Monday, 15 December 2014

Sales Execs are from Mars; Presenters from Venus

I'm lucky to have worked in some truly great radio stations where the commercial and programming teams get on with mutual respect and understanding, regardless of the often very different characters involved.  I've also worked in ones where open hostility has been declared. Most stations live in a healthy place some way in-between.

It is easy to be perplexed about the way those in commercial teams on radio stations sometimes just don't appear to comprehend their colleagues across in the programming team.  And vice versa. 

The commercial animals might watch the programming elves wander in cheerily, dressed scruffily, half way through the day and then witness shrieks of laughter as the jocks banter in their messy corner of the office. They must deduce that these folk really don't do much work at all.  Meanwhile, the programmers watch the sales exec turning up in a daze after a day off sick, having sold something which really doesn't fit on the station which the relevant exec rarely listens to.  They can both wind each other up.

A sales person rightly focuses on their financial target like a fighter pilot.  Unlike presenters, they don't earn the amounts they've become accustomed to unless they succeed.  They have to be well-informed and doggedly persistent.  They are trained to overcome objections too; so the way they seek to overcome programming's objections is hardly surprising. They want to smash their target, get notes from appreciative clients and carry off the bonuses around which they have built their lifestyles, then wallow in the respect that their success brings. 

Meanwhile, the programming team just want to be number one by Rajar, by having fun and producing the best content they can.  A surfeit of less-than-fascinating commercial content can seem to get in the way of victory. They like the bunce too, but maybe more a symbol of recognition than the key benefit per se. Unlike sales execs, their fees stay much the same from month to month, whether they have great shows or not.  But it can all end very suddenly. 

Different goals, so hardly surprising they approach things differently.

In many stations I have worked, management meetings have concerned themselves with dreary AOB points about how we can get departments to understand each other more.  Regular 'update emails', lavish bowling nights and cheap buffets are devised to lubricate better integration and comprehension. Everyone turns up merrily at the social events, only to gather in their usual cliques.  

The fact is that these people can often simply be very different sorts of folk.  Those who take great pride in sealing a sales deal may not derive the same satisfaction from a smooth segue. The reason we end up sitting at different desks is because we are likely quite different individuals.

Why are journalists not quite like their paranoid yet jolly programme-hosting colleagues? How can one expect a journalist, trained to look under the bonnet at every spurious press release, to open a rabble-rousing 'all-staff' email from management and say 'Gosh, that's fabulous'. They are more likely to say 'Hmmmm. what are they not saying here?'. It's exactly what this intelligent bunch of talented people have been trained to do.

Presenters get annoyed when the tools of their trade don't work. They reported it last week to the technical team; and it's still not fixed.  Meanwhile, three engineers are gathered round a new cardboard box which has arrived bearing the ingredients for new toys. I wonder if Marconi paid more attention to mending his mother's toaster or by generating sparks in his loft. Thank goodness, for all of us, that engineers are wired as they are.

We are driven by different things. Here's my rough and ready 'Shun' theory: Sales execs - Commission; Presenters - Recognition; Journalists - Suspicion; and Technical staff  - Innovation. 

I concede I am generalising wildly.  Some more complex individuals do command a great understanding of more than one area.  Some of the greatest technical minds now have a refreshing ability to grasp how presenters think.  Some of today's best sales execs are utterly brand aware and understand programmers and radio.  Some self-employed presenters are truly commercial animals, looking after their station's business as diligently as they do their own. 

Those individuals who do acquire a 360 degree view of how things work are those most likely to end up rising up the tree as they realise that, in the end, everyone really is working for the same ultimate objective: listening figures and profits. 

As commercial content grows ever closer to programme content and vice versa, it is important for the programming folk to understand that execs need to hit targets and to appreciate that it's tough to tell clients what to do.  It's important, similarly, for sales execs to listen to the radio station they work for.  Saying 'loved that bit this morning' to a jock will help make that next bit of commercial content really glow.

The other solution is inter-departmental relationships. Sleeping together does have a remarkable impact on cross-department understanding. But that, rightly, is unlikely to be an action point on many management meeting agendas



Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An Academy Fit for Radio's Third Age

No-one much seemed to take much notice of BBC 6 Music. Until they threatened to close it. It has never looked back.

