Wednesday, 8 March 2017

How Many Ads Are Too Many?

As a jock, pressing the button to start a long commercial break is a depressing moment. You suspect that listeners are unlikely to enjoy the next few moments quite as much as the rest of the stuff you are doing. At the back of your mind, you fear you may never see them again. 

There is little point moaning about ad breaks per se, of course. Without the revenue, commercial radio would not exist. It's a presenter's job to make sure what they do is difficult to leave.  And making listeners want to return if they do nip off. Today's best programmers are commercially-canny and must accept the right decision for the business as a whole. 

But what is the right decision? What is the correct ad loading which serves the best long term interest of our medium?

In the days of radio's first regulator, ad minutage was regulated, as it is still on TV. I remember back in the eighties feeling despondent on an Easter Saturday seeing a full ad log of the nine whole minutes. 

I am a fan of commercial freedom, in general terms, so I can quite see the reason for having repealed that rule. After all, turning down revenues at busy times meant your station was unable to make sufficient hay whilst the sun shone to make up for the darker times which inevitably arrive.  

It's interesting to consider whether the retention of a nine minute limit would have done more to retain a sensible yield. We know that, particularly with national revenues, following both the consolidation of media-buying and the arrival of so many alternative advertising media, the price for radio nationally is at a disturbingly low level, when one considers the persuasive value of our great medium.

Now, of course, there's more than just the spots.  There are sponsor credits, sponsored content and other revenue generating content. I had hoped that the new freedoms Ofcom offered would allow us to replace ad spots with engaging commercial content - at a premium price, not simply supplement spots.

I worry when I hear the volume of commercial content on some stations. There must be a stage at which it becomes simply intolerable to listeners. No one would argue that sixty minutes an hour of such material is tolerable. What about 59 minutes? 58? At what stage do we say it becomes tolerable, and by what evidence are we judging?

Long term questions arise. Even if a listener stays with you, are you risking diminution of their love for the medium. And what of a new generation, growing up in a world of entertainment choice? Are they ever going to grow to love us if we soak the assets unduly? In taking short term decisions to boost revenues this financial year so we can draw pretty graphs for Board meetings, are we actually doing long term harm to our businesses? 

What of effectiveness? If my precious car dealership appears in the middle of a four minute break, I suspect listeners would fail to recall my message, no matter how brilliant the creative. I acknowledge that research suggests turn-off diminishes the further one gets into the break, but what of attention levels? Whilst longer, less frequent breaks do minimise the number of turn-off points, a heavy loading means you lose songs - and listeners notice.

Back in my Chrysalis Radio days, there was an 'ad unit' rather than minutage policy.  The theory was that listeners noticed 'yet another ad' more than the overall break duration. For many years, the policy there was twelve units per hour - and category exclusivity within the break - lending a competitive edge to the armoury of our sales force. Rather like collecting a round of drinks at a bar, we'd only be expecting our audience to remember three or four distinct messages.  

I monitored a single ad segment on a station recently and heard eleven different client names. That's a failure to respect the integrity of the spots.

In an Australian study, the proportion of ads recalled by respondents listening to low ad volume was more than double that of the high ad volume listeners. They were also twice as likely to recall the product category, and twice as likely to correctly identify the brand. In addition, the respondents exposed to a low volume of ads showed almost three times greater prompted advertising recognition.

Closer to home, RadioCentre research in 2000 suggested that  ad recall was 42% higher in the solus Newslink spots than standard advertising breaks.

Are today's long, frequent ad breaks, plus other commercially-driven inventory simply asking too much of our audience, and producing campaigns which produce too little return on the advertisers' investment. Again, that's hardly good for our business long-term.

We know too that zapping from station to station is becoming more prevalent in a push button world where stations are much easer to find. Although station repertoires are not growing hugely with increased choice, I've experienced a levelling out of listening between P1 and P2 stations and a driving down of time spent listening. Is ad tune out and the ease of efficient flicking one of the reasons? 

As for proudly boasting those ludicrous 'ad-free' days or hours. That's just conceding you know you're really annoying people at every other time - and implying BBC radio is better. 

If commercial radio were launched today, I believe it would simply fail to build audiences to current levels if stations carried as much interruptive commercial content as it currently does on some stations. 

If one examines how radio works at its persuasive best, it would not be through four minute ad breaks. If we believe, as most music stations do, that a four and a half minute news bulletin is 'too long' to hold the interest of a listener, why do we feel that an ad break of that duration is not too long? 

