Sunday, 28 October 2012

Re-Thinking Regional Media? Judging by the latest radio and circulation figures, that might just be a very good idea.

Old regional media: deckchairs, Titanic. New regional media: Um - we'll get back to you.

Oops. Anyone got any ideas?
Thursday 25th October was interesting. Three things happened, all of which should be - but aren’t - connected.  

The first was the monthly gathering for the Birmingham Music Network, which I couldn’t attend, because I was at the second event. This was Re-thinking Regional Media, a debate on futures for, er, Regional Media

It was a good and informative day: a variety of opinions, but not a lot of cold hard facts, were laid out and chewed over. I was there as a discussion facilitator: to steer discussions with a break-out group, in the hope of pulling out some definitive and positive conclusions. I’m afraid we didn’t get too far; nor did any of the other groups.  

Thursday also saw the release of the latest clutch of audience research figures for radio, which you can dig into at the excellent Media UK site. Taken together, these are shockingly bad for local radio in the region, pretty much across the board. I’ll go into details later.

These three things just don’t connect up. They should. And that’s the tragedy.

The background 
Partly, the terrible fact that local media – newspapers, tv and radio in the West Midlands – is now a burnt-out wasteland. Again and again, talk was of lost impact, falling circulation, and declining revenues. Truth be told, I met more people who used to be in radio, who used to be journalists or in local telly, than people who are still employed in these industries.  

Bright spots? not a whole lot. There is the will to see things improve, which is good, but not surprising, given the make up of the conference. There was the acknowledgement of new tech tools and analytics, especially from the estimable Matt Locke of Storythings; I lapped that up. Several inventive bloggers attended, and lots of independent video types were there, with brave and complex ideas, representing the remnants of the once vibrant television industry in the region.   

How did we get here?  
I'll cite three factors.
First: institutionally, Birmingham and the West Midlands have been outflanked and outmanoeuvred by the competition. To be blunt, Manchester has played a blinder, for well over a decade; Birmingham has done exactly the opposite. So now we have Media City in Manchester, and the BBC preparing to exit the Mailbox. For a number of reasons, the civic and business infrastructure and the decision makers that could and should have kept jobs and work in Brum simply didn't step up to the plate, most noticeably and wastefully at the BBC. Job losses across the sector must be in excess of 1000 since 2000.

Secondly: the web has simply led people away from existing media; no big surprise there. We don't use radio to find hot new music anymore (apart from, maybe, some users of 6music), and that's a tragedy. Radio especially, but Television and Print too have increasingly retreated from any form of real engagement with their markets, obsessing with 'brands' and ‘efficiencies’, with programming avoiding risk and offering an increasingly depressing uniformity

Thirdly, 'local' has simply become a dirty word, especially from a metropolitan perspective. Given the default thinking in London about creativity north of Watford, that's hardly a surprise. Ironically, production technology has helped radio cut costs; but it has  helped bands and video makers much more. It has ushered in a wonderful explosion in local music and video production, which has been almost completely ignored.

Many speakers at the debate reminded me of how much people at contemporary media industries, especially radio, are in denial. It was ironically amusing to hear an ex-employee of Global Radio claim that its local stations (Capital Birmingham and Heart West Midlands) were at an all-time high in the region, when a quick look at Media UK’s figures for those stations (here and here), released that same day, shows that they are both at all-time lows. 

It was galling to hear from Stuart Taylor, the very impressive ex-chairman of Guardian Media Group Radio (owners of Smooth, who have in turn sold out to Global), that he expects even more consolidation at radio to allow it to to survive. And it was very frustrating to note that Orion Media, owners of Free, have again recorded disappointing figures, at a time when I and many others had been hoping for some sign of a local media fightback against national brands. The fact is that no local or quasi-local radio service has shown an increase this quarter. The best that can be said is that some stations are holding their own… and none of these are market leaders.

