings or listened to their radio through what appeared to be a stethoscope. No-one had a smart phone - or even a thick phone - and CD players had yet to be invented. Yes, if you wanted to hear your own favourite songs, you had to bring in a couple of decks and an amp and park them on the shiny floor by your bed. Get your mate to wheel in your record collection on a big trolley, and you were sorted,

The grimy stethoscope radio carried all the usual radio channels. When I say the usual channels, let's remember there weren't very many. You could just about get Radio 1, 2 and 4  - and BBC local if your town had bothered launching one. The chap in charge of the official hospital tuner had clearly not yet discovered commercial radio - or found it too noisy.

A decently run hospital radio station was, accordingly, a welcome addition to the ‘dial’. What's more the presenter had even troubled to come to see you on your TCP-smelling ward a few hours before mispronouncing your name on the radio. A seemingly endless day in hospital became just a little cheerier.

Let's remember too that these were the days when, to get a request on a 'proper' station, you’d have to write in on Basildon Bond, with an envelope and stamp, and then devote every waking hour for the ensuing month to listening, lest you were mentioned. So, a surefire dedication - and an actual song request was actually quite a treat.

Now, you can smuggle in your own phone or MP3 player and play your favourite ballads 'til you cry.  You can also select from the many radio stations now on offer in your town, or stream one from Hungary if you wish. And, you may even have your own little TV in those hospitals which have those posh, expensive bedside ones fitted. 

Given such an array of entertainment, why on earth do we still need hospital radio?

Some of today's hospital radio presenters are rather good. Such folk annoyingly get jobs quickly at one of the hundreds of professional stations and likely forsake their volunteering with a dainty shoulder-shrug.

Some of the decent ones don’t even trouble to hop on the bus to volunteer in the first place, because they are merrily making programmes in their bedrooms on proprietary software which would have been the envy of any hospital station in the 70s. They don't need to suffer hospital radio politics to vent their creative spleen.

So, with a challenge for audience, and a paucity of the right staff, maybe they should just give up. In several cases, that's probably exactly the right thing to do. 

The other option is to try harder. Devise a strategy fit for this century and deliver it with professionalism and energy.

The quality of University Radio has rarely been higher. The SRA awards are a major event in the drunken radio calendar, and I rarely fail to pinch an idea from an entry whilst I'm judging. I believe those confident stations have stopped trying to sound like conventional ones. They break rules, invent and do their own thing.  They are programmed uniquely to their own specific audiences, rather than trotting out today's best mix. 

In short, they’ve stopped being 'me-too' stations on-air; and they are judged too by the contribution they make off-air on the campus. The best ones are part of the fabric of university life - and sometimes a reason the choose a particular uni.

If hospital radio is to survive it needs to take itself seriously.  It needs a new strategy.  

Is your station's brand essence really just about creating great radio, which everyone else does, or is your business really about making people's time in hospital better?

Once your strategy is clear, the delivery follows.  Do you just recruit hosts of wannabe disc jockeys - or do you recruit a varied range of volunteers who contribute in a host of ways. Do you have the sort of people who can give time to patient visiting?  Do you have people who can manage fundraising, and help polish the PR with local benefactors. Who cultivates hospital management relationships and political relationships? Most importantly, do you have a leader?

On-air, you need to be as focused as the best FM radio station. They are your competition. What sort of people stay in your hospitals? How old are they? Do they want music or company?  What sort of music?  

Have you got the right sort of mature communicators on-air, even if rough around the radio edges? Imagine who your typical listener would rather have a coffee with.  Would it be 60 year old Beryl, with a fund of stories who's seen heartache and happiness, or spotty 17 year old David Lloyd? 

Only do what you can do best.

On our old station, we used to have an organ music show because we had a lovely bald bloke volunteering who liked organ music. Sound formatic considerations should govern your on-air policy, regardless of the age of your eager volunteers, or their music preference.

In general terms, it's a fact that perfect radio would be one station per listener.  Imagine a radio station which only and always did what you wanted when you wanted it.  Statistically, hospital radio is probably closer to that than any other form of radio.  

Your station - and the overall experience it delivers - can be almost perfect for the worried woman on Nightingale 2 ward whose husband works away and visits rarely. Make sure it is.  Or close down.

NOTE: The Hospital Broadcasting Association commissioned an independent piece of research into the impact of hospital broadcasting on health outcomes for patients. A UK wide study was completed involving over 250 individuals including patients, staff  and hospital radio volunteers. 

I'm touched by so many kind comments about my book 'How to Make Great Radio'. Thank you.

Monday, 9 January 2017

What About the Old Folk?

My dad often moans about the others in his nursing home. Those old folk.  He also worries about how well he’s going to cope with things in the future. Not now, he says, but when he gets old.

