What! You want me to talk?

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Liverpool 2015.

Bauer’s application to put City 2 on FM and downgrade the Talk station to AM makes good commercial sense. That does not make it right.

The talk station they launched in 2006 has been nothing short of a disaster from day one and they’ve been trying to change it to something else ever since. If this latest move is approved, it will be the fourth format and the third change in just nine years.

The drive for change comes from competition.

Global’s Smooth Radio (formerly Jazz fm) is a giant in the North West, raking in cash and listeners galore. It’s the Apple of radio up there. This, and their recent acquisition of Juice FM (soon to be Capital FM) turns the screw even more against Bauer.

It’s easy to see therefore why they’d want to move City 2 to FM as it will offer more protection commercially. The fight is about music radio.

If any further evidence is needed, Bauer have just announced that they are to drop live football coverage from next season, something they have carried since 1974. This will not win them any new fans especially in a city where sport matters!

For the record, I like the Bauer 2 network. It’s my second favourite station right now but changing platforms is of little benefit to the Liverpool listener. It is already on DAB, a growing popular platform and something that Bauer claims to be the future.

This is nothing more than a way of commercially making sure they have all their guns focused on protecting revenue. It has absolutely nothing to do with extending listener choice.

Can you imagine the outcry if Global suggested dropping LBC to AM across London just so they could put Heart Extra on FM? It would never be allowed and it should not be allowed here.

Having said all that, if I were Bauer and faced with losing my Liverpool crown, I would probably try the same thing.

As I said in my blog last weekend

Anyone who thinks commercial radio will fill the gap in a diminished BBC is either drunk or deluded.

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Thoughts on my BBC

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There is no doubt that the budget for BBC Radio 1 and 2, (£39m and £46m respectively) is an eye watering number especially to all those working within commercial radio. As I highlighted within my BBC Report a couple of years ago, how and why it costs this much is difficult to discover, it’s a bit like wading through thick fog wearing sunglasses.

The controllers have about a third of the published budget under their direct control (still a good number) with the rest being re-charges for things like news, engineering, copyright and housing etc. Normal practice in business perhaps, but the level of recharge is higher than the true cost in real terms. I have no idea why.

No one told them to do it this way, they just do.

In 2009, I pointed out that at least 60% of commercial radio was going bust. To survive, it required a new plan, one that included a change to the law, new formats and more networking. Part of the argument was that they needed to make more money in order to compete more effectively against the BBC. They got what they wanted and today the vast majority of stations are on the right side of profitability.

The two biggest groups, Bauer and Global, are banking more than £50m in gross annual profits between them. Yet, outside of the brilliant LBC and TalkSPORT, many would struggle to hear any of that cash being invested back into the important bit – the bit between the songs.

Instead, the industry has focused its efforts on providing low cost popular music services rather than investing in rich and more expensive content that may have challenged the BBC’s dominance more effectively.

In my view, this has resulted in commercial radio becoming a poorer, blander and more predictable listen than at any time over its 40 odd year history. Even the much trumpeted D1 is music or brand extension driven. D2 promises to be different.

Commercial Radio

None of this is intended to decry what they do, quite the reverse. It is a hugely successful and fills an important role, one that attracts millions of listeners. Local content is still delivered offered differently to the way it once was. Nothing stands still forever.

Certainly, there is little sign of market failure and so they are right to ignore those pompous fools who suggest there is. The regulator has few complaints.

It has to be said though that the current direction of commercial radio only highlights the very distinctiveness of the BBC. Knowing what we know, anyone who thinks commercial radio will fill the gap in a diminished BBC is either drunk or deluded.

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£115m is spent on a 40 station network yet their overall audience is plummeting. David Holdsworth, the boss of local radio, is charging forward with a new vision and some of it has merit. Good for him. Personality is back. News – while still important – will no longer be the dominant force and the music they schedule is going to be looked at.

While I applaud the initiative, I always worry when the same people who got you into trouble appear to be the same people now charged with getting you out of it.

