FM Radio is Rubbish

I’m the first to admit i’m a bit of a radio anorak. I work in ‘radio’ and I get to play with lots of talented people who create brilliant stuff that comes out of the speakers. I love listening and being entertained and I think the range of stations both BBC and Commercial are great.

This week i’ve been in a rock/alternative mood so i’ve been listening a lot to The Storm (god rest its soul), XFM, Virgin Radio and Radio 1. Virgin doesn’t normally appear on my radar but with the arrival of Christian O’Connell its becoming more of a must listen. In fact with Geoff in the evening its line up is looking better every day. The fact my Virgin listening has gone up also has to do with the fact that i’ve been without my personal DAB Digital Radio.

You see being this radio anorak, i’ve pretty much moved across to an all digital environment. An Evoke to wake up to, a hi-fi tuner in the living room and a personal DAB to get me to work and then a portable DAB on my desktop. If it’s not on digital it doesn’t really get a look in. I really am Ex-FM. My in-home listening is pretty static – it gets my standard breakfast show choice in the morning and then a dinner party choice in the evening (Groove, chill. etc). The personal radio though, that gets me flicking around the stations, seeing what’s out there or just surfing for a tune that matches my mood. Anyway, that’s all up the spout at the moment as my personal DAB’s out of batteries and I haven’t had time to recharge. In fact I wake up every morning and think “Shit, I didn’t plug in the recharger”. In the past when this has happened I just walked to the tube in silence grumbling under my breath. However my new phone has an FM receiver. Great, I thought. A backup.

No. Because FM radio really is rubbish. I’d forgotten how awful it really is. Terrible interference, remembering frequencies, searching for stations and having to get through two or three Radios 2, 3 and 4 before I get to where i’m going. Pirates. Ugh it’s a horrible user experience. You really do miss digital radio when you’re forced to listen to analogue.

DAB isn’t perfect, and on the personal it occasionally drops out – something that definitely takes a while to get used to, but compared to constant crackle and interference on FM – DAB is bloody marvellous. They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, well maybe that was just the Counting Crows, but DAB is one of those things what you’ve made it a part of your life you never, ever, want to go back.

Now I know some people don’t agree, they have great FM reception and don’t need any more channels and I say good luck to them, they’re welcome to FM. Me though, I never want to go back.

Who Needs Broadcast TV?

I dont have a PVR, thats a Personal Video Recorder to you at the back. What I do have is a nice VHS recorder, that hasnt really been plugged in properly since I moved house, and only seems to be able to play videos. Though interestingly I think weve only used it to show video that me or friends have made, huh, user-generated content even in the analogue world, anyway…

PVRs are interesting to me because theyre changing user behaviour. People whove got them become different consumers and they become evangelists. Instantly. Here in the UK its Sky+ thats been the key. Sky own direct-to-home satellite broadcasting here and with over 7million subscribers theyve been sitting pretty. Generating growth recently though has been difficult as just about anyone who wants films or sport has it and now Freeview has hoovered up the last remaining soft potential converts. Skys decided to push the ARPU (average revenue per user) for its existing mob, and Sky+ is key to that. Sky+ users pay an extra tenner a month, or they get it free if they subscribe to the premium content package. Thats clever in itself, as its getting you hooked on the crack cocaine of movies, sport and PVR for 50/month direct debited over to Mr Murdochs coffer.

And its working. 45% of users sampled saying that they could not live without Sky+ and 99% saying that they have no intention of leaving Sky. The reason people love it is that it gives them control and moves them away form having to watch television as dictated by someone else. Theres so much more non-broadcast consumption nowadays, whether thats magazines or the internet, people are getting used to picking and choosing. Radio in someways is already there, Tom Coates talks about it when he says People use radio to time-keep, to feel connected to the outside world around them, to feel like they have company listeners use it as a utility, and many stations are tied into giving these listeners an emotional fix rather than merely delivering up a pre-produced programme.

Radio users have themselves already adapted to time-shifting, listeners to Radio 1 who cant be arsed to stay up for the Essential Selection listen when it suits them, resulting in the Essential Selections online audience being much higher than their broadcast one. Anyway I digress

TV PVRs are changing how people consume television as theyre opting out of the schedules and tagging programmes on their EPG for recording and later viewing. In the same way that people subscribe to a favourite websites RSS feeds viewers are using series-link to get their box to capture the whole series. At the same time viewers are skipping ads to get their content, though bizarrely Tivo are trying to put them back in.

Though its not just the ads consumers are skipping, its the promos too and this is drastically changing viewers behaviour as theyre unaware of many new shows and generally stick with their familiar programming (lets call that the Friends and Simpsons factor). This poses an interesting quandary for stations used to building sampling for new shows through cross-promotion as their viewers may have already disaggregated all their content. Stations will have to start to using other methods to alert viewers to their programming and make themselves stand out on an EPG with over 400 channels. Expect programmes with names that stick out (When Christmas Dinner Goes Wrong instead of Eastenders maybe?) or more shows built around established, familiar brands.

