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Radio Festival 2016 review

A large sprinkling of radio folk turned up at The Radio Festival this week organised by the new look Radio Academy. The one-day event moved along quickly and had a number of engaging sessions around the theme of disruption, greatly helped by the hosting skills of Paddy O’Connell who was funny, direct, engaging and curious.

I like this new one day approach and there were some touching moments. Nick Robinson revealed his personal story of a difficult year while Scott Mills, Dead Ringers, and Jon Holmes were gloriously funny. Top of the bill for me was Katie Hopkins who came prepared, knew exactly what she was there to do and hit the disruption nail on the head. A note to all speakers right there!

There was an excellent Olympian session, however, the new Culture Minister Matt Hancock missed a chance to truly connect with his audience. Reminding radio folk about the importance of radio is a wasted opportunity in this environment. Mind you, he was speaking while having the words ‘cock-gobblers’ written in large letters in front of him, so perhaps he was distracted. I blame Scott Mills!

There were much deserved Fellowships for Jane Garvey, Rachel Steel, and Stephanie Hirst with classy entertainment provided by Deacon Blue amongst others. Even BFBS provided free ice cream via their Mr. Whippy van! However, it was the tribute to Sir Terry Wogan that stuck in my mind as I headed back up North.

If it is all about communication and great content, Terry was the master at it. Never be afraid of the silence, he once said which is great advice for the new team of 30u30. Looking through their CV’s, the future looks very promising indeed. Fran Healy ended the day by reminding us all that radio is still king. As I walked to my train, it was hard to disagree with that.

Well done Radio Academy. I loved it!

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What is News?

What is News? It’s a fascinating question.

Whatever it is, the more I hear it on the radio, the more I despair.

I’ve always thought – and still do – that radio should inform its listeners on the most important issues in life and to aim high. Lead by example; If you can, tell them things they might not want to know, but should know. Part of having such a valuable licence to broadcast in the UK means investing in news, and treating it correctly.

Of course, you can deliver it in any style you want, but dumbing down is a big mistake.

Opinion has a place in a bulletin, especially if it comes from a reputable source, but the more I tune in, the more opinion rather than facts are inserted for ease and the increase of ‘promotional’ items as credible news stories, is appalling.

Yesterday, I heard an LBC bulletin promoting a new weekend show for Katie Hopkins, with a voice piece from her that was nothing more than a promo; and today countless other stations are trying to convince us that Cheryl Cole leaving the X factor is far more newsworthy than a dozen other stories that failed to get a mention.

Entertainment is news, is what I’m told. I get that, and I also understand that listeners are keen on stars and their lives. But, does it merit a mention in a formal news bulletin?

Is the news bulletin idea old-fashioned; A respected PD recently told me that ‘news’ is what we think listeners want and delivering that, is all that matters.

A top pop star – appealing to teenagers – being caught snorting cocaine is a news story, a failing pop star leaving a failing reality show, is not.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I feel old…Taxi for Myers.

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Is BBC Local Radio Safe?

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The BBC Trust reported today on the performance of BBC Local Radio. It makes for interesting reading.

Overall, it’s broadly supportive while asking for improvements in performance and taking politicians to task much more vigorously. Importantly, it said it should evolve to remain “relevant and appealing” and warns against further cost-cutting to a unique service.

However, as this is perhaps one of the last cross-examinations from a dead man walking (The Trust), a few may wish to ignore it. That would be a mistake as it has some interesting observations.

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I worry about my beloved BBC.

A lot is happening right now. Penalised for being great, it is often pillaged by those who should know better without them fully understanding it’s enormous value to the public. It is popular because it is loved. In many ways, it is also unique.

That said, the pressure is enormous, brought about by quick-fire deals in dark places.

Tony Hall, who has the task of making the numbers add up, announced that his target for savings had increased to £800 MILLION. It is a staggering figure and is not achievable without a giant axe and a lot of pain.

Every single network will be affected and this is certainly true of local radio.

The current LR service budget of £115 plus MILLION is a very big number indeed and I suspect they will be asked to find savings between 10% to 20%, despite what the Trust may say. At that level, we are way past removing management roles; we are now talking about cutting or merging whole stations or taking, as reported elsewhere, 5LIVE.

