Stephanie Hirst – BBC Manchester is not the answer

Stephanie Hirst - 2014

Stephanie Hirst has gone through a lot this past year and in doing so is a much happier person all round but this blog is not about gender, it’s about talent and bizarre decisions.

Stephanie is widely known for hosting the biggest breakfast show outside of London. She’s imaginative and creative and until recently, the entertaining ringmaster of a morning show that delivered big audiences.

Yes, of course she can also do a good music show but it’s not what she’s best at.

She’s at her best when delivering content that people like to hear.

Yet, despite being off air for nearly a year, and a track record of winning, there is little evidence of commercial radio waving new contracts in her face, which is bewildering to say the least, especially when commercial radio needs great talent.

There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly Capital are still paying her salary so until that runs out, they call the tune but there is life outside of Yorkshire. She can work elsewhere. She has a driving licence, owns a car, has sat-nav and can read a map and for those who worry about these kind of things, she also has ISDN, a full studio and even a great Internet connection.

Secondly, she wanted to take some time out of radio herself. Fair enough, but now she wants to return and commercial radio are strangely absent.

Instead, she’s having to trundle over to BBC Manchester to do a 90s show. It just doesn’t stack up.

While I’m at it, why is BBC Manchester airing a 90s show anyway?

Surely, management have much bigger issues to sort out than this. They’ve made some changes recently – some of them look positive – but a 90s show is neither demanded by the audience or a solution to their problems. In addition, the city is already stacked with stations playing 90s songs every hour of every day so it all points to creating a show just to have Stephanie on the air.

I’m therefore left to ponder

The 90s show is not exciting so perhaps this is all part of a wider plan. Maybe the BBC and Stephanie are using this as a trial run to see how things go, allow her to re-find her radio voice and then, if successful, move her up the schedule somewhere.

If I was going to hire her, I would allow her a wider playlist, give her a better time slot and above all, get her to talk to the audience in a way that delivers compelling content. She’s good at that!

Whatever the reason, I really hope this is not the BBC doing what I call – diversity box ticking bollocks. She’s deserves better!

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Can Evans remain in Top Gear?

I admire Chris Evans, he’s a rare breed who’s as good on the telly as he is on the radio, (I’m excluding The OneShow here)

The news that he’s to present AND producer Top Gear while continuing to host the R2 breakfast show, might be good for his bank balance, but I can’t see it lasting long term.

First of all, let’s consider radio.

He’s got the pressure of hosting the biggest breakfast show in the UK. Nearly 10m listeners tune in and they expect nothing less than 100% from him. Right now, he’s (mostly) focussed on the job, constantly texting his team, changing running orders, full of ideas, – everything a great breakfast jock should be.

However, anyone who’s ever done a breakfast show will know that getting up at 4.45am is mentally exhausting and totally draining. It saps your energy, you often have to take cat-naps just to get through the day.

Now, let’s consider Top Gear.

This is a global programme for BBC Worldwide, generating a mountain of cash. It works because it’s different. It may have cars as a central theme – and knowing about cars is important – but since it’s re-incarnation, it’s really an entertainment show where three guys mess about while amusing us with their idiotic view of life. We’ve loved it, even the trouble they got into.

Anyone who thinks this is just a car show is bonkers.

The show is not just recorded over nine weeks either. It’s a constant production process that requires a great deal of commitment from all those involved, especially if you are the exec-producer. (They don’t do the detail by the way, they do the oversight). Furthermore, the show has a complicated filming schedule that involves long, tiring global travel that aims to deliver big high production elements.

And what about all those ‘live’ arena shows?

Let’s consider something more

Chris currently has about 10 weeks holiday a year from Radio 2. They can’t film everything around this and in any case, he will need proper rest time. This all points towards more weeks away from the radio. If that happens, he’ll be accused of taking listener loyalty for granted.

At some point, either Chris or the BBC will call time on one or the other because you can’t do justice to both while doing both.

With Top Gear, he’s be hounding, challenging, questioning and demanding because he won’t be able to help himself. Winning is the goal, nothing else matters. It will be all consuming and because of that, I fear for radio.

Finally, let’s consider the public.

The audience love who they love but presenters are a bit like having very rich food. Just enough is wonderful, too much is sickening.

I suspect BBC radio bosses might be silently pondering over who his replacement might be but there – in a nutshell – is the real problem:

Chris Evans in 2nd gear is usually far better than most people in top gear.

One thing is for sure, you can’t underestimate him. That said, the audience will decide.

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A Capital price for Juice

In business, you pay the price the asset is worth to you, not to anyone else.

Juice is clearly worth a lot to Global – and indeed it is

Paying an eye watering £10m for a station that, as a stand alone unit, would probably not attract more than two or three million quid, might seem strange to many, but the reality is that this is a good deal for both parties.

Liverpool is not just any old city in any old market, this is top dollar advertising territory and worth pushing the boat out for. It also fills a big hole in the Capital national brand portfolio.

Furthermore, it is yet another place where Global will go head to head with Bauer, their biggest rival. There is little love lost between the two.

In short: Capital need to be in Liverpool and UTV need cash. Their Irish TV exploits are proving more costly than first thought and they also need to fund the launch of their new national digital services.

It’s a win-win deal.

What this means to the other stations in the UTV local radio portfolio is unclear. I’m not sure if anyone is keen to pay the price or they’d have gone already. I suspect they may be stuck with them although considering they’re mostly all profitable, it’s no hardship. If they reduce their target valuation somewhat, they still might get them away.

UTV strategy is TV and big, successful national radio brands.

In times like this you often think of the staff. UTV are highly regarded and treat their people well. I also like Juice FM, they have wonderful studios, talented people, excellent management and enjoy an exciting, can do internal atmosphere. Yes, some people might not be needed – that’s business – but despite what the negative people might say, Global love radio.