Radio advertising probably has its DNA in early speech radio and drama - and the TV world - hence little playlets and spots. Were commercial radio launched today with its tight music formats, in a world where the BBC operates competitive mainstream offerings, would it depend on spots to the same extent? I suspect we would have more deeply-embedded, imaginative, entertaining  branded content - presenter endorsement - and maybe short solus 'messages', possibly played over intros. That's it.

The challenge is getting from where we are now to a sensible place before it's too late. Ralph Bernard, ex GCap CEO, shared with me the agony of Capital's 2005 decision in to halve the number of ads, and the particular circumstances which drove it.  It's not an easy call for a Board needing to optimise this year's performance. 

In the UK, whilst a radio operator could set itself apart to advertisers by offering more conspicuity to a client message, it would find itself difficult to do so appreciably to listeners, when they already have a no-ad option with the BBC. How large Radio 1 and 2 audiences would be if they had to carry ads, we can only speculate.

Maybe our clients need to start making their voices heard on the matter of minutage. And be prepared to put their hand deeper in their pockets for a solution which works better for us both.  Sadly, our negotiating position is weak.

Expecting commercial radio to drive audiences forward - and expecting the ads to produce a return on investment for advertisers - without a satisfactory ceiling on commercial loadings is a tough call.  Should PDs really carry the blame for any falling audiences when the amount of control they have over what is broadcast is ever-diminishing?

Is it not time for the best radio companies to establish a sensible ceiling for commercial loading of all kinds - in the long term interests of listeners and advertisers - and be clear on what that policy is. 

Grab a copy of my book 'How to Make Great Radio'.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Every Time We Say Goodbye

Listening back to Howard Bentham's farewell announcement on BBC Oxford, I heard him dwell on all the things he promised he wouldn't dwell on, and do many of the things he suggested were not his style. His listeners would have inferred what he implied, and I'm not sure it was a good move for his long term career.

It used to be the case that many last shows didn't happen. If management had decided you'd committed a sin or your contract was not to be renewed, you turned up next day to be whisked quietly aside to be told you wouldn't be appearing on the radio again any time soon. Partly because macho management liked a quick drama; and partly because they feared what you might say when you opened you mouth.

Now, I detect last shows are being tolerated, whether or not the leaving is at the presenter's behest. Not least because listeners can, and do, challenge stations when presenters move on. They usually form the view that management don't know what the hell they are doing; and convey that in rather fewer characters on social media. Sometimes four is sufficient. They are always on the side of the presenter, given if they didn't listen they wouldn't care.

Similarly, presenters now continue to live on social media after their last show, so will be able to give their tupennorth there should they wish, notwithstanding any post contract restrictions. On-air, at least there can be some agreement  between presenter and management about what is said and how.

Of late, we have heard Janice Long in tears- - and Alex Lester ended in reflective mood. Brian Matthew demanded a valedictory show. As I left Trent it was very much a case of embarrassing tears.

Chelsea's lovely Key 103 farewell was a real 'farewell to a lifetime friend at the train station' moment, as listeners correctly point out, they'd grown up with her. In the most under-stated, yet beautiful farewell, Alice Arnold simply croaked on her last word - and that Terry Wogan farewell is still played as an outstanding piece of radio.

If we believe that presenters become friends to listeners, and I could talk for hours on that topic and lean on reasonable evidence, then it seems to me rude not to allow them to say farewell. And, with social media  crusaders, the station will get harangued for doing otherwise anyway.

To my knowledge, as a PD, I didn't ever forbid a final show (maybe just one!) even though I knew some folk were more than a little annoyed about their imminent demise. I find usually that if you trust presenters, they reciprocate. I can name many who had been on the wrong end of the difficult conversation who took it with huge professionalism and generosity to their successor. They have gone on to other jobs and enjoyed a continuing career elsewhere.

But, if you are going to be afforded the privilege of saying goodbye, even though many listeners may not care you are off, then you should behave honourably.

Remember you are addressing your listeners. If you want to address your bosses, just wander over and shout at them. You don't need a transmitter.  When you have a go at your bosses, it feels to a listener like when they pop round to stay at their friends' house who then have a marital row.  It is uncomfortable.

And remember too, your demise is likely not the fault of the person taking over from you.

Whatever you feel in your heart, show the professionalism for which you were hired and the professionalism which will get you another gig.

Your copy of 'How to Make Great Radio'  can be with you within seconds by e-book - or within a couple of days by post

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.