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The changing landscape of local radio

I was in a restaurant lately, a smaller group had been taken over by a larger one. The whole place had a refurbishment. The menu’s changed; old signature dishes have been removed in favour of other ones. The produce isn’t local – the meat doesn’t come from local farms and the ice cream is produced miles away, rather than in the dairy down the road. The staff have changed too, I’ve no idea where the managers have gone but some of the bar and serving staff have stayed.

This analogy also describes what’s happening to independent local radio (ILR) with big changes announced in recent weeks. Many smaller groups, including a lot of stations I worked for previously, have been bought by either Global or Bauer. This is because rules that restricted networking, by having a requirement that certain hours and news content must be produced in the area that the radio station broadcasts have been relaxed by the industry regulator, Ofcom.

It’s been a process of osmosis to get to this point which has been on the cards for years. At least there are two big players in the commercial world. It’s actually good to have competitors – to keep everyone on their toes and the bar raised. The stations that will remain will sound very slick, even if the links are voice tracked ‘crunch and rolls’ from the latest reality TV star turned radio presenter. That seems to be the trend these days…

Commercial radio has always been about making money and you can’t fault the companies concerned for doing that; it makes business sense to increase productivity in this way. If the rules are relaxed to allow networking then it’s only going to be a matter of time before it happens. Of course, behind every station rebrand or new celebrity slot comes with it job losses, families impacted and an industry with shrinking chances for established talent and newbies alike.

Others who’ve blogged on this subject have mentioned that the gap in the market gives an opportunity for both BBC local radio and community stations. In my experience, community radio sounds at its best when a station is well run by people with industry experience at the helm, usually in paid positions, to steer a cohort of enthusiastic volunteers. Even though community stations can provide a valuable hyper-local service, if the sound is poor people aren’t going to listen for long. What comes out of the speakers is everything, especially when other stations along the dial are going to be on form all the time. Ofcom rules state that community stations must be run not-for-profit and, in this current climate, I would argue this needs a rethink to allow the sector to flourish fully.

As far as BBC Local Radio is concerned, a lot of people’s perceptions are based on old-fashioned stereotypes. I produce the drive time programme on BBC Radio Lancashire and, since I took over this role around six months ago, we’ve reformatted the programme so local news is the focus but you’re never far from a song. If you haven’t listened in a while give it a go – the playlist is closer to many of the stations that will soon be shutting down to become transmitter sites for the bigger conglomerates than you may expect.

The reality is there’s only a finite amount of jobs available in the industry at any one time or, in the case of community radio, most do it for the love of the medium. Due to the recent changes, 250 positions in commercial radio could be lost, according to an estimate by the industry news service Radio Today. This affects many, from presenting, producing to news – not forgetting freelancers. Media and journalism courses up and down the country have optimistic students enrol each year with a dream of working in radio. If the jobs aren’t there for those already established then what’s the knock on effect going to be for those trying to get a foot in the door or develop?

It’s stark, it’s scary and it’s not what anyone who works on the front line in this industry wants to see happening to friends and colleagues who’re affected. The landscape is changing but I’d like to think it’s not all as bleak as it seems. Fewer stations are on the dial but there’s an online presence now that can’t be ignored. Social media, podcasts and listen again services mean there will be need for content producers, just maybe not in a linear format like radio is.

There’s stations like Imagine Radio in Stockport and Cheshire. Despite all the networking announced recently, the station’s new owners announced an expansion. Revolution 96.2 that broadcasts to Rochdale, Oldham and Tameside, is a commercial station super-serving those areas with local content. You might think a market like Greater Manchester may be saturated but there’s a lot of listener choice in these areas and that’s promising for ILR. In time, a hyper-local commercial model may spread to other areas as well.

I believe the trend for networking will buck but it could take a while. There’ll be a shift and demand for localness from listeners and smaller commercial radio stations will rise like a Phoenix from the ashes with a sound that will be different and refreshing. Like what Century did in the mid-90s, with a higher speech to music ratio, football rights and a well staffed newsroom. Something like this would need to be bold, have financial backing and launch when the time is right. Sadly, that time isn’t now and who knows what the local landscape will look like when it is? However, radio will adapt to survive; it always has and it always will.

