Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Temples can be dangerous places

This blog is in danger of becoming a travel review - although I'm in no danger of emulating Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson in the writing stakes anytime soon.

After our recent trip to the Normandy Beaches (see below) Jean and I have just returned from a rather more substantial trip, to Cambodia. We went with my cousin Marie Oldham and her husband Andrew (themselves both UK media bigwigs of course). Marie and Andrew are both celebrating their 50th this year, and wanted to do something special to round off the anniversary. They suggested backpacking & cycling in Cambodia, and we jumped at the chance to join them.

We flew into Phnom Penh via Bangkok, and spent a night in the Cambodian capital feeling a bit jet-lagged, so not able to fully absorb its style.

We were up the following morning to continue our journey to Siem Reap, where our cycling was to take place. The amazing thing about the trip, of around 200 miles, is that by road it takes 12-13 hours. So no-one goes by road, and everyone travels by boat, up the river and then through the giant lake Tonle Sap which sits in the centre of the country. 5 hours on a boat did nothing for the jet lag! 

We arrived at Siem Reap mid-afternoon on day 2, and were welcomed at the hotel by BoBo and his team from Ankgor Wat cycling tours. You might just be able to tell in the picture below that BoBo's most noticeable feature was a set of teeth that would put Ken Dodd to shame. He also had a natty line of TdF cycling tops, including a polka dot "king of the mountains" jersey he wore on day 2, when the ride was as flat as a pancake!

Anyway, on that first day we did a sunset tour ride, finishing up a hill as the sun went down, looking out through an ancient temple - and very nice it was too. On the way up the hill we did question BoBo as to how we would cope returning to the hotel after dark with no lights on our bikes. "Don't worry", he replied, "I have a front light, and my assistant," who was also riding with us, "will have a back light and will stick at the rear of the peloton." No health and safety police were on hand to question this apparent breach!

Day 2 riding started at 4am! not a problem for those of us struggling with jet lag, but still bloody early to be getting on a bike. Again pitch black, as we headed off for Angkor Wat, about 10km away from Siem Reap. The reason for the early start was so we could get to Angkor Wat temple itself for sunrise. Which we did, and quite spectacular it looked.

Angkor Wat is one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world - and deservedly so. The whole area is studded with giant temples built almost 1,000 years ago, with the main temple itself truly magnificent and awe-inspiring. it's a must-see.

The plan was to go see as many temples as we could during the day, with a next stop at the temple of Bayon before breakfast, in order to beat the Chinese tourists, who Bobo assured us didn't normally turn up until after 9. Well he was wrong - they were thronging around this temple by 8.30 when we got there. I headed up to the top for a quick look around the area, and then descended to find disaster had struck. Jean, wandering inside one of the darker recesses of the lower parts of the temple, had fallen and twisted her left ankle very badly. She had also damaged her right knee in the process. Cycling was over for the day for the Rileys, and we were forced to abandon the tour in order to get treatment for Jean at the Siem Reap International hospital. Thank goodness for travel insurance. We racked up a $1,000 bill in less than two hours with the number of X-Rays taken and drugs prescribed!

I got back on the bike for day three - which was more temples, even older than those at Angkor Wat, but we finished early and went back to pick up Jean, and spent the afternoon in a tuk tuk (ubiquitous motor-bikes with a passenger carriage attached at the back) revisiting the temples we both missed the previous day.

The whole area is a world heritage site, and is extremely well preserved. the reason it is so spectacular is that this was the Capital of the Khmer empire 1,000 years ago, when the empire stretched across modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and into Vietnam.

Riding over, and templed out, we flew to the coast for some R&R. Jean's continuing ankle injury meant the R&R was somewhat limited, but we did manage to chill out in Kep, which is part of a burgeoning holiday coast with a number of nice hotels (although the infrastructure there is some way behind Siem Reap and the capital itself). The highlight for us was spending a morning with vibol, the sous chef at The Strand, Kep's top restaurant, where he gave us a Khmer cookery lesson - and we shall be attempting it again at home as soon as we've sourced all the ingredients!

