Tuesday, 14 May 2013

UK radio : move your head

A long night at the 2013 Sony Radio Awards.

These are the awards that matter for the UK radio industry - and I do realise that putting the word "industry" next to "radio" is an anathema to most listeners. We've had free radio in the UK for so long that it is like a treasured relation to most of its audience. And I don't just mean the Radio 4 listeners. There's a genuine passion for radio in this country and it is surviving and growing against all the odds and naysayers.

However - it is an industry. It employs, it contracts suppliers, it creates a product and, in the case of commercial radio, it has a balance sheet with income from commercial sources. Within this industry, and dominating it, is the BBC. Funded directly by you and me. Radio is just one way that Auntie spends your £3.1 billion pounds a year.

But there's hard honest truth to face. Commercial radio is dying. Commercial radio is descending into a pit of the worst commercial kind - caring more about its shareholders than its audience. That can only lead one way. Get ready for the wholesale slaughter of local radio as consolidation reaches its peak and big leveraged groups gain control.

Will anybody care? I fully realise that solving commercial radio's problems comes lower down the agenda than even caring about Chris Huhne's future. I know that there are more pressing things to deal with as our country slides along the rutted bottom of a stalled economy and a frozen political system.

But - without commercial radio we wouldn't have some of the most successful BBC radio that we have today. I'll explain that in a bit.

At the Sonys, 70% of the awards were scooped by BBC-transmitted shows. Not all in-house productions, but mainly so. Over the years the Awards have been adjusted to suit the offerings of commercial radio - so we now have awards for "branding" and "imaging". All the more galling, then, that last night's award for "Best Station Imaging" was won by Radio 2.......

I am a double Sony winner. I have experienced the thrill that something you have helped create has been recognised by its peers and its audience. Quite simply, awards are for winning. If there's an award for your chosen task in life - go for it. It's great for the spirit and does no harm to your prospects.

Why, then, as I am now a Sony Awards judge, do I have to torment myself annually with such bloody dross in the entries? It doesn't matter which category - there will always be a lake of electronic sewage speckled with the occasional diamond.

Some of the BBC entries amount to an abuse of the licence fee. Sadly, most of the commercial radio entries are worse. Hence the 70/30 split in the winners. I have listened to hours of entries that depress the hell out of me - muttering way too often "if this is the best...". Commercial radio seems to employ some of the worst on-air talent around and/or some of the worst production people who have no idea how to construct an entry for an Awards show. I can only assume that these people are cheap - and therefore a shareholder's delight.

So - commercial radio's legacy in this country. Without it, your ears would not have many of the delights that do abound today on some frequencies. The early Radio Luxembourg was the foundation for what became music radio in the UK. The pirates copied it. The BBC copied the pirates. There's a direct, live DNA connection between the music radio of today and the pop commercial radio of the 50s & 60s. Thank you for that - it means I have not had to spend my life listening to such patronising tosh as the Light Programme, Worker's Playtime and other valve-driven delights of the old BBC.

Commercial radio was the first to bring great talk radio to its audience - being interactive with people on current issues decades before interactive was in the vocabulary of broadcasting. In October 1973, Britain's first commercial radio station went on-air. LBC was an injection of adrenaline to radio listening. Suddenly, we had the phone-in, the unscripted presenters and the previously forbidden topics of discussion. Sensational, mesmerising listening.

Without LBC, 5 Live wouldn't have happened. BBC local radio would be stuck on jam recipes. Even Radio 4 would be a different place.

More recently, Classic FM has taught the BBC how to hold an audience with classical music. The Third programme, which became Radio 3, has been forced to copy outright Classic FM. They've had to steal presenters, producers and ideas directly from Classic FM in order to stay relevant.

My own radio career only really got going when I was given a free rein at Capital Radio - admittedly by executives who had all trained at the BBC. For me, Capital Radio in the late 70s/early 80s was true music radio at its best. Great music was the stitching that held together a brilliant "community" station which connected with and energised the most difficult audience in the UK. Presenters who empathised with their core audience.

The BBC isn't stupid - and it has a large cheque book. They noticed commercial radio. They constantly raid it and rob it of its talent. Now that Christian O'Connell has won his 10th Sony in 10 years, it won't be long before he gets the call.

What the hell has happened? Why is commercial radio so patently awful? It comes down to ownership. If the owners are passionate about radio and about connecting to an audience, the station is on its way to success. But if the owners are simply looking to consolidate and asset-strip, then commercial radio is doomed.

