Monday, 5 February 2018

The Theatre of Radio - Milk the Moment

I’m always popping in to my friendly local EE shop to change tariffs or buy yet another Apple device.  The other day, the skinny semi-bearded assistant in his polo shirt popped off to get my latest shiny grey iPad from the stockroom – before returning and sliding it gently out its tight-fitting white box.

Such is the vacuum inside the packaging that it takes some time to divorce the box lid from its bottom.  Seven seconds apparently - according to the training my obliging EE assistant had been subjected to. 

Canny Apple know that unwrapping a new gadget is a hugely exciting part of your investment – and they want to make the most of the moment -with a dramatic pause.

Great radio is often about theatre. Creating memorable moments. 

You may be on air every day for years, but when you catch up with casual listeners, they’ll still talk about THAT one crazy call from three months ago.  Their recollection is vivid. They can paraphrase the whole thing.

Does that mean they’ve forgotten just about everything else you’ve done of late? Probably.

Does it mean they will still remember that call in five years time? Probably.

That’s the value of theatre.

When planning a breakfast story arc, the double-beat works wonders.  The listener is led along a path to what they believe is an acceptable but predictable end. But what if it isn’t as they expect?  That’s theatre.

Radio too often throws away moments of theatre.   It's like a whole Coronation Street episode being replaced by a twenty second graphic telling us whose been married, betrayed or shot.

It took X Factor to teach many radio presenters the value of the pause before revealing the winner’s name.  The power of the pause is immense.  You are doing absolutely nothing – yet each moment of that carries huge value.

When chatting to Sue MacGregor for my Conversations series, she mentioned wryly how it had not escaped her notice that John Humphrys was always picked above her for the flagship 8.10 political interview on Radio 4's Today programme.  Putting to one side the thorny issue of women in radio for a moment, the grounds given were that there was a theatre about John’s interviews. That’s unarguable. On a good day you can lean back, fold your arms and wait for the fun to begin. The careful set up, the audible furrowed brow and then his harrumphing barbed interjection. Not just what he says, but when and how. It's about atmosphere.

In news bulletins, the slight extra pause after the most solemn story or headline injects real power.  Radio 4's wonderful Corrie Corfield reminds us: "leave a pause until it hurts", drawing on the words of one of her inspiring influences. As broadcasters, we feel obliged to fill gaps – but we should restrain ourselves, when appropriate, no matter how uncomfortable.

Over-polite interviewers fill the gap after their question when an interviewee pauses to think. 

Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM doesn’t feel a similar guilt.  When probing Nick Clegg on his own religious beliefs, when the theme emerged in the election campaign, Eddie didn’t flinch when Nick paused and stumbled for some time - on his way to eventually dreaming up an answer to Eddie’s gifted and simple question ‘why don’t you believe?’.  

When an interviewee pauses before an answer, it speaks volumes to the listener. Don’t take away that value by re-explaining your question.

That's a skill which should apply to every presenter on any format who uses callers or interviewees  in any way. We all know that if you wait long enough after the right question, eventually a kid will say something cute.

There was a great Radio 4 programme which illustrated the pause point by troubling to edit all the gaps from a famous Churchill speech. The impact was diminished hugely. Our Darkest Hour would have lasted a lot longer without Winston saying nothing.

When you are next doing one of those rare poignant pieces, and such moments occur occasionally in every format………pause.

On the other hand, sports commentators instinctively understand, and you can hear it even in the very first commentaries in the late 1920s, that you should speed up when there is action. The changing pace creates theatre.

When an emotional caller's voice quakes, the clever presenter asks 'are you OK to carry on?' Of course they are - and the presenter has helped to build the tension with 'will they or won't they' jeopardy - and prolonged the build to the climax.

When delivering a script, a news story, cue or travel news, you know what’s coming next. The listeners don’t. Drama can be created by the drama of the delivery. The vocal ticks, pace and pauses you’d use in natural delivery can be usefully added in to create the drama in the listeners’ mind that existed originally in the story you’re telling.  Sound as if you are discovering the story at the moment the listener also discovers it.

