Thursday, 18 July 2013

Bad News on the doorstep

I'm on holiday - and certainly didn't intend to spend any time blogging.

But the news today of the untimely death of Dave Hickman has touched me rather badly and I wanted to say a few words in praise of one of the great unsung heroes of West Midlands radio.

I remember getting Dave on board when we launched Xtra in 89, and then hiring him again when we launched Heart in 94. Alan Carruthers reminded me on twitter we had to pay a release fee to get him out of his Xtra contract in time for the launch. He was worth it though. He'd previously worked for brmb, and was for a while the voice of travel for Les.

He didn't possess one of those great "radio voices" (we'd hired Ted Elliott for that!) but what he did have by the bucketful was warmth, an engaging tone, a sense of humour, and a passion for the music he played. He was also a hard worker - a utility player who could do a decent job no matter what was thrown at him.

He met his wife Bev whilst working in radio, and together they were one of the nicest couples you could ever hope to meet.

Dave carried on working in radio - for a long time as the "voice" of the Arrow, and pulling a stint on Smooth too. He was a regular on air from Brum for almost two decades.

No one today on twitter or Facebook will have a bad word to say about Dave, because there wasn't one to be had - he was just a really nice guy we all had the pleasure of knowing, who did his bit to make the airwaves of 96.4, 100.7, 1152 and 1359 and others fizz and crackle, keeping West Midlands listeners entertained for the best part of twenty years.

His wife and kids will miss him terribly I know - but everyone who worked in radio round here and who knew Dave will miss him too. I had the honour to employ him not once, but twice - which shows how much I rated him. He was the same age as me - much too young to leave us.

RIP Dave Hickman

Friday, 5 July 2013

Life begins at 40

I was deeply honoured this week to be inducted as one of the 40 most influential people to have worked in or supported commercial radio over its first 40 years, in a "Roll of Honour" ceremony conducted as part of this year's Arqiva awards.

As most of us nominees had grey hair or no hair (women excluded!) we quickly nicknamed ourselves the "40 over 40" as a pastiche of the Radio Academy's "30 under 30".

Ashley Tabor, who made the 40, would be the only member of our gang who didn't qualify by age of course, being a mere slip of a lad in his early 30s. He deserves his place though, as someone who has really shaken up the industry over the past 6 years.

The 40 were intended to be selected to "tell the story" of commercial radio, and by and large I think the selectors did a great job. From those present at commercial radio's birth, such as Founding Capital Chairman Richard Attenborough and launch MD John Whitney, Jimmy Gordon of Clyde and Terry Smith of Radio City, through to some of the top presenters we have been blessed with, such as Les Ross, Chris Tarrant, Chris Evans, Neil Fox, Alan Robson, Jonathan Pearce and Christian O'Connell. Then there were latter day CEOs such as Ralph Bernard and David Mansfield. It was nice to see folk from the smaller stations, such as Ian Anderson from SIBC in the Shetland Isles, getting recognised, alongside Michael Betton from the Lincs group, and Avtar Lit from Sunrise. And what list of the most influential would be complete without the founder of the RAB Douglas McArthur, John Myers or Parky. The full list is here.

Fewer women made the list than most of us would feel happy with - but that I suspect is more the fault of 40 years of poor hiring choices than any failure on the part of the selectors. Those that did make it were top drawer though - from Gillian Reynolds, ex Radio City and now doyenne of radio critics, through research guru Deanna Hallett, Linda Smith, one of the best commercial ambassadors the industry has ever had, and of course Dee Ford, Bauer's current boss.

There's a nice video here, showing the timeline.

If the list was meant to tell a story, I was pleased that my career managed to tick so many of the important boxes. Although I'm too young to have missed the start of the industry (!), I did join only 7 years in, in 1980, and I look back on my career as having played a part of a number of the most critical phases

  • The growing power of the big players in the 1980s. The big local stations, Capital, brmb, Piccadilly, Clyde etc became very powerful media forces during that time, despite having to be "all things to all people" thereby giving folk like me a chance to learn our trade across the waterfront of radio - specialist music presentation as well as mainstream DJing, interviewing, handling phone-ins, news preparation, documentary making. You name it, we did it in those days.

