Saturday, 29 August 2009

Buddy, can you spare half a million?

There was an interesting if depressing article on Community Radio Monday 24th in the Guardian, from Steve Buckley, one of the stalwarts of the movement. It got me thinking, and sparked some vigorous debate in the online comments. I'm posting - belatedly - because there's so much to say, not all of it cheering.

The case for governmental Community Radio funding is so clear so and simple. And yet, and yet...

I've posted several times on this blog about visiting Community stations as an interview guest. I'm a thoroughly interested observer: the vibe of a buzzing station is something I really enjoy, and I've found that exact same vibe at all levels of the industry, including at Community level. I am both genuinely impressed with some of the efforts put in at hyper-local level, and genuinely depressed at some of the output I've listened to.

I suppose the most engaging thing about Community Radio is that it truly depends on the efforts of a few people at each station putting in ridiculous amounts of time and effort to stack up a wobbly broadcast edifice against all the odds. I admire that enormously. Leaving that hard work aside, you don't set up a station for free, and a key point in Steve Buckley's article is that promised support funding has been both sparse and unevenly distributed.

But once you open up that funding discussion, things start to get hazy. As I see it, the distinction between small-scale Commercial Radio and Community Radio is getting more and more blurred. The line between the two becomes harder still to draw once Community stations are allowed to sell advertising, raise sponsorship funds, and the like. It's understandable that Commercial Radio is not about to support funding initiatives that would encourage competition from the Community sector, while at the same time seeing some of the commercial revenue they would expect to receive drifting away to the Community boys. And there is also the awkward fact that some Community operations might well be accused of being more interested in getting the funding than serving their audiences.

That said, the good side of that line-blurring is that it should remind us that Radio, like Football, does have a pyramid structure. In Radio, the current legislative structure is criticised at each level of that pyramid. Worse, it offers no defined paths for practitioners to move around. But it is a pyramid structure nonetheless, and we should acknowledge this.

I don't see a perfect solution, probably because there isn't one. Funding is needed to up-skill community stations, give a better experience to the listener, better training to station volunteers, and, vitally, ensure the stations' survival; no argument there. But I can see why the Commercial boys don't want the Community stations firing on all cylinders, and start nipping at their heels - and cash flow. But possibly, despite all the horrible compromises that external funding can bring, that's exactly how it should be.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Decline and fall?

I read a book review last week of a work covering the spectacular, ego-driven, cocaine-fuelled, decline and fall of the record industry. As I was prepping this post, I checked on Amazon on to be sure I had the title right, looking for books on the Record Industry, decline and fall of. Blimey, there's dozens of them. Talk about Hollywood Babylon revisited.

Record industry depravity aside, the review sparked a notion for this post. Some years back, a very savvy and smooth operator, Tim Blackmore, was in charge of the Radio Academy. This is a UK industry talking shop, and I was, and still am, a member. If you care about broadcasting in the UK, you should be a member too. Tim set up a meeting which brought together music radio types and some senior music producers - respected players in the then ego-driven, cocaine-fuelled, etc, etc, record industry - to discuss common ground. You know, all music lovers together, that sort of thing.

Only trouble was... there really wasn't any common ground. Early on, I wittered on worthily about radio's need to relate to its audiences first and foremost, and if that meant radio could support record industry priorities, that was fine and dandy; but that we could not honestly be expected to place their priorities above our own. Blissfully unaware of their reactions, I ploughed on about it was now difficult to trust the chart as a barometer of public taste, and how it made sense to do some research into local sales patterns.

Well, that went down like a lead balloon with the producers. And when the producers in turn talked approvingly about hyping sales to put records into the charts so that radio would be forced to play their product, that went down like a lead balloon with me and not a few others.

Of course, that was in the days of serious audience figures for Top Of The Pops, when Radio 1 was the biggest station in the UK, and Radio 2 was definitely... not. Since that time, record sales have largely tanked, the chart has lost all credibility as a programming tool, and a lot of radio has programmed increasingly conservatively using in-house research. What we didn't expect then was the web: This punched a dirty great hole through all our cosy assumptions. I'm not unhappy at the changes: I'm hearing so much great music from the web - stuff that doesn't fit the financial model the record industry grew fat on. And, as I have already said, I'm not at all unhappy that thousands of new players are experimenting with radio, also on the web.

What I would like to see is some way that the new cream can rise to the top. We're not there yet. But I'm happy to wait. In the meantime, I would love to see a companion Radio Babylon-style book or two about the ego-driven cocaine-fuelled big beasts... of radio... back in the day.