Friday, 4 January 2013

"...It was twenty years ago today..."

Jean and I waved our daughter Alex off at the railway station this morning. She is off to Kenya for three months, doing Voluntary Service Overseas, and we're both proud and a little nervous about our 19 year old eldest child leaving home properly for the first time.

She was born on a beautiful summers day in 1993, just a little short of "..20 years ago today..." (copyright Lennon/McCartney), and of course at moments like this one ponders the passage of time and how life has changed during those intervening two decades.

Alex was born at LGI, and is a true Tyke. I was running Radio Aire at the time and her birth in Leeds coincided with an upturn in that station's fortunes after the very deep recession of 1990-1992. Driving back from the railway station today, I was wondering to myself how much radio had changed during the last 20 years. Could I identify 20 real improvements/developments/changes in our industry to mark the almost two decades I'd been a parent? I thought I could, so here goes:

1 - More local FM stations. Back in 1993 we had no regionals, and only a smattering of 2nd FMs in big local markets (none in Yorkshire as I recall) so all those new regional, and smaller local, and community stations, have all added to the overall quality of radio. We must have moved from 100 to over 300 local stations.

2 - DAB. I'm a big fan, and probably spend 50%+ of my time listening to DAB now, both for new stations and improved audio quality. I'm not sure switching off FM is the best way forward - but keeping DAB is a no-brainer - and with digital weekly reach at 40% of the adult population (including Sky/Freeview etc) many millions of folk agree with me.

3 -Online streaming. Wow - these days you can listen to a station anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world, via a PC. you couldn't do that 20 years ago.

4 - Mobile online - Even more wow - you can take a phone and use it to connect to a station anywhere in the world. We did have mobiles back in 1993 - but they were BIG! They also did not have any data capacity.

5 - Podcasts / listen again. Who'd have dreamt that you could put out a show, and then put a recording of it somewhere for people to listen to later! Genius, I would have said, back in 1993.

6. Rajar. Back in the early 90s the commercial Industry did its own research, and the BBC did its own research - and neither could make sense of the other. Advertisers hated it. I'm cheating slightly here because the first Rajar survey was Q4 1992 - so would have been published around about now - but you get my drift - hard to imagine now a time when the entire radio industry didn't all claim record figures on the same day!!

7 - Selector et al. Again a slight cheat as the first version of selector (RCS claim) was released 30 years ago. But no one owned PCs much until the beginning of the 90s in the UK, and we definitely were using a single PC (with floppy disc) and a dot matrix printer to generate our logs at Radio Aire, and it was all pretty new and whizzy at the time. The sophistication and manipulative power of current versions would leave that early program standing in the dust. More importantly, it was the rise of computer generated logs which put paid to presenters having their own input into music selection, certainly for daytimes on commercial radio.

8 - Master Control et al. The ability to drive all of the elements of a programme from one central hard drive didn't happen until the mid-90s (the launch of Heart FM was marred by RCS MC nightmares!) but now who would ever think of setting up a pro station without a fully computerised playout system. Radio Aire was still reliant on CDs whilst I was there, and we swapped and changed constantly because CD playout was so unreliable for a tight rotation CHR operation. I'd add in news management systems like Burli at this point too, as they have transformed news-gathering.

9 - Hard drive portable recorders. The newsroom at Aire used Uhers for certain, and I'm not sure quite when smaller hard drives replaced tape, but again what a transformation. And the ability now to record on a device like an iPhone and then send the resulting audio in to the studio instantaneously via email - just not something one could ever have imagined 20 years ago.

10 - ISDN/Codec developments. ISDN was another 90s technology that changed our industry, allowing down the line interviews,  much wider and easier sports commentary, and V/Os to work in their pyjamas! Other codec technology has made the ability to remote broadcast using standard POTS lines even more phenomenal of late.

11 - Satellite audio delivery. The commercial network built its own satellite delivery system, SMS, in the 1990s (the uplink is not far from my house just outside Rugby at Lawford Heath) to deliver Ads, IRN etc. Much has changed, but at the time, being able to deliver masses of network audio simultaneously to the commercial industry was revolutionary.

12 - Mobile phones. The advent of mobile telephony definitely helped democratise access to the airwaves. The ability to call in to a station, wherever you were, allowed far more people to participate in phone-ins across the airwaves than ever was the case with fixed line. (Ironically, It actually killed off one of the best radio shows - Les Ross's Round The World phone calls, which became redundant when everyone had a mobile.)

