Friday, 31 December 2010

An INTERESTING year… because we live in interesting times. Don’t we?

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m taking stock. In many ways, this has been an extraordinarily diverse and creatively fresh year. I’ve found myself both trying new things with new techniques, and also handling old-school projects in new ways. I’ve met some truly great people, and worked with new and old friends and colleagues on some inspiring projects. I’ve pushed myself both creatively and technically, and winkled out some new skills. All that’s good, and in some ways a very pleasant surprise. But, as it says at the top… we live in interesting times. There are a lot of clouds on the horizon, both for music and radio. But let’s do the good stuff first, shall we?

Yesterday (Thursday 30th December), I spent a very refreshing and pleasant hour guesting with Brett Birks at BBC WM. It’s on the BBC iPlayer for the next six days or so here – scoot through to the start of hour 3 to hear it. We were talking music, local issues, and trailing the BBC WM transmission of my Handsworth Evolution documentary. This was a commission from Birmingham Music Heritage, and I don’t think that they or I had any idea of how the piece would be received. The doco is permanently up on SoundCloud; you can get there from this blog page. The doco was also aired on WCRFM in Wolverhampton on Boxing day, and it is due to get a further airing on Rhubarb Radio in the new year. That’s lots of stations, and the more the merrier, say I: as I stated when I put the thing upon this blog, the doco is available, free of charge and gratis, to any station that would like to run it – just drop me a line and I’ll get a copy to you.

This was a sweet, sweet project to work on. I have had some truly lovely feedback. There really was something special about the Birmingham Music scene in the late 70s and early 80s, both in Handsworth and Balsall Heath, and indeed across the whole city. New and enthusiastic players emerged from all sides, bursting with skill, creativity and optimism. Rock Against Racism played a crucial role in introducing audiences and musicians to each other.

I’d like to think that time laid some foundations for the sparkling cross-cultural collaborations we enjoy now. It’s too easy to view each new generation as sweeping away the conventions of their crusty and conservative forefathers. In fact, now that we are seeing some of the children of those great 70s and 80s musicians make their way in our local music scene, I know this is not the case. Sometimes, anyway.

Five or so weeks back from yesterday, we launched the Pilot Project website. I’ve written at length about this, and it’s fair to say that the site has had a gratifying impact. Lots of traffic, lots of time spent on the site exploring. I am especially grateful to my fantastic team of advisors and collaborators, some of whom went far, far beyond that extra mile to help the project find its feet. You know who you are; I can not thank you (or, indeed, pay you) enough.

The next steps are already underway. However, I won’t go into detail just yet about these. But if you haven’t been to the site yet, why not go there now? Click around. Read about how it came together. And, above all, explore some of the sensational music from our region.

There’s more: I've seen new and exotic client radio stations for the consultancy side of my business. I’m also now a proud member of the RNIB Talking Books reader panel, and I can’t wait for my next assignment. It’s serious fun, and I work with people, many from radio, who know the power of the spoken word in a way few others do. And I am pleased to be able to report that – tentatively – Rhubarb Radio seems to be building solid foundations for its future. Props to those good people who are making this happen.

Now… the downside. Mmmm. Where do you start?

I mourn for many of my talented radio colleagues, people I trained and worked with back in the day, who now, saddled with mortgages and bringing up families, have to carve out a new future outside of an industry that has decided it has no need for their talents as it rolls its radio ‘brands’ out across the country.

I hate the notion of a radio ‘brand’. It's got everything to do with not communicating... in an industry whose lifeblood is communicating. Maybe the Radio industry thinks its brands are akin to a chocolate bar…something you pick up easily because you know what it is, no matter where you are. And maybe that’s so. But maybe it’s also the case that a brand is such a familiar and known quantity that you can throw it away all too easily.

Here’s a scenario: I’m ditching my long-term fave station. I stuck with it when it suddenly morphed into Flake FM a couple of years ago. But I’m tired of that now, so think I’ll go over to Wispa FM. There’s really not a lot of difference, and somehow I don’t much care for either these days, but it’ll do for now. I suppose. Until something better comes along. Or maybe I’ll just go off cheap predictable sugary bland confectionery altogether, because they do this stuff better on the web or on the telly.  

Closer to home, I hate the way our local music industry is being starved of venues because property developers want to make a quick buck running up shoddy flats, and in so doing, try to get long-established neighborhood music venues declared noise nuisances. I know we need more housing; no argument there. Possibly we don’t need so many ‘luxury’ flats, but I’m not the one selling these, so how would I know?

I do know we absolutely need our venues. We need our talent to be able to work in those venues. It’s all part of the local economy, dammit. The next UB40 is out there. But if they can’t get started, then there’s no chance that the next UB40 will develop into a long-term vibrant business that will generate dozens of jobs and millions and millions of pounds for the West Midlands economy over the next 30 years. But, hey, some property guy from out of town will have sold a few more cheap flats and made our neighborhoods even more sterile. So that’s all right then. If you doubt that this is the case, just read this


There’s more of course: Arts funding, for example. But I think I’m going to stop there. I’ve ended this year in a much better place than I thought I would. For that, and for the talented and generous creative world of radio people, arts and music people and, especially, music makers, that I find myself sometimes part of, I am truly grateful. 

Here’s to 2011. We all need a good year. I hope we get one.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Rhubarb Crumble

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about radio. I’ve been busy with the Pilot Project, of course, but there are other reasons. The overall radio picture is relentlessly depressing. Imaginative and capable broadcasters are being squeezed out to make way for networked output, with less and less sense of an obligation to listeners or communities. All this to allow more er, ‘brand development’ (Radio practitioners who feel unjustly maligned are welcome to reply to this post).

Last month, there was more bad news. Like many community stations, the eccentric but occasionally quite wonderful Rhubarb Radio is feeling the cold winds of recession. The current managerial team is bailing out; an intensive effort is being mounted to build a new and solid structure for the continued existence of the station. As I write, there are positive signs. The latest revival news is here.

I really want the Rhubarb revival to succeed, for a number of very good reasons, listed below. But I have been struck by the harsh cynicism, and sometimes malice, with which Rhubarb's bad news has been met by many of my colleagues in mainstream and associated radio sectors. I want to challenge that. 

It must be said that a number of community stations seem to be not so much about community as about layers of control-freakery and ego-tripping. Rhubarb is certainly not immune. But, to be brutally frank, not one of the 70 or so stations I have worked at or advised could be said to be immune either.

Truth be told, I don’t know anyone who puts a show out who doesn’t have ego drive. Ego drive can be a very good thing. It should encourage competition; it should make you strive to make your show, or your station, the very best that you can make it. .So rivalry certainly comes into things. But it should not extend to barely disguised glee at a fellow broadcaster’s troubles. When I was programming at BRMB, I wanted to take the opposition (at the time Radio 1) down, big time, and it felt really good when I put a serious dent in their figures. That did not extend to wanting to demolish the BBC or shutting Radio 1 down.  There were those in commercial radio who did, and do, want it shut down, but that’s another story.