Back to Phnom Penh by taxi for a final day of sightseeing. We stopped at Choeung Ek, the genocidal centre, more commonly known in the west as one of the "killing fields" of the Pol Pot khmer rouge regime of the mid 1970s.  As just one example, the picture of the "killing tree" below, and the caption next to the tree, simply takes your breath away.

This is a truly amazing place. Up to 3 million Cambodians were killed out of a total population of 8 million in an act of genocidal madness which lasted almost half a decade. The memorial centre does as good a job as is humanly possible of explaining how this tragedy occurred and what life was like under the Pol Pot regime. There are few places in the world that will leave you speechless. This is one of them.

Phnom Penh itself is a wonderful, vibrant, crazy city. Everyone rides a motorbike or scooter, and the roads are orchestrated chaos. A tuk tuk tour on a our final day showed us round the city, including the royal Palace, and some exquisite buddhist temples.

There must be many hundreds of cities like Phnom Penh all over Asia, and it's easy to see from the vibrancy of the culture there why many people think the next century belongs to that continent.

I know Thailand is on many people's bucket list - but I'd urge you to think about Cambodia as well as (or even instead of) Thailand - it really is a remarkable country, and given the trauma it went through only 40 years ago, its ability to thrive and prosper today ought to give us hope for other parts of the world too.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

I was moved

Apologies for not having blogged for a good 9 months or so. I've been writing a book (hopefully to be published in 2016) and having a bit of a mid-life shake up (new role at Orion, taking up new non-exec roles elsewhere, kids leaving home and becoming empty-nesters; attempting to sell the house and downsize etc) which meant that blog thoughts kept being put to on side.

However, I had one of those weekends last week that I thought was worth sharing.

A bunch of old friends invited Jean and me to join them on a trip to the Normandy beaches. We are all of the age where, although we were too young to be involved in World War 2, our parents were, so seeing a bit of our history felt like a good thing to do.

A quick bit of background if you are unfamiliar with what was known as "Operation Overlord" - the Normandy beaches were where the Allies (UK, US etc) landed on French soil on June 6th 1944 to begin the land invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, in order to end World War 2. The landings were the largest military operation ever devised, and whilst successful, resulted in many, many thousands of allied casualties. The average age of those troops who died (many of whom are buried in the area) was around 21/22. The invasion and its immediate aftermath has been the subject of numerous films and TV series, given how dramatic it became, and how important its success was.

We travelled by Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. A 6 hour crossing but very comfortable. There isn't really another easy way of getting to the Normandy beaches, but the crossing really wasn't a problem as long as you have something to entertain you on the trip (and I'd recommend booking some decent seats for the journey).

We stayed in Bayeux, about 40 minutes away from the ferry terminal in Caen, and it is a really pretty small French town with lovely restaurants. There are lots of other places you can stay of course, including some pretty reasonable stays in very nice big French Country Houses (you wouldn't really call them Chateaux in that part of the country I think).

On the Thursday afternoon when we arrived the first thing we did was visit the tapestry. Actually it's really good - a well thought out 20 minute guided viewing with audio accompaniment, followed by a 12 minute film. And of course it's the last time the French really got one over on us militarily on home soil so they are rightly proud of it, even if it was almost 1,000 years ago!

On Friday we hired a truly excellent tour guide, Sean Claxton, whose website you can find here, to take us round the major sites. I'd say a tour guide is a must - and not very expensive if you are going as a group. Sean really was knowledgable and certainly added to our enjoyment of the trip. 

We started with a look at some of the Major German fortifications on the Atlantic Sea Wall, and then moved on to Omaha Beach, which is now memorialised in the film "Saving Private Ryan". There aren't many places you can go on earth where you can be lost for words, but this is one of them.

We saw the hill-top spot where the Germans defended the beach, before descending to the beach itself to walk onto the sand. The description of the sea being crimson with the blood of the Allied troops who died there is something that will live on in my mind. From there we headed off to Pointe Du Hoc, where the US Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy German defences. They are so steep I'm not sure how anyone could have scaled the cliffs, even without someone shooting at them! 

