Hello from Cambridge

So, this morning I decamped to Cambridge for three days of Radio Festivaling. It’s the annual jamboree for radio types and a good chance to catch up with friends, colleagues and contacts and hopefully make some new ones too.

I’ve just nicked off from TechCon to the Hotel to unpack and get ready for tonight. Interesting to see a relatively subdued Channel 4 staff be somewhat pre-occupied with the launching of 174 transmitters for their new national network. The perils of becoming a broadcaster…

The Crowne Plaza, where I’m staying, is a little ropey. There’s an odd smell in the room and no free wi-fi! Luckily a 3G phone and a USB cable has sorted out my connectivity. Anyway, i’ll try and do some updates as I go.

Channel 4 Radio – A Catalyst for the Radio Industry?

It was announced this morning that 4digital had won the new national DAB Digital Radio licence. Well done to Nathalie, Gill and the team there. I think the award is going to raise a huge number of issues for the radio industry, and for that matter, Channel 4 too.

DAB Digital Radio

First and foremost, the award is great news for DAB Digital Radio. Having a major TV network, especially one with large numbers of younger viewers, promoting DAB will be great for the industry and will probably push the platform to 100% awareness and increase desirability. Whilst they will emphasise their own stations, their will be a halo effect around other stations which will help drive listening.

Channel 4’s enthusiasm for their new baby, should hopefully energise other operators to put more time and effort into the content and marketing of their own stations. However, I’m sure there will also be some negative aspects and we’ll probably see some stations permanently shuttered as operators cut their losses in the face of high quality competition. It seems like Core, Life and Smash Hits will be the first to go.

The intense marketing of E4, Channel 4 Radio and Pure4 should also encourage the BBC to emphasise the ‘DAB’ of their digital radio stations a little more, generating more noise for the medium

In their application, 4digital talks a lot about this beneficial marketing and a planned alliance with the BBC, Freeview-style. Whilst this is good, I hope that Channel 4 realise the value of working with the entire radio industry. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past five years, complete industry-wide collaboration, with simple, common messages across the board, is what consumers want and understand. Having the DRDB on one side and Channel 4 on the other will not be helpful for the industry or consumers.

I also think it will have the affect of driving interest in operating digital stations. With Channel 4 ‘endorsing’ the platform I think it will encourage smaller operators to take the plunge and bring new, perhaps non-traditional radio operators, into the DAB fold. I think it will also increase the interest people have in multiplex operations too.

Staffing

I think one of the biggest effects on existing radio operators, both commercial and BBC, will be a ‘brain drain’ as staff move to 4radio. In commercial radio, proportionally, there aren’t that many people involved with digital services, however those that are, work very hard doing what in the analogue world is multiple people’s jobs. They’re usually bright people who are well-regarded because they understand the way radio is changing, they’re competent with using newer technology and they generate large amounts of output (often stations) on very small budgets. Many of these people are tired of being responsible for so much with their bosses always ignoring them whilst concentrating on analogue.

These staff will naturally be drawn to 4radio. They’ll be highly skilled and will love the idea of taking what they’ve learned to an operator who doesn’t care about analogue radio or old ways of doing things. It won’t just be ‘audio’ people too, those in commercial radio who work on online and associated areas will relish the idea of going somewhere where their skills are in demand. There’s also a strong cache about working for a company like Channel 4.

It won’t just affect the commercial sector as many BBC staff will be keen to move across too. I imagine Channel 4 will try and combine more public service elements with commercial programming, something that will attract the many BBC staff who enjoy doing radio solely for the listeners. Younger people who work on the BBC’s speech networks will also be attracted by the idea of skipping the painfully slow career development process and go straight into higher positions and make faster-moving programmes.

Structure

I hope this ‘luck’ with potential staff means that Channel 4 will think strongly about how they design the structure of their radio operation. I think it would be all too easy to adopt existing structures, be they BBC or Commercial Radio, with channel heads, heads of departments, commissioners, producers and production assistants. I think it would be such a waste. There’s a fantastic opportunity to closely look at output across three different radio stations and think about how they can inter-relate to create a new type of radio operation.

It’s really interesting to see how ITN have set up ‘ITN ON’ the team who do large amounts of that network’s mobile TV operations. It’s obvious that they worked very hard not to replicate the working practices of TV news upstairs and design a new way to bring content to consumers.

Channel 4 have set very bullish audience targets for their services, as have their partners. If they hit all their year one targets I will happily buy the entire 4radio team a pint each. I think it’s another reason why they should think strongly about unique structures that can spend the budget allocated in an innovative way to generate significant volumes of great content.