‘And we’re juuuuuuuust getting confirmation of the latest situation……………… Yes, the…..’ Tells the listener that you’ve only just heard an update. You might seek to cover up the drama of a last-minute change to what you’re doing – but there can be value in sharing it. 

Milk the moment.

Whatever the format. You’re about to do something. In plot and delivery - how can you make it more dramatic? More memorable? Use more theatre.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Nottingham Gets a Voice of its Own

When the bongs of Little John rang out on BBC Radio Nottingham on the final day of January 1968, no-one knew what the future would hold for this new BBC local radio service in the City. 

Fifty years ago, Auntie was dipping her toe in local radio waters with what she dubbed ‘an experiment’, much to the chagrin of the determined early operators who preferred to call themselves pioneers.   There was much to pioneer, given our City council had to offer to chip in half the running costs to pay for the station as a cautious Corporation shut its purse.

The Post reported ‘Nottingham gets a voice of Its own’ and that the station would be informative, controversial and educational “but will not be a stuffed-shirt service and will cater for everyone’s taste”. The Postmaster General made clear programmes should ‘never be dull’.

As the station crept on air on that cold Wednesday evening in January, the lead story on its impeccably-delivered inaugural ‘Nottingham Newsreel’ trumpeted the Ratcliffe on Soar power station pumping its first electricity into the national grid. News, however, was not pumped into the new radio stations with similar energy, indeed the station had no newsroom of its own, instead calling upon local news agencies to bash out the latest happenings in Carlton and Clifton on a Remington and breathlessly deliver carbon-copies on foot - or on the back of a bicycle.

Programme listings in the early days boasted an enviable range of brief local shows hosted by members of the twenty-strong team, under manager Gerald Nethercott, ‘Big G’, an ex-squadron leader. Each programme was iced with a catchy signature tune and clever name - and usually presented with due professionalism. ‘Wednesday Club’, ‘Lunchdate’, the arts show ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Elevenses’ sat alongside ‘Bran Tub’, a request programme hosted by a cheery presenter and two squeaky toy characters ‘Squeq and Syrup’. ‘The Town Crier’ rang his bell and delivered updates on beetle drives in Beeston and barn dances in Bakersfield.

In a ‘timeshare’-type arrangement, the remainder of the programmes were selected from the BBC network offerings, so our local jolliness would be curtailed in favour of a visit to London for ‘The World at One’ with the booming voice of William Hardcastle.

Station identification jingles came courtesy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, most famous for the hypnotic Doctor Who theme tune. With the brief being firmly ‘local’ for each station in the growing network, Sheffield was supplied with a jingle featuring percussion from knives and forks, and Nottingham got Robin Hood’s arrow, or at least the sound effect of one, likely conjured up with a few elastic bands by the clever minds in the tardis of this psychedelic Maida Vale Workshop.

As a young listener, I was enthralled by this remarkable addition to the radio dial.  Broadcasting was surely something ‘proper’ which came from London – but to have it coming from a building on Mansfield Road and hearing the words ‘West Bridgford’ through the loudspeaker grille seemed uncanny. Presenter Tony Church shared my childlike enthusiasm for the magic created by this £40,000 of investment as he reflected later: “it was a strange mixture of the feeling that Marconi must have had when he first got the signal across the Atlantic…so there was that technical surprise, as ridiculous as that was in the 60s”.

It’s claimed that Radio Nottingham also mounted the first ever phone-in on UK radio, calling upon listeners to volunteer their annoyance with officialdom in a segment called ‘What are they up to now?’. Even listeners were treading new ground as they debuted on-air, answering: ‘I’m in my house’ when questioned on their whereabouts.  As the audience warmed to their involvement, presenter John Holmes recalls that local telephone switchboards were temporarily disarmed by the sheer volume of calls.

Initially, BBC Radio Nottingham was confined to FM - at a time when FM was called ‘VHF’ and suitable receiver sets were rare and expensive.  After making good use of one my clever brother had assembled from mail order components, we alighted on a second-hand model from Eddy’s on Alfreton Road, the shop from which anything in our house with a plug was routinely obtained. Whilst the station could also be heard on Rediffusion channel C, the rarity of FM sets made delivering an appreciable audience a challenge, and in due course, an AM frequency was proffered.

