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 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. 

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.