BBC Local Radio – the saga continues

It’s really disappointing to see BBC local radio reach fall once more. In just two years, they’ve lost a staggering half a million listeners and an incredible 11 million listening hours. All this at a time when their core demo is rising.

There are some success stories of course – I could name half a dozen programmes right now that are top notch, but the overall picture is gloomy. Don’t even look at the results for the present ‘station of the year’.

Listeners have stopped being ambassadors.

I know I go on about it but the numbers are on my side here. This crazy obsession with news is driving people out of the door. Rarely do I hear a single promo that says ‘tune in because we entertain’.

Management only seem interested in the breakfast show, they review the content for hours – for what reason, I have no idea. They show little interest in the rest of the output, it rarely gets a mention, never mind any focus.

The worst thing you can do is create a product to please yourself. So much of what they do remind me of Tesco, they have forgotten about the customer.

It’s time for the staff to get angry and demand answers about the strategy. They need to hold their leaders to account with the same skill and precision they use on local councillors. If not, they will sleep walk their way to redundancy.

This is not commercial radio, this is public radio and the public are saying they don’t like it.

Worse still, is the appalling drivel we get from their PR department:

‘Over six million people love what we do, we are proud of the service we provide blah blah blah

This is what they should be saying:

“We have a sensible level of funding, employ passionate and experienced people, use FM transmitters and house credible newsrooms, but it’s clear the strategy we are adopting is not working. Over a half million people have switched us off in two years and even those who remain, are tuning in for less. We have failed to deliver radio that people want to hear but from today, that will change.

What to do next?

I say again. Kill the present news led strategy. It is important of course, so is sport but success is about the whole, not a few shiny parts. Understand that great communicators make great radio, review the music policy and let personalities return home. Oh, and mix it up a bit.

Someone asked me what the bottom line figure might be before Tony Hall considers local radio a failure. This is a tough one. It is currently 6.6m listeners. The BBC Trust (Yes- it’s still there) will certainly form a view next year but if I had to give a number – I would say 6million.

A good figure starts with a 7 and that is very achievable with a few tweaks. Change the strategy altogether? You could get something that starts with an 8. Hardly impossible!

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RAJAR news from TESCO

Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco, gave a great quote this morning after announcing a staggering loss of £6.38billion, their biggest ever loss and the sixth-biggest announced by any UK company.

“We are starting to see some very encouraging signs”.

Classic CEO stuff and I can only assume that he must have worked in radio at some point and learned a lot about how to deal with disappointing RAJAR results.

Running a business is never easy though and when I started, I was taught a number of things by a number of wonderful people.

One of the most important centred on cash flow. Far too many businesses have bitten the dust, not because they didn’t have a great product, but because they ran out of cash. It is the number one rule I hammer home to every new start-up. In part, some of these were victims of the larger companies who drilled their profit margin to the bone and then made them wait months before paying out.

Another learning was around the reporting of numbers.

An old boss of mine believed very strongly that if you were going to have a bad year, then make sure it is a really, really bad year. Get all the crap, all the debt, all the stuff you’ve been hiding away and throw it all into the mix. Write off the past and build for tomorrow. If you can shower some of the blame on previous management, even better.

These numbers from Tesco had everything but the kitchen sink in it as management did just that. And rightly so!

If you’re going to get hung then get hung, drawn and quartered at the same time – but importantly, live to fight another day. Make sure the following year is a belter.

Another classic CEO line is to suggest that while these numbers are bad, more bad news might follow. I doubt it. What will happen is that the next set of figures will be brighter, the shareholders will be smiling and Dave will be a hero.

Tesco have always had a dodgy past though, few in this industry have a great one to be honest. To compete, many have treated their suppliers badly, constantly driving down their profits while, at the same time, making them wait months to be paid. There will be many therefore who believe they deserve it. Hail the discount stores who are eating their lunch.

Personally, I never got the ‘build everything big mentality’. Tesco always seemed to offer us more while never asking if it was more than we wanted.

Don’t feel sorry for them. They still have the biggest share in this sector my some distance. However, from today I’ve decided to only shop at Tesco for a full month in order to help them out. All companies go through difficulties.

That said, it is the view of the City that matters most so how have they reacted today?