The Radio Academy AGM felt a little like that tonight. As Chairman, Ben Cooper (Controller BBC Radio1 and 1Xtra by day), mentioned in his own warm-up, usually one has to strong-arm a few mates to make AGM's quorate.  This one was seething with bristling radio folk. 

Of all the words Ben spoke tonight, quorate was the only one he struggled with. It is a silly word.

This was the meeting when the membership demanded answers. What had happened to the Academy they loved? Why? Why so suddenly? Why, oh why, on why. 

It was a meeting convened on the seventh floor of the stunning new BBC building, but the passion in the room could easily have filled the six floors below.

Ben opened, observing that this was the room in which he conducted Radio 1 presenter meetings, before listing a few presenter names, for the sake of the older folk in the audience. Of whom there were many. I suspect jock meetings prepared him well for this, the gig of his life.

Prepared statements were delivered by Ben, acting interim CEO Gloria, and deputy Travis. They were carefully crafted, and all said as much as they clutched the Radio 1 huge mic shield, beneath which we presume was a microphone.  Each statement told us how difficult it all was. Sad. Tough choices. Hard times. Changing times.  Everybody had worked hard. Very hard. Hard times. Tough times. 

Radio's polite audience listened, well, politely.  Then questions began. Half an hour was promised, although Ben suggested they need not necessarily take that long. I suspect he harboured a dream they might not.

Question by question, the room warmed up. Founder members spoke up, confessing they had not had an awful lot to do with things of late, but it all seemed a bit odd. They sought clarity. Some clear clarity which would clear things up clearly. 

John Myers, ex head honcho, was summoned for a cameo, with typical Myers northern bluntness shining through when it came to the topic of awards. Not to have any, he suggested, would be a "sad indictment of our industry".  He's right. You can do awards in many ways. What matters is your work being judged fairly by peers across the industry. There is no need to be paying an arm and a leg to be sat a mile away from a Park Lane stage, unable to hear the PA properly, eating a chunk of animal unknown.


Ben answered questions with the tact one expects of a politician of his stature, riding the bucking horse which is the Academy Chair's post. Just imagine that gig. Behind closed doors, you chair an organisation which is funded by, essentially, three factions which are at war during the day; and have to reach accord over warm orange juice by night. 

The questions became more incisive. Members had come to see a movie, and we seemed only to have seen the opening credits.  If the 'branches doing their own thing' model was to be adopted, who would co-ordinate? 'We will decide those things early next year' reassured Ben in his measured tones, with a gap between each carefully chosen sentence, long enough to play a JAM shotgun in. 

In short, this is an organisation people in radio love. They aren't quite sure what it is always, but they love it anyway. It is an organisation in a fast-changing world, finding it tough to continue in the present climate, with sponsor cash falling away and patrons' cash by no means assured. Each patron member too is now big enough to do its own big things if it wants.  Like every single radio station in the United Kingdom, it cannot continue functioning in the way it has for thirty years.

A member of the audience dared to suggest Ben lacked vision. His Chairman's mask fell. "You know how to get me riled", he said. A few people laughed. It was not a joke. 

Ben then assumed the tone one presumes some presenters have heard several times before when they ignore the music log or don't turn up. He spelt out his passion, his pride, his general visions in life. He added what his vision might be for the Academy, but insisted it was not just his view that counted. This was the Thatcher moment. No, no, no. His monologue was Shakespearean. His performance immaculate. He got my Oscar. From that moment on, everybody knew the score. FX applause. 

Things have to change. Radio has. The Academy has to. I write as one of its earliest members, and a lover of radio past. But the Trustees are correct. This uncomfortable juxtaposition of chandeliers and showbiz, gentleman's club and entertainment conglomerate cannot continue in this confused way. It's not where we are any more. Those who just object to change because it's change really have to get a grip. 

Most in the room felt that the early communication and handling of the challenges could have been better addressed. Ben's response illustrated how difficult that process would have been. Most in the room felt a huge debt to the outgoing team in the Academy office who have been, from my view, just stunning. Most thought, quietly, don't we still need at least some of those talented folk, and let's hurry up and work out a way how we can fund them to coordinate the great things we need to do.