The spectrum of ability and impact in radio is continuous and seamless, from beginner to practised. There’s no clear division between the big boys and the tiddlers, much as the big boys would like to see it that way. But I have a problem with hearing one radio person tearing into another operation – no matter what reasons they may have. A bit of humility might be nice. It’s only radio, after all…..

We all started somewhere. Chances are it was a tiny station, online or otherwise, a whole world away from today’s glossy radio factories. Dumping on stations like Rhubarb, especially when they’re on the ropes, is an ugly way to thank the people who put your first college or community or tiny local station up, so you could start to practise your craft. I started in student radio. It was not perfect then; it’s not perfect now. But you won’t find me dumping on it.

We need those community stations. We need the room to allow people to experiment, to try new tricks, to learn their craft, to practise until they’re perfect. And we need community stations to reflect and support their communities, to champion the music from their town, to float new ideas.

When a station folds, it’s sad, but the world does not stop turning. But when a small station folds, yet another door closes that might admit brave, fresh and idealistic talent to the world of broadcasting.

When I was putting the Pilot Project team together, I approached a lot of stations. From the mainstream, apart from the gracious and constructive help afforded me by the BBC Introducing team at BBC Shropshire, I drew a blank, even from areas where I might have expected some kindred spirits. But four of the fantastic advisors who worked with me on the Pilot Project were or are community radio djs. They were and are valuable to me because of their knowledge and enthusiasm. This knowledge and enthusiasm also took them into radio, and their stations were the richer for it. Three of those advisors were from Rhubarb. All of them do excellent shows.

I want to keep listening.
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See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


Monday, 13 December 2010

More Pilot Project stuff. The lessons we learn...

It’s fascinating how people use website information. We’ve had the Pilot Project site up for coming up on four weeks as I write this.

We’ve just added a new link – you can now email to info@pilot-project.co.uk.

I’ve been monitoring usage with Google Analytics. It’s telling us all sorts of stuff about where people are tapping into the site from.  But the nice story I have to tell today is that, placed at the very bottom of the Advisors page, accessed off the About page, is a small paragraph thanking some of the people who went above and beyond the call of duty in offering comments and advice. You kind of have to dig to get down to this section. But people have been digging. 

Mike Davies is a long-standing West Midlands Music journalist. He was down to be an advisor, but had to withdraw from our first shot for personal reasons. But happily, towards the end of our first curatorial period, he was showering us with ideas, which were most welcome. Yesterday Mike dropped me a note, because a band he worked with back in the day had been digging deep into the site, and turned his name up way down at the bottom of the Advisors page. And emailed him.

Not what I planned. But very nice to hear about. It shows how something like the Pilot Project , which is pretty damn well connected up, due to its fab team of advisors, can turn up even more connections. We saw a lot of synergies on launch night, and there have been more since then.

Another piece of news smacked me round the head this morning. I’d been double checking a couple of details on the site, and found out that the really excellent Senses, from Coventry, have called it quits. Sad for their followers, and it represents another tiny milestone for the Project.

Any site that takes a snapshot of 'now' is going to have to deal with change. Our approach this time around? We note that fact that with regret, the Senses are no more… and keep their music online for the time being. If there is any justice, the talented individuals from that band will go on to do other things, and if and when they achieve some success, it’s a nice to think that some of their earlier excellent work will have been archived for posterity. In a way that is the whole point of the Pilot Project. In the meantime, I’m racking up more feedback to evaluate as the Pilot Project progresses…

I mentioned some stats, didn’t I? Well, now... 

We have an average of well over four minutes on site per visitor. That means a helluva lot of people are sticking around for rather longer. Even at average durations, that means more than one track being checked out by each visitor. Not at all bad in these days of dysfunctional site surfing. 

Most popular page once you get past the home page? Well, it’s the Artists page. But the next most visited page is a surprise: it's the About page, which covers the whys and wherefores of the whole project.   

At the start of the site’s life, two thirds of visitors were from the West Midlands. Now it’s about 50%, which tells us that the site is rippling out across the world wide web rather nicely. And initially, most of the traffic came from Facebook and Twitter and blog plugs. Now we can see a small but growing slice of interest directly from Search Engines.

I could go on. I will, next time….  

Don't forget to email: info@pilot-project.co.uk
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Saturday, 20 November 2010

Pilot Project 2


Well, we did it.

The Pilot Project site is streaming. And it's the morning after - one of those post-launch days. 

I've felt this way before, mostly when getting radio stations on the air. It's that succession of increasingly long and frantic days, making sure that all the bits come together, with adrenalin taking over to a ridiculous extent. Anybody who has worked in radio will know what I am talking about. But this was, if anything, more diverse, using a wider ranges of skills and disciplines. No matter: the West Midlands Pilot Project is now streaming live. If you want the background and the context of the site, it's detailed on this blog on the post immediately below this one, or you could go to the About pages on the site itself and check out the brilliant team that I am privileged to work with. But, really, what I'd love anyone reading this blog page to do is... to crawl all over the site, and then feed back to us, via this blog if you like. In fact, please do do this: let's make this a very public discussion. 

We have plans to develop from this most promising of starts; I hope to be able to realise these plans. The bottom line always was, and is now, that this site, and. hopefully in time, sister sites across the country will cherish and celebrate the talent that now emerges online, and feed this into the British Library New Music Network, stored permanently, for posterity.

Yes, the site undoubtedly has the potential to expose and promote our magnificent local talent, and, yes, it is a sign of the times that websites like this are now able to take on more of a role in exposing and championing this talent. And I do mourn the fact that most local radio has abandoned any sense of responsibility for taking this role on. But now that it is live, the changes and developments will be gradual, as we evaluate how we're doing so far. Remember, this is still an experiment and a test bed. We've just gone from phase two to phase three.

What's next? Oh, fixes, tweaks, software adjustments, editorial revisions, and planning, analysis, reports....

What's now? Play with this site. Enjoy. Talk it up. Tweet it, Facebook it. If you're a musician on it, let us know if it makes any difference.


It's worth noting that in our first six hours of live streaming, 36 % of visitors came from OUTSIDE the West Midlands. 25% from the UK, 11% from North America. So, hey, there is a minor promotional effect already. But I stress that this site is not built to directly promote new talent: it is meant to both record it and - especially locally, with the help of my magnificent team of curators - to celebrate it. No reason why those aims can't go hand in hand, though.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Pilot Project

In 2010, we took a first step to curating a national archive of new independent music. There's a long way to ago...

On Thursday 18th November 2010, at 7pm, I was a happy man, if slightly apprehensive. That’s when the Pilot Project website went live. Before then it was an idea and a holding screen. Now, it’s something else altogether. Over a thirty month spell of planning, cajoling and nagging, The Pilot Project has gone from a rough concept to a really solid website, packed with good stuff.  It’s done so with considerable help from some truly great people, and a very welcome grant from Digital Content Development at the Arts Council. And it’s given me craft satisfaction, the likes of which I haven’t felt for ten years. Then it was a huge classical database, built from scratch for lovely RTE lyric fm. That was great fun and very worthwhile. 

