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

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Give Me a Song Title about....

It’s like a disease on British radio.

This ‘let us know a song title to do with the budget’ business.  Or ‘can you think of a song title which fits this dull news story?’.

I’m not quite sure what the goal is.  Maybe I’m missing something.

After laborious trawls for calls  - with no integral value in those talk ups whatsoever - I’m feasted with an incessant number of ways of getting in touch.  

Eventually a few regular listeners with nothing else to do with their lives get in touch with dubious offerings.  They think they’re funny, but I’m not sure anyone else does

Some presenters go one step further. They invite us to sort of adjust a title with a weak pun. 

Oh, how we laugh when the presenter reads them out.

With all these things, and in most things in radio, I always ask myself what’s the very best it can be? If you imagine you got the very, very best contribution, what would it achieve?  A limp passing smile at most?

How does that compare with a great exchange? A great conversation? A relatable anecdote? A real life story? A surprise? Something interesting or useful? Or just another great song?

Will anyone really remember this bit of lazy radio in an hour's time?  Ah well, it'll get a few texts, and the jock will judge that means someone's listening.

Maybe I’m wrong. I often am.

Even ‘what’s your favourite biscuit?’ carries more value. At least there’s some nostalgia and relatability. We all know, frankly, that topic goes wild. And it would probably be a good occasional idea if you can find a station it hasn’t been done on recently.

But 'today, we're looking for song titles related to X'? Eugh.

Consultant Dan O'Day used to say "every link must have a value". I’d love someone to explain to me what the value in this is.  Rae Earl suggests these things are social media mechanics which are being erroneously transferred.

Like everything in radio, though, there are exceptions. The best presenters can use a mechanic as dull as the above, or worse, take those callers on-air and turn them to pure magic.  

Just make sure you do – and you’re one of them.

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

Monday, 21 November 2016

What's Your Favourite Personal Radio Story?

Those of us lucky enough to have worked in radio each have colourful memories.  

Some of those stick out more than others.

What's your own personal radiomoment?

Before the memories are forgotten, or before we're run over by the number 23 bus, it's good to capture them.

As #radiomoments followers will know well, I'm interested in this stuff.  First hand accounts are always good to hear.

If you have a tale or two to tell, let me have it.  

  • The station launch you were part of.
  • The station close you witnessed.
  • A snippet of insight into a famous programme.  
  • A dramatic incident. 
  • A first. 
  • A last. 
  • A tale of a well known character.  
  • A technical achievement.
  • A technical mishap.
  • Some background for an incident we know well. 
  • A real success story.
  • Something awful.
  • A controversial decision. 
  • A tale from life back in the day.
  • The most memorable moment of your radio life. 

If I go on any more, this may sound like a desperate plea for calls on a BBC local station, so I shall pause there. But if something not on the list is of interest, that's just fine too

Tell me your story.

Click here to upload a file of you rambling away for a few minutes on your single most memorable radio experience. (If you're on a PC, you can actually just click the 'record' tab and record it 'live' straight to Audioboom)  

Do say who you are, what your connection to the tale was, and the rough date you are talking about.

Don't worry about messing up, I'll chop it around as I get round to using bits of it. 

It won't be published instantly or automatically (despite what it says on the screen) - it just comes to me. 

Any problems, drop me a line and I'll give you an email address to send a file to.

I'll use bits of them as appropriate in #radiomoments weekly reviews and the like - and keep them all safe for posterity.

Do it now, whilst you're in the mood...

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Christmas in the Radiohouse

In desolate tinselled offices, hard-working programmers wear their silly hats and ‘don’t disturb me’ faces. 

Not only do they have to look after tomorrow on the radio, they have to plan ahead the whole festive fortnight with military precision. 

Atypical presenters are set to host atypical programmes between atypical news bulletins coming from atypical places. What could possibly go wrong? And will there be anyone around to help when it does?  Probably not.

Is the 1500 on Boxing Day a network bulletin or is it local? Does Johnny Whatnot know how to put himself on-air and take the service out of network? Has he got a zapper to get him in the car park?