13 - Radio 5 Live. My favourite BBC station, which "sort of" began for two months in 1991 as "Scud FM", the 24 hour rolling news channel covering the first Gulf War which used Radio 4's FM frequencies. It was so popular the BBC was persuaded to launch 5 Live in 1994 - replacing the rather ill-thought out Radio Five which had started in 1990.

14 - Classic FM. Again I'm stretching slightly, as it launched in September 1992, but now a mainstay of UK Radio. Not my cup of tea as a listener I have to admit, but I am very grateful as a practitioner - Classic helped make commercial radio seem serious and grown up to an awful lot of advertisers during the 90s.

15 - Absolute Radio. Absolute was Virgin Radio originally of course, and launched in April 1993. I remember rushing back from a driving holiday in Scotland, with a pregnant Jean feeling very nervous in the passenger seat, in order to hear the launch!

16 - TalkSPORT. Again, this station started as Talk Radio UK in 1995, before morphing into TalkSPORT, where it continues to innovate to this day.

17 - Level-headed commercial radio management. I'm not kidding here - back in the early 90s a lot of senior commercial radio bosses were fruitcakes. Not all of them - but a lot! Getting the industry to agree on anything was a huge challenge. The general standard of commercial radio management at both a station, group and industry level has improved dramatically over the last two decades.

18 - Better regulators, with better legislation to enforce True I'm afraid, for those of you who moan about OFCOM - that which came before was worse. Probably because of the outmoded and outdated regulation to be sure, but the IBA and Radio Authority were hell compared to OFCOM.

19 - Social Media. How did we ever cope without knowing what our listeners were thinking, via text, twitter and facebook 24/7! It is without doubt a sea change for the industry in terms of feedback, helping us make our shows better and adding to the entertainment value of all output, everywhere.

20 - Wind up radios. I've saved Trevor Bayliss's ingenious invention until last for two reasons.

The first is the obvious one - here was an idea that has single handedly brought radio within reach of untold millions of people across the world. Trevor was inspired by a 1991 TV programme about the spread of AIDS in Africa, and the idea really took off when it was featured on Tomorrow's World in 1994, so I'm happy it falls within the last 20 years from an operational perspective. A brilliant, and simple idea, which means our medium continues to inform and entertain across the globe.

The second reason is that a wind-up radio was one of my Christmas gifts to Alex (it had a torch function too). I figured she could use both the radio and torch wherever she found herself during her three months in Kenya, and that when she put the radio on, it might remind her of me, and how much importance this great medium has played in my life and, by association, in hers too.

Most of the items on my list were born/created/invented in the early to mid 1990s - just after the 1990-1992 recession which was itself brought about by the 1987 Wall Street crash. The echoes with today are remarkable, and I only hope the next five to six years see both an upturn in the economy similar to the 90s - and also another burst of the energy, creativity and innovation which marked the UK Radio industry back then.

There - made it to 20 pretty easily. What did I miss?


  1. "What did I miss?" No. 21 !

    "Jingles" .... err sorry 'Station Identification "..


    ... 'IMAGING' ....!

    You presumably do not think it important? :-)

    Twenty years ago stations had 20 or more cuts in each package, superbly sung (usually in Dallas). Now you just get 8 'ramps' (or whatever is the fashionable term) a track with few or no real instruments, a 'Sonic Logo' that wears out quickly, all sung by a hoarse man, or a woman with too much vibrato.

    Today's 'jingles' are the equivalent of a small tatty poster glued to a wall, as opposed to HUGE professional billboards on the main roads leading into the radio station's city.

    To me this suggests an industry where everyone thinks alike, which does not know where to go next...

    Happy New Year (in 7 part harmony) !

    Len -

  2. Phil, I stumbled upon - I read on.

    Interesting, of course, and I applaud you for putting a spin on radio's progress - coming up with 20 ways in which radio has improved in 20 years. Some of these cannot be argued with - they represent true improvement in our industry and that's the end of it.

    A year ago I wrote about the darker side of radio today... 'British Radio - What Happened'. It seems it touched a nerve [one way or another] judging by many of the comments.

    Would you disagree with any of it, Phil? If so, why? If not, can the numerous catastrophes I list live alongside your 20 improvements in blissful harmony?

    Kind regards,