Back to BBC Local Radio

In a previous post I talked about Delivering Quality First (the BBC’s plan to re-prioritise what it does based on the recent licence fee settlement). Since then the BBC management was proposing that £15m to be cut off BBC Local Radio’s £147m/year budget. Today, the BBC Trust’s Chairman has said, because of feedback from the audience, that those cuts should just be around £7m.

So we have asked the management to look again at the planned cuts to local radio. To see if they can find more money to protect the local identity of services:

  • To scale back the plans for local stations to share their afternoon content with their neighbours, although we accept that in some cases that might still be the best option
  • To ensure they have an adequately staffed newsroom
  • And to give them a bit more freedom to protect some of their more specialist and content out of peak, whether it be rugby league or specialist music.

This isn’t a bad political compromise. The Trust are seen to be the ‘good guys’ asking Management to follow the views of the listeners and the BBC still get to make some savings, something they have to do, as the Government made them take on hundreds of millions of pounds of new costs. Though i’m not exactly sure, where they are supposed to save money – what’s left to cut?

However, it’s not all about money. BBC Local Radio still faces many problems. In my mind they’re a combination of evolution in the radio market, changing listener behaviour, structural problems at stations and management failings.

These aren’t all my thoughts, by the way, my last blog post on the subject resulted in emails from Editors and other Senior Management sending me their own DQF submissions.

DQF was a good opportunity to really tackle some of these things and put the stations on a firmer footing for the future. I hope that they don’t rely on natural wastage and voluntary redundancies to hit their targets and then just carry on business as usual.

The main issue for me is the tyranny of the newsroom.

These are broad based local radio stations that have news-led programming at the heart of what they do. There’s nothing wrong with this. However they are not news radio stations. Unfortunately, at the moment they sit in the news directorate and are (predominantly) led by news people. Editorial judgement is an important skill to have, but you need to be a professional radio programmer as well. Some Editors are both, but not enough.

Executing a successful radio station is difficult. In each of their markets BBC Local faces significant competition from both local and national stations. Providing one strategy driven from the centre (a la Capital and Real) is easy when your proposition is music-orientated. BBC Local is personality and news led. Each market needs to be programmed to reach the needs of each individual community – to do this needs strong local programming skills.

Some of the under-performing stations biggest faults could be fixed through music and presentation coaching.

Music scheduling is difficult and if I didn’t have the skill to do it myself i’d always rather take a solid network log. I imagine whoever runs the current log gets a disproportionate amount of grief, mainly from people who don’t know as much about music as they think. The problem is that BBC local stations have different TSAs with a different competitive set. Music needs to be tailored for the market. In the old GWR days we had 5 logs that you got depending on who your competitors are – it’s not a bad proxy if you haven’t got the music programming talent to do it yourself. In the new world these stations won’t be able to provide the volume of speech-led shows, enhancing the music scheduling will be vital to future success.

One thing that every BBC local station should be doing with their talent is adequate coaching. If they’re not doing daily reviews with Breakfast and weekly reviews with other air talent then there is something wrong the management. Quality is not just about having the right mix of stories. Reflecting listeners lives with presenters who speak to them and their needs is vitally important.

Websites. BBC Local Radio must be be the largest radio stations and the largest network of radio stations in the world without a website. Links to BBC Programmes and a schedule just don’t cut it. Listen to the way the web is described on-air, it’s painful. Radio is so powerful because of the close connection listeners have with the people who speak to them – the website should help and support the station and its output, not just tell you the local news and when a presenter’s on – especially when the description is:

Your Tuesday starts with Paul Damari’s three day weather forecast, a top tune for this day in history and the early paper review. Traffic and travel, showbiz gossip and two songs from Toto.

Finally a note on the money. Much of the DQF announcements were prescriptive things from the top. If you have the right managers all you would need to do is say to them is this:

“Hey, you used to have £1.8m per year, you’ve now only got £1.4m a year. Sorry! It’s up to you how you spend your budget, but you’ve still got to continue to provide high quality output for 19 hours a day. If you want to network with a neighbour, that’s fine. If you want to change your shift pattern to lose a show, fine. It’s your radio station, we trust you, and will help you if necessary.”

So, in summary:

1. Use the new budget to re-design a station, from scratch, that’s built for today

2. The newsroom is not the most important thing at a local radio station. It’s up there, but it isn’t number 1.

3. 40 personality-led radio stations cannot be centrally managed like a music-brand.