This is too, and it could turn out to be even better.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Magyar Radio. State Radio under the cosh.

Working in Radio in Budapest. Pretty much like The Mailbox... or Donnybrook... or Oxenstiernsgatan.
Magyar Radio Headquarters
I wrote most of this on the way back from a radio consult gig in Hungary. I’ve done this sort of thing quite a lot over the past twenty years or so, working all over the UK and Europe. Maybe fifty different stations; sometimes it feels like a lot more.

There’s something special about the first walk to work, in a new city, heading to a new client. Budapest did not disappoint, with golden autumn sunshine, mist over the Danube, and people everywhere heading out for the workday.  The work is (almost) always a pleasure, invariably interesting, with endlessly different technical challenges, irrespective of the music programmed. And in case you’re wondering what all this has to with this blog, which is supposed to focus on radio and music in the West Midlands… well, actually, there’s quite a lot.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

UB40 30th Anniversary thoughts

Call me DJ Urassic: I’m pretty ancient on the evolutionary scale of djs. Actually, I don’t jock anymore, and that’s probably a good thing. But I do go on the radio to do things like the Handsworth documentary. And because I’m ancient, I get called in now and again to talk about one good old day or another.

This month sees UB40 touring to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of their first album. As I was the first jock in the known universe to actually play any UB40 on the radio, I’ve been tapped up several times for reminiscences. This led to a thoroughly enjoyable hour today on BBC WM, gassing with Carl Chinn, taking calls and waxing lyrical about four track recording sessions in bedsits in King’s Heath. Ironically, the station on which I played that early UB40 stuff was... BRMB. You know, the 'Made In Birmingham' guys. They haven’t been in touch. But, hey, I don’t think they play UB40 that much these days. And truth be told, back in the day, the station wasn’t impressed by my interest in obscure local bands… at least until those bands stopped being obscure.  

Interesting fact: UB40 are the fourth most successful British band EVER. Consistency and long-term appeal will do that for you.

Second interesting fact: they deliberately chose to keep their business in their hometown. Not many bands do that.   

Third interesting fact: only a town as multi-ethnic as Birmingham could have ever produced a band like UB40; they know it, and we know it.  That’s why their gigs are so satisfying. It was interesting to note during the programme today that many of the callers feel a very real sense of gratitude as well as a kinship with the band. Seriously.

Fourth interesting fact – and this is where it gets personal: the session I ran on BRMB was a custom rough mix of some of the tracks that were being worked on for the first album, Signing Off. I asked for early mixes; I got them, they worked just fine. The session, in fact, was a stomping, whooping, huge success for the Rock show that I ran at the time.

Whenever I tell this story, I get asked if I still have the original reel to reel tape, as it would be a priceless piece of Birmingham music history – the very first evidence of UB40 on record.

I don’t, of course. In those days, stations recycled tape, wiping the content to re-use the medium. Pro reel to reel tape was expensive stuff. Why, a 10.5” reel, giving you half an hour of play, might run you £15 in 1979, and that was too much money to tie up. This is a difficult concept to explain to anyone under 30 years of age. Factor in inflation, and that £15 gives you enough money to buy a couple of terabytes of hard disk storage… Enough for thousands of hours of material.

Now, it’s easy and cheap to make room for audio storage. Then, it wasn’t.  So countless hours of priceless material has been lost down the years. BRMB is not alone: the BBC did the same; everyone did. So a lot of stuff got lost. Some of it, like the UB40 sessions, irreplaceable, and of huge historical significance.

In a few weeks, I am launching a project  - the Pilot Project – which aims to go some way towards preventing this sort of thing happening again, so that we can stand a better chance of holding on to the vital and powerful music that is being made right now. It’s been two years in the planning, and we are a long, long way from nailing this thing down permanently.

It’s a tough call. But I live in hope. Watch this space for details, very soon.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Handsworth Evolution – a documentary


One tradition. Three generations of Birmingham reggae.

I spent a lot of time in the summer of 2010 bathed in classic reggae grooves, chasing down some of the musicians I worked with at local radio, over a generation ago, for a radio documentary. It was a true pleasure, and while it wasn't quite a labour of love – Birmingham Music Heritage paid me, bless, em, but they didn't pay me that much – I certainly put in way more time than was economic.  The picture here is from Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries; the site's well worth a visit. 

While working on the documentary, I got to hang out again with some dear friends from back in the day – so nice to catch up with some of the guys in UB40 that I hadn’t had a chat with for ages - and forge new friendships with guys like the great Andy Hamilton, and the amazing Apache Indian. And I got to do a bit of proper radio as well. It’s all there – the story of how the children of those early post-war immigrants came up with a vital new approach to reggae, mixed, matched and mashed up... and invented whole new styles of music along the way. And right now, there’s even a third generation doing new and vital stuff. Now, with the blessing of Birmingham Music Heritage, whose commission it was, I am making it available via MixCloud. Know what? I love internet publishing. All three parts are after the jump.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Getting that gig on Radio – it’s tougher than ever…

I realised, looking at the front blog page today, that, to my shame, I have not posted for well over a month; for this I apologise. However, I do have good reason for this apparent inactivity: I have been, and still am, ferociously busy on something I am calling the Pilot Project, about which I will blog in enormous detail very soon.

I'm also about to start teaching a seriously detailed Radio Course, concentrating on presenting skills. Normally I cover music scheduling, in a concentrated burst – not perhaps the best way to approach the topic - but this gig has me working on presenting and production, at length, with a team of committed and savvy students; I’m looking forwards to it. And, in a connected bit of serendipity, I was asked today for advice on how to apply to a station. So now seems a good time to pull all this together. More after the jump….  

If you want a paid gig on a radio station in the UK in 2010, you need to know a few key truths:

First: there are a helluva lot less jobs to go for now than there were at the beginning of the year. See my posts here and here for a few more details.

Second: the pay’s really not that great, unless you work your way up to stardom.

Third: the guys – it’s almost always guys, by the way – that you need to reach are, frankly, feeling just a bit beleaguered, what with budget cuts on one side, and job cuts on  the other.

But let’s say that you’re going to bite the bullet and go for it anyway. Here are some tips to help you along.

Listen, hard and long, to your chosen station or stations. Make a note of what you consider the strengths and weaknesses. Then listen, hard and long, to your stuff. How does this sound in comparison? What have you got that might fit with your target station? And what else has the station done that has worked well – or badly?

By the way, I’m assuming you have existing stuff; there’s really no excuse not to have existing stuff, even if you’re starting out – there’s community, student and internet stations galore. Go get involved, now, if you’re not involved already.

Put a demo together, specifically for the station you’re pitching to. Don’t just assemble a demo and think that will do for everybody – it won’t. 

