Shropshire Radio: A Blueprint For The 21st Century?

The airwaves in Shropshire changed today as Beacon 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 an 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 at that time 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.