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.  


Sam said...

Thanks for the excellent links in this timely post Robin. I think you're right about UK radio's proposed leap to DAB being unlikely (that "scrappage" scheme for perfectly good radios is another weird idea). Community radio's certainly on the rise - but I've also heard some excellent "real world" radio coming out of student stations lately - another useful incubator for talent.

Robin Valk said...

That's a more than fair point, Sam. Very remiss of me to exclude student radio - especially as that's where I started out (University Radio York), and from where my very first pro station (WPHD-FM, Buffalo) recruited most of its launch staff.

Interesting to note, too, on the talent incubator side, that when I went back to York a couple of years back for URY's 40th anniversary celebrations, I met an impressive number of ex URY people with email addresses.