The local network might be in a stronger position if it were not for the fact that audiences are falling away at a rapid rate. The report highlights an alarming graph showing its target audience of 50+ to have fallen from 30.3% to 23.9% over a relatively short period. performance_analysis

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The 50+ market has far more choice now of course, but this result is disappointing, to say the least, especially as the ageing population is booming. It’s also a gift to BBC strategists who think a merger to be a good idea, even if it is ill thought out.

This time, protests will fall on deaf ears. MPs won’t rush to help, and Tony Hall will only direct you to the back of a very long line of complaints.

Life in BBC today!

The reports about strategy groups contemplating merging local with 5Live (accurate I suspect) shows cloudy thinking, at best.

If you turn local radio into an FM outpost of 5Live, it is no longer local radio. A sustaining overnight service perhaps, in daytime, never!

If you water down 5LIVE, you lose the whole point of what it was set up to do.

And there is no way commercial radio is simply going to allow 5LIVE to jump onto FM without a huge fight.

You either do it right, or you don’t do it at all.

Most people agree that local radio is vital, the issue is far more about how it is delivered. Even the BBC Trust nod to this fact.

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If the strategists believe that merging national and local stations together is a blueprint for success, they are barking mad.

If it came to it, I would prefer to lose a whole network than see a festival of salami slicing which will only end up destroying both.

So, is local radio safe?

Despite its failings, I think so and there is a lot to be proud about in the Trust report. I would fight tooth and nail to keep it intact but it has to help itself. It MUST get those listening numbers up….and FAST.

If they don’t, they play right into the hands of the accountants who will point to the fact that the cost of reaching a local listener is more expensive than any other network. Never a great place to be in my experience!

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Ali Brownlee

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It seems every day; someone of our years knocks on heaven’s door.

I grew up listening to Terry Wogan, a radio giant and one of the reasons I wanted to get into this business in the first place. His use of language, the importance of silence, the wit of the Irish and a real love of people, were his trademark. He connected with his audience that many believed him to be their friend, and it is no embarrassment to say I shed a tear when I heard the news of his passing last month.

Today, I shed a few more. Ali Brownlee, perhaps the best radio commentator in the UK and affectionately known as ‘The voice of “the ‘Boro’ passed away at just 56 years of age. Far, far too young for anyone, but certainly for him. He was a wonderful man.

We hired him at Century Radio in the North East when I first acquired the Middlesbrough commentary rights, and he was the key to our success. A real professional, a magnificent broadcaster and someone who loved his club. His commitment to research alongside an encyclopedic knowledge of the game made him a very special commentator indeed.

Fun to be with and dedicated to his art, his voice boomed out with a lovely turn of phrase, very often poetic and joyous at times. He made listening to sports commentary a thrill in itself, even if his club were losing. It endeared him to everyone. Click here to experience sheer enjoyment in his art. I dare you not to smile.

He used to tell me that he had the greatest job in the world, and I believed him.

He would arrive at games hours before he was needed, just in case something happened. There is no doubt in my mind that Ali was made for radio, and the medium was the perfect vehicle for his god given talent.

Tonight, at Elland Road, the great ‘Boro fans sang his name; he would have loved that. See here.

On BBC Tees, the output was changed to allow listeners and presenters just to talk about him. This is what you call impact.

Ali on the radio connected with an audience in a way that most of us could only dream about. Many of the comments recalled what a very, very nice man he was, not to mention the very best at his job.

The fact that his loss has been felt by so many underlines not only his wonderful talent and kindness but also the power of radio itself.

Ali Brownlee loved what he did, and we loved him. If you want to leave a mark in life, there is no better result than that.

Up the ‘Boro. God bless Ali.

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January and my digital detox

Terry Wogan

I’ve spent January in a digital detox. No Twitter, no Facebook, nothing that one might call social media.

Why did I do it? Two reasons: The first because someone asked me to do so and the other because I felt social media was taking over my life.

As an ex-broadcaster of sorts, I used it as a way of broadcasting my thoughts and enjoyed it to a certain extent, but I felt I was on it too much. Apps were deleted and bookmarks removed.