The decline of 20th century media
Marc Reeves from RJF public affairs, an ex-editor or the Birmingham Post, gave a sad but  perceptive overview of the decline at traditional media. He was particularly interesting on the abilities of old-school local media to reach out and relate to its audiences. And that, quite possibly, is the key.
Any media organisation lives or dies by its ability to build trust and credibility, and hopefully be liked by its audience. As social media gurus constantly tell us, it’s the way you connect to your audience that matters. It’s particularly interesting to see that the most traditional forms of radio continue to prosper at network level at the BBC. I put this down to exactly those key factors: trust and credibility - the ability to acknowledge, reach out and touch an audience.

That leads me back to Marc’s point. I feel, and I eventually said this towards the end of the debate, that the relentless retreat from localism, driven and justified by business priorities, has left Brand Radio increasingly unable to connect to its audiences. Listeners in turn continue to leave in favour of things they can relate to. If the programming strategy of Brand Radio was to compete effectively with the BBC channels, it has comprehensively failed. As Matt Deegan points out, Xfm is now trounced by 6 music. Elsewhere, Radio 2 continues blithely on its way as the 800lb gorilla in the radio room that nothing will dislodge… until, this being the BBC, it shoots itself in the foot, of its own volition.

A way forward?
So let’s come back to local media. Media needs content. It feeds on it. Local media might do well to stop obsessing about heavily researched and safely acceptable content to the exclusion of all else. Local relevance, played right, gives a competitive usp. If – on whatever platform emerges in the next few years – local media succeeds in reinventing itself with attractive, credible multi-stranded content, it won’t be by relying on playing, or talking about, the exact same stuff everyone else plays and talks about. 

The big 21st century difference, in my view, is that the new platforms might well be local, but now they have a global reach. That’s what could make new and creative services, local, specialised or otherwise, stand out, and more significantly, pay their way. Brilliant thinking comes for free. Brilliant individual content that could be exclusive to a station, that reflects and is of the market the station serves, is out there for the taking. You just need a bit of editorial judgment, which is becoming an elusive commodity in our industries. 

Last week I wrote about Magic Garden studios, where Gavin Monaghan had recorded a session with local band Jaws. It was done for Radio 1 - no local take-up here. Take note, local boys: Radio 1 is out there, looking for exciting stuff in your own back yard. That said, there is absolutely no reason why Radios 1, 1xtra, 2 and 6 could not be beaten to the punch, every single time, by local stations. That would be a start… but only the the start of a five year or longer battle to claw back market share for local media.   

This probably won’t happen. What’s far more likely is that yet more new operations will emerge, probably online, probably very tech-savvy in new and creative ways, to nibble away at the traditional audience, crumb by crumb. I wouldn’t mind seeing that happen one little bit. In fact I’d be happy to help.

I mentioned the Birmingham Music Network at the start of this post. It’s ironic that this gathering of musicians and music business boosters also took place on the same day as the regional media debate. These are two worlds that need each other. They could be very good for each other. But they ignore each other. If they, somehow, found a way to work with each other, we might see some interesting changes. 

Media UK; see also James Cridland's and Matt Deegan's blogs
Re-thinking Regional Media
Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands 
is an online petition to try to save those local jobs that are left at the BBC


Jon Harris said...

This situation will only continue to deteriorate until local radio becomes local once more. Using new technologies combined with "old school" radio really is the key.

I would welcome any comments and input as to how we could achieve this; I am confident that working together we can make it better.

I believe that I have a solution and need help to develop this; the foundation is there, I just need people on board to take it to the next level.

Please get in touch with me if you want to know more.

Jonathan Harris - Blaze FM Internet Radio
"Great City, Great Community, Great Music!"

Muff Murfin said...

Local Radio can still work and does.
In Birmingham our listnership is growing faster than I could have hoped for. Our catch phrase is Great Music for a Great City ( I came up with the phrase for Capital Radio in 1987 with one of my Jingle Packages)We don't repeat our music every few hours or so. Why should we with thousands of great records that we all love to hear.Listen to Phil Docker on a Thursday evening playing great rock tracks as well as new ones from local bands. We talk about Birmingham a bit like the old BRMB but cheaper. If you want local and a good mix of old and new music, give us a try on 89.1FM. Muff Murfin. Big City Radio. Birmingham.