Will they need more songs in each breakfast hour, given you’ve only half a double act.

Whose bright idea was it to have a day of songs beginning with B on Boxing Day?  Cheers for that. All that bloody effort at a time of year when you’re unlikely to hit peak audiences anyway.

On commercial stations, are the ad breaks full or half-empty?  And, are they balanced across all the transmitters in the hours when they don’t usually need to be? Is the ad with the 'Open until ten, Christmas Eve' line set to die at 2200 on 24th? And is the breakfast sponsor credit changed for that awkward client who's booked from January 1st?

Meanwhile, life starts to get a little quieter for the sales execs. After a frantic flurry seeing off December’s targets and making a good start on January, their self-made clients have disappeared to their overseas holiday homes. In the radio sales office, it’s time for banter, decanter and Secret Santa.

But whilst office staff have begun to wind down and their inboxes atrophy, the opposite is true for the product team.

Hot on the heels of incessant and exhausting Christmas light switch-ons and firework displays on cold dark days, the work starts on ensuring that the festive period on-air will be entertaining and trouble free. 

Everything needs mulling over. You really want to avoid the call from the Christmas lunchtime presenter, just as you’re microwaving the bread sauce, asking which fader network news is on.

You certainly need to know who’s staying nearby when you get the inevitable Boxing Day call from a hoarse presenter who claims to be ill. You try to sound sympathetic and tolerant, as you face the prospect of ringing everyone on your emergency list, but you don’t quite pull it off.

Newsrooms are busy trying to invent the news in advance for the lonely reporters who'll be on duty between Christmas and New Year. The bulletins will have returned, but the news won't.

Are we taking 'the Queen' or not? And where do we find her?

Some of the rituals of Christmas on the radio have sadly faded away.  Remember opening reception to give away batteries on Christmas morning?  What a great bit of Ever Ready marketing that used to be, in the days before sponsorship on radio was allowed.

I shall not miss recording the Christmas Eve Lincoln Cathedral Carol Service for Lincs FM.  I’m not sure whether it’s a sign of dedication that I, as PD, had to sort it out, or just poor delegation.  I’d record it on the Revox, then help lug the equipment back to base and edit out the verses no-one knows from the carols.  The tape would then be left on the desk with a accompanying note which the tech-op would, for some reason, make it his business to merrily ignore. 

Having said that, typing cues at nearly midnight when all civilised folk are making merry with family and friends is still the sort of sacrifice many radio folk have to make.

Sadly, it’ll be the first Christmas ever without Ed Stewart. For me, his jolly voice just sounded like Christmas. For decades, he took out his BBC ‘magic carpet’ on Christmas morning to visit hospitals around the UK, bringing cheery messages to patients. As a kid, I used to believe he had a magic carpet. No wonder I wanted to work in radio.

If you're on air this Christmas, make sure you sound as though you want to be there. It's a privilege.

So. Let’s raise a glass to the dedicated programmers, presenters, schedulers and journalists this Christmas across the UK. 


Friday, 18 November 2016

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

“When the snowman brings the snow. When the snowman brings the snow”.

As 'Miss Snobb and Class 3C'  chorused that coda on Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’ for the first time in 1973, those littl'uns likely did not envisage their song would still be aired on radio stations around the World some 40 years later.

But it is.  Alongside Slade, Jona Lewie and festive offerings from the repertoires of Chris Rea and Maria Carey.

Just as Christmas comes once a year, so do those debates in radio stations about when to play Christmas songs.  Some happy-go-lucky jocks cannot wait to get stuck into their festive songs; others yawn.  

Programmers too are divided.  Some carefully evaluate the tastes and moods of their audiences alongside the constraints of their formats; other grey suits seize a rare opportunity to take out their frosty miserableness vicariously on their listeners. That’ll teach ‘em.

What do we know?

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".

The John Lewis TV ad airs in November. There's no doubting the emotions such campaigns stir, and no doubting the enthusiasm of viewers for exactly that feeling.

