Thoughts on the BBC Licence Fee

It’s hard not to believe that the Conservative government’s intentions are to encourage the BBC to self-destruct. It’s bright enough to recognise that the BBC has huge support from the public and therefore any overt interference would be a political problem. It’s much easier if the BBC itself seems to get worse, invests less into programming, suffer scandal after scandal and generally annoy it’s licence fee payers so much that it goes ‘pop’.

A quick and easy way to accelerate this it to lop off large parts of its funding whenever it can. In the last settlement the BBC’s licence-fee income was top-sliced for things like local broadband roll-out, S4C and local TV as well as taking on the funding of the BBC World Service. This time around, so far, it’s had to take on £750m of 75pluses licence fees – around 20% of its annual income.

However, there is a small silver lining. Even the Government has realised that the 75+ thing is potentially too devastating (well it would be if inflicted straight away). It’s slightly phased in over three years, the BBC will also see inflation-related licence fee increases and they can ‘charge’ for the licence fee.

The latter isn’t entirely correct. They’re not about to start a Netflix. Instead you will need a licence to watch the BBC iPlayer (due to the rules being old, you don’t need one at the moment).

The 75+ thing is also interesting. It’s up to the BBC whether to charge them or not. They’ve been getting licence fees for free since Gordon Brown introduced it and the assumption is the BBC will think the PR is too bad to start billing them again.

Change

Whilst none of this is ideal for the BBC, the scale of the change means that it can start to do some interesting things to prepare for its own future.

Subscription

If the BBC’s licence fee was replaced by traditional subscription today it would likely destroy it. Even assuming that two-thirds of people paid what they pay now it would be a completely different operation. Why do radio (it can’t be scrambled), news would be hard to support etc. It would spend significantly less on programming and therefore be less attractive to subscribers – a potential vicious circle.

The BBC has always worked hard to make it difficult to turn it into a subscription service. For example, part of the deal in saving ‘On Digital’ and re-birthing it as Freeview was that all the conditional-access (the subscription bits) were stripped out. Anything to make it harder for the government to suddenly subscription-ize.

Unfortunately (well, for the BBC) the rise of IP, Satellite and Cable as large-scale distribution systems means that the free-to-air trick will be harder to pull come the next charter renewal.

A licence-fee unconnected to consumption, and enforceable by prison is a lovely system to have, but I think this is probably the last ten years its going to be enjoyed.

 

The trick now, for the BBC, is to put in place the architecture and infrastructure so that when the change comes, that they are ready to make the best of it.

IP, iPlayer and Online

The ace card the BBC has is its internet-delivered services. The public like the BBC website and iPlayer and more and more people are consuming content on the move on non-TV devices. The public are also used to logging in to internet-services.

The ‘charging for the iPlayer’ new rule is the perfect opportunity to start building the BBC’s future subscription system.

iPlayer and Verify

The stock argument over logins for iPlayer are that people will share passwords a la Netflix and Sky Go. Indeed the fact that a household is licensed will mean they’ll have to issue multiple logins per licence fee. Easy to circumnavigate then?

Well, maybe not.

The Government is currently introducing their own login system – Verify. In fact it’s not its own system. Verify lets you prove your identity by using another service – a service who knows who you are. It’s a bit like when you login to a website with your Facebook credentials. The initial partners for Verify are Barclays, GB Group, Morpho, PayPal, Royal Mail, the Post Office, Experian, Digidentity and Verizon.

The BBC should adopt something similar. Fast.

The identity providers will know where you live, so if you had to auth your licence fee account, the first question it will ask is whether that postal address has a licence fee. In itself, that will stop the vast majority of people adding themselves to someone else’s licence.

I think, if no auth’d BBC login, no iPlayer access (on web, TV, mobile or tablet), no use of the BBC mobile apps and no use of the website. While we’re at it, why not make pay-TV platforms have to auth their subscribers the same way. They definitely know where you live. No licence fee, no access.

Yep – you’ll still be able to watch the TV or listen to the radio free-to-air on Freeview or DAB/FM – but that should be it.

