Sunday, 18 March 2012

BRMB Radio. Free to go... into the history books

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
Things change

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. 
Frankly, the new owners haven’t done all that badly, relatively speaking. All the serious damage was done by the previous owners, firstly the then Capital Radio Group... who were swallowed up by a merger into GCap... who in turn were swallowed by Global Media

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?  

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Anonymous said...

Peace: 'This is a great article which comes at a time when I've been wondering what the heck is going on with Midlands Radio. I know there are local DJs that care about local artists but how much scope are they given to develop their interests and invest in their interests accordingly? That I'm in a band that doesn't even consider BRMB as a potential support mechanism speaks volumes. Surely that kind of perspective should change and it's up to radio stations such as 'Free' to realise that change - or atleast make a contribution. I'd be interested to see your follow up article to this one, in perhaps two years time?'
One love

Radio To Go said...

Thanks for your comment, Illuminations.

Well, if we're all still here in two years' time (or before), I'll be very happy to revisit the topic.

One small point though: I always think the support between bands and radio has to go two ways. It must be mutual. It has to benefit the radio station just as much as it benefits the band. How a station decides the value of a band's music, and/or its following, is a fascinating area in itself, one well worth digging into.

Len Groat said...

A very thoughtful, well-written piece which makes it clear the knife-edge the name change is putting the station on.

The name change alone will NOT secure its future but makes it clear they are firm in their belief to evolve the station and embace a larger audience.

I really hope they will not go the 'Capital way' and just target under 30s; this narrow-casting is unfair to the local audience and the UK music business.

The main point I pull from the article is, "At least they're broadcasting from the area they're meant to serve"; THAT means a LOT. With Smooth and Capital now embarrasingly UN local, Free Radio does have a chance to make THAT their USP.

Having worked for Midlands Radio in the 80s and 90s as it grew and grew, I know Birmingham is a 'tough nut to crack' and I was happy with our audience and sound in Nottingnam/Derby and would never have 'taken on' Birmingham, it's a very different market, so best of luck to Phil & David and their team.


Unknown said...

Things have changed. With digital, the Birmingham radio landscape has three times the amount of choice - and there's significant extra choice even on FM. With internet, the amount of choice is infinite. Free could be launching a new music station on digital, if you think people care about local music; they could be reaching out to their local community on Twitter or Facebook; they could offer something genuinely different to existing radio operators. They're not.

I've just heard the first jingle for Free Radio, and blogged on it myself. It's... wait for it... more music variety. No, sorry, that's another radio station's. It's... "great music for a great city". Or is it... "today's best music mix". It's one of those. Frankly, I'm so bored with it, I've forgotten which is which...

Red said...

What is told here doesn't only apply on local services, but on radio in general, not only in the UK but on the continent as well.
The edges have gone off, but sadly what remained often only is poor marketing, which is odd as the new entrepreneurs are... marketeers pur sang.
At the time 'making radio' implied creativity, anxiety (about broad-casting and thus performing in some way), being skilled... often marketing was rather poor compared to today's standards. But as both broadcasters and audiences were naïve it worked (very)(well). I'd like to think - with you - the love for radio did the job, but I fear often the lack of competition (from other 'temptations') helped a good deal. Anyway radio staff got away with being stupid marketeers sometimes.
But they weren't all the time. Radio makers were allowed to experiment and more than often production led creativity resulted in great and/or effective marketing.
Today we see a pyramid structure of fear to fail (not only in radio) that leads to polishing away all risks. No exec wold allow a programmer to go wild, no programmer would allow a producer to stir things up, no producer would allow a dj to go on air unscripted and unformatted...
And very much to our surprise the silly baselines and uninspired programming that most certainly already occurred - perhaps even ofter than we would like to believe - in the good old days, but that undoubtedly didn't prevail, have become in some way a new standard and market thinking (or consideration - we must admit that) doesn't allow to go beyond it...

Mark Hanna said...

What a great read that was Robin and my thoughts on this are very close to yours. Having grown-up listening to you on BRMB then years later working in the radio industry, I know how thing’s have changed and NOT for the best. I also know what I would rather listen to these days -- yep, Radio2!!!

