Saturday, 13 September 2014

The best radio is a simple one

I was delighted when RadioPlayer's talented Mike Hill stoodup at the Next Radio conference, armed with a yummy cake his wife had baked for him, to illustrate how complicated the current generation of radios are.  He said what I had thought for some time; but expressed it better.

Radios are getting too complicated.

Having collected radio sets over the ears, it's easy to glance at the shelves and draw ready comparisons.   I adore those early 'solid state' transistor sets.  Most boasted an on-off button, a tuning dial and a volume control.  Some clever ones combined the volume control with the on-off button. Remember that satisfying click as you turned it on and cranked up the sound. It was a simple life

Now they are all just too awkward. Both in and out of cars. 

My DAB set in my new BMW  invites me first to choose between FM, AM, DAB/DMB and, erm, 'sound'.  I suspect few in our business know too much about DMB, let alone normal folk.  Then I choose DAB, to be treated to a list of 'ensembles'.  What does a listener make of these?  

When they wade in, do they know what D1 National is?

If I venture to the 'help' option, lo, the relevant page of the instruction manual which talks of 'bouquets'. Ensembles. Bouquets. Who cares.

And when I drive away from the reception area of any multiplex, its station list remains.  A handy list of stations I cannot receive.  Sometimes, I have the luxury of choosing between the same station on two adjacent multiplexes, but if I choose the weaker one, it does not trouble to hop across  to the better one.

Don't get me started on how to turn off the RDS traffic announcements.  No, I do not want to hear there are hold ups in Surrey, when I'm in Nottingham.  I never did. No-one has ever said to me in any focus group ever that RDS travel flags are useful.  Stop inventing things we don't need.

Back home, I think I've bought just about every DAB set that's ever been made.  Too many seem to me to have a life span of two or three years before the transformer gives up or another bit of it decides it's feeling ill. Frankly, who can blame it. 

My favourite 1968 Roberts is still working fine.  My rather newer Colourstream Roberts FM/DAB/internet  is not.  It claims to have touch screen technology, yet that long ago stopped responding to my crusty finger.  I'd need nails the size of a dainty princess to be able to make sure I press on the right bits.  And you can only use the online stations, naturally, when you have managed to marry it to your Wifi, which is again a full time fiddly job.  Arrows back to previous menus. I'm lost.

It was eminently sensible to have radios which can receive streaming stations as well as FM and AM. But they are horrendously complicated. The design of the Pure Sensia is stunning, but operating it drives me to distraction.

Even having to wait for DAB radios to come on annoys me. I'm easily annoyed.  In the morning, I press 'on' and it stubbornly has a good old yawn and stretch before it saunters into action. I thought waiting for a radio to warm up was a ritual from the valve age. Ovaltine anyone?

My dad's talking Pure radio is a boon.  Press the handle and it tells you he is listening to Gem 106. Actually it doesn't.  It tells him he's listening to Century. It clearly has a fundamental objection to rebrands

The DAB set in my kitchen almost works. Provided I extend the aerial so it pokes out the eye of anyone wandering into the sitting room.

Mike produced a box which did what we wanted it to do. You find a station easily by name on search, and it delivers it to you by DAB, FM or online, dependent on which appears most satisfactory. That's all we want.

This is a worrying time for radio.  We have lost the bedside war, as glowing alarm clock radios have suffered the same fate as the TeasMade (ask your granny). Now the dashboard is at risk.  Having enjoyed pride of place in the dashboard since the 60s, access to radio is at risk now of being hidden away. If it can be received at all. If we lose both the wake up and driving moments, there's a risk radio itself is in peril.

I'm proud of the early work by Pure on DAB, with some brilliant pioneering sets; and Roberts too responded well. Having stations available by name was indeed a step ahead of the old frequency numbers. But in the days of Fabulous 208, we could just about remember those digits and which stations were AM and FM.  Now there are more stations, and growing listener repertoires.  We want one set of pre-sets which locks onto stations regardless of platform.

Stop asking me questions.  I don't have to choose which power station my electricity is coming from; I have a similar level of disinterest in how my radio station is getting to me. FM, DAB, online. Just let me listen.

The beauty of radio in general terms is its simplicity. Someone else is selecting the news stories and songs for me. That's why I like it.  Don't make just turning it on a full time job.

Tesco 2014. 16 of these sets did not receive DAB
If radio is to survive, we need instinctive technology on radio sets and in cars.  Simple is best. Choose your station, turn it up or down.  Sorted.

Friday, 29 August 2014

More gobbledygook in radio ads

I hope one day this will be a fond piece of #radiomoments history. It is the ends of three ads from the same ad break today.

Under UK laws and restrictions, ads are currently required to carry all manner of disclaimers. The idea is that they protect consumers. They truly do not.