4. A radio programmer needs to run it

5. Local management should have the flexibility to run it to satisfy their audiences and provide public value

6. If they don’t/can’t do what they’ve been asked to they should be fired.

7. Presentation staff should receive high quality coaching. Just because you’ve been their 20 years is not an excuse for being a bit rubbish.

8. A radio station in 2012 is more than just the quality of it’s local news – from music, marketing, presentation to web and social – that’s what needs to be protected and supported.

Absolute Radio’s #redefiningradio Event

I went along to Absolute Radio’s event at Parliament yesterday – Redefining Radio. It was a good event that demonstrated to Absolute’s clients (and other guests) the way that radio (and broader media consumption) is changing.

There was a good line-up of speakers and Absolute have just put up all the videos from the event.

The session that I thought was the most illuminating was the one that explained Absolute’s thinking behind their new signed-in for streaming service. James Wigley goes into quite a bit of detail about how the system works and some of their early results too. I’ve embedded the video below:

The technology behind this kind of service is not insignificant and I imagine the changes needed for traffic management must be huge. However, what it does do is provide new opportunities for advertisers.

As a percentage of listening, streaming (to both to PCs and mobile) is still a very small part of what radio does. In fact it provides about a fifth of the hours that DAB delivers to radio broadcasters. However, that’s still 40m hours a week of listening – an amount that wouldn’t be sniffed at if you were a new entrant in the online music space.

This means that Absolute can start to target some of the money that’s going to Spotify, Last. fm et al by replicating their media formats and then aligning it with a brand that can deliver to a large audience.

It’s so easy for people to think about radio in binary terms and base all decisions on the model we happen to have had for the last 30 years. It’s great that there’s new ‘radio’ products like these that put us into some different games.




Why changing the name of BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia is the right thing to do

When anything changes, we think how it affects us. Not whether it’s the right thing for them to do.

Radio is habitual. We make a decision to consume something and then consume it for a couple of hours. Everyday. Forever. When someone interrupts our habits by making a change to something we’ve enjoyed we get annoyed.

However, just because you like, or are used to something, doesn’t give it the god-given right to exist forever. Sorry.

ILR has gone through three distinct phases. We’re now in the third.

1. 1973 to 1992: Launch and growth.

ILR was new. There were few radio stations, no internet, four TV channels, limited newspapers and magazines. It was easy to compete against the BBC because you could find something that they didn’t do.

To win… be more local, be more friendly, play popular music, make sure people know about you and work out how to sell lots advertising (unless you go bust first).

2. 1992 to 2002: Least worst option.

Whilst in the background there was the gradual growth of CDs, multi-channel television and online – it still had a brilliant competitive set – there were hardly any competitors!

Plus through a mix of luck and judgement, commercial radio fixed it’s product.

Some may call it uninspiring, but the explosion of research-led programming meant that ILR played the right kind of music – in decent quality – FM! (and generally) told the DJ to STFU. Happily Radio 1 also threw itself off a cliff offering up its listeners.

The music shift was important as many of the stations positioned themselves with the optimum mix for their market. Broadly it was Radio 1 without the new stuff, Radio 2 without the old stuff – it was the station that everyone could agree on.

2003 onwards

The third age is not so happy.

The downside of being the ‘least worst option’ is that you create very little passion from the audience and you don’t super-serve anyone. When a better opportunity comes along you can be left behind. Playing the middle ground can get much harder.

This was fine before the explosion in choice meant that the listener who prefers dance but tolerated pop had somewhere better to go. The person who preferred a few older tunes gets an easy listening station. The person that wants more company gets the big stars on Radio 2.


The problem for the vast majority of ILR stations whether 2CR, The Pulse or BRMB is that they failed to re-invent their product when they should have done – about eight years ago – the point when everything was changing.

For the vast majority of ILR stations that haven’t re-branded, their 2011 product is the same as their 1994 one. But, amazingly, probably less tight and focused.

In the same time consumers and successful pop culture brands changed and evolved.

The biggest issue is that consumer has evolved much faster than the stations they grew up with.