Like you point out, Radio 2 are now a little like our local stations used to be but without the localness. However, given good personality and a cross section of music on a national station is a damn site better that the bland highly polished local stations.

I understand 100% that times move on and so they should when they need too. Let’s face it, they DO need to for the four brands (BRMB, Mercia, Beacon, Wyvern) because they are dead brands now. I was hooked on Mercia Sound as a young lad, but I can’t bare to hear it nowadays. That’s not because I am now 42, as I still thrive on new music and don’t like living in the past. It is simply because the station lost it’s personality that I loved many years ago just like BRMB did. I see no reason for any business to keep a dead brand. Trying to revive four dead brands would be impossible against Capital and Heart.

Am I sad to hear that the brands are gone? YES! Yet I won’t miss them because they are long in my past as a listener anyway. The really sad thing is that I don’t feel ‘local’ really matters anymore because of what so called ‘local radio’ has become. I am personally more interested to hear personality broadcasters with a good cross section of music (hearing NEW and different artist and styles as well as the big name artists). If we could have that on a local level again, EVEN BETTER.. .. but we best not hold our breathe waiting for that to happen!

I think you, I and many others know nothing will change when the four brands become Freeradio. Unless the new brand takes away that highly polished blandness, it will only have benefited the company by saving cash on marketing and resources.

One other point, if ‘community radio’ is the answer to what we knew as local radio, I think we really are in trouble. I agree local radio was a little rough round the edges at times and that was because the broadcasters had that human touch with personality. However, it was NEVER as bad of some of the ‘community stations’ that I’ve heard.

Once again Robin thanks for a great read, I really enjoyed it.

Mark Hanna.

Radio To Go said...

Mark Hanna, you're very kind. Thank you for your generous comments.

However, I must issue with you when you dismiss Community Radio so lightly. A decent person behind the mic is a decent person, no matter what level she or he is working at. There is absolutely no reason why Community Stations can not pick up the baton and run with it. I'd be delighted if they did.

We might have some common ground here, were we able to discuss the appalling funding circumstances most community stations now face. But I still see Community Radio stations as places of unlimited potential, where new broadcasters can learn their craft. For that reason alone, you should not be so quick to condemn them.


Mark Hanna said...


The community stations format.

I think you are right in saying to my comments – ‘you should not be so quick to condemn them’. I don’t mean to condemn/rubbish all community radio. However, I would like to hear more imaginative output. Maybe I just haven’t heard enough of these stations yet. The few I have heard seem only to try to mimic the formats already offered by the big bland brands.

Community radio for me would mean the kind of things I used to hear on local ILR (BRMB & Mercia) from 1979- (when I was 10yrs old first falling in love with radio) ----- through to approx 1988.

That included your show introducing and talking local new artists – John Slater later also included lots of local stuff from artists and I loved his evening show as a school kid!!!! Local artists were also promoted BIG on Mercia Sound during the ‘day-time’ play list as well as evenings. Presenters during day picked some of their own tracks to add flavours to their own shows. That type of stuff is REAL community radio!

But dose the local radio thing matter anymore?

I wish I could believe 100% it still mattered. Yet I am unsure in this day of the internet. Web-pages/blogs and social media networks cover most of that nowadays. Word of mouth awareness from contacts, friends/friends of friends and local companies/bars/clubs/Artists via Face Book/Twitter ect have it covered much more than a Community Station could ever do within the current crazy running costs of those stations.

Imagine hearing ‘the local schools quiz challenge’ these days on radio? – the advertisers wouldn’t back it big enough on radio to cover the running costs. Yet it can/is run brilliantly on social media at very little or no cost.

Funding & Costs of Community stations:

I don’t know all the details of the costs to these stations. However I guess they are similar to the involvement I have had in the past (late 90’s) with many ISL Community Stations. The government agencies charging for the licences to broadcast are so unrealistic followed by the PRS and PPL charges that make little discounts for these small scale stations. These with a few other unrealistic added costs make no concessions for small sponsorship/advertising deals that can be obtained. I see NO reason why such high costs are applied to such stations… when those government agencies and copyrights bodies KNOW for fact the stations have no chance of even covering those costs through advertising at such a small scale!

Mark Hanna said...
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Mark Hanna said...
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