The UK’s (first) Country Station

Why isn’t country music bigger in the UK? Chris Country is automated in a way that gives the station a personality that shines through.

I just wrote a thing on Facebook (and copied here) about the launch of Atlantic 252 on 1 September 1989. People of a certain age remember it fondly because, at the time, there was nothing quite like it. Each year, somebody posts a memory somewhere online. I first did in it in 2004.

Nobody, however, seems to commemorate the launch of Country 1035 on 1 September 1994. I tweeted a link to my copy of the launch audio earlier. You’ll notice it doesn’t really launch with a big bang.

I may have a copy of the opening words but I don’t remember a great deal about the radio station. I do recall John Scragg was the breakfast show presenter at one time and Capital Gold’s Randall Lee Rose was on air in the early days.

I never quite understood why there wasn’t a big country music station in the UK. The format has a large following, most of the early local stations carried a country music programme at some point. I recall Steve Penk was the presenter of Country Cousins on Piccadilly in the early 1980s. Until recently, nobody has been able to make a big country music franchise work.

Chris Country Chris Country, “the UK’s country station”, might be the format that changes that. I find myself increasingly listening to it which, given my general dislike of automated stations, is quite interesting. I think mainstream country music today has a clear rock/pop crossover which might be part of the appeal but the stories of heartbreak and hard drinking don’t seem to be any different from the music of years ago. Perhaps I just love a good story told through song.

Chris Stevens, who runs Chris Country, produces audio imaging as a day job. Perhaps that’s why the branding and sound of Chris Country is so good. There are no live presenters, a couple of recorded shows at weekends and everything else is automated. But it is automated in a way that gives the station a personality that shines through. I can’t really explain it but I wish they teach it to other predominately automated radio stations: Hearst 80s are you listening? If you don’t think you like country music, give Christ Country an try (on DAB in some areas and across you mobile everywhere).

Oh, and while I am on the subject of country music find out “why country music makes you cry, and rock and roll doesn’t” in this brilliant episode of Revisionist History. Even if you don’t like country music, and if you don’t want to try listening to the tunes, you should give this podcast a listen

Elsewhere: Everybody Remembers Long Wave Radio Atlantic 252

In the spirit that this blog is home to content posted elsewhere, I wrote this earlier on Facebook.

UK Radio geeks always remember 1 September
Atlantic 252 logo
Atlantic 252

I don’t remember the pirate radio ships of the 60s; my introduction to the world of the wireless came from the back of an AA Member’s Handbook where all Britain’s local radio stations were listed. In 1979 that list was probably fewer than two pages. The majority of UK radio listening was to national networks and the BBC hand a monopoly on those. The English service of Radio Luxembourg suffered on AM at night. It was only ever “the great 208” when I was on holiday in France, being the only English language radio station I could find.

Local radio was made up of a handful of BBC stations in a fairly random collection of towns and the fledgling Independent Radio Network. Where I lived, BBC Radio Blackburn (from 1981, Radio Lancashire) was our nearest BBC local and Piccadilly from Manchester and Radio City from Liverpool vied for their place as the North West’s biggest station. When I was nine years old, Piccadilly won because the Pete Baker breakfast show had the best jingles.

Today, with wall-to-wall pop hits on TV and radio channels (as well as all the world’s music available in a single app or on-demand videos from YouTube), it’s unimaginable that until 1988 needle time rules prevented broadcasters playing more than a few hours of recorded music. All radio was filled with speech and specialist programmes, or royalty free soundalike covers.

In 1984 somebody took a ship with a transmitter on it out into international waters in the North Sea and launched a 1980s version of the pirates, Laser 558. By then I was living in Shrewsbury and the signal was just about strong enough. Outside of the music rules – and really, outside of most of the broadcast law – it played non-stop pop hits for most of the day. Sadly, it didn’t last long.

In 1989 the Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ, teamed up with the Radio Luxembourg owners, RTL, to create a pop music station with a powerful AM transmitter that reportedly could reach over 40 million people.

On 1st September 1989, from somewhere in Ireland, Atlantic 252 launched an all-day pop format which was unique: there was nothing quite like it on the air. You know the station had an impact because, on this day each year, somebody, somewhere, writes a note about it to commemorate the day. I first did it in 2004 but I see no reason not to do it again.

I guess the station’s peak was the early 1990s. By the mid-90s radio across the UK was able to play more and more music and FM was everywhere. It didn’t stop people launching AM stations. On this day (1st September) in 1994, Country 1035 launched on AM in London and lasted a few years (also, in later years, with input from RTL). It doesn’t seem to have had quite such an impact because you don’t find too many people commemorating that launch each year.

A New York Dish

A picture triggered a rather clear flash back to 1994 and one of the first times my name ever appeared on the internet.

I’m on a short work-related visit to New York. It’s hot here. But, for once, not as hot as London.

You know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen? Well, today, sometime just after my lunch I went to the roof of our office building which has had a fancy new terrace installed. It was lovely. And very hot. I didn’t stay there long. You can’t, however, stand atop of a New York roof and not take a picture. So I did.