In the first hour of the announcement, the share price was up!

PS. The CEO has just announced that they are No 1 for 35-44 year old females shopping at midnight in Chelmsford. That RAJAR training never leaves you!

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Katie Hopkins show on LBC. Who’d listen?

At GMG radio we had someone called Jeff Stephenson. He was (and is) one of life’s nice guys and everyone loved him for one simple reason:

He made complaints go away.

He was, what we affectionately termed back then, ‘head of sh*t’. Any complaint or idiot who called into the station was sent off to him. People suggested he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, all I knew was that that the problem went away!

The news that Katie Hopkins is to host her own show on LBC will require the skills of someone just like Jeff because there is a big difference between having an opinion as a guest and having one as a presenter.

The former can get away with saying something that might come close to starting a riot while the presenter has to follow the OFCOM code. This is, after all, a profession where rules matter. One rule in particular might be a problem for Katie.

This is the one about not saying anything that might cause ‘widespread offence’.

Considering that most of what this woman has to say falls into this category, the programme will make for interesting listening.

We all want more variety on the air. Life is so vanilla right now, we have succumbed to the bland and to be honest with you, it’s really boring. You either love or hate personalities in equal measure. The more extreme they are the more successful they seem to be.

That said, you need to know the rules before you break them. Radio is an art form, often overlooked because the best make it sound easy. Believe me, she will soon learn that ‘gobbing off’ as a guest is a long, long way from the responsibility of being in charge of the mic.

No listener has the right NOT to be offended and people with strong convictions should be allowed to express them without the fear of being dragged from their broadcasting chair for doing so. The caveat to this though – and one I believe is right – is around how something is said, the context in which it was said and, believe it or not, the reputation of the person who said it.

Talk radio is indeed all about opinions. Katie has more than most but provided the subject matter under discussion is well trailed and promoted (something LBC is good at) everything should be fine. However, if she resorts to saying something offensive just to generate more callers, then OFCOM will act.

I’ve never met her but I would protect her right to say what she genuinely thinks.

The trouble is I don’t believe she genuinely believes in what she says at all. It’s all an act, and not a very good one either if you ask me. Certainly, not one with longevity.

She’s mostly the mouthpiece for the most vile thoughts in life, even though occasionally we might agree with the thread of her argument. Recently, I’ve noticed that she’s started to become more offensive in tone and I think that’s partly due to the desperation of trying to keep up the interest.

Radio could be the perfect platform for Katie but she has to learn that being the host will never be as effective as being the embarrassing guest. Furthermore, she will need a champion at management level who will support and defend her. Those people do not grow on trees and it’s not uncommon to see them do a complete 180 the moment the complaints come in.

There are many ex presenters no longer working in radio today because those with the power to employ can’t be bothered with the noise they bring to their doors.

This is a little risky for LBC but hey, without that there is no reward. It’s a one off show to start with anyway so they can always pull the plug if need be.

I will be tuned in. Listening to a radio car crash can be strangely compelling!

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TV verses the radio star

Regular readers will know that I rate James O’Brien highly. He’s a skilled broadcaster, well read and a great communicator. He’s clearly capable of a lot more and a lot more is indeed what we’ve got.

Job offers are flooding in ranging from being the fill-in presenter on Newsnight (something he is very good at) to being the new host of the ITV programme – O’Brien. Something that needs a little work.

Most presenters have agents, a good one will protect their client from over exposure but a smart one will ensure they work within formats where they can shine.

I’m not sure this show does that

The TV medium is a difficult one to master, mostly because viewers have a habit of forming instant opinions with their eyes before they get close to listening with their ears. Debate programmes like this are dangerous because a live audience is a difficult match to referee. People start shouting at each other and what we end up with is a downmarket and ugly programme. No one wins, certainly not the presenter.

Should James be doing this show?

Absolutely. I think when you’re popular you grab every opportunity that comes your way. I would be doing so to learn the game, see what works and be ready to use that to my own advantage. In any case, daytime television is hardly a high risk career move.

That said, James deserves better than this.

If I was the boss of ITV, I would put him on a weekend as perhaps the new, modern, Brian Walden.

There is nothing wrong with trying something new, but deep down, he must know that radio is the only medium that really works!

