Deaf jocks – Is this radio PPI?

I remember the moment well.

We’d just put the finishing touches to new studios in Leeds when suddenly, presenters started to complain. New rules were in force (probably even before then) which detailed the maximum volume you could have in your headphones. GMG had decided to be stringent from this point on.

It wasn’t pretty as jocks started to kick off big time.

To be fair, I had some sympathy.

If a presenter can’t hear themselves in a style they enjoy, they claim to be unable to deliver the high performance required.

I’ve seen jocks route their ‘cans’ through various bits of equipment to by-pass the problem, I heard of one who used to bring in his own headphone amplifier. A jock at Red Rose used to have the headphones so loud, I could hear ‘bleed through’ on the mic.

Right now, in radio stations up and down the land, the level of sound coming out of headphones is louder than the permitted legal level, all because some jocks have found a way to make it happen. Who’s at fault here? The station or the jock?

Some stations used to put a legal disclaimer on the studio desk as below.

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Moaning presenters are the worst moaners of all.

I always used to listen to the off-air feed, even when on AM. Others decided to monitor via desk output which is a cleaner feed but I liked the processing. As DAB and more came in, how you listened and what feed you put through your cans became a matter of choice. Some of the feeds had a split second delay that played with your mind!

Any engineer who cared a damn would at least try to help by adding some technical bits and bobs in the chain which did little at the end point but made the jock sound great in his head. This was all that mattered.

Over time, regulations and health and safety rules have kicked in and we are where we are.

We now live in the world where people claim for anything and everything. Today, I heard about two presenters who had taken a claim for loss of hearing to their past employers because of loud headphones.

They have no job so I guess they had nothing to lose. I can’t verify it but i’m told the insurance company paid out before going to court, not a huge amount but a payment was made.

Has this the potential to be the PPI of the radio industry?

The irony here is that they replied to a radio commercial about workplace deafness.

How do you prove a case like this, how might a company be negligent? I have no idea but insurance companies often just pay out because it’s cheaper. I’ve always hated that.

In my day there was a thing called a volume control.

There will always be chancers in life in the same way that there are always people who are as thick as a brick.

Sadly, this fact has never been a barrier to financial reward!

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A little Extra? No thanks.

Funny thing this radio lark.

Digital radio was supposed to offer us more choice and what we get is more of the same. I know that’s not entirely true but it feels that way at times, certainly after reading the Global press release which announced more stations called ‘Extra’.

The commercial sector used to argue that if they had more capacity, more space on the dial, they would be able to offer more choice. In turn building more audience, more share, more revenue. It would bring BBC radio to is knees. Ha, we all know that didn’t happen.

Is a little Extra better than more variety?

Most listeners – unless it’s glaringly obvious – can’t tell the difference between mainstream music based radio stations any more. I maintain that if you stick 100 people in a room and asked them to define the difference between (say) Heart, Magic and Smooth – many of which are in the same markets – you’ll grow old waiting for an answer.

I get the brand extension value by the way, especially for things like 60s, 70,s and 80s formats. I even get the logic of a Smooth Christmas – but other than that – I’m not clear that more vanilla is the way to go.

We don’t need more vanilla, what we need is more Tutti Frutti.

These extra services don’t grow the commercial radio cake either or pull people away from The BBC.

All this does is scream we’re an industry running out of ideas.

More worryingly, the rush to the centre ground is not without its problems.

Heart always used to have more attitude and fun than Magic. Magic had more focus than Smooth. Smooth had more soul than most while Capital played the hits and became the home of the stars.

Now that Smooth has a clearer direction, Magic is forced to move their position to compete and poor old Heart is being crushed somewhere in the middle, certainly in London. Magic is also suffering.

As a PD you ask yourself one big question:

What is our compelling point of difference?

Compelling is the key word here. I’m pretty sure Global know what it is, but I don’t believe the listener has a bloody clue and therein lies the problem.