2015, I hope, will bring a confident, sustainable and cohesive new Radio Academy, which will have some form of awards, some considerable devolved activity, and an event which celebrates this great medium, reflecting the changing backdrop in which radio sits, and educating the huge number of people in ancillary worlds we need to persuade about radio's exciting present and future. Plus lots of chances to meet new contacts and to learn a thing or two. A place to meet old friends, and one in which the next generation will feel welcome.

I suspect Ben's having a drink tonight. You deserve it, matey. We look forward to reviewing the considered options once we've got this horrible year out the way. 

Once again, when it comes to passion, no-one does it quite like radio. 


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Spooky stations

The unmistakable sound of someone being sick in a toilet.  It’s not the most attractive sound, but one which sensible late night disc jockeys at Nottingham’s Radio Trent claimed to hear in the depths of night, when alone in the station’s 1794 building.

That was just one of the odd things reported from this former women’s hospital, which had clearly witnessed its fair share of deaths in its early period.  Others reported a ghost wearing a hat frequently gliding through the main studio; and an old woman wobbling a table.  Maybe not too surprising when one remembers the subterranean studios were once the hospital’s mortuary.

Castle Gate, the home of the UK’s13th ILR station, was not the only set of premises which was said to house an extra ghostly freelancer. Back in the early days of commercial radio, it was almost mandatory to find a building with a rich past, regardless, it seems, of how unsuitable it was for a fast-moving media business.

Wiltshire Radio, later to become the lead player in GWR, was housed in a 17th Century house. The first MD’s PA reported a pipe-smoking chap appearing in the Lime Kiln studios complex, only to be heard falling, leaving behind just that unmistakable smell of pipe smoke. On another occasion, it’s reported that the plug to an electric typewriter was pulled out its socket, held aloft, before being replaced. I also gather in later years that a ghost was said to turn on the TV to adult channels late at night. Were they not the days, though, when stations had uniformed security guards sat there alone in the wee small hours?

Beacon Radio’s original premises on Tettenhall Road in Wolverhampton had been a roomy orphanage, and again the home of some considerable teary bairns through the years.  One spooky room was said to house the ghost of a poor baby who passed into the spirit world back in the 19th Century. Little wonder paranormal investigators would routinely ask to spend some time in that building; and it was to be featured in 'Most Haunted'.

Surely something spooky happened in the 1876 ecclesiastic Leicester Sound building next to beautiful Victoria Park?  Indeed.  In this Downton Abbey house, I gather someone hanged themselves on the stairs, in its life before radio.  Gazing at the stained glass windows on the first landing, in the light of the 40W bulbs, it’s easy to imagine. Upstairs on the top floor, in what was believed to be the nursery, poor little mites, stricken by the many illnesses of a century past were said to live on; sat, no doubt, on a pile of paper ad logs and playing with the daisy wheel printer.

I take no delight in announcing the demolition of old West Canal Wharf building from where the ill-fated CBC (later Red Dragon/Capital) was launched. Even though launch PD, Dan Damon, did say he’d get back to me about a job I’d applied for in 1980.  Still waiting. That old place is said to have had its fair share of apparitions.  Maybe they set fire to my rejection letter before despatch.

Let's not forget good old Red Rose radio (now Rock) where hardened journalists would fear the late shift. Booooooooh. And BBC Radio Lincolnshire's home to this day, the former Radion cinema on the edge of the historic quarter, which is said to house a lone usherette to this day, serving lukewarm Kia-Ora orange juice to enthusiastic BAs.

It's not just here in the UK. These things appear to happen around the world. I gather a station in Jasper, Alabama also claims its own resident ghost. Like Trent, it uses the loo.  But let’s not worry unduly, though, about WDIE, where every single breakfast host died within three years of being given the peak show. 

Given there is no definitive book on radio ghosts, I am certain this list is not exhaustive.  Do feel free to add your own.  

Thursday, 16 October 2014

What future for the radio news bulletin?


News bulletins have adopted much the same production recipe since 1922.  Whether the 6.00 immaculately-presented nightly feast on BBC Radio 4 or the hourly juicy snack on much commercial radio, maybe smothered with a funky bed.

