Monday, 7 April 2014

Commercial Radio - An A to Z of jobs

"Are you on-air or just behind the scenes?", people ask when they discover you're in radio. When you mumble "behind the scenes'" the conversation then usually reverts from Moyles to Moyes. 

It doesn't sound very interesting, this 'behind the scenes' business, does it? That's why, when the bespectacled Tom Williams from the Student Radio Association Tweeted that I'd be talking at this year's conference about 'jobs behind the scenes in commercial radio', I rather feared no-one would turn up to my humble break-out. How great though to see so many tall Generation Z Digital Natives just buzzing with energy about this hundred year old thing called radio.

I guess the real topic was the spread of vacancies for which we've often sought to recruit great candidates - and sometimes failed. And the importance of commercial awareness in them all. 

Yes, there are presenter opportunities. If you're going to be better than the rest at that, I'd be the first to say 'stick at it'. Britain needs you. But if you're likely only to be average at best, you'll be competing against hundreds of others for very few opportunities.  You'll need luck to get through the door; and even then, the path ahead may not be smooth.  Decent presenters can often be out of work.  And, rather like the confident singers poised in the rain at X-factor auditions, many people who think they are gifted really are not. 

And then there are the other opportunities.  Many, many of them. Exciting jobs in a truly brilliant industry. Creative opportunities, seizing the spirit and energy of this great, great medium.  They're not 'behind the scenes'. Your work will be seen and heard by thousands. If you apply yourself to winning one of these gigs, your chances of success are great.  And, unless you are a truly gifted presenter, they can earn you more money and afford you more security too. 

C. Creative copy-writers. Every commercial station has ads. Great ads are crucial to clients renewing deals; and important to listeners, given they account for up to 25% of the output. Can you write to a brief to sell a product in a memorable, pithy way? That's one job. And bringing those scripts to life through directing the voice-over and mixing the sound elements, that's another.

D. Design. Great radio brands look awesome. Radio stations now have an ever-growing range of areas where visual identity is crucial. There are a multitude of projects for hard visual material and online content. Talented graphic designers with their jeans hanging low (thinking of no-one in particular) are kept very busy. Similarly, although few stations will have full time photographers/video photographers there's always a call for someone on site to have that gift (the great dog shot below by our Kirsty Whitaker). If you've got that skill alongside another, make sure it's known. 

I. Imagers.  Listen to the fine production you hear on a great radio station.  Its audio identity, helping to sell the benefits of listening to that station. Sounds and words which influence how you feel about the brand. That's Imaging. If you're a gifted creative writer and you can bring your ideas to audio reality with a brilliant ear for sound, jobs in Imaging are for you. If the power of your scripts is above average, you'll quickly set yourself apart. Even some imagers struggle with the power of the word.

J. Journalists. Think newsrooms are overflowing with people? Think again. If you've the right instinct, training, knowledge and intelligence, together with the ability to 'tell' the news in a voice which does not sound whiney, you can likely walk into a gig. Commercial radio newsrooms are fluid places, with many great candidates moving quickly from commercial radio to Sky or the BBC. Sad to see them go, but understandable that many will wish to move gently to new homes where speech forms a greater proportion of the output. They've now made room for you, if you're up for the challenge.

M. Marketing. In competitive markets, stations do crazy stuff to get noticed. The marketing teams are involved in getting the brand out there. From devising and booking TV campaigns on the largest brands; to organising an appearance or visibility in a local shopping centre. From delivering a breakfast show stunt to organising a Christmas lights switch-on. From getting car stickers in garages to arranging smiling weekend activity in a car dealer. Can you devise concepts? Or simply bloody good at making sure things happen through impeccable event management. As the radio and entertainment landscape grows ever more competitive, Marketing staff are key. 

P. Producers.  Like football coaches, many great producers might have done a bit on-air, but are better at helping others do their best work. To the on-air talent, they are variously a friend, a boss, and a creative genius.  They need to understand the art and science of contemporary breakfast radio and be able to create memorable  moments - daily. They understand story-telling. Producers understand the competitors as they understand their own brand; and live and breathe their markets. They're frighteningly well-organised and hard workers too, with their mind on the job whether 'at work' or not.  And they have turned persuading and influencing into an art-form.  Does that sound like you?

R. Research. I know which TV shows my audience love most; and my commercial teams know what proportion of our listeners are likely to be buying a car soon. Our programming teams know what Gem 106 and Free Radio listeners are listening to when they're not listening to us. If you love facts and figures, radio's a great place to use that passion in a creative environment. 

S. Sales executive. It's not about flogging spots. It's about absorbing a client's marketing objectives and understanding how you can best support them effectively through radio. Great sales execs become a trusted 'consultant'  for the client, and you'll be influencing marketing strategy beyond radio. And earning a healthy slice of the spend. Check the RAB site and get your head around the art and science of how radio persuades like no other medium, it's fascinating stuff. Few good sales execs are out of work.

