Creating Radio With Purpose

Greetings from Lisbon. I’ve had a lovely few days at Radiodays Europe. The pandemic had somewhat got in the way of the event’s usual planning, but they put on a great event with four simultaneous streams of sessions over two days. They also streamed the streams to people who wanted to attend, but not in person.

Unsurprisingly, Coronavirus was mentioned a few times. Yes, there were mentions of how it caused teams to work in different ways, but I think it had a more fundamental effect on how many practitioners thought about their audio medium.

I hosted a session – the Radio Summit – which brought together some top leaders – Pedro Leal, Head of Production for Renascença, Patricia Schlesinger, Director General of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Marc Vossen, CEO of NGroup and Anne-Marie Dohm, CEO of Radio 4 in Denmark.

What was fascinating is how much the idea of purpose came up. The pandemic meant that many stations changed their output to react to the changing situation and the responses generated re-enforced that connection that listeners have with their favourite stations. Many broadcasters around the world also added new output as podcasts, social media or web content. The combination of trust, skill and audience alongside the sector’s ability to be fleet of foot, allowed it to really prosper in challenging times.

In a world where there’s usually a focus on ratings and revenue, stations perhaps rediscovered the core thing that makes their medium special.

NGroup’s story was particularly interesting. They operate the licensed brands NRJ, Cherie and Nostalgie in French-speaking Belgium – traditionally stations that do well at banging out the hits, but the CEO outlined how ‘making the world a better place’ has been ingrained in their DNA. As well as the company being carbon neutral since 2014, each of their main brands integrates a progressive tenet into their programming output. It sounded like it had become an authentic value of their stations rather then just an attempt at green-washing a brand – something staff and listeners could get behind.

For any media brand, having clear aims and objectives has long been an essential part of creating success, but perhaps thinking about what a station (or podcast or business) is trying to engender through its work is something worth spending more time looking at.

Hearing from Petra Piipari at HitMix in Finland, she talked about the combination of Finland being both the happiest place in the world, but also an area that over-indexes in suicide, particularly for one of the station’s core demographics – young men. The station builds mental wellbeing into its programming mix – to acknowledge the problem, but also provide solutions for listeners.

Of course ‘purpose’ doesn’t have to be a lofty goal, it can be anything that works to have an impact on audiences, but in an era where new social media platforms are key challenges for radio’s consumers and revenue, should radio lean into the fact that it’s a very trusted medium, and work to differentiate itself – with purpose (in between banging out the hits of course).

Photography: Radiodays Europe/Hedda Elisabet

Themes from Radiodays Europe

How Are Apple Podcast Subscriptions Going?

Apple released a new type of chart last week, showing the relative success of its new Apple Podcast Channels product. This is the thing where you can group together shows, or offer a single show, and then make it something that people can pay real money to subscribe to.

Here’s the pay-for list (with some context on each offer courtesy of Podnews)…

Wondery+ from Wondery (“Get ad-free listening, early access & exclusives”)

Luminary from Luminary (“Unlock network of award-winning Luminary Originals”)

Sword and Scale +PLUS Light from Incongruity (“Get INSTANT ACCESS to all +PLUS Episodes!”)

TenderfootPlus+ from Tenderfoot TV (“Join now for ad-free listening & exclusive content”)

PushNik from Pushkin Industries (“Uninterrupted Pushkin Shows & Exclusive Episodes”)

QCODE+ from QCODE (“Uninterrupted Listening + Exclusive Bonus Episodes”)

Imperative Premium Series from Imperative Entertainment (“Premium Narrative Series. Ad-free & Early Access.”)

Podimo Deutschland from Podimo (“Let yourself be entertained by captivating stories”)

U Up? from Betches Media (“Subscribe for bonus eps, ad-free & early release”)

The Handoff from CNN (“Exclusive, ad-free access to The Handoff podcast.”)

The top end is pretty self-explanatory. Wondery and Luminary are operators that have always had strong subscription offers. But if the idea of using a different app to Apple Podcasts was what stopped someone signing up, then this reduces that friction to get people to part with their cash. Though it would be interesting to know how many swapped their sub from the native platform to the Apple one…

Much of the rest of the top eight are content providers who have communities that are used to being monetised, or brands that are used to doing it.

The ones that are interesting to me are the bottom two. These are not massive podcasts.

The CNN one’s a weekly show with Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo which you can get ad-free. It’s only available in selected countries (it doesn’t work here in the UK) and hovers at around the 200 mark in the Apple Podcasts US chart.