I would be giving Heart a really good shake and perhaps even a refreshing identity before offering us any more of it.

I like the station, I’m just not sure where it sits on a crowded dial anymore.

PS. I do love the ‘service following‘ idea for local DAB.

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MY TOP 5 RADIO STATIONS OF 2014

Here are my top 5 (national) radio stations of 2014.

1. LBC.

Clear winner. Content galore, PR machine with great presenters and an agenda that’s put ‘radio’ back in the minds and souls of those who may have forgotten how important the medium really is. Advertisers ask for it by name now.

The 2015 election year may give this station the national platform they deserve. However, Global need to support this with a marketing campaign that promotes more than its credible stable of political hosts. All the PR is around politicians – they don’t need to promote that – instead they need to promote the variety of output around this to grow their audience base outside of London.

2. BBC Radio 2.

It just gets better and better. Powerful content from top notch presenters, wonderful pop up station idea for Eurovision earlier this year. Moves slowly, carefully and with excellent direction and production. Evans is unbeatable at breakfast right now, he has the nation in the palm of his hands.

3. Smooth radio.

It’s the music station that’s beaten Magic FM at its own game. It’s bland, boring and brilliant, the perfect alternative to everything and anything on the dial. You might not agree with their philosophy, but you have to give Global credit for their laser like focus. This is a winning station no matter what.

4. Absolute radio

Despite being bought by a German conglomerate, the output remains engaging and relevant with a large number of very listenable and amusing touch points. O’connell is at the top of his game, second only to Evans for impact and content. Above all, their weekend offering is the best on the dial. Varied, content rich and appointment listening.

5. Radio 1

This was a toss up between TalkSPORT, BBC 6Music and Radio 1 and in the end, I opted for Radio 1. This might seem a strange choice, but it’s what their doing in the round that makes this station interesting. I like their new ideas and there are signs that their wider strategy is starting to show results. Let’s see who agrees!

These are my five, what’s yours? Short explanation why would help others. There is no right or wrong answer by the way, just opinions.

Note: As Chairman of TeamRock, clearly I cannot promote my own but that’s the best of the lot!

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You want a name check? Easy, just drink and drive

I read this story about how police in Bradford are going to name and shame people caught drink-driving and it reminded me of when I did something similar at Century Radio. Mind you, this lot are going one step further, they are naming them when charged, not when convicted. Will it work? I’ve no idea but I applaud the initiative.

At Century in the NorthWest, we decided to name and shame every driver convicted of drink driving in the region throughout December and January. It caused a bit of a storm I can tell you with press coverage in the Manchester Evening News and such like. We read the names out after the sports news at 8.30am each day.

If I can find some of the audio I will upload it.

Some days there were six or more, some days just the one. When there were none we had fanfares going off….

In the boardroom I recall some debate as to whether or not this was a good idea. Was it our job to shame listeners like this they asked? We never gave a moments thought to naming others convicted of crimes each day, so why be nice to these lot I countered?

I thought it was bang on, perfect local radio and something our listeners would want to know and for some, it even featured people they did know. Today, I would probably enhance it with a wall of shame on our website.

We did get complaints but they were mostly from the families of those who had been convicted. I used to tell them to point their flame at those who did the deed, not at those who highlighted their failings to the wider public.

On the flip side, we received numerous plaudits and thanks from the Police, but overall, what it did do was get listeners talking about content that wasn’t competition or charity based. We need to do more of that!

Radio stations up and down the land will soon be carrying commercials promoting the dangerous act of drink-driving this Christmas. I wonder how many will make the step to name and shame? I know I would.

Sometimes local radio has to stand up for what’s right!

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BESWICK IS BACK…

Allan Beswick – at his peak – was one the best late night phone-in presenters in the UK. Top gun, the main man, the best fun and Red Rose Radio was his home.