S & P. Sponsorship & Promotions executive/implementer/commercial programmer.  This is where programming and commercial meet in harmony.  Memorable concepts are devised to the advantage of both the client brand and the station.  Here's a quick example: YourVets were one of our clients.  Did we mount a dull competition to win dog food? No. We delivered the 'doggy wedding', which was exactly as you'd imagine. Fancy getting involved in that stuff? Great with ideas? Good with operational detail? Good with relationships? Can you stand up in front of a client and bring an idea to life? Yes? This job's for you.  

S. Social Media/online is growing daily. Operating a radio brand's social presence, combined with the station's website, is tantamount to running another radio station. A 'live' breathing thing which demands the immediacy and attitude of the brand to which it relates. Can you write with
the right tone of voice? It's a rare skill. Do you get what goes viral and what does not? Can you use social media to promulgate the station brand? You should be demonstrating your prowess already in the tone of your own personal social media before you put your hand up for these gigs. 

T. Traffic/Scheduling There's a reason why the next ad you hear will be in the place it is. Someone had to juggle them round, and it's a complex task. Who are they targeting? When? What else is in the break?  Are we delivering against the order? A quart into a pint pot.  Balancing things which do not balance. The 'air traffic control for radio'. Maybe one for you.

T. Technical. From building flashy new studios to mounting OBs from silly places.  From repairing a fizzing mixing desk from Coke damage to transmission technology or true innovation, it's a job for a broadcast engineer. And if you can both mend things - and explain patiently what you're doing to those who don't understand what on earth you are talking about - all the better. A good ear for mixing is often crucial too, and if the station to which you're applying attaches importance to live music, you'll need to excel at it. It's creative technology: imagineering. IT can be a distinct division: IT people who tolerate the creative talent round them, understand the immediacy of this 24 hour medium, and love to enable rather than prevent are always in demand.  Similarly developers to do the hard work on building and re-building the websites and connecting play-out systems to the outside world. When no-one steps forward for gigs like that, I step back and wonder what UK plc is educating people to do.

Plus, remember the sensible jobs. Every business needs utterly dedicated accounts staff, cash collection, administrators, HR staff and the like.  And, when you're doing one of those crucial jobs, but within a radio environment, it's got to be more fun than in a widget factory.  Yes, you can both be in radio, and keep your parents happy. 

By the time I get back to base today, I'll have some more presenter auditions in my inbox and a flurry of poorly-written and vague work experience requests.  I'll likely hear from no-one with genuine proven interest in many of the above.  And nor will fellow department heads.  

Give the 'other jobs' some thought. You could find your skill set makes you just brilliant at one of them, You'll likely get through the door sooner, and if you're good, that full time job offer will swiftly follow. On smaller stations, a number of the above skills are useful armoury; and increasingly, agile, fresh minds mean that new posts are being created which absorb some of the above -  and new skills.  

And if you do have any real on-air performing talent after all, you'll be in the right place.  

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Please take care of the BBC. It is precious.

The future of BBC funding is again under discussion. It will always be thus. 

The Sykes report rejected advertising in 1923.  Annan in '77 suggested local radio should all be commercial. Peacock recommended privatising Radio 1 and 2 in '86.  Davies in '98 trotted out the bright idea of licence fee supplement for digital service services 

Now, the BBC concern is that if you fail to pay your licence fee, you may simply be threatened with a manila letter from the County Court rather than being locked up alongside some tattooed miscreant.

The moment the satellites soared into the Sky – and the amount of TV emanating from non-BBC sources grew, future funding for the BBC was always to be under ever growing scrutiny. Visionary management would have identified that challenge; and would have attempted to carve out a more efficient focused Corporation which concentrated on what the Nation would really be without were it to implode. Then resource those areas fully, with pride. 

My limited time with the BBC suggested to me that the Corporation was everything I had both hoped and feared. Dedicated, gifted, creative, intelligent, hard-working people with a will to generate breathtakingly beautiful, thorough and distinctive output.  Alongside wanton waste, byzantine bureaucracy and major mismanagement.  My impressions are culled largely from radio. May I venture to suggest that TV is the same but on a larger budget?

I would campaign naked on Carnaby Street to save the greatest elements of what the BBC does. Similarly. I feel moved to having my first ever knuckle fight to knock out those who do not address the reality.

I am not alone. I know a huge number of very sensible people inside the BBC. They share with me their frustrations: those BBC stories which generate a shake of the head in disbelief.  I know people from my side of the fence who go to work there and are given insufficient tasks to fill their days.  They also tell me of members of staff who rarely turn up or put in a decent day's work.  Or those parts of the BBC in turmoil because half their staff are on attachment and no-one knows if they'll bother coming back. And did I really read just now of disciplinary processes going on for a year. A year?

I see too the BBC staff surveys which tell of poor morale. Frustrated employees who say they
feel mismanaged. How can you have poor morale within the finest broadcaster in the World with guaranteed revenues across the term of a licence agreement and enviable levels of job security?  

Each time funding is under threat, we know the cry will be that the programmes and channels we love may be under threat. Those are the lines of PR merchants. There are significant savings to be made – and you need the right people to identify and implement them. The right structural savings can often free decision-making and enhance the creative environment.