New York Skyline from the New York Office

Reviewing these pictures moment ago, this picture triggered a rather clear flash back to 1994 and one of the first times my name ever appeared on the internet. I don’t recall who wrote it, it’s gone forever from the internet archive, but it was a sarcastic comment about my online collection of pictures of satellite dishes at British radio stations. There was a reason they existed. I worked for the company who owned the dishes at radio stations and we had a collection of photographs so that you could describe to an engineer where the dish was if they needed to point it back at the satellite after a pigeon had flown in to it (which actually happened). On the night shift one day I decided to share the pictures with the world on the corporate www.

At some point it was deemed inappropriate to house the pictures on the website of the company that owned the dishes. So I bequeathed them all to James Cridland’s MediaUK directory where, for a few years, the image was linked to the radio station’s entry. I found the Red Rose picture in the internet archive. For this one, you really didn’t need a picture to describe to an engineer where the dish was. Although James credited me on the pictures, I actually took none of them. They were all taken while I was locked in the control centre overnight (which – and it amuses me daily – was located about 15 paces from the front door of the London office building I work in today).

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

Elsewhere: Will The Money Trail Drive Radio Innovation?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a tweet from an Australian chap called Anthony Gherghetta (@wheredidgogogo) who, based on my previous writings about a personalised radio service, suggetsed I consider adding some of them to a collection he was curating over on the writing platform, Medium, about The Future of Radio. I thought about this for a while but, while I was in Melbourne recently, local news about audience figures and money got me thinking about how such a personalised product would be funded. So I wrote Will The Money Trail Drive Radio Innovation? over on Medium (which, I have to say, is a lovely writing platform). As always, I also keep my own copy here but I do suggest you head to Medium to read it!

In the introduction to his 1979 book, The Piccadilly Story, Philip Radcliffe tells how Piccadilly Radio’s broadcast frequency – back then expressed as 261 metres, medium wave – was so ingrained in the Manchester community that shopkeepers would, at a bill of £2.61, simply ask their customers for ‘Piccadilly, luv’.1

For some reason, this – I have always assumed apocryphal – story popped into my mind when sat in a Melbourne coffee shop this week reading about Kyle & Jackie O’s latest audience figures.

By way of a quick summary, last Wednesday’s news was all about the top-rated Sydney breakfast duo who switched stations at the start of the year and, when the first audience figures were released, seemed to have carried most of their listeners to their new morning home. An astonishing switch that generated discussion on my Twitter feed of UK radio pundits. In itself, this has much to say about the power of broadcast radio and why the personalised radio future I envisage, maybe a way off yet.

While there was plenty of commentary about the audience numbers there was, in many ways, a more interesting number buried towards the end of The Australian’s piece on the news. The move had wiped $350 million off the share price of the duo’s former employers Southern Cross Austereo.

Both of these stories – some 35 years apart in their origins – tell of audience scale and it’s relationship to money. Historically, for entertainment media, the two are undeniably intertwined. And this relationship got me thinking, how would the finances of a personalised radio service stand up? In some ways scale and personalisation are not natural bedfellows but does that mean a personalised radio product would struggle to find revenue? In a previous musing on this topic I suggested that sponsored content blocks, mixed with a listener’s own music selection, might be a way forward. But when the audience is combining a unique mix of content selections, can this work? After all, what would the advertiser be buying and can it be sold at a profit?

To help answer that question, and in parallel to any thinking about a future radio product, we have to consider the funding. Is audio content suited to a subscription model so that a radio equivalent of the paywall could be erected? SiriusXM might suggest that it is. But are there many other countries where substantial audiences pay for radio content? None spring to mind. Perhaps there’s a smartphone subscription app-model that may work. But I don’t think that there’s precedent for profitable apps in-car (quite yet) or on kitchen radios. Which leaves us with advertising as the primary revenue model.

There’s a shift in media buying that’s being driven by the connected world whereby advertising space is increasingly traded in real time. On the web, a publisher may offer up an advertising spot to the market in the milliseconds before the advertisement is shown in the browser. One of the leading players in this space, The Rubicon Project, suggested in September 2013 that an average of 40% of online display advertising was traded in this way. In April last year Forrester suggested that almost 25% of online video advertising will be traded programatically by this year.2 The latter figure is important, because this automated trading will become an increasingly important way to generate revenue from television content when consumed online. And if TV goes there, why should we assume radio won’t?

There are many attractions of buying advertising space this way but the ability to easily group audiences that are increasingly consuming fragmented media is one. It’s becoming just as efficient to reach these disparate audiences as it used to be to reach mass audiences by buying, say, Piccadilly Radio.

Interestingly, when researching this piece I couldn’t find numbers for the amount of audio media traded this way. There are companies who specialise in the automated trading of radio advertisements but, when compared to those in the digital display or video space, they appear forgotten. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising. There are a few stations doing new and innovate things with radio commercials – in the UK, Absolute Radio’s In-Stream is a good example – but they are the exception and not the rule. Therefore where’s the market for the automated trading of radio ads?

