Wednesday, 5 August 2015

So what does YOUR station think you should be hearing?

Music tastes change. So should station libraries. 

More friendly advice for the Beeb from the Times    Flickr - Shawn Kincade
I'm getting tired of the endless government and rival media onslaught on the BBC. Pretty much every day, the Times or the Mail run smugly venomous pieces on the Corporation's failings. I hate this. The Beeb is not perfect. I'm one of many who want to see serious BBC production at all levels back in the Midlands. But as I've said before, the Beeb is unique; it delivers brilliant programmes; we need it.   

BBC Local Radio is in the frame now. An announcement that BBCLR might be a bit more personality driven met yet more carping: the BBC is reneging on its journalistic brief; more jobs to go; the beginning of the end. All that. Hard on the carping came strenuous denials that the Beeb was doing anything of the kind. And so on.

But much of this was about music on the radio. That's a wholly different debate.

Local radio and music

For example, there were suggestions that, really, BBC Local Radio should play a bit more music. For two weeks running, Trevor Dann's Radio Today industry podcast trotted out experts who happily laid into the BBCLR status quo, and especially their music policy; Trevor followed up last week by grilling David Holdsworth, Controller, English Regions, who played a straight bat. 

It's a bit like the contest for the Labour Leadership. Management speak on one side; idealism on the other. Over in the Corbyn corner, journo pundit, Rod McKenzie cried:Too small a song choice! While presenter pundit, Martin Kelner, once of Radio 2, and a regular on BBC Radio Leeds and Radio 5 thundered that there were only TWO Bob Dylan songs in the library!  

Only two? Hmmm. Well, fair enough, Martin. Although, cynically, I might be tempted to ask why you would wish to play anything from Dylan these days as part of a familiar cosy pop and chat mix. If old Bob was part of a mix that used his material right, say, on 6Music, that would be a whole other matter. Just saying...

The perfect music library doesn't exist. 

Obviously flawed. You can see it from here.    Flickr - Carl Collins
This started me thinking. A recent project of mine was to assemble a library for a teen-oriented female-led station; my current focus is a music library with a serious regional impact and solid local identity as a future resource. Both projects call for diligent updating and regular revision, and that's exactly as it should be. 

There is, in truth, no such thing as a perfectly balanced and targeted library. Why? Because the moment you think all the pieces are in place, new artists come into play, and far more critically, old artists drift out of focus and lose both context and a place in audience affections. These things need work; you can't set and forget. A quarter of a century ago, I watched as some previously key artists - Jim Reeves, and interestingly, even Cliff Richard - lost ground year on year, at the Gold station I was programming. The audience was moving on. 

Old audiences like new stuff too

That's key: audiences move on. This happens with all age groups, even old dinosaurs like me. I flatly disagree that older audiences are unwilling to listen to new material; so do most people my age. It's a patronising assumption. Were that the case, Radio 2 would simply not play new releases. 

Without diving into market research, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this. At Birmingham's Moseley Folk and Mostly Jazz festivals, you'll find twenty- and thirty-something kids going bonkers mental 
up front at the stage; up the hill, massed armies of grey-hairs have an equally good time listening to a load of hot young acts that they've probably never heard of.

Why? Because this music comes with context - that of a live gig with built-in surprises. Festival audiences go along with this quite happily. The context in which an artist is presented has a massive impact on that artist's acceptance and success. That's something which many in radio completely ignore. 

Here's another anecdote: a couple of years back, I was at Birmingham Symphony Hall bar to watch someone I greatly admire, local singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse. Dan was playing a freebie tea-time set in the lobby. I wish they still did those. That night, Kinks frontman and main songwriter Ray Davies was playing Symphony Hall proper. The Davies audience drifted in as Dan played. Now, Dan is in his thirties - half Davies' age. Dan's crowd ranges from, I'd say, mid twenties to sixty-plus; but mostly Dan's age, at a rough guess. Ray's crowd were overwhelmingly sixty-plus wrinklies. But as the early evening gig wore on, Dan collected an awful lot more listeners, and wound up shifting a very respectable number of albums – all to Ray Davies fans. Of course, it helps if your audience has a taste for good songwriting, and Dan and Ray's audiences definitely have that in common. 

Songs travel

    I'm sure I had it here somewhere....           Flickr - Marc Wathleu
A further factor is how songs take on a life of their own once they're in the public domain. It's definitely not just the charts, or research, that radio people need to be on top of. Now, with digital distribution driving things, it's harder and harder to predict what will stick, why it will stick, and who it will stick with. Word moves from person to person, though Spotify and Apple Music, on YouTube, and so on. I think that's why stations that have a strong and continuous dialogue, based on trust and respect for their audiences, tend to do better than stations who work off a lump of super-safe songs. If a station never does much more with songs than use them as filler in between speech items, that devalues the music, and effectively says to the audience that their tastes are a secondary consideration.

So... what matters?

So to the key point. How do stations and programmers know what is going to matter to their listeners? And even more importantly, how do they spot what's gone stale, especially when not working with a hyper-responsive young listenership? Well, here's a few revolutionary ideas:

Age-appropriate matters. The notion of pensioners trying to be ultra-hip and down with the kids never fails to raise a laugh. It's a comedy cliche. But turn it around: there's just as little point in hot young thirty-something radio guns picking music for an audience twice their age that they just don't understand and were never part of. That's exactly why so many Gold stations have lost their listeners. 

Good stations trust their audiences. Look at Radio 2. 

Set and forget doesn't work. The moment it's set, it's already wrong. Your personal music collection doesn't stand still, ever. Bands' or musicians' live set lists, which often develop in response to audience reaction, are the same: you add, play 
favourites a lot, relegate stuff you're tired of, and eventually prune. Now, think of a personal music collection, or a live music set, as the basis for a station. Interesting, isn't it?

Where's the good stuff? Where's the USP?

That's the holy grail. I once did database and software work at a commercial station in Dundee, where most of Snow Patrol come from. The chain that owned them applied a national music policy. It was, I believe, generated in South-East England. That station, along with all the other stations in the chain, played Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars heavily, for well over a year. It drove their jocks mad; if you worked a five hour shift there, you'd almost certainly play the thing twice. Every day. For a year.

Their reasoning? 'Chasing Cars' tested well in their research and didn't scare any horses. The specific, and very localised, Dundee flaw in that reasoning was that Snow Patrol were big figures in their home town. But 'Chasing Cars' was their only song on this station – even after the band declared themselves sick to the back teeth of it. The rival stations played the local card: lots of different Snow Patrol songs. Guess who got the best audience? Not my boys, I'm sorry to say. They had a USP staring them in the face, and they knew it. They weren't allowed to take advantage of it.

Each station has a different market. Those stations who manage to put their fingers on that market's sweet spot score well. From local to national, from young to old, from general to specialist, those USPs change, massively. But they're there to be found and worked on. 

Reflecting tastes in a station's market is always a good step. It's just how far stations are prepared to take that idea as they drill down into their audience, and how much legwork they want to put in, that's the interesting point. For my money, a nation-wide music policy is just fine for a national station, but it always brings problems when you go local. 

Your thoughts would, as always, be most welcome.

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1 comment:

Rod Gilchrist said...

Succinctly put, Robin. I'm sure we all have our favourite presenters on the Radio, and some of us are always on the search and reasonably open minded, thatsprobably why personally I have a rather large music library, that friends come around to listen too...!!