Tuesday, 13 May 2014

It all worked out OK

I'm extremely fortunate to have been in a position to attend the Radio Academy Awards most years over the past 25 or so I've been running radio stations, and it was another great night last night.

What was touching for me was that in the room, along with some of the current guys hosting on stations I'm involved with,  Free Radio's Roisin, JD, & Hursty and of course the now "Double Academy Award winning" Sam & Amy from Gem 106, there was also my first ever Breakfast DJ, the inimitable Les Ross.

Sometimes you inherit breakfast shows when you take over a station or group, sometimes you have to go out and talent-scout, and sometimes shows just fall into your lap. That was the case with Les and me. Back in 1988 I'd been asked to set up the new AM service for Birmingham and Coventry - my first PD gig. At the same time, brmb's then PC had been told to boost the popularity of the station (15 years after launch it had been flagging for some time) and in particular make it younger. Les, the then brmb breakfast host, was a casualty of that (I have to say in hindsight flawed) thinking, and I can remember a long conversation with Les in the brmb car park (well, no conversation with Les is short) the upshot of which was me marching into the MDs office to say "....if FM don't want him, I do". I've just noticed on Adam Bowie's excellent blog, here, that Les actually won the first ever Sony for Best Breakfast, just as he was being manoeuvred off (typical) and that brmb won station of the year, just as the breakfast show host had left.

Xtra went on to be a huge success, and my career prospered as a result, so I owe Les a lot for that. We had an Xtra AM 25th anniversary celebration the other week in Brum, and none of us had aged a day!

Had we treated radio personalities then with the care we do now, I suspect Les would have been even more laden with awards that he is (and he does have a bulging mantelpiece!). As an industry I do think we work harder now to properly reflect and acknowledge that it's the talent that gets us the success, and the RAAs, Arqivas, IRNs, along with all the other gongs we hand out, give folk scope to get deserved pats on the back. Back in the days when Les was in his pomp, had they been around he would have been picking up multiple RAAs/Arqivas every year - he genuinely was that good. Thinking back, I'm actually amazed at how talented he was, making you laugh out loud every day, in total command of the station and the city. Quite how he never got to be on R1 or R2 I don't know, but I suspect it was to do with a perceived bias against those with Brummie accents being taken seriously on a national station. If proof were needed of his talent and standing, the fact that Les was given the final word in the excellent video tribute to 40 years of commercial radio, shown last night, which you can see here, tells you what the industry thinks of him.

Moving forward a generation or two, what a delight it was to be sitting next to Sam & Amy again, as they won Gold for the second year in a row. two Golds in two years for a local radio breakfast show is going some - and this years award, for music radio personality, saw them beat some of the biggest names in the business - another reason why these awards are so coveted - anyone can win on the night. The Independent gave the award some great coverage here. Sam & Amy are a double act, so I couldn't compare them directly to Les (although Les did have his fair share of co-hosts over the years), but in their own way I rate them as highly. They've been on 106 for a decade now, and that level of longevity is a pre-requisite for a truly great breakfast show. [As a side-bar, Hirsty, from Capital Yorkshire, along with Danny & Jo Jo, were also nominated last night, and we did go out and "talent scout" them 15 odd years ago for Galaxy. They fit the mould too, and those guys should get their own Gold award at some point for sure.]

As well as length of service, knowing the patch is important. Sam's from the south of the region, and Amy is a Leicester lass, and their local knowledge and affinity shines through in all they do.

But most importantly, for a breakfast show to be special, you have to get up every morning and want to spend time with them. And that's what these guys make you want to do. On my normal drive into work, from Leamington to Birmingham, I get about 5 miles/5 minutes on the M6 where Gem comes in loud and clear - and this is normally around 6.20 in the morning. The fact these guys are already on top form then makes my brief opportunity to hear them always a pleasure.

Breakfast these days is much more complex than it used to be. Everyone has to play their part. Sam's on-air character is the arrogant, selfish, big-headed dominant man on the show. How he pulls it off every day is a wonder. Amy has to play the part of the commitment-phobic, feisty, single girl-about-town. Again a wonderful performance every morning. And then there's the third wheel, "Dangerous Dave", who actually personifies the term "sidekick" since he gets beaten up by them so much. They are fabulous, and deserving of their accolades, and like Les, Hirsty, and all the many, many breakfast shows I've had the pleasure of being involved with, they are truly gifted people.

What better job could one have in life than to be allowed to spend one's days with special folk like them.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Who else is fed up talking about digital switch-over?