There are vivid memorials everywhere you go in Normandy. This one struck a chord with me.

On Friday and again on Saturday we visited many of the cemeteries - American, Canadian, British and even the German cemetery. All were sombre, but extremely well done, and were fitting resting places for our fallen troops, who laid down their lives so we could be free. The US cemetery has the most striking sculpture, entitled "The spirit of American youth, rising from the waves".

On Saturday we visited three of the other beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword) as well as visiting one of the tour highlights - taking the Pegasus Bridge, which was one of the key engagements on D-Day, and was so vividly re-created in the film "The Longest Day".

There are a number of excellent museums dotted about the countryside too. I'd recommend the one in Bayeux, The Pegasus museum, and the 360 degree cinema high on the ridge overlooking Arromanche. I did like the heading over the door of the Bayeux museum

We arrived back late on Sunday exhausted, but truly glad we made the trip. The French in Normandy are rightly proud of their country, and grateful they were chosen as the site for the allied invasion, and to this day reflect that with a warmth of welcome which was great to experience. 

Truly something to put on your bucket list. 

I'll leave you with an image from the British/Commonwealth museum in Bayeux.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

It's been a long week

I haven't blogged for 6 months - which is of course shameful when many colleagues are doing it on an almost daily basis. But I have an excuse! I have been secretly working on a bid for the 2nd national DAB multiplex for the last year or so - and almost every time I thought about expressing an opinion on something I wondered if the words might come back to haunt me, especially as so much going on in the industry has a "digital" element to it. So I've kept my head down - unusual for me I know.

I don't want to particularly eulogise our bid (although I'm pretty proud of the work the team have put into it, and you can read all about it here). What is in is in, and OFCOM will make their judgement - and like most external commentators I think the other group have also put in what appears a very respectable offer - so may the best man win, etc etc. And I'm sure Dee and I will continue to enjoy our occasional drunken dinners once the dust has settled, no matter who comes out on top.

I did want, however, to give you a flavour of just how exhausting a process it is to apply for these things. Many people in the radio industry at a senior level will have done deals from time to time to buy or sell businesses, and they will confirm that trying to deal with lawyers pulling the various agreements together can be extremely stressful. In fact when I bought Orion I genuinely lost a stone in weight in the last month because of the stress. Well, dealing with other potential consortium partners, pulling a shareholders’ agreement together, is exactly the same. No matter how nice your partners are (and Babcock, Folder and Sabras are all extremely nice) the sheer act of getting everyone to agree on the structure of a company is a truly challenging process, involving late nights, lots of reading endless drafts of long legal documents, and stressful calls and meetings negotiating over complex deal points.

But, of course, that's just the half of it. As many readers will also know, writing an application for an OFCOM licence is also a hugely difficult process, involving many, many fine judgements on approach,  structure and tone. I've been bidding for licences since 1994, when we got Heart 106.2 over the line at the same time as launching 100.7 Heart FM. I reckon I've headed up 15 bids altogether for major regional FM or DAB multiplex licences over the years, and I can assure you it's not got any easier.

So trying to bid for a licence as big and important as this, whilst at the same time pulling a consortium together to back it...well, what on earth was I thinking of when I first suggested it to LDC and the Orion Board back in Spring last year!

But, but, but.....I've loved it. There’s probably no better feeling for me than successfully completing a mammoth, complex project. I've especially liked doing it "under cover". I think most folk at Orion were really shocked when we announced it on Thursday (Mind you, I don't think Dee, Scott and the folks in their bid were surprised! We are an incredibly leaky industry at times).

It's great to get out of your comfort zone, and pulling this together, dealing with new people, certainly did that for me. I'm especially pleased we hooked up with Babcock International, who are a huge company, and who do things in the way huge companies normally do - with detail, thoroughness and discipline - attitudes sometimes missing from the fast-moving free and easy world we work in in radio!

