Wednesday, 29 February 2012

....There's only a month to go!

I've launched a fair few stations in my time (Xtra AM, Magic 828, Heart 100.7, Heart 106.2, Galaxy 105-106) and re-branded and relaunched a bunch of others (Kiss 102 & 105 into Galaxy; Choice to Galaxy 102.2; Century 106 into Heart 106 - and then to Gem 106), so I should be used to it by now.

But no matter how experienced you are, every time is different, with new challenges and new hurdles to clear. The relaunch of brmb, Beacon, Mercia and Wyvern as Free Radio is no exception.

Of course this is probably the most complex re-branding I've done, converting 4 heritage stations into one new station - and the complexity is not helped by two of the stations, brmb and Beacon, having such a large overlap across Birmingham and the Black Country.

In fact the overlap population of brmb and Beacon is bigger than the whole of the Wyvern population. Just to put it into geographical perspective, the Beacon transmitter at Turners Hill is closer to the centre of Birmingham than it is to the centre of Wolverhampton - and is also closer to Brum city centre than the brmb transmitter! although 97.2 and 96.4 will be keeping local breakfasts and drives, and local news throughout the day, having just one brand on both transmitters does raise interesting issues for us with regard to marketing and measurement.Of course there is some criticism of the loss of two separate, famous, local brands for each bit of this patch, but all of our major rivals, Capital, Heart, Smooth, Kerrang!, and even WM, cover the whole of Birmingham & the Black Country with just one service on one transmitter - so even though both of our transmitters will share one name, their individual output will still mean a more localised service.

Anyway, we're figuring it all out and are hugely excited by the countdown. We've been public since the beginning of January, and have been talking about the change on-air for a few weeks now. I'm not saying we're out of the woods completely, but the week before last I had more emails from staff moaning about changing the milk order than I had from listeners complaining about the new name. In the end, I think being honest and up front with folk does help, and certainly a lot of both research and anecdotal evidence suggests a very high percentage of our listeners are already aware of, and relaxed about, the change.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of time is being spent getting our marketing right - particularly our TV ad. I think listeners would be amazed at both how much it costs to make a top quality ad these days (particularly if you want to include music tracks) and how much attention to detail goes into each second of the ad. Given they normally only last 30", they cost the same, pro-rata, as a major motion picture.Can't say any more right now though, as I wouldn't want our friends down the road to know too much!

Life goes on though, and our big on-air focus is getting our listeners to sign up to take part in our planned walks across the West Midlands this Spring/Summer. So far in Birmingham we are showing registrations up 65% year on year, which I'm sure is down to the immense emotional pull of our decision to "Walk for Harry". The "Walk of Warwickshire" is up by even more, and when you add in the "Walk of the Black Country", and the new "Walk of Worcestershire" (probably the prettiest of them all) we're not far off double the number of walkers this year signed up so far compared to the same day in 2011. And in total last year we raised the thick end of £500k - so this year is looking great for local charities.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

"What's in a name?...

...That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, I have taken some flak over the last few weeks for announcing that we were planning to change the names of our West Midlands radio stations - but another name change we announced yesterday seems to have gone down rather better.

A bit of background. We've been running the Walkathon on brmb for the last two years, in its original 1980s form - i.e. a full 26 mile hike round the city. We've introduced a few new twists, but the essence of having to walk round the outer circle bus route remains the same gruelling but ultimately very rewarding challenge it has always been.

In our first year, 2010, the walk raised cash to help build "a home for the brave" at the new QE (see earlier post below)

In 2011 it raised money to help refurbish the Accident and Emergency department of the Birmingham Childrens Hospital.

In total over those two years Brummie walkers helped raise £665,000.

And despite our impending name change, we were determined to do another walk for local charities this year, with a hope that we might might push the three year total to £1m or more funds raised, and spent, on good causes here in the city.

