Being Creative with Artists

I wrote a little post a while ago about the brilliant Improv Everywhere and how some of there ideas should inspire radio stations to do something different. Improv, by the way have just done a great Star Wars skit on the US equivalent on the Tube.

Anyway, today I saw a great clip on Funny or Die. They took the popstar Jewel to a karaoke bar to sing her songs and see if people recognised her. The clever thing, if you watch the clip below, is the planning/storylining of what would happen so as to make a great ‘bit’.

If you’re a radio station that has music and artists at its centre – are you doing things like this? Music is radio’s bread and butter and we have great access to artists – but do we do enough that’s not just an interview? I think a video like this would do a much better job of helping you to own core artists than some music demonstrators ever will.

Digital Upgrade: Where do you stand?

So, a couple of posts this week talking about the digital upgrade.

There’s still a significant chunk of radio people who are either ‘on the fence’ about ‘DAB/digital’ or are firmly in the ‘no’ camp.

If that’s you, the one question I ask you to think about is “What will happen to radio industry if digital radio doesn’t happen?”

In the UK, in the analogue world, the news is about consolidation and networking. Less stations, less choice and less jobs. However, crucially, at the same time, no room for new analogue competitors.

I often hear that the internet and mobile is radio’s saviour. Yep – it might well be. It is however a completely unproven hypothesis. Internet listening accounts for just 2.9%. In other words it’s a platform that can reach the most people in the UK, offers unlimited choice, is supported by every radio station and broadcasts at excellent audio quality (all the things that people say DAB needs) but still provides little UK radio listening (DAB provides 15.1%).

Is IP the platform, that on it’s own, is going to be radio’s real saviour? Do you think that by the time that figure gets anyway to be able to support a radio station with actual programming we’ll have any new radio companies left to really take advantage of it?

It does of course make sense that at some point in the future ubiquitous broadband will allow radio to be consumed in volume that way, I just think the slow-take up we’ve seen (and is likely to continue) and the explosion in online choice of things that replace readio consumption means that it will be incredibly difficult for anything other than established players to make the transition from analogue to IP.

Indeed, whilst we’re waiting for this IP-only future the existing analogue broadcasters will continue to dominate the airwaves whilst reducing their local commitments. The BBC will continue to be the excellent broadcaster it is (though always under threat from a licence fee settlement).

Now, in the short-term I don’t imagine this scenario would drastically affect listeners. I imagine what would happen though is what we see in other countries without non-analogue platforms – a slow decline in total listening and a higher decline in the younger demographics (as they look to a variety of sources for music and entertainment – split over many different sources).

Analogue commercial groups will continue to prosper through cutting costs and taking their share of the shrinking radio advertising market. IP and mobile platforms will of course generate new types of services, but the radio listening  hours available means that companies providing radio programming are unlikely to be able to formulate a business plan that can cope with the smaller hours that IP (at least over at least the next five years) will deliver. I’m not aware of any Internet-only stations currently generating signficiant broadcast station-style hours – please leave a comment if you do.

I think UK Radio Player will start to make a difference to internet radio listening. Particularly it will improve the user experience of accessing online audio content – and that’s definitely good news for operators.

I often look at my own radio station, Fun Kids. There’s been periods where we’ve been on DTV, DAB and Online. DTV’s good for reach, DAB provides all the hours (how we make any money) and whilst of course I have an IP stream (with mobile on the way) as a niche service without much format competition we’re still very hard to just come across online. IP is good for people who know us and are out of area etc, but it’s such a small number of people. We really wouldn’t bother running Fun if it was IP only. I might well invest the money instead in an online product but it certainly wouldn’t be a radio-based one.

The reason new entrants like Planet Rock, Absolute 80s, Jazz FM etc are around are because of the combination of DAB, DTV, Online and Mobile – this is ‘digital’ taking the benefits of each of the elements and working together.

I’m always amazed at radio people who are negative about DAB – as at the moment its the one thing that’s giving the hours base for these new entrants to survive and turn themselves into real radio stations and businesses.

All technology is transitory. In telly – Black and White to Colour to Nicam to Widescreen to Freeview to Freeview HD. All requiring replacements. However each one took the platform to the next stage, new benefits, new entrants.

Take a moment to think that 694,000 people listen to Planet Rock every week. That’s amazing. A big push of publicity took 6Music to over 1m listeners. Wow! If you work in radio – the success of these stations means your skills will continue to be in demand. As a radio person i’d rather not have to rely on the analogue operators thank you very much.

People in other countries can’t believe we’re not only growing radio listening, but that a quarter of it isn’t even on AM or FM. They are all truly shocked. Their radio industries are fixed with their analogue platforms and a slow increases in internet listening. They see us as having freed ourselves from the analogue shackles.

A healthy radio industry needs plurality. An analogue and internet only future now will stifle innovation in radio programming and leave us at the mercy of existing operators with the hope that the BBC will be able to continue.

