Sunday, 30 July 2017

Have we lost much? Oh, yes we have.

Ugly thinking; changing tech

Missing you already....
Things change. Last month, United, successors to Continental airlines, cancelled daily New York flights from Birmingham as of October. It’s a Brexit thing; also a consolidation thing. We're promised a new airline on the route from May 2018; it's looking pretty expensive for a low-fares operation. 

I used that flight a lot in the noughties - four hops yearly to the New York hq of RCS, the radio software people. I went over, two weeks at a time, to work with the RCS development teams on several projects. 

Looking back, now that United are closing my old route to New York, it was clearly a decade when things really changed at radio. Big forces bore down on the sector, kicking the industry into the 21st century. 

Did we lose anything? Oh, I think we did. 

The Noughties, Radio and an unforgiving business climate

At the turn of the century, RCS was at the top of its game. It had a powerful, exciting mix of radio veterans and brilliant developers, hand-picked by the extraordinary Andrew Economos. It was Andrew who first thought up software to schedule music at radio. For those who rage about Robot Radio, I would say that wasn't what drove Andrew’s concept. His idea was simple: get the best out of your music library. To do that takes knowledge, skill, humility, and a willingness to engage in dialogue and take different views on board.

Andrew had all that; his company reflected his thinking.

But that idealistic, individual approach would not survive more rigorous commercial competition, nor the corporate thinking that emerged as computing power increased. By the time I arrived, RCS’s unique market advantage was under attack, after two astonishing decades of dominance. At radio, as scheduling spread across networks, with multiple rival systems coming in to play, elegant programming was increasingly devalued. Automation became the norm; presenter input was devalued. When research software was grafted on to the system, risk-averse programming gained the upper hand for good. 

It's one thing to work from a paper print-out - effectively that's theory. It's quite another when music is set up for the presenter on a play-out system from which there is no deviation. That's practice.

I'm not saying that structure isn't a bad thing. 20th century radio allowed an awful lot of 'creative' behaviour. But for every maverick genius radio presenter, there were at least twenty self-indulgent idiots. Both ends of that spectrum gave management headaches; both were dealt with the same way. There were, and are, of course, decent managers who could handle great talent. But they were, and are, thin on the ground. 

Changing times on the tech front too: computer networks finally grew strong enough to carry the data needed to run multiple stations from distance. So there was massive consolidation: station after station went dark, replaced by remote, centralised programming. The road to consolidation was clear and wide open. Advertising revenue stayed relatively constant; staff costs were slashed.  

The web, consolidation and a takeover 

All this was in the noughties, before the web muscled in on music distribution, undermining radio’s ground and sucking up revenue. Things couldn’t last. Towards the end of that decade, feisty, creative RCS was bought up by Clear Channel. 

Culturally, the two companies could not have been more different. One was a blue-state East Coast operation, eccentric at times, yes, but home to creative oddballs and blue sky thinkers. The other operated out of San Antonio, Texas, deep in the heart of red-state Trump territory, where the art of the deal is: I’m right, and your opinions don’t matter anyway. Of course the incoming company brought their own, highly developed business systems in. RCS became a managed division of a large media empire.  

Interestingly, Clear Channel’s parent company, after gutting maybe a thousand stations and throwing the bitty remains back, is now struggling with an awful lot of debt. That's a change they didn’t see coming.

Much of this is ancient history: consolidation first, followed by the power of the web, has left radio much altered, for better and for worse; there's no going back. There is still a place for great radio if you want it. Podcasts and web radio prove it. It’s cheap to get on air; powerful tools are there at the click of a mouse. So if you believe in it, do it. Nobody's going to stop you. But there's an awfully big distance to cover from wanting to do something different... to actually making a mark.  

Newer, uglier, thinking

So what else has the web given us? Well... distraction and trivia for a start. Cheap and easy thinking. The web magnifies and distorts. Complex concepts are drowned in shouting, trivia and click bait. That brutish business stance of Clear Channel I mentioned above - by no means unique to that company, of course - has been ramped up to damaging levels.

That's the huge 21st century change: who shouts loudest wins. You don't like it? Well, here's a basket of adorable puppies on Facebook.  

Taking stock...

So let’s look at those noughties United flights. They carried, overwhelmingly, Brits. Maybe 80% on each flight. All on shopping sprees with the dollar at 2 for a pound. 

Now you get $1.10 for your post-referendum pound. Aviation fuel is paid for in dollars. The US is costly to reach, and bloody expensive once you land. We’re heading elsewhere for our holidays. That's one main reason for the end of those daily BHX-EWR hops. 

Thanks, Brexit. 
Thanks, ugly thinking. 
Thanks, 'I'm right and your opinions don't matter'...

Things are different now, all over. I'm not sorry I got the chance to bounce around New York for a decade. It's, however, somewhat arresting to look back and see what was going on after a few years. 

Yup, we've gained a lot. But I think we've lost a lot more. 

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


I still do stuff on Brum Radio, a volunteer-run internet station. It's online heredownload the Brum Radio app here. My Brum Radio page is here; scroll down for all the shows. 


I'd love it if you signed up!

The Mailing List is the best way to follow topics on this blog. You get a short Monday email with each post, with the big recent topics, and once in a blue moon, an offer or an exclusive freebie. I won't pass your address on, promise. 

Pop your email in the box below, and you're all set.