Saturday, 4 October 2008

Local Radio - where is the good news?

Here's a little local story. I spent a LARGE chunk of my working life, just under 20 years, working for BRMB, the first commercial station in Birmingham. I joined them 35 years ago, pre-launch, as a baby rock jock, and left as Head of Music and Research, having done pretty much everything there was to do in old-style commercial radio.

News came out last month that their current owners, Global, are selling them off, along with three other stations in the West Midlands. This lets Global off the anti-competition hook, so they can carry on in the much more lucrative London market with, er, Capital, LBC, Heart, Choice, Classic FM and several other AM and digital brands. Go figure.

I'm not really concerned with London radio right now. It's like New York: the lack of diversity and interesting programming is striking, and of course it's all down to hyper-competition and the perceptions of the executives who make the programming and marketing decisions. But I still have have stupidly fond memories of the old station where I plied much of my trade, back in the last century.

For me, there are two big questions hanging over BRMB (and Mercia, Beacon and Wyvern):

Question one: given that we are now in a recession, and that, in the UK, radio advertising suffers first and worst when they cut the ad budgets, is there still a shiny future for 'traditional' local radio when it is cut adrift from a well funded network? Remember that these stations were all launched as full-service stations, and all those old-time features have been ruthlessly stripped away as competition piled in from Networks and the Internet.

Question two: That old-fashioned appeal is fondly remembered by many who listened twenty and thirty years ago. It was that same old-fashioned approach that let me experiment as a Rock DJ, with a degree of freedom inconceivable by today's standards. I went on to record many of the region's finest bands, and in so doing built up frankly extraordinary listening figures, again, by today's standards. But is this kind of approach remotely cost-effective, appealing though it may seem? In short, have we seen the best, and maybe last, of old-school radio?

I do know that it's possible to do great things really cheaply, and that is encouraging. Modern kit means it now costs less to run a business and far less to cover some of the radio basics - doing the accounts, keeping in touch with staff, building running orders, assembling a library, scheduling advertising, setting up promotions via email and the web, and so on. But that's only part of the picture.

Are these old businesses worth paying good money for? Is it worth breathing life into them anew, once all emotion has been put aside? You tell me. I'd love to see it done the right way. But I wonder how many people share my opinions.