Anyone who understands how radio, and indeed the consumption of much media, works knows well that listeners reap only a few takeaways from each ad.  The people whose job it is to produce ads know that all too well.  Any detailed caveats, therefore, are utterly redundant.

No-one can buy anything instantly by shouting at the radio, there is ample time for due consideration of deals and small print.  The point of advertisement is not the place. It achieves less than nothing, and the time must be right for a sensible view of the sort of regulations which drive these requirements. They ill-serve consumers.

Even 'Ts and Cs apply' is a pointless phrase: a) what is the opposite? Absolutely no terms and conditions apply to this offer? And b) Many listeners may  not even understand what a T or a C is.

I rant more here: on an earlier post.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

A Very Good Morning to You

“And a very good evening to you”.  It’s not a phrase anyone uses in real life.  It’s particularly odd when a major BBC TV news bulletin starts with those words, just after we've witnessed dark images of death and destruction around the World.  It’s even odder when those pictures are as truly appalling as they have been in recent weeks.

Why is it a good evening? More to the point, why is it a very good evening?

It’s all very polite, but does it not sound strange? Just like the obsession in radio and TV with ‘thank you’.

Note when newsreaders do their thing and the presenter utters the gratuitous ‘thank you very much, Susanne’. For what exactly?

Why does Susanne enjoy the privilege of being thanked; and not those who sang the songs or made the ads, or those hard-working jingle-singers.  It’s most unfair.  I do find particularly fascinating those who thank the network newsreaders many hundreds of miles away down the line, in the full knowledge that the reader will never hear the fulsome gratitude.  Is it not like writing a thank you letter and ripping it up?

Witness too, those occasions when a studio presenter takes some time to preface an OB report.  They go to pains in the delivery of the cue to describe the background and carefully set the scene for the report.  On TV, that studio presenter even goes to the trouble of half-nodding at the end of the cue, with the head sympathetically on an angle as they anticipate the report unfolding.   At that point, just when the listener or viewer has been taken emotionally into the very heart of the story, the remote presenter breaks the spell and chooses to say a chirpy ‘thank you very much, John’.  For what exactly?  Reading the cue?  Maybe even a cue into which the reporter had considerable input. 

Why whisk the listener away from the place they have been taken, back into the politeness of the English sitting room? Given there’s also likely been a gap for the ISDN line or satellite feed to catch up, the whole thing sounds inordinately pregnant.

Guests have caught on too.  Maybe it’s part of their media training.  ‘This situation has been described as appalling by many consumer.   Fred Farnsbarns is from the trade body.  Fred, people have been seriously injured owing to these problems, what have you got to say about it? “, struts the presenter with theatrical aggression.  Good morning”, responds guest Fred, before pausing; stubbornly determined not to carry on until the grumpy presenter spits out  a reluctant sotto voce ‘good morning’ back.

Callers are almost as bad.  In midst phone-in, at just the opportune moment, a presenter will swiftly turn to a caller for input ‘John, this has happened to you hasn’t it?’, they  query, smiling smugly that they have managed to conduct the orchestra of voluntary contributors so skillfully.  Caller John  then merrily  ignores the question - and just says ‘good morning’ to the presenter.  What’s more, the caller then  proceeds to ask the presenter ‘how are you?’?  This British ‘how are you?’ business is a puzzle to most people from outside our fair Isles.  They correctly observe that neither of the participants in a  Home Counties ‘how are you?’ exchange is remotely interested in each other’s welfare.

Let’s stop saying ‘thank you’, or ‘thank you very much’, or ‘thank you very much indeed’ or ‘thank you very much indeed there’.  Or ‘thank you very much indeed there, Trevor’.  Or ‘good morning’, or ‘good evening’.  Or ‘a very good morning’.  It usually isn’t. 

If we stop, maybe callers and guests will swiftly catch on and we can all be as naturally rude to each other as we are in real life and save an awful lot of time.  And not appear weird when we describe the most atrocious sights this Century as being part of a good evening.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Psychology of Radio - 1935 style

“It has already grown from the insignificance of an embryonic idea in the minds of technicians to the stature of a Goliath in industry and public affairs. Vigorously endowed and shrewdly directed, it has developed sturdily, and with lightning speed has fashioned for itself a place in our national life” 

So says a 1935 book called ‘The Psychology of Radio’. 

The book was written in America, back in the days when radio was but a small child, and self-appointed experts were penning articles and posturing about it.  Just as they do about this digital thing nearly eighty years later.

It’s a fascinating read.  It makes mention of an impressive early experiment, conducted when there was an appetite to understand better this new fangled thing.  An evangelist gathered an audience and preached in a hall.  His sermon was relayed by sound only, as if a radio broadcast, to a neighbouring hall.  As the call came for the congregation to step forward and participate, the genuine assembly started to take action.  Members of the radio audience in the second hall were not motivated in the same way.  They stood there like lemons.

