Posts Tagged 'GCap'

Local radio dying a long, drawn-out death

It’s not a great time to be working in local radio at the moment. In fact, if you’re a fan of local radio, it’s probably not great to be a listener either.

After axing the distinctive Late Night Love show and DJ Graham Torrington, and rebranding virtually all of their distinctively named local stations across the UK as Heart, Global Radio (formerly GCap) have now announced further cutbacks.

Chief among these are the scrapping of local news bulletins between 11am and 3pm, to be replaced with a national news bulletin, and the outsourcing of its travel news.

Granted, this will save money. It’s also so short-sighted it’s beyond belief. By consolidating assorted operations, Global is slowly, bit-by-bit, taking away every last remnant of what makes local radio stations unique.

The rebranding of Heart was bad enough. Having worked for many different local radio stations over the years, one constant in terms of feedback was just how much listeners connected with the individual identity of each station.

It didn’t matter that the stations were owned by the same group. By having their own name and own identity, each station found its own particular niche to serve the community it broadcasted to. Take that away, and you’ve got a standardised, somewhat London centric service with a few local DJs.

But at least there was the local news to keep listeners up to date. Now that’s just limited to breakfast and drivetime. So, if there’s a breaking or ongoing story on that station’s patch, presumably listeners will be bereft of updates during the day (of course, this could be offset by fully utilising the web for breaking news, but I’m not holding my breath).

It also takes away another part of that local connection to listeners. Why should I listen to town X’s Heart when I can’t even find out, hourly, what’s going on in my area.

Given that I’ve got a vast array of internet or digital stations out there, or even alternative stations still on FM, what’s the incentive for me, as a local listener, to tune in? Less than there was before, that’s for sure.

I’m not entirely sure what the outsourcing of the traffic news will be, but this could be an even bigger mistake than cutting back on news.

Again, from my time in local radio, the traffic lines and traffic news was the one thing you’d be guaranteed to get listeners AND interaction. If we’d missed a jam or accident, you could be darn sure we’d get half a dozen calls letting us know.

Traffic news, especially for commuters, is vital. Reduce the quality of that service and you’re going to lose a significant chunk of your audience who tune in specifically to find out if they’re going to face delays on the drive home. This could be Global’s biggest mistake.

What’s more, cutting these positions (and the 25 jobs they estimate will be lost sounds like a VERY conservative estimate to me) will have an even worse effect on aspiring journalists.

There’s already more BJTC trained journalists than there are positions and cutting more news jobs will drive down wages, further depress an already demoralised workforce and make it harder for aspiring young broadcast journalists to find a position, unless they’ve already got something lined up with the BBC.

And for all the commercial stations complain about the BBC’s advantage in local radio, they hardly help their cause by greeting bland identikit stations that sound the same from Land’s End to John O’Groats and offer practically zero competition now to the Beeb.

The radio journalism industry is already haemorraging talented reporters. Of the group I trained with, I’d estimate between 1/5th and 1/3rd have already quit the profession and, speaking to others, I’d expect that percentage to rise.

I love local radio. I love the medium of radio full stop. It’s a job that I loved doing, and would have loved to continue doing. But, the more I see of the state of local commercial radio, the more I’m glad I got out when I did.

A few years ago, if anybody had asked me about getting into radio journalism, I’d have enthused and encouraged them into a wonderfully vibrant and creative industry.

Now, I’d simply tell them not to bother.


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.

No more Late Night Love

Anybody who’s grown up listening to commercial radio in the last decade will probably be familiar with Late Night Love, the rather cheesy relationship phone-in programme hosted by Graham Torrington. Networked across GCap’s commercial stations, it was like a cross between Jeremy Kyle and Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery presented by your embarrassing uncle and with the kind of people on the phone lines who most definitely should never have kids.

Needless to say it was, in equal measures, cringeworthy yet somehow brilliant.

When people found out I used to work in radio, one of the first questions I was always asked was “Do you know Graham Torrington?” Sadly, as the show was networked, I never got to meet the great man.

Which makes today’s announcement that Late Night Love is to be axed to be replaced by a new music show somewhat baffling. The show had fantastic brand recognition, even among non-GCap listeners. It retained a charm and distinctiveness in the world of commercial radio that few other shows had.

I have no idea what the show’s listener figures was like. Perhaps it had become the radio equivalent of Top Of The Pops – well loved by those who remembered it, but with an audience that had moved on, and was no longer culturally relevant in a digital world. Perhaps it was time to put the show out of its misery, as you would do to a family pet.

But even if that was the case, it still feels like a small part of the radio world has died today. Something that was different, irreverent and fun, and quite different from anything else on the air.

Perhaps, on the other hand, it just didn’t fit with GCap’s vision for the future. If so, it’s a very bold move. Hopefully it will be replaced with something just as distinctive because, while there are some talented DJs working in local radio, the last thing commercial stations need is another indistinguishable music show. Or perhaps I’m missing the point, and that’s exactly what it needs.

News > Comment > News

This is quite interesting. Digital Spy have posted a reaction story to Global’s takeover of GCap made up entirely of comments from their forum.