Licence-fee payers should get used to this straight away. Indeed, I think it could easily be spun to prove the BBC is providing more value by keeping those non-licence fee payers away from the lovely BBC content that good citizens pay for.

75-pluses 

I think it will be hard to say no more free licence fees for over 75s. I think it would be the right thing to do. But it would be hard to defend.

But, let’s reduce their access. As an over-75 you get free access to free-to-air TV and radio and maybe (if we’re being generous) access to TV and radio through cable/satellite. What you don’t get is any access to BBC online services, they’re for licence fee payers only. If you pay up you get them. If you don’t, you won’t.

I’d wager that a great deal of the 65 year olds today are as big fans of iPlayer and the BBC website as the rest of the population. They’ll be used to paying the licence fee, they’d still like to get online, they’ll probably carry on paying.

Whilst there’s still the licence fee I want the BBC to create the best system for getting households who use it to pay. There used to be detector vans now we’ve got login screens.

Thin edge of the wedge?

Is all of this the thin edge of the wedge on the route to a subscription-only BBC. Yes, it probably is. However, to my mind, not doing this or something similar is akin to crossing your fingers and merely praying that a legally-enforcable TV licence fee is going to be around in ten years time. If the BBC keeps their head in the sand, come the next charter renewal a sudden shock change, a sudden move to subscription, really will decimate Auntie.

The opportunity now is to build the ultimate subscription system. To learn about consumers consumption and to ensure that when an element of subscription is introduced, that the BBC is ready to convert licence fee payers to subscribers and to continue to make outstanding programmes.

The other benefit of having this direct relationship with paying customers is in the future that they will no longer have to be at the mercy of the Government and commercial media that does everything it can to ensure it won’t exist.

Let the iPlayer set them free.

BBC Radio 2 Eurovision Pop-Up Station

Graham

On BBC Radio 2, Graham Norton has just announced BBC Radio 2 Eurovision, a four-day pop-up DAB Digital Radio station to celebrate the international music competition.

I think this is a great idea and something the BBC should do more of.

Why do I say that? Well, it makes use of existing technology as DAB multiplexes can be flexed to add (or remove) stations really easily. It’s also a technology that nearly half of UK households have, so lots of people can access it. It’s also a great way to sell a benefit of digital radio – choice. For those who don’t have a DAB Radio, they’ll also be able to tune in online and through mobile too.

It’s also (relatively) cheap to do. The BBC have lots of infrastructure for covering the main song contest, people out there etc, so it’s making better use of their resources – by producing even more content for licence fee payers.

And… it’s short-term. Four days is enough to provide value, but not too much that it’s providing even more licence-fee competition for us poor commercial broadcasters.

Hopefully it will also popularise the notion of pop-up stations – there’s been quite a few all ready and it’s something (with MuxCo) that we’re encouraging people to do too.

More radio, catering for people’s tastes and interests has got to be a good thing for our industry and our product.

It starts on Thursday 8th May.


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.

Keep Thinking Differently

I’ve had a really good response to my blog post about BBC Local Radio. Lots of people have sent me their own submissions to DQF and many of them positively engaged with trying to re-think the work that they do.

Some of the responses I got to the post were questioning why BBC Local Radio should be hit when there are other areas that should bear the brunts of cuts? Usually this is thrown at things that they personally doesn’t like – BBC Three is usually a good example.

One of the issues that the BBC faces is that the scale of the cuts means that pretty much everything will see budget reductions. So, in the spirit of that, here’s another suggestion.

Put out to tender all of BBC Radio’s music networks.

What would that mean? It means the BBC could set a budget, some stringent content and operational requirements and then commission a third party to operate each of the networks.

It doesn’t mean they have ads or anything like that, it just means they’re operated by someone other than the BBC directly. At the moment the BBC networks commission third parties to make programmes, why not the whole network?

At the moment Radio 1 spends £31m a year on content, why not open the network to competitive tendering? The BBC would specify types of programmes, audiences, scale of events etc and it would be up to the bidders to compete on the cost of providing that. The BBC would then judge the quality of the providers and the value of the bid.

