Happy Birthday BBC Shropshire

After 32 years on the air, there’s still something special about BBC Local Radio in Shropshire.

BBC Radio Shropshire logo, 1985
Something Special in Shropshire

As I post, it’s still St. George’s Day: just.  According to Wikipedia, St George rose to the position of the primary patron saint of England during the English Reformation. I didn’t see many references to St. George today, but I think most people across the country were thinking about the dragon rather than the Pope’s control of the Church in England.

If, however, you live in Shropshire – or you are a radio historian of some kind – you’ll know of today as the 32nd anniversary of the launch of BBC Radio Shropshire.

I am not sure that I would have mentioned it here accept for the fact that a few weeks ago I found an old cassette with copies of the pre-launch test transmissions from 4th and 9th of April 1985.  I am sure that there’s lots that you can learn from those test transmissions but, what I find most fascinating, is that Radio Shropshire’s first voice, Diane Kemp,1 repeats the postal address in almost every link.  The phone number is mentioned but, of course, there was no text, email, tweets or Facebooking.   A few years later, one of my first jobs was answering the telephones for the afternoon shows on the station: regularly speaking to the characters that made up the county. It was the primary way to be part of the station, we’d call it interaction today. It definitely shows that our interaction with radio stations has changed massively in 32 years.

Also this week, one of those aforementioned radio historians, David Lloyd, wrote about the change in regulation now that BBC Local Radio is overseen by Ofcom. Today, I’m not sure BBC Local Radio has quite the same character that those test transmissions imply, but it remains a distinctive service. The regulation should ensure that the unique voice continues and not become “a BBC local service which is largely networked.”2

A few years ago I wrote about changes to the Shropshire Radio landscape, when Signal 1o7 launched and Beacon was re-branded to Free Radio, and pondered if bigger names were a blueprint for the 21st century: giving smaller stations a recognisable brand.  Today, I remain convinced by the theory but, when I last listened to either of those stations in Shropshire, the key bit missing was anything about the county. Given Signal 107’s audience share is less than 2%,3 and Free Radio’s share in Shropshire is around 9%,4 have those brands lead to a reduction in local content which, in turn, means listeners tuning out?  Or, is it purely a matter of increased competition?  BBC Shropshire’s audience share is around 13%5 but I am not sure how to read that. Is local content important to audiences. Certainly, I would hope that Ofcom recognise that BBC Local Radio may be the last bastion of substantial amounts of local information on the radio. Isn’t the licence fee there to support content the commercially-funded stations can’t afford to?

I think BBC Local Radio is nicely summed-up in the words towards the end of my test transmission recordings,

There are stories in every village, every street, probably every home in Shropshire.  Wonderful characters with a tale to tell; local gossip; a row over some local controversy; people with wonderful hobbies: eccentrics and fanatics, comedians and Jeremiahs, good deeds and bad deeds. We’re interested in the lot and the more you tell us about them, the more we can use. It’s that type of station. 6

I think that’s what makes local radio interesting. I hope Ofcom manages to keep it that way. Happy Birthday BBC Shropshire.

Footnotes
1 Diane Kemp, now Professor Diane Kemp at Birmingham City University’s School of Media
2 Goodbye from BBC Local Radio?, David Lloyd, 19 April 2017
3 December 2016 data, media.info. Total survey area for Signal 107 is greater than Shropshire.
4 December 2016 data, media.info, former Beacon Shropshire area.
5 December 2016 data, media.info.
6 Test transmissions: https://soundcloud.com/curns/4th-9th-april-1985-test-transmissions-edit

Stretching From Slumber: Morning Light

Through London in the early morning: did somebody fall asleep with the light on? Who’s awake at this hour?

The day’s first light has not quite made it above the horizon but the dawn sky says it’s coming. The city’s suburbs are stretching themselves awake from their slumber.  I’m travelling at just the right moment: the morning’s engines have not quite started and the only thing slowing me down are the red traffic lights on the way, mainly stopping me for imaginary vehicles or invisible people.

Yet there’s light all around, but it’s artificial. As the morning yawns, announcing a new day, all the lamps seem unnecessary yet turning them off would make it feel nighttime eerie. There’s a strong pulsating white headlight from a bike coming down the hill; a cyclist adorned in orange high visibility. You can’t miss it although the beam might be blinding.  As we cross over the bigger highway with empty lanes waiting for the morning rush, there’s the throb of an orange warning light sitting atop of a recovery van while more people in high visibility scurry to attach a vehicle to the back.  Travelling through the suburbs there’s a momentary flash of emergency blue from a police car but I have no idea why he’s pulled-over, alone, on the side of the road.