So what was it like?

The first few days were quite strange to be honest, a little twitchy, what was I missing? It was hard work. Then, it all calmed down. I noticed I wasn’t looking or picking up my phone as much, often leaving it on the table rather than constantly having it by my side.

I gave a trusted friend at TeamRock my password so they could promote key events and such like, but nothing from me. I never looked at it once.

Some people I know wondered what had happened; others called to ask if I was OK. The big thing I noticed was that I was sleeping a lot better, dropping off much sooner. Instead of having a look before bedtime, I just went to bed. I didn’t see anything that got my mind racing or was affected by the so-called ‘blue light’ that so many blame a sleepless night on.

I wasn’t aware of what was going on because I wasn’t looking. In retrospect, most of my timeline would be termed as trivial, mixed with one or two news feeds and an occasional amusing moment to make me smile. The only thing that escaped me was the immediacy of news. It got to me eventually, just not the moment it broke. I can live with that.

Important things came to me from other media (Facebook is my key family connection and with nearly 15 of us, you can see why) and knowing I wasn’t on, they just called me.

Yes, people picked up a real phone!

I don’t know if I’ve missed anything or if anyone missed me, but I suspect not.

Then the Godfather of radio died. My daughter called me with the news because she knew he was a hero of mine.

Two people inspired me to go into radio. One was Ray Moore, and the other was Terry himself. I met him a few times in my line of work but even though we were not friends, I regarded him as one. The best of the best, a broadcaster’s broadcaster. I shed a tear and don’t mind saying so. Some people have that power. He knew the rules and broke them every day; that was his secret.

With a day before the end of my self-imposed month away, I turned Twitter back on. It was the urge to say just a few words about him that made me break my own rule, one day sooner than I would have wished for but hey, he’s worth it.

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Tomorrow’s BBC – Sunderland

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97% of the UK public consume 18 hours a week of some sort of BBC output

This is quite a staggering statistic outlined at an event in Sunderland this week.

Some might argue that if you’re forced to eat their food by law, the figure will be higher than one might expect but few would subject themselves to 18 hours of something they don’t want or enjoy.

It also appears that many are reading, watching, listening or engaging with content without realising it came from the BBC at all.

Does this eye-watering statistic demonstrate the enormous value the licence fee offers – or does it highlight an over expansionism into areas they shouldn’t be in?

The debate at the impressive National Glass Centre called Tomorrow’s BBC, was attended by members of The BBC Trust led by Rona Fairhead and some BBC Execs, namely Tim Davie. The various links are here

They asked for views on how the BBC was doing. They got it in spades and was, perhaps, their liveliest debate so far.

A powerful theme emerged that the BBC needed to think more about the North. You can’t pitch your waggon in Salford and believe it’s job done!

Graeme Thompson, Dean of the University of Sunderland and a veteran of NE media himself pointed out the bizarre production issues of the hit TV series; Boy Meets Girl. Set in Newcastle, yet it was filmed almost entirely in Manchester. This news surprised the execs on the panel.

It may have done well in the ratings but it didn’t pass muster with those who couldn’t recognise the streets, restaurants and locations they were asked to believe in. In fact, so little was spent in the region that the programme has failed to meet the very basic criteria for entry into the NE RTS awards.

The message was loud and clear.

More money, more thought, more production and more considered ideas about the impact the BBC has in areas like the North East is essential. The area has talent; What it lacks is the investment and a real commitment to producing here.

On a personal note, I’m rather sick of ‘The North’ being shown as an old fashioned stereotyped location when the reverse is much more accurate. The North East, in particular, has some of the world’s leading businesses that succeed because it has access to an incredible workforce with bags of creative talent.

The BBC has a duty to show the region as it is today, not what it was yesterday.

One thing this 97% / 18hours stat suggests is that while the BBC can be accused of getting things wrong at times, they also get an awful lot right.

I still maintain that the licence fee is the best bargain in Britain and told them so, but I also know that my view is not universal. That is why you should make sure you attend one of these so called roadshows and make sure they hear your opinion.