Arthur Burrows, who delivered the first ever newscasts on a dark November evening in 1922, would likely recognise the bulletin formula were he still around and taking any interest in such things.  In essence, every hour, to this day, a bundle of successive scripts are toasted and served, seasoned sometimes with reports from gifted colleagues or a dash of illustrative audio. The newsreader duly reads out the contents of the 'newspaper' before a colleague returns to put on a gramophone record.

Had dear Arthur wandered off in a strop that night and the news bulletin had never been born at that time in that way, would we be doing news now like we do?

In the halcyon days of this wonderful medium of ours, families gathered round their Bakelite sets, bathed in the warm light of their standard lamps, to eavesdrop in wonder on the World.  Apart from the odd World War and too many incurable diseases, there was little else to distract.  Radio was a spectator sport.  Programmes and programme items were appointments to listen. Listeners joined them at the start and likely sat through respectfully to the end. Now, we know listeners dip in and out of the majority of programming.

Journalists agonise over the identification of the lead story. They even argue amongst themselves, which is tremendous fun to watch. The listener may well have a different view altogether of what's important to them.  Some may have missed the start of the bulletin, in any case.  Radio bulletins do not have a front page.

We know too, from much research, how listeners zone in and out of radio even when they are 'listening'. The mind is cleverly able to filter out what is relevant and what is not, so they may not even 'hear' the lead story.  At the very moment the reader thunders in with the voice of authority over the crashing cymbals of the news jingle, the listener may well be mulling  over their imminent hot week in Majorca.  When the story about airport disruption is pumped out as story four, that's when the listener hears their lead.  And, if you do believe in 'the lead', is it not a puzzling objective to make the content of a bulletin deliberately less interesting as it proceeds?

Since when has the BBC's 'most viewed online' story list corresponded with the order of any BBC news bulletin?

What of this 'on the hour' business'?  Radio was once first.  Its content was a day ahead of the local Chronicle and likely some considerable way ahead of the heavy TV cameras trundling out to see what's happening.  Now, those who like to keep up to date glance at their Twitter feeds to see the latest, and their friends become their personal news editors, sharing the stories they feel are important.  Such content is 'broadcast' and received within seconds.  Your friends, and indeed news organisations, do not sit drumming their fingers on the desk until some arbitrary time to despatch a social media update.  Why do we afford our social media audience the luxury of priority service, when we make our loyal radio listeners sit and bloody wait for the next bulletin?


With the exception of newsflashes, radio can be a good 55 minutes away from the ability to
insert a news story.  Whilst radio is better than Twitter at bringing home the emotion, background, voices and analysis in a useful way, for many people, social media like Twitter has broken the story.  Why do we hold up the news to broadcast it on the hour?


Audiences are larger on the hour, surely. Rajar indeed suggests that the first quarter hour is more heavily consumed. Most sensible people would likely agree, however, that this says more about the way radio is measured in the UK than  how it is consumed.  In markets around the World where radio is monitored by meters, there's a rather different conclusion.  People are just as likely to listen to each of the four quarter hours. They are as likely to have missed your bulletin as heard it.

Listeners value news hugely. They tell us so in every focus group I've ever attended. So, when that news jingle chimes, one imagines that attention levels soar. As the Jam or Wise Buddah singers chorus the station's name, surely listeners say to themselves: 'hey, come on, something important's happening'.  No, suggests Peter Niegel, who troubled to analyse audiences to a station called P3, a service from one of Denmark's national public service broadcasters, which used PPM (metering) research.  He observed that, whilst listeners insisted they valued the news,  “there was a big difference between perceived listening and actual listening”.  When they studied actual  behaviour, they noticed  listeners  tuning out when the jingle came on:  "The top of the hour is a natural switch-off moment because it’s an appointment time.."  "Every time we ran the news jingle, people would say: oh my God, it’s eight o’clock, I have to go!”. 

Pavlov understood about conditioned reflexes. Whilst we hope the reflex is to listen attentively when the  news jingle airs, are we sure the contrary does not occur?
  
When a major news event occurs, it's likely listeners do find it useful to know when they can find out more?  Does that suggest a wise policy of news detail on the hour in exactly those circumstances?