There are lights in the block of flats to my left but, with curtains drawn, any movements are invisible. Did somebody fall asleep with the light on? Who’s awake at this hour? There’s a lamp in a hotel room creating a shadow of arms dressing – no curtains, but more anonymity.  Passing an office block, the lights of the third floor illuminate in a sweeping movement ahead of a shadowy figure with a machine sweeping the floor in preparation for the arrival of the worker’s feet. There’s a fully-lit supermarket with lines of  lifeless shelves waiting for the day’s first shoppers and the dancing movement of a man and a mop.  And there are more shops, partially lit, yet locked-up to all: their night-lights highlighting a small portion of the retail space, with a focus on the empty cash-registers, seemingly saying ‘there’s nothing here’ while lighting the wares.

Every car we pass has a brightly lit dashboard that’s announcing the route or the currently playing track.  The mid-80s music playing from the easy-listening station is more alive at this time of the morning than it’s been at any point since it was originally heard 30 years ago.  There are a couple of people at the bus stop; their faces lit by a combination of the countdown screen announcing the next arrival and the faint glow of the mobile screen. The white headphones suggest music accompanies their journey too.

As time ticks by we drive in the opposite direction to the arriving bus. It’s empty now, I can see the security screen taking a continuous picture of unoccupied seats. I know the automation will be announcing the stops to nobody except the driver. I wonder if she’s listening – checking she is running to timetable – or if the repetition of the ‘next stop’ and ‘stand clear of the doors’ has rendered her deaf to the voice.

We speed past a group of young people; laughing.  Those of us that remember that mid-80s music the first time wonder if they’re coming home or leaving for the day. Where do the pretty young things go at this hour in the middle of suburbia? The idea of an early-morning house party seems at odds with the neat driveways and solar-powered garden lights of this part of town.  I see the smiley face of the speed-check sign showing we’re travelling within the allowed limit: the language of the smiley and the emoji is more from their generation than mine yet the sign is aimed at me. A digital sign-face that provides a reminder that, even in dawn’s first light, the machines are still watching us.

And through the tunnel to the airport: a tail-back of traffic through a strangely uniform light beneath the ground, emerging, after just a few minutes, into the crisp, bright morning light.   The sleek glass buildings reflect the early morning rays as the morning finally wakes.  Yet the purple glow of the airline’s colours can still be seen high in the vaulted entrance through which I pass into a different world. For the next few hours it could be day or night. Inside the terminal it can be hard to tell what time the sun-dial might show, but, finally, time has passed and we board. For once there’s a blue and cloudless sky through which we climb, seemingly, towards the burning, never dimming, rays of the sun.

This day is newly born.

Trusting Technology: Programmatic Advertising and Digital Locks

Do you trust a digital lock? Do you trust programmatic advertising? Did anybody ever believe anybody would write that sentence?

Sermon Of the Last Sunday (#SOLS) was introduced with on-target delivery: the 2017 Reading challenge and the first Japan retrospective. Then I got the calendar wrong – thought March had an extra Sunday – and now find myself writing March’s installment in April. But that’s a technicality and I’m not letting myself get too concerned with that level of detail. But what to write about?

Although I vowed not to write too much on this site about the technology of digital advertising, it seems that industry news in March is worth mentioning. If I was still writing those ‘Last Week in Digital Advertising‘ round-ups then I’d have plenty of material. What made this month’s headlines big was because the news involved Google. And they always make a good story (and then they’ll index it and let you find it again too).

Google may be known to most people as the search engine and YouTube-owner but it’s also one of the biggest advertising businesses in the UK. Last year eMarketer reported,

Google will net £3.80 billion … in ad revenues— accounting for almost 40% of all digital ad spending in the UK 1

So, you know, huge.

Today, advertising is much more complex than it used to be.  The basic premise of advertising hasn’t changed: an advertiser with a product or service to sell or promote wants to get a message in front of a lot of, hopefully, the right people.  Somebody with an audience (generically, a publisher) pays the bills by selling some space to the advertiser (be it in print, sound or vision).  In Britain, it’s been this way since the 18th Century.2

Digital Changed Advertising

But digital has changed everything else: advertising of all types is easier to buy for many more companies; there are thousands – if not millions – of smaller publishers where people spend time and the so-called ad-tech industry has developed hundreds of new technology ideas that sit between the advertiser and the publisher (so many, that the world they inhabit is known as the Lumascape, after the company who tries to plot them all). This Lumascape uses technology to make the process of buying and selling across so many different places both easier and more efficient by automating as much of the process as possible.  Increasingly, this automation means that the advertiser (who is the buyer) relies on a machine to decide where to buy.  Publishers, both old and new, connect their advertising business to these automatic buying machines in the hope the advertiser actually spends money with them. It’s a process that’s been termed ‘programmatic advertising’.