The author explained he felt this was not through some flaw in this otherwise miraculous medium, but simply because the vocal delivery on radio needed to be different.  In structure, it was said that a live speaker works for “immediate rather than long-run results, for emotional fervour rather than for future action”.  

He concluded:

“A radio spellbinder would have spoken quite differently. He would have used less bombast and more artistry, less brute force and more cunning. He would have directed his attention to the invisible audience and would have made each listener feel welcome as a member of the circle. He would have aroused the listeners' sense of participation in the occasion. "Friends, this is Huey P. Long speaking.."

All those years ago, the authors (Hadley Cantril  & Gordon Allport) had already recognised that radio was a one-to-one thing; and you had to address a single listener as you spoke if you really wanted to motivate.

The chapter observed that the voice on radio is different from a person addressing in real life in that:

  • “In the minds of the listeners (radio) places music in the preferred position among radio program(me)s.
  • It frees the listener from the necessity of conventional politeness toward public performers.
  • It interposes a serious psychological barrier between the broadcaster and his audience through the destruction of the normal circular relationship.
  • It virtually eliminates social facilitation among the auditors with the result that they are less crowdish, more critical and individualistic”.

Witness the medium’s educational prowess too. The publication suggests that radio improves the capacity of the average man to listen. And even “probably increases the vocabulary of the average listener”.

“It was discovered that the college student, with his long training in listening to lectures, is far better able than the untrained listener to understand and to recall what he hears. His advantage, furthermore,is discovered to be greater for auditory than for visual material. It appears, therefore, that intelligent listening is par excellence the mark of the educated man.”

“Although there is a prevailing tendency to use the radio as a background for other tasks, when the dial is turned to a specific program and when attention is directed fully to its message, an auditory training is provided for millions of people and its long-range effects may be exceedingly important. For increasing the world's population of "good listeners" radio deserves an extra star in its crown”.

So, if the boss ever tells you to stop streaming Gem 106 at your desk, just smile patiently and assure him that it’s training you to listen better to his wisdom.

Even back then there was a worry that radio might put people off their work

“Take, first, the case of the housewife or the student who is completely preoccupied with work. The loud-speaker emits its stream of sound, but it falls on deaf ears. The distraction is completely inhibited. As long as attention does not shift, the radio's effect, if it has any at all, is entirely subliminal. In such a case the effort required (and unconsciously exerted) to overcome the distraction may actually enhance concentration on the task in hand.... The stronger the potential distraction the greater is the compensatory attention”.

Attention, RAB! The article goes on to provide early thoughts on the topic addressed in more recent years by Saatchi & Saatchi's 1981/1995 'Ironing Board Study' and Classic FM’s/Bournemouth University's 1995 'Jigsaw study'. The theory that listeners zone in and out depending on what interests them:

“However, attention is at best a restless thing, always waxing and waning, and shifting from one focus to another. The sounds of the radio are seldom inhibited for more than a few minutes at a time.  The mind wanders from the task in hand to the distracting sound”.

Some things have come to pass:

“In certain ways radio is a dangerous competitor of the newspaper.”

And some prophetic observations on the delinquent use of radio’s immense power:

“The Nazi propagandist minister, Goebbels, uses it ubiquitously to spread the doctrines of Hitler and says that ''Some day the radio will be the spiritual daily bread of the whole German nation."

What about children though?

“About one-third of the children say that they lie awake in bed thinking of things they have heard over the radio. The same number report that they frequently dream of radio plots : three- fourths of these dreams are nightmares”.

Given American radio was, by then, already into commercial radio full throttle, the book also alludes to what later became ‘pester power’ in terms to children hearing advertisements and then lobbying poor Mama for said goodies:

“ The advertising appeal is ingenious and effective. It is directed toward the child's desire for physical superiority (victory at games and ''pep"). It comes just before the supper hour when hunger facilitates mental associations pertaining to food. It arouses the powerful motive of sympathy and compassion by asking the child to tell his mother about the product... Through repetition, tedious to the adult but interesting to the child, the association between the fantasy of the story and the product in question is indelibly established”.

Ah. Repetition builds reputation.

What of station formats?

  • “a slight majority of this station's hours are devoted to network”
  • “far more network programs are broadcast on Sundays than on weekdays;
  • “the early morning hours (6-8) contain entirely local programs”
  • “three-fourths of the programs broadcast during the best evening hours (7-10) are network relays;
  • “the days when listening habits are least dependable (over the week-end) are filled with sustaining network broadcasts to keep the station on the air most economically..”
So, the truth is out.  In implementing 'The Future of Radio' in 2007, OFCOM just copied and pasted from this 1935 book for its Localness Guidelines.

By the way, according to the 1930 US census (which likely enjoyed jolly COI-type ads saying “fill in the form y’all”), there were suggestions that 70 per cent of homes were, were “supplied with radios”.  

If the behavioural assertions above are to be believed, the rest of the homes contained thick Americans with fairly chilled kids.