It needs investment in training, it needs to develop talent and keep that talent. And, above all else, it needs an equal playing field with the BBC. FM is still the most popular way that people in the UK get their radio. Yet, due to a decades-long BBC land grab of frequencies, there's no room left for new national commercial stations. Cleverly, but most likely by accident, the BBC have neutered the ambitions of national commercial radio. Look at Absolute - constantly innovating and producing award-winning programmes and talent. Yet confined to a national AM service with a local London FM frequency.

DAB was supposed to solve this problem. It hasn't. It's dying because the rest of the world doesn't care about DAB. Manufacturers of consumer radios are stuck in a rut. Not for them the delights of new technology enjoyed by their colleagues in the tv department. Radio, as a box, is stuck in an odd age.

Maybe the internet will rescue it. But I doubt it. We like our radio to be portable. We do not want to pay cellphone networks their exorbitant data rates just to listen to Gardener's Question Time on our iPhones.

No - the rescue must be self-driven. Commercial radio is a land of opportunity and growth if we can remove the current owners and break their rather stunning coalition of comfort. The UK commercial radio market is controlled by only 3 owners.

But, for now, I would ask that the BBC is restricted in its expansionist practices - because these have the power to kill commercial competition during this economic disaster period. Radios 1 and 2 should be sold-off to commercial, and the funds raised should be invested in BBC programming that commercial radio will never touch. Like drama. Documentary. Good, entertaining public service radio with a budget to suit. (You cannot believe how little money BBC radio gives to independent producers currently. There is no incentive for creativity to emerge, because they are constantly crushing budgets.)

Radio - we love you. You're not just ga-ga. But sometimes I think the suits running you have genuinely lost their marbles. And they won't find them by continually sticking their heads into their own dark passages.


Robbie Williams - a stand-up comic and a fantastic performer, judging the temperature of the room perfectly. A national pleasure.

 Cerys Matthews - an eloquent spokesperson for her newly-discovered industry.

 John Humphrys - a cobra in gents clothing.

The sound - for an audio industry event, it was a tragedy. Wrong speakers, wrong balance. Just wrong.
Chris Evans - although not entirely his fault, but nearly 4 hours of Chris shouting at the audience was enough to dislodge good dentistry.
Orange skin - seemed to be directly related to origins of the species. And how far north they lived.
And - this will get me into trouble - the amount of on-air broadcasters who find it really difficult to ad-lib just one sentence. Often compounded by a failure to deliver the line in anything other than a rushed fart of speech, unintelligible to most human ears and with the laziest, tongue-tied orifices in the world.

If you have the privilege of being a broadcaster and being invited into strangers' homes & cars, at least have the decency to learn how to speak. It really isn't that difficult.

That's it.

I have a feeling I won't get invited back.


  1. Mr. Smith... I take my hat off to you.

  2. Commercial radio today has no soul, if you want to hear what it used to be like, find a small community station, run with passion and enthusiasm. Not a corporate-run pseudo-network, with stations rebranded with the same bland name.
    Time also to scrap the inept quango OFCOM, largely responsible for allowing all these pseudo-networks, and put radio back under the control of a radio authority dedicated to that task alone.

  3. I agree totally Not sure there's a solution. For me the rot set in when everything went digital and anybody who had enough brain to click a mouse or use a touch-screen could drive the desk. Back when it was turntables, carts and a stopwatch you had to be a professional. Of course the whole idea of another 30 minute music mix, a show trailer read, comp pro and adverts followed by another 30 minute music mix ain't radio!

  4. Our local commercial radio station gave us Mike Read and Steve Wright and was a joy to listen to. Now it's *another* Heart station, and robs brains.

  5. Not sure I agree with selling Radios 1 and 2 off but otherwise, a well thought out piece.

    However, there is a problem you only touched one that I think is far worse. That is, the inability of presenters to read scripts. As soon as a script is thrust before them they loose the ability to speak fluidly, to put meaning into the words. All too often, sentences are broken, down into small easy, to say chunks that, have no relation to the, importance of the, phrase. THE emphasis on, individual words ADDS nothing, to THE understanding OF, the sentences and, they normally end with a, sing SONG lift of the, Voice. It isn't "punchy" it's "sh.....ody"

    A course on reading poetry should be obligatory for all presenters.

  6. Well, look at this from another angle: Commercial Radio's move to national brands has meant lots of stations consolidated into a very few, which means less presenters, less distinct programme strands and far less individuality. Result: less material for commercial radio to submit to the Sonys. The BBC got 70% of the awards this year, and I'm sure that's partly why. It may be the BBC's all-time high Sony share to date. I don't see that changing in a hurry.

  7. Go Mike - what a breath of fresh air! And nice to see someone recognising the issue of data charges (let along the issue of low broadband speeds outside the metropolitan centres). National commercial radio on FM - yes.

