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.