Friday, 31 August 2012

Don't Stop Believing


We are testing Free Radio 80s - and it sounds great.

It's particularly poignant for me to be launching a new station on 1359 and 1152 am, as these were the original frequencies for Xtra AM, which was my first station launch, back in 1989. Free Radio 80s will actually cover a much larger area, being also available on the Wolverhampton/Shropshire AM frequencies too. The Shropshire 1017 AM TX is in particular a "big stick" (technical term) which means folk as far up north as the Wirral should be able to tune in if they have a decent medium wave radio. I think the predictions from Arqiva are that over 5m people will be able to hear the station during daytimes!

Why have we done it though?

Well, we inherited "Gold" on AM when we bought the Orion stations, and really didn't have the time at first to do much with the frequencies. Gold has been quite successful in audience terms, with over 100,000 listeners regularly tuning in across the patch, and both David and I are actually fans of the station itself - it does what is says on the tin, very effectively.

In our patch, the audience for Gold has actually increased under Orion's ownership, and we think a fair amount of the station's recent success is because of our investment in football commentary, of which more later.

However, three years in, we faced a real dilemma. Nearly all of our transmission agreements were up for renewal (on both AM and DAB), and in truth although the Gold service was doing OK from an audience perspective, it was losing us money hand over fist. The TX contracts, and sports rights deals, were costing far more than the station was bringing in in ad revenues. And our own sales teams were finding it difficult to sell, because it was a disconnected national station with no relevance to our local FM output.

So we faced a choice. Close the transmitters down and hand the licences back, or see if there was a way of doing things differently. We decided to have one last go at making a predominantly AM service workable. We've negotiated long and hard with our transmission partners, and been prepared to compromise in order to bring our TX bill down. We've also redone our football deals to make that element of the output most cost-effective. The final element was to make the station one our sales teams could go out and sell easily as an add-on to our FM output.

Changing our FM stations to one brand gave us the opportunity to create a new sister brand - and that was how Free Radio 80s was born.

Why did we go for 80s?

Well to be honest we decided we didn't want to replicate a pure 60s/70s/80s oldies type service, as we are sure Gold will still be available to oldies fans on DTV, online, and possibly back on DAB. We needed to create a station which lived within our format parameters (Oldies for people aged 35-54) but which was distinctive and could generate good word of mouth (as we're not planning a big marketing push) and which felt like it was genuinely "the next station along demographically" to Free Radio FM, making joint selling possible. 80s jumped out in our brainstorming, and we all felt comfortable with it from the start.

Sitting here writing this I am listening to the tests - and it sounds absolutely great to me. Pure pop from a great music decade.

The station itself will have a bunch of real DJs - Dave Sherwood, David Francis, Tim Disney, Fresh, Ed Nell and of course Tom Ross. We'll be running local news, weather, travel for the West Midlands during peaktimes, and of course Tom will be running football commentary across the station for all of our local teams, splitting output across the frequencies when appropriate.

Changing stations and brands is always a risk - and Free Radio 80s represents a considerable investment by Orion in keeping some transmitters going with quality output when we could easily have just switched them off - but we think it'll work out just fine.

And listening this morning, I'm feeling very positive. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

We're all going on a Summer Holiday (from the regulators)

I haven't blogged for quite some time, but I have been a) busy; b) on holiday and c) at the Olympics. So a word about b) and c) before returning to a)

Holiday was lovely. Mallorca. I miss going to Florida (which we did a few times when the kids were small & the call of theme parks was overwhelming) because whilst there I got to hear a couple of weeks of US radio - always interesting to hear how things are going there. I'm sure Spanish radio is equally interesting (I know a couple of consultants here make a good living advising in Madrid) but I don't really speak much, if any, Spanish, and the music mix is not of great appeal - so it becomes a two week radio-free zone (as opposed to Free Radio zone!) except for the daily diet of emails you would expect me, as a classic Type A, to respond to.

Then we got back just in time for the Olympics. I got to go the the Ricoh once, and the Olympic Park twice. I'm not sure I can add much to the general commentary that it was all brilliant etc etc.

If I have one observation as a grizzled 30 year music radio veteran (!) it was that the music within the final closing ceremony didn't quite work for me as a celebration of 50 years of our creativity. Not much Beatles, no Stones, no Led Zep, no punk (I heard Clash "should I stay...." this morning on our Free Radio hall of fame and thought how good that might have been in the closing ceremony). There were some questionable inclusions too (George Michael's second song, Beady Eye, One Direction). In the end I'm sure the guys who put it together did the best they could with the acts that were prepared to perform (at least there was no Cliff) - I just think it could have been even stronger.

Anyway - I've been busy. I'm currently working on three separate pieces of regulatory work (everyone's eyes glaze over) but they are all important from the perspective of how we shape our industry for the next 10-15 years.

One piece is our submission to the OFT and OFCOM with our thoughts on Global's deal to buy GMG Radio. It is important that all radio owners, and other interested parties, get their chance to share their views on this with the regulators. We are a democracy and run a free market, private enterprise economy. One of the hallmarks of that is appropriate jurisdiction of markets, which includes letting people express their opinion and address their concerns when major deals are being executed. That paper has gone in and although it would be wrong of me to publicly discuss our views, one aspect of the deal which I didn't talk about in our submission because it doesn't affect the Midlands is my personal view that, taken in isolation, the rumoured creation of a national AC brand should Global be allowed to retain the Real licences and convert them to Heart, would be a good thing. This is a long-standing view of mine. My good friend John Myers is writing a book, and I know in it he will refer to the numerous times he and I tried to get a merger between Chrysalis Radio and GMG Radio sorted out and failed - so that looks like one point to Ashley, nil ponits to the big men! That Chrysalis/GMG deal never happened for reasons too complex to mention here - but the driving force behind our thinking was the creation of that single AC FM Network. I think the whole of commercial radio would benefit from a major music competitor to R1/R2. Of course this view does not mean I have examined this deal on a market by market basis in the Real areas in terms of the other assets Global owns, and whether this specific deal can stand - that is a matter for the OFT - I just do feel that we need a "national" pop music station of some description in the commercial sector - and this seems our best shot at getting one.

The second piece is a response to OFCOMs cost benefit analysis of DAB. This is the sort of thing that thinking about too deeply really will make your head explode - but if the economic boffins don't look at the future of radio in the right way, we can easily end up making the wrong decisions as an industry, and heading down the wrong path completely. I'm a contrarian on DAB - I think it's great, and here to stay, but I'd keep all local radio off DAB and on FM, use that DAB spectrum for more national services, and foget about FM/DAB switch-over and leave both bands to find their natural equilibrium. At the moment I'm in a very small minority with this view - but I will keep plugging away.

The third piece is some thinking for our political masters at the DCMS. We were due to have a new communications bill in the next year or so. That's been put back, but the DCMS still want to know from the industry what we think of formats, localness etc and if there need to be further changes. I’ve been asked to go to a seminar on the subject at the DCMS in September so am trying to get my thoughts in order.

The trick of course is to say things to the OFT on competition, and then to OFCOM on DAB switchover, and then to the DCMS on localness/formats, which when read together look like they make sense as part of a whole.

I'm getting there, but as David Lloyd said to me the other day after a diary full of HR and H&S meetings "... was this really why I got into radio?" I don't think I got in because I wanted to spend my days writing to regulators - but if it makes our business better going forward I'll do my best.

I'll need another holiday at the end of it all though.