Radio is great at many, many things.  It's probably not so hot on lists of detail.  I challenge anyone to listen to the twelve inch version of the weather forecast and then tell me whether I'm going to need my coat tomorrow. So, why do we assemble the most demanding content and broadcast it all at once.  Given most of us can barely remember a large round of drinks, how many stories are safely recalled half an hour later by the average busy listener? Ironically, it might be suggested that story memorability from the longer news programmes, where time is taken to paint the pictures at which radio excels, is likely much higher.  Had the tradition of hourly newscasts on all formats never begun, would we not do it in bitesize chunks on many of them.?

I recall one foreign visitor asking me why our news bulletins are always the same length. 'What if there's not much happening?', they queried.  Of course I told him how silly he was being, but between you and me, he had  a point.  We recall with a smile that tale of the Good Friday bulletin in 1930 where it is suggested the BBC declared that there was no news and treated us instead to some piano music.

Regulators used to have a fetish about bulletin lengths. The difference between a 2' bully and a 4' one could have amounted to the deciding factor about whether your company won the licence to broadcast or not.  Long was good.  Longer was very good.

What's more important, the news or the weather? What is the most significant to listeners' lives really, in the long run?  On most music stations, one hears the weather, rightly, repeated over and over again on the hour. The news, often bearing matters of life or death, is confined to its half hourly island.  A twenty minute breakfast listener, and there are many of them, will presume you don't actually have a newsroom.


The BBC's brilliant Lyse Doucet
Owing to the very nature of this 'performance piece' on the hour, it is usually presented by someone different from the programme hosts. The general presenters are, therefore, less likely to notice and alight on the importance of a story.  Were they charged with delivering the titbits as they happened, like a friend tugging at your sleeve saying 'hey, look at this', they'd likely repeat some stories many, many times in the hour, on merit. When a despatch on a crucial story is available from a reporter in the field, you can guarantee too it would be readily trailed if the presenters 'owned' the news.  Given the role of the journalist and that of the newsreader demand such different skillsets, maybe such a strategy could, accordingly, free journalists to go do journalism.

Has the time come to take a fresh look at this thing we call the news bulletin?  We know news content is hugely valuable currency.  What on earth should we do with it on radio in our much-changed world?  Should our news coverage take its inspiration from social media in frequency and format, rather than the newspaper?

Monday, 29 September 2014

How old are the best presenters?

I was 19, a spotty young presenter with straggly hair and a long duffle coat.  My then Head of Programmes peered over his large desk, before pushing his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and concluding one of our rare coaching sessions with the remark: "You won't be any good as a presenter until you're 30".

At the time, I puzzled over the observation.  Actually, that's a grown up way of saying I was a tad upset.  My age was not something I could really do awfully much about. 

Looking back, he had a point.  It really is not until later in life that a presenter can really master their art.

Your command of radio techniques does improve with practice, of course, but more importantly, you have lived. 

Provided you keep in touch, you can display a cultural grasp of both now and then.  Showbiz is littered with older personalities revered by younger fans.  Older soap opera actors are the real stars of the show.  A younger radio presenter can often struggle to relate well to older listeners. They can so easily be out of their depth.

When a caller comes on-air, you have but seconds to connect: to show that you 'get them'. To react; to say the one thing they relate to; to help them build on their own story;  to find the entertainment; to avoid responding insensitively.  You draw upon your fund of life.

Great shows often rely on story-telling, whether as an entertaining anecdote or setting up a topic.  As you grow older, your bank of stories becomes almost limitless.  Whatever the topic on-air, something relevant has happened to you or to a friend.  You've met people rather like every single listener you'll ever have.  

Importantly too, by the time you hit your thirties, things have usually gone wrong for you.  You've likely loved and lost; faced a death or two of someone you know; had money problems and heartache.  When in trouble, we reach for advice for someone who's had their own problems and can empathise.  We do not reach out for a perfect person, or seek advice from the lanky 19 year old down the road. Listeners open up to people whom they feel are like them. 

When the broadcaster's face starts to wrinkle, the authenticity on-air grows; and being 'real' on-air is utterly key for so many formats on today's radio.