One other point worth highlighting is marketing.

You can’t change what you do and keep it a secret. They will need to spend real money on inviting people back to sample the new sound of local radio and where they will get that in these times, outside of cross promotion, is anyones guess.

The BBC are not without fault

Nothing in life is perfect. There will be changes and the things we value the most are often the things that give us the most sleepless nights.

From a personal perspective, I’ve always found that those who see the price of everything and the value of nothing, are very dangerous people indeed.

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Radio Centre – Sound, Commercial, Sense

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Every CEO loves a new logo and Siobham Kenny at the Radio Centre appears to be no exception. I don’t mind that as she outlines a solid reason for change although I always worry if an industry body such as this should go to all the bother and expense of it all.

A new energy

The most important aspect of the Radio Centre surrounds its vision and what it stands for. I sense a new energy within the glass building in New Oxford Street, which also houses the Radio Academy, RAJAR, Digital Radio UK etc. I’ve always had a soft spot for everyone in the house, they care about radio and while I may sometimes disagree with a particular stance on occasion, that does not diminish its importance to the sector as a whole.

The new slogan: Sound, Commercial, Sense is a good one.

An industry body is not measured by snappy slogans though, the only thing that matters is what it does for its members and associated parts. The Radio Centre is a force for good. It is committed to showing the industry in a positive light. Their conference and awards of this week did just that. Equally, they are also there to lead the radio debate, drive change and create the framework for the future of the UK radio industry.

Still work to do.

As they’ve outlined this week, far too much faff still exists with regard to things like T&C’s in ads, radio advertising needs to be valued much higher up in the chain and we need to make more noise about the great content we deliver as an industry (yes, there is still a lot) not to mention all the positive things we do within respective communities up and down the land.

The Radio Centre is working on all of this alongside keeping an eye on the BBC, a particular thorn in their side. They also have to continually remind those who worry about the demise of local radio that their fears are unfounded. It is NOT all regionalised or nationalised, as some might suggest; far from it.

Most of all, the Radio Centre must have significant political clout.

This comes from togetherness. It is ironic therefore that while many at the conference talked about ‘trust’ and ‘value’, those words are not guiding the Radio Centre’s own board, who still won’t allow or should I say – find a way – for UTV and UKRD to return to the table. There may be faults on both sides but right now, such is the divide, these two important groups won’t even enter the commercial radio awards. How can that be right for this great industry of ours?

I like Siobhan, she’s a smart cookie and under her guidance, the Radio Centre has gone from good to impressive. It could so easily be outstanding, if only they could come together as one.

Whoever resolves this will be the one showing true leadership.

One voice, one vision, one message.

This is what makes Sound Commercial Sense to me!

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Tony Hall’s big cull!

Tony Hall believes there are too many managers. He’s dead right there but this is not news!

I can point to many reports, including my own, that have all said the same thing but as most were delivered into the arms of the very people under threat, not a lot was done about it.

This cull was always expected even though it looked slightly rushed when it came out.

Tony is politically astute enough to know that managers are often despised by the troops to a certain extent, especially those in the middle ranks, so he was hardly saying something people didn’t want to hear. While I applaud the ambition I do worry about how they are going to go about it.

The bad managers cannot be allowed to decide the fate of the good ones. If so, the corporation will be in the control of those egotistic fools who wouldn’t know a great plan if it fell on their head.

The BBC is something we should be proud about.

The BBC has excellent journalists, programme makers, presenters and technical staff who deliver truly world beating content right across the board. It also has many excellent managers but the number to be cut only points to the failure of those at the top. It is they who allowed it to get to this point, it is they who ignored the warnings of ‘management creep’ mostly through a desire for mind numbing bureaucracy.

If we are honest, HR also failed to get rid of the dross early on, preferring promotion to dismissal. Few were ever sacked.

The big worry for me now is who decides who leaves and who stays.

You have to go through this task carefully, respectfully and with a great deal of experience.