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I am John Peel

NOV peel

In the shadow of John Peel’s picture up on the big screen Radcliffe and Maconie took to the stage to introduce the night’s proceedings. I had managed to get right on the front row and right in front of the rostrum where rock legend Pete Townshend would be standing. Notorious for smashing up hotel rooms on tour with his band The Who… (maybe I shouldn’t have sat on the front row??)

Older and wiser now, this lecture didn’t break the news because of that though. The controversy arose because of this question that he asked, during the course of the lecture:

Is there really any good reason why, just because iTunes exists in the wild west internet land of Facebook and Twitter, it can’t provide some aspect of these services to the artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire Northern Rock for its enormous commission?

As you would expect, the media sensationalised this. Townshend’s delivery of the lecture was quite stilted and this often diluted his points when reading from notes, his wit came through during ad-libs. He used his “inner artist” as a way to soften the blow of any criticism. Although, points that I agreed with included how venomous the internet can be; people hide behind their keyboards thinking that this is a shield for them to spout all kinds of vindictive nonsense – just because they can. However, to say that platforms like iTunes should provide some sort of ‘community service’ for new artists is rubbish. You can’t condemn a business for wanting to make money.

Townshend compared the digital internet age to that of radio, commenting that radio is not as driven by money than the internet. Of course it is; you only have to be around on RAJAR day to see how much ratings matter. Big ratings means that people are listening and if people are listening then advertise want their products on your station. That may not apply in the same way to BBC stations but they still, quite rightly, compete fiercely for listeners. They want to make sure that your licence fee money is not wasted.

To have a curator like John Peel guiding listeners through the hits (and misses) of new musical releases was fantastic… but it was also of its time. Peel’s legacy at the helm of the radio industry was in an era when much less choice existed. It was mentioned in the lecture that Peel would often play songs that the listener hated, if that happened nowadays then they can, almost too easily, switch over to another station to find something they do like.

Is ‘Peelism’ dead? I would have thought so. Then like a flash of lightening, I realised that no, in fact it is very much still here. I was sitting down planning the prep sheet for my weekly chillout music specialist show on North Manchester FM when it occurred to me – I am John Peel. Ok, maybe that’s too much of an overstatement but hear me out; you’ll get my gist: Radio presenters in the ‘real world’ (i.e. those who get paid) do not have much, if any, say about the music that they play on their shows. This is within good reason because stations need to play music that they know listeners will like so that they keep tuned in to that station, like we discussed above. This is when art blends quite neatly over into science because most stations like to conduct audience research to make sure that they get the selection of music that they play right.

On community radio it’s different; I don’t get paid but present and produce shows because I enjoy it – it’s the best hobby in the world. I compile my playlists as best I can to the criteria of what the audience want to hear within the chillout genre, just like a commercial station would do, but I also have the freedom to put in as many tracks that I like too. I do this as a way of introducing my listeners to new songs that they might not have been familiar with. This is the ethos behind most specialist music shows that you hear on community radio and it was also what John Peel liked to do with his shows too.

It was an overstatement, I’m not John Peel and I definitely do not have the amount of listeners that he did. However, I’ve been presenting my show for four years now and during that time I’ve developed a nice little following of regular listeners who request songs and interact with me when I’m on-air and off-air via social media. From feedback that I get it is obvious that they love the fact that they can listen to the show, discover new music that they hadn’t been aware of and, who knows, they might even download a copy of the tracks they like later.

The legacy of John Peel lives on. You just have to search a little harder to find shows that are like what he used to do – and community radio is a rich source of shows like that. Ironically it’s come full circle because I do all the research for my radio shows on the internet using platforms such as iTunes to help me access the music that I need.

Who cares if iTunes is what Pete Townshend calls a “digital vampire”… I hate Twilight anyway!

Here’s a clip from Pete Townshend’s John Peel lecture: