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. 

We still have great radio listening, but the BBC continues to thrash Commercial Radio – it’s now nearly a 60/40 split, down from a 49/51 split a few years ago.

The Government’s planned migration to digital is not going that smoothly – the scheduled date for the big Digital leap forward is 2015, but that, being dependent on a critical listenership mass being reached, looks unlikely.  

Why? Well, you can lead a horse to water, and all that. AM/FM is ubiquitous; Digital takeup is slow. Technical standards are iffy at best, and not uniform worldwide, which pushes up manufacturing costs. Few people listen to digital by preference. We do have a wider choice on digital, but a lot of services are shoddily put together, with sloppy use of automation to keep costs down, and not a huge effort to engage the audience. Here’s a useful article from last Monday’s Guardian with some extra perspective.

The proposed closure of 6 Music is insane on so many levels, especially strategically; they provide dirt cheap (but passionate) programming, designed to pull listeners over to Digital. And it’s not a threat to Commercial Radio; the big bad Commercial Radio boy here is Radio 2, which does what it does pretty damn well. I could add a personal note here: instead of bitching about Radio 2, the Commercial boys could try pinching the Radio 2 act – providing great programming with valued and intelligent presenters, and actually attempting to relate to audiences instead of pumping out positioning statements for their, ahem, brands. It’s not expensive – it just requires an effort of will.

To sweeten the Commercial sector in the move to digital, concessions have been made that allow co-location, more reductions in local programming, and the potential virtual abandonment of localism in regional services. That spells job cuts. Lots of them.

Commercial radio's ten-year retreat from localism in favour of brands and national programming, has come a decline in listenership. Sometimes it’s been spectacular. Here’s another interesting article from Tony Stoller, who used to be one of the Radio Regulators in my youth, also from Monday’s Guardian, which backs this up with a vengeance. Hey… interesting to note I’m not alone here.

By the way, the pay’s crap, assuming you have a paid job at all. No change there.

Now for the upside.

Production tools have never been cheaper. Go create.

Building your library has never been easier or simpler. 

Local Music has never been better.

Good Local Radio and the right Local Music are a Marriage Made In Heaven.

The  web lets you blog, podcast, and upload to SoundCloud and elsewhere to showcase your work. Again, go create.

Eventually, the FM band will be turned over to small-scale and community stations, who have maybe five years to get ready for this. 

Even after the switchover, there will be way more FM radios out there than digital sets. They’re not going away. I expect manufacturers to continue making and supplying them, and cheaply at that.

As they retreat to their glossy digital networks in London, the Commercial boys have left the field WIDE open. I for one can’t wait to see a raft of lairy, undisciplined, anarchic, creative, open and experimental stations step forward on the FM band to take their place. 

That’s how the creative process always works: something comes in from left field and kicks the doors down. Radio’s not any different.


Anonymous said...

The rot started for me in 2000 when our local commercial was taken over by an out of town conglomerate. By 2003 I had lost my job of 23 years locally, and haven't been able to find local work in radio since. It was my only skill, presentation locally going back to my school days in fact. If it has been mis managed, whom do I sue for the loss of my formewrly brilliant career? The conglomerate, Ofcom, the Government? It's a travesty alright. For me at least, and I notice that the politicians in my area who trumpeted the arrival of local radio here were nowhere to be seen when local talented empolyees were being booted out of their life long careers by all this.

dapperdanni said...

This is a spot of almost optimism in a sea of despair.

The programming you had in the mid 70's on mainstream local commercial radio shaped my listening and buying habits at the time, and meant that as I grew up music from any genre got at least a few hearings before being dismissed.

That is what I find scary now. Radio that the kids I teach listen to has a narrow populist playlist that the advertisers are comfortable with, and means that they just don't get to hear stuff they might like because it's not seen as commercial.

And as for the reasoning behind the 6Music closure - that's just wrong-headed and bizarre.
When I can slip 1940s jazz, Spike Jones, Portico Quartet or Efterklang into lessons I do - and point them towards bands and stations that aren't mainstream, but it concerns me that kids are raised on the musical equivalent of junk food.

Varied and intelligent programming by folk who are passionate about music and know their stuff is what I find impressive, whether it's on R3, 6music or commercial. (Having said that, adverts are annoying.)

I hope your vision of FM being full of little local stations and niche broadcasting comes true. I'd listen to that.

Robin Valk said...

My sympathies. I think, however, that there is no god-given right to a permanent career in any medium - sadly. Those new baby stations that I want to see evolve will sweep older assumptions aside, and rightly so; the same way that the ILR stations of the 70s and 80s gave an almight scare to the Beeb, and made them shake up their thinking. As long as there is the possibility of change and evolution, I am optimistic; it's the nailing down and locking up of any chnace of change that I resent most of all. Many thanks for your contribution.

Chris Jones said...

Selector and Master Control are wonderful tools. Being able to edit segues perfectly during the show. Being able to think about the links.

As far as music selection is concerned, when I started in the business, I was hired because of my musical knowledge. The brief from management was almost as loose as 'get us an audience.'

That freedom allowed us to introduce our audiences to new bands and perhaps more importantly play album tracks. I am still in touch with a number of people who tell me that their musical experience was enriched by early ILR as in dapperdanni's experience.

Don't blame the playout systems for changing that, blame the managements who introduced 'safe' music policies and tiny numbers of songs in their selection systems. Radio 2 always manage to introduce those 'I haven't heard that for ages' tracks and some album tracks and are stuffing commercial radio. What must the commercial sector do? Well it's not rocket science to realise what Radio 2 is doing but their answer is reduce costs and make all ILR sound the same.

Networking is what has really put the nail in the coffin of 'ILR' aided and abetted by OFCOM's lighter, sometimes imperceptible, touch.

So where are the local bands getting exposure now? The internet of course and some of the BBC Local Radio Stations who have excellent 'introducing shows.'

Many, many great communicators have been pushed to the sidelines, mainly by networking rather than the new tecnology.