So towards the back end of 2011, we met with a number of the significant local charities in our patch to see if there was a way we could work together.... and the charity that jumped out was Acorns, a childrens' hospice based in Selly Oak. This is the original Acorns, and was built and opened in the mid-80s, as only the third children's hospice in the world. Part of the original funding came from the 1980s series of brmb Walkathons, so there was a nice symmetry to helping them again, in advance of their 25th anniversary. 

They are in desperate need of cash to refurbish the whole of their facilities; bedrooms, bathrooms, carpets, specialist equipment etc, so they were a perfect partner for the 2012 walk. In the course of our conversations with them, we got to talking about Harry Moseley, who had recently passed away, and was at that point still at Acorns in one of their special rooms, allowing his family to grieve and be with him prior to his funeral - just one of the remarkable things Acorns does for families in their time of need. 

Harry had rightly become famous for his unbelievable spirit, and his entrepreneurial approach to helping raise cash for other kids in his situation. His was a truly inspirational story which touched people across the UK, but particularly here in Birmingham. 

Harry had become close to brmb Head of Sport Tom Ross, after a very moving interview Tom did with him. So, via a combination of conversations with Acorns, Tom and the Children's Hospital, where Harry had been treated, we sat down with Georgie, Harry's mum late last year.

I suggested something quite tentatively, not knowing how she would react. "Would she mind,..." I asked, "...if we renamed the 2012 Walkathon as  "Walk for Harry," in order to help raise funds both for Acorns and for Harry's other initiatives?" Yes said Georgie, provided we guaranteed some of the funds would go specifically to help further the remarkable research work being done on childhood brain cancer by Harry's doctor, Andrew Peet, at the Birmingham Childrens Hospital. That was a pretty easy question for us to say yes to, and so project "Walk for Harry" was conceived.

Little did we know that, after Harry's interview with Tom last year, he had gone home and said to Georgie "I want the walkathon next year to be for my charity!" I think Georgie kept that from us until everything had been sorted out, for fear of jinxing the project!
As part of the preparation for the launch, we asked Foxy & Giuliano, our breakfast show presenters, to go and meet Georgie to help explain the idea of the walk to listeners, and you can see the extremely moving video they made here.

We publicly launched "Walk for Harry" yesterday, at the Cocktail Bar at Marco Pierre White's new restaurant in The Cube - what an amazing place to launch an amazing charity appeal. Central News covered it, and you can see their report about 8m 50s into this bulletin.

I have to say that Georgie is a remarkable woman, and her approach to keeping Harry's memory alive is both inspiring and humbling. We are simply thrilled to be able to play our part in the continuing story of Harry Moseley.

Having now done two walks, we know how special they are - but everyone involved has a feeling in their bones that this year is going to be extra-special. If you are in or around Brum on Sunday May 13th, and can walk either 10 miles (the Family/Junior half walk) or the full 26 miles -- we'd love to see you for what promises to be a memorable day. You can register here

So, whilst changing the name of brmb to Birmingham's Free Radio has blotted my copyboook (only temporarily I hope) with a few of our listeners, the one thiing I have consistently promised is that we wouldn't lose our sense of local community or belonging - and "Walk for Harry" is only the first manifestation of that continued commitment.

And today we also launched our Walk of Warwickshire, to raise money of the University Hospitals of Coventry & Warwickshire Baby Care appeal; our Walk of the Black Country to raise funds for Wolverhampton based charity Promise Dreams; and new for 2012, the Walk of Worcestershire, raising money for the Worcester branch of Acorns. 

Right - if I've got four Free walks to do, thats 60 miles - time to get training.

Friday, 3 February 2012

I was having to hold back the tears...

...inside the House of Commons the other day - and it's not often you can say that!

Let me start  a couple of years ago, in fact just before Christmas 2009. We had not long had our feet under the table at Orion Media, and were focussing on brmb, and thinking about bringing back some of the elements people had been saying to us they liked about the station. 

brmb's old charity walk, the Birmingham Walkathon, which was launched in 1983 but had been running intermittently during the last decade, was high on the list. Over a lunch with former brmb MD David Bagley, he suggested that the work being done with injured troops at Selly Oak might be a useful area to explore, especially as they were moving the unit to the new QE.

