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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WILL THE LAST ONE OUT, KINDLY TURN OFF THE LIGHTS

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?

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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

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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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Community radio is no hospital case!

This March, the annual Hospital Broadcasting Association conference and awards (HBA) will arrive in the party city of Newcastle.

The HBA is an interesting organisation in that it houses a large number of stations, all staffed by volunteers who are super-keen to be on the air or helping out behind the scenes. Sadly, in 1981 I failed to be accepted as a volunteer in Carlisle and had to settle for another great community station; BBC Cumbria.

Nevertheless, I’m rather proud to say I’ve been chairman of Radio Tyneside in Newcastle for nearly five years (now elevated to President) as I love what they do and in particular, the way that the do it.

I recall asking volunteers at one of my first meetings what they did for a living. I was stunned to find I was surrounded by surgeons, press officers, television executives, company directors and even a publican.

Hospital radio is a good thing.

I’ve seen first hand how listeners come to love the output, for example it’s much more conversational in tone, truly local and staffed by a committed team of enthusiasts. They do what they do for nothing more than the simple pleasure of doing it.

Furthermore, all the research I’ve seen shows a very credible audience tuning in within the hospital networks. The smile and infectious enthusiasm shines through in the presenters voices and listeners love that. They may not be as ‘polished’ as some on the more mainstream services, but they more than make up for that in knowledge, passion and an ability to offer companionship. Many a name have started their broadcasting career in a HBA station.

Community radio is also going through some interesting times right now.

The news that the regulator is relaxing the rules around the amount of local advertising these stations can rake in is a good thing in my view. I started off doubting the whole reason for community radio – suspecting it was commercial radio via the back door – but as more and more stations network their output, the more I can see a value in what they do.

Like every part of the industry, some are better than others, but many are still challenged by their formats, often a result of throwing everything into the application and worrying about it afterwards. We’ve all done it!

That said, while relaxing the rules might help, selling is a tough business but if the output remains truly community focused, this might just help a few more survive.

Well done OFCOM. (not often I say that)

PS. If you’re an industry speaker, talented presenter or have managed to make your mark in the medium in any way, why not offer to speak at their annual get together late March in Newcastle. I promise you, there is not a more engaged and enthusiastic crowd in the industry.

I’ll be there doing something because giving something back is always worth doing!

HBA Newcastle, weekend of Friday 28th March.

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BBC Local – Three years on

Three years ago, the BBC published my report into local radio. What’s changed?

As I said at the time, there’s a lot to be proud about but equally, there are some deeply worrying signs.

You’d have thought that after escaping much of the proposed DQF budget cuts, they’d be marching forward and driving change, but there is little evidence of that. Instead, they’ve gone backwards, retreating to a place where good staff suffer from lacklustre leadership and a depressing pungent smell of mediocrity.

There are some star stations of course and indeed, a large number of gifted people around but topside, there appears to be little concern about audience erosion, not to mention diminishing loyalty from their hardcore fan base. They talk about the need to replenish listeners at the lower end while completely forgetting to super-serve the top end, those living longer and in need of a station to call their own.

How can this be possible?

How can stations with decent budgets, excellent transmitters, a large number of talented and dedicated staff, plus a fair amount of cross promotion from sister networks, not do better?

I’ll tell you why!

An unconvincing vision, a badly executed plan, a lack of focus, too many average managers and not enough bold leadership. I wouldn’t trust some of them to run a bath!

The problem lies not with the troops (although there’s still far too much dead wood), but in the flawed generals who lead them. Many will recall that I proposed axing 50%, not just to save around c£2m, but in an effort to clean out the dross and keep the best. The best by the way are worth keeping.

The bossman, David Holdsworth argued to keep ALL Managing Editors and remove other layers of management instead, but nothing has changed. The structure remains the same, life goes on as normal, the worst coasting along, doing just enough to get through the day.

Every single person in local radio know who these people are!

To be fair, reporting into a ‘news division’ is not helpful – it never has been because you see everything through a news lens.