  8. The commercial sdector has been going down the pan for years now. There's no place for innovative broacasting anymore, and I couldn't agree more with the comments about scripts. There's some God-awful community radio about, but at least community radio affords an opportunity for further innovation that's currently being fatally stifled by the major groups

  9. A good an interesting read, I have yet to establish myself within radio, but the pros vs cons in trying to get into a commercial radio vs BBC is a hot topic during my radio production class. lots of food for thought here. Thank you.

  10. I'm an indie producer of a Free to download audio drama - just had someone post this on my FB page: "The wonderful Minister of Chance - if they had stuff of this quality on national radio, Mike Smith would be less upset! "

  11. (Deep breath, long sentence) I don't think the audiences who like Radios 1 and 2 will thank anyone for handing them over to a sector which will contaminate those networks with the philosophy that's made commercial radio all but unlistenable. It's wrong to help independent radio by hobbling the BBC. The indies made their own bed - they can lie in it.

  12. Great post, BBC local radio is a disaster if you're not seventy in my neck of the woods. Presenters fixed in positions for what seems like centuries churning out the same old same old for decades.
    New talent is deprived of opportunity and in some cases actively discouraged.
    I personally think one day the internet will be the answer, but for now... here's some Dr Hook.

    1. I took voluntary redundancy from BBC Local Radio last year and I'm glad to be out of it. The BBC generally is frightened of its own shadow. But at local level it's just become a sausage machine; smaller budgets and fewer resources leave stations trying to make great radio on tuppence. And what they actually end up doing is lying to themselves; you sit in any programme debrief and it's just a round of self-congratulation at another 'great' show. Once I knew I was leaving I felt freer to say, 'No, actually that was shit.' And people looked at me is if I'd just said I'd slept with their mother. BBC Local Radio is in managed decline.

    2. I've done bits and bobs with them mate, real shame because there are a few bright stars amongst the gloom. Here's hoping they win out.

  13. Thank you for this! Nice to see an official stamp on something I predicted the first time I noticed what hell that Commercial Radio was descending into - in around 1995 as I travelled across England from Norfolk to Manchester and every bloody station along the route was "This is the sound of YOUR NEW *insert name here* YOUR PICK OF THE BETTER MUSIC MIX". Utterly dire, drivellous, mundane, cloned radio and it was that day that was the day the music died for me. The new incremental stations that appeared a little later in towns to try and recreate the old "local" sound, worked for a while before they too got taken over or merged into another cloned conglomerate! (KMFM anyone?). Quite frankly I'd split em all up again and ban them from being able to trample across others territory like it used to be. We see the same in ITV; Once upon a time you had lots of little hives of creativity across the country coming up with great - and not so great ideas for programmes - each hoping to get their little programme networked, then nearly everything becomes centralised - and merge them altogether and we've lost that creativity too!

    1. That's interesting, Stub... I first noticed it a couple of years earlier, when GWR group took over Radio Trent and Leicester Sound in 1993, and was delighted when they renamed the Derby version of Nottingham-based Trent as "Ram FM". I thought, brilliant - they're going to properly resource the station and let it be a genuine voice for Derby. Wrong. After about an hour of three-in-a-row records sandwiched between being told I was listening to the Better Music Mix, I realised this dull, beige prairieland of featureless broadcasting was what GWR intended for all its stations virtually all of the time. It was the beginning of the end of commercial radio in my house.

      And Mike, nice to hear from you below expanding your ideas on privatising Radios 1 and 2. But I reckon this would happen: their new business overlords would wait a while then lobby hard to have the restrictions and obligations relaxed. And we all know where that would lead.

    2. Thank you for that. So it was '93! I was last in the area in 1990/91 and then "passing back through" in 1995 so it was the first time I caught up with what was happening. Then of course the virus spread across the UK. I hear it's all rather profitable for the big boys now, but it's funny how many times you can chat to anyone "in the street" or on the bus and they all remember fondly when their commercial station was part of the community, delivering what it needed.

    3. A precise summing-up of what happened to ILR from 1994 onwards!

      Protests to the Radio Authority at that time went unheeded; it was inevitable that money men, suits and over-paid consultants systematically destroyed what was a great industry to be in.

      The true talents from those years now work on internet stations, while the 'suits' are lining-up for 'Lifetime Achievement awards'...

  14. Thank you for all the reaction. To explain "selling-off" R1 & R2. The idea would be to sell with restrictions and controls - the last thing I would want to achieve is the loss of any specialist music or documentaries - the type which feature on R2 particularly. I wouldn't rely on OFCOM to regulate on this - we do need a new, better, stricter body. It's well known that the problems of commercial radio largely stem from OFCOM relaxing what were very good rules back in the IBA-ILR days.
    I will tweet a link to the Guardian Media Podcast once it's recorded on Thurs 16th May.