Make the demo short. Lose almost all the music, and use the opportunity to show off with some flash music edits to highlight your production chops… or simply fade out and in. The station wants to know what you sound like, and how you work with music. Even though you are targeting a specific station, be true to yourself.

Put the demo together on a CD, and label it properly – printed label, with your name, address, email and phone number.

Find out the right guy to send it to. Include a CV that majors on your radio experience. Don’t forget to list real-world experience too – it helps to show that you’re a real person.  You got positive press-cuttings, endorsements, and letters of praise? Great! Put them together on the CD too.

Send it, and wait. The station almost certainly won’t come back to you instantly. But they may keep the CD on file, especially if it impresses. 

Keep waiting.

Do NOT pester the PD, his PA, or anyone else at the station.

Keep waiting.

If you don’t hear anything… well, you’re no worse off than you were before. Keep on working at your existing station and/or your day job. 


Keep waiting.

If they ask you in for a chat, go back to that list of strengths and weaknesses you drew up when you researched the station. Be ready to draw on that list… but whatever you do, be careful. They may have a truly crap drive time presenter… but he could just be the PD’s protégé.  The music selection may make you feel ever so slightly icky, but it’s almost certainly going to be a long time before they come to you for your considered views on programming. Rubbishing what they are doing almost never works.

But be ready to make constructive suggestions, based on what you’ve found in your research.  Present yourself so that they see you as having something they may need.  Throw some competition or promotional ideas out – and be ready for them to be pinched.

Have an answer ready if they offer you a job on (ha) ‘intern’ terms. Decide how you would handle a salary of rather less than you’re getting now at your day job.

And, if you get the job… have an exit route planned, just in case you conclude, too late, that you’ve landed a gig working with a bunch of deluded basket cases, lead by a penny-pinching psycho who will never pay you properly, or promote you. It's not uncommon - sadly.

And don’t count on this as a long-term career move. This year, there are dozens of able, worthy, experienced professionals, all of who have families and mortgages, who right now are wondering where they can go to, now their stations have been rationalised out of existence. A lot of stations cater to kids or parents with young families – that’s what the advertisers want. So they tend to go for presenters with that kind of appeal. The means... twenty and thirty somethings.

By the way, in case you think I’m trying to talk you out of going for that dream gig… I really am not. I’d just like you to have all the facts. But I really, really, want you in the industry if you happen to be hugely talented and determined.

Good luck….
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Monday, 9 August 2010

Goodnight Lenin and DC Fontana, live and Local: two great bands

Goodnight Lenin and DC Fontana play blinders in two very different venues

It’s been a busy few weeks. In the past fortnight, for reasons that will become very clear in a couple of months, I’ve seen more than my usual quota of local bands, and I tend to watch quite a lot. I’m a BIG fan of local music. You often get to see new bands with extraordinary promise, and once in a while you see that promise on its way to being fulfilled. And above all, you have the pleasure of watching musicians play for the sake of making music – as opposed to for the express purpose of relieving you of as much money as possible in some soulless concrete box miles from anywhere.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Amazing Radio and Coast 106: Ghosts of stations past

Over the past two years, I’ve traveled around the country a fair bit, working on consult gigs at different stations. Most of this has been database troubleshooting and coaching, both in RCS Selector and PSquared’s AutoTrack Pro - fine scheduling engines both.

I've been struck by the lingering echoes of old radio ways, which persist down the years, even while the old premises are now occupied by new staff doing new things in new ways. But there are some constants. Almost everything has changed in the way we do radio - except for the people.  

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Researching Music: Is this REALLY popular in your neck of the woods? Ever asked why?

One of my must-visit radio blog pages is the Infinite Dial, from the US-based Edison Research – who, unsurprisingly, do research for radio. They have a refreshingly open-minded approach to what radio may be now, and what it may become.  A recent post covers regional tastes, and it’s fascinating. Well worth a read, here.

I absolutely love this aspect of the business – ferreting out local tastes, finding out what matters locally. It’s a source of endless interest.  Of course, I also like this post because it reinforces my thoughts on localism. But I’d like to take things a little bit further.  

Our man at Edison remarks, quite rightly, that it’s always interesting to find those places where ‘Mony Mony’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (hey, not talking Gold much) barely register with listeners, and indeed it is. The processes by which songs become popular and spread out to audiences are interesting and increasingly varied. Who would have thought that computer games like Guitar Hero and trash teen tv (Glee) would have had become major players, bigger than tightly playlisted radio format radio, in shifting product?

What interests me is this. If those horribly familiar songs (to US ears at least) Edison Research is talking about don’t light up audiences everywhere, should we question the continued faith placed in them in their core markets? And, more interesting still, exactly what songs are now lighting up those different audiences?  Classic oldie songs on Gold formats have been around a long time; they’ve had time to develop deep roots. So what made those roots either not take in the first place, or, more likely, lose their grip? And if this is genuine evidence – I’m not quite sure it is - that pop music radio's cosy 
assumptions of the past fifty years are turning out to be either wrong, skewed, or outdated, why is such faith still placed in the old ways of operating?

Each market is individual. While we have increasing media homogeneity, this report is pretty convincing evidence that that homogeneity breaks down when you dig deep into each market. I’m not for one minute going to wear any jingoistic assumptions that because this research is driven from the US, that it is blinkered and limited in its vision; I think we’re largely doing a lot worse over here. But if my supposition that local individuality persists against an overwhelming tide of homogeneity, that is horribly inconvenient for our larger scale broadcasters, who increasingly resist any obligations to relate to their local market places.

And here’s the point: by skipping past the local, the network boys are in danger of handing over listenership to new local operators who are rooted in their markets, and willing to both dig into local tastes and reflect their markets. The only question now is: can local small-scale operators in the market and still to come to market, find ways to sustain themselves so they can survive and prosper? The next few years could be very interesting.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Schools Radio

This bunch of cheery chaps (there are chappesses involved too, but they were cropped out - I apologise), are some of the students I’ve been working with recently at a local school – Bishop Vesey, Sutton Coldfield – on a radio production project. The school was happy to define the activity as a radio station, although, alas, of studios and transmitters there were none. In fact for most of the project, there weren’t even such luxuries as microphones. I’m told this isn’t exactly uncommon. But you know what? Radio station status is irrelevant. This project has way more in common with proper, real-life radio station activity than you might think.
After all, any station worth its salt addresses one or more communities: local communities, communities of interest, or identity, or ethnicity, or music tastes, or age groups…. You get the picture. And, just as in real live radio, people come and go, join and leave teams, get to grips or give up, and grapple with technical and programming challenges. In so doing, they weave a web of involvement, hopefully with a high degree of continuity. A school is a particular community, very high on energy, very vocal, often brash, sometimes subtle, and full to bursting with youthful tribal identities that merge and split, coalesce, explode and implode. So there’s lots going on; lots of things to cover, which matter to that particular community.  Radio activities are an excellent 'fit'.

As to the work? Well, we scratched the surface. We made a start, and I’m very happy at the prospect of working with this team again in the next academic year.