It seems to me, radio is missing out. If the advertising world is shifting to more automated way of buying then that means, by necessity, they are buying a connected product. Yet much of radio’s connected offering is simply delivering the same old product in a slightly newer way. For revenue growth, and maybe even for revenue parity, the radio industry has to adapt to the connected world in more ways than just offering up a stream of the broadcast signal.

Undoubtedly, there are many hurdles before there are mass market personalised radio products. Kyle & Jackie O have shown the enormous power of today’s mass-reach broadcast breakfast radio product. Yet, also this week, the BBC announced plans to close the youth-oriented BBC Three television channel. While reduced finances are the reason behind the proposed closure, the channel was selected in part – according to the press release – because it’s young audience “are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world”. A trend that suggests future audiences have different expectations of their media consumption.

There’s a convergence here that the radio industry needs to see: an undeniable shift to consumption on connected devices. This represents opportunities for both sets of radio’s customers. With the right product, audiences will increasingly personalise their radio experience but, I believe it may not be listeners who are the drivers of such innovations. The advertising industry, increasingly looking for ways to better justify their media spend, is pouring an ever growing share of their budgets into automated buying. Radio needs a product to capitalise on this move.

So it maybe that the money trail is the driver of innovation in the radio space and it the advertising industry that pushes radio to reinvent itself for the connected world.

1 Radcliffe, P. The Piccadilly Story, Blond & Briggs, 1979. p9
2 Strictly 24.7% of video spending by 2014.

It’s My Station: 18 Months Later

Can it really be almost 18 months since a discussion, on Media UK, about an Apple patent spawned a piece of writing here? Feel free to customise this post by inserting your own reference to one of TARDIS, flying time, or a reference to clocks. I did mention the Olympics – by which I meant London 2012 – which now just makes it seem old.

I genuinely believe the substance of that post & discussion: that if somebody gets the user interface right (and that will be the hardest task) then It’s My Station (that was the post) is the future of a lot of radio listening.

Radio has, of course, changed in so many ways thanks to the Internet. Just last week there was a piece by James Cridland over on Jacobs Media Blog discussing the very use of the word radio: No, Pandora Is Not ‘Radio’ (which is totally worth reading for the way James can crowbar a beer reference into a conversation). There’s a lot to be said for the idea of making the ‘radio’ brand stand for something but, I fear, much like music, the press and television, it’s too late to make broadcast radio stand for something different – or just reclaim the brand – now. Time to face what’s next.

I think when radio in the traditional, broadcast, sense has lost people like me – who were once big fans of the medium – that last statement is important. My own listening is now mainly driven from iTunes and a dip into things around the world via TuneIn: this week it was Blake Hayes’ first week on Mornings at Coast 93.1 in Portland. Sorry to the good people of Portland but I had to look it up on a map. How did I end up listening to to that? Twiter. But that’s probably another post.

Which is why I was delighted to read that the Australian radio group, Southern Cross Austereo, have invested in a service which sounds similar to that I was arguing for in It’s My Station. I’m glad somebody has done it and only a little disappointed that it’s exclusively available to Australian users right now. After all, I’ll happily listen to Hamish & Andy mixed in with my music collection – they make great radio while you can argue about my musical taste.

It’s fantastic news that a radio group is in a position to be able to invest like this. Now, if only I’d actually done something myself with that idea.

Note To Self: Configuring TuneIn for JemmOne

>> OK, Jon, skip the ramble and give me the instructions

Neil and Debbie at Breakfast

Breakfast radio is an odd thing. Presenters, competitions, cheesy gags and music become part of your daily routine and when something changes your day doesn’t seem to start quite right. I would wager psychologists have plenty to say about humans and their routines but I don’t know one to ask.

There was sadness back in January when Neil and Debbie, aka N-Debz, left the airwaves with just a day’s notice as QSoft, the folks behind the Gaydar dating site, closed their digital radio station – Gaydar Radio – to go, well, dating. There’s been an online following – mainly on Twitter and Facebook – waiting to see where this duo, as well as the other presenters, would return so that mornings would be restored. Today, after a couple of weeks notice they reappeared on an internet-only station, Jemmone.

Putting together a radio station in such a short period of time can’t be easy and, sure, there were a few teething troubles this morning – the stream was a little unreliable and possibly overloaded – but I’m certain they will be gone in a few days. Of course the most important thing was that morning’s just got better.

I imagine internet-only radio is just as complex a beast as broadcast radio to build and run but listening to it, especially in the mornings when you’re used to your alram-radio waking you, is actually pretty complex too (and much more complex than a broadcast equivalent). That’ll be the subject of another post, I’m sure.

Part of the shaky start for JemmOne this morning was due to the fact the audience appeared to only have one way to listen: via player in a browser. But that player – although reputedly HTML5-based – wouldn’t play on iOS devices, amongst others. A web-based player is difficult to set-up as a alarm clock so people figured out the stream details that could be used in iOS apps like TuneIn Radio (which features an alarm) or on internet radios. I’m using it successfully on my Pure Evoke Flow so my radio’s still coming out of that little box by my bed.

For some reason Jemmone didn’t actively publish the details of that feed – I could speculate why but let’s not. During the day the Android app was released and we’re told the iOS app is on the way. I don’t really understand why they haven’t provided instructions on how to listen via other apps until theirs is produced. So, for all those on Twitter asking here’s how to set it up on two common devices.