If this amazing stat is right – and they confirmed it – there is a lot at stake.

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BBC Local Radio update

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If there was ever a moment when BBC local radio needed to shine, or show some improvement at least, this was it. Up before the Trust, they could have done with some good news. Sadly, it didn’t materialise.

David Holdsworth will have some explaining to do, but numbers always give the clearest picture.

The lowest reach % performance under the current methodology.

Total hours dropping a further 4m on this quarter alone, to 57.1m.

I know it’s Halloween but even I dare not show you the graph over the past decade, it would scare the bravest of souls.

Why are listeners leaving? Why is the fall off so drastic? Why are those who are still listening, listening for less? Is the budget being spent in the right way and on the right things?

The bottom line is this:

Across the network, the loss of breakfast listening, is the single biggest issue.

It is not me saying it by the way; this from an internal memo.

When you have 40 plates spinning at once, a few will fall off but some worry you more than most. BBC Leeds is a prime example. A couple of years back, all it required was a little love and care from a knowledgeable programmer. Today, it requires the skill of a vastly experienced surgeon.

Many things are going well in local radio. BBC Manchester is showing definite signs of recovery. Up five quarters in a row and its best share since 2009. Does the fact that they have gone through 18 months of drastic change not suggest something?

The great stations carry on as normal and often unnoticed. That’s a shame because the good outweigh the bad, yet, something is wrong.

One point worth highlighting is the growth of the over 50s this time around, although it accounts for only 45% of the whole. For a division aimed at 50 plus, the route to success is staring them in the face.

Not everything is bad.

Believe me when I say that my love of local radio is absolute. I would rather a national network lost their funding before a local town lost their station but – and I know I’m a broken record here – if you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got.

David Holdsworth’s claim that change is coming has to move from lovely words to decisive action. Right now, I see little sign of it.

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Time to back Vanessa

imagesThere are a lot of good things happening in UK radio just now.

Radio X looks like it’s got off to a good start, UTV is progressing well with their new digital services, Kisstory is a standout performer, and Smooth Radio just gets better and better.

London is still the biggest battleground of course and while LBC has had a good run of late, the announcement of changes at BBC Radio London, suggests the fight is far from over.

I’ve never really been a fan of the station to be honest (I don’t think it belongs in a local radio network as such) but moving Vanessa Feltz to breakfast, is a smart move.

I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. Those that do tell me she’s a complex and engaging character, an excellent communicator with a deep love of London, but something stops her from making significant inroads into her competitors. To many, she’s a marmite presenter but in radio, I’ve always seen that as a positive.

She has her fans of course. In a taxi last week, I watched as the driver listened to her intently and then switched immediately to LBC, the moment her programme finished.

On Radio 2’s early show, she does an excellent professional job but something is missing, I wonder if it’s little warmth. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s the same when she stands in for Jeremy Vine, a show she does well although just occasionally, she uses words that I have to rush and look up.

Nevertheless, listening to her last week reminded me of just how good she is. Her conversational intelligence is outstanding, although, in my view, her best feature is her attitude.

Speech breakfast is a different ball game to music radio.

Speech radio is difficult and challenging, to win will require total focus. LBC, where Nick Ferrari is top dog and has the brilliance of a common touch, is the one to beat. He’s also got bags of humour, big names, great contacts and all the political guests you could want. It’s then delivered up as an entertaining, opinionated sandwich of joy.

To compete, Vanessa has to be totally committed. It is why I worry about her decision to remain on Radio 2’s early show, something that requires getting up at 3 am. I know it’s a national gig but doing both sends the wrong signals in my view.

For the first time in years, BBC Radio London has a chance to move the needle and change perceptions. Anything that gets in the way of that goal has to be avoided.

Competition is good for radio; it is also splendid for London listeners. In a years time, it may even prove to be the move that saved the station.

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Carlisle – where the people are doing it for themselves!

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There is something rather delightful happening in the UK city of Carlisle right now.

Often promoted as the ‘gateway to the Lakes’, its core population is less than a full house at Old Trafford but the noise they make is just the same, especially around business and regeneration. Best of all, it’s led by local people rather than by national politicians. That, in itself, is quite unique I think.

