Bauer, Ireland and the digital future?

Bauer have got their cheque book out again, but this time they have abandoned our fine shores to bunk up with the Irish. They’ve acquired Communicorp Media, the owner of the two national commercial stations Today FM and Newstalk, Dublin’s 98FM, the two Spins and some digital assets too, all for a purported €100m (about £85m). Communicorp’s UK operation (FM stations that, in the main, licence Global’s brands) remains unaffected.

Ireland is an interesting market. Radio’s popular with consumers there, and the fact RTE has advertising too, means pretty much the whole population can be reached through radio – which makes a difference to its share of the country’s advertising Euros.

It’s also heavily regulated, with a limited number of FM radio stations and no real DAB roll-out. If you walk into a station there’s often 30 or 40 people there, with a strong news team and little networking or automation. RTE have national stations, but don’t provide the local competition that say, the BBC does in the UK.

The benefits of being a relatively closed-shop has meant the sector has been somewhat preserved in aspic. Keeping out new competitors, stopping any DAB development and no broad availability of radio on digital television has meant there has been little growth for the sector.

My view is that by not providing any real digital products of scale, safely cocooned in their FM world, they have left the innovation in audio to non-radio businesses. Irish radio output doesn’t seem to trouble the podcast charts and additional streams that stations provide, as they lack scale, have little investment in content.

This is a particular shame as consumers have huge affection for their radio stations, love speech more than other markets and the stations are resourced in a way that they have the staff to do interesting things digitally.

This is the dichotomy that many incumbent businesses face. The current business seems pretty good – why change it? And then it’s too late.

Last month’s JLNR’s Radio in a Digital World report shows that only 8% of the population listen to radio ‘digitally’, that number in the UK is 67%. When you look at time spent listening, in Ireland digital listening accounts for just 5.9%, in the UK that figure’s ten times that – 59%.

With Bauer’s acquisition, there’s been much talk about whether they’ll roll out the UK local brand strategy of Hits and Greatest Hits or import national stations like Kiss and Absolute Radio. I doubt there’s much chance of that in the short term.

What may well be different is Bauer’s digital-focus. They are a strong proponent of DAB and DAB+. When becoming a main operator in Sweden, they definitely helped pushed that market, a previous digital radio refusenik, into adopting the platform.

In many markets they’ve been growing podcast content and also in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, developing their RadioPlay aggregator. Last week it announced that their tech is powering Antenna Group’s online activities in Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Moldova.

The other player with more of a digital focus is the Wireless Group, who also own a decent number of local Irish licences. In the UK they’re the people behind talkRADIO and Virgin Radio, and who sold their UK FM stations (to Bauer) at the beginning of 2019.

Indeed, with Bauer they operate Octave, a joint venture that sells ads in streaming and podcasts. So there’s definitely already some digital alignment.

The support of Bauer, Wireless and RTE on DAB would certainly galvanise the regulator (BAI) into kicking off a DAB licensing programme. The BAI and RTE (ongoing financial troubles aside) would be positive about a digital radio roll-out if some commercial big boys jumped on board. Growing out and promoting digital services, for both Bauer and Wireless, would also help build inventory for their IP operations and maybe provide a way to bring some of the UK national digital brands to the market.

The main digital asset Bauer have now acquired is Audio XI, which was designed as a carbon copy of Global’s DAX – repping their own audio, third party radio stations and international podcast providers.

If I was Bauer, acquiring a strong FM business makes sense. It’s something they understand and they can probably add value to sales and programming. It’s also likely that there will be some relaxation of the over-restrictive radio regulation in the coming years that will allow them to reduce costs. It’s also already profitable, well at least pre-pandemic, so earnings additive to the Bauer business.

But, I think all of that is chicken feed when thinking about what the digital opportunity is. Irish radio has under-exploited digital audio – both IP and broadcast – and there’s the potential for strong growth if it’s attacked with zeal. Let’s see if they’re the ones to do it.

Bauer expand into Ireland by buying Communicorp

Spotify’s Podcasting Expansion

Yesterday’s StreamOn, a 90-minute presentation from Spotify extolled the virtues of its streaming audio world. Alongside digs at radio, music stores and the digital advertising market, Spotify positioned their platform as the perfect place for artists, podcasters, advertisers and listeners. Good news for all, except perhaps other middlemen.

The event covered a lot of ground – the expansion of its service to 80 more countries and 36 languages, HD audio, new advertising and promotional opportunities for music companies, more products for advertisers and a range of podcast initiatives, including a new Spotify Original podcast series with Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen. I’ll be disappointed if neither does a Squarespace read.

On the podcasting front there’s a few interesting things for creators to think about.