No-one of a certain generation eating mushy peas in Victoria Centre market will fail to recall Dennis McCarthy, even more than twenty years after his death. After persuading the station to allow him to present a Cruft’s Dog Show report in 1968, he quickly graduated to ‘The Sunday Show’, where Dennis and his family would turn mundane features to pure entertainment. ‘I’ve got some hardcore and a storage radiator to swap for a three-bar electric fire, Dennis’ a caller would routinely say on ‘Swap Shap’, before his clever probing resulted in a quite unrelated, fascinating moment of radio.

Dennis owned his city – and broke the rules. His programme often included gaps you could drive an NCT bus through. If a caller said she'd seen an unusual bird at the bottom of her garden, he'd invite her to go to see if it was still there. Listeners would hear the click of the latch on her door - and await her return. Dennis felt under no obligation to say anything, often for minutes. The Dennis silence was strangely compelling.

Like many, I took part in a few Dennis shows on a variety of pretexts - not least taking part in an anti-car theft jingle contest organised in conjunction with the local bobbies. I was pleased to hear Dennis announce I'd won - albeit but second prize.

Dennis became the best-known presenter, but many other gifted communicators have passed through the station’s doors and become much-loved, not least John Holmes, whose long career endures. It is the mark of a great radio station that the voices heard become the listener’s friends. Also, over the years, Trevor Dann and Matthew Bannister have risen to the highest BBC offices; and Richard Bacon and Simon Mayo have become established on-air nationally, with the latter making a rare return this year to host a Trevor-produced programme about the station’s history.

Just as C60 cassettes, CDs and now music streaming have largely replaced vinyl in the home, the studio technology used by broadcasters has grown up too.  Interviews which used to be recorded on hefty, allegedly portable, reel-to-reel tape machines can now be grabbed with the recording facility on a mobile phone and despatched to the station within seconds. Editing is now a matter of gazing at a colourful screen rather than hacking off a finger with a razor blade when extracting the relevant comment from a lengthy interview on quarter-inch tape.  Records no longer stick - or play at the wrong speed and presenters no longer invite listeners to bang their phone receivers to clear a hissy line as Dennis routinely did.  These are digital days.

BBC Radio Nottingham moved from York House to its swish new home on London Road in 1999; and the station’s approach and style has moved with the times too. It leans more nowadays on topical news discussion, holding local decision-makers to account and spreading its wings increasingly into the digital media world.  But corners of the weekly programme schedule remain where tales are told and the City’s rich character reflected.

The station has played a proud part in its community. From the ‘Big Night Out’ initiative which encouraged listeners to return to their city to savour its evening atmosphere; to the many big names in music who have made their debut on ‘The Beat’. From Colin Slater’s thousands of beloved Magpies’ commentaries; to the ‘The Big Poppy Knit’ where listeners were invited to knit 11,000  poppies, representing the Nottingham men who died in the Great War. They produced well over 100,000.

Local radio is necessarily expensive, and cuts are frequently mooted as demands on the licence fee grow, but in a surprise announcement in November last year, a chipper Director General announced the latest savings plan lay in the Broadcasting House shredder.  Indeed, in a ‘renaissance’, there’ll be more investment, and station managers will be urged to carve out their own unique sound for their city.  The future of Radio Nottingham lies in its own hands.

In some ways, the new strategy sounds familiar. An aquamarine pamphlet published by the BBC in 1966 suggested listeners would come to regard their local station as “our station - not as the BBC station in our town”.  The BBC stated it would not impose a “central pattern” or “detailed overall control on its local stations”.  They would "do much to make listeners proud of their community and willing to take part in its affairs". 

I'm hosting a talk at Waterstones in Nottingham on 6th February at 7 p.m: ‘The history of radio in Nottingham from the 1920s to now’. Do join us - tickets available at the store or here.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Peering over the wall at Facebook

New Year 2018. Everyone is ill. Across the land, new radio station programme schedules are trumpeted. Corporate press releases tell us how ‘delighted’ the new smiling presenters are at their appointment; and the ones they replaced are congratulated for all their good work as they crawl around to find a new opportunity so they can pay the mortgage.

Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg has played around with what passes for a programme schedule in his world, his treasured algorithm. He wants to ‘fix Facebook’.

We’re getting used to Mark fiddling with our organic reach. Whilst we’re largely responsible for our own fate at Twitter, with our followers ditching us if we get dull, big brother Facebook has long since wagged its finger at us if we keep posting material with which few people engage.

This latest newsfeed update appears to be more determined. A real long term view of the Facebook business to keep it social – more friends and family. Brand pages won’t stop appearing in your feed, it will simply not show you the duller posts from the duller brands.  Adam at Facebook stresses the extent to which people react to, comment on and share are key signals about which content will ‘spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people’. The winners will be shown higher in the feed and prioritised over ‘public content’. He loves conversations between friends.

For radio stations, we need to ensure our Facebook content continues to engage if our efforts are to pay off. Scroll down the pages of some major radio brands, and you can see which excel and which really don’t.  It might even say something about how focused their on-air content is too.

Similarly it's a time to re-examine all our other social media presences.The latest Facebook changes are a reminder to us all of the risks of over-reliance in our marketing strategies on a platform we’re not in control of. Similarly, a warning to those using Facebook as a way of disseminating content. As the BBC engages sensibly in ever more social media, I imagine it scratches its head, torn between wanting to put its content where punters spend time whilst acknowledging that the identities of the people to whom the content is shown are controlled by others. It’s a dilemma for all of us, but more politically sensitive for the Corporation. Luckily, its scale and brand strength mean its content can live in isolation elsewhere with relative success where necessary.

Drawing the parallels between this social media and the good old one which is radio, are we as confident as Zuckerberg?  Would commercial radio ever pause and worry it is killing the goose that laid the golden egg through too much commercial content? Killing that valuable listener social relationship through too many one-sided dialogues in unduly long ad breaks?

Mark wants us to hear more from our friends and family.  Maybe our listeners do too. In the ad trade press, some agencies representing brands with a decent social presence are saying their Facebook presence will become more valuable after the changes because the environment has improved. Traffic may go down – but one imagines the price will rise. Oh, if only that could be true of radio too.

Would we be better off limiting the spot ad breaks on our medium in favour of more genuine entertaining and interesting branded conversations involving clients and our listeners which deliver real entertainment and interest value? Or is it too late.

And Facebook is demoting the pernicious click bait and polls which get a volume of response but not true engagement. Maybe we should similarly demote meaningless on-air calls from radio presenters for social media or SMS response - which deliver little value to the listener.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Dreaded Voicetracking

Voice-tracking is the devil. The scourge of our industry. The thing that has de-humanised this once exciting living, breathing thing called radio. 

That would probably have been my view a few years ago as a spiky-haired awkward jock. Now, I believe it’s none of those things. Done well, it provides for impressive efficiency and high-quality output which helps to provide for the level of listening variety the UK now enjoys.

The first time you VT – let’s agree it feels odd. Imagining a real listener is quite challenging enough without having to imagine one who might be listening one foggy night next week. Mastering the art of the VT is a new skill which presenters have to acquire, where necessary. And like most things in radio, it’s a particular skill which some find themselves more at home with than others; and an approach which suits some formats better than others.

The efficiency is unquestionable. You can present a programme at a time of your choosing and only focus your time on the parts where you are needed. There's no need to sit drumming your fingers on the desk, moving around random sheets of paper and turning knobs needlessly up and down through nervous energy whilst you wait for Dua Lipa to end.

It also means that that you necessarily have to prepare well.  Opening a dry mic and recording a VT link without a direction in your head is impossible.  Preparation is necessarily done beforehand - and calmly, not hurriedly when distracted by a noisy song.

A presenter recording a show for the weekend simply has to summon up the sense and mood of the day to come, and what their listener will be up to. It’s a train of thought that too many live presenters find it easy to ignore. In a sense, with VT, you can only put the listener first. 

