Saturday, 31 July 2010

Amazing Radio and Coast 106: Ghosts of stations past

Over the past two years, I’ve traveled around the country a fair bit, working on consult gigs at different stations. Most of this has been database troubleshooting and coaching, both in RCS Selector and PSquared’s AutoTrack Pro - fine scheduling engines both.

I've been struck by the lingering echoes of old radio ways, which persist down the years, even while the old premises are now occupied by new staff doing new things in new ways. But there are some constants. Almost everything has changed in the way we do radio - except for the people.  

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Researching Music: Is this REALLY popular in your neck of the woods? Ever asked why?

One of my must-visit radio blog pages is the Infinite Dial, from the US-based Edison Research – who, unsurprisingly, do research for radio. They have a refreshingly open-minded approach to what radio may be now, and what it may become.  A recent post covers regional tastes, and it’s fascinating. Well worth a read, here.

I absolutely love this aspect of the business – ferreting out local tastes, finding out what matters locally. It’s a source of endless interest.  Of course, I also like this post because it reinforces my thoughts on localism. But I’d like to take things a little bit further.  

Our man at Edison remarks, quite rightly, that it’s always interesting to find those places where ‘Mony Mony’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (hey, not talking Gold much) barely register with listeners, and indeed it is. The processes by which songs become popular and spread out to audiences are interesting and increasingly varied. Who would have thought that computer games like Guitar Hero and trash teen tv (Glee) would have had become major players, bigger than tightly playlisted radio format radio, in shifting product?

What interests me is this. If those horribly familiar songs (to US ears at least) Edison Research is talking about don’t light up audiences everywhere, should we question the continued faith placed in them in their core markets? And, more interesting still, exactly what songs are now lighting up those different audiences?  Classic oldie songs on Gold formats have been around a long time; they’ve had time to develop deep roots. So what made those roots either not take in the first place, or, more likely, lose their grip? And if this is genuine evidence – I’m not quite sure it is - that pop music radio's cosy 
assumptions of the past fifty years are turning out to be either wrong, skewed, or outdated, why is such faith still placed in the old ways of operating?

Each market is individual. While we have increasing media homogeneity, this report is pretty convincing evidence that that homogeneity breaks down when you dig deep into each market. I’m not for one minute going to wear any jingoistic assumptions that because this research is driven from the US, that it is blinkered and limited in its vision; I think we’re largely doing a lot worse over here. But if my supposition that local individuality persists against an overwhelming tide of homogeneity, that is horribly inconvenient for our larger scale broadcasters, who increasingly resist any obligations to relate to their local market places.

And here’s the point: by skipping past the local, the network boys are in danger of handing over listenership to new local operators who are rooted in their markets, and willing to both dig into local tastes and reflect their markets. The only question now is: can local small-scale operators in the market and still to come to market, find ways to sustain themselves so they can survive and prosper? The next few years could be very interesting.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Schools Radio

This bunch of cheery chaps (there are chappesses involved too, but they were cropped out - I apologise), are some of the students I’ve been working with recently at a local school – Bishop Vesey, Sutton Coldfield – on a radio production project. The school was happy to define the activity as a radio station, although, alas, of studios and transmitters there were none. In fact for most of the project, there weren’t even such luxuries as microphones. I’m told this isn’t exactly uncommon. But you know what? Radio station status is irrelevant. This project has way more in common with proper, real-life radio station activity than you might think.
After all, any station worth its salt addresses one or more communities: local communities, communities of interest, or identity, or ethnicity, or music tastes, or age groups…. You get the picture. And, just as in real live radio, people come and go, join and leave teams, get to grips or give up, and grapple with technical and programming challenges. In so doing, they weave a web of involvement, hopefully with a high degree of continuity. A school is a particular community, very high on energy, very vocal, often brash, sometimes subtle, and full to bursting with youthful tribal identities that merge and split, coalesce, explode and implode. So there’s lots going on; lots of things to cover, which matter to that particular community.  Radio activities are an excellent 'fit'.

As to the work? Well, we scratched the surface. We made a start, and I’m very happy at the prospect of working with this team again in the next academic year.