He was so good, so famous and so brilliantly entertaining that he led the charge for talk based programmes on music based radio stations. People would often drive for miles to get within signal distance just to enjoy it. (No internet back then)

Combative, entertaining, intelligent and funny, everyone in the area knew his name, everyone tuned in, often with audience figures far higher than breakfast. Amazingly, he was only put on late nights to get him out of the way, he was soon so popular they dare not let him leave.

However, that was then – this is now!

While I’m delighted he’s back on BBC Manchester and Lancashire from next year, I’m also concerned and for a couple of reasons:

I recall asking BBC Merseyside why Billy and Wally had never re-created the brilliant Sunday show ‘Hold your plumbs’. The answer they gave me was spot on. They believed that the show was so loved in the minds of their listeners that to try and recreate it would never – and could never – reach the same love as before. I thought that was a very smart approach.

Secondly, Beswick has matured since those early days and furthermore, this is BBC Local Radio. I can’t for the life of me believe Allan will want to – and neither will The BBC allow it – try to re-create the past. Those times have gone, instead we need a new approach.

There is a big gap in the market for this show and while callers will be important, it is Allan’s attitude to life that will be the key. Yes it will be different and modern but if they attempt to broadcast one of those typical BBC phone-ins – as we’ve all come to know and love – then this show is doomed from the start.

Allan has to be allowed to take callers on without fear of being hauled over the coals for saying something out of place. If those in power are not prepared to support him and do that publicly, then they should say so now. In return, Allan has to be smarter, which I know he is.

What an opportunity: How many times have we gone on about radio having no talent, no creativity and no risk. Yes risk, because great things happen when you take risks. This show has to be different because it cannot be vanilla. Everyone hates vanilla!

I applaud BBC Manchester and Lancashire for going for it.

Complaints are never to be feared, they are to be embraced because it means people are listening.

With BBC Manchester currently having just 9% reach, more listeners and more listening is exactly what is required.

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The Academy Factor

“We are developing something new and exciting”

A sentence that can strike fear into the hearts of so many.

It basically means change is coming and very often, redundancies. This appears to be where we are at with The Radio Academy.

I’m a past Chairman and Chief Executive of the organisation, indeed I was even Chair of the Awards themselves for three years so I know a bit about how it all works.

In 2010, I was CEO for just 12 months. It is fair to say I didn’t really enjoy it – a job that often required skills similar to that of Kofi Annan – but at least I’ve got some great stories for a new book!

I took it on because it allowed me to give something back to the industry I love. Yes, the pay was low and the list was long but I loved what it stood for and how it shouted about the brilliance of radio. It brought the industry together under a united flag of co-operation.

I wanted to highlight the future so I came up with the idea of 30 under 30 to recognise the ‘best of the best’ without favour to where they worked or who they worked for. Equally, The Academy celebrates longevity and lifetime contributions through Fellowships and ‘Gold Awards’. I’ve seen people cry when receiving these accolades. Then there is the Hall of Fame itself, a vault of history and pride that is perhaps the emotional home of radio in this country.

To not have a Radio Academy is unthinkable. What would it say about the industry if we can’t fund one? Worst still, what would it say about those who would let it go? I suspect they would never be forgiven.

All organisations change however and there is nothing to fear in that, but sometimes the rumour mill can go into overdrive. It may help if I give you some background while stating this is a personal view, certainly not that of the organisation itself.

In 2009, The Academy brought the Sony Awards in-house. The thinking back then was to take advantage of potentially larger profits.

Aligned to this, they adopted a triangle of focus.

* The Festival
* The Sony Radio Academy Awards.
* The charitable aims. Events, courses, masterclasses and such like.

This plan worked, everyone bought into the vision and reserves were boosted with further investment made in masterclasses etc.

In 2013, Sony pulled their sponsorship This changed everything: Nevertheless, Trustees overwhelmingly agreed to continue with the awards for a year using their cash reserves and in the hope that a major sponsor could be found for 2015 and beyond.

The Radio Festival lost money this year. While it may very well have been a creative success, sadly, it turned out to be an attendance failure. Both things happened in the same year so cash reserves were substantially reduced and Trustees had to look to the future.