The arguments often stated against doing this is that quality would drop, that it would become too commercial and that third parties don’t have the skill to carry it off.

I think most of the reasons are a little unfounded. Already the BBC independently commissions hundreds of radio and television programmes, some of which are the most popular shows on the networks and often they do disproportionately well at awards and Audience Appreciation too. These shows aren’t overtly commercial, they’re designed to the specs the networks come up with. In fact, often because you’re working under the network means you deliver even more to ensure that relationship continues.

Indeed, because the station is non-commercial it would make it an incredibly attractive opportunity for consortia. A guaranteed budget and the ability to be creatively-led would bring out some excellent radio practitioners to bid for the project.

Maybe provision for news on the networks stays in house, but is there any particular need for the rest of the music output to stay in fortress Beeb?

With a tendering process there’s an opportunity to maintain service levels, significantly reduce costs and bring in some new thinking. With regards to the current teams, why not let them bid to operate the networks as well? They would probably have a good chance of winning, but potentially at a lower overall cost for licence fee payers.

One of the BBC’s central problems is that, like many large companies, there are significant structural inefficiencies because group functions have grown at pace. By contracting-out parts of the business (like 1, 1x, 2 and 6m) it also makes it easier to re-think back office functions as well – as there’s less internal operations to support.

So, if DQF is about there being no sacred cows, how about putting those music stations out to tender?

BBC Local Radio/Five Live – Delivering Quality First

News leaked a little while ago that the BBC’s DQF (Delivering Quality First) team were thinking about ‘networking’ BBC Local Radio with Five Live – that’s local radio at peak time and Five Live for the rest.

All of DQF has been a bit odd, the main aim seemingly floating multiple ideas simultaneously so it makes it difficult for the press to pick up on any one particular. Also it gives the BBC management some plausible deniability as they can argue these ideas have bubbled up from the staff and have been ‘out there’ for a while, so it won’t seem like a surprise when they make their final decisions. I think that is, perhaps, wishful thinking.

The bottom line is that with the licence fee frozen and the BBC forced on taking on more operations (World Service and the like) they’ve got to significantly cut costs. It’s also the kind of money that’s difficult to achieve through salami slicing. The BBC needs to think differently and instigate significant change to make these savings.

Ideas like merging local with Five Live do tick the box of thinking big, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. The idea is that there’s about £30m of savings – getting rid of Five Live’s AM network and cutting staff locally. To give some background, BBC Local (not including Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland) costs £137m a year and Five Live costs 72m a year.

The licence-fee payer reason that it won’t work is that it causes major upheavals with two successful networks, both have very different audiences and they both do different jobs. An internal positive is that it will enhance Five Live as it will bring it to an FM audience who don’t currently use it. I think that’s a big gamble.

What isn’t acceptable though is just saying no to something. There needs to be money-saving changes, so if I disagree with something, it’s only fair that I come up with my own suggestions.

My main caveat is that I’m not an expert on BBC Local Radio. I’ve some experience at looking how stations can be run and i’ve got friends at a variety of local radio stations, so hopefully these aren’t shots in the dark. Also, of course, it would be nice not to do these things, but there needs to be some financial savings.

The tone of this is going to be quite brusque and I know this is of little comfort to the people who do a great job every day working for these stations. However, I still think it’s better than the Five Live option.

Understanding audiences

The concept of networking the BBC Locals isn’t a terrible idea (it already happens regionally and Five Live overnight), but in today’s world shoving on another network isn’t the solution. If we’re going to share programmes lets at least make ones that are specific to the local radio network.

Modern network

First, let’s do some research across the network and identify the tastes and interests of the audiences and whether different competitive make-ups affect the kinds of programming that people want from a local service. Let’s say there might even be one or two different feeds. Either way, we’re going to put those network shows into one building, say Birmingham.

This will be the beginning the network team – who’ll take significant responsibilities from the local stations. National news and sports audio cuts, all music scheduling, all audio production, promo scheduling – in fact anything that doesn’t have to be done by a local team falls to network. At the moment, there’s massive role duplication across the network that needs to stop.