U Up? at number nine is more interesting. It’s not that popular a show (generally sits at 50 in the US Society and Culture Apple Podcast chart). One of the hosts, Jared Fried is a comedian with 50k followers on Twitter/240k on Instagram – not exactly Adele.

They’re definitely making the most of the platform though. There’s two bonus eps a month, all their episodes are ad-free, and go up a day early.

I’d just be surprised if they’re doing that much business. A couple of thousand subscribers at most? For a small-ish show that’s not too bad – 2,000 X £2.49 (what they’re charging) results in about £5k, so about £3.2k/month after the Apple fees perhaps?

But looking at the shows that have made it to the chart, I think collectively it demonstrates that the subscription functionality is just not being used that much at the moment – by content creators or consumers.

It’s a shame as Apple’s infrastructure to deliver it all, in-app, is pretty neat. But there’s loads of problems with it.

Firstly, the merchandising around it is quite poor. There’s nowhere I can put enough imagery and text to sell what I’m doing. There’s no real way of providing any structure or narrative to the shows in my channel – I can’t really curate a storefront. It also doesn’t allow any real customisation across multiple territories. I can’t create something in Spanish for Spain with special pricing and then have a different price structure in the UK. Though I hear some international adjustments are on the way.

Anyone who works in e-commerce knows how important iterating offers, text and imagery is – you just can’t do any of that on the platform.

Apple also doesn’t allow you to integrate any podcast CMS systems with their own proprietary, Apple Podcasts Connect service. The admin of uploading all the show information to a podcast CMS and then repeating the process for their one is a pain point for organisations with a number of staff who all input into ‘the podcast’.

Spotify have created their own oAuth based system that allows subscription providers to allow their subscribers to hear paywalled content in Spotify. Whilst useful, all of these platforms lack scale and aren’t that understandable except for the techno-literate. Spotify’s alternative ‘click in the app to subscribe’ service has to bounce you to a third party as they can’t offer this as in-app purchase without paying an Apple tax.

Fundamentally though, having subscriptions on Apple, a super-clunky form of subscriptions on Spotify (for some providers) and then consumer-unfriendly private podcast feeds for other apps is a massive mess that makes selling subscriptions to users almost pointless.

If Apple and Spotify inter-op’d with the main podcast CMS platforms rather than forcing us to use their systems, and maybe worked together (shock) on a standard, then they (and us) would all enjoy far more success.

In the meantime creators are stuck trying to sellotape over their systems and waste time on shows and online to (try and) make it easy for consumers to understand. Their time is better spent elsewhere. Something many podcasters and audio businesses have already realised.

It’s especially frustrating as the relationships that shows have with listeners is eminently monetisable and consumers would love a one-click way to support shows, whichever app they use.

The Media Podcast

In other news, the Media Podcast is back for a new season, but with a big change. The excellent Olly Mann has moved on from hosting duties and they’ve only gone and asked me to sit in as a cover jock. So, for the next few months at least, you can hear me present it alongside a brilliant range of guests and topics.

The show’s fortnightly and you can get it on any podcast platform (without paying to subscribe), though it doesn’t stop you slinging the producers a few quid, to thank them for their hard work.

On this week’s show we talk about GB News and Andrew Neil, Doctor Who’s new show-runner, Netflix’s Roald Dahl acquisition and even a bit on RAJAR too. Go have a listen.

Are the big podcasting platforms making it easy for new subscription businesses to grow?

The challenge of staying on-air

Radio and TV is a complicated business, and for a medium that used to ‘just’ have to worry about a transmitter network, today’s world means keeping on top of lots of endpoints – places where your content and channels end up.

Of course, the need for wide distribution is now an issue for everyone in the media sector. If you’re a musician are you on all the streaming platforms? If you’re a podcast are you listed on all of the apps and directories?

One of my day jobs is being part of a team that looks after a lot of DAB distribution through our MuxCo network. We look after hundreds of radio stations, broadcast over a hundred transmitters. It’s a network of many elements and many things that can go wrong. We’ve been doing it a long time, however, so when there’s a problem we have a pretty good idea of what (or who!) has caused it, and can get it fixed pretty quickly. Sometimes though, there’s just some outliers that are hard to plan for, as Arqiva found, when one of its key transmitters burned down last month, knocking out Freeview for a million people (and affecting our radio customers too).

Some of the broadcast networks had another issue on Saturday night as a fire at play-out provider Red Bee Media knocked out some key systems.