I recall one employee saying to me, in my brief time at the Corporation: ‘the trouble is that we don’t have enough staff’. That same person struggled to tell me what they actually did each day. Those who have been cushioned by years inside this sector have long since lost their objectivity. They think that if four people are replaced by three it is necessarily worse.  The more logical BBC folk people I know suggest that they’d get on with their jobs a whole lot better with the absence of some individuals.  Those individuals who have long since forgotten that they are paid by hardworking people to perform a public service. 

The BBC should abolish its programme prevention department.

This great Corporation needs leadership. A leader who can carry it through the toughest changes in its history and emerge the other side.  Build a BBC which has moved out of some areas - and resource others better so it may continue to generate World class broadcasting. Build a BBC which appoints the right number of great managers and lets them get on with the job. Build a BBC which understands how to create the best possible creative environment.  But most of all, build a BBC which stands a good chance of being there for future generations.  

This 90 year legacy is simply too good to squander.

Monday, 17 February 2014

BRMB - The story from 1961 to launch

The Board Minutes from 1961 onwards
In the 1960s, with a sniff of commercial radio in the air, a number of enterprising folk across the Country, not least those in local press, thought the whole thing sounded pretty exciting.  Companies were duly formed, with the aspiration of operating a franchise for this prospective new medium. Few of those far-sighted enthusiasts had any idea quite how long they'd have to wait.

In Birmingham, such a company was Birmingham Broadcasting Ltd. With Elvis Presley at Number One, and Macmillan at Number Ten, it held its first Board meeting in March 1961. The records of that meeting were neatly typed on foolscap and have been kept safely to this day, along with those from all the subsequent early gatherings.  They live in a weighty black volume which was uncovered recently in a clear-out at Free Radio.

Allow me to flick through the dusty pages.  The inaugural minutes suggest there wasn't a tremendous amount of excitement at that first gathering. It amounted to formal agreement on Articles of Association and bank accounts. The directors were also fairly unlikely to squabble, given they were both also directors of the Birmingham Mail group. 

Directors’ reports and accounts were duly approved at successive 'meetings' of BBL - monthly - for the next ten years.  The only excitement loomed when one of the directors acquired another directorship, possibly as a result of just being bored of waiting.

October 1972. Following the change of Government from red to blue, things started to move, and commercial radio became a real possibility.  David Pinnell was duly appointed Managing Director, swiftly joined by John Russell, and John Parkinson, both of whom were to figure in the history of commercial radio in the Midlands for several years.

John Russell
The application to the IBA for the franchise was duly assembled. Then, on 30th November 1972, the directors met and agreed ‘after some discussion’ that the application document should be submitted to the regulator as part of the competitive pitch.  John and David were congratulated, rightly, on its ‘form and presentation’.

January 1973 must have been a nail-biting meeting, likely with several trolleys of tea being pushed into the board room, alongside a plate of Penguin biscuits.  Whilst the application had been submitted, nothing further had been heard, although an interview was expected in ‘two or three weeks time’.  The Board appeared confident, however, with much of that meeting dominated by prosaic discussion on how staff might be recruited and equipment leasing.

6th February 1973 was little better.  The minutes suggest that the first meeting with the IBA regulator on Jan 31st had proceeded satisfactorily, but a second one was anticipated.  The board remained ‘hopeful of the ultimate outcome’.  A query on the positions of the Mail Directors on the Board had evidently been raised at interview: a letter had been despatched to the IBA and a response received. 

One Board member suggested, wrongly as it transpired, that only one other licence application was expected.  Possibly whilst kicking their heels, conversation at the meeting then turned to pension arrangements.

12th March 1973. Was the sherry brought out from the MD’s cabinet?  The Chairman reported solemnly that the Company had been awarded "the contract for Independent Radio", on certain conditions, including the requirement that a member of the rival Birmingham Independent Radio consortium be invited to join the Board.  Back then, such IBA marriage-broking was commonplace, and often sensible.

It was also agreed that a nominal fee would be paid to the Chief Engineer until such time as he began full time employment.  I should imagine they rather needed his goodwill and commitment.  By the Board meeting of April 73, an on-air date of 1st April 1974 was being mooted, although 1st February ‘might be achieved’.  History tells how they improved upon their more cautious estimates.

By November 1973's Board meeting, things were hotting up. David Pinnell reported that work on the Aston premises appeared  to be progressing satisfactorily. The third and fourth floors of the former ATV/ABC premises at Aston would soon be completed; and then work could begin on the studio complex.  A worry was expressed that overtime might have to be worked.  The minutes go on to reveal that a generator had sensibly been acquired, at a cost of £2200. Staff would move to Aston on 8th December, and the premises would be operational from the 10th.  The Board was chuffed that orders for £25,000 of ad sales for the first three months had been processed.  In a touch of light relief, although I suspect there were a few interventions along the way, John Russell took the Board through the programme schedule.

January 1974. The calls on capital continued; and the money came in. Sadly though, there were no new developments "with regard to the staff canteen".  Morale was reported as good ‘despite the lack of a lift”.  The programme schedule had been submitted to the IBA, although the regulator had not yet responded. Indeed, concern was expressed that if it were generally to take the IBA six weeks to consider any changes in programmes, the industry should press for a ‘more flexible approach’ to regulation. Later, it did. Boy, it did.