Local programmes

We need to make some decisions about how many of the shows are locally orientated. Let’s aim for 6am to 7pm weekdays and enough on the weekends to cover sport. However, out of breakfast let’s dispense with the need to be all-speech. The exact mix should be based on the talent at each site and the competitive set of each market.

Building locations

One of the biggest ways to save costs is to cut the number of physical locations the stations come from. So, for brevity, some speedy rules. If you have any field offices, they close. Sorry Radio 4 – your contributors can use Skype or a phone. If you’re co-located with telly you keep your building. If you’re (relatively) near somewhere else you’re moving in with your neighbours. Lets punt that half the stations will lose all their buildings. Local newsgathering will predominantly tele-work out in the field with regional teams helping set up.

Transmission

FM is relatively inexpensive for the number of people who can hear it. AM on the other hand is in massive decline. Unless there’s a sizable area that can’t get FM, all AM transmitters are off.

Get it out of News

BBC Local isn’t about news. At their core they’re personality radio stations with lots of content around local topics. It doesn’t belong in the ‘News’ division, it belongs with the radio people. So, from now on local radio is under Audio and Music – with any sensible back-office functions – research, technology etc, moved to the A&M teams.

At the least it’ll mean that local stations actually get some websites.

Local integration

At the moment there’s the worst of both worlds – TV rarely integrates with radio, but management compete on salaries – making radio overly expensive. There needs to be a decision. Either proper integration, especially newsgathering, or keep it completely separate. It can work either way but it has to be 100% focused.

Management

Management will need to be significantly restructured, firstly there’s lots of management – Editors, Assistant Editors, SBJs etc at the 40 stations. Our co-location and networking means that they’ll be less senior people needed plus they’ll be a headcount reduction to match the number of new locations.

Secondly, what these significant changes will mean is that they’ll really be a need for excellent leadership. The network needs a strong central operation and Controller and charismatic leaders in the field to deliver one vision.

Content creation

Strong leadership is necessary as the structure of programming will have to change dramatically. Many of these stations have evolved with similar staff doing similar jobs for a long time- they share more with 80s ILR than they do more modern radio stations.

A significant structural change in these stations will provide an opportunity to re-imagine the way local content can be created and deployed – whether that’s live, as inserts or on the web and mobile.

I think it’s important that changes to ‘local’ aren’t just about cuts or Five Live mergers. There is an opportunity to save more than £30m and build a great local service that’s fit for tomorrow.

RAJAR Awareness for Evans, 6Music and Absolute 80s

The good thing about RAJAR is that there’s at least four times every year where my medium, radio, gets a go at getting some media coverage. This quarter there’s been a change to the reporting rules which focuses that even more. For the first time results are coming out just after midnight (stations get them at 1.30pm the day before) which means the results can all be in today’s morning papers.

The stories that I think are interesting:
1. Chris Evans has 9.5million listeners (up from 8.4m)
2. 6Music has jumped from having 695k to 1,023k listeners
3. Absolute 80s crashes onto the scene with a very respectable 264k listeners and 1.4m hours
4. Big jump for digital – 38.5% of the UK now listens to digital radio (that’s DAB, DTV and online) each week, this collectively accounts for 24% of all UK radio listening. I’ll take that as half way to switchover!
5. Capital back to London’s Number 1.
6. All Radio reach is up – 91% of the population now listen to the radio each week – that’s over a billion hours of listening.

I think many of these stories are a good reminder of the importance of awareness and i’m going to use the first three as examples.

Everyone is busy. Everyone is assaulted by hundreds of messages everyday. Everyone is consuming information on multiple platforms. Everyone has very fixed firm favourites.

It is difficult to tell people that you exist, a reason they should consume you, how to encourage that first trial and then persuade them to come back and spend even more time with you.

In the old days, to make someone aware of your new radio station was quite easy. Just existing on a frequency generated trial and some promo on launch day in the local paper and on the local telly would get you to most of your county. Provided, of course, you had a cheesy DJ wearing headphones and holding a balloon!