  • Splitting frequencies. I was privileged to lead the launch of two, Xtra in Birmingham and Coventry, and then  the original Magic 828 in Leeds. Great days, and it was truly exciting to be launching new radio stations, and we were all clearly learning as we went along, as many of us made some pretty horrendous decisions along the way!.

  • Regionals. Probably the pivotal moment for me was leading the team who launched Heart in the West Midlands in 1994. A bunch of reprobates as I recall. Chrysalis was a new entrant to radio, and very much helped along by the rise of the regionals, along with other new players such as Border Radio and then GMG. The regionals represented the point at which commercial radio truly became competitive.

  • London. launching Heart 106.2 in 1995 was a defining moment for everyone involved in Chrysalis - and then relaunching LBC on FM in 2002 was another big step for the company, and it was great that it involved fellow nominee Nick Ferrari. Commercial Radio has been a dominant presence in the capital since the mid 1990s, and it's great to have played a part in that.

  • DAB. Chrysalis was the lead player in the MXR multiplex consortium, which bid for and won a number of the key regional multiplexes which helped so much to support and grow the platform during the last decade.

And I'm pleased to still be working in the industry some 33 years after first walking into the brmb building on Aston Road North back in 1980. And I'm very proud too that my career has been spent entirely within the commercial sector, and entirely within local radio. The vast majority of it has centred on the Midlands, and  in particular my adopted home town of Birmingham. It was great to see Les Ross up there getting his recognition alongside me - we are the Little and Large of Birmingham Radio!

The "Roll of Honour" was a great idea. I hope we all take the next 12 months to celebrate all that is good about commercial radio in any number of ways. As an industry focussed on the needs of its audience, I suspect we won't be doing too much "front of mic" shouting about our successes and the people who inspired them, as I doubt our audiences are that interested - but amongst ourselves we should be proud of what we've achieved, against sometimes pretty overwhelming obstacles.

Thank you if you've been a part of my radio journey over the past 33 years - It's been fun hasn't it, and I couldn't have done it without the support, help and guidance of so many talented people working alongside me!

Shaking the hands of many of the people I admire so much in professional life up on that stage on Wednesday was a truly humbling moment for me. I count many of them amongst my closest friends, and I was thrilled for them, and truly honoured to be counted amongst their number.

I think in that picture I'm telling Nick Ferrari off about something he did on that day's show. Old habits die hard!

Here's to the next 40.

Image courtesy Hayley Madden

Monday, 1 July 2013

What can bosses learn from "The Boss"

I'm just back from my 3rd Bruce Springsteen gig in a little over 2 weeks. Wembley, Ricoh, Olympic Park. if you're a fan you will know how awesome it has been, and if Bruce leaves you cold - well there's little I can do for you -:)

However, As I watched Bruce last night, I did marvel at how successful he still was, selling albums by the millions, and with sell out tours the world over, and wondered whether there were any generic lessons for business (and especially creative business like Radio) from analysing the relentless juggernaut that is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I thought of five, which I'd like to share with you here:

Rule 1 - Have a clear chain of command. Everyone knows - Bruce is "The Boss" - and that isn't just an affectionate nickname. Bruce is genuinely "The Boss" of the band, and it is clear to see on stage that everyone, even the most talented musicians, takes their lead from him. He is also visible, clear in his direction, and not afraid to give praise in public. All attributes most bosses should follow. I'd contrast this with The Eagles, another favourite band of mine. A recent documentary on the group highlighted how for 14 years they stopped touring and recording because the various members of the band couldn't see the clear evidence that there needed to be some hierarchical structure. Pink Floyd are another great example of this. As were Take That. Bands aren't democracies - and neither are businesses - and a good leader is essential.