When we go for a great night out, we'll often surround ourselves with people our age.

The UK has a tradition of young broadcasters, certainly on music radio.  As commercial radio was born painfully here in the 70s, many of its first presenters were relatively young, even though the stations were full service, serving birth to death.  Meanwhile, in that same decade, across in the more mature US radio market, many Top 40 presenters were much older and yet still very much in charge of their markets. 'Veteran anchors' were commanding the most dollars.  Here, there was a seeming obsession with transferring presenters arbitrarily to Radio 2 or to the AM Gold service as soon as the clock caught up with them; whether or not they were doing an excellent job.  


                                    Dan Ingram on air in the US, aged almost 60

But look at the biggest names. Was Chris Moyles losing audiences as he grew older?  Not really, no.  Is Chris Evans worse now than he was when he was 23?  No, far from it.  Would Simon Mayo do an even better job now on Radio Nottingham than he did years ago?  I suspect he might say yes.  

To his credit, Richard Park realised that Birmingham's Les Ross still had another FM decade in him when he rescued him from Xtra AM in his mid forties and returned him to the hot rockin' BRMB.  One imagines Parky had wisely drawn a parallel with Les and Tarrant, who commanded  London on 95.8 until the age of 57.

Broadcasters try so hard when they are young.  As they mature, the best become stunningly instinctive.  Their stories improve, as does their story-telling. Their pacing is tuned and their sense of humour and timing matures.  Skills both in radio and in life have been honed. They are better and funnier.

It's good news that the BBC has turned its thoughts to encouraging more women broadcasters. Being parachuted into a peak show, however, is a demanding gig.  Few Olympic athletes would take their first skate at the Commonwealth Games.  Just as with a male broadcaster, if they have the skill to persuade listeners to value them, I wish those new recruits every success.

Should a similar initiative be established for older broadcasters? Is the age of a presenter not more important than their sex?

60% of all radio listening is by those over the age of 45. Are 60% of presenters over that age?
 
BBC Local Radio is targeted at those aged 50 and over, with a "strong emphasis on interactivity and audience involvement". Appropriately, 88% of all BBC local radio listening is by those over 45.  But are 88% of presenters? 

76% of all BBC Local radio listening is by those over 55. Are the majority of presenters?

If you are a 24 year old BBC local presenter, or indeed 'producer', how must it feel to know that 92% of the audience are older than you? 


There are a host of reasons why Radio 2's audience still loved Terry Wogan as he presented his last breakfast show, aged 71.

My mother used to ask when her voice was going to start sounding like a crackly old woman.  By the time she died at 76, it never had.  When you use your voice and are aware of it, it stays remarkably consistent into your 70s and beyond.  Does Tony Blackburn sound so much different in voice quality from when the was a bright-eyed 24 year old?

Yes, some gifted older BBC local radio stalwarts are still on-air, but as local radio  has become the route in to radio, there are many very young presenters on-air too.  Not because the listeners suggest that is what they want; but simply because the local stations help us feed our industry.

One can witness some of the younger presenters on that 50+ format struggling to relate.  It's hardly surprising. Why should they know that the death of Kathy Kirby is worthy of a mention  when they were not born when Abba were at their peak? Even their parents are a little too young to help. For a talk format, that diminished level of insight into the target audience can be a real handicap.  The very best younger broadcasters address the challenge with huge self-awareness, hard-work, sensitivity and skill. The rest may not.

That's not their fault, they are seizing an opportunity, just like I did at 19.  It is the responsibility of the programmers, especially for the older-formated stations, to look beyond the university graduates, and to reach out to those characters who have graduated from the college of life. Certainly there's a rich seam of spirited women of a certain age who could become genuinely brilliant radio communicators. I witness few 'Loose Women' panelists in their teens and twenties.

There's a place for younger broadcasters and we all must learn our craft, but the younger formats are best places for this.  There's a place for inexperienced broadcasters too: off-peak hours. 

It's much easier to carry off being older than your target audience  - than younger.  In life, you have always been younger, but never been older.

If you've been in radio a few years, I challenge you to listen back to those old cassettes from the box in the garage.  Cringe at your first ten years of work.