Three months ago, I posted about the impending morphing of four local stations into one, to be called Free Radio. It kicked up a pretty storm on radio discussion boards, not all of whom grasped the precise points of the post. I was amused to get both stick from take-no-prisoners thrusting young biz-oriented anoraks, and kind but misguided statements of solidarity from nostalgia freaks. The post pulled in, by the standards of this tiny blog, spectacular page-view figures.
The gist of that post was:
• Given the state of the market, Free's management didn’t really have an option not to change things.
• Cynics might say that previous owners had trashed the stations, so they wouldn’t be viable competition once sold on. I couldn’t possibly comment.
• The new radio wars have to be fought differently. Nationwide brands have deeper pockets and more resources.
• Brand radio has not increased the commercial sector's market share, but the 'consolidation' of dozens of stations has cost a lot of good people their jobs.
• The old radio glory days are well and truly gone. Hey, I miss them too.
• That said, there is still value in looking at how local commercial radio did it in the old days.
That was three months ago. Now, with fresh survey results in, it’s a good time to look at the latest figures, and then to ask a few questions of Free MD Phil Riley.
So let's start with the bottom line figure of total Market Share. This all comes from the excellent Media UK site, which has more stats for more stations than you can shake a stick at. We’re looking at the BRMB/Free Birmingham numbers.
It still looks crap over the period of the graph, doesn’t it? But it’s worth zooming in to look at the last three years, focusing on the period of the current ownership:
That’s bit better. A bit. Of course, you can puff this up into headline stats which make you look great, and stations do that all the time when these figures come out. The bottom line is that, taken over a three year period, the current management have first stabilised listening, and then started to improve things.
These figures actually represent the last listening figures for the old BRMB. The period of this survey was the six months ending March 2012, when Free Birmingham was still BRMB. It’s going to be nine months before there are totally Free-specific stats. A further bit of geekery to add to the mix is that I’m only looking at Birmingham numbers. Each of the Free stations is surveyed by coverage area. Across the four stations, in general, figures are up, but Coventry has shown a hiccup. But, on balance, progress.
Time for that chat. Phil Riley runs Free. I’ve got a lot of time for anyone who can run a station efficiently and stop it being run over by Global Radio’s London juggernauts. It's difficult to give him a hard time. Phil doesn’t derail easily. He’s boomingly bullish pretty much all the time. But, hey, nothing ventured…
Given the nice uptick on your stations ahead of the switch – quite possibly caused by the fuss people made about the name change – you must be feeling a bit more comfortable. Hand on heart, have you done the right thing?
"Yes. Basic figures are up, and all the other things we use to measure response – research. Facebook numbers, tweets, and range of other indicators - they’re all good."How did it feel the day before the switch?
"I was quite relaxed by that point. The day we announced the switch was the day I felt the most nervous. That was the point of maximum impact – and we did get a lot of grief for a couple of weeks. In the run-up to the announcement, I did feel really nervous. I didn’t know how the staff were going to react to it, didn’t know what clients were going to think about it…. In the end it worked out OK."Did you take any personal stick?
"Yes. There were a few people who said I was barking mad – or that I’d lost the plot – or I was out of touch – but you get that in any industry. People on the edges snipe at you."So, so far, so good. Probably best to revisit this particular area in a year’s time, especially if the new brand puts on some significant numbers.
But there’s another wrinkle. About a week back, news leaked out about plans for Free's own, new, AM service. Up to now, the old AM channels for four stations have carried Gold, a London-run oldies channel, ironically from Global, who are now in direct competition with Free. Now, Free have decided to reclaim the frequencies to run a second service, to launch later this year, called Free 80s. In other words, their own oldies station.
I have to declare an interest here. I worked on what many people felt was the country’s finest and most successful Gold service, XTRA-AM. It covered Coventry and Birmingham, and it was set up, by Phil Riley, 23 years ago. XTRA was a blast. I hated to see it go, to be replaced by Gold, in my view a lamentable service that, these days, feels like an underperforming corporate afterthought.
When we talked about your underused AM resource a year or so ago, and I urged you to take it in hand, you told me that it simply wasn’t cost-effective, given the decline in AM listening generally. What’s made you change your mind?
"A number of things. Nearly all our AM and DAB contracts were up for renewal. So we had to decide: do we bother to renew these quite expensive transmission contracts to run a service we didn’t have any involvement in, and didn’t earn much revenue from… or do we hand the licenses back… or is there a different way of doing this? Can we do something new? And because we’d done the work to create Free, it made us think that we could make something of that as an add-on."Brand extension then...?
"Yes. Which would have been very difficult to do if we were still running the four individual services."You’re not the first to do brand extension. Absolute Radio have spun out Absolute 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties as part of their offer, along with a slew of other digital services across dozens of platforms. And other stations are announcing 80s services across the country. What’s going to make you different?
"Two things. It will be local – local news, traffic, weather, local football commentary – and presenters will be local too. And it will be unashamedly a pop music 80s service, as compared to the rock feel of Absolute 80s, which aims for a more male audience."Talking local, I’ve got to ask you… the 80s was a brilliant period for local music. We had Fine Young Cannibals, it was the peak period for all the Two-Tone bands in Coventry and Birmingham, Duran Duran were in their prime, Ruby Turner was getting started, there were Dexy’s, UB40, Tin Tin, Fuzzbox, Toyah, Fashion, ELO’s later hits… are you going to take advantage of all that stuff?
"Yes. We will be playing a lot of local material, I’m sure, if it’s warranted".Aha. I’m going to quote you on that.
"I did say if it’s warranted!"I’ll quote you on that too…
So, just possibly, there are grounds for a tiny little bit of local muso optimism. I certainly hope so, and in my view there are very good reasons both culturally and financially to take such a step. I wouldn’t hold out for Judas Priest on Free 80s any time soon... but it would be just great to see this new outlet reflect the pride that the area takes in some of its talent.
Researching what's best to play on the radio is a complex job. When you start looking at 80s oldies, you simply can't take chart impact into account as an overriding guide, because the charts were riddled with dodgy fixes and fiddles pretty much throughout that whole decade. So it's a question of digging into what the area likes best using all the tools you can get - not just focus groups. The best material rises to the top over time... in general.... and the image-driven and hyped stuff fades away... in general. Nick Kamen, anyone?
And just to add some very contemporary perspective, it was interesting to note the ripple of local pride and pleasure that flowed across Facebook and Twitter when Ruby Turner took to the stage last Monday at the Royal Concert at Buckingham Palace. Here's a single page of reaction from that point in time - search for Ruby on Twitter; there's more.
This opens a up a whole area of discussion that I haven't really got space to go into here - but it's worth thinking about how artists find their place in our hearts, with or without chart exposure, and why radio should pay more attention to that process.
Back to Free... Just as with three months back, I wish success for the Free team. They serve their area from their region, and for that reason alone, I’m rooting for them; positive results will be pleasing to see.
One final thing. This really isn’t Free’s problem, but it affects them nonetheless. Local government should take note. The West Midlands has suffered a haemorrhage of media talent as Radio, TV, and press have all contracted. All those media jobs lost to the local economy, possibly 1000, maybe more, over a decade, also represent lost tax income and money spent in the region. Any reversal in that trend is to be applauded. So - more power to Free, and let's hope for further success elsewhere: it makes creative and economic sense.
And if Free can bring themselves to skew their 80s output just a tiny but noticeable bit towards those local bands and acts who went over big time, worldwide, from our area during the decade, and still matter to their potential West Midlands audience now, I’ll be even happier. That’s a win-win I'd really pleased to see.