News was discussed, and the Board was assured that there would be a ’newsman’ on duty 24 hours a day, despatching a 5 minute bulletin every day on the hour and a 3 minute bulletin on every half hour . The Sales Director, Mr Davies was a little less sanguine. He noted a few airtime order cancellations owing to the ‘present economic crisis'.  Incentives for advertisers were wisely created.

25th February 1974. The station was now settled on-air; and the Board met to review those breathless early moments.  It had all gone well “despite the breakdown of the IBA transmitter”. Sounds pretty terminal to me. Views from the non-exec directors on programmes were invited (always a dangerous move, I find). "Professional" said one; “phone in shows were refreshingly different” added another; and Mr Howard was ‘"impressed with the excellent reception as far south as Stratford". Maybe he lived there. 

The Sales Director was peculiarly positive for a Sales Director, reporting that £40000 was on the board for the first six weeks on-air. One director asked for a graph of this progress, only to be told that "this method had not been used at the moment" and to be content with the "record of future orders maintained by the accounts department".  In other words ‘I’m trying to get a station on-air, don’t go asking for pretty graphs just now’. 

The Programme Director reported that the switchboard had been “jammed with calls”, not least for Tradio where people could "sell or swap household articles". The news staff were ‘full of enthusiasm’; not least because news gathering, news-writing and news reading were all performed by the same individuals. ‘Conventional journalists’, it was observed, appeared to quite enjoy that challenge.

The Chairman had written cautiously to the IBA asking what their attitude would be and how '"they’d be prepared to help" in the event of the economic crisis resulting in revenue not being ‘at satisfactory levels’. No response was detailed.  

A "detailed discussion" was held on the sales bonus scheme. Some things never change.

In other news: a staff bonus of 15% of monthly salary would be paid to all staff in March to say thanks. Commercial production was proving a challenge owing to the huge volume of work; the engineers wanted another engineer; and the Record Library needed an assistant to file away the Bay City Rollers records.  Those extra moves might cost another 7k a year. If all else failed, it's lucky the Bank had authorised a £40,000 overdraft facility.

Thirteen years. And the dream had become a reality.  The first commercial station in England outside London was on the air.

Any other business?

John V. Russell Tribute Part 1: Secrets of Local Radio from Jonathan Marks on Vimeo.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Were the old days better?

The early days of commercial radio were truly great.  After all, back then, everything was local. Local ownership. Locally originated live output.  Local management.

Presenters could chatter away at will and show their personalities; and have a real influence on the songs they played. If you were on-air, you could expect to be in that slot for a very long time. No-one bothered much with pesky research; or troubled with many of those dreaded coaching sessions.

There’s a view in some quarters that everything back in UK radio back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s was perfect; and everything now is just bad.   A firm view that if it all went back to how it was, then life would be a whole lot better.

It’s not true. 

I recall being a huge fan of Steve Merike on Trent in the '70s. He was my inspiration.  I wanted to meet him. To talk to him. When he mentioned in one link on-air that he’d been walking round Bridgford Park, I started making a regular detour lest I might bump into him.  I used to try calling in on-air, but when I got through, good old Jean answered the phone in the adjacent studio.  That was as close as I got.   

You could write in to a station, of course, and then listen forever lest you got mentioned. 

Presenters wore silky jackets and sat on pedestals.

Now, many radio presenters will be on social media merrily chatting to their listeners all hours of the day.  They use their huge transmitters to open the door to conversations they then continue elsewhere, personally. Is that wrong? Or just different?

You don’t like the music on the station?  Well, whilst once you could have banged down the door and complained; now you resort to Twitter, and sensible stations likely respond.  My colleagues and I respond every day to bundles of emails from listeners wanting a raffle prize, a dedication, or the answer to some random question; or they want to comment on a programme or ask how to get into radio.  We try to reply to every single one.

I would assert that, dependent on format, on many stations, the conduit between presenter and listener can be more personal than ever before. 

Last Winter, on a snowy January day, I was at home just before midnight, personally updating our rather impressive ‘snow closures’ system online, having received a dollop of late night emails from fraught head-teachers. Alongside colleagues poised at their PCs in their homes across town,  we also updated a dynamic list of information for broadcast the following morning. And, frankly, I know my friends down at Heart were doing much the same.  

Years ago, a team of people would answer phones on-site for a period, and then go home. Now you have a continuously updated information feed, and you can consult it day or night. There is no doubt that, for the many stations who see this as something of value to them and their audiences, the quality of this service is hugely improved.

I’m proud to have been part of the early pioneer ‘splitters’.  I’d arrive at 4.30 for the Saturday breakfast show and pre-record links for the two Cities I broadcast to.  The were recorded on tape, edited manually if needed and dubbed onto carts before being fired to their local transmitters.  It took ages.  Now, technology means that our presenters at Free Radio can record split links for our four areas  at will, and fire them out.  Stations have shared programming for a very long time, it's just now that we can do it better.

It's crucial surely to have a station based in town? Well, not really.  I care more about whether the presenter knows that they're doing. What proportion of any station's audience actually ever popped in? And listen back again to those 'local' stations of yesteryear; how local was the content of the music shows on many stations? Just slide off those rose-tinted specs.