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The best talent give you the biggest problems

It’s always been the case, the crazy talent we know and love are loved because they are just that, crazy and talented.

They do things most normal people don’t, they see the world differently, say things they shouldn’t and because of that, are curious, engaging and often, compulsive viewing.

Chris Evans was the same at one time. He was mad, so mad he was often unmanageable and he admits that himself. Soon after, he kind of burnt himself out, the nation tired of his antics and so did many others. It was only after he learned a little humility did his star begin to turn around. He’s always been talented but you need to get rid of your demons before you become the nations favourite. Today, he is just that.

Clarkson does not live in the 70s, where smacking people around the chops, was deemed a daily part of the job. I’ve dodged the odd fist myself but in this modern world, it is absolutely right that violence of any kind, has to be eradicated.

In the end, Clarkson knew the game was up at the BBC, but that does not mean the game is up completely. I expect him to move on from this, learning a little and perhaps, even experiencing a little humility along the way too.

What does not help, are those who suggest he is the victim. He is not. He is the workplace bully who had to be stopped. Yes, we are all upset because we love the show, but if it was one of our family who’d been attacked, we’d be the first to shout foul play and demand action.

Let’s be honest, the truth contained within the official report looks more than uncomfortable.

So. Right decision, don’t renew the contract, to hell with the expense and instead let’s work with those who deserve our support and help to move the programme on.

Will it survive? Of course it will, the numbers might not be as good, but it will go on.

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BBC local radio v BBC Radio 2

A couple of months back I blogged about BBC local radio.

I argued that they had to get out of the way of R2 and find safer ground.

This paragraph from the BBC Trust report on the national music services, published yesterday, is interesting:

“Evidence suggests that Radio 2’s growth in listening may be having an effect on listening to other BBC services, including BBC Local Radio and Radio Wales, given they appeal to a similar demographic. We think it is important that the BBC considers how its portfolio of stations serves listeners, and how changes in listening to different stations may affect the BBC’s delivery of its public purposes

In short, someone at the BBC needs to look at their total radio proposition in the round. If they did just that, BBC local radio might find itself prospering.

Incidentally, I hear a small committee has been formed to ponder on what the future of BBC local radio might look like if they did something slightly different.

Why does it always need a committee?

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Who cares about a debate?

The media are getting themselves into a right old strop about the on/off political debate.

Journalists, broadcasters and the politically aware are disappointed that those in power are not rolling over and doing what is asked of them. I’m the same.

The world has changed, leader debates should be mandatory in these times. Of course, it may not drive the audience numbers of Eastenders or Saturday Night Takeaway, but this stuff is important.

Do the public care

I don’t want to admit it but I don’t think they do in general.

There are reasons for this and those working in media have to take some of the blame here.

I had the joy of meeting Brian and Mary today, one came to fix my gas boiler and the other was delivering the mail. (Already I sound like Miliband). I asked for their view, it was not a positive one. They had little interest in all the fuss. Yes, they believe people should account for themselves but the bottom line is that they simply have more important things to worry about.

They’d watch if it was on but don’t really care if it’s not.

Their stance is that politicians have perfected the art of never answering a question so what’s the point? They never learn anything anyway. Nothing changes.

Presenters who do make a stand are accused of being bias or perhaps overly aggressive.

Where is the next Brian Walden?

I want real debate, not a shouting match. It’s hard to fine one, even Question Time is hard work with few people at the top table even on it. It is mostly the B team and the nation is bored with it all.

That can change if we change the rules.

If you want younger people to get involved with politics you have to ask if a row of talking heads is the right format. Whatever the way forward, politicians have to start answering the questions and media has got to stop airing soundbites.

As is so often the case, radio listeners provide the most amusing content with ideas on how to make these events more appealing.

Ask them 10 questions where they can only answer yes, no or maybe!

Each participant to drink 10 Jagabombs an hour before the debate begins

Jeremy Vine had a female caller on who claimed it was 90 minutes of her life she wouldn’t get back.

Shouting matches, PMQ’s or no one answering a question is what a great many people believe politics has resorted to and that is a shame, for all of us. Sadly, politicians are right down there with Estate Agents, but slightly higher than bankers. Hardly a badge of honour.