Similarly, VT radio demands perfect operational programme management too. There’s no room for the sort of stations where three people issue contradictory emails to presenters about what’s happening on the station - and what needs talking up and how.  You have to make your mind up promptly if the programmes to be recorded this week for next week are to be accurate – and issue definitive single notes on what’s what.

Doing it well is an acquired skill.  Like most things in radio – one gets better at it with practice. The tone of links - how they begin and end - and delivering just the right energy each time. Sounding natural and getting the pace just right, even if it is the seventh time you'd had a bash at the same link.  On music-intensive formats, repeatedly delivering much the same message in a fresh tone and vesting real meaning in your station name; on chatty formats, delivering mountains of fresh content all at once. Presenters who truly master all the tricks can hear the full show in context in their head.  

Some days, links are instantly flawless, and a show is dispatched within minutes.  Other days, one particular link feels like a loose tooth you keep wobbling with your tongue even though it hurts. The difference with VT is that the listener doesn’t hear the version of the link that wasn’t very good.

It might be argued that VT means sanitised radio - a pre-packaged convenience food without any topical relevance. With good thought, it’s not. Indeed, content can be updated with ease when appropriate. The impressive Matt Deegan who runs Fun Kids, wholly voice-tracked with Zetta, says “Generally presenters are recording between 3 minutes and 3 days before their shows go out”.

As a passion project, I appear on a VT easy listening station called Serenade Radio on weekend afternoons (under the nom-de-radio of Ben Golding, named after the nurse two minutes into this memorable station launch!). When, after recording, the death of a treasured artist is announced or the Grand National won, it is simple to to insert a relevant replacement link.  I suspect this voice-tracked station is sometimes more ‘up to date’ than many live presenters sat insulated from the world on air in their concrete studio.

Many good community stations use VT well too.  Running on small staff, they can whizz around gathering fresh content whilst the output purrs on. Remotely, they can insert links and freshen stories, as they wish. And, let's face it, even the finest BBC current affairs programmes pre-record chunks.

It's not lazy, cheap radio, it can actually be richer, maximising the value of personnel.  As Matt Deegan points out: “With presenters not being paid to waiting for songs to finish, we can then use their time in better ways - like building a YouTube channel around the breakfast show presenter with 100,000 subscribers and over a million views a month”.

There are, of course, notable examples too of how VT stations can sound truly awful. Outdated content being repeatedly aired, or missing chunks and car crash junctions. But is that not simply about poor operational management?  VT, operated well, should result in fewer technical and editorial errors, not more. If a station cannot manage its automated output well, it shouldn't really be on the air.

Isn’t radio about interaction?  Clearly, VT stations cannot respond to listener interaction in real-time, but they can respond a great deal more quickly than they did in the days when you wrote in for a request in the so-called golden days of radio. Listeners can get in touch via the website or app, and content can be cleverly channelled and incorporated if necessary, within minutes.  You can’t get callers responding on-air live in quite the same way but, again, many 'live' programmes routinely incorporate pre-recorded segments. 

And -  of course - there is no dispute about live radio always having its place for particular programmes or formats.

RCS gave us intelligent voice-tracking many years ago, offering a chance to hear the last
bite of the last song before performing  - and also other studio software like Genesys from Broadcast Bionics offer it too. There are also hugely impressive cost-efficient options: Station Playlist, Playout One or, from Germany, DigAS - from which the lovely Pat Sharp dispatches his content for his Norwegian shows. 

Many systems also allow for presenters to record remotely in their home studios too. Yes, away from the team spirit - but also away from the politics and the business end of radio; and a way of securing talent who would not be available 'full time' for you. Kenny Everett spoke of his idol, the great Jack Jackson, and the accidental value of him recording his shows from his holiday home in later years, away from all the things which put presenters in a bad mood.  The future for many stations may well be virtual. Alone with your listener in the back bedroom. That's intimate.

As a former jock, I’d agree that nothing can beat the kick you get from a live show. But is that kick more yours than the listener’s?

