Sunday, 18 October 2015

Vlad the Programmer: radio from the other side of the Iron Curtain, then and now

Ever caught up with people you used to work with? Laughed about the old days? Bet you didn't have days like these. 

Twenty two years ago, I was in SofiaBulgaria training a young radio guy in Selector, then the leading - pretty much the only - music scheduling software for radio. Pertinently, we also spent a lot of time on Western radio programming styles.

Vladimir Daynov is a big wheel in Bulgarian radio these days. Back then, he was the head of music at the fledgling FM Plus; I'd been sent out there by the then GWR group. Typically for the time, GWR had moved into Europe as the UK market matured. 

Eastern European radio was not exactly regulated; after the Iron Curtain fell, expectations were wildly optimisticNow, it's a lot closer to the Western model. That may or not be a good thing, depending on your point of view. We'll come back to that, Vladimir and me. We've been swapping notes for weeks... 

The Wild Wild East

I bowled up to FM Plus with a suitcase of blagged promo CDs. I was only slightly vague about where my new station was: thanks, UK record biz. Vladimir fell on the goodies like a hungry wolf. Up until then, they'd been taping stuff off MTV. And that was just the start. 

FM Plus was on the 12th floor of an old soviet-style office block. There was a communal canteen in the basement; you exchanged paper slips for your mains, coffee and pudding at different windows. Older members of staff absolutely loved it. Because of the exchange rate, and the fact that I was on English money for the job, I was extraordinarily wealthy out there. I could buy coffees all round for less than a couple of quid; sadly, the staff could not afford to reciprocate. The Bulgarian leva dropped by 25% or so the week I got there; that made the disparity even greater.

That wasn't all. The programming office, alarmingly, housed the transmitter, in a Faraday cage. From there, lines ran out through the wall and up the stairwell to the rooftop transmitter tower. Health and Safety? Pah. The station never revealed its location. Had they, rivals would have taken an axe to their stairwell cabling.

Vladimir, when I came over to Bulgaria to work with you at FM Plus, it was a little bit like the Wild West! The Iron curtain had just come down, and you were all gagging for Western goodies. How long did that last?
Well, considering that was in 1993, just a few years after we abandoned the old system, and were technically bankrupt, it did take a while to settle down. I would say by the early years of the millennium we were set on the route to EU membership. We joined in 2007.

A misguided rush to invest? 

Lots of Western European companies had decided to invest in Eastern European broadcasters as the East opened up. I don't think it was entirely successful. How did it look to you at the time?
At the time it was the only, absolutely necessary step to get the essential know-how, and “jump” ahead not by years, but by decades. In the years after we first met, apart from British companies, companies from Germany, US and Ireland invested in Bulgaria. The market exploded after 2001, when a huge number of new licenses was awarded. That came to an end with the crisis in 2009. After that all foreign investors left, apart from one – the Irish Communicorp. I work for them.

So, in a nutshell, for the people within the industry it was indispensable. As for the companies from Europe and the US - it was successful for quite a long time but it all ended in 2009-2010.

What do you think the expectations of audiences were in the early 90s? Do you think you met those expectations?
We exceeded them. The first contact Bulgarian audiences had with Western radio was in 1991, when VOA Europe started broadcasting on FM in Sofia. Although this wasn’t commercial radio, it still represented a fresh, modern style of media, never heard before in Eastern Europe. In the early 90s the audience wanted modern, new, fresh sound (including a lot of the music that was banned up to 1989), and the radio industry gave them exactly that.

Where's the local stuff? 

Well, I understand how that worked for you. But I think there's a snag. When I travel across Europe, I find it faintly depressing to hear the same music everywhere. And it's almost always in English. I like regional radio to reflect local musical tastes: it gives stations a USP no national station can match. You had some rather special underground dance-fusion stuff going on. What's happened with local music on radio in Bulgaria?
Funny you should ask! In 2000, I became PD for the very first radio station in Bulgaria – BG Radio – that was and is dedicated to play 100% local Bulgarian pop and rock music. That was a huge revolution back then: it exposed the audience to Bulgarian music, that was largely absent from the airwaves. It was a trend within the company (Metromedia from the US), to develop local formats, playing 100% local music. Stations like that appeared in Bulgaria – BG Radio, Finland – Suomi pop, Czech Republic – Country Radio and so on.

You know what? I found it totally weird listening to Czech Country radio! But I don't know that market. 
BG Radio is an exception, rather than the rule. Mainstream music in English dominates the airwaves in Bulgaria. So, local music in Bulgaria is present, thanks to one station dedicated to this music, but apart from BG Radio there is not a lot of fresh, new, non-mainstream sounds you can listen to on radio, which is a shame, as there are over 35 commercial music stations in Sofia alone.

Vladimir, how can Sofia support 35 commercial stations? It's the same size as Birmingham!
Well, almost all of these 35 stations are part of bigger radio groups. My group runs 9 stations (or networks - they all broadcast outside Sofia tool). But out of these 9 stations, only 3 have presenters. All the others are automated, with limited staff. And there's one sales team for all 9 stations, so the actual number of employees for these 9 stations is very, very low. So I would say not all individual stations make a profit, but the groups certainly do. It;s the same for the other radio groups.

Expansion and development 

In the UK, we saw at the start of commercial radio in the 70s, a rapid expansion of local stations, all doing full-service radio with news, sport, public service programming and specialist music shows. Now the pattern is national chains, networked programming, and overlapping music formats mainly centred on female-targeted pop. Has that happened in Bulgaria too?
No. We went almost straight to networked programming. Most of the start-ups in radio in Bulgaria weren't funded particularly well, and simply couldn't afford to do news, sports, etc. In the first 7-8 years up to 2000, there were local stations in smaller cities, but after that things quickly consolidated. Now, across the country, you basically listen to national/network programming coming from Sofia. Still, we do have Jazz FM, Classic FM, a house/ambient station, so things are not entirely mainstream.