In the 80s, the Trent OB Land Rover was a dirty beast with an aerial reaching towards Mars.  We’d telephone Alyson upstairs and book it for an OB a few weeks away; and three engineers would saunter up and drive us to the scene of the broadcast.  In later times, we might plead with BT to install an ISDN  for an OB afar.  Either way, it was hardly immediate; and it cost a fortune.  

Now, you can broadcast from just about anywhere in the World. And with mobile phones now serving as high quality ‘tape recorders’ any journalist can report on anything, anywhere with ease. Discreetly too: I would not have wanted to send any of our team into the Birmingham riots with a UHER, thank you very much.

Music was much better when every presenter chose their own songs.  No it wasn’t.  Some presenters can do a brilliant job of music scheduling. Most cannot.  It  is a very different skill from ‘communication’.  I listen back to some battered old C90s of some stations from the early days and struggle to recognise many of the songs.  Few would dispute that listeners like a considerable degree of music familiarity.  It’s why they download their favourite songs.  To achieve familiarity, you have to play the songs more often than most presenters would choose to play them. 

The only reason that listeners did not turn away from some ILR stations in days of old was there was simply nowhere else to go. Remember, one commercial station per market, Radio 1 not on FM, and Radio 2 playing pan pipes. The first sign of the ILR's FM weakness was what happened when the weaker ones created their own excellent, focused AM Gold competitors.

News bulletins were surely better. Well, they were likely longer, that's for sure. Were they
remembered?  Were the stories of interest?  Who knows. The ‘press’ model of journalism was evident: news was often flashing blue light stories and council meetings.  I applaud the often wrongly-maligned GWR for all its work in news thinking.  I recall that Group asking the refreshing question ‘what are people really interested in?’.  Journalists in the 70s and 80s might have debated that question with colleagues, but rarely would those conversations be fuelled with any deep understanding of listeners lives and worries. 'Beating the competition' was the key obsession.

Commercial radio was once great for its rich range of programmes. Let me see now: Jazz on a Thursday night, Country on a Tuesday and so the list went on. Truly great news if you liked Jazz or Country.  It wasn’t good for me though, as I wanted to hear the Dooleys. So, for the specialist hours, there was no station for me after 7 p.m.  At all.  Now, there is format consistency; and if you do want Country there are stations around the World to choose from.

Breakfast show recordings from long ago are a painful reminder of a fun, yet random, period.  You went on-air and you did it. Some natural communicators produced shows of the highest order. Many did not.  Now, visit any sensible radio station just after ten and you’ll find a gaggle of folk considering the day's  show. What went well and what didn't?  What are we planning for tomorrow? What’s the angle on this or that? How can we get listeners involved? 

The science of a breakfast show now is now significant. It's the experiment we can never do, but how great it would be to pitch one random old style show against one which stops every morning to ask 'what do listeners really want to hear in their lives when they wake up tomorrow?'.  Which would win?

What about 'Lost and Founds' though? And jumble sales. Radio was much better with those, surely. I suspect not. There are lots of places to issue announcements like that; much better suited to information listings than radio. After all, radio was once the only way to communicate a one-to-many message; now it is not. And, frankly, did folk really think "Hmmm.  Think I’ll go out today.  Let me turn on the radio and see if there’s a jumble sale to go to".  As for Fanny's lost parrot. I hope she finds it, but I'd rather hear a song.

Local is better than regional surely? Let's pause to remember that when they were in different ownerships, stations would often stretch their TSAs as far as they could anyway. They wanted to trample on their neighbours and took delight in covering things across, well, the whole region.  And it would be handbags at dawn for the sales people battling on the fringes.

Charity auctions?  They were fun years ago.  But were they really better than some of the phenomenal local fundraisers around commercial radio now? Global's efforts have been huge in scale and the then GMG did notable work for Help for Heroes . Bauer's Cash for Kids enjoys impressive support; and we burst with pride at the c. £2m we've raised in just a few years at Free Radio and Gem 106 with 'Walk for Kids' or 'Give it Up'.

I love and respect the past, and my #radiomoments are evidence of treasured memories and lessons learned. But I relish the excitement of the present too. As I often say, had commercial radio architecture been sensible, we would have had huge national music brands decades ago, supplemented by powerful single local stations where the markets can sustain them.  Instead, we’ve had to engineer some sense painfully into the structure of this industry if it is to survive and thrive in the most challenging of economic times.  It's unlikely to be a truly perfect result.

And for the people who hate it all and want to try alternative sorts of radio, never have the
barriers to entry been lower. Technology is cheap and a wealth of community stations and internet stations offer an easy platform.  If you truly are good, you'll be found.

One thing has not changed – the great radio communicator.  Those people will always command an audience and the gifted are truly rare.

I have a feeling that the restructuring of radio is now approaching completion; and the medium is finding its place in a different world.  Different sorts of people will be involved.  Radio can be a curated background blend of your favourite songs, or it can create a ripple of dialogue which can continue in many places, not just on the air.  Another golden age of radio is beginning.  

Thursday, 16 January 2014

No more green ink

“I hate the sound of your voice” said a listener text the other day to an old colleague of mine whilst he hosted a weekend show on a commercial music station. 

Listeners can be brutally honest. Actually, they can be downright rude. I cannot imagine walking into Tesco, not liking the decor and shouting at the manager ‘I hate your store’.

There is a sense of ‘ownership’ listeners have which leads them to believe that the station is for them and them alone. If you dare to do anything which displeases them, they feel thoroughly entitled to be abusive.

Once upon a time, we used to get complaint letters. As an on-air PD, I recall one wonderful one about me, to which I took some considerable pleasure in replying. Back then, sheets of Basildon Bond and calls on crackly lines were the only source of comment.  Now, minute by minute whilst on-air, sensitive presenters are subjected to real-time comment.  A rude text; a snide Tweet. When you’re not having your best show, they don’t help. Frankly, even when you are having an excellent show and getting great feedback, it’s still only that one snide comment you mull over painfully as you drive home.  I suspect actors and the like get the same live feedback now as they sit watching their own work unfold on TV.   Poor luvs.

Given such feedback is relatively anonymous in the first instance nowadays, much of it is not
shielded with the objective rational politeness which normal people would exercise in their day to day lives. That's a pity.

In commercial radio management too, we are rather in the frontline.  Shouty listeners ring to demand what on earth you are doing with their station.  The number of years they have been listening is in direct proportion to the volume of the complainant's voice. I suspect when such calls stop occurring, we should start to be worried about the diminishing power of radio. So I comfort myself, after another agonising half hour on the phone.

In the private sector, under the threat of the OFCOM gun, we are obliged to have a delicious page on our websites ‘the Public File’ in which we must detail exactly what we do on-air, how to make a complaint and who to speak to.  Who to blame.  The File even has a specific name and place on our websites lest listeners find our sites as tough to navigate as OFCOM’s own.  Most of us have other places on the site too which facilitate easy email comment which drops straight into the correct management mailboxes. 

I suspect that most sensible commercial station management place a priority on getting back to complainants as promptly as they can, and doing their very best to explain, correct or apologise.   Often, such complainants are so pleased someone has taken the time to call back and consider their comments, they become surprisingly constructive.  Some complainants make the most ridiculous points, others make thoroughly justifiable ones and are rather taken aback when one replies 'I agree with you'.
Is it ironic that the BBC, funded in the way it is and charged with public service obligations, does not carry a similar obligation for a ‘public file’ for its local radio stations, or any other public listing of those who run the stations?

If one has a BBC local radio beef, and presumably ventures to the relevant section of the BBC website, one finds a form. Eventually. It is a long journey. From the relevant radio station ‘front page’, it is the menu from hell, with no fewer than 13  enjoyable clicks and options  before one is allowed to begin depositing one’s tirade in the white box.  We’ve probably calmed down before then, having taken our frustration out with each keystroke. Maybe that’s the idea.

It’s just a form though.  No names, no-one to blame.  A trip to the excellent MediaUK site or relevant Wikipedia page might yield a useful contact name of some executive, but that is maybe not quite what a listener might expect.

The BBC complaints system is centralised, and comments are filtered before being referred promptly for action or consideration.  I have a hunch most listeners would prefer to pick up the phone to their local radio manager.  I suspect too that the best BBC local radio managers, frankly, would rather deal with things that way too. Should people in their local cities know the names of the people who head their local station? Some do indeed volunteer a public face wherever they can. Others are rather more reserved.

Some listener comments, of course, are very much the opposite. They fall in love with you. That’s often worse. x

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Merry Radio Christmas?

Much has been made of the Christmas TV schedule  - but what of the fare in radio-land?

Some good stuff, actually, on the 'airwaves', as the press might say.

But some things puzzle me.  Why do presenters insist on saying they are 'sitting in' for someone over the long festive spell?  Given all festive shows are abnormal, you can claim them as your own rather than anyone else's.  On Christmas Day - you're hosting a great Christmas show which fits the mood and one of which your station should be proud. Why feel obliged to mention the talent who's not on?  You can treat every programme as a 'special'. Most folk don't even know what day it is, let alone who 'should' be on.

My best example may have been tongue in cheek from the great Tony Blackburn, when he said that Robbie Williams was 'sitting in for Dermot O'Leary'

Twitter was awash too with tales of radio stations doing commercial-free party shows into the new year.  Why, oh why, should commercial radio boast to its listeners that being commercial free is good?   If their listeners heeded that implicit message, then they'll all be off to the BBC.  Forever.  

And on that special New Year's Eve, shall we all stop imagining that listeners are likely to put your station on whilst they party. When did you last go to a party like that?  Let's play to radio's strengths and entertain and involve in either an upbeat mode, or reflective as your format befits.  And, as I recall the great, late Ray Moore, I know I'd take the reflective route on Radio 2 and BBC Local, bearing in mind the sorts of listeners who're likely to be listening at that time on New Year's Eve.  Alone, frankly, wanting a bit of company.  And how great is radio at providing that.

Just heard  BBC Local Radio just now trumpet that 'normal programmes are back from Monday'.  Is that an apology or a boast or what?  Not sure it's much at all really. To me, normality is boring, it's like 'back to school'; and who wants that.  Sound excited about something.  