This is grist to my mill. I’m especially interested in the notion of encouraging new people – and they don’t get much newer than this lot – to talk about matters of interest, to learn to voice, argue and present, to struggle with new techniques, and to deliver cogent material. As commercial  radio is increasingly rationalised out of having any impact at local level, there is a huge danger that this whole way of thinking will be wiped off much of our radio landscape. I would argue that now is the time to cherish and value these skills, because they will be desperately in demand in five or so years when the Digital Economy bill is… supposed… to clear the way for small-scale and community radio operations on the FM band.

If and when that day eventually comes, I can’t say whether there will be careers to build, or even livings to be made. Radio is turning itself inside out, and for many this is a very painful time. But I do know that radio on all its platforms – streamed, podcast, transmitted, web, digital or analogue – desperately needs good communicators to reach out to its communities of listeners. Those skills are hard-won, and the industry doesn’t seem to value them any more. We desperately need to avoid the mistakes made by television as it cuts costs and sinks to lower and lower levels. Car-crash tv, presented by vacuous inarticulate morons, may be good fun for a few minutes when you get in from the pub. It doesn’t work on radio.  Powerful, direct, loyalty-building communication does; always has, and always will. And it costs pennies… and the will on the part of the powers that be to let it grow and flourish. I’d love it – just love it, Kevin – if some of the above bright, engaging and likeable individuals were working in radio five or ten years from now.

PS: Two days after I took that photo, I was in Newcastle working with the excellent team at Amazing Radio; I'm due back next week. That's a whole different deal, and I'll post in detail in due course.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Budgets, cash flow and creativity

There’s been huge coverage of the jobs lost at commercial radio over the past few weeks. If you want to get up to speed on this, check the Guardian’s pages here. I feel desperately sorry for the several hundred people who will now be leaving the industry they love, some of whom have been hard at work for decades.

Of course, the business rationale is that in a recession, commercial radio needs to find ways to shoulder the extra burden of digital transmission costs, and provide better services to attract listeners to digital. I hear the transmissions costs argument loud and clear, but I’m not going to even discuss issues like ‘quality of output’ now that stations are turning into brands – it’s a pointless exercise.

But there’s a lot of point in thinking about how things can be done convincingly on low budgets. Two weeks ago, I participated in a TV show, hosted by the excellent Apache Indian (check his Wikipedia entry here) from his Corporation Street venue, Apache’s Bar. It was carried on BritAsia, Sky channel 833. He does this monthly. Apache laid on a live band (jazz horns and dhol rhythm section), an audience with things to say, and a key topic – why does radio not do more to support local talent? I was there to talk radio, of course. Interestingly, I was the only guy who turned up from my section of the media; others were invited. Funny, that. And there were only two points I could make.

Firstly: I was not going to defend the indefensible. Radio’s move from local to corporate is soul-crushingly awful for musicians making their way in the world and looking for some exposure.
Secondly: But, hey, radio be damned; great music will find always find a way to its audience, and the better it gets, and the more the audience buys in, the more radio has to acknowledge this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen radio scramble to catch up with music developments it can no longer begin to control. So.... if you're a musician, get great. Simple.

But those points are tangential to this post. The fact is that Apache delivered a credible, engaging show on a minuscule budget. The same applies all over the country at community radio level. What you need, always, are clearly thought out ideas that your audience will engage with. What you don’t necessarily need is expensive kit.

Still on this topic: I’m just coming to the end of a month-log schools educational project. The equipment we were promised has yet to materialise, through no fault of the school. So we’ve been improvising, using borrowed kit, pressing unexpected tools into service, and working on ancient computers running
the excellent and free open source Audacity editing software. Although we’ve had to adapt and revise a fair amount, at no point in the project have these limitations blocked the flow of ideas, and some of these ideas have been belters. I’ll blog separately about this in a week or so, when the project reaches its conclusion.

The best programming approaches, like the best ideas, come for free. They are the results of clear and focussed thought. And often – not always, but often - that clear and focussed thought flourishes best where it won’t be stifled by large corporate structures. If you’re in a tiny operation with zero budget, you may be blessed with a creative freedom you could look back on fondly in future years.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Consolidation. We knew it was coming.

Last month, and two posts down on this blog (scroll down or click here), I painted a gloomy picture of consolidation and retrenchment. Today, the first big jobs and stations cuts bit - and hard. 200 jobs and 18 stations are to disappear, as Heart moves ever closer to a national 'Brand'. Here's the Guardian's report.

Not over yet, I'm afraid.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Naming names

I’m all in favour of localism in local media, as you might have gathered from earlier posts. So I was pleased that BRMB, back under local ownership, decided to revive the Walkathon – a twenty mile charity walk around Birmingham’s circular number 11 bus route – after seventeen or so years of non-local ownership. It took place last Sunday. They raised more than they expected, for a worthy charity. Well done; applause all round.

I was slightly less impressed with the ungenerous coverage from BBC Midlands Today on Monday. The event got scant coverage, with the briefest of brief shots, showing an unimpressively small group of people walking along an empty path. Critically, there was no mention of BRMB, who organised and sponsored.  

Compare and contrast, then, with the lavish Midlands Today coverage of the difficulties that a Handsworth Community Radio station is experiencing. New Style Radio has funding problems, and things are looking grim. But boy, did the BBC ever go to town on their situation in the evening bulletin last night. Names were named; lovingly crafted footage of disaffected staffers and volunteers was shown; principals were grilled on screen in forensic detail.

So what do we learn from this? It’s, sadly, a typical local media thing. If a non-BBC Radio Station does something significant and worthwhile for the greater community, then, hey, that’s good news. So the BBC will, if they absolutely must, report it; but will then go to ridiculous lengths not to give the station any credit. If on the other hand, a non-BBC station is squirming on the hook because of bad news… then you can look forward to explicitly detailed coverage.

That Midlands Today’s two pieces were aired within the space of three days served to highlight a frankly uneven approach.

Community Radio stations across the country are struggling for funds; licenses are being handed back regularly, and I fear it’s going to get a lot worse. I was very sorry to hear of New Style’s difficulties, just as I was impressed with BRMB’s successful revival of the Walkathon. But a little bit of reporting consistency from Midlands Today would have been nice.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Future of Local Radio???

Stop press - this post seems to have gone modestly viral. BIG response. I'm pleased.

I was the keynote speaker at Creative Networks last night. Brilliant, interested audience of students and practitioners. I gave a seemingly bleak overview of the state of UK radio and the shrinking opportunities for creative work, as cuts continue to bite at the BBC, and the commercial sector continues to strip jobs out, and ramps up automation and networking. All is not lost, however – in fact, all is never lost, if you approach things the right way.

Bullet points after the jump. 

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Creative Networks, Thursday 27th, Millennium Point, Brum

Creative Networks is a monthly gathering of... Brum creatives who, er, network. The Birmingham Music Network meeting precedes this event in the same venue, and I’ve attended one or both of these monthly gatherings for some time. Last Thursday in the month at Millennium Point, and you get a meal thrown in - what's not to like?