Nowadays, people aren’t so starved of media that they scan for new stations on FM, they probably don’t read the local paper (if it hasn’t closed) and likewise for local TV too (do you know who presents your local TV bulletin?). The choice explosion has also now been with us a number of years. Many consumers are used to navigating Sky+, iTunes or the broader internet to seek out media to consume. In radio there’s probably less people who stay tuned to the ‘least worst option’ than there used to be.

Short version – just being ‘new’ is no longer the best route to growing an audience.

So… back to our top stories.

Chris Evans taking over the breakfast show on Radio 2 has been a big, sustained story for months and months. It kicked off from the rumours of him getting it, to the announcement, to the end of Wogan, to the talk-ups on Drive, to the announcement of Moira, to a TV advert on BBC channels, to the launch of the show, to the backlash. Oh, and it also being on-air and being quite good as well! This is sustained coverage from all media – reminding a big chunk of people that Chris Evans (remember, that bloke you quite liked) is on Radio 2 and is going to be doing a new Breakfast Show. There was also big coverage on Radio 2, from Wogan calming his fans to Chris talking it up – it’s the biggest station in the country – a great captive audience to remind people about the change and also a great platform to explain the benefits of tuning in too.

It’s interesting to compare Chris’s additional audience with that of the station as a whole. In total Radio 2 has added 1.096m listeners and the show has added 1.101m new ones. I’d wager this means Chris has managed the double whammy of bringing a load of new people to the radio station AND retaining the same number of old Radio 2 listeners as well. Now, i’m sure these weren’t all TOGs, but it looks like he’s added more existing Radio 2 listeners to his show than he’s lost from it. That’s quite a feat – not just for Chris, but also for Radio 2, who’s seemingly managed to replace a breakfast show at the right time, with the right DJ.

Another massive radio story has been 6Music. The BBC Trust report that predated by a few days the announcement from the management that they would like to shut it, showed that only 20% of the UK were aware it existed. Now, you need to be aware of something to trial it so it’s no surprise that their audience was small.

Well, one thing that certainly spiked people’s awareness of 6Music, was the threat to close it down! The result has increased its audience by 50%! What’s also interesting about the change is that normally when a station increases its reach, its average hours drop, as the newer people are lighter listeners compared to the older ones. 6Music’s managed to do the opposite, increasing its average hours from 5.5 to 7.7. It could be interesting to look at whether the threat of losing something has brought people closer to it and encouraged them to consume more (or, of course, whether there’s some over claiming of listening).

Finally, it’s great to see Absolute 80s do so well both in reach and hours. Not only because it’s been around for just a few months but also because it’s only on DAB in London (though nationwide on DTV and online).
I think the success is down to three main things – format, brand and distribution alongside using different channels to drive awareness.

Anyone who’s carried out radio research in the last ten years knows that 80s has been a format that ‘scores well’. Why has no one done it? God knows. The format is easy to understand, there’s loads of great tunes and it manages to be ‘gold’ without being ‘old’.

Secondly, by christening it Absolute 80s, TIML have done two things. They’ve aligned it to something people already know – Absolute Radio – which has been slowly growing its own brand values about ‘real music’, allowing it to be an 80s station without being too cheesy. They’ve also got the word 80s in its name. If you haven’t got serious money to spend on marketing, you need to have a Ronseal name – one that instantly explains what it does.

Finally – distribution. Digital TV and the internet can only get you so far – especially with listening hours. A good base in London on DAB means it can be a true radio choice for many listeners and launching an iPhone app means that it can be mobile for many more as well.

Using iPhone apps has also been a great way of driving awareness. As well as there being a stand-alone iPhone app, the station’s also appeared on the other Absolute iPhone apps too. This means that a large number of people are going to be made aware of the new station. Additionally as a stand-alone app they will have driven awareness as it’s climbed the iTunes Store charts.

The other thing that they did was actively promote on Absolute Radio and Absolute Classic Rock the fact that the station exists! They did a big on-air push towards the launch with tags on 80s tracks as well as simulcasting the launch show on Absolute Radio too.