The other types of programming that does well in the PVR-world are live shows that embed much of their attraction in existing in the live world X-Factor, Big Brother, Sporting events, news these will pull people out of their pre-recorded idyll and back into the traditional broadcast world. These are the shows that advertisers are going to demand, as it will be the only way to reach a traditional mass audience. Well also begin to see more lifestyle, background programming, that will ape radios strengths and try to replicate its revenue models. Strands like T4 or This Morning will also become important as a way to provide something that contextualises different types of content and again provides reasons to attract viewers back to live television.

Software will also have a place to play in disaggregated television, EPGs that take on recommendations from viewers like you, or viewers that know you will also become an important way to get consumers to interact with new television content. The question is will companies used to broadcasting, like Sky, be confident enough to develop technology that further devolves control to the consumers? Or will we start to see new Super-EPGs that aggregate content from TV platforms alongside new technologies like Bittorrent and serve it up with some special-sauce social-networking too?

The Scope of the BBC’s Development

I think it’s very hard to say that the BBC doesn’t do a good job. Its TV stations broadcast some great shows, some of which it even makes itself, it also has some great radio stations (and 6Music) which have brilliant presenters and play a truly wide range of music. Its online effort is truly magnificent with a great structure and wonderfully up-to-date and relevant content. Its commitment and development of new technologies is impressive and visionary.

However with an income from us lot (in the UK) of �3billion so everything it should do should be bloody excellent.

The problem with living in a jacuzzi of cash is it does somewhat insulate you from the real world, well, the commercial world. It’s not that they mean to out-do and kill non-BBC services, it’s just a by-product of their development. Tim Gardham, when he was asked to review the BBC’s new radio stations summed it up well when he described the BBC as “well meaning herd of elephants, stomping through the jungle, trumpeting its achievements, each executive holding onto the tail of the one in front. They are undoubtedly a force for good, but unfortunately can be oblivious as to what might get crushed under their enormous feet”.

To try and mitigate some of this stomping the BBC governors have come up with this idea of a public value test, a public consultation, and then if successful the issuing of a ‘service licences’. The idea is to try and be transparent with new developments rather than them just ‘appearing’ and potentially killing-off commercially-funded competitors.

However this doesn’t stop the BBC trialling things before this process starts. The biggest trial is probably the BBC’s podcasting ‘experiment’, though there is something else I noticed last weekend which i’m not sure if I feel comfortable about. You see the government was very keen that digital television wasn’t dominated by the BBC and instiagted a big public consultation before it licensed BBC Three and BBC Four. Obviously the BBC has huge cross-promotional power and it didn’t want that to marginalise the development of new and diverse services from commercial operators. This licence also ensured the BBC made good ‘public-service’ programmes a part of their services. For example, a pure comedy and drama channel wouldn’t be that different from ITV2 and E4, but one that must included news and documentaries might – and thus BBC Three was allowed to be born.

Therefore I think it’s a bit odd that the BBC has launched BBC Three Catch-up, an interactive service (initially on satellite) that allows viewers to see a sort of BBC Three A, B and C that loops key BBC Three programmes. This Sunday, for example, you’ll be able to see two episodes each of Two Pints of Lager and a Packed of Crisps, Trauma Uncut and Tiny Tearaways.

I’m slightly divided on this experiment, part of me thinks, that as a licence fee payer I should be able to see content i’ve paid for, however the other part of me thinks that this is an evening where it makes it even harder for commercial stations to compete. It’s not as if Two Pints is never repeated, as it’s always on BBC Three, and with the rise of Sky Plus is it a decent use of the BBC’s bandwidth? If they are to use a service like this wouldn’t it be more public service if they were carouselling innovative BBC programmes that people might have missed and then use the brand power of BBC Three to help bring them to people who weren’t aware of them the first time round?

The BBC should be applauded for being on the cutting edge of any content and technological developments however it would be good if they considered themselves as part of the broadcast ecology with special responsibilities rather than existing in its own sealed bubble. Its technological developments should re-enforce its brilliant public service reputation not distance itself from them.

I Love Research

I love research, I really do. In fact i’m sort of obsessed by it. I love listening to views of different people, I love looking at the breakdowns based on demographics, areas, or toothpaste use. I love focus groups. I love sitting there slack-jawed as eight pre-screened target consumers can’t describe a competition mechanic or missed a message we promoted every fifteen messages for a week. I love the brutality of it all.

Reseach gets lots of knocks. Mainly by people who’ve never done any. They often get caught up in thinking that what they think is what other people think. They’re usually wrong.

Research is best when taken in context and used as a tool, amongst some others – like actually doing some thinking. There’s been a couple of interesting posts recently, Ken Norton talks about segmenting who your consumers are and combining different aspects of their response to get a decent view of a product and Kathy Sierra has a great view about how the views of consumers are merely one part of the puzzle.

Site Opens, Sort of.

Dear user,

It’s very kind of you to drop by, but did anyone ask you to? I think not. Who do you think you are, dropping by websites unannounced. Just browsing eh, I think we’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? First it starts with a browse and then you think you’re bloody Bill Gates, don’t you?

Turning up unannounced, I bet your the kind of person who comes to parties without bottles of wine, isn’t that right? Sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. I know your type, and if I see you you’re be lucky to get away with a clip round the ear. And not just from me, but from that bloke to the right.

Anyway, move along, nothing to see here…