I’m the Keynote speaker this month.  It’s an interesting prospect. I am going to, of course, talk about local radio and local music. But that may just be a sidebar to some of the other areas, as we look at 21st century ‘radio’ on its many possible platforms. After all, there’s not a huge amount to say about radio that hasn’t yet been said....


...or is there? 


Well now… Of course there is. I would say, that, wouldn’t I? But it remains a fact that ‘radio’ is ignored as a creative area by most people, and is especially ignored by other media unless they can print or screen something juicy or damaging.  Mass media loves finger-pointing tittle-tattle, and radio has more than its fair share of unbalanced egos who can provide a steady stream of gossip fodder.

I still think, thought that there is a world of possibilities out there around radio. So what sort of things am I going to talk about?

How about the explosion in alternative sources of radio – community radio, college radio, blogging, mixes and mashups? And how come there has been an explosion in the first place?

What sort of tools do you need to get started? And, er how much do they cost?

And what sort of things are out there that you can listen to or otherwise discover?

What about… sound with images? Not, I stress, video, but SOUND. With added images.

And is this still radio? Hell, I don’t know. I do know that when you get to this point, you’re still using the same tools that you’d use to make conventional ‘radio’.

Maybe it’s the whole definition of radio we need to look at. After all, when we think about radio, it’s almost always in connection with music, maybe with a voice to link it all. Maybe, if you’re on a Spotify, Pandora or Last-FM ‘radio’ stream, a 'radio station' with no voice at all.

But I kind of think that radio is still all about connecting, ideally live.  But how can you do that with a podcast?

Lots to talk about then. I’d be delighted to get some ideas from you ahead of Thursday next, by the way. Might even namecheck you on the night.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

More Deregulation grief

I listened with some interest to You and Yours on Radio 4 today. Not only was an old colleague of mine presenting – Winifred Robinson, always listenable, articulate and insightful – but the subject matter was the further erosion of the concept of ‘localness’ at commercial radio in the UK. Given that the new measures entail yet more cuts in services, even less speech content, and even more networking, all of which equates to less jobs, less local service, and less engagement with the local audience, it made for depressing listening.  
For those who want to read more on the Ofcom-sanctioned measures, here’s a detailed piece from the Guardian

Winifred – who was a demon journo back in the old days at BRMB – had Tony Stoller, an old hand from the now long gone Radio Authority, and Andrew Harrison from the trade body for commercial radio, the Radio Centre in the studio. Harrison, naturally, defended the measures, as it paves the way for even more cost savings, and therefore allows a greater chance of survival for cash-strapped stations. I see his point – radio is in deep trouble at present. Recessions always hit radio hardest and first, and radio is generally the last to benefit from an upturn as well. 
But Stoller amazed me, by pointing out that back in the good old days, when radio had huge newsrooms, decent specialised shows and provided full service options. Radio was also pretty damn profitable.

Profitable? It had to be, to allow an outfit like BRMB to have 50 or so staff, all sorts of specialist shows – including rock shows five nights a week from yours truly, and later by the estimable John Slater - and a raft of freelancers.
Stoller was right. But the argument against trying to go back to the ‘good old days’ is, sadly, irrefutable: Radio, among other services,  has been marginalised by the web, online games, and a whole host of other digital services, and it’s, as yet, found no way to counter this surge, just like terrestrial TV and newspapers.  


To add fuel to the fire, here’s an interesting post from the Infinite Dial: Read it and weep – the Internet has almost caught radio for Music Discovery

The most telling comment in Winifred’s piece (hear it on iPlayer here) was that the audience would not really notice much difference, because the latest steps are just an extension of the measures that have already been taken. So, in the spirit of shutting the stable door after the audience horse has bolted, mainstream radio’s strategy seems to be to cut staff costs, outsource as much expensive stuff as possible, share programming, streamline, simplify, play the hits and sell the station brand first and foremost.


And all of this I understand.

But it strikes me that, as local and regional commercial radio moves further and further away from localness, a yawning gap is opening up. And once the right operators get their teeth into services that offer local relevance, there’s going to be no way that the big boys will have anything left to compete with.
 

So where are those new operators? Ah…. Good question. I’d LOVE to think that they will surge onto the FM band when the big boys shuffle off to the digital domain in (as now won’t happen – it’s bound to be shelved) 2015.
I do know this. It’s possible. It can be done. This is how new game-changing stuff always starts – out of left-field, ignored and sneered at by the establishment. Think about Pirate radio over here, both on the boats in the 60s and the Tower blocks in the 90s, or FM Rock radio in the US in the 60s and 70s; in music, think about Rock and Roll or Punk Rock… They all started out scruffy, obnoxious, and full of attitude, and they all wound up mainstream.
 

The question is: is Community Radio, now the only place which allows experimentation, ready, willing and able to supply staff to small-scale radio? I’d love to think so. They’ve probably got about five years to do it in.  
 

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Parents and siblings

I was talking with Loz Kingsley, an extraordinarily talented guitarist who has brightened the Birmingham Music scene for well over 30 years (latest work is at www.fingerprintmusic.co.uk) the other day. I was enchanted to learn that his daughter's band is the highly rated and upcoming Poppy and the Jezebels, who are close to signing a record deal. 
I know of at least one other guy in town who grew up around his muso dad - the terrifically talented Toby Wilson, who now, among other things, drums for 360. Toby’s dad, Bob, was once one of the twin mustachioed blonde bombshell guitarists with the Steve Gibbons Band. He went on to be Music Director for Ruby Turner for a spell, ran a string of other music projects, and put his own studio together...presumably the same studio that Tony grew up in, and wfrom where he picked up his production chops.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the parent-child muso thing is both charming and noteworthy. This set me thinking - there must be others, right? Let me know. 
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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Case Histories and conclusions

The Track Record page here and on my website has turned out to be of the most consistently visited pages. To build on this, I’ve just gussied my website with some of the more interesting Selector case histories. If you’re at all interested in music scheduling in radio, there may be stuff to glean; feel free to help yourself. 

The case histories are, in chronological order:

BRMB-FM / Xtra-AM: the highs and lows of introducing computer scheduling. Very early 90s.
BBC Radio 2: putting in a multi-genre library, along with the BBC's very first digital playout rig.
Swedish Radio P4: developing client skills in hugely varied markets.
RTÉ lyric fm: working collaboratively with passionately involved production staff to build not so much a database as a knowledge base. The polar opposite of most implementations.
UTV Radio: upskilling staff and debugging inherited nightmare scheduling conflicts.
Coast 106: swimming successfully against the UK radio stream with a larger than normal library.