It’s amazing how radio groups rarely use their own radio stations to promote their other radio stations. They’re all scared. There’s too many unknowns. I spent a long time hearing something along the lines of “But why should we move a listener from a stations that generates £8 per listener to one that generates 50p?” The answer, should anyone ever ask you, is “they don’t just listen to your station, you dummy”.

You also have to begin by admitting, even with the best will in the world, that it’s going to get harder and harder to maintain your audience. Your best option is to keep existing listeners happy and bring new listeners to your family of radio stations. You want to be fighting for your group’s share of a listener’s hours – you already know they spend time with other people – use a portfolio approach to make sure they listens less to the other people and keeps/grows their hours with you. Also, use the fact that they listen to two of your stations to give them lots of reasons to flick between them and not over to the competition.

Is that the time? Well, in summary, being successful is all about awareness. This can be generated lots of different ways, but it does need to be generated. If your product is right (and the three examples above all start from the point of being a good product) you need to use your entire armoury of weapons to ensure you get your message out there because just existing is definitely not enough. Even if you have a DJ with headphones and balloons.

Does Radio 1 Really Need TV Advertising for the Chart?

I like the BBC. I like BBC Radio. I can sort of get over the fact that the national BBC networks spend more than the entire earnings of commercial radio, just on content. I can just about cope with the fact that they have all the best spectrum. I’ve also begrudgingly accepted the cross-media deals BBC Radio offers commercial radio talent. And, you know what, I even feel sorry for the BBC that it faces brickbats from all sides, when generally they do an extremely good job.

However, what I really don’t understand is when it’s in the position it know’s it’s in, it chooses to just take the piss. No, that’s unfair. It has absolutely no concept of its position in the wider radio ecology, instead it just marches forward ignoring whatever it crushes below its elephantine feet.

A small example. There’s a new TV advert for Radio 1 that promotes the Official Chart show. Now, out of all the programmes that Radio 1 can choose to promote on TV, they’ve chosen the only one that commercial radio competes with the BBC on directly, and the only programme that commercial radio actually beats Radio 1 at.

Instead, they could have promoted the excellent specialist takeover on Bank Holiday Monday or suggested that people should try 1Xtra. They could have talked about the new Matt Edmondson Sunday show, Zane Lowe’s excellent, accessible specialist show or the new way to start the weekend with Annie Mac. They could have even talked about new time for the brilliant and public-service Sunday Surgery or the new progamme for teenagers, the 5:19 show, that follows the chart. Instead they talked about a programme that i’d guess the majority of the country already knows about. It’s proably the only programme on the network that’s been in the same slot for over 20 years. Indeed, if you asked someone what channel, what day and what time the official chart is on, i’d assume that a pretty signficant number of people would say Radio 1 and Sunday’s from 4pm.

Now, I of course don’t really know why they have chosen to promote the chart. I’m actually not even convinced that they’re doing it to compete with commercial radio. The sad thing is that they’re probably completely oblivious to it. They’ve looked at their own RAJAR for that timeslot and thought “Hmmm, we really should do something about that, let’s put some more effort into the show, let’s give it some telly, the research shows that listeners don’t think it’s very current, so lets give a mid-week update to make it seem more up to date – lets see what that does”.

They’ve ignored the fact that, even though commercial radio has led the BBC for a few years now, 12 months ago it chose to change it’s formula and make it more up to the minute – it’s now based on downloads and the chart can change during the show. It chose to innovate and push the programming on (all the stuff that commercial radio gets accused of never bothering to try). The BBC have also ignored that it’s the only truly national pop programme that commercial radio does. And they’ve chosen to ignore that commercial radio does it much better with less resources and without even the ‘official’ chart data (which the BBC chooses to purchase exclusively).

Like I say, I like the BBC. I would defend to my last that it should exist and be able to broadcast both mainstream and specialist programmes. However, for the love of God, can they just employ one person in the organisation who can understand the broader radio market and can just whisper to a Controller “you know what, maybe we don’t have to completely take the piss?”