It's also led me to the decision to move out of my comfort zone in a more permanent way, by stepping up to the role of Chairman of Orion Media Ltd, our main trading company. I'm no longer the owner of the corner office and the car parking spot nearest the lift - those perks go to Adrian Serle, the new CEO, who will do a great job I know. I'm still going to be heavily involved in Orion (I am still the largest individual shareholder after LDC) but will have more time to do other things that interest me.

I really hope one of them is leading Listen2Digital for many years, as it is an exciting venture to have embarked upon.

I'd always had 2015 down as the year I would "change gear", and I'm looking forward to doing some other new things as well. However, having a comparatively empty diary is both exhilarating and frightening. I'm clearly a deal junkie, and in another life could have easily ended up in the Square Mile or Wall Street, so I'm going to continue to look at the Private Equity world for new things to do. 

I'm also under a little bit of literary pressure. Two of my closest friends in Radio, John Myers and David Lloyd, are both now published writers. I think Team's book has now been remaindered (OK - no it hasn't, here's the link!) but David's book is out shortly, and you can pre-order it here .

Not sure I can match them on stories - sadly too many of my best tales have got legal non-disclosure agreements still in place! I'll guess I'll have to find another topic and get cracking later in the year no doubt.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

It all worked out OK

I'm extremely fortunate to have been in a position to attend the Radio Academy Awards most years over the past 25 or so I've been running radio stations, and it was another great night last night.

What was touching for me was that in the room, along with some of the current guys hosting on stations I'm involved with,  Free Radio's Roisin, JD, & Hursty and of course the now "Double Academy Award winning" Sam & Amy from Gem 106, there was also my first ever Breakfast DJ, the inimitable Les Ross.

Sometimes you inherit breakfast shows when you take over a station or group, sometimes you have to go out and talent-scout, and sometimes shows just fall into your lap. That was the case with Les and me. Back in 1988 I'd been asked to set up the new AM service for Birmingham and Coventry - my first PD gig. At the same time, brmb's then PC had been told to boost the popularity of the station (15 years after launch it had been flagging for some time) and in particular make it younger. Les, the then brmb breakfast host, was a casualty of that (I have to say in hindsight flawed) thinking, and I can remember a long conversation with Les in the brmb car park (well, no conversation with Les is short) the upshot of which was me marching into the MDs office to say "....if FM don't want him, I do". I've just noticed on Adam Bowie's excellent blog, here, that Les actually won the first ever Sony for Best Breakfast, just as he was being manoeuvred off (typical) and that brmb won station of the year, just as the breakfast show host had left.

Xtra went on to be a huge success, and my career prospered as a result, so I owe Les a lot for that. We had an Xtra AM 25th anniversary celebration the other week in Brum, and none of us had aged a day!

Had we treated radio personalities then with the care we do now, I suspect Les would have been even more laden with awards that he is (and he does have a bulging mantelpiece!). As an industry I do think we work harder now to properly reflect and acknowledge that it's the talent that gets us the success, and the RAAs, Arqivas, IRNs, along with all the other gongs we hand out, give folk scope to get deserved pats on the back. Back in the days when Les was in his pomp, had they been around he would have been picking up multiple RAAs/Arqivas every year - he genuinely was that good. Thinking back, I'm actually amazed at how talented he was, making you laugh out loud every day, in total command of the station and the city. Quite how he never got to be on R1 or R2 I don't know, but I suspect it was to do with a perceived bias against those with Brummie accents being taken seriously on a national station. If proof were needed of his talent and standing, the fact that Les was given the final word in the excellent video tribute to 40 years of commercial radio, shown last night, which you can see here, tells you what the industry thinks of him.