Reading around today the main arguments about the ‘upgrade’ are really about coverage and cars. Thank god. At least that’s something that’s easily fixable. There was the BBC announcement yesterday about 60-odd new transmitters to improve their national coverage and there’s more announcements like that on the way. The people who have a proper in-car receiver rarely moan about coverage (it’s a great user experience). If you’ve got a crap radio or it’s not installed properly then i’m not surprised if it’s not very good.

In-car roll-out though, is of course, a bit more of an issue (though it does only represent 20% of UK listening). I’m less concerned about line-fitting than I once was. Listening to recent announcements from Mini and the like, i’m confident that as we ramp up to 2013 every range will line-fit. The after-market needs more and better products, but with necessity the mother of invention i’m sure we’ll see some developments.

Do we need to wait or reset to use a different digital radio broadcast platform? No. It’s been a hard old slog to get where we are now, I don’t think a change would be good for listeners or any of the people creating a business. Listeners will judge the digital platforms on what they deliver now, not what they could, potentially, deliver in the future. This will be the true test, not just for DAB, but for radio if we want to make a leap forward, or stay where we are today forever.

Collectively, us in radio, should support all the digital platforms. DAB, DTV, IP and Mobile all work together to provide a future for the industry – lets not try and sabotage our future by in fighting over platforms, lets celebrate the best of each of them. If one particularly suits you – that’s great, but don’t assume that everyone feels the same way. Every digital listener is a radio listener after all.

I expect over the years that the relative importance of each of the different platforms will change and ebb and flow – what’s important is that by building  a strong future together now – that a broad selection of radio stations will still be around to survive and evolve!

So next time someone slags off something that allows our listeners to hear us, that’s meant a new entrant can justify investing in their business, or has allowed someone to be employed who’s been laid off from a co-located analogue station, remember to have a word and say digital radio means (through a number of methods) means we’re able to build the future of our industry.

Digital Upgrade: Report Card Part 2

So yesterday we looked at how we’re doing on the journey towards a digital radio future. Today we’re going to look at how different sectors of the radio industry are tackling the challenges of digital…

As mentioned, there’s four seperate groupings in radio. Below looks at the digital hours by each group:

  • National Commercial’s hours are already around half digital
  • National BBC’s a bit over a quarter
  • Local Commercial and Local BBC is around 15%

Now, it’s important to remember that all of these groups don’t provide an equal share of radio – the BBC nationals make up nearly half of UK hours, so if they increase their share of digital agressively above 50% they’ll drag everyone else up and over the line.

I think, though, that it shows that to hit digital upgrade there are a number of different things that need to happen to the different sectors. And it’s the speed or success of this that will really show how fast we can hit the total 50% figure, but also give the momentum to ensure that by the upgrade date, two years later, so that very few people will ‘mind’ that the bigger stations will no longer be on analogue. TV’s already managed that (there were no analogue TVs sold last month).

National commercial
National commercial is doing alright. This is primarily being driven by new stations (compared to the three that exist on analogue) and also the higher digital share the AM stations have as people move to get a better experience of Absolute/talkSPORT etc.

National BBC
Also doing okay, slightly ahead of the digital ‘average’. Again driven by good new content in 6Music, 1xtra etc, the AM upgrade of 5Live and the extra coverage that channel can provide on digital. Part of the reason it lags behind National commercial is how universally receiveable Radios 1-4 are. These are big radio stations on loads of FM frequencies. If you really like these stations and don’t listen to much else outside of them, then there isn’t an instant desire to upgrade for the practical reasons that affect other listeners – ie that you live in an area that has poor analogue reception, your fave station is on AM, your analogue radio choice is poor etc.

The BBC’s annoucement that they’re partnering up stations more in the future – Radio 1 and 1Xtra, Five Live and Five Live Sports Extra, the revamped BBC7 as 4Xtra (and maybe the saved 6Music as 2Xtra?) – are to try and give some good reasons to the ‘happily analogue’ brigade to make the switch.

Local commercial
Local commercial is at 15% for a number of reasons. Firstly not all local areas have digital multiplexes (yes, I know, this is partly my fault) this means the bigger stations that exist in these ‘whitespace’ areas don’t have much of an opportunity to move more of their hours from analogue to digital. If these all appeared tomorrow and reflected the existing stations’ digital position, the figure would probably increase to around 20% straight away – just from people in those areas who already get national DAB but not their local stations.

We also haven’t yet seen the benefit of more local digital stations (in the same way we’ve seen nationally). This is beginning to change though. Fire across Dorset and South Hampshire, The Coast on South Hampshire, Nation on South Wales have started to replace their smaller analogue TSAs with larger digital TSAs. This is going to generate more digital hours and, from what I hear, a trend that quite a few other local stations will be adopting.

I think existing ILRs could also take a leaf out of the National BBC’s book of using Xtra stations. Replicating an ILR on digital (unless it fixes historical coverage issues) doesn’t really do much for an operator. It’s good for listeners who’ve got a digital radio as it means their full compliment of stations are on one band, and indeed stops hours reduction by those digital listeners listening less to analogue-only stations, but it’s not life-changing and probably doesn’t quite balance out the signficant additional cost in being digital.