The problem for many advertisers and publishers is that the details of ‘programmatic advertising’ are something of a mystery: for the advertiser they can’t be 100% sure where their advertising will show up and for the publisher they can’t be 100% sure who is advertising on their sites.

Technology Trust

Do you have a connected digital lock on your front door? My guess is that for the odd person that reads this, the answer will be no. Technology has not gained sufficient trust.  The problem is, in the modern advertising world, the technology struggles to gain trust from all sides of the market but most people still have to use it.  Advertising can no-longer stick with the old-fashioned key; it relies on the digital lock.

And that strange metaphor brings us to the first big story in March’s digital advertising news:

The issue is easy to explain: there’s more and more Internet stuff that people are reading and watching and there’s almost no way for a human being at one of the big advertising companies to have vetted everything out there. And, because the machines have taken the job of deciding which advert goes where, we need to trust the machine to do the right thing. And sometimes, they mess-up.  And, occasionally, they mess up in a very big and public way like this.

The issue is complex for advertisers: companies need to be seen where their potential customers are but, in an increasingly fragmented media world, that means that they sometimes end-up down the wrong alley shouting that you should buy their stuff.

The issue is complex for publishers: they have lots of content produced around the globe and submitted by both professionals and the rest of us. And they need to earn money from as many advertisers in as many places as possible and that money isn’t a big enough pot to pay somebody to check every word or second of video. As the BBC’s technology correspondent said,

There are two difficult issues for Google here: spotting videos that are illegal and should be removed from YouTube; and determining which are legal but not suitable to carry advertising.3

The issue is incredibly hard to fix: I can’t imagine the world will go back to the Mad Men era where the buyer and seller not only both know each other and eat a lovely lunch together, but also play golf, go and get drunk in a downtown bar and take each other on expensive ‘days out of the office’.  One decision the machine never has to make is if it should be a green olive or a twist of lemon peel in the Martini. Those things will all continue as long as the humans are involved but it represents much less of the advertising that is bought and sold today.

Google hasn’t been singled out here but they are the top story for a couple of reasons. First, advertisers found their ads in the wrong places where they knew Google was responsible. This is reasonably important because, in some cases, the middle men of the Lumascape are so intertwined and wrapped up in a programmatic advertising mystery that the advertiser doesn’t always know which technology provider to shout at.  And, secondly, as I already noted, Google is big so it impacts a lot of advertisers and a lot of money. Thirdly, Google also makes headlines which means we all notice and people like me get to write 1383 words on the topic. But, as much as the industry might wish Google to take the heat; the issues raised apply to almost everybody involved in making machines buy & sell advertising.

It’s Really A Story About Machines

The advertisers that have taken a stand against Google and other forms of programmatic advertising will come back. Perhaps, their agencies will pay a little more attention to the technology and the controls that are available  today. The publishers will do a better job of classifying the content so that it’s a tiny bit easier to spot the places where they should not be running advertising.

But, in the end, it will continue to be about the machines.  The automation of traditional roles is increasingly common; the removal of some of the people in a process is not unique to advertising (this is just today’s biggest story). The machines will get trained a little better and become a little smarter in managing all this in the milliseconds they have to make a decision.  But in advertising, as in many areas, the machines are here to stay.

Perhaps it’s good news for real people. The machines have a lot to learn and, until they do, we’d all be wise to reconsider if we should be using a digital lock or just going for a drink with the local locksmith.

#SOLS

I didn’t even get to the other big digital advertising story of March.  Maybe that’s already material for another Sermon.

Sermon Of the Last Sunday is my attempt to ensure that there is something published on my site every month in 2017.  You can read about my attempts to force myself to write or review the full #sols collection through the handy site tag, sols.

Footnotes

1 UK Digital Ad Spend Will Continue Double-Digit Growth in 2016, eMarketer, 28 September 2016
2 History of Advertising in Britain, Wikipedia
3 Google’s crisis of confidence, BBC