The future of (local) commercial radio

Newspapers, we’re constantly told, are changing, a dying breed according to the more gloomy. That conversation has been repeated ad infinitum and is still ongoing. But what about radio? The conversation around where to turn your Web 2.0 dial is a lot less loud, and a lot less straightforward. Nonetheless, like all traditional media, it’s a medium that has to adapt or feel the squeeze.

Times are perhaps never better and never worse for audio lovers. On one hand you have GCap laying off up to 100 staff. On the other hand there are more local radio licences being granted [1], while internet listenership has gone up

No here you have a bit of a flashpoint, and one that highlights the positives and negatives of radio. Unlike print, which traditionally used to have just on letters to the editor, radio has always had a high degree of interactivity with its listeners, so had an advantage over other mediums when it became apparent that interacting and conversation was at the heart of the web.

But commercial radio is doing a lot to squander this lead, assuming it hasn’t already been happened. To save on costs, commercial radio companies are increasingly networking shows, destroying one of the aspects that make commercial radio, especially local commercial radio, unique. It’s not the same interacting with a show that’s being produced, often pre-recorded, for a generic nationwide listenership as it is with a live DJ. The BBC’s DJs do this aspect incredibly well. Local DJs do this well. This is less apparent on networked shows.

If you’re sticking on a generic DJ or, even more extreme, cutting them out altogether, then you’re just left with the music, which is normally decent if unadventurous. And here’s another problem.

Anybody who’s worked in commercial radio with know the ‘target listener’ their station is aimed at (she’s normally called Jane [2], and has a couple of kids). Jane may vary slightly from station to station but she’s normally pretty constant on her music tastes, and the playlist usually reflects this. It’s perfectly listenable but with networked or no DJs it struggles to differentiate itself from other products.

As has been said elsewhere, if you’re just producing playlists then Apple does this better. If it’s about discovering music tailored to your tastes, there’s Lastfm. Then there’s a whole host of digital and internet-only stations that do a minimum of chat and play fairly narrow genres. Or if you just want to grab a few select tracks, YouTube does the job quite nicely. And we’ve not even touched on podcasts here. Already, it’s easy to see the challenges commercial radio faces.

There are two (well, two and a half to three quarters) ways of tackling this. Firstly, there’s the quality of the presenter. Martin Kelner has said:

“I think most people listen to the radio because they like the presenter. I don’t think people say ‘ooh, Russell Brand’s on radio 2, he’s going to play some banging tunes’.”

But a lot depends on the quality of the presenter. You can’t just stick any old celebrity in front of a microphone and expect decent radio. Brand, Jonathan Ross, Terry Wogan and others are in the job because they’re good at what they do. Then you’ve got the presenters who are DJs first and celebrity second – the likes of Moyles, Scott Mills, Steve Lamacq.

You might have noticed all of the above are BBC radio presenters, and that’s largely because it’s difficult to think of equivalents with as good a brand recognition nationwide, which makes their decision to axe Graham Torrington all the more baffling [3].

Johnny Vaughan and Jamie Theakston are both decent broadcasters and, personally, I’d rather listen to either of them than Moyles. But that’s just a personal preference. I can understand why Moyles is popular. You can see, to a certain extent why GCap and others would like to network more and compete with the BBC.

But that brings us onto the second of the two and three quarters: local. Whether Vaughan would work so well outside the capital is questionable, and it would really hurt where local radio performs well – their breakfast show.

It’s fair to say I wasn’t target audience at any of the commercial stations I worked at. But I’d still listen to their breakfast shows out of choice even when I wasn’t working. The music didn’t differ wildly from the alternatives, but the connection these shows had with their audience gave me a reason to tune in. I could relate to the chat, and the DJs clearly knew their area.

Getting out and about, chatting to and interacting with the audience, the local DJs scored a much higher name recognition than any of the networked shows (bar, naturally, Graham Torrington), even among non-listeners. It’s always been clear to me, and I may be wrong here, that local is such a strong part of the brand and is a great USP in a fractured marketplace.

Without local, you’re back to networked shows that have less relevance to the listener, you’re back to the music and you’re back to the hundreds of alternatives. It’s the strongest selling point for a local station. Reduce the number of local hours and it becomes just another radio station, with the same competition.