TuneIn Radio

In Favourites, select "Custom Stream"
In Favourites, select “Custom Stream”
  1. Install the TuneIn Radio app if you do not have it
  2. Don’t bother browsing for Jemmone: at the time of writing it’s not there
  3. Navigate to the ‘Favourites’ section (hint, it’s the heart at the bottom of the screen)
  4. Click ‘Add new custom URL’
  5. Add the stream address http://radio.jemmone.com/ (the http bit seems to be important here)
  6. You may find, after typing the address, it appears to find the stream and can be selected
  7. Select ‘Custom Stream’ and, after a few seconds, you’ll be connected
  8. Once it’s playing, you’ll probably want to save it as a favourite so you can get back to it

 

iTunes

You need File > Open Stream
You need File > Open Stream
  1. Open iTunes
  2. Go to ‘File’ in the menu bar and select ‘Open Stream’
  3. Add the stream address http://radio.jemmone.com/
  4. To find it again, you’ll need to look under ‘music’; I’ve never been quite sure why streams don’t appear to be saved under ‘radio’

A More Personalised Radio Experience Is Getting Closer

One of the most infuriating things about modern smartphones (and, more specifically, the apps that you download to them) is their constant need for love and attention by way of an endless stream of updates. It’s not really a problem the G20 leaders are keeping themselves awake at night thinking about but those little icons drive me insane (and I am fully aware some phones allow apps to automatically update but I refuse to engage in that whole ‘best smartphone platform’ nonsense).

So, yesterday I went through another round of updates. Rarely do I pay attention to the ‘release notes’ given that the usual excuse for consuming the bandwidth is ‘bug fixes’ but, for some reason, I did when it came to Apple’s Podcast app.

Apple more-or-less created mass market demand for podcasts in 2005 by including them in iTunes but, in recent years, the format has appeared to have lacked much attention from them; on i-devices they were spun out of iTunes into their own app a little while ago.

I suspect it’s that lack of love that spurred me into reading the release notes. And, in those notes, the first item read,

“Create custom stations of your favourite podcasts that update automatically with new episodes” [source]

Podcast App on the iPhone
Screenshot from my phone

which is accompanied by a lovely image of the ‘My Stations’ screen in the app showing ‘stations’ named ‘Morning Commute’, ‘Kids Shows’ and ‘News’ amongst others (the image here is of my phone, with three customised stations).

Six-or-so months ago I wrote a piece called “It’s My Radio Station” which suggested that, at some future point, I would become my own programme controller by setting some basic rules in an app that mixed music and speech to create a customised radio station (which is wholly different from a customised music stream). I genuinely didn’t think it fanciful then and I think it’s even less so now. Imagine the next iteration of Apple’s app where I can mix an iTunes playlist (from my machine or their rumoured streaming service) with this functionality.

In my earlier piece I suggested the people best placed to develop this are today’s radio stations because they have experience generating the bits between the music (rather than the Spotify-type music-focussed services of this world). So, it’s sort-of encouraging to read that American broadcast giant Clear Channel is trying something along those very lines (of course, I can only report this second-hand not being able to use the iHeartRadio app in the UK). Fool.com reports,

The beauty of Add-Ins is that it’s not just about the local perspective. Add-Ins can be customized. Someone that isn’t hitting the open road may not care about traffic. Someone staying in may not care about the weather. Not everyone cares about local news headlines. [source]

I believe that any radio station with ‘talent’ that is not getting that content out in alternative ways, including some form of regularly updated podcasts (long and short versions), is missing out on a market. More importantly, they’re missing out on an opportunity to learn about how radio will be consumed in the future.

Personalised radio is coming (just as personalised news is already here). I don’t think Apple’s use of the word ‘stations’ can be dismissed but it remains to be seen if it indicates a direction they’re prepared to take. Nonetheless, it could be either new players in the radio space – or an existing broadcaster – who will get there first.

Three things fascinate me about how this plays out. Firstly, will a broadcaster be prepared to take a risk on this kind of development or will it need to come from outside broadcast groups to truly allow people to mix-and-match the content they want? Secondly, given it’s proven people like to time-shift television, is radio content sufficiently compelling and/or useful to put the time-shift effort in? And, thirdly, can audio producers generate a revenue from such personalisation?

Time will tell. But we’re going to rapidly see innovation on this space. I wonder who’ll get left behind?

It’s My Radio Station

I’ve been meaning to write something for quite a while about radio services in an age of connected devices and multiple music services. But news of Apple being awarded a patent to enable “seamlessly switching media playback between a media broadcast, such as a radio broadcast, and media from a local media library” and the subsequent Media UK discussion finally got me to start writing.

I’ve been a radio fan for most of my life but lately my love affair with the medium has turned into a marriage where we don’t speak much anymore. So much radio seems to be back-to-back music (which my phone does better, thank you) or back-to-back Big Brother chat (or back-to-back songs with Big Brother chat breaking them up) that I normally work with iTunes running. I listen at breakfast for an hour or so and that’s about it. Perhaps that’s fine with the industry, I would hope not.