How often do you have the live show from hell, which everyone else tells you was the best one ever? We are not always the best judge of how a programme feels when we are in the midst of it.  When you listen in to your own voice-tracked programme as a listener, however, when you’ve forgotten what you’re about to hear yourself saying, your assessment of your own performance is altogether more valuable.

This voice-tracking lark isn't as bad as I'd feared. Let's raise a much-deserved cheer for the people who really master it.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Christmas in the Radiohouse

In desolate tinselled offices, hard-working programmers wear their silly hats and ‘don’t disturb me’ faces. 

Not only do they have to look after tomorrow on the radio, they have to plan ahead the whole festive fortnight with military precision. 

Atypical presenters are set to host atypical programmes between atypical news bulletins coming from atypical places. What could possibly go wrong? And will there be anyone around to help when it does?  Probably not.

Is the 1500 on Boxing Day a network bulletin or is it local? Does Johnny Whatnot know how to put himself on-air and take the service out of network? Has he got a zapper to get him in the car park?

Will they need more songs in each breakfast hour, given you’ve only half a double act.

Whose bright idea was it to have a day of songs beginning with B on Boxing Day?  Cheers for that. All that bloody effort at a time of year when you’re unlikely to hit peak audiences anyway.

On commercial stations, are the ad breaks full or half-empty?  And, are they balanced across all the transmitters in the hours when they don’t usually need to be? Is the ad with the 'Open until ten, Christmas Eve' line set to die at 2200 on 24th? And is the breakfast sponsor credit changed for that awkward client who's booked from January 1st?

Meanwhile, life starts to get a little quieter for the sales execs. After a frantic flurry seeing off December’s targets and making a good start on January, their self-made clients have disappeared to their overseas holiday homes. In the radio sales office, it’s time for banter, decanter and Secret Santa.

But whilst office staff have begun to wind down and their inboxes atrophy, the opposite is true for the product team.

Hot on the heels of incessant and exhausting Christmas light switch-ons, carol services and firework displays on cold dark days, the work starts on ensuring that the festive period on-air will be entertaining and trouble free. 

Everything needs mulling over. You really want to avoid the call from the Christmas lunchtime presenter, just as you’re microwaving the bread sauce, asking which fader network news is on.

You certainly need to know who’s staying nearby when you get the inevitable Boxing Day call from a hoarse presenter who claims to be ill. You try to sound sympathetic and tolerant, as you face the prospect of ringing everyone on your emergency list, but you don’t quite pull it off.

Newsrooms are busy trying to invent the news in advance for the lonely reporters who'll be on duty between Christmas and New Year. The bulletins will have returned, but the news won't.

Are we taking 'the Queen' or not? And where do we find her? 

And lets hope no popular public figure takes their last breath. Why do they wait for this week to die, of all weeks?

Some of the rituals of Christmas on the radio have sadly faded away.  Remember opening reception to give away batteries on Christmas morning?  What a great bit of Ever Ready marketing that used to be, in the days before sponsorship on radio was allowed.

I shall not miss recording the Christmas Eve Lincoln Cathedral Carol Service for Lincs FM.  I’m not sure whether it’s a sign of dedication that I, as PD, had to sort it out, or just poor delegation.  I’d record it on the Revox, then help lug the equipment back to base and edit out the verses no-one knows from the carols.  The tape would then be left on the desk with a accompanying note which the tech-op would, for some reason, make it his business to merrily ignore. 

Having said that, typing cues at nearly midnight when all civilised folk are making merry with family and friends is still the sort of sacrifice many radio folk have to make.

Sadly, Christmas is now without Ed Stewart. For me, his jolly voice just smelt like Christmas. For decades, he told us he was flying out his BBC ‘magic carpet’ on Christmas morning to visit hospitals around the UK, bringing cheery messages to patients. As a kid, I used to believe he genuinely had a magic carpet. No wonder I wanted to work in radio.

If you're on air this Christmas, make sure you sound as though you want to be there. It's a privilege.

So. Let’s raise a glass to the dedicated programmers, presenters, schedulers and journalists this Christmas across the UK. 