This is amazing. Average listening time was 19.6 hours a week. In 2014, it is 21.5.  The sample size was 507, by the way if Ipsos/Mori are reading this.  

Popular programme elements included ‘Dance Orchestras’ at Number 1 in the chart, followed by football and symphonies. Wow.  It’s commercial national radio. Absolute, Talksport and Classic.  Sports and old songs are in there too, in the next two positions, so thank goodness we have Smooth.  Least popular thing? “Advertising messages”.

How many stations in the listening repertoire back in the 1930s?

 “The average listener is not accustomed to tune in to all available stations. His habits at the dial are likely to be rutted: 5.6 per cent listen regularly to only one station while 76.6% per cent never listen to more than three stations”.

All these years later, the ‘habits at the dial’ of the average punter are much the same.

There’s some handy listener research, suggesting that 84% preferred music programming, with the remainder opting for speech. It also suggests that speech is used as foreground listening and music as background.

Forgive me for just lapping up the experiments on presenter voices, conducted by WEEI in Boston involving the tones of  twenty-four male (but of course) speakers and over six hundred judges. They sought to establish whether people could judge appearance by a voice.  We must try that trial again. A great contest for your breakfast show, maybe.

They  found that it was challenging to establish height from a voice, although some favourable results were uncovered owing “primarily to the case of a short fat man whose voice was thick, mellow, and "chuckling." . Give that guy a job on Radio 2.

Voices were matched to  handwriting “about one and a half times as frequently as would be expected by chance.”

Photos and voices were matched with some success as was political preference.  Close your eyes. Listen to Nick Ferrari and try to establish which way he votes.

I shall leave you with a brief glimpse into Chapter 7.

“Most people would rather hear a man than a woman speak over the radio. Yet few listeners are able to explain this preference: they can tell neither how the sexes differ in their vocal appeal nor why. Even the supervisor of broadcasting at the studio can seldom give reasons why his announcing staff is entirely male.”

I bet he can’t.

They resorted to another fab experiment with men and women reading articles into a microphone and  respondents were asked to score on various factors. 

"Women were found to be rated higher in some qualities and men in others. In general men are judged to be more natural and more persuasive. Except in poetry and abstract passages, the listeners felt that men took more of an interest in the material they were broadcasting. In four out of seven experiments, women's voices were judged as more attractive".

Before the analysis, 95 per cent of the listeners had already stated that men's voices were more attractive.  The conclusion states:

“This result shows a noteworthy difference between stereotyped and analytic judgments. It indicates that the preliminary judgment was based to a considerable degree upon mere prejudice”

How far have we really come in 80 years?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Radio Nightmares. Do you get them?

It's the worst show ever in your career. Nothing works. No guests turns up. You can barely speak. 

Thank goodness  - it's just a vivid dream.  One in which all the things which have ever gone wrong in your on-air career all do.  At once.  And the things which might have gone wrong also do.

It's a recurring nightmare for me; and I gather from many friends in radio, it's a common burden.

In mine, I'm sat at the mixing desk on the swively chair.  It must be the 80s, as I'm playing vinyl.  At least, I'm playing all the songs I can actually find - for some reason there aren't many in the studio.  The ones I can grab are all tracks I have never heard of.  There is accordingly a real  fear that I just won't have enough music for the show.  I resort to B sides, dumping the needle on the disc in panic actually as I speak.  It lands half way through the unknown track, perilously close to the run-out grooves.

The painful detail is remarkable. The news jingle is 13" long, but the second hand on the studio clock appears to be moving more quickly than usual, and I miss that crucial point at which I should have fired the ident. Damn.

I can speak, but not properly.  For some reason, amidst the carts and other 80s ephemera, our current Free Radio (Birmingham) travel presenter, Chiara, pops in and leans over my microphone to chip in.  I fear indulging in conversation to fill time because she is not known on all the network frequencies I'm broadcasting on.  Even in my dreams, 21st Century complications crop up.

They say that dreams are a way of the brain performing a computer audit.  I fear this one is more akin to a Blue Screen debacle. Time for a de-frag.

According to Twitter response on this theme, @DanielJOwen is more like me in his dreams than he is in his politics: he also runs out of vinyl singles.  @Matt is a touch younger and his dreams are typically digital: he's frantically tracking down the next CD for Classic FM.  Thinking about it, relaxing Classic FM programme dreams must be a little less onerous than CHR dreams.   Mind you, @Alan Matsell is always late for  his show in his dreams, and he's missed the 'news-in' completely.

These colourful adventures are clearly related to one's specific route in the business: @RadioMikeHill recalls his Studio Manager days. Staring through the glass seeing  a presenter's lips move, but even he cannot get a peep through the desk. Turn it off and turn it on again, Mike. @Ian Deeley hasn't had one of those dreams for a while, but he remembers them.