I read, occasionally, an argument from radio people that the only way to compete with music services – such as Spotify or Pandora, or personal libraries like iTunes – is with the bits between the songs (the entertainment that I don’t store on my iPod). That seems a reasonable position. So, I’ve been wondering what would happen if there was a ‘mashup’ between radio (for the entertainment bits) and my music player (for the songs I really like)? The technology can support it, Apple’s patent just reminded me about it.

Simply put, my radio station would allow me to set preferences allowing me to opt-in to news (say, every hour); to add local travel news every 20 minutes (between 0700 & 0900 if there was something to report); to add sport (every 2 hours except during the Olympics when I’d change it to more often) and to add celebrity news (once per month). The rest of the time music is coming from my local music library of tunes I want (sometimes I select individual tracks or albums; sometimes I pop it onto random). The content is downloaded in the background and inserted between the songs I’m hearing. Of course I could opt-in to a bunch of other things if I wanted to (one new music track every 90 minutes; breaking F1-news as it happens; interviews with artists in my library or a ten-minute blast of a phone-in). All of these things could be surrounded by an ad break or sponsors (as they are today) but the station pays no music royalties, bandwidth costs are limited to only updating content and if the connection is down the music keeps coming.

Take it a stage further and my news comes from LBC; travel news direct from Transport for London, sport from Sky and, perhaps, a film review from 5Live. If the content is what I want, I’d choose it and hear supporting commercials (or promos, if it’s the BBC). I don’t need a presenter telling me what I just heard, my phone shows that to me quite happily so the entertainment is more than being successfully able to ‘hit the vocals’ with station name-check.

I don’t see that it would be hard for Spotify or Pandora to add these services in now (perhaps they already are and I’ve missed them) but experience with this kind of content is certainly at radio stations today (and, if we’re honest, RDS has been allowing it for years if you’re in a car and listening to your own music).

Of course, radio’s real advantage is that there’s no effort involved to turn it on and start listening; this would be an effort to set-up and configure. If I wanted live presentation then I’d still switch to radio services but, this way, I get news & entertainment on a schedule I want and it really would be a station playing today’s best music mix (just for me).

 

 

 

Shropshire Radio: A Blueprint For The 21st Century?

The airwaves in Shropshire changed today as Becaon and The Severn were replaced on the dial by Free Radio and Signal 107. This is great for radio in Shropshire and I am excited to see what’s to come as stations build themselves in a modern media properties.

When I lived in Shrewsbury in the mid/late eighties there wasn’t much choice on the radio dial. Every station was aimed at a neighbouring region (Marcher, Beacon, Wyvern and Signal surrounded us). But nothing for the good people of Shropshire.

1985 saw the arrival of the BBC local station which was followed in 1987 by a extension to the commercial franchise for Wolverhampton to include Shrewsbury & Telford. Initially launched as a local breakfast show only, with split news and commercials for the rest of the day, Beacon Shropshire added (and removed) programmes aimed at the county as finances allowed. Later owners provided local programming for up to 12 hours a day. I suspect that was the closest Shropshire got to its own successful local commercial radio station.

Regional stations covering the West Midlands more-or-less reached Shropshire (Heart being the first in 1994) and I’ll never forget listening to Jazz FM North West in Shrewsbury when it launched. The first truly local commercial radio station – The Severn – began broadcasting to & from Shrewsbury in 2006. While I no longer lived in the town by then I did occasionally hear the output and followed its fortunes as it merged more and more programming with nearby stations in the group of which it was part. It was closed towards the end of last year but purchased by UTV Radio ahead of a relaunch as Signal 107 today.

This isn’t meant to be a potted history of local radio in the county but a reflection on how (radio) times have changed in more than twenty years. Back in the mid-Eighties I recall the sentiment of many that Shropshire deserved it’s own, full-time, commercial station. Shrewsbury had (has?) little in common with Wolverhampton and – in spite of all the jingles that told us Beacon could be contacted via “The Music Hall, Shrewsbury” we all knew better (sadly that address jingle is not in the this montage).

But media markets change and radio stations in smaller markets are not just competing against other radio stations locally. They’re up against strong, powerful, local, national & regional radio brands that leverage television and digital properties (you know, Twitter, Facebook and the rest) to both communicate and stand out in a crowded market. They’re up against those digital properties in their own right, against other pure music services online and against hundreds of television/video services (both live and on-demand) and the might of the Amazons, Googles and Apples who now want to entertain us too.

To succeeded, even a local station, needs to be recognisable and use all the promotional tools in the box. An extendable, recognisable “brand” is not optional for a radio business in 2012: it’s a requirement. There’s whole post on how any presenter will struggle to promote multiple brands through their Twitter & Facebook presences; never mind how they do it on-air (and singing place names because your jocks can’t say them – as heard in this montage – has no place in 21st century presentation). But brands need consistency, so a station needs to be recognisable 24 hours a day.