The aftershocks were still causing some problems yesterday when Channel 4, half-jokingly tweeted:

That’s all well and good, except for poor Louise, who replied…

Part of the issue for consumers and broadcasters is that there are so many destinations, it’s hard to to easily communicate alternative options. Do you have Freeview, cable, satellite? Have you got an internet connection, have you got a connected TV?

It also doesn’t help that there’s often network-specific issues too. “Oh yes Madam, that is right, you can Chromecast BBC One, but can’t do it for live TV on Channel 4”. “No, I’m afraid ITV2 isn’t available in HD on Freeview”.

I was reminded recently of a speech that Tony Ageh, one of the architects of the BBC’s iPlayer, gave at The Story conference. He says an important thing:

One thing I would say about the iPlayer is this, and it’s a genuine appeal to you all. The iPlayer is flawed. It’s actually wrong. It’s a lovely thing, and I’m sure you all enjoy it. There is something wrong with it. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.

It’s only got BBC programmes on it. This is the first significant piece of technology the BBC has ever developed that only the BBC uses, and that’s not its job. The purpose of the licence fee, the reason why we’re funded in this way, is because we’re supposed to be of value to everybody in the whole industry. It’s meant to be a universally applicable tithe, fee, fund that you enjoy paying, because you know that everything is better as a result.

Therefore, the iPlayer should be unbundled. Imagine if there was a radio that only got BBC programmes. Bonkers, right? Televisions that only showed the BBC, it’d just be crazy. The idea that there’s a piece of technology that only shows BBC programmes is wrong. I would urge you all to campaign to say to the BBC, ‘Unbundle the iPlayer and let everybody else use it,’ because that’s what the licence fee is for. It’s for us to develop technologies that are universally applicable, that benefit everybody.

Of course there was, back in the day, a desire to do an element of this – Project Kangaroo – which would have brought all the main broadcasters together. It was vetoed by the Competition Commission 12 years ago.

Indeed, The Telegraph last week reported that the main broadcasters have recently got together to talk about combining their catch-up services. Whilst ‘competing with Netflix’ is the obvious driver, there is a benefit for broadcasters in trying to simplify for consumers where to get the material they want.

There’s some of this in FreeviewPlay and Freesat, where broadcast TV is partly united by an EPG that goes backwards, integrating catch-up. It’s still though a bit confusing, and bouncing consumers into six differently branded on-demanded experiences is perhaps not the best way to make things simple for the consumer.

Perhaps the recent merger of the companies behind Freeview and Freesat, alongside this new internet project will fix some of these things.

What the TV companies have basically learned is that Netflix, Amazon and Comcast are a much bigger issue than faffing about with internal infighting between themselves. To compete – for audiences, for buttons on remotes, for interest from platforms – they need the scale of working together.

Oddly, in the broadcast radio world, the UK (and now much of Europe) has this ‘working together infrastructure’ already established through Radioplayer and Radioplayer Worldwide. Providing a home for the best broadcaster audio feeds and metadata on one side and then working on integrations and apps on the other. It’s a good place to help radio get in the places it needs to be. It’s also something that works the best when everyone’s involved.

Also, importantly, it provides a consistent and understandable consumer experience. If you’re listening on something from Radioplayer you know you’ll get the same stations together in the same place, with the same functionality.

At the moment though, the pendulum is probably swinging to broadcaster-specific executions – the BBC Sounds and Global Player’s of the world. Whist, of course, there’s lots of benefit for broadcasters owning their stack – from analytics to special advertiser executions – I wonder sometimes whether the corporate need is put ahead of the consumer one.

Is splitting ‘radio’ over a load of different apps – on mobile, smart TVs and smart speakers, the perfect way for that sector to thrive in the future? If TV is going the other way, is radio missing a trick? How much are stand alone apps driven by corporate ego?

Partly this struck me over the last few weeks with Google Home seemingly getting worse and worse at recognising and playing radio stations. Radio stations are noticing it too:

Firstly, it’s important to remember that Google doesn’t really care. Radio isn’t at the top of their list. If an FM transmitter goes off, Arqiva notice, work to fix it and a Northern chap from Emley Moor calls you up. Even if it’s 3am. The smart speaker manufacturers aren’t so bothered. Also having hundreds of different radio station apps on these devices, working in different ways, doesn’t help either.

The radio sector needs to realise that the duff consumer experience from Google, Alexa and co, exacerbated by the group’s balkanised executions is bad for radio as a product (as well as for their stations).

Perhaps it’s time for them to remember why they started to work together in the first place? I’d have thought the Spotifys were over the moon with radio spending (and duplicating) all of this time on their own apps – whilst they get on with providing a consistent product to millions of audio consumers across the world.

