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!).

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