@SuekCraft is on nocturnal production duty, although sadly the guest she has booked has not turned up. She's on the phone trying to get another contributor who's been inked in as a phoner.  Guess what. They are not answering either.

The talented @Breathwick is on duty in the newsroom of her dreams; frequently waking up sweating from the 'faders aren't working' nightmare'. I'm sorry we cannot bring you that report either. Nor this one. 

Like me, @JamesCridland has not been at the front end of a desk for some years. Yet, inexplicably, the aged dreams persist.

The dream exhausts you. No definition of it ever appears in any of those tacky 'dreams explained' books   You wake up  - just appalled at your performance. And you don't even get a show fee.

Thank goodness we don't do important proper jobs.  Hello to all those doctors and pilots out there.

Friday, 6 June 2014

What should a BBC Local station do on by-election night?

Last night the Nation’s eyes were focused on one of the most dramatic by-elections in recent history.  The major parties were at risk of being tossed aside in favour of a newcomer. In a foretaste, potentially, of a dramatic General Election, here was a significant moment in Newark.

Just after 1130 p.m, I thought I’d check in to see how things were going as polling day ended and the votes began to be counted from the battered black boxes.  As this was a single election, I turned to BBC local radio for my quick update.  I anticipated that the results would not yet be in, but that we’d get the usual early chatter and indications.     

The ‘historic’ town of Newark sits on the edge of a couple of BBC areas, but given it is clearly a Nottinghamshire town geographically, I tuned to BBC Radio Nottingham for my fix; a station for which I have huge affection, not least because it belongs to my home-town.  In any case, the content at that time of night is usually regional anyway, so I felt pretty sure I’d be brought up to date fairly swiftly. 

I heard a song.  I concluded that the programme was to be a blend of information, other chat and music; and, hey, that would have been fine. We’ve all been part of dreary election programmes where there is not much yet to say, so I felt a mix of normal content and election updates plus a few suitable songs would may be a defensible option.

As the song ended, I heard a jolly mystery sound contest. Then a song, then more mystery sound. Then a song. Then more mystery sound. Then another song (Crispian St. Peters, by the way, was indeed the correct artist name.  There appeared to be a tad of confusion from the presenter lucky enough to be younger than me and most listeners).

Nothing about the election.

As the County’s 50 plusses moved to their beds, they heard nothing about one of the most significant in recent history on the radio station claiming to serve their patch. 

The midnight news update would tell me, I thought. There wasn’t one.  

There never is. The fact there randomly never is a touch puzzling to me.  It’s the only hour of the 24 hour weekday when, for some inexplicable reason, the BBC reckons no-one wants to hear what’s happening - locally or nationally.  I reckon that last bulletin as you go to sleep is pretty useful.   Late bulletins used to be extended in days gone by on many services.   On this night, at least, I thought someone might have agreed a news update would be a pretty good idea.  It’s where casual listeners would expect to find it.  But they didn’t.

So, after the midnight hour and the Isley Brothers, suddenly, I was alerted to the prospect of ‘a recap’. ‘Ah’, I thought, ‘here we go’.  But no.  It was a recap on secret sound before more chatter about leaving gifts.

For a network operated under the umbrella of BBC News, this whole approach puzzled me. 

At last, at about 1225, we were treated to a report from the Count.  I knew they were there,  because they were Tweeting merrily, which I am sure was useful to the significant proportion of BBC local listeners 50+ who use Twitter actively.  I also knew they’d be there because I knew the station would do a stunning job in the morning when, I agree, the bulk of the audience lies.

But listeners do not often stay around for an hour for a sniff of what they seek.  

Hearing nothing from about 1130 to about 1220 ( I later uncovered a report at about 1120, before I’d listened) might lead any normal listener to feel that the station was not across this story and give up.  There was nothing wrong with the presenter’s performance that night:  the jolly chit chat is fine at that time of the evening. It is just that on this key night, I imagined there would have been some management and production direction to say something about the election every now and again.

There should certainly have been a midnight news bulletin. 

Is this a case of ‘too late at night for management to bother about unless journalists get very excited’. I think back to the night of the riots, when the likes of BBC Manchester and BBC WM (and many commercial stations) were live and reflecting unrest in their communities the way they should.  East Midlands did not that night.  David Holdsworth, head of BBC Local Radio, suggested later to me that I was getting my knickers in a twist for no reason: there were not any riots in Nottingham.  He was wrong.  There was violence – and there was fear. It was a frightening night in the City.  Thankfully not to key urban levels but real unrest.  My dad was worried. People were looking to their local station for reassurance.  They got a phone-in on Elvis lookalikes.

If you are going to claim to be part of BBC news, you’ve got to do it when it’s a bit late sometimes.  In capable hands, the tone of a show which is usually fun banter can easily nod to something more serious when needed.