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Global and Bauer’s Busy Week

Both Global and Bauer were newsworthy last week for some recent corporate developments. Global’s family owners have purchased a share of the US iHeartMedia and Bauer plan to remove Absolute Radio from the London FM airwaves, replacing it with their new station Greatest Hits Radio (GHR).

Bauer’s portfolio management continues to be ever-evolving. GHR replaced many heritage local radio stations late last year, building the network out to a significant size. It did, however, lack a sizeable outlet in London – historically important to ad agencies to demonstrate your station is a big player – as well as an opportunity to garner more audience.

This has been corrected with an application to Ofcom to swap out Absolute Radio from 105.8 and replace it with GHR.

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Are Your Listeners Just Button Pushers?

All radio stations are not created equal. Talent, content budgets, marketing, positioning, distribution, coverage and heritage all vary. For stations to grow, these elements have to exist in the right quantities, alongside a decent dollop of luck too.

Like anything, we often analyse failure but rarely interrogate success. We’re so relieved that something’s gone well, we just celebrate it. For disaster on the other hand, we have post-mortems, lessons learned and blame storming sessions. It seems that’s probably the wrong way round. Understanding why something works is probably significantly more valuable.

For a few years I had a standard section I trotted out when I went to speak at radio conferences around the world. It was a good ‘bit’ because pretty much every market in the world was the same, and audiences could (hopefully) relate to what as I was saying. I also got to have a bit of a go at the audience, always fun, before I then won them all back. Mostly.

The bit talked about how in the analogue world I felt that most stations had put way too much emphasis on their success coming from their programming, and less about how they were usually the monopoly provider of a format, sitting on a platform with virtually no competition. That perhaps really they weren’t the best at what they were doing, and just merely the least worst option.

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Why Clubhouse isn’t about audio

At the moment there’s a huge amount of buzz about Clubhouse, a new audio social network. Indeed there’s so much buzz, the recent investments (of around $100m) have made it worth (well, on paper at least) $1bn.

Personally, I’m still not particularly sold. I think Clubhouse has definitely done some interesting things, but I don’t think the ‘killer feature’ is much to do with audio.

So, what it is?

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Taking Money Off Your Listeners

Overtly paying for media is not something that the UK was particularly used to. Yes, there was the licence fee, but early on it was probably more regarded as a device licence rather than that thing that paid for the BBC. What we didn’t have were the exhortations to donate to programme makers that they had in America – whether that was for NPR affiliates or televangelists.

Naturally this has changed more recently. The advent of cable and satellite, with premium movies and sport through to Netflix and Disney+, we’re more used to paying subscriptions for content.

In the audio space music streamers like Spotify or even audiobooks through Audible have become more common place.

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Would you pay £1m a day to your talent?

In the battle for the attention of the young, TikTok and Snapchat are really going for it.

Snapchat has invented much of what has been adopted by other services, including Stories and timed, disappearing messages. It has also innovated with what its camera can do. The rise of TikTok, though, has been uncomfortable for Snapchat as it too targets 13 to 19s and has become the de-facto place for young people to consume short form, entertaining video clips.

Snapchat itself hasn’t gone away (they have 90m daily active users in the US, 249m across the world). It’s also still massively used as a messaging platform between teens, and indeed lots use Snapchat’s camera to make their TikToks. The problem for Snapchat was that it concentrated on the original social network feed idea of showing content just from the people that you’re following. Meanwhile TikTok exposed public posts more easily for other people to find. With many social media users always clamouring for more attention, this feature resonated well, and particularly because much of social video is literally performing for others.

Snapchat’s answer was to add TikTok style functionality to its app, but more importantly to incentivise its use. To do this they announced they would be giving successful creators a share of $1m every day.

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Launching Spin-Off Radio Stations

Yesterday, over in my day job at the children’s radio station Fun Kids, we launched two new initiatives. The first was eight new spin-off radio stations for Fun Kids and the second was our new lockdown-related feature, Activity Quest Daily.

Spin-Offs

Launching spin-offs, or brand extensions, for radio stations has been all the rage in the UK for the past few years. It was re-born by Clive Dickens who was running Absolute Radio, when he pushed live Absolute 80s. Like all good (re)inventions it was somewhat driven by a combination of opportunity and necessity.

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Amazon and Twitter Join the Audio Buying Spree

2020 saw lots of audio acquisitions particularly around podcast content and ad-tech. If you were a big boy, or wanted to be, you got out the chequebook and started buying.

Spotify was the poster-boy for this (Gimlet, Parcast, Megaphone) but there was also iHeart buying Voxnest, SiriusXM getting Stitcher and a loads of others too.

One of the issues has been large companies were running out of big podcast companies to buy. In the content space, one of the top indies left was Wondery, and just before the New Year Amazon announced they were snaffling it up.

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