I’m not Murdochian in wanting the BBC to be smaller or just do worthy things and news. I just want them to take their £3bn of public income and, every single day, think:
1. We’re in a really lucky and priviliged position
2. How do we make this [programme] even more distinctive?
3. How can we use our scale and resources to help commercial and non-commercial operators give more value to our licence fee payers?
4. How do we enhance the [radio/tv/online] ecology and add to the whole rather than just think about our own share?

Is that really too much to ask? And can they please choose one other programme to advertise on the telly.

Selling Off Radio 1. Again.

I think the Conservative Central Office press team must have a recurring press release set up. Every two years or so they, or an MP, argure that Radio 1 really should be sold off.

The main argument tends to be along the lines of “it’s not public service enough” and “it’s unfair to the commercial sector”.

Personally, I can think of nothing worse than making Radio 1 a commercial radio station. Simultaneously you’d kill off a massive amount of commercial revenue – as it transferred to Commercial Radio 1 – and you’d also make Radio 1 a more mainstream product as elements that are expensive or do not rate would gradually disappear. This is especially relevant as whoever bought it would be trying to pay back the money they borrowed to buy it. It would, in effect, be a leveraged acqusition – not something well known for producing well-funded creativity.

That’s not to say Radio 1 is perfect. Both it, and Radio 2, are formidable competitors. Quality aside, they have national FM frequencies (commercial radio has no national FM frequencies for pop music) and also national coverage on every UK digital platform. They have large programming budgets (over £25m each) and don’t have to run any of those annoying advertising messages. They also get the benefit of cross-promotion on some of the most popular television stations and websites in the UK. At no cost to the networks.

If you’re a radio station, that’s a pretty good deal.

The BBC, across all of its activities, has to strike a difficult balance. If it’s too popular it’s derided for being too mainstream, if it’s not popular it gets accused of not providing enough value to licence fee payers.

It’s a tough position to be in. But then it does receive over £3bn of our money. So, I don’t shed that many tears.

In the ‘old days’ it was much easier to defend a broad range of BBC output – it was one of few suppliers and could get away with much more. Case in point. Dallas. It was in primetime on BBC1. Nowadays, the idea of an American import in primetime on BBC1 would be unheard of. It’s not that the UK don’t like American serials – quite the opposite – it’s just become an accepted view that that type of programming shouldn’t be on primetime BBC1. The BBC’s role has merely moved on and developed.

I think the same thing needs to happen to the BBC’s populist radio networks.

It isn’t about being un-entertaining. Or worthy. It’s about providing high quality programmes that engage with large numbers of listeners that are not available elsewhere and perhaps would be signficantly reduced if they were to become commercial. What’s a good example? Well, something like Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. It’s a show that combines music, high quality guests and chat and generates significant numbers of listeners. It’s perfect output for the BBC.

I even think something like the Chris Moyles Show is a product that’s differentiated enough to pass my three tests above (high quality, unique and a question mark over being commercially maintainable). Whilst the talent could easily adapt to a new station, I don’t think the show’s format (a speech-intensive, young, breakfast show) would be maintainable. I think if it disappeared there would be some genuine public-service loss. Is it a show that there would be some arguments about whether it’s ‘public service’? Absolutely. But I think it’s worth that discussion.

Should this be independently managed, by Ofcom, or have money allocated like the Arts Council? No. Just like the Dallas example, collectively we should push the BBC to ensure all of its programmes follow a similar set of the suggested rules. Hopefully it would mean that progamming without real value would gradually disappear (yes, Alan Carr on Radio 2, I am talking about you) and programmes that are left work hard to be popular and distinctive.

Some may say that Radios 1 and 2 should be left alone. They’re popular stations that people love and it’s only commercial greed that’s causing all this discussions. And there is, of course, an element of truth in that.

However, what I would say, is that if you maintain the dominant position of Radios 1 and 2 you do so at a price. It is definitely not impossible, but it’s much harder for any innvoation to flourish if the BBC is allowed to continue unchecked. It is a sad thing, for listeners, if new stations (or services) don’t exist because of the budget, marketing and spectrum making them a dominant service – whether the output is quality or not.