Few people love news; They want it, demand it and need it but the glue that keeps local radio together comes from hiring really great communicators, those wonderful souls who are able to move us through tears, laughter, tragedy and debate. The best of them are wonderful story tellers with a knack of making us feel good, no matter what. A true gift from the radio gods.

None of this should ever suggest that news is not important – because it is – but it is no more important than anything else. Public service is not just about delivering news, it is everything that serves the interest of the public and this can differ from place to place.

Output wise, I wonder why (with one or two notable exceptions) mid-morning shows are often better than breakfast? Why are many afternoon programmes more engaging than drive-time? Why is the speech content so rigid? To be honest, I am starting to wonder if some of the staff produce programmes for their superiors or simply to tick a box rather than to maximise listener interest.

I shout WHY far more than I shout WOW

Strategy wise, and I’ve said this before, the network is sailing their boat in the wrong direction. The giant oil tanker that is BBC Radio 2 is killing any growth and it will continue to do so unless they move older. What’s more, it is where they can reign supreme. It’s not just the obvious move, it’s the smart move.

FACT: The 65+ market is the fastest growing population in the UK and no one is serving them.

Programming radio stations is an art form. You have to know your target market, how they think, what they do, what they want and how they want it served up. Companionship is still an important element. Little of this is explained to the team at the coal-face, if there is a strategy at all. Every time I ask I’m greeted by blank faces. This is because very few leadership and directional meetings ever take place.

There are hurdles to overcome in going older of course but the key to success is about the attitude you adopt on air. Have you the right staff going forward? Are they wise enough, good enough and experienced enough to communicate effectively to the older end?

Then there is the continuing issue of under-performing personnel who, at the first hint of criticism, send an email to HR direct, claiming bullying and more. It triggers a process that strangles any progress whatsoever.

While I’m on managements case, how can BBC WM win the prestigious title ‘Station of the Year’ when it is the worst performing station in the network (excluding London)? While many might be convinced about the merits of individual programmes, to suggest this is the best of the lot, is bewildering. Even their own staff were stunned. Now I hear the boss has been promoted!

As I said at the start, there is a lot to be proud about in local radio, but dark clouds are forming and big decisions are required. Since my report nothing has changed as far as I can see. This cannot go on. What is the plan for the next 3 and 5 years? When will staff hear about it?

They can’t deliver success if no one shows them what it looks like

Very soon, charter renewal will put the spotlight on local radio. Sooner still, the Trust will be asking searching questions about what they do, how they do it and what their future plans might be. I would be astonished if they reply – more of the same!

The trust will also want an explanation as to why audience levels are slipping when the older demographic is growing.

From a personal perspective, I’m interested in the rumour that local radio is running a project about how to deliver digital content to the under 30s. What’s that all about?

All of this screams about the real need for change driven by a well thought out vision. It’s the least the staff deserve.

Most important of all, those managers who are charged with delivering it, must be held accountable.

Now that’s a unique thought!

Have I got it wrong? Add your comments below

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Good, bad and ugly of 2014

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My personal observations – there are bound to be many I’ve missed so please add your comments below.

Highlighted words are where I’ve blogged on the topic.

The Good
LBC - 40 years on and re-invented itself
• Chris Evans – 10m listeners this year will be some milestone!
• Sam and Amy –Gem 106 Gold winners again and now occasionally on BBCR2.
• James O’Brien classic Farage interview on LBC
• Desert Island discs… an institution. 3000 editions.
• Radio 2 – UK station of the Year.
• UKRD – The best run local radio group in the UK.
Smooth and Capital Radio – perfectly programmed.
• KISS and Kisstory. Brilliantly focused radio stations
JAZZ FM – A triumphant year.
• Bauer Academy, excellent and progressive.
• Christian O’Connell. Always makes me laugh, awards galore yet again.
* Smooth Christmas – best Christmas station by a mile.
• Bauer’ Cash for Kids – still the biggest yearly fundraiser in UK commercial radio.
• Bob Shennan. Promoted to GOD and the most important man in UK music radio
• Wise Buddah, their imaging work appears to be everywhere right now.
• Radio 1 big weekend. Big, impressive, great locations, free.
• Tony Blackburn.
• Bob Harris, probably the best country show/content worldwide.
Manx Radio – 50 years of enormous success.
• Absolute/Bauer Project Banana. Inventive game changer.
• 40 Years of commercial radio – so many predicted its downfall.
• UTV listen again deal with PPL. One group going it alone.
• John Gilmore world record achievement on BBC Lancs
• Radio 1 Video channel.
• BBC 6Music. Diverse, inventive, creative.
* Global Jingle Bell Ball…(and summer). Stand out events.