Good idea I thought, so Marketing Manager Andy Price and I went off to meet Mike Hammond, who runs the QEs charity arm, to see if there was anything we could do to help, and which would make a theme for bringing back the Walkathon. 

“Funny you should ask” said Mike “but we’d really like to build something so the troops have somewhere away from the surgical wards to relax, see family & friends etc, and that’s not something the NHS can fund for us.”

Well, you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, and this seemed like the perfect cause for us to adopt as part of our plan to bring back the brmb Walkathon, so we duly set about organising the 2010 walk, with the theme of building "A Home For The Brave" at the new QE.

To cut a long story short, we launched Walkathon the following February, and on Sunday June 6th 2010 over 8,000 brummies walked the best part of a marathon distance round Birmingham's highly glamourous Outer Circle bus-route, raising the thick end of £400,000 to help our injured troops.

It was a great day.

We duly handed over the cheque to Mike, and waited for news.

And waited.

Not that we didn’t trust Mike, but the absence of news suggested something was going on.

And so it was. Andy and I got a call late last year to come over to the QE to see Mike, We had a tour of the fabulous facilities there, and then Mike took us into a private room to show us "The Plans." The modest “Home For The Brave" we had envisaged two years previously had become a quite staggering 18 bedroom "home away from home" respite centre for the families of troops, enabling them to be with their loved ones as they recovered from injuries sustained on active service, and incorporating a fantastic range of community, sport and leisure facilities.

Mike had achieved this by parlaying our relatively small initial sum of Walkathon money into the seed-corn of a much bigger project, and had approached US benefactor Ken Fisher and major UK charity “Help For Heroes” to do the heavy lifting. And he succeeded – probably beyond his wildest dreams, as well as ours! 

The Fisher House story is now public, and culminated with a launch at the House of Commons last Friday, which Andy and I were priviledged to attend on behalf of all at brmb, and everyone who walked on that Sunday in June 2010. It was truly moving to hear Mike recognise the contribution all those brummies made to the project, and the brmb walkathon will live on forever inside Fisher House with a plaque on prominent display, reflecting the contribution made by our listeners.

Andy, Mike and Phil Look at the Model of Fisher House (c) QEHB charity

Bryn Parry , the Co-founder of "Help For Heroes" made a great speech on behalf of that wonderful charity, and when Ken Fisher stood up to speak, I have to admit I did well up at the poignancy of his words.

There are probably few finer places to make a speech than in the Mother of Parliaments, and I can only imagine his nervousness at the occasion. However, his speech was truly magnificent, and I thought I’d let you read his words in full...

