Friday, 23 November 2012

Think I'm gonna run into bad weather...

I posted a tweet earlier this week:

"Loving the T&T / weather service on this morning -and other local stations too. Not hearing much info on Spotify tho!"

This was a little dig at the streaming service because in an earlier blog referring to the radio festival, I had commented on the business model of Spotify, and had been criticised in return by fans of the service. Fair enough, it clearly is very popular, but what irks me about Spotify, and I know this is true of US broadcasters and their American equivalent Pandora, is the claim that this is somehow a "radio" service.

No it isn't. Computer-driven automatic streaming of music is most definitely NOT radio. It might be good, or bad, profitable or a money-pit, but however you describe it, please don't use the word radio.

Once again the good people who work at Free Radio and Gem 106 have spent the past three days coping with a massive increase in information relating to the current bout of bad weather. School closures, impassable roads, traffic incidents, dangerous flooding have all contributed to a significant increase in the amount of local information we have been broadcasting. And I'm not claiming any special work ethic from my guys - staff at local radio stations the length and breadth of the country will have been coming in early, staying late, manning phone lines, getting information into the studio and on-air, and posting information online now as well, in order to deliver the sort of service they know local listeners want, need and deserve.

And in particular it is the unique nature of local radio that makes responsiveness to bad weather so powerful.  Local radio comes into its own during these periods. because it is live and immediate, responsive to listener feedback, capable of being delivered to people whilst they are on the move, and geographically focused - it is the perfect medium to cope when conditions turn inclement. I live in rural Warwickshire, and Radio 5 Live, brilliant service though it is, can't possibly tell me that the main road through Marton is flooded, or that Leamington Hastings Primary School is closed this morning - but JD did on Free Radio.

In the USA, where weather conditions can become dramatic (Hurricane Sandy, New Orleans etc) local broadcasters are very sensitive to their perceived response - and then make great political play out of that fact. No post-hurricane political speech goes by without the relevant authorities thanking local broadcasters for their efforts. In the UK, the weather conditions, whilst occasionally severe, are probably not quite so dramatic, and our very tendency as a nation to prefer reserve over bombast means we as local broadcasters don't ask for praise, or expect it, as often as our transatlantic cousins.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make, which is that in a period when regulators (OFCOM, DCMS, Competition Commission) are all engaged in critical decision-making which will have a long-term impact on our broadcasting eco-system, are they really giving enough thought to the health of the core tier of local radio in this country given all the other competing voices? Looking forward to the next few bouts of rain/flooding:

Will Local TV be as useful in similar circumstances?
Will a multiplex full of music-intensive DAB services spread over the entire country, with huge footprints and no local presence, be as responsive?
Will the remaining small local stations, possibly stripped of much of their resource because larger radio groups (and local TV) have out-competed them for listeners and advertisers, be as able to respond.

Local radio is currently a vital presence in our communities, and will remain so for as long as it can commercially survive. We are, however, in danger of letting a rush to a digital, online, multi-media future damage the very basis of what makes local radio so unique and important. The very nature of these trends represent huge threats to the future of local radio - particularly the smaller services, and all of us in broadcasting run the risk of the whole radio system being devalued in the eyes (and ears) of listeners if we let the local tier wither away during the next few years.

So, whilst I am genuinely in favour of larger radio groups; network brands; sensible platform migration; growth in online services etc, at the same time we must ensure that in designing our future we recognise and protect the role that local, predominantly FM, radio can play in supporting local they can still be around as a source of information and advice next time we ".. run into bad weather.." (c. S Wonder!).

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

It's Grim Up North

Well I wasn't planning to go to this year’s Radio Festival. I went last year, and the debates do tend to come round a few times, so I thought I'd sit this one out.

But then I got a call from John Myers asking me to be on a panel defending local radio. You can't really say no to John - so off to Salford it was.