Broadcasters, journalists and the media itself is as guilty for the apathy in politics today as any politician if you ask me.

They say that we get the politics we deserve. The same goes for media too.

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Anyone who has ever had to report disappointing RAJAR numbers up the line knows how difficult this can be. What shall we say, who can we blame?

Sometimes, you just have to take it on the chin

This has happened to me many times, once when I had to report a loss of over a million listening hours in a single quarter.

Lord Myners; Chairman of GMG at the time, reacted to the news by enquiring as to why I’d been so bloody careless? Clearly, he didn’t understand the ins and outs of RAJAR, but that didn’t stop him voicing his displeasure and to be honest, I was glad to escape with a minor bollocking.

I wonder how he’d react if I had to report a staggering yearly loss of over 11 MILLION hours and 350,000 listeners.

Spare a thought then for the head honcho of BBC local radio, David Holdsworth. He’s delivering that very message to Lord Hall right now.

Sadly, the really depressing number here is the over 45 figure – 286,000 have disappeared which account for an eye watering 9.2 MILLION hours respectively. This demo by the way is their core target market.

The Reason?

I refer you to my previous blog M’lord but this is the killer stat:

BBC local radio is losing a listener every thirty seconds of every day.

Is that not something to worry about?

Meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to KISS in London. What a performance, perhaps star of the book. Well done Bauer and Andy Roberts.

Personally, I’m delighted to see the rise of BBC6 Music – a DAB only station that is now delivering over 2 million listeners for the first time, a landmark moment for digital radio. It’s now bigger than BBC Radio 3 that comes with an FM signal so good you can pick it up with a staple gun!

While Radio 3 may be delighted to see any increase this quarter, the applause is for 6music where many will now be wondering why these two stations don’t simply switch platforms with R3 going on DAB only etc.

There is no chance of this whatsoever.

What people don’t understand is that listeners to Radio 3 are a very rare breed who write fantastic letters of complaint using words many of us have to look up. More importantly, they know which letterbox to drop them into. 6 Music listeners, however, while equally intelligent, are mostly just thrilled to wake up sober and in the same bed as the night before :)

We should rejoice in that rock ‘n’ roll fact right there!

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Music research: Good or bad for radio?


If I’m honest, music research has always confused me.

I’m old school in that I believe any programmer worth their salt should know this part of their job intuitively. Alas, I fear those golden days are long gone.

Competition demands you take full advantage of all the research available with the trusty bible of results sitting at the side of every PD’s computer.

Once you jump on the research wagon, you never seem able to jump off

People can get sucked into the constant need to back every judgement call with research, gut feel gets lost and because of this, I would argue the nation has ended up with about 500 tracks that seem to come around day after day, month after month. Why do we only hear a few songs from an artists hit list and not some of their other great songs?

It’s because everything has to be researched, everything must fit

When I filled in for Sun FM recently, I enquired as to why we appeared to play a lot of Adam and the Ants. I was told the research suggested listeners loved them. Really? UKRD use music testing of a sort and this station – along with so many in their group – are No1 in their respective local markets so what the hell do I know?

That said, I still don’t like it

I guess my view is tainted from being part of a long line of jocks that made it into management through ‘gut feel’. I’ve watched gifted people create compelling playlists from nothing more than a feel for what the audience wants, using skill and instinct to know when something needs to be adjusted.

When presenting a daily breakfast show many years back, I would change the music around in the hour in order to make the most of any feature or to create pace and flow from a caller or into the news. I felt you had to be able to adapt the output as you went along but try doing that these days!

Rules are meant to be broken if results are the goal.

Richard Park used to have Selector on his desk (it might still be there) which he would use to alter a track or two in any given hour. For example, if the weather changed dramatically, he would reflect that within the output. You can’t hand over responsibility to a computer just because it’s based on the latest research or programmed three days in advance.

He had access to research of course, lots of it and you can hear that in Smooth, Capital and Heart but he is also quoted as saying:

Programming solely on research alone is like driving while only relying on the rear view mirror

You can have it, you can look at it, but you have to ask yourself if you really believe it. The truth is – it’s nothing but a simple tool of the job.