Moving forward a generation or two, what a delight it was to be sitting next to Sam & Amy again, as they won Gold for the second year in a row. two Golds in two years for a local radio breakfast show is going some - and this years award, for music radio personality, saw them beat some of the biggest names in the business - another reason why these awards are so coveted - anyone can win on the night. The Independent gave the award some great coverage here. Sam & Amy are a double act, so I couldn't compare them directly to Les (although Les did have his fair share of co-hosts over the years), but in their own way I rate them as highly. They've been on 106 for a decade now, and that level of longevity is a pre-requisite for a truly great breakfast show. [As a side-bar, Hirsty, from Capital Yorkshire, along with Danny & Jo Jo, were also nominated last night, and we did go out and "talent scout" them 15 odd years ago for Galaxy. They fit the mould too, and those guys should get their own Gold award at some point for sure.]

As well as length of service, knowing the patch is important. Sam's from the south of the region, and Amy is a Leicester lass, and their local knowledge and affinity shines through in all they do.

But most importantly, for a breakfast show to be special, you have to get up every morning and want to spend time with them. And that's what these guys make you want to do. On my normal drive into work, from Leamington to Birmingham, I get about 5 miles/5 minutes on the M6 where Gem comes in loud and clear - and this is normally around 6.20 in the morning. The fact these guys are already on top form then makes my brief opportunity to hear them always a pleasure.

Breakfast these days is much more complex than it used to be. Everyone has to play their part. Sam's on-air character is the arrogant, selfish, big-headed dominant man on the show. How he pulls it off every day is a wonder. Amy has to play the part of the commitment-phobic, feisty, single girl-about-town. Again a wonderful performance every morning. And then there's the third wheel, "Dangerous Dave", who actually personifies the term "sidekick" since he gets beaten up by them so much. They are fabulous, and deserving of their accolades, and like Les, Hirsty, and all the many, many breakfast shows I've had the pleasure of being involved with, they are truly gifted people.

What better job could one have in life than to be allowed to spend one's days with special folk like them.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Who else is fed up talking about digital switch-over?

Phil Riley
CEO Orion Media
Speech to the Westminster Media Forum Seminar
UK Radio – innovation, competition and switchover

I think we need to reappraise our policy on the UKs digital radio future, and I’d like to propose a new approach:
It seems to me two irreconcilable facts mean our current policy is flawed.
Those facts are;
1 – DAB is here to stay. With a 23% share of all radio consumption it’s inconceivable that we won’t be using DAB as a significant platform for listening for the foreseeable future, and any major radio station that can access DAB (either locally or nationally) will suffer significant economic damage if it fails to make use of the platform.
2- Many listeners still love FM, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. 90% of the UK population listen to the radio each week. Of those weekly listeners, 85% do so on AM/FM for at least half of their total listening – mainly FM. Let me repeat that number – 5 out of 6 regular radio listeners still use analogue platforms for the majority of their listening.
Given those two facts, along with the now accepted view that the FM spectrum is of no use handed back to the government, and that we will always need a broadcast backbone, shouldn’t we just accept that we live in a multi-platform world, urge the Government to stop planning for switchover for the foreseeable future, and just get on with running the industry as it is.
TV stations, mobile networks, apps developers all now have to live in, and cope with, a multi-platform world, and when consumers simply expect content to be delivered whenever, wherever, in the most convenient manner possible, why have we in radio come to the conclusion that we can simply impose a diminution of platform availability on people, simply because it’s currently costing us more money. I’m not sure it’s a defendable position.
Clearly nothing lasts forever, but I would propose for now that we simply place a moratorium on even discussing formally the closedown of FM for, say a decade. And if we did this, I think there are three major policy implications:
1 - We should pause and re-evaluate the local layer density improvement work. Plans as they currently stand are likely to see DAB TX costs rise significantly over the next couple of years for local service providers, in part because of the now delayed requirements for FM switch-off.
I’m not saying we should stop the rollout of the local layer to significant white space. Of course we should. Gem, our regional East Midlands service, is on DAB in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire – but not Derbyshire. That makes it difficult for us to promote on FM the fact we are also available on DAB – which some listeners prefer. So let’s get Derby on – cost effectively – as quickly as possible. But I’m not sure all the new transmitters planned are needed right now, in a multiplatform future, and certainly some of them might be harder to commercially justify, especially on muxes where only one or two local service providers are effectively carrying all of the costs. I’m just saying let’s pause, check and perhaps not be quite so ambitious in the short term if we have a bit more time.
2 – If we placed a moratorium on switchover, we should deal with the aggravation currently being caused by shortened FM Licensing renewal. It seems to me to be almost perverse to be issuing 7 year FM licences if we are unsure about stopping future FM availability, and in an era when radio choice is deeper, richer and more easily accessible than ever. Let’s give every FM licencee, local and national, the same proposal that has been made for all Muxco holders, a new 15 year term from now to 2030, and be done with it. We can review everything in 2024/25 – 10 years or so from now - if needs be. DAB as a platform is essentially built and established now. New entrants will be able to join D2 for example, secure in the knowledge that good, inventive, programming can find a profitable audience. Given that, those of us who have toiled in the industry for the past 15 years and have paid for that platform development out of our FM revenues, when it was utterly uneconomic to do so ought to be given some support here – so let’s agree a 12-15 year extension/rollover and review everything in 10 years time.
3 – Finally, we should finally bite the bullet and abandon most content/format regulation. With National DAB 2 on the horizon, smartphone proliferation and wifi/4G penetration booming, we simply don’t need the gatekeeper approach that OFCOM have supplied for so long. The market is now big enough to supply the rich, varied content OFCOM require, without formal intervention.
There is one exception. I think we ought to retain, for every town/city, at least one FM licence with a requirement to be local, via news, information, general content etc. Everyone else should be able to do what they want – if they do it badly the market will take care of it by having them bought out and the programming replaced. Perhaps there should be a population based fee for format/localness freedom – a few pence per potential listener perhaps - with those carrying localness requirements exempt from the charge?