The festival started on Monday afternoon with a keynote speech from Tim Davie, the departing BBC Head of radio. Or rather it didn't, as Tim had already departed to become acting DG and was busy walking off a Sky News interview when he should have been on stage. His place was filled by BBC stalwart and R2 controller Bob Shennan. He played a straight bat apparently, not tripped up by anything contentious. I didn't actually get to the festival until a little later, and sat down to hear the chap from Spotify tell us how wonderful they were. When the time came for questions I really couldn't be bothered to put my hand up to ask when they could ever hope to become profitable - because I knew there wouldn't be an answer I could understand. Let them carry on is my view!

The head of Twitter for round here (or European VP as I expect he is really titled) was on next - and he was brilliant. I love twitter - and he explained why. He was a radio guy himself, and had tailored his presentation to press all the right buttons with us radio folk (unlike Mr Spotify, who I don't think realised he was even speaking at a radio conference).

Up at the Tech-con conference David Lloyd was chairing the biggest engineering brains in the industry baffling us with science. I went up and caught the tail end of an interesting presentation from an American explaining how programmers over there were using the people meters to develop more insightful thoughts on output. Apparently very few people tune out during ad breaks (less than 10%), songs get progressively more popular (i.e. less switching) and then in time less popular (who’d have thought) - and finally the local post-game sports phone-in is much more popular when your team has won than lost. Not so reassuring for Tom's phone-ins with some of our teams then!

I was invited to the posh dinner hosted by Radio Academy Chairman Ashley Tabor. And very nice it was too - although you felt the BBC bigwigs there would rather have been anywhere else - not a good time to be a boss at the corporation right now! Jeremy Vine was there and told some great stories from his book. Myers too was on form, and started a round of Kelvin McKenzie tales - I contributed my own - which I will not repeat here for fear of breaking some blasphemy law or other.

Yesterday started with Stephen Miron on stage, being lightly grilled by the Telegraph's Emma Barnett. Emma also works for Global which meant she was more insightful about - but perhaps a touch easier on - Stephen than say an interviewer like Steve Hewlett would have been. Just as Bob had done successfully the day before, Stephen avoided any career limiting utterances.

Anyway - with my usual luck, I was on next - being interviewed by Steve Hewlett! 

Actually I was one of four "local bosses" and I spent my time explaining the decision to change to Free, and how it was all going. I suspect Steve has been so distracted by Newsnightgate (he has been an ever present pundit on the state of the BBC for the past month) that he didn't have time to do his normal level of research to properly skewer folk, unlike last year. Then, I was on stage with Andrew Harrison on a general commercial radio panel, and Steve metaphorically pinned Andrew against the wall and fired pellets into his head. I sat, arms folded, and hoped Steve would run out of pellets before he got to me. This year I think Steve's pellets have all been fired at BBC apparatchiks and he's not had time to reload the gun.

After my bit we had the wonderful Fru Hazlitt in conversation with Linda Smith. Fru calls a spade a shovel at the best of times - and as she now runs lots of important things at ITV, she felt suitably unconstrained during her conversation. In the nicest way she is a bit batty, which always livens up a stage. Sadly no youtube link exists to Fru's forthright views on the Welsh, expressed at a previous conference, but Linda did find some video on the comments which amused those in the hall.

David Joseph, the boss of Universal, was up next. He gave a really insightful presentation into the music industry, and was broadly positive about the future, which was good. He couldn’t resist asking commercial radio to do more to support new music, to which the cynical response might be - here's our rate card - buy some advertising, like other folk wanting to promote their products.

Last up before lunch, we had Jeremy Vine interviewing John Myers about his book. Apparently John had interviewed Jeremy the day before about his book. They are moving in together next week.

John was his usual larger-than-life self, and much mirth was had about just how egregiously John used to break OFCOM competition rules. I don’t think there is a statute of limitations on fiddling callers – and I demand an inquiry.

After Lunch, Frank Skinner told Adrian Chiles why he loves radio - and I thought he was really passionate about the medium. He also name checked Tony Butler (and the late Tony Trethewey got a mention too) along with Les Ross, and the wonderful "yesterday never comes". Almost brought a tear to my eye.

I left at that point, and so missed the gala dinner, which apparently featured Sir Alex Ferguson giving a music award to Mick Hucknall, with Peter Kay looking on - that sounds all a bit too surreal for me, and not at all grim either.