Presenters

It would also free up more money to spend on talent. Talent costs in radio are already increasing as more channels are generating a premium for quality content creators. In commercial radio, C4 for the first time will be able to take on the BBC and offer talent cross-media deals to bring them to the radio and TV. Whilst it’s something that the BBC say they don’t do implicitly, it’s something that definitely goes on.

For example Aled Jones used to be a radio presenter on Classic FM, he was poached by Radio 2 to do almost exactly the same show. A salary bump could be matchable by Classic FM, but extra shows on Radio 3 and contract renewal for Songs of Praise is something that commercial radio, up to now, wouldn’t have been able to compete with.

The other thing that keeps much of the BBC’s talent locked up, is the national platform. By broadcasting nationally on a well-regarded network with high audience figures it helps you with those extras, DJ gigs, telly work etc. The ‘exposure’ of being on a national network makes you very uncertain about moving to a big local commercial radio station, even if they would pay you a lot more money. Now, whilst Channel 4 doesn’t have the audience scale (yet), its national platform and cross-promotional opportunities will make talent strongly consider whether they should make the jump.

Overall I hope Channel 4 is brave in what it does and how it does it. I hope it will also be humble and learn the lessons from the organisations who’ve been involved in digital radio and also engage fully and take up its place alongside the rest of the radio industry.

Music Royalties

“Radio play does not have the positive impact on record sales normally attributed to it. Instead it appears to have an economically important negative impact, implying that overall radio listening is more of a substitute for the purchase of sound recordings than it is a complement.”

Hmm. Who’s saying this? MusicFirst. Basically the entire US music industry (it’s supported by SoundExchange and the RIAA). It’s all part of their campaign to get US radio stations paying fees for broadcasting their artists. Unlike the UK where radio pays the writer of the song (PRS) and the perfomer/record company (PPL), in the States they just pay the PRS element and the industry are fighting back.

Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with the campaign, the way that the US recording industry is doing it, is very, very scary. That quote at the top of this post shows their true feeling about radio.

Nowadays there’s lots of different types of services using music and they’re licensed on scale that comes down to how much of the service is promotion vs substitution of the material. If it’s substitution then the industry looks for compensation of that lost sales, if it’s promotion then it looks for less of a fee. Historically radio has been seen very much at the ‘promotion’ end of the spectrum and has just paid a flat fee – a percentage of its total revenue. I think this kind of campaign shows the true desire of the recording industry, this campaign really is the thin end of the wedge.

It’s also interesting to see SoundExchange’s response to the sale of Last.FM, who suggest they should get a cut of the sale price.

What can be done? Personally, if the record industry thinks there’s no value in radio airplay, perhaps we should arbitrarily choose a record label and stop playing their music? It would be interesting to see if their stance changed then.

Facebook and the Mainstream

Scoble touches on something that i’ve had a lot in the past couple of weeks. This idea that Facebook is some how only for the kids. Complete rubbish, of course, it’s mainstreaming at quite a pace and getting older all the time.

In fact i’ve been working with BBC World Service on some Facebook stuff recently (more on the work blog) and the responses have been great.

Traffic Radio

Last week a new service, Traffic Radio, went on-air across most of England’s local DAB multiplexes. Traffic Radio is operated by the Highways Agency with Trafficlink providing the content. It’s a very simple idea, a rolling speech-only traffic news service.

I was quite dismayed to read on the anoraky radio newsgroups almost a total slagging off for the service. Now, having been a target of these geeko’s in the past, I always try to take any discussion with a pinch of salt. But I just found their views really disheartening.

You see, I think a station like Traffic Radio is perfect for DAB. Yes, it’s niche, but it’s brilliantly targeted at filling a functional need for radio listeners. Rather than wait for Station FM to give you a speedy bulletin before they’re back to the music… this service with a short rotation of news is almost traffic on demand.

Some people think Traffic Radio’s a rubbish idea because there aren’t many DAB radios in cars. Well, if we thought like that there wouldn’t have been any DAB radio stations at all, as in 1999 there were hardly any DAB radios under a grand. Content stimulates take-up, and a nationwide traffic service is actually something that is likely to encourage car manufacturers to put DAB in more cars.

I think DAB content is going the right way at the moment. In the beginning all the group’s wanted to occupy the centre ground in Pop and AC and target the BBC on a national scale. However, they seemed to have realised that actually even with a great mix of music and no ads it’s hard to pull people away from Radio 1 and 2 or even stations like Heart, Century and Real all of which have strong loyalty from their listeners.

By going a little more niche, with formats like Chill, Christian and even Traffic, collectively there’s a better chance to pick off different aspects of large station’s audiences. An hour here or an hour there will add up and begin to eat away at the BBC’s dominance.