Thank you
Much has been made of the concept first advanced by Sir Winston Churchill that there exists a special relationship between our two countries.  I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said we are two peoples separated only by a common language.  As with any friendship, we may tend to disagree on any number of subjects. But rather than focus on our differences, I prefer to comment on the things that unite us. There is a special relationship between our countries that is real and lasting.
            One of the greatest bonds – is that bond shared between the members of our nation’s armed forces.
            These men and women have stood side by side through numerous conflicts; some that literally preserved western civilization as we know it – side by side through two World Wars, the Korean conflict, the Cold War, the Gulf War and most recently – Iraq and Afghanistan – our citizen soldiers have answered the call and served with honor and distinction.
            And no matter what your opinion of politics or the policies that sent them to war, these men and women must never be faulted for their service.  Indeed, we owe them a debt of gratitude that is difficult to comprehend, regardless of which side of the Atlantic one calls home.   – I believe our Military families also share a common bond - one of service and sacrifice.  When a loved one is deployed, they share the battlefield dangers and a tough road to recovery should they become wounded – because life doesn’t stop for these families during this unimaginable time.  There are still bills to be paid, and children to raise. 
            The Fisher House program was developed in peacetime, but has proven invaluable in war.  It was created to help soldiers, sailors, and airmen heal from their injuries and illness by making it easier for their families to be with them – to help care for them during hospitalization, and to aid them in their rehabilitation.
            And when we learned the need existed here, it was our great desire to bring this program, which has aided almost 170,000 American families, to the United Kingdom.  With the wounded now together again in Birmingham, so too will British Military families support each other during this stressful time.
            It has been our experience in the United States that Military families are a special breed.  They volunteer to serve their country and their fellow citizens.  They not only stand as a bulwark against those who would harm us, but play a vital role in humanitarian, relief and peace keeping missions around the world.
                        So it is with great pride that we announce a Fisher House will be built in the United Kingdom, which will be located in the grounds of the magnificent new Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.
            I look forward to the day when families whose loved ones are being treated in the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine will be able to stay in their new “home away from home”.
            As in the United States, these accommodations will be very comfortable and offer a supportive environment.  There are rooms to accommodate up to 18 families.  The common areas – the kitchen and lounge – will allow them to interact, connect, and share their experiences with other families.
            We know this Fisher House will be a great complement to the 30-bed wounded warrior facility for Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  We are honored and truly proud to partner with the hospital trust and Help for Heroes – to build what will surely be one of our most important Fisher Houses ever.  We could not ask for finer organizations to join us in this endeavor.
            It will follow the Fisher House model and be built by private organizations working together – to meet unmet needs.  We are grateful that SSAFA will act as custodian and operate and staff the facility in perpetuity.
            Even as activity in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down, the world remains a complex and dangerous place.     As much as we pray for peace and stability in the world, our two nations know the price of freedom.  There will always be those who would test our resolve and threaten our way of life and values.  We in the United States know how the citizens of Britain respond when so challenged.  We will, no doubt, stand together again.
            May this Fisher House serve as a testament that the men and women in our armed forces share an unwavering bond and dedication to the common roots of law and liberty that sustain us. I hope that all who come to Fisher House and walk through it doors will understand that there are those who appreciate their sacrifices and honor their service.       In conclusion, may these bonds we share remain strong and our people flourish, may God bless the United States and the United Kingdom, and may God Save the Queen."

Finally, I should let you know the brmb charity initiative for 2012 is being announced on Tuesday - and it promises to be just as special !

Is this a five minute argument?

Matt Deegan and I have started an interesting debate on FM/DAB switch-over, with his post here.

My starting premise is that the most important number to look at is FM reach, rather than the oft-quoted digital share, as the essential prerequisite to making a switch-over decision. Digital share is moving nicely upwards across the UK, and is now nudging 30% - which is fantastic, and suggests to me that the market will ensure DAB, and digital more generally, remains and grows as an essential part of the radio landscape.

At the same time however, out of the 90% of the UK population who listen to the radio at some point each week, around 75% of them make use of FM as part of their weekly listening repertoire – and this then results in FM forming a significant proportion of their total listening – currently in excess of 60%. Whilst this share will decline over time, as listening migrates to digital platforms, the reach enjoyed by FM will remain stubbornly high – and my thesis is straightforward - I simply cannot believe the BBC, major commercial operators, or even MPs, will sit by and let current FM signals go dark whilst millions of people are still using an FM radio for at least some time during each week. 

For the BBC it would be a complete denial of their over-riding requirement to serve the whole population; for commercial operators it would be to willingly risk losing listeners and revenue for no good reason (except to save the comparatively small sum that FM TX costs); and for MPs it would mean backing a proposal which will result in many angry constituents.

And why might FM reach remain stubbornly high whilst digital share marches to 50% and beyond? Well there are two reasons. 

Firstly, in-car listening. Radio consumption in cars accounts for about 20% of all listening, but weekly reach in cars is much higher (it's currently 52% in Birmingham.) Ford Ennals at DRUK told me last week that he thinks there are 30 million cars on the road in the UK at present, so to start with we need to think about retro-fitting all of these, as only a very small percentage currently have DAB fitted either as standard or as retro-fit. My understanding is that retro-fit is improving in leaps and bounds, but realistically we must be at least 10 years, or longer, away from all of these cars being DAB-capable. Now obviously some of these cars will be scrapped each year, to make way for new vehicles, but even here it will be slow progress. Currently  21% of new cars come with DAB as standard, and this will rise - but it still means almost 80% of new cars sold this year won't have DAB installed. As every year passes with a significant percentage of new cars coming on stream without DAB automatically installed, so the base of cars needing retro-fitting remains large. Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic about the ability of manufacturers to develop clever retro-fit solutions which are simple, quick and cheap to install – but aerial technology alone will make this hard to achieve. For lots of listeners, in-car will remain FM for quite some time.

Secondly, we are stuck with multi-set listening – in bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, garages, sheds etc etc. Each secondary or tertiary set might only account for a modest share of an individual’s listening, but taken as a whole these sets add up to big weekly reach figures. Whilst consumers might well be willing to splash out on a new DAB for the kitchen or main bedroom, and then replace their second set at a later point, I suspect getting them to continue to shell out for multiple sets around the home will prove more problematic – especially with listeners for whom an FM delivering their favourite station is “perfectly adequate thank you very much.” And of course there will remain quite a substantial number of digital refusniks as well, so I think this is an issue of a different order to that faced by digital TV switch-over.

So my view is that FM will remain an essential component of listening, with FM reach remaining well into significant double figures until the mid-2020s, even though FM share might shrink more rapidly.

At this point you have to turn, certainly in the case of commercial operators, to the economics of transmission for simulcasts. And here the maths are quite revealing, because when you are broadcasting essentially the same output over multiple platforms, each platform becomes viable, and then valuable, as soon as the marginal revenue exceeds the marginal cost – and for simulcasts this means audience delivery is key, as audience size by platform is almost exactly proportionate to revenue generated. For most locals who are simulcasting on FM and DAB, I would guess annual revenues to be on average £2m+. Given a local FM transmitter probably costs £50k-£75k or less to rent each year, and a stereo slot on a local mux is likely to cost less than £100k per annum, this means as long as at least 5% of your listening is on either of those platforms – you’ll want to stick with it until forced off. It’s for this reason that even those operators opposed to DAB on principle (and I am not one of those) but who are on the platform in order to secure licence renewal, might be nervous about relinquishing their current DAB slots. As an example, given our birmingham DAB audience now represents  just under 10% of our total listening, even if OFCOM said "you can keep your FM licence and switch off digital transmission" we might be very nervous about doing so, and losing those hours. And if a 10% share on DAB means it's a "must have," that must hold true in reverse.

So we have a real dilemma here – FM reach will remain stubbornly high, meaning residual FM share will not decline as fast as digital evangelists would want, and whilst local commercial stations are attracting any decent share on FM, they won’t want it switched off – especially given the uncertainty of listening habits and retuning risk in a forced overnight march to DAB.

Ironically, in the end, given FMs comparatively low transmission cost, there being no commercial imperative to shift us off (I’m not convinced there will ever be a new, commercially attractive use for the band) and the fact we’d be encouraging Arqiva (and others) to reduce FM costs as much as possible, we commercial operators might end up wanting to eke out FM audiences at low cost for as long as possible. For national FM networks, the economics of transmission are different – but this is where the BBC dominates, and universal coverage delivery will be their acid test.

I could be wrong, and Matt right, that the impetus grows more quickly, but I can’t see FM reach dropping below 25% and share dropping below 10% for at least another 15-20 years. And for as long as that’s the case, it will remain marginally financially attractive to commercial operators to keep it on, and problematical for the BBC and regulators to switch it off.

And if we knew now for certain that it was going to take that long to get to that point, would we today still want to head down that path? I suspect that's an argument that might take the full half-hour!