We all get things wrong on our stations. I know that more than most.  But a pending period affords you the time to think about getting it right.  I hope those whose jobs it is might, this morning, reflect on whether the late show could have been produced to make sure the election was mentioned every now and again – so listeners could hang around, safe in the knowledge that a formal update would follow.  

They might also ask whether or not a midnight bulletin would have been a good idea on one of the most significant nights in recent electoral history.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Research - 'a good servant but a bad master'

Don't you miss those huge colourful books of Rajar audience figures?  With two inch thick spines, the huge volumes were tremendously useful as door stops; or could be piled up randomly in some sort of Tracey Emin's installation.  I'm not sure how the colours were chosen, but anyone who considered using the same gaudy colour scheme for their home would likely attract few visitors and even fewer friends. I liked the orange ones best.

Before the internet age, these were the hefty tomes through which we we thumbed to establish whether our new 'lost and founds' feature at 2.15 weekdays had been a wise move for audiences. Shelves groaned with their weight. Programmers developed pecs to die for.

Back then, the Rajar ritual was a little like Black Rod banging on the door of the Commons. Figures, if required promptly, had to be collected in person by a breathless ambassador down South, who would adjourn to a nearby red phone kiosk, press Button A, and telephone the results back to an anxious base like Katie Boyle phoning in the London Eurovision votes.

The car sticker business used to be the one to be in, back in the days when the UK research survey period was confined to a short set span, just twice a year.  Much fun was to be had, witnessing  each station focusing the entirety of its on and off-air promotional activity during that frantic window.  As a jock, if you wanted a day off in the period, the answer was no. Wise programmers understood that listening habits needed to be nurtured before, not during the target weeks. The system did, however, offer a host of new excuses for poor performances if, for example, Wimbledon fortnight fell in the relevant spell.

As more radio operations became listed companies, publication time was shifted variously to the end or the beginning of the trading day, lest a huge audience decline might provoke investor jitters.  The crack of dawn was surely the worst timing, given one was already in a pretty miserable mood.  I recall one Antipodean  programme director suggesting he was about to throw himself out the third floor window as one set of disappointing dawn digits were downloaded.  As his character was a tad unpredictable at times, I stood in front of said window, just in case.

The BBC similarly harboured some Reithian reservations about the value of hard data when it began its own Listener Research Section in 1936, launched under the Corporation's PR wing.  Robert Silvey was cannily hired from what was then Britain's largest ad agency, the London Press Exchange, to spearhead the initiative.  He'd already been involved in fact-finding across Europe, not least as to the growing revenue potential from overseas commercial radio.  He was, however, made aware of the Corporation's worries that "a deeper analysis of audience reactions would amount to an intolerable strain" amongst programme-makers.  Poor loves.  One memo cautioned: "any research that might be undertaken should be so controlled as to secure that it never developed from a servant into a master, to the detriment of the essential qualities of good broadcasting" (memo from Sir Stephen Tallents, BBC PR Controller, to the BBC's General Advisory Council in 1936).  

As commercial radio was established in the UK in the '70s as 'independent local radio', figures
were quickly demanded, not least by the medium's cautious new advertising clients. By late '73, in the absence of published data, the ad agency Benton & Bowles conducted a sample of 222 homes.  The findings suggested that at 8 a.m, five London homes had been tuned to the happy sound of Capital and none to the chimes of LBC.  Such statistics, said the agency, "failed to achieve listening levels which even remotely justified the rates they were charging".  The residents of all such homes, nevertheless, likely expressed devotion to Birds Eye peas, the product which had been promoted in the first ad breaks on both services.

In January '74, Capital trumpeted results which suggested that the new station actually enjoyed a reach of 1m (sample size 465), a little awry from the estimate by the BBC's research Wombles the previous November of 400,000.  This BBC/commercial duelling became tremendous sport.  By September '74, a survey published by Radio Audience Measurement Ltd (a division of NOP) declared that  independent local radio attracted an audience of 5m for its growing network; whereas the BBC suggested those same commercial stations generated barely a million fans.  Clyde's Jimmy Gordon declared proudly that his station alone attracted 875,000.  Jimmy went on to invite the Corporation to join a 'joint research currency' to stop the squabbling for once and for all.

The creation of such a currency was still some time off, but as the Queen donned her Silver Jubilee hat in '77, JICRAR, the Joint Industry
Committee for Radio Audience Research co-ordinated data which enabled all 19 commercial stations to plot graphs in coloured pens, thanks to the instigation of a comprehensive diary research programme across the UK.  13m adults were tuning in for 12.5 hours per week, on average, with more than half the audience 'over 35'.  Piccadilly was able to claim the 'largest station outside London' crown  by June '78.  As the network grew, ILR's reach overall quickly blossomed to 20.3m by mid '82.