There are a number of great initiatives like service licences and the like, but it’s on content that the BBC should be pushed harder. It’s a privilege to have the spectrum, cash and marketing to be able to deliver programmes. Unprompted, the BBC should ensure that every single piece of its output is distinctive.

BBC Local Radio Websites

The BBC national radio websites produce some of the world’s best radio station websites. They’re generally well-designed, with up to date content and interesting applications that support the creative of the radio programmes. Actually, I think that last one is a key point that many radio station websites fall down all. Radio sites often get caught up in trying to replicate the essence of what the webteam thing the radio station is, rather than reflecting the creative content the radio stations produce.

The root of this is that often the webteams aren’t radio people and even more often, nowadays, not even based with the radio stations. This usually results in a somewhat drift of strategy with the webteam going in one direction and the radio team trying to do something else on-air.

However, whilst the national stations do a brilliant job, they’re let down somewhat by the websites for the BBC Local Radio stations. I was just listening to the interesting combination of Bam Bam and Nik Goodman on BBC London 94.9 and so hopped over to their website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/london. Firstly it takes a little while to find that the route into the radio station is through a simple text link on the right, once through there’s a bit of disorientation as nothing’s where you think it should be. I think most users are used to a certain type of web grammar for different sites – this is usually driven by left hand nav and some key options – so for a radio station this is things like Schedule, Presenters, Music, Listen etc. BBC London’s site eschews them all by combining quite a random selection of links in four central boxes. Indeed the left-hand nav includes pretty much nothing related to the radio station.

Also what’s odd is using the main splash on the site to plug quite a minor part of the station, in the case Vanessa Feltz’s daytime show. It’s odd because firstly it’s the mid-morning show and secondly it’s the podcast part of it. Is that really the most important part of the radio station?

There’s a useful square on the right that shows who’s on air at the moment. Unfortunately it’s incorrect as it’s showing Danny Baker rather than Bam and Nik. Clicking through to Danny’s pages, and there’s still no mention of Bam and Nik, but i’m still drawn to the other links for Danny’s show. There’s six of them:
* Listen: Danny Baker
* Danny’s guest gallery
* Listeners’ clock
* Danny at Abbey Road
* A-Z 94.9 Presenters
* 94.9 Presenters

Listen’s alright, of course, as is the guest gallery and photo from a feature – Danny at Abbey Road. The listener’s clock link is broken, generating a 404. The last two links seem to me like they’re the same thing, but oddly they’re not. The A-Z one seems to take you through to a features page about station content and the second 94.9 Presenters link goes through to another similar page (but different!) about station content. But brilliantly neither of these are the actual A-Z which lives somewhere else entirely.

The structure of the site changes as you dive into as well. The who’s on box moves up and down the right hand nav, including dropping below the fold quite often too.

The strange thing is the site does have some good features – it has a proper video-streaming webcam for instance, which means you can watch Bam pull his hair out as he’s trying to work out which buttons to press! But the only way you can find it is if you go to the webcams page, and then choose the sixth option. It’s not even linked to from the webcam link under the picture of the on-air presenter. Crazy.

The whole radio thing looks like an add-on to a local BBC News website. Now, whilst I think it’s a good idea that the BBC have local portals bringing together local content, the way it’s curated is really strange. The radio station (and the local TV news for that matter) are the ones who have the relationship with the audience and could be used to hold their hand and make /localarea an important part of their ongoing web experience.

But even discounting that they’re losing out on a massive opportunity. BBC Local Radio stations have huge audiences, many of which don’t consume any other local radio stations, it should be an open goal to transfer them to the web. At the same time the local BBC stations are predominantly speech and features, which would be the perfect extension to the on-air brand. At the moment the sites have absolutely no depth whatsoever, they’re the kind of place you would visit twice. Because on the second visit you realise that nothing’s really changed.

Resourcing things like websites are still issues for radio stations as the grapple with how audiences are changing, but surely large BBC local radio stations should have the right web people to reflect what they’re doing on air and catering for surely what their listeners want to read online?