  15. Mike - I agree in part with some of your comments. A large part of the commercial radio offering is appalling.

    But not all of it.

    You say:
    "Over the years the Awards have been adjusted to suit the offerings of commercial radio - so we now have awards for "branding" and "imaging". All the more galling, then, that last night's award for "Best Station Imaging" was won by Radio 2......."

    I, for one, am pleased that 3 out of the 5 nominees in this category were from commercial radio. As a really experienced promotions and imaging producer, I was delighted to be nominated. And even happier that our station came second to BBC Radio 2.

    Our format, JACK fm, has an ability to be incredibly creative in how we approach everything, from station imaging, top the promotions we run. In fact, it was that very ability that persuaded me to leave a job working within the BBC's creative marketing department, to join a station and work on a commercial radio brand, which is striving to improve levels of creativity on commercial radio.

    And whilst not every format can do this, they can certainly look in their own back yards to try.

    I spoke with an old friend of mine, who writes and performs comedy on the BBC, and who has worked as a presenter on both the BBC and commercial radio at the at the awards. he now works back in commercial radio (and still works on BBC shows too). He was amazed at how creative he is allowed to be in commercial radio - and felt that it is actually possible in some ways to be more creative in commercial radio than at the BBC.

    But obviously, you have to be a creative person with the desire to use that creativity - and not every format allows or wants that - which is a shame.

    Winning Silver this year will drive us to create even more creative material next year. Should you wish to sample a SILVER award winning entry, you'll find the audio here.


  16. Some of the most refreshing and interesting radio isn't coming from the commercial sector - nor from the BBC and is seriously under-represented in these fancy awards!

    No, some of the most interesting radio these days comes from the much maligned and totally underfunded Community radio sector.

    Most Community radio stations of course can not afford the fees or spend the time to put and entry together. And, they can be a bit curate's egg with some very poor stations - But, there are some gems in this sector who I suspect are seriously eroding the market share of some of the weaker "ILR" commercial stations and even stealing market share from the ever less local BBC "local" radio stations.

    And it is because the people who work in them (volunteers who PAY to be involved!) are doing it because they passionately love radio, love the music they play and they love the communities they live in - something which has sadly drained away from many of the larger stations.

  17. Mike, I missed this Blog a few days back. I have to say you've summed it all up a GREAT deal better than the 'youngsters', and hangers-on who have to creep around the ever-shrinking number of commercial stations to get work as consultants or (taking Life into both hands) actually go on-air.

    Your comments on the Podcast about the appalling state of commercial radio in London also 'hit the nail on the head'. This 'zoo format' of 'mindless male with yappy female' bantering with each other endlessly, so there is little actual music, is KEY to the decline of the stations owned by Global and others.

    I was fortunate to escape from radio before GWR systemically neutered it.

    The reason the large groups are getting away with more and more merging - "local stations are not viable", is a fallacy. Areas like the (Great) East Midlands and Nottingham (my old patch) COULD still afford a 24/7 station as the 'background staff' needed now is much less, and there is a large group of talented ILR presenters still young enough to want/need work (not me!)

    It's ironic that the people who KNOW and LOVE radio are not the ones who have been 'cashing in', or getting 'lifetime achievement awards' in the last 10 years. Instead, great broadcasters, such as Roger Day, who WERE ILR, have to run internet stations. But with VERY low costs, and more and more people disilllusioned over syndicated radio, they/we are at least now chipping away at I(L)R and getting more and more listeners...

    Len Groat - www.solidgoldgem.am

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  22. 1) So UK commercial radio has followed the same course as US commercial radio. But we must be careful that BBC radio & TV does not follow the same course as US NPR & PBS: insignificant & pleading for donations.
    Which means that the BBC TV & radio must keep its commercial channels 1 & 2. Without these, it will lose its audience & funding for all the other channels & programming. It's a strange dichotomy, but the BBC must both compete on ratings and provide the public service, if it is to provide the public service at all. With the commercial channels & associated audience gone, the BBC will be marginalised and the Government will drastically cut back funding on all BBC programming, with the intent of benefitting Sky (which is producing its own arts/documentaries).

    2) I bought a DAB radio with the intent of listening to contemporary rock (Radio 1 only plays 4 hours a week) but all I could find was Planet Rock, which was terrible. As described by others above, just old chart records and wall-to-wall Volvo adverts. I gather there are decent internet stations, but I also want CD quality sound and I don't want to run a (mobile) PC.