In '92, JICRAR rose to acronym heaven; its last words suggesting a reach for Capital London of 34% and Capital Gold at 23%; 9% for Melody in London (now Magic); 24% for Aire in Leeds; and 39% for all Midlands Radio's West Midlands stations.  Key 103 walked away with a 25% reach, with its AM service Piccadilly enjoying 26%. For a generation not unduly distracted by the Paul Daniels Magic Show and Noel's House Party on wobbly TV sets, average weekly time spent listening to any radio station was rarely in single figures.

Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) entered the fray from Q4 '92: a body jointly owned by commercial radio and the BBC, with the ad industry contributing round the Board table.  Replacing JICRAR and the BBC's Daily Surveys, it published its first results in January the following year, indicating an 89% reach for all radio (virtually unchanged to the present day).  The BBC reached 69%, with 53% to commercial radio.  Radio 1's reach was 16.5m (34%), with Radio 2 at 10.2m.  The overseas long-wave service, Atlantic 252 'you're never more than a minute away from music' enjoyed 4.3m, with Classic FM at 4.2m. 

Its debut is well-remembered by some very sore local commercial stations, given the early data suggested a significantly lesser reach for local commercial services. An embattled AIRC (now RadioCentre) correctly pointed out "There is a settling in period during which the methodology adopted, and the gathering and processing of data, continues to undergo the closest scrutiny".  So, whilst chalk and cheese must never be compared, the new figures suggested a 42% reach for chalk, compared with the earlier 52% for cheese.  Understandably, the stations most adversely affected made their views clear; and the now familiar issue of registering audience habits amongst sullen 15-24s was hotly debated.

Methodology and currency has always been under review.  As the list of stations grew so long it could no longer be printed in the diaries in anything above font size 6, new sticky labels were introduced.  Respondents were invited to don a Valerie Singleton smile and stick their own in.  Not without incident, however, and in January '96, Rajar conceded that respondents were 'failing to stick in sufficient labels'.

In September 2004, Rajar declared an 'ambitious but achievable' plan to measure audience figures by electronic methods by '07.  Thus continued serious consideration of audiometers, housed in personal tailored devices or watches, in those pre-smart phone days.  Such pronouncements were set against a fiery backdrop of persistent challenge by the shy retiring Kelvin MacKenzie, then Chief Executive of The Wireless Group, owner of the new TalkSport, who even resorted to a court challenge to the accuracy of RAJAR’s diary system.  His company's own research, conducted by GfK, unsurprisingly, disagreed with the published Rajar figures.  The words "preposterous, scandalous and shocking" were heard in this expensive 'spat', as MacKenzie's former titles might have called it.  

By the end of 2011, we did not quite see electronic 'measurement' per se in the UK, but we did
witness the arrival of a proportion of online listening diaries. Around the World, others have dipped toes in waters. The US began to employ PPM (personal people meters) in 2007 in some markets, and a whole new science has evolved of trying to maximise audiences in the light of intelligence suggesting more listening occasions in shorter bursts. Arbitron (Nielson) respondents are recruited by phone.  To debate the pros and cons of metering would require another blog as lengthy as this. 

Like our fashions, audience research has changed hugely in the last forty years.  Some of us observe that we now appear to be facing vacillation for established stations in large markets which had not hitherto been witnessed.  The research work, however, is likely performed as diligently as ever, if not more so.  But neither Rajar nor its contractors Ipsos-MORI and RSMB can be held responsible for the growing number of radio stations, our increasing lack of enthusiasm for admitting cheery strangers bearing clip boards through our doors, nor the increasingly low attention spans of diary-fillers.  Maybe we can take some responsibility as an industry  for the numbers of listening diaries for which we choose to pay. Whatever, it remains one of the World's most comprehensive pieces of ongoing research into anything.

Sensible, considered debate is always underway as to whether the current system fits the bill. That's entirely correct: we and our clients deserve the very best answers.  Are we measuring the right things in the right way sufficiently often?  Are the three-monthly injections a sensible way of reflecting genuine incremental changes in audience tastes?  Is the data sufficiently prompt?  Is there merit in some form of electronic measurement?  Is there merit in including data compiled in more than one way?  Are we right to continue to consider 15+ as our key metric (or 12+ as in the US)?  
Should radio continue to be largely measured in isolation of the growing number of competitive advertising platforms and entertainment services.  Is there a need for better incentives for respondents? Should we include catch-up?  Can we integrate the hard data from online streaming?  Should we seek to demonstrate attention, recall  and engagement if radio is really to continue to prove its worth?  And - the question which gets my brow most furrowed - is the doorstep approach really the right one now?

Do commercial radio and the BBC still need to share a currency, bearing in mind the needs are so very different; and public comparisons between commercial and BBC are now so rarely meaningful? Apart from top line reach figures, might the BBC wisely deploy its research funding more to attitudinal analysis of how closely it is meeting the requirements of its Charter?  And, in general terms, should we be requiring the data to be an effective tool for programmers; or just a trading currency?