Trustees have legal responsibilities. They have to ensure the organisation can deliver what it sets out to do while remaining a viable concern. This is normal practice and confidence about the on-going level of support from the industry itself would have been sought and indeed vital – after all, so much of what it does relies on their co-operation.

Before giving that support, (I understand) there was a call to review where the organisation was going, especially at a time when so many – including The BBC – have created their own centres of learning. Do we need another Academy, why is this one unique? Do we need an awards ceremony and if so, in what form and how well would it be supported?

In the absence of a major sponsor, the Festival perhaps having run its course as a stand-alone event and questions about the model itself, the only sensible action was to pause for thought. There is no shame in doing so, the damage comes from going forward recklessly. In the meantime, decisions were required regarding commitments to the Grosvenor Hotel for next year and the signing of a new office lease.

I suspect change was coming regardless and having a central location with four full time members of staff is not something that could be sustained in any future model.

The RA is more than a single strand of activities and celebrating success via an awards event is just one part, but an important one.

You can compare yourself against others in your same group or even on the same side of the street if you like, but it is when you go up against your peers across the whole of the UK, that awards really matter. To know they are judged independently and are unblemished by any political hand, is to know they are worth winning. Otherwise, what’s the point?

To see the grave disappointment on the faces of those who don’t win, only highlights their true value to those who do.

In the meantime, we should always remember that ownership is temporary. The people in charge today are only the guardians until the next generation take over. As such, there is a duty to hand the baton on with all the good things intact and believe me, The Radio Academy is absolutely a good thing!

I have total faith in The Trustees so let’s give them time to work it all out.

What I do know is that it will come through this review a much fitter, leaner, focused and re-energised entity and when it does, everyone should applaud those who made it possible.

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GILLARDS – AND THE AWARD GOES TO…?

You won’t find anyone more supportive of Industry awards than myself. As a former Chair of The Sony Radio Academy Awards, The Arqiva Awards and indeed a past judge or chair of many others – including BBC Local Radio (Gillards), I know how difficult it can be and indeed, how much care goes into picking the winners.

It is always a subjective process, popularity rarely comes into it. Instead, you seek creativity and high levels of journalism or just want to applaud the wonderful craft of those who do everyday jobs on the air.

This is why I was so delighted to see Gold awards for Rony Robinson and Toby Foster at BBC Sheffield. Two top class broadcasters. The award for promo of the year to BBC Linconshire was also spot on, it was not just the best in the BBC, but the best full stop.

Judges can only go on the entry, there is no way they can hear all the stations in real time, so the submission is everything and because of that, from the outside looking in, one or two decisions may look a little strange. That does not mean they are incorrect, it is just like the Oscars where minor box office hits can sometimes take home all the glory.

This may explain how BBC WM came to win ‘Station of the Year’. I have no idea but on the face of it, many in local radio land will view this as an interesting decision. Clearly, whoever put their entry together is a genius.

In this one category of all, I’ve always thought a glance at how the station is performing in terms of audience figures is kind of good practice. It won’t be the deciding factor but if connecting with the audience you serve – both factually in terms of numbers and creatively through the output you deliver – does not merit consideration, then what is the award all about?

Whatever people might think, BBC WM should use this as a springboard for their future success. Currently, 95% of the local population don’t tune in, that needs to change.

Congratulations to the staff. I know a number who work there and they are as professional, talented, ambitious and hardworking as anyone else, but in the words of one of them who sent me a text me this morning:

Thrilled by our win John, if not slightly embarrassed. Quite!

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THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

I love radio but just like everyone else, my time is limited. Family life, Social media, technology – they all grab my attention. I still listen of course, but not as much as I once did.

Overall, I find myself listening less to commercial radio for one very good reason:

They play far too many adverts

There was once a reasonable number, but it’s not uncommon now to hear 15 minutes an hour, one notable boss of a large group believes a staggering 18 minutes is acceptable, another station runs 22 minutes.

This route to commercial suicide is driven by share-deals and an out of date business model.

It’s not the fault of the programmer either. Instead, the blame lies at the door of those who buy and sell national advertising. The media agencies are too powerful, the radio groups are too weak.

This is how it works:

National client wants a media buying agency.

Agency pitches for the business promising to get the best rate in the world – even though they may never be able to deliver it!

To win the account, they hand back a huge slice of their 15% commission. Client loves this. Agency looks to radio for the difference.

Advertising agency calls big radio group and arranges a share deal. This is where they guarantee to give them a percentage of ALL their radio advertising in return for a big juicy cash bonus. They give more, they want more, they pay less.

Big radio group knows this to be a double-edged sword. Good because they get a share of the total spend, bad because this only works if audience levels hold up. If they don’t, more ads will be required to meet the deal. They head to church, light a candle and say a prayer.

This is why presenters ‘hook and tease’ so much. There is little point in having lots of listeners if they don’t listen for very long!

Meanwhile, over at the advertising agency, they’ve done the same share deal elsewhere. Perhaps as much as 90 to 95% of their total radio spend is now pre-allocated for the year ahead. If you’re in the club, you win. If not, you have little chance of getting anything near what your station or idea deserves.

The industry congratulates itself, everyone loves radio. This may be true but it’s also because they love the price. No one mentions ‘the price’, it’s the ‘Elephant in the Room’. Instead, all the talk is about volume.

The price of radio airtime today is pretty much the same as it was 20 years ago. In fact, it’s gone down in real terms. You try buying a new car at the same price you paid back in 1995 and see what happens. They laugh you out of the showroom but in radio land, we welcome you with open arms and even give you a bonus!

Is it any wonder people are filling their boots?

Commercial radio is the best, cheapest and most effective medium in the UK – and we can’t get what it’s worth

Everyone is walking over pounds to pick up pennies.

Big group (one with a unique offering) tries to get the price up. Agency listens, nods, smiles and then sends them home without a penny more. There’s no way they’re going to endorse putting the price up, they’re the Ninjas, the Top Guns at getting really low, low prices. Even ‘auditors’ agree, who are part of the problem by the way.

The only way to get a better price is to plough the different pots available for on-line, websites and promotions etc. They’re not part of the so called ‘share-deal’ so offer a better rate for sexy digital stuff, but it won’t save their bacon – not yet!

Meanwhile, the latest Rajar arrives. Hours are worse than ever; listener patience is running out. Big radio group now has to play more adverts for no more money. The view from outside the industry is that commercial radio appears to be in a race to the bottom.

Radio programmer works out that when he adds together all the adverts, sponsor credits, newslink, promotions, competitions, jingles, traffic+travel and more, they’re asking listeners to digest more than 50 commercial messages in a single hour. Somehow, they have to inject content into this.

Programmer knocks at the Sales Directors door demanding action. He’s ran out of ideas. What can he do? At one point the breakfast team that morning said nothing for eleven minutes and they are the stars hired to deliver, err…. content.

Sales Director cares but waves programmer away, he’s got a target to hit

Station focus group reveals adverts are not universally disliked by listeners, they want to know who’s got a sale on, but there’s a fine line between ‘just enough’ and ‘too many’. People want entertainment, information and great content, ideally with music they like from presenters they love. Advert FM is not delivering what they promised.

Programmer takes a phone call from the boss. Its a bollocking. Get those hours sorted or else. He counters that there is little room for the craft of radio so can we do something about all those ads he asks?

No!

Programmer edits the songs to give the impression they’re playing a lot more music.

It doesn’t work, hours are still in the toilet.

Commercial Radio starts blaming the BBC. It’s always their fault.

Meanwhile, big radio groups slashes more costs and introduces more networking, a press statement proclaims: ‘this is what local people want’ .