So – let’s end the uncertainty of switchover by scrapping it for now. Relieve existing local layer DAB service providers of the threat of increased costs right now, and free the industry from the stranglehold of licensing/formats in this new world of plenty. Radio is in great shape right now – let’s keep it that way.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Life begins at 40, so they say.....

In 1974 Brmb launched in a different media landscape to the one we find ourselves in today. Radio 40 years on is dramatically different, with significant local and regional competition, and dozens of national stations available on DAB and other digital platforms. Local radio stations have had to change and adapt or they will wither and die – hence our decision two years ago to create one single brand for the local stations we own across the West Midlands. But changing the name to Free from brmb was just that, a name change not a product change. And just like marathon changed to snickers, or opal fruit to starbursts, the product inside the wrapper is as good as it ever was.  
So as we celebrate 40 years of local commercial radio in Birmingham, on behalf of Orion Media I’d like to make two points.
The first is that I hope you can all see, by the very fact we are here tonight, and have invested so much time and effort in putting this civic reception and tonight’s party together, how much we appreciate the heritage of brmb, and the history of local radio in this great city, and that we are only too happy to commemorate it. We even have a room in our offices in Broad Street named “The Les Ross room” in honour of past glories, and Les of course was a debut guest DJ on Free Radio today – thanks Les for bringing your old record collection in. We’ll call your agent.
But the second thing I want to say is we are equally as proud of what we are doing today, and how we passionately believe that Free Radio in 2014 is carrying on the great work started by brmb back in 1974.
When I was a presenter on brmb, back in the halcyon early 1980s, our music policy, as dictated by then head of music Robin Valk, was “pick a current from the front of the top 40 box of singles, play it, and then put it at the back of the box – then you can play an oldie. Then pick another top 40 single etc etc” today, on Free Radio, despite all the computer technology, and the many £1000s spent on music research, our philosophy is still “play a top 40 single, then play an oldie, then go back to the top 40 etc etc” In fact “today’s best music mix on Free Radio” is driven by that same goal – to create a blend of songs that kids and parents can both feel comfortable listening to on the school run, and which keep everyone happy if on in the shop, office, hairdressers etc. Really broadly based, but right for a local, broadly based station.
And in live music we are still active. Live studio sessions are still part of what we do, with Pixie Lott, John Newman and Sam Smith joining us on Broad Street in the past couple of weeks to record live acoustic sets for playback on-air, and from the days of “Party in the Square”, and “Party in the Park”, and the G8 events, Free Radio is still today ensuring local fans get to see the big acts in a live setting. Our fourth annual “Free Radio Live” LG arena event in 2013, headlined by Olly Murs, was a 15,000 sell out, and we’re delighted that this year we’ve teamed up with promoters Live Nation to bring the internationally renowned Wireless festival to Birmingham, with Bruno Mars and Kanye West headlining at Perry Park.
And if brmb started with personality presenters at its core, that’s also true for Free Radio. And not just at breakfast, where personality is expected. But throughout the day, whether it’s the cheeky approach of Andy Goulding, Dan Morrissey’s subversive wit, the anarchic Jo and Sparky, the ebullient Adam Wilbourn, the voice of sport Tom Ross, or the charismatic Sam and Mark at the weekends, we are still chock-full of larger than life characters. Personality still reigns supreme on our airwaves –And as for stunts and pranks – well brmb married two strangers, and Foxy and Giuliano have just married two dogs!