He’s nearly 96.

It's not him in the pic, and my dad plays the harmonica and not the accordion, I should say, for the sake of Ofcom accuracy.

So I'm puzzled that BBC local radio news bulletins on some stations refer to ‘the elderly’ in various stories.

Here are stations aimed at people aged over 50.  Their typical loyal listeners are much older.

As each presenter or journalist opens their mouth on-air, they are walking into the kitchens, bedrooms and front rooms of these very people. These individuals do not define themselves as part of this mad collective called ‘the elderly’.  They are simply themselves.

Any reference to 'the elderly' will be taken as a reference to people other than - and older than - the listener themselves.

If your goal is to use language which connects, you have failed.  Why would you talk about your listeners rather than to them?

And if the listener does take ‘the elderly’ as including them, they’ll find it inaccurate and patronising. It's arguably a pejorative term.

Capital talks to its audience with skill. It has identified it and pursues it with vigour. Everything on-air assumes the listener is of a certain age and living, or aspiring to live, a certain sort of life. There is little need to define the audience to itself.

Referring on air to 'the elderly' - on a radio station targeted, inter alia, at those in their 60s, 70s and 80s - is a mad as wandering into a room full of people with disabilities, staring into their eyes and reading out an announcement about ‘the disabled’. You'd just say 'you'.

You are talking largely to folk over 50 - you don’t have to define them. At any given moment, the over-50 audience exceeds the under-50 audience by a significant margin. They are your listeners. You certainly don’t need to refer to a collective term which they feel excludes them anyway.

I ranted about this on Twitter the other day, attracting a welcome flurry of support.

The term ‘pensioner’ is another example of much the same thing. When a bulletin calls upon the epithet 'pensioner'  for a 68 year old woman who’s achieved something brilliant, it's downright insulting. If the age is relevant, put it in.

I appreciate the challenges of drafting news copy on particular stories when 'pensioners' or ‘the elderly’ is an easy option. But surely you are better at your job than that.

I bring to mind too those folk who are getting increasingly and rightly annoyed that a stock pic of a gnarled hand on a stick appears alongside just about every article online which refers to folk over 60. Not only is that not how they see themselves, it is often inaccurate.

At a time when we are ever more conscious about ‘labels’, is it not time for those radio stations aimed at those of us over fifty to take more care with their language.  Not for the sake of political correctness, but because great radio stations talk to their audience like a friend.

Thanks for the feedback on my book 'How to Make Great Radio'

Friday, 9 December 2016

If It Bleeds It Leads

“If it bleeds, it leads”.

It’s a great quote which the Executive Director of News at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation reminded me of in a presentation I saw recently.

He reckons it’s wrong though.  He’s not saying bulletins have to be jolly -  because that’s a familiar argument and I'm not sure there's much evidence of 'good news bulletins' catching on even when tried.  It’s more about how to make news constructive - exploring potential solutions as much as the problems.

I reckon he’s right.

I recall one story from the BBC’s Ten O Clock TV bulletin yesterday. A happiness survey suggested that more old folk are feeling lonely. But instead of labouring the dull detail of the stats with some posh expert in twinset and pearls, we heard, instead, of a truly great project where 80+ year old women had built their own complex where they could live, mix and support each other. They’d designed it, fought for it, delivered it and moved in.  As I sat watching, I imagined these determined intelligent women watching themselves back on TV and toasting their achievements. Rock on.

We know that a lot of news is unavoidably depressing; and there’s little we can do about that.  But if we always look for the negative in stories where there is equally a positive, always the problems but never any solutions, then the World will seem like a pretty depressing place. 

Is 'fear-based' journalism a lazy solution? For every survey-led story about X% thinking Y, those stats may well also suggest a larger proportion of folk think the more palatable opposite.

After forty years of coverage suggesting that the EC is a pretty messed up project, should we really be surprised that the nation chose to vote out?

I observe the BBC appears to be attaching some welcome importance to this thinking and, in its own wisely careful way, is just planting a few alternate thoughts in its news treatments.

Ulric Haagerup explores the theory in his book 'Constructive News' and the themes are being echoed around the World.

I’ve been doing a little work back at the coal face of late, and was faced with handling an interview about a local project which had not been quite as successful as was envisaged.  Whilst the ‘challenge’ and ‘hold to account’ mantra certainly has its place in a newsroom, there was a bit of me that wanted to say ‘It would be great for our City if you could get things sorted – and good luck’. I sort of did. What is a local radio station really about?