In this diverse range of situations, there are some common threads...
First : dialogue, up and down the chain of command,  is good. In fact, in my view it’s not so much good as essential. While many radio stations implement a rigid schedule from above, normally for ease and simplicity of management, some of the best ideas and approaches evolve from engaging with the staff who work with the system. Nobody is right all the time. If there is a conflict, either with content or with programming, it’s often very useful to examine that conflict in minute detail, so see if there is a better way to do things. Best to leave your ego at the door, though. I won’t name the middle manager who loved the idea of challenging his boss on music issues, but hated the idea of talking to his own staff about those same issues.

Second: We’re in the era of tiny databases. In the US, they’re now talking about cutting down from 150 to 50 songs. However, almost all the above case histories show ratings success allied to larger libraries. 

Third: A note to managers: large databases can be a pain to keep tidy. And talking to your staff about programming issues can be a hassle you could do without. Things can get emotive. It can eat into your time, and not everybody has that luxury. But I suggest that if you actually care about what you do, you’ll benefit from putting in that time. Radio is still full of passionate people. You’ll get the best out of those people if you meet them halfway, here and everywhere else where ideas can be shared and debated.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Buried Radio treasure. It's out there, somewhere. Got a map?

I've written this for my website, to go onto a new Selector/Music programming section, but I'm posting it here as well. It's a humble suggestion to programmers, and adds to the debate about what exactly music radio is in the second decade of the 21st century.

How we get and how we use our music has changed. Music itself has changed: it was the thing that pulled young listeners in. In turn, radio was the place to hear the hot new stuff.

Now? We get hot new stuff from the net, from friends, on phones. Pandora in the US, and Last-FM and Spotify in the UK can give you want, when you want it. Radio can’t compete with the web. Instead of enthralling and seducing the listener, to its discredit, much radio has devalued its music and retreated into conservatism.

Worse still, many radio professionals have abandoned the idea of ‘owning’ their music, and have farmed out their programming to remote services, sometime hundreds of miles away.

I’m not saying that music radio has a divine right to continue to exist in the face of hot new technology; after all, the technology that empowered music radio helped to kill off earlier forms of music distribution, like sheet music and piano rolls.

But I still think that there’s a LOT to play for. Radio, on whatever platforms it now uses, still has several prime assets: Radio has a direct connection between presenter and listener, in a way that rival media can not match.

And in music programming, of all types, there’s still a vital ingredient that is out there, waiting to be grasped: localism. By this, I don’t mean a parochial approach. I mean a sense of locality, identity and community. Localism becomes doubly valuable when set against the overwhelming globalisation of the record industry, and centralised programming that, while expedient, ignores potential local variations. It always shocks me when I visit a different country - and hear exactly the same music being played on the radio that I’m used to at home.

One of the non-radio projects I am working on taps into the world of new independent music making, which now exists online. It is thrilling, vital, and exciting. Because musicians can use web tools and computer based recording equipment that is now spectacularly cheap, the quality is often spectacularly good. Musicians the world over have side-stepped record companies to distribute their material directly, and I don’t blame them. If all a record company is interesting in signing is yet another ‘Three Tenors’ clone, or another Beyonce wannabe, or the next Michael Buble, then why go to the trouble of trying to get them to take a chance on your material?

But that’s not to say that the new online alternatives don’t have radio value. It does mean you, the programmer, have to do a bit of work to find it, but that shouldn’t be too hard. And this material can have huge impact, especially if it ‘belongs’ to your town, or your region, or even your country.

So, my question to those programmers who still have the freedom to determine what they can put on their radio stations is: are you entirely sure that those global successes the record companies thrust at you wouldn’t benefit from a judicial addition of something that you know - from experience - matters in your town, your region, or even your country?

Think about it. It could be your usp in the radio war.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

West Midlands Mix number 2 (19 Artists, 5 minutes)

I've just had a blast putting this together, following the rather gratifying response to Mix Number 1. This is more of a radio mix, harder, faster, shorter, non-chronological, and genre-mangling. Can you identify everyone?
Bottom line: listening back to this fills me with pride, gratitude and respect for the musicians of the West Midlands. We've got a lot to shout about, right here.  

Another observation: I simply would not have had the tools to put this together back in the day. This used to be the sort of thing you needed four hands to mix. And it's those same tools that have opened up a new level of web-powered creativity that's made our local music scene even more powerful and interesting. I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in the coming months. 

As always, mix suggestions and comments are most welcome.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Own your music: Selector (and other scheduling systems) tip 4

Number four in a series of tips for Selector (and other scheduling system) users.

When I talk about ownership, I’m talking about really getting hold of the material you’re going to play. Simply put, if you have no real idea of what’s important in your library, or why, you’re going to sound messy on air. A  big, deep repertoire is a wonderful thing. But it's absolutely no use to you, unless you know what you’re going to do with that repertoire. If you think about it; you win. If someone else does the thinking, or worse, nobody does the thinking, you lose.

 
An example: A small-scale station was setting up at the end of last year. They had no money for a library. So staff lent their own CD collections to copy to the station server. This is not at all unusual. They happily ripped everything they had: complete albums, dozens of them. This rapidly built up a library of several thousand cuts. However, the station’s system just happened to be off-line… so, no CDDB/Gracenote, and no artist or title recognition. Giving a database full of Song1, Song2, and so on, performed by Artist1, Artist2… and so on.  And, because they were ripping complete albums, including hits packages, that database was also full of duplicates. That’s a nightmare scenario, one which will take far more time to correct than it would have taken to think about core material in the first place.

I’ve seen this happen too on courses I teach at college radio – I do a couple a year. Hundreds of tracks get dumped into memory, just to get something to work with. That’s not building a library.

Here’s why. Take a look at your Ipod. Chances are you’ve done much the same thing, especially if you’ve got a lot of memory and you want to have a BIG library to brag about. And how is that huge choice working for you? Have you taken the time to go through everything in iTunes and prioritise every single track in to favourite and less favourite? I'll bet you haven’t. What about deleting stuff? Tricky. I bet your shuffle play is… random.

Here’s the thing. Even through we’re in the era of single song downloads – a healthy development - we’re drowning in easy availability. We don’t value songs for themselves anymore - that’s so last century. Music, like so much else, has become commoditised, and it’s not healthy.

I believe that each song needs to be looked at hard by any radio programmer, before being put forward for scheduling. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not arguing for 100-song playlists like they have at a lot of stations in the US these days. There’s no reason not to go ahead and build up a huge library. Just make sure, before you do, that there’s a good reason to add each song in the first place (somehow, ‘I just like It’ isn’t quite enough).  Thinking about your stuff before you add it also helps you to build a coherent structure for your scheduling system. Core songs by core artists – no matter what your format – is a great place to start. You can work it out from there.

And it might be wise to make sure you’re online when you're ripping :-).

If this has been useful, pass it on to friends and colleagues. It’s on me. If you'd like more, on a 1 to 1 basis, reply to me through the blog, or email me via the website (link at left under Work-related).

24 artists, 43 years, 9 minutes

This has been by far the most popular post I've put up this year, so I'm going to keep it front page for a while. 