Yet, I’ve often heard experienced PDs tell me that the reason a song isn’t played is because ‘it didn’t test well’. Believe me, this is code for ‘I’ve no bloody idea what the hell I’m doing’.

Have we lost the art of programming by gut feel?

Kieran McGeary from Cork96 in Ireland is a proven PD with many years of success under his belt. He’s been tweeting about his recent auditorium testing in Ireland. See it here

In this short video, you can see how they’ve brought together a group of people in one room who are then subjected to the ‘hooks’ of songs. As the music plays, they are asked to score them on a scale of like or dislike. I would argue that listeners don’t listen to music in this kind of environment whatsoever therefore the scores on the doors must be misleading.

Kieran, however, says otherwise:

Christian O’Connell has a different view:

Its also about what you test:

BBC Radio 2 – the most popular radio station on UK planet earth – spends very little money on music research.

Jeff Smith, the stations head of music agrees with his team what songs are on the overall weekly playlist but he gives the producers a lot of freedom otherwise how on earth would you explain the nations biggest breakfast show starting the day with Ballroom Blitz by Sweet!

Imagine trying to test that?

Despite my concerns, there is more than one way to produce great radio. Some like doing it via research, I prefer the gut feel. It’s more likely to be a combination of the two. I would never say no to a PD who believes in it, but I would be asking some searching questions:

What do you expect to get from this investment and what decisions will you make from it?

I get the fact that there is some value in knowing when a song is burnt out, but relying on research to tell you what to play still sits awkwardly with me.

The smart programmer will see research for what it is. A tool, they will always do what they believe to be right no matter what and sod the bloody research.

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My view on D2


I rarely blog about DAB – it’s so boring – but as my timeline is full of nothing else here goes..

Both applications are excellent

I suspect Listen2Digital led by Phil Riley have surprised many by coming up with something that appears to be more exciting overall in terms of choice. They’ve answered the exam paper more creatively I think and this, backed by a variety of investors, will give OFCOM some food for thought. This is certainly no longer a straightforward decision.

Many may still believe the front-runner to be Sound Digital, I can see why. They have proposed some interesting services (I like the speech ideas) and are by far the safe choice, mainly because the regulator will not want to have another experience like Channel 4. The amount of egg on their face from that moment took some time to clean and while they can’t be blamed for what happened, if the same thing occurred again, it will look like incompetence.

Listen2Digital – is it a more risky choice?

I’m not so sure. It houses a number of media investors with a good history of success. Phil, for example, is someone with a vast amount of experience. He was chair of MXR for many years, a consortium that did exactly what it promised on the digital tin and without any hassle. Orion is also backed by one of the countries largest private equity firms in LDC, part of Lloyds bank and they seem happy to increase their stake in radio. In addition, Babcock (having only researched them this morning) are an £8bn FTSE 100 company so with a 35% shareholding in the application, they can’t be doing this as a punt. Neither are Folder media by the way, this is a small group who are serious about DAB and live with it every day. Overall, this points to a very strong application.

Sound Digital will take some beating

This group offers choice with perhaps the luxury of a little more stability; if they win, there will be a lot of nodding heads. They would be the safe choice of course with their killer app for me being the speech stations proposed by UTV. This comes with a slight hurdle in that anyone can claim to do it, but delivering it is another thing altogether. Speech is much more expensive than music channels so the regulator will be demanding some big assurances that this is not just application puffery. Scott Taunton is no slouch though and will no doubt have this covered off.

That’s why this contest will go down to the wire. I can’t call it. It’s stability verses potential. It’s ‘some choice’ verses ‘more choice’. It may simply come down to who you believe in the most.

My own view (for what it’s worth) is that the executives at OFCOM may favour the application from Listen2Digital as it showcases ‘radio and variety’ a little more, but I suspect the board (decision makers) will want to avoid taking a risk and that might just be enough for Sound Digital to get over the line.

One question the decision makers will have to grapple with is this:

Is handing D2 to a consortium that already owns so much digital capacity in the UK, good for business, competition, stability and the UK radio market as a whole?

You can argue this both ways which is why we will see their respective PR machines going into overdrive.

Whatever happens, I would be delighted to see either party win. Both will do a good job and that can only be good for radio.

Picture from Radio Today website

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