Rule 2 - offer value for money. Bruce tickets aren't cheap. £65 or so for standing - which is towards the more expensive end of touring acts - but I guarantee you, no-one ever left a Springsteen show claiming they were short-changed. Bruce and the band regularly do 3 hour+ sets. No other band gives performances of that length as a regular day-in, day-out commitment. their encores alone are normally 45 minutes to an hour in length. Contrast that with other bands where 90 minutes seems to be the norm. Some bands do try a bit harder, and I think that Bruce has laid down a marker for other big touring shows in this regard. Even The Rolling Stones ran for a couple of hours at Glastonbury. However, much as I'd love to see them live - at £400 a ticket - I don't think so, even if they played for 6 hours!

Offering value for money doesn't mean being the cheapest, far from it. It means ensuring that when someone gives you their money, they feel you recognise its worth to you, and deliver a service which more than matches that worth. It's one of the business basics, and one that Bruce learned long ago.

Rule 3 - commit yourself to a vision, and deliver against it. I don't know if Bruce has ever written down "his vision", but as far as touring is concerned, it is clear. When he and the band go on stage, their only goal is to make the crowd happy. This comes through in everything they do on stage, and it is of course infectious. The crowd are happy, which makes them happy, which in turn etc etc. That's a great positive loop to have, but it starts with a clear goal and purpose. They are not on stage to fulfil a contract, or because the money's good - they've earnt too much already for that - they are there to fulfil a higher purpose, and this is what inspires their fans.

Forty years ago I saw Santana at the Odeon on New Street when it used to be a rock venue. Carlos spent the entire set with his back to the audience, jamming with his drummer. the music and guitar playing were sublime, but the contempt for the audience was odious - and I've never, ever wanted to see him again.

JD in IT send me a link recently to a Ted talk from a highly respected business consultant, and his analysis of why some firms outperform others here crystallises this point, particularly with regard to touring bands and their relative success.

Rule 4 - listen to, and respond to, customer feedback. regular Bruce fans will know one of the most brilliant bits of his shows happens shortly after they take to the stage. The band will do one or two hell-raising openers, and then Bruce will literally go into the crowd, picking cardboard notices off fans. These bits of cardboard contain the titles of Bruce songs - and Bruce will select a few every night to play. This does a number of things. It allows the band to retain their freshness, because they are constantly being challenged (as all bosses should challenge their staff); it allows the real die hard fans to wallow in a bit of nostalgia (most of the tracks are more obscure, and tend to be from earlier albums) and for the fans whose songs are picked (and even those who simply make cards which aren't picked) here is the sight of a multi-millionaire rock star - doing requests! How cool is that! It doesn't make up much of the show, but it really does show how much Bruce wants to interact with his fans, and make them feel a part of the show.

He doesn't pick every song, and I'm sure there are some tracks he sees which he knows he'll never perform, but he picks different ones every night (I know, having seen three gigs on the bounce). there are lessons here for business - look to customer feedback - be open about encouraging this (social media now offers great scope for this) - what are they most passionate about - respond to that - but don't get hung up on everything they tell you - sort the wheat from the chaff.

Rule 5 - offer up some magic in your service to delight your customers. Bruce's show might be a hard rockin performance, not to everyone's taste, but one thing he does is to ensure that every night something special happens which touches your heart - creating real "water cooler" moments in the language of marketing. He pretty much always does "Dancing in the Dark" and pretty much always gets a young(ish) girl up on stage to dance with - can you imagine what that is like for the girl he chooses - and I think all the women in the audience would wish they were that girl when that moment arrives, and are happy for her. Last night - he brought his mom out! She must have been in her 80s!! Then he brought his sister out too - and both seemed genuinely entranced to be out there with him. The audience loved it. As they did when Bruce found a young girl to sing the chorus of "Waiting on a Sunny Day"with him. The heartstrings of every parent in the crowd (and there are plenty of those these days as you can imagine) were melted by the cuteness of it all. And then it was back to rock'n'roll!

This is Bruce's' version of the chocolate on the hotel bed, finding your name on the side of a coke bottle, the guy in the coffee shop giving you a freebie because he knows you are a regular customer. Little things, entirely incidental to the overall value of your transaction, which make you think "these guys have thought about what this means, and are trying a bit harder".