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Don't take Pringles to Focus Groups

My favourite focus group participant ever was the woman in the brown parka who returned to the room just afterwards and asked if she could take home the unopened packet of Pringles.

Focus groups are seriously bad for the health.  Some contributors make you want to pull your hair out.  But they can inform strategic decisions, help air talent coaching, and frequently challenge radio 'wisdom'.

The sorts of people you want to hear from are wisely recruited with care, usually via a capable third party.  Sometimes the right candidates are loyal listeners, but more often they are casual or competitor listeners; and the sorts of listeners you aspire to own.  Having said that, no matter how often you tell yourself that you have paid to hire people who don't love you very much, it's utterly demoralising to sit through endless hours of chatter from those who, well, don't love you very much.

I recall some of my first groups, held in about 2001 in Yorkshire.  We conducted two simultaneous assemblies, one comprising 'Galaxy listeners aged 20-29'; and the other made up of 'ILR listeners, aged 20-29' who were Aire or Hallam devotees.  The groups waiting in the lobby could be distinguished just by their dress sense.  One group pulled off the art of wearing tat; and the others wore slacks from Burtons. It was a divisive decade.

In those days, we commissioned a proper facility in which to house the discussion, equipped with cloudy one-way glass through which we stared angrily whilst a calm pro with a clipboard conducted the discussion to our specification.  Nowadays, I prefer to use a hotel room with a dozen recruits, and conduct them myself.  That way, I can ask the questions I really want to; and the invaluable supplementaries.  Fuelled by years of watching quietly, I feel I can now just about pull off the art of posing as a random bloke from a research company with little interest or knowledge of radio. 

You get the quiet ones in the room.  You get the noisy ones who dominate, including possibly one anorak who knows a little too much.  And you get the one who said he was going to the loo after being paid, and disappeared.  I have your phone number, Sir.

But, mostly, you simply get a sobering insight into how people really feel about your station and your competitors.  I know exactly which words they will use when I ask about all the radio brands.  I also know that listeners remember all the things you thought they would not, and they forget those things you spent years planning.   You have to control yourself as a listener talks utter rubbish; and suppress the inward cheer when a perception you have sweated blood shifting has indeed changed.  Some listeners you want to kiss with joy

They know a lot about some presenters and little about others. I often wade innocently through a list of presenter names, from our stations and others, and I fear that some nationally-established  names would be shocked to know that 70% of people may not actually know who on earth they are.  Then again, when a presenter's name and life is duly recalled, and stories flow from a listener's mouth about something  the presenter did on-air a year ago; or they tell of a competition and even mention the sponsor, it's gratifying.

It's not just about the station. It's how radio fits into listeners' changing lives; and that's something we all need to comprehend.

Here's a guarantee. There will always be at least one key finding.  A gem of a remark which will change the way you do something fundamentally - forever. 

On the BBC 5 Live review of 2013, I heard the wonderful Geoff Lloyd worry that radio now relies on focus groups and the like, and therein lies one of its challenges.  I'd suggest the opposite. Often it is the views of real listeners which can over-turn predictable, conventional radio wisdom in a refreshing way.  Just do not ask listeners to predict their future behaviour. Just like you and me, they really cannot. 

Without insight like this, it's tough to remain confident you have a decent idea of what listeners want to hear.  Not least when you are too young or too old to be  amongst your own target audience.  

Rajar's a lovely thing, but at heart it is but a dusty trading currency.  By the time a programmer gets hold of those historic figures, it tells them what a few people think they might have been listening to quite a few months before.  It does not tell you why; or how vulnerable that audience is.  If, for that necessary qualititive data, you rely simply just on the views of those who choose to get in touch with your station; or those you bump into at a WI meeting; or the instinct of a rather too detached manager or programmer, then you may have an issue.

We love radio so much, it is tough for us to be objective.  Listeners  can be brutally so.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Brand Integration. Are we making the most of it?

As 2010 closed, OFCOM confirmed the unthinkable.  The suits at Southwark Bridge cracked open another bottle of branded sparkling water to celebrate the sweeping away of decades of wordy compliance rules, which had caused generations of regulators to chew their Biros at the best of times.  Brand integration was to be legitimate from February 2011, even though OFCOM did not call it that.  The right move.  Full marks.

As far as I know, there has been no outpouring of indignation from Middle England.  One wonders why on earth we all put up with so many pointless rules for quite so long.  Now we can just about do anything commercial in most places within programming, so long as we mention that the clients are 'our friends'.  Of course they bloody well are. 

But have we truly embraced the new freedoms?  Some stations have, others have not.  Across British radio, though, one can still smell the legacy of rules which once existed.

A key example is the gratuitous competition.  The client who just wants a nice plug, gets a long, irrelevant, spurious competition with a long sponsor line nailed to the end.

Two things accordingly occur to me.  The sponsor line was originally created as it used to be the only legitimate place for a commercial credit outside an ad break.  It used to necessarily be: content  - sponsored by ‘client, who do a lot of lovely things’, or you were carted off to the Tower.