What about music libraries? When I worked with you, a typical active 90s UK music library would have been 2000 or so songs, all of them researched; oldies stations used a library twice that size. Now I'd guess most commercial stations use maybe 200 songs at any one time. But the BBC national stations still draw upon huge libraries, with some success. What about in Bulgaria?
Well, it was 2,000 in the beginning, which was slashed to 500 active songs as early as 1994. This was successful – we trebled our audience in 6 months – and we were quickly followed by others. Now playlists are not much different to most European countries – a typical music station would have anywhere between 150 and 500 songs. 
Still, commercial radio – partly because of the HUGE number of frequencies given away – over 300 in Bulgaria – absolutely slammed National Radio. It never recovered, and at the moment is in the Top 3 spot only because of the loyal upper demo – 65+.
So, commercial radio is by far the dominant factor in terms of both share and reach. Just to give you an example – overall share for National Radio in Bulgaria for the entire audience is approximately 12%.

How did state radio handle the challenge? 

A golden dawn...? Maybe not.
That's interesting. As you say out, a question of meeting a demand which had never been met. I think the BBC has a long history of meeting programming challenges – first with the pirates and then with commercial radio. They reacted very swiftly, and right now the total BBC share still leads commercial share. 

Of course, the BBC is very much under attack in the UK from a hostile press and an unsympathetic government. Whether it's Tories or Labour, the government is always paranoid about the BBC. When I was last in Hungary, doing work at Radio Bartok, the same thing seemed to be the case. How are things in Bulgaria?
Well, Hungary is in itself a sad example of poor management of the entire radio industry. After the mess, created with the closing of Radio Slager 6 years ago, things have been deteriorating… But in Bulgaria, as radio is not regarded as “important”, by both the political class, and the economy heavyweights, it's really not an issue. That's because everyone is obsessed with TV - everyone always got their news on TV, not radio. Only two radio stations are focused on news – the national radio, and one commercial network, and all the political and business programs and features were and are on TV and press. So the National Radio is simply not regarded as important enough to be in a situation similar to the one you describe with the BBC in the UK.

One of the reasons I think that your state radio failed so badly was that it didn't adapt to a changing market. I felt that many of your colleagues expected riches to shower on them in a golden new de-regulated dawn. That didn't happen, of course. Nobody provides for you in the commercial sector; you do it yourself. Was this too much of a cultural shift?
Basically state radio was – and to a certain extent still is – viewed as something that is hopelessly outdated, old-fashioned and boring. And – yes – listeners were lured to the “Western culture” which was a niche entirely filled by commercial stations. 

The biggie: It's been over twenty years and obviously things are slicker and more professional. Tell me how your radio has developed.
It is the big one To keep things short – in Bulgaria the years between 1992 and 2007 saw exceptional development of commercial radio - wave after wave of new licenses, new owners (lots of them foreign – from UK, US, Ireland, Sweden, Germany), new formats, consolidation, bankruptcies and so on. All the major players in the market were more or less positioned by 2007. All the major stations and formats were developed prior to that, and no big shifts were made. So now commercial radio in Bulgaria is at or above average European level, with a lot of choice (even with all the consolidation and networking), and a decent level of professionalism.

Talking proper, talking right? 

What about accents, Vladimir? That's actually a thing in the UK. When I started, we looked to big US personality radio as a role model. That didn't last. Accents changed from mid-Atlantic to polite British, and then to much more localised accents for each market. What happened in Bulgaria?
Not really a relevant issue. From very early on we had one basic “literary” accent, which is more or less the one spoken in Sofia. Even in local radio – where local radio survives – presenters speak or at least try to speak this accent, and not the local one, which is often seen as “low-class”.

Pirate Radio in the UK has largely disappeared. Now you can legally go online with any format you want, as long as you cover the streaming costs; you don't need a studio, just a laptop. So we have thousands of online stations of varying quality, and hundreds of college stations, also of varying quality, where people can get started. How do people get started now in Bulgaria?
Sadly, we never had Pirate radio in Bulgaria. There are one or two college stations with limited reach and resources, so if one wants to start a career in radio has to rely 99% on existing commercial radio’s, there’s simply no other way.

Keeping your listeners 

The big challenge for UK radio now is to attract and keep younger listeners who don't need radio for hot new music anymore. I would imagine this is also a challenge in Bulgaria – maybe even a bigger challenge?
Well, everything is freely available over here too, but one thing that helps radio a lot, is that over the years a lot of the radio stations managed to build really strong brands. This also applies to quite a lot of the CHR stations geared towards the younger audience. If you want to know what new music is cool, it still makes sense to switch to the CHR station and rely on what is aired on it. Of course, all stations now have strong, active, good web sites, Facebook pages (some with astonishing fan base – over 300,000 fans. The equivalent in the UK would be a commercial station with 2.7 mln fans), mobile applications and so on.

Fascinating. Thank you, Vladimir. I must say that some of this is a trifle depressing, but brilliant to be able to talk to you and compare notes. It's interesting that as I get older, I am more of a fan of state radio than private. I never used to be, because I had the freedom to experiment at commercial radio in the old days, and the beeb was stiff and unhip. Now that's not the case, and the Beeb has unbent a lot with new digital networks. And as we noted, Western state radio stepped up to the plate in a way that Eastern state radio didn't.
Well, sometimes I too get fed up with commercial radio too and wish we had something like BBC or ABC... Well, not in the foreseeable future.

The FM Plus website - very 2015. They're a network now. 

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


Sign up to the mailing list for weekly updates


No comments: