Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Who's listening to what?

I spent some time yesterday at Absolute Radio's studios in London. My main purpose was to take a closer look at one of their new online products, comparemyradio. This is a very cute piece of software, and it has caused no end of fuss in the very closed hothouse world of UK Radio. Basically, this software tracks plays of songs on a number of major stations – most of the big ones, in fact – and lets you compare who plays what, how often, and where the overlaps are. It’s open to anyone to play with, and it throws up some very interesting perspectives.

Full disclosure: I author help for a heavyweight professional media analysis software package called Media Monitors, a sister company to RCS, the Selector people, for whom I also write help packages. So I had more than a pure radio interest: I wanted to see what the One Golden Square Labs boys were up to, what their analysis kit could do… and, above all, exactly why they chose to share all this with you and me.

Absolute were the soul of hospitality, in keeping with their mission statement of openness and accountability, which I applaud. I’m all for exchanging ideas and comparing notes. Personally, I'm not threatened by the idea of sharing what I know. Those that do feel this way, in my opinion, lose out, and wind up hobbling their own creativity. That said, I didn’t quite get all the answers I was looking for, but I’ll come back to that.

Comparemyradio went public last week and instantly kicked up a fuss. Bauer Media’s Kiss-fm promptly disabled their 'now playing' site feed, which is where the comparemyradio software scrapes its data from, arguing that their daytime output does not reflect the full range of output from their specialist shows, which presumably do not feed their data out in such detail. When I looked this morning, BRMB had also lifted up its skirts and (note this page may have changed again if you check it) removed its output from Absolute’s grasp. Other industry operators have publicly expressed their irritation.

This is being just a trifle precious. A station’s output is public. Once broadcast, it’s published, it’s out there. Anybody who wants to take the time and trouble can study the output, analyse it, and draw their own conclusions. What comparemyradio has done is simply make this a lot easier. However, some stations don’t exactly look that great under this new bright light. So it’s fair to say that Absolute are being a mite provocative. The most provocative tool of all is something they call the variety index. This charts the ratio of lightly played material as a proportion of overall output. Clearly, the greater number of songs which get unique plays over a given period, the more genuine variety the station can claim to be offering. To put it another way: if you play 300 songs a day, and 150 of those are unique plays, you’ve got a lot of variety. But if you play ten songs six times a day, another 30 songs three times a day, and 60 more twice a day, there’s only 30 single play slots left in your day, so you’ve got less room to mix it up.

I really wanted to do a comparison on all West Midlands stations, as this blog focusses on this area. I’ve have loved to have BRMB’s figures, but, as mentioned, they’ve blocked this now (boo! hiss! shame!). But Heart West Midlands has a variety index of 11%, not entirely encouraging in a station that claims to offer more music variety. Smooth London, whose output is uncannily close that that at Smooth Birmingham, can offer a respectable 26%. But scooting over to Radio 2, the big beast in the radio jungle, we see a huge variety index of 60%, which must reflect their detailed and admirable specialist show output, as well as their large (by today’s standards) active daytime library. It presents them in a frankly golden light, but then, look at their listening figures. And what about Absolute themselves, purveyors of this provocative package? Well, their flagship service offers a (not at all bad, but could do better in my view) figure of 20%.

So what are we to make of all this data? Well, for people like me, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a useful new rough and ready tool to get a feel for certain areas. So I’m quite pleased it’s there. It’s certainly stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment in the industry, which I can happily live with. There are questions as to the validity of the data and the accuracy of the source material that is scraped to analyse in the first place, but Absolute do acknowledge this. I also heard dark mutterings yesterday about the use of other public streaming sites’ software to do some of the heavy lifting in the analysis area, and that worries me – the more third party involvement, the less trustworthy the data tends to be. But I have no way of verifying this.

The primary beneficiary of all this has to be, of course, Absolute Radio. They have offered their users something new, which might just be a novelty. Or it might be something to raise the company’s profile – chalk up a success there – and keep users on site to explore some of their other products. So in terms of building relationships with listeners while dissing the opposition, it’s pretty cute and Imaginative.

A closing note: Anthony Abott, the courteous and affable Absolute Radio webmaster who spent time with me, and to whom I extend my thanks, checked this blog out before I arrived. He in turn was interested in my championing of local bands and my mantra that local radio benefits from exposing the best of its local talent. Now, this is something that makes no sense whatsoever from a London or a national perspective, so I can see why he was curious. I’m sure there are millions of interesting music scenes in London that aren’t getting the exposure they deserve – that’s the problem with radio in big cities: it's too damn conservative because it's too damn competitive. New York is the same, which is even more tragic.

But this really does give operators outside of the smoke a big advantage, where cities and regions have much stronger senses of local identity. And how does this tie in with what I’ve been discussing? Simple. Forget about variety indexes just for a moment. Forget that hugely depressing overlap between stations. Look instead at the USP for your market. This is something the big boys can’t ever do. If nothing else, comparemyradio has shone a dirty great light into this area. It’s up to local stations to exploit what they can learn from it. If that includes bumping up a variety index by championing bands that you know for certain matter to your audience, then it’s all good.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

UB40 play a boozer in downtown Brum shock

The very excellent Rainbow in Digbeth (one of Birmingham's best boho/creative quarters) needs to raise cash. Fast. The goal is to pay for a roof over the outside gig area, so cutting noise levels, and placating the Council worthies who have visited noise abatement orders on them. It's VERY important that the Rainbow survives as a live venue. It's been looking worse and worse for Kent Davis and his team; see the links at the bottom of this post if you want to read up on it all. But now... step forward UB40.

UB40, bless them, have decided to play a benefit for the Rainbow Roof fund. What a bunch of absolute princes. This is a fantastic gesture. The date for this special gig is November 3rd. And the venue is not that big, so (if there are any tickets left: there's a link posted below) you can look forward to seeing UB40 in a sweaty crowded stand-up venue, the way it used to be back in the early 80s before they broke big. I can't wait.

There's are no freebies or backstage passes on this one; the tickets are for a good cause: preserving one of the city's best and most adventurous live music venues. We need the Rainbow. In fact, to reverse the grim trend of this past decade, we need several Rainbows. If you can, you should help. This is a great way to do it.

Buy tickets - if there are any left -
and donate to the fund here
Read up on the background: it's a sad but fascinating saga of urban redevelopment here

Thursday, 8 October 2009

John Russell - an appreciation

Gatekeepers don't have an easy time of it.. They’re the ones standing in between you and your next goal, and it's their job to decide when it’s right to let you through. The more you bang on the gate, the more they have to hold it shut until they think you’re ready. Whether they are right or wrong is not really the issue. They’re always, ALWAYS, there. And, as a result, they take a lot of heat.

We all have gatekeepers, who let us through, who sometimes encourage us, and who set us on our way. Often, we don’t appreciate what they do, let alone why. John Russell, who died a few days ago, was one of my most important gatekeepers. He was the first Programme Controller at BRMB, and I had no idea how his opening the gate for me would affect my life.