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..

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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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Unknown

RIP Mike the Mouth

I was really saddened to learn about the death of Mike Elliott who passed away this morning after a battle with cancer of the oesophagus

At Century North East, he was known as Mike the Mouth, the late night phone-in host, who’s voice was so loud that his mic gain was always set at zero.

A natural communicator with an opinion on everything and anything, a strong believer in right and wrong and a socialist through and through.

He was also a big drinker, a smoker, a man’s man but someone the listeners loved and cared about. He could talk without a caller on the air for hours on end or he could go through them as fast as you like. He listened, he chatted but above all, he entertained.

The ‘great entertainer’ is probably how he would like to be remembered.

As a compere he was unique, never short of something to say, sometimes cutting, always funny. In many ways, he was ahead of his time, an alternative comedian before the expression was even heard of.

He’s appeared in many TV programmes over the years as he epitomised the northern man but more than anything, he was an accomplished actor with perhaps his best gig playing alongside Julie Walters in the movie, Billy Elliott. He also managed to get the word ‘Mackem‘ into the dictionary.

He was to negotiating what I am to hang-gliding.

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I recall one amusing moment when he knocked at my door asking for more money. I got a pad out and drew a line down the middle. I told him on one side I was going to write down all the reasons why he deserves one, while on the other side, I would write down all the reasons why he doesn’t.

After about 5 minutes of silence, he said that he could’t think of any with the exception that his favourite local had put the price of beer up. I loved that!

Like many who knew him, he will always be remembered for that huge personality, his generosity of spirit plus the unique way in which he did it.

Unique, versatile and entertaining.

I hope they’ve got the beer ready upstairs for the self styled radio Icon.

Once he arrives, it will be SHOWTIME!

Video and audio of Mike here

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Deaf jocks – Is this radio PPI?

I remember the moment well.

We’d just put the finishing touches to new studios in Leeds when, out of the blue, presenters complained about low volume levels in their headphones. New legal limits were being enforced by GMG.

The jocks were kicking off big time.

To be fair, I had some sympathy.

If a presenter can’t hear themselves correctly and at a level 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 or two who used to bring in his own headphone amplifiers. A jock at Red Rose used to have them 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 limit because 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 used to listen off-air, even when on AM. Others clicked desk output which is a cleaner feed but I preferred the processing. How you monitored yourself became a matter of choice but 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 into 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

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

They don’t have a job so I guess they have 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 nonetheless. Nuts!

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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