BRMB’s owners are re-branding the station. Does it matter? Probably not. Does the fact that it probably doesn’t matter… matter? Yes, I think it does.
|Logos courtesy of Orion Media|
KSAN-FM was a legendary late 60s West Coast Rock station. They rewrote the rules. They defined the template for rock radio worldwide, and I wouldn’t be in a position to write this now if they hadn’t.
KSAN flipped to Country in 1980.
In the UK, the Home Service lasted 28 years before becoming Radio 4. The Light Programme ran for 22 before morphing into Radio 2.
So is it really worth getting all worked up because Orion Media, BRMB’s owners, are dumping the BRMB name after 38 years? Well, yes... and no.
No, because things come and go. Think 70s stuff: Walkmen. Video Discs. Think 70s and 80s music: can you really get excited about the Rubettes, cheesy Disco or Olivia Newton-John? Or, for that matter, the Bee Gees, the Eagles, or even the Rolling Stones? If you’re under 35, almost certainly not.
Orion are repositioning BRMB (and sister stations Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern) into one new brand, Free, with central output and limited local programming from each town – no change from what they are doing now. It’s a business decision. They’re being heavily outgunned by national brands Capital and Heart, who have huge budgets and megastar TV campaigns to pump up their stations. The Orion boys can’t fight on that front. If I was in their shoes, under the exact same conditions, I might do the same thing.
There is of course, a debate to be had about how things got to this position, and I’ll come back to that. First, though, take a look at this gruesome audience graph, which you can find on the fascinating and useful Media UK site:
This charts the station’s share of the local market from Late 1999 to end 2011. Like I say, gruesome. From 17% of the market to 4.7% in 12 years. Ouch.
But let’s dig a bit deeper. I’m going to draw a line at around July 2009, when the current owners took over. And I'll also plot the previous owners over the period. Now look at where the damage took place.
As concrete evidence of savvy management skills, it lacks a certain something. As evidence of sensitivity to regional markets when viewed from a metropolitan base, it's pretty typical.
The last change of ownership came about because Global had to divest themselves of some surplus properties; at one point they owned nearly all the stations in the market. So they flogged off BRMB, Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern to the new owners, re-tooled Heart as a national brand, and morphed the old Galaxy into the newly national Capital FM brand.
This will have been some time in the planning… plenty of time, quite conceivably, to decide that if you were going to have to lose stations to local competition, you might as well let them flounder first.
So, that, partly, is why I think it no longer really matters that Orion Media are now reworking their old properties. It doesn’t matter now, because the old BRMB, about which a lot of sentimental guff has been spouted, has long since gone.
Now, here’s why it does matter.
Sentimental guff notwithstanding, BRMB was an eccentric and very local operation which had its moments. Those moments may have been accidental, infuriating to some, and pure radio gold to others, but moments there were. It was a rough-edged station with oddball mixes of programming, built out of old-school ex-BBC and British Forces thinking, with passionate specialist DJs pinballing around in off-peak hours. A lot of stations operated the same way. Weird specialist programmes at night. Lots of local content. Local music.
That oddball mixture struck a lot of chords. There's a timely reminder of just how many from a podcast published last week by The Word Magazine, and I'm very grateful to them for letting me reproduce the clip here.
Mark Billingham is a very popular and successful crime writer. He grew up in Birmingham. In this interview with the Word's Mark Ellen, he reminisces about growing up in Birmingham, its local scene, and the role that BRMB played. The whole thing is worth a listen, but his comments about BRMB - and me - start at about 10.30"
On a personal note, it's a hell of a thing for a DJ to be remembered after over thirty years. DJs are the very essence of ephemeral... From BRMB's perspective, that deep and warm acceptance, evidence of just one listener's trust and affection, is something stations would kill for. And stations only get it by reaching out and engaging, on all sorts of fronts.
But, to today’s sharp-eared radio executive, that sort of operation was ripe for polishing and slicking up. And there’s no question, BRMB sounds really polished and smooth compared to some of the more eccentric personality-led programming of its heyday. The music is researched to the nth degree, there’s not a nanosecond of dead air, not a single commercial opportunity is missed. There's no rough edges.
Here’s the thing. If you get too smooth and polished, things tend to slip past you. Rough edges are there for a reason. It’s like grit in an oyster.
Once stations started the inevitable move towards becoming corporate and branded, those rough edges were systematically filed away and smoothed down. Sadly, along with that smoothing went a whole lot of relevant content. But the big problem today’s commercial operations face is that there is always something bigger, flashier, and better promoted that’s going to park its tanks on your lawns. For BRMB/Free, that’s Capital and Heart.
Ironically, the self-indulgent, wobbly, ego-driven and inconsistent station that BRMB used to be – of which I was a part – pulled in listening figures that the current operation would kill for.
Equally ironically, the biggest station in the country, the unmoveable beast that today’s commercial networks wish to kill off (and will not be able to unless the government helps them) keeps on growing. Slowly, steadily, inexorably. That’s BBC Radio 2. They have a LOT in common with the old commercial model. They just do it all a lot better, and with bigger budgets, deploying multi-formatted specialised evening shows, big personalities, and music-driven programming.
The past four years have seen much of commercial radio move to a new corporate, branded approach, with national brands, regional conglomerates, and an awful lot of job losses. And in that time the BBC has marginally increased its overall share of the market.
Here's another graph. This is telling. It is, again, derived from data published on the Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) website. The top line shows figures for All BBC Radio listening; the bottom, all Commercial Radio. The time span covers the last four years of mergers, branding and and re-positioning, during which time all the consolidation and and consequent job losses has taken place.
The absolute best you can say about the work of the past four years, and then only if you give Commercial Radio the benefit of the doubt by applying the usual margins of statistical error, is that all this re-branding activity has achieved... precisely nothing.
I wish the team at Free all the success in the world. I really do. They’re going to need it, in a brutally competitive environment. At least they're broadcasting from the area they're meant to serve. I know this has been said before… but in the search for a USP to make their station stand out, I wonder, just wonder, if ticking a few old-style radio boxes might be worth a try?