*Two Christmas present ideas below!  :)

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Tomorrow's Commercial Radio

Thanks to the 67 folk who diligently responded to the consultation on future regulation of commercial radio.

Just over half favoured deregulation and, presumably about half didn’t. The half that didn’t embrace every shred of suggested de-regulation did include some radio stations.

In summary, DCMS announced today it proposes to press on with the de-regulation it had outlined in February 2017.

Ofcom are currently obliged to license a wide range of services. The view now that the radio market now takes care of this, and what’s more there are other places to go too. There’ll no longer be any obligation in this regard.

The national stations were originally licensed to provide particular sorts of fare (e.g. non-pop or majorly speech). Existing stipulations will remain on all three. Whilst it looks like there was some sympathy for AM (Absolute 1215) being able to do what it liked, that all understandably seemed a little too complicated at this stage of the lifespan of AM.


No more fun debates about whether ‘Eye of the Tiger’ is easy listening (as one licensee once suggested to me when I was a regulator). Do what you like. This area has already been hugely liberalised – and will now go a step further. DCMS however are giving further thought to whether specific protections are needed for Asian music.


Ofcom will have powers to set clear guidance on the provision of national and local news and core information such as travel news. The requirements may differ dependent on the size of the target audience for each station.  DCMS concluded there is no need for Ofcom to have the power to set more demanding news or other local requirements in the ‘nations’.  

"To be credible (news) has to be sourced locally and be locally relevant".  "we believe there is merit in the new national and local news and information requirements containing clearer requirements as to local news sourcing." "We also think it is important for the the commercial radio industry itself to come together with a clear cross-industry commitment to promote best practice in the provision and continuation of high quality, locally sourced and locally relevant news."

There are calls for greater clarity on what ‘locally-sourced’ news means - and DCMS is looking to Ofcom to produce guidance. 

Current guidance insists on a station having ‘direct and accountable editorial responsibility' for covering its area and ‘appropriate provision of professional journalistic cover, based within the licence area (or approved area)'In the latest statement, DCMS recognises the values of newsroom hubbing, but also insists on the value of locally-sourced news (as part of the general thrust of thinking on the ‘democracy deficit’). 

Minister of State for Digital

The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP

I cannot imagine Ofcom being any more prescriptive and requiring 'de-hubbing', as that would cut across the deregulatory thrust, but nor do I imagine it would be more generous in its definition. It will likely seek to define what ‘appropriate provision’ is - and will draw a less woolly distinction between the 'sourcing' of news and the location where the bulletin is delivered.  I hope it is not tempted into prescribing bulletin durations or onerous definitions of what local news is - or hyper-local definitions of where journalists might sit at their desks.

With the emphasis on news provision, there are further questions about on whom a new obligation might fall after digital switchover: the multiplex operator or the radio station.  DCMS will engage with the radio industry on this matter. It may likely be a bit of both, once the jar of regulatory fudge is opened.

Overseas broadcasters

Powers will be sought to enable Ofcom to license overseas services to broadcast from afar to here, starting with permission for broadcasters in Ireland. Thus, RTE would be able to be broadcast on DAB in the UK. Then after Ireland, maybe a nod to other places in Europe, if the operators behave themselves. Irish citizens living here may cheer if RTE does choose to surface on DAB here, given they'll no longer be able to hear the station on Long Wave after 2019.

Local programming

DCMS is pressing ahead with the removal of localness (locally-produced programming) requirements.

You no longer will have to broadcast your station from its odd-shaped ‘approved area’.  It’s always been a bit of a nonsense – given once you are not in an area most listeners would define as theirs, you might as well be anywhere. There is some DCMS caution on whether, say Scottish stations, should still be required to broadcast from Scotland. It seems that Ofcom hope such stations will so do, and the news requirements and the general mood of licensees may help secure that. 


DCMS asserts that it helps the transition to digital if Ofcom are no longer allowed to license new analogue services. DCMS were also persuaded that you should be able to hand back your analogue licence when it seems no longer particularly useful, without fear that a rival can apply for it. FM coverage may be improved for existing operators where helpful - but the vacated FM won’t go to new community stations.