To truly benefit these stations need to grow their hours at the expense of their competitors. It’s something that Absolute are doing by adding to their main station Absolute 80s, Absolute Radio 90s and Absolute Classic Rock.

How does this work? Well, lets take a listener with 20 hours of listening a week which they split equally – ten to Absolute and ten to Radio 2. They also however like 80s music and they hear on Absolute Radio that there’s a new station – Absolute 80s. They like it and decide to move 20% of their listening hours to it – which equally come off Absolute Radio and Radio 2.

The new scores are therefore Absolute Radio – 8 hours, Radio 2 – 8 hours and Absolute 80s – 4 hours. Absolute as a group now has 12 hours of listening vs Radio 2′s 8 hours.

Now they need to sell advertising at the same rate etc (or as a network) but generally Absolute should be better off. It’s also probably a sensible thing to do for heritage radio stations who are going to find it difficult to grow their hours naturally

I really think local commercial radio should do the same. Listeners are going to get used to 4Xtra and 1Xtra, so maybe now’s the time to plan Wyvern90s or Radio Aire Rock.

James writes more about this here.

Local BBC
A similarly low number. Again suffering from not all their stations being on DAB and also suffering from only having one station in each market.

Other Issues
The other thing that the digital numbers don’t take into account are the stations that aren’t surveyed by RAJAR. There’s also a signficant number of digital onlys both nationally (BFBS, UCB, Premier etc) and locally (Masti, Passion, Pubjabi) that aren’t RAJAR’d at all at the moment. If all these were added in, i’m sure we’d see that the digital percentage is already higher than the headline figure.

Whilst RAJAR splits have served us well so far, with so much resting on the numbers it’s perhaps time to have a seperate survey that’s measuring the entire UK radio universe. I believe this is something that’s been happening with digital television as they approach switchover and perhaps something we should adopt for radio.

One other thing – small local stations.

Should small stations have a route to digital – absolutely. However, for the purpose of these calculations, the total hours that these local stations generate mean that even if they all stayed analogue (which they won’t) it wouldn’t drastically hold back hitting the digital targets. Sorry little fellas!

So in conclusion, there are four different games that we’re playing with for digital switchover. Each subtly different.

For me it’s interesting to look back at National Commercial. That, in some way, has just about hit the target already. It’s done this through solid coverage, signifcant advantages for existing analogue broadcasters and lots more stations. It’s what the other segments will have to do too.

The BBC are on their way to replicating this success, by providing good digital radio stations and upgrading Five Live -  they’re over half way there. The new plans for better intergrated partner stations will give it even more momentum over the coming 12 months. However, it has the resources, both cash and promotional to really drive this forward at speed. It should this as an opportunity to fortify its own services and use the spectrum cleverly to provide pop-up stations for things like Glasto and Wimbledon – giving licence fee payers extra value and making the platform look even more attractive.

For the local commercials – actually, the local coverage is realtively easy to fix (more multipelxes and transmitters). This will make a startling difference on its own and there’s been lots of work happening behind the scenes to get this going quite soon. They key question for local commercial is whether existing operators can adjust their offer to do better out of listeners making the switch and how quickly new local stations will appear on digital radio – and lso have their hours measured!

That’s a natural finish to the blog post, but as I endorse launching an ‘Extra’ station, i’ll provide an ‘extra’ post. Tomorrow, i’ll ask a question to the people who are on the fence about DAB or firmly in the ‘no’ camp

Digital Upgrade: Report Card Part 1

The new Government will be making an announcement tomorrow on the digital radio upgrade. There’s an assumption that they’ll bascially endorse the work that went into the Digital Economy Bill (no great surprise as all political parties supported the radio clauses).

So, a quick recap, the DE Act legislation allows the Goverenment to give two years notice to FM (well, BBC/Commercial FM operators who have TSAs over 200k or so) at the point where 50% of UK radio’s hours are ‘digital’ (that’s DAB, Digital Television and Internet combined).

The 2015 date that people talk about is basically an assumption that we can hit this 50% by 2013 which will then kick off the two-year count down process.

Whenever anybody asks about whether this date is achievable, the person puts on a very serious face and says “it’s a challenging deadline, but something we’re very much striving towards”.

It is a tough deadline but I think it’s something worth shooting for. My thought is that if we don’t hit it, we’re likely to be only a year behind or so.

When people say that this is clearly unachievable the number they usually quote is the one RAJAR publishes that shows how we’re doing digitally. At the moment 24% is ‘digital’ compared to 20.1% at the same point in 2009. In other words, whilst it’s increasing, is it fast enough?

Having popped open Excel and added 19% growth to the number each year, we’d get to 48.8% in 2014 and break through the 50% point in 2015. Happily just after an election, so the ‘new’ Government can (probably a little more easily than pre-election) hit the two-year countdown button should they wish.

However, it’s far more complicated than that and there’s some spanners that could potentially reduce the time till the button’s pushed, or indeed extend it.

You can split radio listening into lots of different groupings – i’m going to look at the four key ones:

* National Commercial
* National BBC
* Local Commercial
* Local BBC

Tomorrow we’re going to see how these groups are doing on their journey to the digital upgrade….