It’s something that is occasionally done as a side piece in print (think The Guardian’s views from the blog) or radio (“and we’ve been asking for your views”) but this seems like something a bit different – stories starting as “forums posters on x have reacted positively to…” aren’t all that common.

Digital Spy’s got a large following – about 3 million unique users and, according to them, the third largest entertainment news site in the UK – and their forum users are a little saner and more knowledgeable than most, but it’s still an interesting use of news values.

As an aside, as an one-time GCap employee, I’m fascinated to see where Global go. I really hope they don’t cut the number of local hours to save money.

Believe it or not, people in Milton Keynes do want to hear about what’s happening in their town.

If there’s one area that often gets maligned, often unfairly, it’s the domain of the local radio DJ. An odd blend of personality, cheese and the rural/urban area they broadcast to, for all those who sneer, they’ll be just as many who’ll tune in religiously.


Perhaps GCap’s Chief Executive, Ralph Bernard, has heard too many doomsayers as, along with other radio heads, he’s asked for the amount of local programming to be cut to just three hours a day, so the stations can compete with the likes of Chris Moyles and Chris Evans.


Now on one hand, I can see several reasons for the GCap board, why this would make sense. However, as an ex-GCap employee, I also think it would be completely the wrong move to make.


Commercial radio cuts its cloth quite fine, and with increasing competition for advertisers, it’s a move borne as much out of necessity as anything else. Like any company, there are efficiency savings to be made and if roughly 2/3rdof their local DJs around the country can be cut out in favour of networked shows, then that’s going to make a big difference to the balance sheet and possibly the shareholders. And if the network shows can be demonstrated to appeal to a more lucrative advertising demographic, then there’s an opportunity to increase revenue.


But that may make for a very healthy balance sheet and please City investors, may cause long-term problems for local stations. As somebody who’s recently worked on the front line for a GCap local station, if you will, and used to regularly interact with listeners, then I can firmly say one thing: locality matters to these people.


Yes, there are the popular networked shows. Late Night Love has a cult following. Myleene Klass may be proving popular as the girl of the moment. But these work well in the timeslots they’re scheduled for – early evening and late night.


To me, the argument that local stations can’t compete against the likes of Moyles and Evans doesn’t ring true, as I don’t believe local stations should necessarily be aiming for exactly the same audience as Moyles or Evans in the first place.


Local commercial radio occupies a niche that isn’t always fully exploited. Sure, you could network Johnny Vaughn’s Capital show, and it may prove popular in cities such as Brighton, Bristol and Birmingham. But one-size certainly doesn’t fit all, and whether Johnny’s shtick would prove quite so popular in Hereford, Cardiff, Somerset and Plymouth is a moot point.


Local commercial offers is very different from the more speech-heavy local BBC stations, which tend to attract a slightly older audience, but for those who’re not so keen on Radio 1’s playlist, or Moyles’s laddish humour, don’t want their programming too speech heavy, but still identify with local issues (and there are a significant number who fit into this category), then local commercial radio fits the bill nicely.


The letter from GCap, Emap and others to offer says: We all agree that localness is important to our listeners. However, it is also clear that quality of output is of greater importance.” This implies localness and quality output are mutually exclusive. I’m sure a lot of local DJs, and listeners would find this both offensive and slightly patronising.


The principles of good programming are no different in Exeter, Edinburgh, or London. Get a good presenter, or presenters, who can make entertaining radio and connect with their audience. Often the best local DJs I’ve heard are the ones who love getting involved in local issues, be it local carnivals, breast cancer awareness campaigns, new shopping centres or follow the local football and rugby teams.


Get that blend right, and for the listener it gives them a show that entertains, informs, educates and even evokes empathy. Reithian core values need not be the exclusive domain of the BBC.


The argument that any money saved will be ploughed back into making one quality programme doesn’t wash with me. Radio is all about building hours, and if you’ve got listeners only tuning in for one three-hour show, and turning off for the networked content, you’ll achieve a loss. And, having had plenty of contact with listeners and potential listeners over the past 18 months, I strongly believe that for any new listeners commercial would pick up as a result of networking, it would lose as many, if not more, for those who tuned in precisely to hear the much-maligned local DJ give them the lowdown on move to redevelop the bus station. Unlike Morrissey’s disc jockey, these broadcasters do have something to say about my life.


It may not be entirely politic to criticise your recent ex-employers, but I’ve just got a problem with the upper-echelons of GCap’s management in this case, as the station I used to work for was a prime example of how local could work wells, as sounding more local was something they’d been pushing in a big way. I was proud of the balance struck between good programming and including the right amount of local balance.


To give an example, recently the station did an OB at the opening of one of the city’s large new shops. In the middle of this, they cut to an ongoing on-air promotion live elsewhere in the city, before a live promo teasing a major event that weekend. This was highlighted as an excellent example of what the station should be aiming for and, if the response was anything to go by, it achieved it. Now if you add the buzz those outside events would have created in the city anyway, you’ve got an excellent example of how local radio can, and should, work.


It can take years to build up that reputation and the listeners that come with it. It can take just a couple of months to lose them. As John Plunkett says, “How the heart lifts when Andy, H and the other one (Steve) mention some local south Bucks gossip, some irritating roadworks or there’s yet another trail for Hazlemere food hall (I still haven’t been).”



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December 2022

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com