James, who is one of UK Radio's good guys, and a particularly insightful futurologist, ventured into the murky waters of marketing and programming yesterday. We'd posted one of our new jingles to give people a taste of how "Free Radio" might sound - and James took a twitter potshot at our music positioning phrase "Today's Best Music Mix"
In his subsequent posting, here, he uses our decision to use "Today's Best Music Mix" to start a debate on whether or not commercial music radio is inspiring or not - and whether or not it should even be marketing itself using music as the primary focus - so let me deal with that before moving onto the phrase itself.
Let's be clear on a couple of points - firstly, most commercial music radio listeners tune in because of the music - absolutely every piece of research bears this out. And we need to be honest with ourselves. If this country can produce 25-30 outstanding personality based music radio presenters, then most of them are going to end up working for the BBC networks because of the platform and prestige it gives them - not all, but most. The BBC also does not run adverts on its radio services, which gives them the scope to play 3 or 4 more records per hour than its commercial rivals - and still let its presenters express their personality within its output. Any professional marketer or programmer would take this industry structure and the available research analysis and come to the conclusion that having, and marketing, a more focused music approach is the only coherent way to effectively counter the BBCs clear competitive advantages of higher music intensity combined with stronger personalities.
And sadly, it simply isn't enough to say "you should play the local card then." Local is critical to us, and we embrace it far more than any of our regional/national competitors can ever do. However, the big groups like Global have very skilfully combined powerful national brands with localness at peak times. For a lot of radio listeners, the presence of a local presenter at breakfasts & drives, with some local news, sport and traffic, seems to be enough, if the station's music offering is compelling. This is not true for everyone, but it is for enough listeners to make it very difficult for the truly local stations to rely on localness as their key "marketing" benefit to attract new listeners away from these networks. So from a promotional perspective, this serves to dilute the impact of marketing your localness in any advertising. I'm not knocking localness at all - we already win the "localness" statements in our research hands down, but in order to win new listeners we need to break out beyond this.So, if we would inevitably find a "personality" contest with the BBC challenging to win, and if "localness" isn't the key USP to drive new listening, then stations like Free, sitting in the same market as BBC networks and both Capital and Heart, and with a format that has to sit between those two, need to find a compelling music-based proposition as part of their offering.
Now, outside of music, we don't think we are uninspiring at all. In fact, we think our stations are full of character. We think we do have great personalities on-air (although clearly not with the profile of an Evans or Moyles), we give them the freedom to have fun, and we do lots of activities which we think add character, content and meaning to the output of the station(s) - so our brand message to our creative agency was actually "a music station with character, playing "Today's Best Music Mix" " and I think when you see the advertising, which will break in the next fortnight, you'll see both a clear message explaining what our "mix" represents, and a creative approach in both outdoor and TV, which shouts "character."
A more pertinent criticism from James is that the phrase "Today's Best Music Mix" is itself uninspiring. Well, it's been used before for certain, as have nearly all music positioners in use today in the UK. Hit Music Stations and Variety/Mix lines have been around for donkey's years - and I'd say we keep coming back to them as an industry because that's what listeners want us to do. When you ask a room full of listeners to describe their "ideal station" they'll tend to say (depending on demographics of course) "...I just want a station that plays the hits...", or "...I want a variety of songs..."or "I'd like to hear a mix of today's stuff and some oldies..."or "...I want a station that doesn't repeat songs too often..." so our positioners tend very much to echo what our listeners tell us they want. Maybe not very inspiring - but pretty powerful.
And as for the specifics of our phrase - well we've simply refreshed our "...Best Mix of 80s, 90s and today..." line which we've been using since we took over. We realised that a) it's too long for an ATL marketing campaign, and b) the reference to 80s and 90s would overemphase those tracks and their profile in the mix to potential new listeners - hence a shorter, more contemporary refreshing of the line.
Our on-air positioning throughout the process of moving to Free has been to reassure, "...nothing is changing - apart from the name..." so it would have been wrong for us in principle to ditch both our music mix itself and how we position it on air. Of course if you actually listen to the station, the mix proposition is explained pretty relentlessly - just like all good stations do. And as "Free Radio" we'll be using the strapline in quite an amusing and enterttaining way we think.
And why are we playing this "mix" - essentially the most popular tracks from today, backed up with all the strong recurrent and recent oldies, and a solid spice category of 80s and 90s. Well, we're playing that mix because our listeners have told us that's what they want too. And across the network of existing local stations that will make up Free Radio we have more listeners than any other commercial station in the West Midlands. And we're only about 40,000 listeners behind R1, and 100,000 behind R2 - in a market of knocking on for 4m adults - despite none of our existing brands having had any serious marketing behind them for many, many years. So we must be getting that mix right to a degree!
If you don't believe in research - stop reading now! I think I'm right in saying I was the first person to do music research in the UK, when Rachel Steel and I got 100 people into the upstairs room at the Yew Tree pub in Yardley in 1989 prior to the launch of Xtra (anyone beat that with an earlier test?) We played a lot of Beatles, Elvis and Beach Boys cuts to a bunch of 35-54 year olds - and it seemed to work, as the station hit a 23% reach within a year of launch if I recall correctly (despite being on AM only.) If you buy into music research as a philosophy, then there is only one real decision you need to make - how far down the list you need to go before a song's unpopularity rules it out (you might also choose to lose some strong tracks because they "don't fit the sound" - but that's a finer judgement call and I'm not sure why you'd test a song in the first place if you didn't think it fitted your "sound".)
I recall one producer from the BBC likening me to a "baked bean salesman" at the 1990 Radio Festival when I was on a panel discussing the research - I still claim that as a badge of honour (I think attitudes within the Beeb have changed since then though!)
So - we've researched our music - and it is the same format we've been running with for some time - we've even researched the strap-line - and it has great, positive resonance with both our listeners and potential listeners, and we've researched our marketing, testing concepts and executions.
If you want to argue gut feel vs gut feel, no one can ever win - but when you're putting your own money at risk, you should back up that gut feel with some knowledge of what your listeners actually think about your station, radio in general, what might tempt them to switch stations, and what they want when they switch on.
I think with Free Radio we've done all we can - so let's get on and see if we're right.