Phil Riley
CEO Orion Media
Speech to the Westminster Media Forum Seminar
UK Radio – innovation, competition and switchover

I think we need to reappraise our policy on the UKs digital radio future, and I’d like to propose a new approach:
It seems to me two irreconcilable facts mean our current policy is flawed.
Those facts are;
1 – DAB is here to stay. With a 23% share of all radio consumption it’s inconceivable that we won’t be using DAB as a significant platform for listening for the foreseeable future, and any major radio station that can access DAB (either locally or nationally) will suffer significant economic damage if it fails to make use of the platform.
2- Many listeners still love FM, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. 90% of the UK population listen to the radio each week. Of those weekly listeners, 85% do so on AM/FM for at least half of their total listening – mainly FM. Let me repeat that number – 5 out of 6 regular radio listeners still use analogue platforms for the majority of their listening.
Given those two facts, along with the now accepted view that the FM spectrum is of no use handed back to the government, and that we will always need a broadcast backbone, shouldn’t we just accept that we live in a multi-platform world, urge the Government to stop planning for switchover for the foreseeable future, and just get on with running the industry as it is.
TV stations, mobile networks, apps developers all now have to live in, and cope with, a multi-platform world, and when consumers simply expect content to be delivered whenever, wherever, in the most convenient manner possible, why have we in radio come to the conclusion that we can simply impose a diminution of platform availability on people, simply because it’s currently costing us more money. I’m not sure it’s a defendable position.
Clearly nothing lasts forever, but I would propose for now that we simply place a moratorium on even discussing formally the closedown of FM for, say a decade. And if we did this, I think there are three major policy implications:
1 - We should pause and re-evaluate the local layer density improvement work. Plans as they currently stand are likely to see DAB TX costs rise significantly over the next couple of years for local service providers, in part because of the now delayed requirements for FM switch-off.
I’m not saying we should stop the rollout of the local layer to significant white space. Of course we should. Gem, our regional East Midlands service, is on DAB in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire – but not Derbyshire. That makes it difficult for us to promote on FM the fact we are also available on DAB – which some listeners prefer. So let’s get Derby on – cost effectively – as quickly as possible. But I’m not sure all the new transmitters planned are needed right now, in a multiplatform future, and certainly some of them might be harder to commercially justify, especially on muxes where only one or two local service providers are effectively carrying all of the costs. I’m just saying let’s pause, check and perhaps not be quite so ambitious in the short term if we have a bit more time.
2 – If we placed a moratorium on switchover, we should deal with the aggravation currently being caused by shortened FM Licensing renewal. It seems to me to be almost perverse to be issuing 7 year FM licences if we are unsure about stopping future FM availability, and in an era when radio choice is deeper, richer and more easily accessible than ever. Let’s give every FM licencee, local and national, the same proposal that has been made for all Muxco holders, a new 15 year term from now to 2030, and be done with it. We can review everything in 2024/25 – 10 years or so from now - if needs be. DAB as a platform is essentially built and established now. New entrants will be able to join D2 for example, secure in the knowledge that good, inventive, programming can find a profitable audience. Given that, those of us who have toiled in the industry for the past 15 years and have paid for that platform development out of our FM revenues, when it was utterly uneconomic to do so ought to be given some support here – so let’s agree a 12-15 year extension/rollover and review everything in 10 years time.
3 – Finally, we should finally bite the bullet and abandon most content/format regulation. With National DAB 2 on the horizon, smartphone proliferation and wifi/4G penetration booming, we simply don’t need the gatekeeper approach that OFCOM have supplied for so long. The market is now big enough to supply the rich, varied content OFCOM require, without formal intervention.
There is one exception. I think we ought to retain, for every town/city, at least one FM licence with a requirement to be local, via news, information, general content etc. Everyone else should be able to do what they want – if they do it badly the market will take care of it by having them bought out and the programming replaced. Perhaps there should be a population based fee for format/localness freedom – a few pence per potential listener perhaps - with those carrying localness requirements exempt from the charge?

So – let’s end the uncertainty of switchover by scrapping it for now. Relieve existing local layer DAB service providers of the threat of increased costs right now, and free the industry from the stranglehold of licensing/formats in this new world of plenty. Radio is in great shape right now – let’s keep it that way.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Life begins at 40, so they say.....