Challenging is all very well, but as broadcasters, do we not also have a similar responsibility to allow the time for explanation - and constructive examples where they exist.  Whether you’re for it or against it, have we heard as many real stories about the positive examples of fracking around the world as we have the negative ones, as we face having operations in our back yards? How can we really start to evaluate the matter sensibly?

The fresh thinking has to be welcomed. What is our real duty as a broadcaster? Why do we do the news?  Does it have to be done the way it always has been?

The political world now, with unprecedented levels of media, supplemented by ill-informed social media, is starting to show the signs of desperation.  When we hear each day, each hour, how all things are flawed, with little hope of success, then we are bound to vote for change. Not really stopping to consider what change might bring.

Does misery bring audiences? Yes, people want to be kept 'up to date' - but I'm aware that some talk newsrooms worry that a never-ending diet of concern and disaster is driving audiences away.

Social media is worryingly miserable. One of my hobbies is to thumb through tweets from someone who has been unduly accusative on some topic or other and find they are just as annoyed by just about everything else in their life. 

With those as a backdrop, as responsible broadcasters, maybe it is time for us to be less professionally miserable. More constructive in our story treatments.

Related post: The future of the radio news bulletin

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now from Biteback.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Today's TechCon - a Lay Review

Some of the session presenters at the very early TechCons used to remind me of those maths teachers in nylon shirts who'd use one of those old overhead projectors with their nice-smelling acetates.

On the contrary, today's well-attended conference boasted truly fascinating topics, each presented by a enviably gifted and informed communicator.

This is neither a technical nor an exhaustive account of today's TechCon, given I am not technical and I am exhausted.

As I pointed out from the stage, with the compère's hat on, this year's conference was independent of the Radio Academy, although my dear Academy remained supportive. A sort of soft Brexit, I guess.

The British Library, increasingly good friends of radio and audio kicked off. They'd commissioned a report on the future of radio, which was duly presented by Nicky Birch from Rosina Sounds. You can read it here

Dave Walters was up next from BBC Design and Engineering.  One of the best techies I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Having successfully managed to build radio studios fit for TV, he outlined how the industry might make them genuinely internet-fit. It's not just about an extra screen screwed to the desk. It's about recording all the inputs. 

As Dave pointed out, there's a whole load of stuff happening at particular moments in the course of a live programme, such as the mic going live, which can be recorded alongside the audio. If the whole 'object' can be saved rather than just an audio stream, you can then mix it later for whatever purpose you wish.  It can also spit out a transcript, indication of junctions, and loads of useful other metadata. My programmer's eye imagined the value of being able to isolate elements of a programme so efficiently. It's an impressive concept - now being trialled in the BBC's pilot internet-fit studio at BH.

Last year, we heard how radio fought against the odds in strife-torn South Sudan. Delegates recalled the battle-scarred satellite dish with its bullet holes. This time, the message from Issa Kassimu from Internews was positive, with a full account of how they'd managed to solar power a radio station. Not a bad idea when you've loads of sun and no fuel.  Issa insisted it would work here too; and one delegate reminded us of a TV mast in Scotland which calls upon that very power source.

Tony Churnside, head of Technology for Magnetic North headlined his KTN report on audio innovation; and his colleague reminded us that funding for audio R & D is available. But it transpires few applications are received for radio/audio funding. Let's change that.

In-car. The infuriatingly knowledgeable Nick Piggott was joined by the irrepressible Mike Hill from Radio Player and  CharlotteSimon from BBC MCR. They acknowledged that in-car entertainment was pretty simple once hybrid radio was installed, with layers of IP info layered instantly on the broadcast signal. 

The posh car manufacturers are apparently becoming a little concerned that their bargain cousins could so easily access the same level of in-car audio experience. There was a lovely visual too, from a Ted talk showing how driver-less cars could be driven easily at high speed through complex junctions provided that every vehicle was computer controlled. One manual 'old granny', it was pointed out, would not last long.

When Sound Digital won the second national commercial multiplex, it was clear that a number of of new stations would require studio facilities. And quickly.  Neil Sedley from Wireless Group International explained how they managed to squeeze the new studios into their existing building, and create a performance space, as befits Virgin. 

Some tenants were moved out; the poor CEO's office got moved to the back; and the canteen was depleted.  Impressively moustached Neil confessed the sort of headaches we all encounter with major projects: the studio door manufacturer went bust, and the tenants happened to be on a six month notice period. All went well though, and though he would only smile when I asked if it was all on budget, I gather the total amount was impressively low and he'd kept to budget, bar the shouting.

Staying with Virgin, later in the day, we heard the tech tale of the station's launch OB - from a Virgin Pendolino train. As you might expect, the idea appears to have emerged from a drink-fuelled occasion, and the train loan was negotiated thanks to help from the very bearded top of Virgin. 