The answers to any questions on radio research are rarely simple, not least in the concentrated UK market.  The only certainty is, as in the past, that a significant change in methodology would likely produce a similar change in the figures generated; and a rational amnesty by all interested parties would be required when adjusting to any new norms.

Meanwhile, where were you last Thursday at 4.00? What were you listening to? And was it on a DAB set or FM or online?

Monday, 21 April 2014

What the hell is an 'earlier accident'?

Cheery travel announcers have once again been treating us this bank holiday with the implications of ‘earlier accidents’.  It’s another radio cliché.  All accidents were earlier.

If what they mean is that the accident is just about cleared away, but I’ll still face some residual delays, then, in fact, I’m still being delayed owing simply to ‘an accident’, aren’t I?  To a motorist, there is little difference between being delayed by an accident whilst the metal is still smouldering; or by a man in a fluorescent jacket sweeping the detritus from the road.    

They do love these extra words, don’t they, these travel announcers.  Roads are ‘closed off’ rather than closed.  And roadworks are always ‘ongoing’. As opposed to what exactly?

Call me thick, if you like, but on a motorway, I often don’t know whether I’m driving North or South, so telling me there’s a delay East-bound is of little value to me.  All I know is where I’m driving to.  Motorway junction numbers are a similar mystery.  I think I know which ones I use regularly, but I couldn’t swear to it. Can you help me in your bulletins please?

Trains often appear too complex for travel announcers.  After a cluster of words about the 'railway network' (what?), they will say ‘check with your travel company'.  Cheers; that's useful.  And when we do get a train mentioned, it’s often one from Crewe.  I’d prefer if you told me if it was the one I get on; given, frankly, I have no idea whether its journey started from Crewe or not.

I heard today of some problems on the arterial routes. The what?  I’ve rarely heard that word mentioned anywhere else.  Apart from on travel bulletins.

"Do allow a little extra time for your journey". As opposed to thinking you may get there quicker owing to the accident?

And, when the snow falls, "don't go out unless you absolutely have to". I often wonder if driving to work qualifies as a necessity or not.

Peter Stewart reminds me of 'stagger your journey'.  As he rightly suggests, doing that is impossible unless each driver liaises with everyone else. 

Oh, and 'busy owing to the sheer volume of traffic'.  That'll just be 'busy' then.

In focus groups, listeners insist that radio has the inside track on travel news.  They
believe that we have information they cannot access.  And, if assembled by someone who knows what they are doing, that’s true. And those great eye-witness reports which radio can call upon are truly unsubstitutable.

I’ve written before about the wonders of passive language, where ‘drivers are advised to...’. Not only is it passive, it’s third person, suggesting you are talking about the listeners rather than to them. How odd.

B road numbers  in town centres are another mystery.  They often exist only in the minds of those purveying the travel news. Names usually make more sense.

Thank goodness for the RDS travel alerts. One of those lovely ideas which must have sounded great on paper.  I have yet to meet anyone who attaches any value to it.   It does, however, offer great sport for BBC locals who like to press the button when you are in Brighton, and alert you to some temporary traffic lights in Evesham. Preferably loudly.  Car manufacturers kindly do allow one to switch this device off and on, or reduce the volume; but they have all clearly reached an international accord to hide such controls away as well as possible.

BBC Local Radio has quietly switched away from dispensing its own travel news to deploying outside contractors.  Many such broadcasters are good on-air, actually, with an enviable command of the road network.   It’s inevitable, however, that they will not know all the crazy pronunciations which pop up in every broadcast area.  As a result, those poor presenters sometimes get them wrong.  And nothing. Yes, nothing, annoys a BBC local radio listener more than a presenter who gets a pronunciation wrong.  In honesty, when the BBC prides itself on being purveyor of all things local, and travel info pops up as frequently as it does, I’m puzzled about how this decision to farm things out was taken without civil unrest.

Like rather too many items on radio, we are routinely informed at the outset who is reading the travel news.  Not quite sure why.  Do any listeners  ever remember the name, unless it belongs to a presenter who pops up on the same shift ever day and injects a little personality, where a case can be made for relationship and trust? That pervasive self-identing on radio  goes back to BBC wartime news, and it’s a habit which has stuck with us.  The War is over.

Radio is now not the only source for travel news, but its influence is still hugely powerful.  Focus groups confirm that.  Radio can not only tell you what’s happening – it understands. 

The best travel news translates clinical information from a variety of reliable sources into the informal 'you' language you’d use if you phoned a friend to warn them of a problem.  It then
keeps you in touch with that dynamic situation whilst you are on the move.  

Radio also reassures.  When you’re in a jam there’s something comforting to know why - and that your plight has been recognised by ‘ the radio’. Giving you a sense of unity.  Making you part of something.  

Half the job on-air is putting your arm around those travellers. 

Old travel bulletin memories, recalled here courtesy Andy Walmsley