The line we use to capture this personality driven output as a station is “Never A Dull Moment” - a line which I think would have fitted brmb perfectly throughout its time too.
And if brmb championed listener access, so does Free Radio. We might not still do late night phone-ins discussing the finer points of sexuality – stuff which used to leave me speechless at times in the 80s – but we’re more than happy to let real brummies onto our airwaves at any time, night or day, to entertain and amuse us. Our constant, high levels of local listener engagement are simply not replicated anywhere else on the music radio dial here in the Midlands.
And on news and information, Free Radio earns its corn. Brmb rose to fame covering the pub bombings, Leyland, the Handsworth riots etc. And we, as Free Radio, are still there today, covering the terror trials – nominated for an IRN award only two weeks ago, doing live reporting from the summer riots of 2011, or simply keeping an eye on the council. We might not take 15 minutes to read it all out anymore, but our commitment to covering local news is still strong – and as for travel, school closures, snow lines etc – we think we are harnessing new technology and social media to do those things bigger and better than ever was the case.
And in terms of community involvement there’s no let up either. In the past four years, we’ve raised well over £1m – in fact closer to £1.5m, for causes like Fisher House, built for the families of wounded troops at the QE, the refurbishment of Acorns in Selly Oak, the redevelopment of the A&E department at the Children’s hospital, supporting the neo-natal unit at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, providing funding for nurses for Cure leukaemia for Kids, and lots of support for Help Harry Help Others. The list goes on, and although we’re taking a break from the walks this year, we are teaming up with the Children’s Hospital again by putting in we hope one of the largest teams of runners ever assembled, into the Great Birmingham Run – another civic event we are delighted to be partners with. By the way – we were present at over 25 major bonfires/fireworks or Christmas Lights displays around the West Midlands this year, with around 200,000 listeners in attendance.
I was proud to start my career 34 years ago at brmb, and I’m proud now to be heading its successor, Birmingham’s Free Radio. It is worth pointing out that brmb started out as locally owned and managed. And today, that’s exactly what Free Radio remains, locally owned and managed – and there aren’t too many local stations can make that claim.

The first 40 years have been a blast, and I’m sure that in 10 years time, whoever I have passed the baton on to will be able to stand here and say music; personality; listener involvement; information and community support – those are the key pillars upon which we continue to thrive and prosper as a radio station in this great city.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Can you "name the year?"

"Name the year"; "The Time tunnel"; "The golden hour" - whatever you call it, it's a popular mid-morning oldies feature which runs on lots of local stations.

Well, naming the year when FM is switched off was the one thing Ed Vaisey didn't do at this morning's Digital Day conference.

He was supposed to - and in 2010 had promised he would, by the end of 2013, set a date by which we would be switching off our FM transmitters and moving wholesale to DAB. But recent lobbying by a bunch of the smaller local groups has probably been the final nail in the coffin of date naming - an announcement that had been fast receding over the horizon in any event.