I was involved in some of the background work for one of the many Capital re-brands. The research was fascinating. Capital scored incredibly high for loads of images – from news, to travel, to ‘being London’ – the music scores weren’t outstanding but were okay too. But when asked whether they listened the answer was no. They’d found something else that scratched an itch better – generally Heart for the women and Kiss for the youngsters. They still had enormous positive feeling for Capital, it just wasn’t for them.

It was the same story for many other ILR stations, though the lack of competition in each individual marketplace often hid the scale of the problem. 20-years of doing the same thing had burned the traditional ILR perceptions in the mind of the listener. Normally this would have been a good thing, but even though they thought that ILRs did a good job, a growing number of them shrugged and turned on something else. Being number one for local, or travel wasn’t enough. It was no longer ‘the station for people like me’ – and owning that or other images wasn’t going to fix it.

Heart, and then Capital.

This wasn’t the reason for the re-brand of 30-odd ILRs into Heart though. That was driven by cost saving and delivering a more easily buy-able product by advertisers.

Prior to the re-brand, product-wise they were a variable lot. Some, often the bigger ones, had done quite a good job. Looking at GWR FM or Trent FM – their audience had been down a little – but nothing drastic. Whereas Hereward and Invicta hadn’t fared so well. It’s no surprise that Heart has improved some and reduced others. The stats are harder however to crunch since Global changed the TSAs.

Heart’s success is they’ve generally kept a steady ship whilst massively reducing the costs. – I reckon by half to two-thirds. The Heart product is an excellent one, super-slick and relatively clutter free. The thing that really helped Global was that the brand’s values had been worked out a long time ago. It mattered less that listeners didn’t know the brand – what was really important was that they knew what they were. Then it was just communicating it to the audience. Something they did with loads of TV advertising.

Many of these stations had never had any TV-spend before. Existing listeners found that little of their station had really changed and at the same time non-listeners (who knew very well what GWR FM was etc) could be prompted to try it again. A smaller amount of  Hereward FM-related baggage to wade through.

Heart’s difficulty now is that as they’ve pulled back on the marketing gas they’re starting to see some cracks in audience growth, especially where they’ve merged a large number of stations into one. It’s still very early days on that though and you have to remember that they’ve saved a HUGE amount of money.

The product problem they face is whether they’ve actually just created a better ‘least worst station’ and just corrected the output (and pushed back) the years before they see more competition-related decline.

I say that, of course, as if it’s a bad thing. It might just be the nature of what mainstream radio now has to do. Constant Madonna-style re-invention.

Capital, I think is more interesting. In that network they’ve taken a niche product (the ex-Galaxies) and applied a clean lick of mainstream paint. For London it’s also a much more contemporary sound than its ever had before. They’ve also aligned it strongly to what’s modern, mainstream and cool.

As a young station it matters less what ex-listeners think – it’s about constantly attracting the young/pop fans (and those who see themselves as young/pop fans). They’ve managed, in their first year, to alter core brand values and start to shift perceptions. And in London the departure of Johnny (for whatever reason) will help them keep to this goal. They have, however, spent a huge amount of money on TV/big concerts to do this.

What does not work is a re-name (rather than re-brand). Lite FM’s change to Connect or that conglomeration of stations’ move to Touch was a failure because:

1. The old product wasn’t very good – and the new product wasn’t much better (most of the ex-Heart’s were quite good and the new Heart was slick)
2. The new station didn’t have any/strong enough brand values
3. There was little marketing explaining the new station or why people should bother to sample it.

Er, that’s the end of the introduction. You still there?

The main reason that BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia need to change are their audience figures.

These stations are not terrible radio stations. Of course there are things that could be changed – music, personalities, production etc. However, even if they changed them to the optimal mix it would not necessarily reverse the declines.

The problem isn’t what they’re doing today. The problem is what’s happened to ILR over the last eight years.

As I talked about above, the changing nature of consumers, the multi-platform competition and these stations being trapped in the middle and not being allowed to evolve are the combination of reasons that there needs to be a big change.

Being ‘BRMB’ is the baggage – not just what’s on those stations today.

A re-brand can return growth to these stations. However, doing it successfully is difficult. Product, brand and marketing need to be perfectly aligned. Because as Lite, Touch, Capital and Heart have found, when you press the button there really is no going back.

There will be discussion about cost-saving, TV advertising opportunities, new competitive market, it being easier to sell to advertisers… and all of these are valid things. However – at the core there’s just a need for ILR to move on.