When thoughts of Christmas are evoked, listeners feel good – and that’s one of the reasons they came to you.  So much research over the years recognises that listeners value radio as it ‘cheers them up’; and that is as true of music radio as it is for mixed formats, according to the BBC’s own 2010 local radio research. 

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 hugely 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 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 though?  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 106 in the East Midlands revels 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. If you decide to play (or not play) Christmas music based on what another radio station’s research indicates, then you will probably (about 98% probability) make the wrong decision.  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.

In some online research about shopping habits and the like, conducted  by Orion Media in 2013, we asked around 600 listeners when they wanted Christmas songs.  Yes, it‘s a flawed question in the wrong research methodology for this topic, given we know one cannot predict behaviour.  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 people to under-estimate their enthusiasm for Christmas, and to seize the opportunity to be miserable on a dull September day.  They didn’t.  Witness the graph of listeners aged 15-54 below, assembled by Orion Media's hard-working head of research, Sophie Hancock.  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, in favour of powerful alternatives. 

In the US, ‘Christmas Creep’ means some stations fight to be the first to play Christmas songs; just as they fight to be last to go the ad break in the hour.  Traditionally, it's the day after Thanksgiving.

Others adopt their all-Christmas formats, playing back to back Christmas music, with marked audience benefits in busy markets, a trend dating back to the mid '90s, but showing an upturn after the dark days of 9/11.  The audience figures there appear to bear out the format wisdom. 168 US stations went 'all Christmas' last year.

The UK has joined in too in recent years. In the UK, Smooth Radio was one of the first to present an all Christmas format on a new ancillary DAB channel in 2012. Since then, Free (AM DAB) and Signal have joined in too. It seems 2016 will see festive action from Signal, Pulse, The Wave and the Global stable with Heart Extra. Whilst Rajar cannot easily accommodate specific Christmas service ratings, the audience volume such services add to their respective parent brands is probably of value.

Loads of online offerings too. Not least SantaRadio, from none other than 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 enviable '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.

Dublin's Christmas FM first went on air in 2008, joined by other parts of Ireland in ensuing years. The station doesn't carry ads on this temporary additional channel, but does include sponsorships; and has also acquired an impressive reputation for charity fundraising. 

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”.

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".

The top Spotify artists across the combined period of Winter 2014 and 2015 were as tabulated below.  Whilst the Beatles lead, owing to their songs being streamed for the first time in December 2015, it's easy to see many of the remainder have a festive flavour.

  1. The Beatles*
  2. David Bowie
  3. Bing Crosby
  4. Yellow Claw
  5. Nat King Cole
  6. Mark Ronson
  7. Bushido
  8. Michael Bublé
  9. James Newton Howard
  10. ZAYN

Youtube too sees the Carey kick right at the beginning of November.

Back to 'normal' radio formats, 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". 

My old friend, John Ryan, suggested that songs can burn quickly because every shop plays them. I know what you mean, John, but the tills of those retailers, year after year, probably give better indications about the success of a music policy than Rajar ever might.  Happy people spend money.   GaryStein, then at Key, cautioned sensibly “increase the Christmas music rotation slowly. We don’t go mad on the 1st of December.  When you go into a coffee shop on Christmas, you’ll get a special cup and maybe the ‘Ginger Bread Latte’, but it’s just a variation”. True, there are format considerations. 

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.

Make of it what you will.  But remember: unless you are Radio 4, people likely turn on your station to lift their mood.  And, if your format allows it, stop being so miserable. Your listeners would agree. 

Retort here from Misery Myers

Here's a fab Christmas gift for any radio friend. My book:  'How to Make Great Radio'. It's just a click away on Amazon.

Top 10 most played Christmas songs in the noughties:

1. ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU Mariah Carey (1994)
2. FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK The Pogues (1987)
4. STOP THE CAVALRY Jona Lewie (1980)
7. LAST CHRISTMAS Wham (1984)
9. STEP INTO CHRISTMAS Elton John (1973)
10. WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME Paul McCartney (1979)
Source: PPL & PRS for Music