Across this transition to digital, DCMS recognised the need for 'significant flexibility' in terms of renewals and extensions for licences. For smaller stations and community stations, an open-ended approach is mooted with licences renewed across a period covered by a future radio switchover

Until now, analogue licences have been renewed on the strength of a dollop of DAB enthusiasm.  DCMS is now persuaded by the arguments put forward by smaller stations that the requirement for them to choose between going through re-licensing and hopping on a major multiplex is not healthy. DCMS however is a tad worried that without a clear incentive to secure carriage, some multiplexes may fail. It’s mulling over whether the smallest stations could be exempt from compulsory carriage – and about some further flex on just how much of your licence area you need to serve on DAB to bag your renewal.

A multiplex operator seeking to change its bouquet of services currently has to go on bended knees to Ofcom. They won’t have to any longer. Similarly, there is an appetite for liberalising the application process for multiplex operators.

Next steps

The next phase is for DCMS to bring forward legislation prior to analogue licences coming up for renewal in 2022. It recognises that this is a tough job, not least because Parliament is busy with, ahem, other things – so it suggests that Ofcom does its bit to change whatever it can now, in anticipation of longer-term reform.

Its going to be a long journey. And one imagines there's just the chance yet of some political obstacles.

What does all this mean?

The die is cast, and the commercial radio industry is just about free from the last vestiges of monochrome 1970s regulation.  Some will cheer at that, others will despair. In truth, much of the remaining regulation likely provides little real value to listeners.

What can happen immediately?  I suspect Ofcom will have taken legal advice on how far it may go within the current statute. Their lawyers will stroke their chins and conclude that Ofcom may go a little further than they currently do.  They’ll charge a little more for saying that though than I just have.

Where Ofcom have latitude – they will bend it further. Where the Acts are utterly prescriptive, they will not be able to move - for now.

In due course, what is outlined will likely and largely become reality. If you’re a journalist, I suspect this is all good news. After several regulatory changes which have resulted in smaller (but efficient) newsrooms, your jobs will likely be supported by tougher rules.

I suspect one early advantage for companies will be studio locations. Those stations anxious to move into premises which happen to sit the wrong side of the track will, at last, be allowed to call for the removal vans.  Ofcom have already shown some latitude in this respect – and can probably conjure up a little more with a few weasel words.

Similarly, the amount of local programming. The figure in Ofcom’s current '7 hours a day local programming' requirement is of its own making. It could equally well be 3 – at breakfast or drive. To allow stations to be wholly de-localised at this stage might be a step too far for Ofcom  without the primary legislation change.

When the law changes, will all brands necessarily choose to nationalise their output and close down local bases? Probably not. I suspect that some will – and some won’t – and that’s likely good for both. 

Whilst Radio Trumpton may stop originating programming from its fine stately home in the approved area of greater Trumptonshire/Camberwick Green, it might still have a local sales team and some local journalists in a mobile home in a convenient lay-by. Their rivals may take an opposite stance, putting up their local flag on the Town Hall and choosing to make more of local revenues and reputations. Some presenters may, sadly, feel a little more unnerved than they already do in our uncertain world. 

Will any brands change music format?  I suspect that most now sit in territory where they are happy and strategically sensible. There may be a few brand swaps, with groups choosing to organise their frequencies more sensibly - and also one or two isolated major stations which would more sensibly carry a brand which would attract greater audiences - or audiences which are better monetised.

A view

Overall, this is a sensible piece of work which helps commercial radio fight the battle for the ear this century, amidst unprecedented media change. Our industry now is largely in the hands of a small number of passionate operators, with refreshingly different approaches, who are producing programming of high quality and which still enjoys enviably-sized audiences.  

It all feels very different from how commercial radio began - and for the sake of tomorrow's listeners, it's right that it does. I am not of the view that radio stations will only choose to do the bare regulatory minimum. I don't think they ever have.  

The next year or two will be an uncomfortable time for companies - and indeed Ofcom - as they wrestle to do what most agree upon, but to which her Majesty has not yet been able to give assent.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

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