In 1974 Brmb launched in a different media landscape to the one we find ourselves in today. Radio 40 years on is dramatically different, with significant local and regional competition, and dozens of national stations available on DAB and other digital platforms. Local radio stations have had to change and adapt or they will wither and die – hence our decision two years ago to create one single brand for the local stations we own across the West Midlands. But changing the name to Free from brmb was just that, a name change not a product change. And just like marathon changed to snickers, or opal fruit to starbursts, the product inside the wrapper is as good as it ever was.  
So as we celebrate 40 years of local commercial radio in Birmingham, on behalf of Orion Media I’d like to make two points.
The first is that I hope you can all see, by the very fact we are here tonight, and have invested so much time and effort in putting this civic reception and tonight’s party together, how much we appreciate the heritage of brmb, and the history of local radio in this great city, and that we are only too happy to commemorate it. We even have a room in our offices in Broad Street named “The Les Ross room” in honour of past glories, and Les of course was a debut guest DJ on Free Radio today – thanks Les for bringing your old record collection in. We’ll call your agent.
But the second thing I want to say is we are equally as proud of what we are doing today, and how we passionately believe that Free Radio in 2014 is carrying on the great work started by brmb back in 1974.
When I was a presenter on brmb, back in the halcyon early 1980s, our music policy, as dictated by then head of music Robin Valk, was “pick a current from the front of the top 40 box of singles, play it, and then put it at the back of the box – then you can play an oldie. Then pick another top 40 single etc etc” today, on Free Radio, despite all the computer technology, and the many £1000s spent on music research, our philosophy is still “play a top 40 single, then play an oldie, then go back to the top 40 etc etc” In fact “today’s best music mix on Free Radio” is driven by that same goal – to create a blend of songs that kids and parents can both feel comfortable listening to on the school run, and which keep everyone happy if on in the shop, office, hairdressers etc. Really broadly based, but right for a local, broadly based station.
And in live music we are still active. Live studio sessions are still part of what we do, with Pixie Lott, John Newman and Sam Smith joining us on Broad Street in the past couple of weeks to record live acoustic sets for playback on-air, and from the days of “Party in the Square”, and “Party in the Park”, and the G8 events, Free Radio is still today ensuring local fans get to see the big acts in a live setting. Our fourth annual “Free Radio Live” LG arena event in 2013, headlined by Olly Murs, was a 15,000 sell out, and we’re delighted that this year we’ve teamed up with promoters Live Nation to bring the internationally renowned Wireless festival to Birmingham, with Bruno Mars and Kanye West headlining at Perry Park.
And if brmb started with personality presenters at its core, that’s also true for Free Radio. And not just at breakfast, where personality is expected. But throughout the day, whether it’s the cheeky approach of Andy Goulding, Dan Morrissey’s subversive wit, the anarchic Jo and Sparky, the ebullient Adam Wilbourn, the voice of sport Tom Ross, or the charismatic Sam and Mark at the weekends, we are still chock-full of larger than life characters. Personality still reigns supreme on our airwaves –And as for stunts and pranks – well brmb married two strangers, and Foxy and Giuliano have just married two dogs!
The line we use to capture this personality driven output as a station is “Never A Dull Moment” - a line which I think would have fitted brmb perfectly throughout its time too.
And if brmb championed listener access, so does Free Radio. We might not still do late night phone-ins discussing the finer points of sexuality – stuff which used to leave me speechless at times in the 80s – but we’re more than happy to let real brummies onto our airwaves at any time, night or day, to entertain and amuse us. Our constant, high levels of local listener engagement are simply not replicated anywhere else on the music radio dial here in the Midlands.
And on news and information, Free Radio earns its corn. Brmb rose to fame covering the pub bombings, Leyland, the Handsworth riots etc. And we, as Free Radio, are still there today, covering the terror trials – nominated for an IRN award only two weeks ago, doing live reporting from the summer riots of 2011, or simply keeping an eye on the council. We might not take 15 minutes to read it all out anymore, but our commitment to covering local news is still strong – and as for travel, school closures, snow lines etc – we think we are harnessing new technology and social media to do those things bigger and better than ever was the case.
And in terms of community involvement there’s no let up either. In the past four years, we’ve raised well over £1m – in fact closer to £1.5m, for causes like Fisher House, built for the families of wounded troops at the QE, the refurbishment of Acorns in Selly Oak, the redevelopment of the A&E department at the Children’s hospital, supporting the neo-natal unit at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, providing funding for nurses for Cure leukaemia for Kids, and lots of support for Help Harry Help Others. The list goes on, and although we’re taking a break from the walks this year, we are teaming up with the Children’s Hospital again by putting in we hope one of the largest teams of runners ever assembled, into the Great Birmingham Run – another civic event we are delighted to be partners with. By the way – we were present at over 25 major bonfires/fireworks or Christmas Lights displays around the West Midlands this year, with around 200,000 listeners in attendance.
I was proud to start my career 34 years ago at brmb, and I’m proud now to be heading its successor, Birmingham’s Free Radio. It is worth pointing out that brmb started out as locally owned and managed. And today, that’s exactly what Free Radio remains, locally owned and managed – and there aren’t too many local stations can make that claim.

The first 40 years have been a blast, and I’m sure that in 10 years time, whoever I have passed the baton on to will be able to stand here and say music; personality; listener involvement; information and community support – those are the key pillars upon which we continue to thrive and prosper as a radio station in this great city.