Now, provided the client is credited promptly, you can embed their values and proposition within the item in a natural way, whether in a promo or an execution.  You do not need an interminable, often nonsensical sponsor line.  Credits only used to be nailed on the end as an afterthought because, in the UK, they had to be.  In the US, Quaker Oats were merrily embedding their brand into radio content 80 years prior.  Now advertising does not always have to be interruptive, why do we make it so?

Secondly, why the obsession with competitions?  Yes, advertisers now in all media are seeing the benefits of ‘giving value’ rather than just shouting at listeners, but value can manifest itself in different ways.  Entertaining content is also value.  As I often say, ‘Our Tune’ on Radio 1 was clearly not sponsored, but it could easily have been.  Similarly, comedy is content, and clients can take the credit.  At Orion, in my day job, we’ve embedded clients into World record attempts. 

Hail Debbie Douglas on WRLD; and a contemporary live ad.

One of the skills increasingly required of a radio presenter is the ability to deliver commercial material to an engaging and entertaining standard.  Make that client brand live.

Radio enjoys an incomparable relationship with its audience. When listeners write to a presenter, they write as if to a friend.  When we sell deep brand integration, we are, in a sense, allowing the client to borrow that friendship.  We are all sufficiently proud of our radio brands, though, to make sure not any Tom, Dick or Harry is allowed in. 

So, having taken great care with the nature of the commercial marriage, why do some presenters deem it big and clever to sound as though anything commercial they deliver smells of dog dirt?  You’ve heard these characters on-air, I am sure. They shift after a pause and the rustle of paper from enthusiastic dialogue to sounding as if they are extremely bored with what they are reading badly.  In their crazy mind, the presenter thinks this sends a signal to their audience that the commercial material was not their idea, and their listener will accordingly forgive them, with a knowing smile.  What really happens is the listener just gets bored and likely switches off.

These presenters are also likely those who trumpet prizes less than enthusiastically, just because they are not a million pounds.  If they really knew their audiences, they'd understand that, on the contrary, Michelle Miggins from Mablethorpe is really quite chuffed to have won £25 in a sponsored competition with which to treat herself. What she does not think is: "oh, it's S & P, I don't like it".

In America, they’re used to this stuff.  They’ve been doing it for years; and seasoned air talent can waltz from programme to sell; and back again.  And they do it well.  Many presenters depend on commercial income rather than show fees to keep their lives running; and on the smaller stations, the breakfast guy locks up after himself, prints off a few ratecards and goes selling in the afternoon.

Goodness. Did ads really used to sound like this in the 30s?

A few years ago, I hosted a most enjoyable Sunday programme on Smooth in the East Midlands.
  That jolly show had a new sponsor, and I duly did my best to breathe life into the partnership.  Then an email arrived.  It transpired the sponsor was an old school friend.  He explained he’d put every penny he had in his new business venture; and second mortgaged his home to invest in marketing.  The second time I credited the sponsor, I pronounced it in neon lights as though my life depended on it.  His did.  Great brand integration should sound, after the regulatory nod, as though you are recommending something to a friend. 

Similarly, it’s great to hear people like Foxy & Giuliano relate an incidental anecdote about a visit to the sponsors of their ‘Thousand Pound Minute' on Free Radio in Birmingham.  It’s a great story.  It's entertainment.  Sam & Amy bicker naturally with a client theme as they recap a commercial message on the giant Gem 106.  Jo & Sparky on Free Radio reach out and personally make it their business to know about their sponsor’s business.  And David Francis on Free Radio in Worcester delivers a sponsor mention as if it’s a piece of news he’s just reminding me about.  It’s a skill. And how much more powerful when the presenter delivers it, rather than yet another disembodied voice.

Foxy on Free Radio credits a sponsor with believability

And, the best brand integration, where the brand fit is like hand into glove, can be echoed and embraced off-air with ease and with power. A client brand becomes the radio station's friend. Witness Absolute and Wickes.

"Please, Sir. I want some more".  Should Oliver ask OFCOM for further titbits?  Maybe it’s just me that finds the distinction between ad breaks and commercial elements of programming a tad pointless and tough to implement usefully, give both have commercial paymasters.  I suspect that rule will rightly erode next time around, and I hope we are soon given an opportunity to say just that.

At the last liberalisation, admittedly at the eleventh hour, the radio industry took a sharp intake of breath and asked the regulator if news might be sponsored.  ‘No’ came the predictable reply, as it might ‘compromise content’.  I get that point, and frankly I’ve yet to make my mind up on this issue.  It’s how British listeners might perceive it, as much as the reality.  

Savour this! A 1944 US sponsored news bulletin.

I would suggest to the regulator, though, that if it feels that news sits currently in a palm tree-lined oasis, insulated from any commercial concerns or risk of compromise, it is wrong.  Sales execs and clients get very anxious if an adverse story regarding the advertiser risks appearing in a news bulletin.  They make their views known very bluntly.  I have, however, yet to work at any radio station which has given way to such pressure in its news coverage.  Ever.  Both enthusiastic exec and client are reminded very politely, by programme and commercial management alike, that whilst we sympathise, and will take every step to ensure that all sides of the story are heard, the editorial agenda will not be adjusted.  

The point I’d like to make is that we can be surprisingly grown up in areas like that. Because we care too.  As do our listeners.

But political advertising? Hey, why not.