I put this together last month for a radio class I taught to US students. I wanted to put the West Midlands in perspective for them. They knew some of the bands, of course, but not all (do you?), and had no idea that they all came from/worked in the region. There was a role for local radio in supporting pretty much the first 16 or so in the sequence, but those days seem to be over. Shame...


This is a montage, not even close to a proper mashup - for that, check out Sam Redmore's brilliant work - but I had a ball putting it together. The range and diversity makes me proud of my town.

With just one exception, I have interviewed and/or hung out with, worked with, shook hands with, or hugged and kissed all of these guys.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Voicer samples

Strictly for business purposes, here's a voiceover showreel with samples of my work. 

If you like what you hear, email me directly or contact me through my website.

My Voice 123 page has more samples to play with, including Talking Books work.

My Selector Coloring book: Selector Tips 3

This topic mainly applies to Selector version 15 lovers. You can do a bit of color tweakage in Version 12 (that’s the old, ugly, but gorgeously stable and well thought out dos version), but it’s really the windows version of Selector that lets you play with looks, fonts and colors. There’s lots of configuration potential in GSelector, too, but that hasn’t fully rolled out worldwide, and I’m quite sure that these remarks will also apply just as much to other scheduling engines. Bottom line? Customise away, but you should avoid the explosion in the paint factory effect at all costs.
Why is it that contemporary software design is so…. uniform? There’s a very good reason. Computer screens can display a LOT of information. Color is a great help is highlighting areas of concern, and you can often set conditions in your software package – not just your scheduling engine – which will throw a focus on an area of interest, by using a specific color.

But if you make things too busy, your brain has to work a lot harder to take it all in. If the screen is just too busy, you tend to jump past all this information.

Now let’s consider the Editor screen. That’s the one that displays your schedule, or running order. You’ve got to review an entire day of output – that's at least 24 screens, maybe much more.  If the entire screen is a maze of color, you’re going to have a hard time concentrating as hard as you need to for your editing job… which means you might let something slip past… which means the output might sound lousy.

So that’s why I suggest you go easy on the color.  If you like to differentiate between different categories onscreen, that’s fine – but try using shades of the same color, rather than violently clashing and distinct colors. Leave the fireworks for the emergency conditions: schedule failures and the like. And think about whether you need to apply color to the entire page – you can restrict it to one or two fields if you prefer, leaving the rest of the window more uniform.

Above all, make it easy on yourself, so you can make those critical editorial decisions: getting the mix right is way more important than having a pretty screen display that your audience doesn’t know or care about.

If this has been useful, pass it on to friends and colleagues. It’s on me. If you'd like more on a 1 to 1 basis, reply to me through the blog, or email me via the website (link at left under Work-related)
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Inheriting a Selector scheduling setup: Selector Tips 2

Most of us in Radio inherit a Selector rig when we join a station, or when the guy before us moves on. Nowadays, you very rarely build up a system, your way, from scratch. So you really need to work out how the guy before you went about his business, before changing things. If you don't, then you’re in for a world of pain working out why the rule settings don’t seem to work right anymore. If the guy before you was obsessive, you better be too. Sorry about that. The basic principles here don't just apply to Selector - they work in any system. I’ve got a how-to tip to help after the jump.

The devil is always in the detail.
A great way to zero in on any aspect of your library is to go to the Browse Window. Let’s say you want to make sure your Artist list is accurate. You really need this. Selector isn’t Word, and it won’t compensate for spelling errors.

Click on the Artist heading.
Work down the list of songs, starting from the top.
Some errors might be right at the very top – like songs with no artist.
Look for anomalies. Are songs suspiciously absent? Maybe they’re listed elsewhere under a mis-spelled artist name.

And don’t forget the famous text string issue – Selector normally sorts by the first letter of the last piece of text (known in geekland as a text string) in the field. So it would see Take That and Take_That as two different artists.

You can repeat this basic exercise for anything that is key in your scheduling rules, but of course there are some quite complex areas to make decisions on, above and beyond factual issues like getting the Artist names right. I'll post some tips in dealing with the more subjective areas soon.

Sorted? Good. Now make a note in Outlook to do this all over again in two months.

If this has been useful - pass it on. If you'd like more on a 1 to 1 basis, reply to me through the blog, or email me via the website (link at left under Work-related).

Friday, 12 February 2010

Pirate Radio Goes Mainstream: Politics, technology and demographics

I've just come back from giving a lecture in London, to a group of university students from the US. My brief was to cover the history of UK post-war popular music radio. I had a lot of fun putting the whole thing together. Learned quite a bit too.
The bottom line? It really doesn’t matter how brilliant your programming is, how cool and innovative your marketing strategy. You are always at the mercy of factors you can’t control.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Coast 106: I love a success story

And this is a success story. I’ve been working as a consultant with a lovely and thoroughly listenable radio station in Southampton. They’re called Coast 106, and I’ve been visiting them on and off since late 2008. In this quarter’s Rajar audience survey, they posted all time high figures. In fact it’s been a pretty solid story of growth from an admittedly low start point, when they took the franchise over from the previous owners.

It’s pretty hard to rebrand a station, and then relaunch it in the teeth of a howling recession at any time. Harder still to post consistent growth figures - doubling reach and nearly trebling market share over an 18 month period. So what’s their secret?.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

How do I know my Selector Mood Codes are right? Selector Tip 1

New feature. I’ve been a Selector wrangler for over half my career; it’s partly how I make my living.

I’m going to post a regular series of tips. Most of these cover editorial approach, which I think is an area that gets left behind. Some tips will apply to other scheduling systems. If you like what you see, or if you know someone who might, pass them on. If you really like what you see, get in touch by replying directly to this post (bottom of the post, below) or through the website link in the Work-Related pane at left.

Tip 1 is about finding your Centre Of Gravity - the midpoint of your Mood or Energy values.


The overall balance of station sound depends hugely on how you classify songs. Typically stations code their songs for Mood or Energy (occasionally both), on a scale of 1 to 5. 1 is catatonic, 5 is extremely in your face.

This is, naturally, a very subjective area. So it really helps to get a very clear idea of what the mid-ground Mood value is for your station. That’s what I mean by Centre of Gravity.

Here’s a recipe:
- Open up a list of all your active songs.
- If you have coded songs for Mood or Energy, sort them by this field.
- Now look in the middle area to find, say, three songs that are absolutely bang in the middle of the Mood range for your station. That's your benchmark.
- Work out from there. Work back up the list, and measure every song against your new standard.
- Then go down the list the other way. I guarantee you’ll find some surprises.
- If you have a big library, break it down into Categories first. This can be heavy going.
- If you haven’t set values at all - shame on you - the process is still the same. Find three benchmark songs, and work out from there.

- By the way, this is hard work. Fatigue can set in. You probably won't get it done in one session. Take your time to get it right.

After you've done that initial re-evaluation, do some analysis work to see if you’ve set the Mood or Energy rules up right for what you’ve actually got. That’s a tip for another day.