You have to know who’s good and then ensure you keep them on side. Those who are asked to leave are equally entitled to ask, why me? The reply needs to be honest and direct, not HR speak. There is nothing worse than being fired by someone who couldn’t lace your boots.

Who stays will fundamentally determine the very future of the BBC.

Tony must surely know where all the deadwood is by now, he’s been there long enough. If he needs any clues, he just needs to ask the staff on the ground floor. They can tell you without a hint of self preservation.

For the record, anyone who believes that the world would be a better place without the BBC is absolutely and categorically wrong.

If we lose what we have, we will never get it back. The British public has invested far too much in an organisation that is the envy of the world. I agree with the plan and the ambition but the focus should firstly be on who’s swinging the axe before deciding who’s head is being chopped off.

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Stephanie Hirst – BBC Manchester is not the answer

Stephanie Hirst - 2014

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

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

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

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

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

There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m therefore left to ponder

The 90s show is far from exciting so this must be part of a wider plan. Maybe, the BBC and Stephanie are using this as a trial run to see how things go, allow her to re-find her radio voice and then, if successful, move her up the schedule somewhere.

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

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

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Can Evans remain in Top Gear?

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

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

First of all, let’s consider radio.

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

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

Now, let’s consider Top Gear.

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

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

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

And what about all those ‘live’ arena shows?

Let’s consider something more

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

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

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

Finally, let’s consider the public.

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

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

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

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

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A Capital price for Juice

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a win-win deal.

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

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

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

Few radio groups look after their staff as well as Global

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

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

It’s all about winning.

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

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A DOG’S LIFE AT ITV…

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

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

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

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

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

OFCOM will have to act.

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

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

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

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

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

A good move

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

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

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

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

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

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Red Rose Gold – 25 years

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

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

The original jingles.

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

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

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

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

I can honestly say, these were great times.

There are many things I remember those days for.

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

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

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

We were lucky to find them each time!

Lancashire listeners were lucky to have such a great station.

We were lucky to discover radio as a career.

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

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BBC Local Radio – the saga continues

It’s really disappointing to see BBC local radio reach fall once more. In just two years, they’ve lost a staggering half a million listeners and an incredible 11 million listening hours. All this at a time when their core demo is rising.

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

Listeners have stopped being ambassadors.

I know I go on about it but the numbers are on my side here. This crazy obsession with news is driving people out of the door. Rarely do I hear a single promo that says ‘tune in because we entertain’.

Management only seem interested in the breakfast show, they review the content for hours – for what reason, I have no idea. They show little interest in the rest of the output, it rarely gets a mention, never mind any focus.

The worst thing you can do is create a product to please yourself. So much of what they do remind me of Tesco, they have forgotten about the customer.

It’s time for the staff to get angry and demand answers about the strategy. They need to hold their leaders to account with the same skill and precision they use on local councillors. If not, they will sleep walk their way to redundancy.

This is not commercial radio, this is public radio and the public are saying quite clearly – they don’t like it.

Worse still, is the appalling drivel we get from their PR department:

‘Over six million people love what we do, we are proud of the service we provide blah blah blah

This is what they should be saying:

“We have a sensible level of funding, employ passionate and experienced people, use FM transmitters and house credible newsrooms, but it’s clear the strategy we are adopting is not working. Over a half million people have switched us off in two years and even those who remain, are tuning in for less. We have failed to deliver radio that people want to hear but from today, that will change.

What to do next?

I say again. Kill the present news led strategy. It is important of course, very important, so is sport but success is about the whole, not a few shiny parts. Understand that great communicators make great radio, review the music policy and let personalities return home. Oh, and mix it up a bit.

Someone asked me what the bottom line figure might be before Tony Hall considers local radio a failure. This is a tough one. It is currently 6.6m listeners. The BBC Trust (Yes- it’s still there) will certainly form a view but if I had to give a number – I would say 6million.

A good figure starts with a 7 and that is very achievable with a few tweaks. Change the strategy altogether? You could get something that starts with an 8. Hardly impossible!

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