Few radio groups look after their staff as well as Global

This price though, on the face of it, does make Orion’s purchase of their Midland stations and indeed Global’s recent acquisition of GMG Radio, look to be the bargains of the decade, but more than that, this deal is a sharp reminder of the importance of radio to the overall media landscape.

Radio might be lovely and frothy on the outside, but inside, it’s a very serious business indeed.

It’s all about winning.

Scott Taunton has scored big today, he’s a smart operator and I applaud him for getting this price. However, with this acquisition, Global have probably won the long game in top 40 radio. For that, £10m does not seem that much.

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The 2015 Britain's Got Talent finalist acts perform on stage for the live final on Sunday, May 31st.

Leaving aside the farcical position that we appear to have no talent whatsoever in this country – only incredible dogs – and noting that circuses banned nearly all animal acts many years ago, ‘dupe-gate’ is a problem for ITV.

Firstly, let’s stop pretending that the show is anything other than a money machine. It may give someone a lift up the ladder and fulfil ‘entertainment objectives’ but make no mistake, this is big business and there is a lot of cash flowing from a show as successful as this.

Furthermore, while SYCO, Cowell’s production arm, may be part of the creative process, the responsibility for broadcasting within the rules, falls to ITV. That means they answer to OFCOM.

Intentional or not, there is no way the regulator will allow them to get away with just an apology. The issue was preventable and the nation (at least those who voted) have been duped, Simon has said so himself and yes, while it was a mistake, it is one that will have a cost attached to it. Over a thousand complaints so far will see to that!

OFCOM will have to act.

Look at how they have dealt with ‘fake’ competitions in the past. Even though radio and breakfast TV owned up to these pretty quickly, that did not stop a fine being imposed. Coming clean immediately and admitting you have spotted a problem might reduce it somewhat, but I’d be surprised if the regulator say ITV are in the clear.

Those in the know will be wondering how ITV got into this pickle in the first place. As Daniel Owen pointed out to me on Twitter this morning, they normally have compliance people crawling LL over things like this.

Interestingly, the channel has Peter Fincham at the helm. I like him – a great executive – but he has a track record where cock-ups are concerned. Some will recall that he was forced to resign as controller of BBC1 over what they called ‘Crowngate”, where misleading footage of Her Majesty was shown. For that, he was decapitated.

Considering The Queen (or one of her bairns) was the prize on offer here, you might have expected greater emphasis being placed on procedures although I often wonder if she enjoys being a modern day raffle prize anyway.

Nevertheless, it’s all quite amusing and I do admire the brilliance of Cowell. Perfect PR management. Own up, say sorry, show you’re annoyed, say all the right things, applaud the winner and ask for the nations forgiveness.

A good move

However, what you can’t sweep under the carpet are all the complaints in the regulators in-tray, many demanding their hard earned £1.50 back. They voted for the best act as they saw it but what they saw is not what happened. Interestingly, many of those who complain won’t have spent any money on voting or even seen the show at all, they’ve just complained because complaining is fashionable and easy to do. Sad, as that might be.

While Cowell has won the PR, (it was a good act after all) he knows that he’ll struggle with OFCOM hence the quick apology and acknowledgement.

Personally, I’m just delighted that Deputy Dog is alive and well.

Remember this. No one died. It was just an error, it could happen to anyone.

It could have been worse, someone might have wrongly emailed/tweeted/or suggested Her Majesty was dead…….oh hang on.

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Red Rose Gold – 25 years

The 1st of June, 1990 was a special moment in my life, and that of many others I’m sure.

It was decreed that the FM and AM frequencies we used had to be split into different services under what they called the ‘use it or lose it rule. The group decided Rock FM should be on FM (a name used because they were going to be based in Blackpool) and AM was Red Rose Gold on 999am which kept much of the original station sound, although playing oldies.

The original jingles.

A new jingle package was produced a year later. Jingles for AM and were soundalikes, produced by a guy called ‘Muff Murfin’ but were clearly from a much used and established wider package.

Myself and Dave Shearer (now working in Australia) launched the breakfast show, the wonderful Derek Webster on mid-mornings and the impressive John Gilmore (now BBC Lancs) was on afternoons. The weekend and evening shows were wide ranging and excellent – a true full service operation back then and soon after launch, we brought in Scottie McClue for a late night phone in.

Unknown 2

There were many things I loved about that station. The whole team, sales, production, traffic and more. Dave Lincoln, one of the finest presenters of his time and practically owned the part of the day when ‘housewives’ were listening, perhaps played the most important role. While I was the maverick, he was the calming hand. A great pro and a good man in every respect.

I remember the first RAJAR or was it JICRAR in those days. Red Rose Gold had more listeners than FM, which was led by Mark Matthews.

I can honestly say, these were great times.

There are many things I remember those days for.

We launched the station with a competition called ‘The Holiday Game” and this is the one I describe in my book. A simple competition that no one won and made for compelling listening. Derek Webster was nearly responsible for giving me a heart attack.

Mark Matthews gave more than the one promised car away on FM because of a cock up.

Clearly, cock ups were common back then. So too were female winners, who screamed their heads off on a Friday at 8.15am after 3 weeks of a great competition.

We were lucky to find them each time!

Lancashire listeners were lucky to have such a great station.

We were lucky to discover radio as a career.


PS. If there is one thing I loved about our sister station, Rock FM is that they had the best jingle package on planet earth (Jam – Breakthrough) sounding fantastic and modern. I pinched the same package for CFM when I launched it in 1993.

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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 a few station success stories of course – I could even name half a dozen programmes right now that are really top notch, but the overall picture is gloomy. Don’t even look at the results for the current ‘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 quite clearly – 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, very important, 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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