Ed's speech was full of fabulous numbers - % of households who have a DAB set, miles of A road to be covered when new transmitters are switched on, millions of people now able to get DAB who couldn't before etc etc.

And the truth is DAB is now a fixed part of the radio firmament, here forever, but .... not growing so quickly, or so ubiquitous, that we can simply glide to FM switch-off without a care. The smaller stations are concerned about being left on FM, abandoned to a backwater platform. Others are concerned that FM listening will be stubbornly hard to shake off, and we will lose a whole swathe of our audience by switching it off. I think the politicians, (and Ed Vaisey is a politician first and last) are simply scared of losing votes. And FM switch-off is a vote-loser for sure, especially with older people - who tend to vote more! Try as he might, moderator Nick Higham simply couldn't get Ed to "name the year" - teasing him with 2020. Well I suppose that's possible, but I wouldn't count on it. Personally I'm concerned about who might jump on 96.4, or 97.2, the moment we abandoned them in the West Midlands. Some enterprising pirate I'm sure, offering something worth listening to on a still ubiquitous platform.

One of the biggest stats that jumped out at me was that there are 30m cars in the UK, and currently less than 10% have DAB capability. The man from Halfords told us all 1,800 of their fitters were being trained in DAB installation. But each one of them, fitting a DAB set every hour of every 8 hour working day, would take 8 years to complete the task! I know, I know, that's a facetious and potentially misleading bit of maths - but I think it makes the point that getting DAB into the vast majority of cars is just a huge, huge challenge. Kwikfit are entering the market, and as we know, you can't get quicker than a Kwikfit fitter, so maybe they can speed up the process - but still - car penetration is still a hell of an ask.

In hindsight (2020 and all that) I think DAB would have been better as an add-on to FM, not a replacement, national only, with a selling point for AM upgrades, extending local networks like Capital and Heart, and for new stations and brand extensions. I think we'd have had to simulcast the existing national networks too. Perhaps it would never have taken off without local - but I doubt that. Local FMers like those owned by Orion, Bauer etc are probably the lowest deliverers of DAB listening - mainly because it's easy and obvious that you can listen to them on FM. But we are where we are, and certainly for us, given both DAB and FM will co-exist for at least the next decade, we will have to be on both - the lost audience from departing one platform vastly outweighs the extra transmission costs. TV is already there of course, with commercial broadcasters paying for their Sky carriage, their Freeview carriage, their cable carriage, along with online / on demand / +1 services etc etc. higher transmission costs might just be the price we have to pay for operating in the more complex world we now find ourselves in.

The only real winners in all of this are the transmission companies. For radio of course that mainly just means Arqiva. I wonder if anyone will come out of the woodwork to challenge them as a TX service provider when the D2 national commercial multiplex band-wagon rolls into town, as Ed promised it would, next year. That will be the big headline tomorrow I suspect, a useful deflection from the lack of switch-over announcement.

There was more good news to follow the D2 announcement - Halfords and Kwikfit going head to head might spur on in-car upgrades. Frontier Silicon have developed a super-chip, which will work with every flavour of digital (including the US HD system) and also has FM & AM built in. Ford have linked up with UK Radioplayer too to get their app working via voice control in certain new Fords, and although this isn't strictly DAB, it's another example of the technological progress being made here in the UK.

So I can see DAB continuing to grow, but possibly a little more slowly over time as enthusiasts are replaced as new owners by less technically savvy folk being bought sets for Christmas and birthdays. I think we may end up with DAB and FM having roughly equal shares for quite some time.

Ignoring the smaller station issues (which may get resolved via new, cheaper DAB transmitters, and Ed promised some money for OFCOM to do some more testing), I suspect ultimately that in ten years time or so, FM hold-outs will be the acid test for all of us - dare we run the risk of announcing we are switching off FM and risk losing some audience in the transition, or is that vestigial loss of audience always going to be worth more than the marginal cost of keeping that FM transmitter warm?

I suspect there'll never be a right time to "name the year"