Local news, too, plays a huge part in this. It makes such a difference to hear a local story leading a bulletin (on merit, I hasten to add) rather than a national story. Local radio news may have its own issues with staffing, pay and the like. But no commercial station I’ve ever worked for has ever accepted the cliched local story of cat stuck up tree as news. The standards for making news relevant to listeners at commercial stations are as high as you’ll find anywhere – it’s practically beaten into you as a journalist to keep the news relevant to the target audience. It’s why many local radio stations excel when a national story breaks on their patch.

The other three-quarters is, unsurprisingly, the websites. Much has been written about the often poor quality of newspaper websites. Radio is often just as bad if not worse. The really poor sites do nothing but just tell you a bit about the station, a bit of news, and if you’re really lucky, a few photos from local events. There is nothing to keep anybody on the site for much longer than a few minutes, and in a Web 2.0 that’s just not good enough.

Even best the commercial radio websites – usually GCap – are a bit thin once you scratch below the surface. At least half the content is the same across all sites and offers precious little in the way of Web 20 interactivity (and this is different from traditional interactivity). News is very much dependent on individual news teams and their desire to keep the web updated. Elsewhere, there’s a couple of decent-ish local sections – usually the local guide and events – but given the number of listeners balanced against the chance to get a real community going, there are so many missed opportunities.

Part of this is the centralised format, where the template is set and it’s hard for individual stations to deviate from this. Interestingly, Roy Greenslade had this to say after Newsquest’s relaunch of their local newspaper websites:

“I still wonder whether all the regional chains – including Trinity Mirrorand Johnston Press – have gone about their website strategy as effectively as they should. Rather than centralising the design process I wish they had allowed individual papers to create their own sites and, at the same time, encouraged their local readers to have taken part in the process.

Internal competition, allied by public involvement, would surely have resulted in even better sites. Most importantly, it would have speeded up the process of change, allowing papers to make gradual improvements that would have retained and enhanced the loyalty of the audience.”

It’s a view I’d share, although I think tempered perhaps. By all means have a basic template, but give a lot more scope to play around with. If one station has a couple of active and well-received bloggers, allow them more space at the expense of something else. If another wants to add a Twitter or Flickr stream, or even embeddable video, let them. Regular podcasting should be a given, not an optional extra.

In fairness to commercial radio, the problem is endemic across most media. There’s no joined up 360 degree strategy and the web is still bolted on as an afterthought. That’s changing, faster in some places than in others, but it’s still not at the heart of strategies as it should be.

Despite all this, I’m still reasonably optimistic about radio. A lot of the engagement that drives conversations is already there in the form of the DJ. Texting, emailing, phoning, forums (if available) all add to the on-air product.

But if local commercial and commercial radio as a whole is to adapt to a world of Apple, Muxtape, Lastfm, YouTube et al when it needs to remember what keeps it unique, what drives the brand. That largely comes down to the quality of the DJs and, if for local stations, you remove more of the local hours, and with it the local interaction, then the question is ‘what is being offered that’s different from internet radio or Web 2.0 music broadcasters’? The answer is often, sadly, not a lot.

I love good local radio. Let’s hope it’s still around for me to love when I finally find a local area I want to settle down in.

[1] My hometown and old news patch of Exeter being one.

[2] There’s one station I know that, in jest, has a sign up asking “What would Jane do?” But the point is served with good humour.

[3] And since I blogged about Graham Torrington, that post has become my all-time most read post, and most searched for topic. Go figure.

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2 Responses to “The future of (local) commercial radio”


  1. 1 Steve Martin July 10, 2008 at 10:31 am

    You love good local radio. So you might enjoy this radio documentary made to mark 25 years of County Sound, the local station for Surrey and North East Hampshire. I had a hand in making the programme…

    http://tvi.gg/sm/audio/doc.mp3 – big file

    http://tvi.gg/sm/audio/doc.wma – smaller file

  2. 2 Nurse Scrubs May 26, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Good stuff, I “Stumbled” you. My DIGG account got messed up but I like Stumbling better anyway.


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