This is grist to my mill. I’m especially interested in the notion of encouraging new people – and they don’t get much newer than this lot – to talk about matters of interest, to learn to voice, argue and present, to struggle with new techniques, and to deliver cogent material. As commercial  radio is increasingly rationalised out of having any impact at local level, there is a huge danger that this whole way of thinking will be wiped off much of our radio landscape. I would argue that now is the time to cherish and value these skills, because they will be desperately in demand in five or so years when the Digital Economy bill is… supposed… to clear the way for small-scale and community radio operations on the FM band.

If and when that day eventually comes, I can’t say whether there will be careers to build, or even livings to be made. Radio is turning itself inside out, and for many this is a very painful time. But I do know that radio on all its platforms – streamed, podcast, transmitted, web, digital or analogue – desperately needs good communicators to reach out to its communities of listeners. Those skills are hard-won, and the industry doesn’t seem to value them any more. We desperately need to avoid the mistakes made by television as it cuts costs and sinks to lower and lower levels. Car-crash tv, presented by vacuous inarticulate morons, may be good fun for a few minutes when you get in from the pub. It doesn’t work on radio.  Powerful, direct, loyalty-building communication does; always has, and always will. And it costs pennies… and the will on the part of the powers that be to let it grow and flourish. I’d love it – just love it, Kevin – if some of the above bright, engaging and likeable individuals were working in radio five or ten years from now.

PS: Two days after I took that photo, I was in Newcastle working with the excellent team at Amazing Radio; I'm due back next week. That's a whole different deal, and I'll post in detail in due course.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Budgets, cash flow and creativity

There’s been huge coverage of the jobs lost at commercial radio over the past few weeks. If you want to get up to speed on this, check the Guardian’s pages here. I feel desperately sorry for the several hundred people who will now be leaving the industry they love, some of whom have been hard at work for decades.

Of course, the business rationale is that in a recession, commercial radio needs to find ways to shoulder the extra burden of digital transmission costs, and provide better services to attract listeners to digital. I hear the transmissions costs argument loud and clear, but I’m not going to even discuss issues like ‘quality of output’ now that stations are turning into brands – it’s a pointless exercise.

But there’s a lot of point in thinking about how things can be done convincingly on low budgets. Two weeks ago, I participated in a TV show, hosted by the excellent Apache Indian (check his Wikipedia entry here) from his Corporation Street venue, Apache’s Bar. It was carried on BritAsia, Sky channel 833. He does this monthly. Apache laid on a live band (jazz horns and dhol rhythm section), an audience with things to say, and a key topic – why does radio not do more to support local talent? I was there to talk radio, of course. Interestingly, I was the only guy who turned up from my section of the media; others were invited. Funny, that. And there were only two points I could make.

Firstly: I was not going to defend the indefensible. Radio’s move from local to corporate is soul-crushingly awful for musicians making their way in the world and looking for some exposure.
Secondly: But, hey, radio be damned; great music will find always find a way to its audience, and the better it gets, and the more the audience buys in, the more radio has to acknowledge this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen radio scramble to catch up with music developments it can no longer begin to control. So.... if you're a musician, get great. Simple.

But those points are tangential to this post. The fact is that Apache delivered a credible, engaging show on a minuscule budget. The same applies all over the country at community radio level. What you need, always, are clearly thought out ideas that your audience will engage with. What you don’t necessarily need is expensive kit.

Still on this topic: I’m just coming to the end of a month-log schools educational project. The equipment we were promised has yet to materialise, through no fault of the school. So we’ve been improvising, using borrowed kit, pressing unexpected tools into service, and working on ancient computers running
the excellent and free open source Audacity editing software. Although we’ve had to adapt and revise a fair amount, at no point in the project have these limitations blocked the flow of ideas, and some of these ideas have been belters. I’ll blog separately about this in a week or so, when the project reaches its conclusion.

The best programming approaches, like the best ideas, come for free. They are the results of clear and focussed thought. And often – not always, but often - that clear and focussed thought flourishes best where it won’t be stifled by large corporate structures. If you’re in a tiny operation with zero budget, you may be blessed with a creative freedom you could look back on fondly in future years.