For these reasons and more I think what’s happened today in Shropshire radio is a good thing. First, at lunchtime UTV branded their recent acquisitions Signal 107. It’s a brand that includes a much wider geographic area than Shropshire, incorporating a heritage station from nearby Stoke-on-Trent, but means there will be some semi-local content and the power of bigger name behind it. The larger brand is great for promotion & advertising and the bigger owner means round-the-clock presenters. One of the problems The Severn had was that it degenerated to a jukebox service at times. I understand the economics of this – and it is no criticism of the previous owners – but a modern media brand needs consistency. I believe radio can only compete by being more than just music so it needs 24-hour presenters. That can only come from bigger groups with the budget and is, surely, easier when the jock needs to promote and push just one station identity (yes, I know UTV still has multiple brands but I’m talking about Shropshire here).

The same argument for consistency and promotion also applies to today’s second Shropshire rebrand when, at 7pm, Beacon (along with Wyvern, Mercia and the mighty BRMB) was christened Free Radio. I’m a Twitter follower of some of the station’s presenters. It’s been amusing watching them try to use social media to promote their multiple brands; they did it very well, I have to say. But it must have been hard to exploit those channels fully. Tonight, that just became easier. And if it’s easier on Twitter it’ll be so much easier in other places.

It’s also important for larger radio stations to compete against the big boys. A single brand allows exploitation through television and other advertising outlets on a wider scale. None of us restrict ourselves to a small geographical area. We move around, in real life and digitally, we’ll see advertising elsewhere. With one move, the Free Radio brand can be seen in more places to more people. This has to be a good thing for them.

And now, both of these brands, can move forward with new opportunities. Digital radio provides nice, if obvious, brand extension opportunities. But there are other ways to build a brand and I’m excited to see how they do it. Shropshire radio just moved into the 21st Century.

You know I think radio, even with all the alternatives available, is a very important medium. I want it to be a vibrant & successful medium in the modern media mix. It has to move forward and I’m fascinated to watch the changes.

And, maybe, this time Shropshire is at the heart (no pun intended) of the changes to the way radio stations build their brands. As I said elsewhere today, this is surely the blueprint for stations around the country.

 

Elsewhere: Will 2011 be the year that internet radio will pass traditional radio?

Then there are habits to break. Others here have touched on the car radio but broadcast receivers are also clock radios, shower radios, kitchen radios etc. I imagine substantial number of these form part of a routine and there’re not easy, nor cheap, to replace quickly. And why would you if it’s still working well for you?

In the spirit of keeping things in one place. I just answered my first question on Quora, a question and answer website that’s hooked into your social network – via Facebook and Twitter. I imagine it’ll become overwhelming pretty quickly as it needs much more engagement than Twitter so, should all the people I follow on Twitter start posting questions, I’m going to end up swamped with questions. Still, so far, so interesting.

The question: Will 2011 be the year that internet radio will pass traditional radio? [link]. And my response:

I can’t see internet radio will pass traditional radio for quite some time.

There are too many broadcast radio (AM, FM, HD, DAB) receivers out there for this to happen quickly, and – even today – the number of FM receivers continues to grow as they are added to mobile phones, MP3 players etc.

Right now, broadcast radio remains more portable (mobile data is inconsistent) and FM receivers can generally handle a poor signal quality in ways that data connections don’t seem to be able to do (at least, without resorting to continual re-buffering).

Then there are habits to break. Others here have touched on the car radio but broadcast receivers are also clock radios, shower radios, kitchen radios etc. I imagine substantial number of these form part of a routine and there’re not easy, nor cheap, to replace quickly. And why would you if it’s still working well for you?

(There are some interesting figures for streaming & mobile listening produced in the UK by the Absolute Network and analysed at James Cridland’s blog.)

You can add something to the answer by joining quora and going here.

Here Comes Capital

I do find it heart-warming that, while the comments are in the main equally predictable, they show that people are still passionate about the radio station they listen to.

I tweeted earlier about an article in the Guardian that spoke about Capital FM’s UK roll-out. More specifically, it was written from South Wales where Red Dragon Radio has been re-branded Capital. While I think most of the article trots out predictable arguments (networking is bad, local is good and that name will never work) that, personally I find nonsensical (there was networking under the old name, most speech wasn’t local under the old name and the old name wasn’t that station’s original name anyway, CBC anybody? Gwent Broadcasting anybody?) I do find it heart-warming that, while the comments are in the main equally predictable, they show that people are still passionate about the radio station they listen to.

Change is always a challenge for everybody but, in the end, if the music’s the kind I want to listen to and the ‘talkie-bits’ funny and/or interesting enough then it will succeed. And given that music is the key ingredient for a music station it could be played from Mars as long as it’s well put together. Given that, I wonder how long they will continue to play different tracks for the London feed. Why bother?

For Global Radio it is a relatively brave move (but probably less so since the Heart re-brand seems to have worked out quite well). Since the early-70s launch of legal commercial radio, the UK has lacked strong, national commercial radio brands and Global now have several under their belt. The difference now is that they can launch a national brand with a set of technologies that actually work and allow those stations to attempt to benefit from a little of both worlds: local presence and national recognition.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have strong local brands too. What Orion Media are doing where I grew-up in Shropshire (and the rest of the Midlands) is interesting: pushing the localness of their offering. Even there, however, there’s a good amount of networking.