The Bad
Competition Commission. Outdated, useless and unfathomable.
• Bauer media at times. Confusing and unlimited strategies, minuteage madness
• Lord Patten – He lost focus on what mattered most.
• Heart FM – Losing their position in a crowded field of musical manure.
• Announcement of Heart and Smooth Extra and anything called 2 or Xtra. Looks like we’ve run out of ideas!
• Alex Lester hours reduced on BBCR2. Top jock – wasted!
• The Network evening show on BBC Local. A missed opportunity – this is where Alex Lester should be.
• Demise of Radio Academy as was… but 2015 will be a new start!
Local TV. Unwanted and a failure. Hunt’s fault.
• BOB FM PR stunt banning all Scots calling them tossers! It wasn’t funny, clever or inventive.
• Commercial radio failure to get UK wide listen again deal with PPL (so far)

The Ugly
• Bauer Media – scandal over no pay for trainees. Has it changed?

* Newcastle FC…… sorry!

PS. I can’t add The Serial into this list as I’ve not heard it (yet).
PPS. Deliberately not mentioned TeamROCK as I’m chairman.

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PR madness..

Unknown

I’m a big fan of UKRD

I love what they do and the manner in which they do it. Without doubt, they are the best local radio group in the UK.

Localness and local radio is their USP. This is a group that embraces an entrepreneurial spirit and I enjoy being part of their family for a few weeks each year. Nearly everything is locally driven as they don’t believe in controlling things centrally too much.

However, one of the things they do control is their music policy. In fact, they do so with an iron rod.

I know this first hand.

I’ve been subject to one or two sharp memos in the past when I’ve transgressed from the playlist. I’m there to concentrate on what I do between the songs, not to worry about the songs themselves. Absolutely correct. They are right, I am wrong!

Furthermore, the music policy of UKRD – I would argue – is one of their strengths. It is much more varied than some of the other stations in their respective markets.

This is why their MIX96 press release announcing a day when jocks can play what they want is confusing, incorrect and slightly crass. They already have a great variety of music so why promote this as a positive? Listeners picking the songs is better than jocks picking their own surely?

Radio Today covered it here.

I would argue that promoting a day when you can play what you want, only highlights the fact that every other day you can’t.

The same can be said of stations that promote a ‘commercial free’ hour.

What exactly is this release supposed to achieve?

Is this something new and creative?
Will this make people sit up and take notice?
Will it attract more listeners?

UKRD don’t need to resort to this kind of PR. In fact, no station does. PR something you’re proud about, that’s genuinely interesting and creative.

Don’t PR stuff for PR sake especially when the content is questionable or weak at best.

Is a press release – any press release worth sending out?

Emily Bull, News Editor at West Norfolk’s KLFM and Star Radio in Cambridge believes it is.

On twitter she said, “Always send a press release out, if it’s interesting enough it will get published. We (group) sent it and Radio Today could have rejected it”. “It’s like a school having a non-uniform day. It’s just different so why not promote it”?

The fact that Radio Today, as far as I know, publish all official press releases, has somehow been lost in the mix!

Perhaps someone like Colin Kelly could advise on what makes a great PR story! This is NOT it.

Late edit. Colin Kelly has now blogged here

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