Phil Critchlow told the story. 3G and 4G was used, through the twelve aerials on top of the train. I admired the forethought - there was a full trial run, which was no mean achievement given the route was atypical and had to be rehearsed in full - through the night.  Virgin wisely had insisted on such a broadcast trial before committing. Clearly there were some dodgy patches of reception, but once identified specifically in the dry-run, the programme running order could be scheduled round them. I so, so admired the forethought here, at a level alas too often absent from too much British radio.

Chris Pike from BBC R & D is a genius. His immersive sound demonstration was thoroughly engaging as we sat in our special headphones. Chris explained with the aid of his dummy 'Ed', with microphones duly installed in each ear, how the effect simulates the effect of a head listening, with its two ears separated by, well, a head. 

This stuff is important for radio to consider - as more listening is done using headphones and current trends suggest that almost 1 in 10 households will have a VR device by Christmas. He explained some of the challenges, not least the thought of a chap trying to mix the sound element to a piece of VR when he can't see the keyboard as he's got his VR goggles on.

'It's just a fucking app', proclaimed a confident Tom Bartindale from Open Lab at Newcastle University, as he explained how the team had provided radio for migrant camps through one-to-many phone-based systems. The source 'studio' end was just one person with a smartphone equipped with an app which could handle incoming contributor calls and any other relevant incoming information. He even illustrated how the incoming callers could choose their topic from a list, avoiding the need for producers to intervene. And, if you really did want a 'producer' to intercept the calls to the programme first, they could easily join the 'broadcast' chain.

That was fascinating, and dreamt up by someone who conceded 'I'm not one of you'. From the outside of our industry, he'd delivered a stream of rich speech content which could easily be a 'radio station'. As BBC local radio considers its sustainable future, I hope it looks at models like that as a thought starter. 

He also dubbed the usual call vetting producer-processes at traditional stations 'triage'. I'd not heard that medical phrase used in quite that way before. It's very good. 

Not many jocks hit the news on time nowadays. That annoys me. As does hearing but half of Bohemian Rhapsody.   But problems with timing have far more serious implications around the world when universal time and GPS differ. Satellite implications too, as clocks closer to a massive object, like the Earth, tick more slowly than ones further away. If all aeroplane landings are to be automated, timing needs sorting. Egnos is the answer. Thought I'd reassure you.

I adore the World Service.  But Kim Jong-Un likely doesn't, as the BBC prepares to add  the North Korean peninsula to its ambit. New languages and services are being bolted on to our overseas efforts on a scale not seen since WWII. Some overseas governments are accordingly none too keen on Auntie, and similar external broadcasters, and the list of countries jamming her is interesting. The tale of international cat and mouse sounded like Ofcom vs the pirates on a London housing estate. Thankfully, the BBC had clever answers. 

I often dictate texts and short documents - and my phone seems pretty damn good at understanding my waffle. Clever Doctors Cleo Pike and Amy Beeston offered some fascinating insight into 'machine listening', that is systems like Siri and Alexa. But also there are systems which take some learnings from how our ears themselves work. It seems that our lugs are pretty clever at filtering out confusing noise almost before sounds start to be processed fully by the brain. The brain also takes context and acoustics into account. If machine listening could be as canny as our ear-hole, we're sorted.

'Machine listening' is clever stuff, not only hearing what we say, but the prosody of how we say it, even inferring meaning as to how well people get on by how they interject and engage. This was simply a fascinating session. 

Software-Defined Radio was covered off by the endearing Danny Webster from Lime Microsystems who really ought to get himself a YouTube channel with his understated effortless boffin humour. 

SDR is something which has been around some time, but it's clear that in a fast changing world, software you can update is better than hardware you can't. 

He'd even troubled to draw a scribbled pic of his front room with all its sound and visual entertainment gadgets, imagining one piece of software-defined gubbins which could be re-programmed with ease as new sources emerge. There was mention too of how you might read next door's electricity meter, but for the life of me I cannot recall why it was mentioned, and why anyone would wish to do it. He reminded us too that projects such as this are largely passion projects driven by retired engineers who then inconsiderately go and die.

Concluded by a round up from BFBS's Dave Ramsay, this was a brilliantly informative and fascinating day in a wonderful quirky theatre - one which had opened as radio itself was beginning.

From my wobbly seat, I found it the best TechCon yet. Huge congratulations to Ann, Aradhna and Andy for pulling it together at their own risk with their various committee members, helpers, supporters - and key sponsor, Broadcast Bionics

Spread the word, and if it returns next year (which I hope it does), do book a ticket. 

Anyone in programme management who does not take an active interest in the tech side of our great industry risks being left behind these days. 

If I've messed up anything techy, please let me know

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is available here