I’m from Carlisle and proud of it. I know the people, they know me and as far as I can tell, we get along. The city is no different to many others in that it fell into a bit of a decline after successive governments forgot about ‘The North’. That said, and if the truth was our guide, it also suffered from a lack of innovation from within with anyone even looking like an entrepreneur being viewed as deeply suspicious. That was then, this is now.

Carlisle has always loved its own.

The local press performs well alongside the local television news programme which delivers such loyalty and affection that it dwarfs that of other regions. BBC Radio Cumbria is one the best in the network while the commercial alternative, CFM Radio, a station I launched back in 1993, is a UK success story all on its own.

Again and like so many other areas, it had an industrial workforce but as businesses fell away, others were created that required the population to retrain and work differently. Those skills have not gone unnoticed and today, some of the largest names we know and love have set up home in Carlisle.

None of this is the real story in my view.

Where this tale really starts to become interesting is when you notice that it is the community itself that is doing all of this. They seem far from ready to accept a raft of state handouts believing instead that they can do better, and they are doing better.

A new breed of entrepreneurs has sprung up. They are injecting new investment, hiring local talent and taking on risky projects. It is working too, with the public responding positively and a real sense of pride has returned to the streets.

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What Carlisle has become is quite inspirational. There is a sense of togetherness that is both heartwarming and respectful. Many tell me that their goal is not just to do better for themselves but to improve their surroundings for future generations. How good is that?

Furthermore, this action has gelled people from all walks of life. Even the council – led by the impressive Colin Glover – has moved from being retrospective and risk averse – to one that is forward facing and supportive.

This is not happening everywhere, but it is happening in Carlisle.

Positivity is a good word, but that in itself does not make things happen. What it does do, however, is provide a platform for growth which is far more helpful than being around those who see things negatively.

keep away from those who say you can’t and spend more of your time with those who believe you can

Those who do believe and are doing something about it are a group called: Carlisle Ambassadors and their ‘give a day to the city’ project which is all about giving something back, is particularly impressive. This group is the engine room for future growth.

If you haven’t visited Carlisle of late, please do so. You can see the changes for yourself. New hotels, new businesses, improved infrastructure, fast times to London and best of all, a self-belief. The excellent Carlisle Living Magazine highlights this and more every month.

It is easy to offer criticism when things are going wrong, but it takes effort, real effort to make a difference. Carlisle is showing others the way forward in this respect and the people are to be applauded for getting off their backside and making it happen.

Pride in the place that you live and pride in the people you live with will ensure that this momentum is maintained.

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Is the game up for local TV?

Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of Micro local TV. I used to be, I was an advocate but that was over a decade ago and the world has changed a lot since then. When the Government minister promoted the idea as part of a ‘Digital Britain, it looked miles out of date before it even got started.

The financials of those launched so far make for grim reading. An ocean of red ink across the bottom line point to the fact that it just can’t continue for much longer. The costs are too high, the revenue is too low and any re-examination of the business model as suggested is just missing the point. There are a couple of good ones by the way, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Their success won’t help much because the basic idea of a nation filled with micro local TV, is deeply flawed.

The BBC cannot be forced to continue to financially support the idea either. Just how many ways can you cut the licence fee for goodness sake? Any suggestion of an extension on the present deal will be laughable.

When you can’t cut costs, you look to blame others or change the model but to do so is a fruitless task and has to be resisted. Not because change is impossible, but because local TV is so yesterday and not the answer in a world where watching a fixed screen is clearly on the decline. Few people want it and even fewer want to buy it.

Only madmen fuelled by their own importance want to keep it going.

Sometimes, despite the enormous talents of those around you and the passion shown by many, someone has to call it a day and agree it was an idea that was deeply flawed. I’ve had many ideas that bit the dust but recognising a dead horse when you see one is fundamental to your survival. The government should ask that the regulator and their ministers concentrate their efforts on the next big idea, whatever that happens to be.

John Whittingdale can do so while pointing the finger of blame at Jeremy Hunt, who went to America and forgot that the UK is a very different country entirely.

Just imagine if he was in charge of something important?

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