To compete today, radio has to use all the technology it has available (and that inevitably leads to smart networking) and build a recognisable brand. It’s really interesting to watch.

Who Might Market Digital Radio?

Where is the business with the marketing savvy, financial muscle and experience in creating compelling, must-see programming (or content)? Well, News International was one such business and it appears to be saying it’s not interested any more.

I don’t write about radio very much, which is probably a good thing. I tend to leave it to people who are actively involved in the business and are up on the workings of today’s radio industry. Admittedly, when it came to posting this I re-published some of my older radio memories that I pulled in from a blog that died years go.

Anyway, radio remains to me the best of all the media: intimate, personal and accessible yet ultimately shared, social and everywhere. I once wrote – and now re-posted – about my passion for radio but, looking at it now, I don’t think it does the medium justice.

Occasionally, however, I do get to bash my keyboard and crank out the occasional comment – the last one being on Matt Degan’s excellent radio-related blog (and reproduced here) where I tried to say that, for an entertainment industry, commercial radio is woefully bad at presenting itself well. Reading last week’s Daily Express article on the great FM switch-off just goes to show how bad the industry is at marketing itself. Somebody, other than the radio industry, is setting the radio agenda. And I do believe that matters. Some internal industry bickering about the digital switch-over quickly turns, via little lobbying, into another government white paper and the news industry gets to bash Ministers in bold headlines and swirling TV graphics.

So, in scanning the papers earlier I noticed a Guardian piece on News International’s closure of SunTalk. Now, I’ve never listened to it so I can’t comment on the programming but John Gaunt is an excellent broadcaster (you certainly don’t have to agree with his opinions to think that) and I am sure it was cleverly positioned. Relaying on FM to some ex-pats in Spain is a stroke of marketing genius that still makes me smile.

And therein lies the root of my disappointment. News International would have breathed some fresh marketing air into a medium that I regard above others and would have been bold, brash and – I’m sure – would have unsettled many. Regardless of what you may think about their cross-media ownership, NI’s reach in the press and on television would have given digital radio the profile boost it needs (to say nothing of how it might have impacted programming). They poured money to create the satellite television market and they could have, similarly, helped the digital radio cause. For those concerned about the increasing power of News International well, in radio, they would not have controlled the platform or access to it, but they might have had money to spend to add programming diversity and build audience awareness.

If digital radio is to grow and be accepted in the UK then something big – and I think it’s got to be enormous – needs to happen. Yes, the BBC will play its part but, while I am happy for the BBC to tell me about their services, I don’t want my licence fee spent on advertising for commercial businesses. The market may a little unfair but it’s the one we have; it’s been here for decades because it’s better than most alternatives and – generally – drives great programming, but I do not pay my licence fee to subsidise privately-held companies or increase the share value of a plc. And I say this as somebody who, podcasts aside, almost exclusively listens to UK commercial radio (with a bit of international Jack FM thrown in).

So where is the business with the marketing savvy, financial muscle and experience in creating compelling, must-see/hear programming (or content)? Well, News International was one such business and it appears to be saying it’s not interested any more.

I think it’s an opportunity missed.

Another Radio Era Ends

Perhaps it was something about Radio 2 in the 1970s that remains underappreciated because the flares distracted us. A generation of broadcasters deeply integrated audience participation into their shows long before anybody knew what they were doing.

I haven’t written about radio for quite a while, unless you count my comments – on Matt Degan’s excellent site – about Commercial Radio blaming its woes on the BBC, and I don’t think that counts.

As I look back I see I wrote about The End of A Radio Era in December 2002 when Jimmy Young left Radio 2. And I find myself wanting to use that self same title today as Sir Terry Wogan leaves his top-rated breakfast show. Throughout my childhood I was aware of Jimmy Young but, as a family, we actually listened to Terry Wogan.

The news people say it’s 27 years, of course, we know that the number represents years actually talking on the breakfast show. There were years off for good behaviour (when he did that television thing) meaning that it’s really four decades that Terry’s been an intricate part of our lives.

Many people have written elsewhere about what a remarkable broadcaster Terry Wogan is and I wouldn’t say anything different. It’s a special talent to be able to talk, cross-generational, to such a large audience and yet make it seem like you’re sharing in a small, intimate – and thoroughly entertaining – dinner (breakfast) party. And that, to me, is what marks out great radio broadcasters from average and poor ones: people who can really ‘do’ radio make it seem like your part of the conversation. The rest shout at you.

I do believe today marks a bigger transition than the end of a much loved breakfast show. Radio 2 has been able to call out Wake Up To Wogan as a shining example of its difference: there’s isn’t a commercial broadcaster in the land who would have done that show and I find it unlikely would any would have let it go on so long (although for that audience?). But from today Radio 2 can not point to Sir Terry as a difference that helps validate its existence.