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Are broadcasters helping or hindering consumers to tune in?

Does audio lack a product focus?

What fascinates me about audio at the moment is that the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for each of the different players in the sector, keep revolving and changing. No matter whether it’s Spotify or Apple, Global or the BBC, the audio strategies keep adjusting. There seems little desire to stick to what they’re known for.

I think part of the problem for many organisations, audio included, is that they misunderstand the business they’re in.

The oft-used example is that Kodak thought it was in the photographic film business when actually it was in the memories business. Through the memories lens, digital cameras would have been an opportunity, rather than a product they developed and quickly buried.

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RAJAR’s Return

News over the weekend that the radio industry’s audience measurement is returning.

It’s seemingly been on a longer hiatus than One Direction, as its panel building was somewhat kiboshed by the Coronavirus.

It’s always popular to knock RAJAR (or any research methodology) but most wailing is pretty uninformed. RAJAR is one of Europe’s largest surveys with nearly 100,000 people participating in a regular year. It’s demographically and geographically representative of the UK’s listeners (and non-listeners) and that requires some effort. How do you get someone to fill in a survey about radio listening when they don’t listen to any? It’s important to track that group too!

People also fail to recognise that RAJAR isn’t one national survey, it’s hundreds of inter-locking surveys that give robust data about individual stations’ TSAs (their coverage area). So you need to be representative in Portsmouth, Southampton and Bournemouth individually, as well as across the combined regional area too.

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Radio’s Trouble With The Internet

Radio has always had a bit of trouble with the internet. Or more accurately, the people behind radio stations have some difficulty in getting their online editorial right.

The birth of the web saw radio jump into this medium at the turn of the century. At that point local stations, the predominant form of the wireless, tried to replicate their local credentials by booting up a local portal. I spent most of 2001 sitting in the head office of koko.com, GWR’s attempt to create a hybrid national/local site. It was a good idea, though ahead of its time – in both the tech that ran it didn’t really work, and the audience probably wasn’t quite ready either (a crap name didn’t help). It also had a lot of trouble replicating the content feel of the successful local radio stations. The teams were good at creating compelling audio but no one had taught them how to create compelling text.

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What’s the value of a podcast exclusive?

A couple of interesting articles dropped in the last week looking at different elements of Spotify’s podcasting business.

The first is a blog post from the company talking about them making more of their owned shows Spotify exclusives.

Exclusives, or the slightly weaker ‘windowed’ versions (where a show is exclusive somewhere for a little while) are important elements to help drive consumption on particular platforms.

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Audio Use in the UK

Ofcom’s Media Nations report is an excellent analysis of media consumption and trends, with a great section on radio and audio.

One of the opening paragraphs is a good overall analysis of the sector

Consumers continue to listen to radio and audio content on a wide range of devices. Although listening to live radio on a radio set has been in decline for the past few years, for adults overall it continues to account for much of their audio consumption. Conversely, consumption of digital audio services, including online live radio, music streaming services and podcasts, has grown over time, especially among adults aged 15-34 for whom live radio on a radio set now accounts for less than a quarter of listening.

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iHeart Tunes In, but will Global?

iHeartMedia is the biggest US radio operator – nearly a thousand radio stations, a well marketed app – iHeartRadio, and a strong podcast network. It’s also one of the big players in podcast consolidation, having snaffled up Voxnest, Triton and Spreaker.

As a big player, if run well, all these parts make the sum stronger. Cross-promotion, talent and technology all working together, giving them a strong competitive advantage.

The promo tie-ups of all your different activities are relatively easy to do. Some good media planning can generate real dividends, and if the tech stack’s good, it isn’t that hard to do. What’s more complicated, but potentially very profitable, is where you can use your large work force to help grow the business in new areas.

That’s why I was taken with their announcement last week that they’ve done a deal with TuneIn “the world’s leading live streaming audio service”.

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Your radio station bores me

I don’t wish to be rude, but I think your radio station is pretty boring.

I can be pretty broad with that comment because there’s very little on-air at the moment that makes me excited as a listener and especially very little that would encourage me to change radio station more permanently.

Perhaps my miserableness comes from the fact I’ve just finished my (er, 5th?) re-read of The Nation’s Favourite by Simon Garfield. Easily the best book about radio. It follows Radio 1 when Matthew Bannister came in and shook it up – and all hell broke lose. It covers the end of the dinosaur DJs (DLT etc), the Chris Evans/Jo Wiley/Pete Tongs joining through to the early days of Moyles.

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