So, five lessons from "The Boss". You don't have to like his music to recognise he is a phenomenon - and of course that is mainly due to the brilliance of his song writing, and the technical skill of his and his bands performance of that music, both on record and live. But a big part too is due to following some pretty fundamental business principals.

And it's sure made me a repeat customer. When's the next tour?

I blogged a couple of years ago on our internal network about my feelings about Bruce after I'd heard the news of Clarence Clemons suffering a stroke, from which he subsequently died, and I thought I'd re-post it here as an addendum to this blogpost. Bruce now regularly features a tribute to Clarence in the show - and both he and the crowd are genuinely moved by the moment.


June 15th 2011 - I thought I'd do a 2nd blog this week on a less mundane topic than sales and marketing, and something personal has touched me in the last couple of days which I thought had some relevance for all of us in this business.

Like me, you probably got into radio because of a love of music. I had my formative music exposure in the early 70s, and became a "soul boy" at school - heavily into Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha franklin etc. This then branched out into a love of early exponents of funk - Ohio Players, Fatback Band, EWF, even The Commodores (that Lionel Richie!) - I think I could even dance when I was 15.

At school, we lovers of soul had to share the 6th form record player with prog rock geeks and heavy metal nutters - god, having to listen to ELP still sends me into shock.

Anyway - heading to Uni, and student radio, I simply couldn't indulge my love of soul in every show, so began to branch out into what has become my favourite music genre, which is US adult rock - which was then the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Doobie Brothers, etc, but lives on today with bands like Kings of Leon and others.

And then there was Bruce.

I can't claim to have followed him back in 1975, when he took London's music industry by storm at the Hammersmith Apollo, and where one critic said "I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen"; but by 1980 I had become a huge, huge fan of Bruce and his E Street Band. The first time I saw them live was with Jean, at the old NEC arena in 1980 (tickets supplied by Bobby Hermon I think!) - and that was the first of many, many live concerts - including an awesome experience at Wembley in 1985 when on July 4th he stepped on stage alone in front of 75,000 fans to perform "independence day" as an acoustic piece - spine tingling.

Then there were the two Villa Park gigs, where the late Edwin Starr joined them on stage to perform "War" - truly unbelievable.

I'm not a religious man - but seeing Bruce and the band live is genuinely the closest one can come in my opinion to having a transcendental experience - I hope you have someone who does the same for you on stage.

Anyway - the reason for this blog is because of the Big Man - Clarence Clemons - Bruce's side-kick, best pal, and the awesome sax player for the E Street Band, who is referred to in the lyric for the song "10th Avenue Freeze Out" which is the title of this blog, and who famously appears back to back with Bruce on his seminal "Born to Run" album cover.

I had a saxophone when I was a teenager, and wanted to learn to play like my then hero Junior Walker. Later it became Clarence I'd wished I could emulate - the biggest, baddest, coolest dude you've ever seen - playing saxophone in the greatest rock band ever. What a life. And his style, mixing soul, blues and rock, is what made Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band my perfect group - tieing my adult enthusiasm for rock back to my teenage love of soul, and the coolness of those who embodied it, such as Marvin, and Smokey, and Otis, and the Temps and all the rest of them. Clarence brought it all together. And just to show how cool this guy still is, he is a guest, playing saxophone, on a couple of the tracks on the new GaGa album.

Anyway, Clarence has been in the news this week, having suffered a massive stroke at the age of 69. 

Of course the worldwide E Street fan base will be hoping and praying for his recovery - as am I - but the evidence of his mortality brings home to me just how precious music can be, and why we should always remember its power to affect our emotions. The opening bars of a great Springsteen song coming on the radio will lift my emotions sky high (admittedly not a regular occurrence on our stations!) So the thought of never seeing the E Street Band play again with Clarence strutting his stuff is almost too much to bear.

So  remember, the next track we play could be the one that breaks someone's heart - or makes their day - and whatever the next gig you go to is - enjoy it like you might never see that magic again.

And just in case you are wondering what all the fuss is about, have a look at this