No one believes them anymore, but courage to do something about it went out of the window a long, long time ago…. This business model is bust!

The year is now 2025

Rajar is published – it’s still a diary!

Average hours are now down to an all time low of 4.2. People are shocked, a few remember the great days when it was over 6.

The boss speaks up; Cheer up everyone – 4.2 is the new 7

Everyone chuckles – then the telephone rings.

It’s the big agency with the big deals.

They’ve decided that radio no longer works. They’re pulling everything with immediate effect.

A trainee sales executive on her first day in the job bravely asks a daft question: If we had a product that worked and everyone wanted it, why didn’t we put the price up and play fewer ads?

Over at the local cemetery, a miserable old radio guru turns in his grave!

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Jazz FM Logo SMALL NEG

Jazz fm – blowing their own trumpet at last

There are not many times in life when I admit to cocking it up but changing Jazz FM London into Smooth radio was one such occasion. I dished the brand, the station and the marketing when it was the right station for the right market. Even today, Smooth radio in the smoke is nowhere near the audience figures for Jazz fm set over a decade ago.

However, removing Jazz from the North West and replacing it with the Smooth brand was a masterstroke.

Making mistakes is all part of life, not everything goes to plan. The trick is to learn and move on.

Indeed, there’s a section in my book where I recall the joys of owning Jazz FM. I urge you to read it because there are some wonderful tales to tell.

One relates to when we were in trouble with the regulator.

They complained that we didn’t play enough ‘jazz’. I complained that they didn’t know what the F*** they were talking about. Most people agreed with that.

However, a row followed where they asked me to describe what jazz music was.

Flippantly, I said it was “anything with a trumpet”.

It was clearly a mad thing to say but being mad is often an advantage. In fact, we were all mad back then and that particular discussion has gone down in folklore.

Another wonderful occasion worth highlighting was when I was asked at the GMG board why I was ruining jazz fm by playing those god awful radio commercials.

I couldn’t stop smiling as the chairman moaned about an advert that was destroying his favourite ‘dinner jazz’ programme. it was embarrassing he claimed.

The advert began with the words… “do you have an erection problem”. This was not something that made for a cosy listen he said.

I countered of course that we couldn’t ban a commercial just because he didn’t like it. Furthermore, this was a ‘health advert’ and some people see this as valuable information. I did stop short of asking him if he wanted the number!

The problem with jazz fm – as with most stations of this kind – is that they seek a profitable sanctuary, but rarely find it. The station survived in the 90s by relying on things like Hed Kandi, jazz events and CD sales. It was the genius of the then owner, Richard Wheatley.

Over the years, Jazz FM has gone through a wave of creative survival techniques. It was on DAB 1, then it came off. It raised a lot of cash, it spent a lot of cash, it has always failed to make a return for investors – with the one exception of when it was sold to GMG. However, the passion for the brand is high and always has been.

I thought the station was doomed a year or so back but that didn’t take into account the people who run it and those who love it.

Focusing on niche, not trying to be everything to everyone, knowing their audience and the community they serve, is what they do. The station delivers focused and credible content while providing an experience that few can match. Above all, they do exactly what it says on the tin!

This love of Jazz booms out of the speakers. Richard Wheatley and his team are better at running this kind of business than most others.

Their rise in RAJAR is impressive, but it is the focus on what they produce that deserves far more credit. The national press are far too popular facing when this is the kind of thing that deserves their attention. Many of the things they do, we are doing right now at Team Rock.

The question before them was this: Is a national DAB service worth paying the extra money for? Clearly not in this instance.

Their regeneration and current success is admirable and should be widely applauded.

If only the agencies knew what they had.

If only the people who buy radio airtime were not locked into share deals.

If only agencies had more cash to spend on niche brands so they can work smarter for their clients.

Well done Jazz FM.

I salute you – and with my very own trumpet!

PS. Radio Today interview with Jazz FM here

Footnote. Slightly updated at 1800hrs to include their latest logo.

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