I hope Chris Evans is given a chance (the BBC will but I wonder about the rest of the media). He too is different and I find it frustrating to read the many views that assume he is still a 30-year old Radio 1 breakfast host and not the consummate, radio-loving, professional broadcaster that he clearly is. But Wogan came from a different era. It wasn’t his physical age that helped secure Radio 2’s difference, it was the fact he started a career different broadcasting era, an era when broadcasters felt like your friends. And he was able to become part of our breakfast routine before we, as a nation, took to the sport of shooting down our celebrities quite as quickly as we do today and before the radio industry replaced presenters after a bad ratings quarter or two. I hope the new host will be different enough allow the BBC to continue to point to Radio 2 as something that can’t be heard elsewhere. I think it’s going to be a challenge: not because Chris is not unique but because the broadcasting landscape has changed and Chris has played his part in today’s tabloid celebrity fascination. Will we be able separate his history from his present?

But I don’t want to end pondering about Radio 2’s future. I find myself looking back on the words I wrote about Jimmy Young and realise that many of them can be applied to Terry Wogan. It was an interactive show from early on. Letters about the Poison Dwarf and the M1 cones may have been replaced by emails but the audience has always been integral to a large amount of the content. As a style it is decades old but it still appears to work. Making you feel part of show is important. Making you feel like a friend is, surely, a gift.

Perhaps it was something about Radio 2 in the 1970s that remains underappreciated because the flares distracted us. A generation of broadcasters deeply integrated audience participation into their shows long before anybody knew what they were doing. While all radio uses input from listeners very few shows are actually built around that input. I wonder if radio should look backwards to understand its value because, in the rush to work out what a digital future means for it, I sometimes think it’s losing sight of how powerful a medium it really is. Surely, if Sir Terry and his 8 millions TOGs are to leave a legacy it should be to remind us of the power of the audience contribution when making unmissable radio.

Thank you for being a friend. Indeed.

Update: 22 December
Celebrity broadcasters pay tribute to Sir Terry Wogan | Terry Wogan signs off from Radio 2 breakfast with a crack in the voice

Commercial Radio Should Shut Up

By its very nature Commercial Radio is a business and no business has a right to exist. It has to prove itself worthy of its customers. It has to show it provides something somebody wants.

In response to http://www.mattdeegan.com/2009/09/08/commercial-radio-bleating/

A great considered piece. The points you make could be debated endlessly, and probably will as long as we have BBC radio which we all pay something towards.

Even as a commercial radio fanboy (because I think that’s what I am) I have ‘tweated’ many times along the same lines as Nicky Campbell this week (and the clock’s only just moved to Wednesday). But my reason to get the ‘bleaters’ to shut up is that the commercial radio industry is coming across so poorly it would be better saying nothing. Seriously, tell your colleagues to shut up.

It’s a shame I’m saying that because this much radio chatter hasn’t been in the news for years. But Commercial Radio is a commercial business and it’s killing itself every time it’s quoted somewhere. It doesn’t need the BBC, Wogan, Moyles or Evans to do it; it’s doing it to itself.

The week started with Richard Park effectively suggesting that he’d love to take Jamie & Harriet national at breakfast but can’t and that blasted BBC etc. etc. If you’re a listener to Heart in, say, Norwich, what did that suggest to you that the boss of your local radio station thinks about the shows he’s putting on for you? If you’re a local advertiser in Norwich what impression does it give of the radio station you’re thinking about spending some of your limited marketing budget on? If you’re an agency-type in London you now think you should stick your cash on Heart London and forget the network (because it’s not as good as the London programme, is it?). And if you’re The City aren’t you glad Global Radio isn’t traded because your investment might have just tanked.

Then we have the Moyles longest-innings, Wogan going, they-won’t-like Evans stories. Commercial Radio continues to complain about BBC salaries, changing targets of Radios 1 & 2 and how Moyles v Evans is bad for ‘the listener’. Nick Farrari sat on Newsnight last night moaning about the BBC; going as far as to suggest the BBC would show a promo for one of their stations after the programme which wasn’t very fair, competition wise. If I was any of those listeners, advertisers or agency people I would have come away thinking commercial radio can’t be very good can it? Ferrari’s a talk radio broadcaster used to twisting the point to say what he has to say and he had a prime(ish)-time national slot. He should have been championing the fantastic programming on commercial radio and how it was brilliant that all this great programming cost the listener nothing.

Now you may argue that this is really a lobbying exercise. Listeners & advertisers won’t take these words to heart (excuse the pun) but the government may hear. But Commercial Radio is leaving the impression (intended or otherwise) to 5 million Evans listeners and 7 million Moyles listeners that they shouldn’t have those shows. That could be 12 million people who don’t listen to Commercial Radio hearing somebody suggesting the programmes they love shouldn’t be there. Commercial Radio won’t be helped by alienating 12 million people, many of whom may come out saying to their MP – possibly in an election year – that Radios 1 & 2 should be kept as they are.

By its very nature Commercial Radio is a business and no business has a right to exist. It has to prove itself worthy of its customers. It has to show it provides something somebody wants. And, moreover, Commercial Radio is a media business. Any forward-thinking business, when faced with a glut of news about its industry would be spinning the positives; proving why we should be sampling their product and selling themselves. But, as Nicky Campbell said, Commercial Radio is bleating about how unfair the world is.

Lobby in private. In public shout about great Commercial Radio is.