Two weeks ago I wrote about a possible new strategy for local radio stations. It was a long post, but it boils down to a single question:
Can local radio operators use the web to increase the volume of local output, while also lowering costs?
If the answer is yes, this approach might just be more effective than progressively centralising/'networking' production and losing local flavour. Some thoughts on how you, the large commercial radio group, might make this work in practice:
1. Launch a simple web-based tool for members of the public to make radio shows
When I last worked in the radio industry, more than a decade ago, the elaborate equipment of a radio studio was already overkill for most music-based shows. Computers played out the music, ads, and other recorded material, while digital audio processors set the levels. News, travel, and weather reports were often mixed in automatically.
The budding presenter at home just needs to stop and start things in the right place. Add a half-decent microphone and sound card, and some headphones, and you're all set for less than the cost of an average digital video camera. The hard bit is making the web tool work well, but if you do that once, it can be used many many times. This is not a big cost in the context of a large radio group.
Ideally the presenter gets to build a playlist of music and other content from your library, maybe upload their own audio segments too, record in some links and tweek to make sure it all sounds good. It should be a pretty quick process.
2. Start distributing the shows via a low-traffic part of the company web site.
You'd need to be comfortable with best effort moderation, and it may take time to build up the quality. But if the tools and positioning are right then some talented people are likely to get involved fairly quickly. At this stage you might already be able to add some advertising, if it fits with your existing processes.
3. Involve a few in-house creative staff in picking the best shows to feature more prominently.
Staff could also provide a little advice and coaching to the best presenters. Maybe the tech team can automate some hints too (e.g., links are too long, music choice too niche, mic quality poor etc). Importantly, you should provide staff with tools to keep track of the most promising talent. In a few hours per week, an experienced staff member could probably keep tabs on 10 up and coming presenters, guiding their efforts to the point where they reached professional standards. Think of this as super-charged demo tape screening.
4. Broadcast some of the best shows.
At first it's probably just a replacement for automated output, and confined to small stations. But the shows produced are going to keep getting better, so it's only a matter of time before the content is good enough for more prominent slots.
You probably want to pay the presenters, but fees can be pretty low to start with – remember, the shows were quick to build, and many of the presenters are just starting out.
5. Consider new models.
If it's gone well, you've got a growing library of high-quality, interesting shows. Many of these are specialised or local. Maybe you can start charging listeners for some of them? Maybe you'll start thinking about broadcast as a way to showcase the best paid-for content? Maybe you'll be able to mix the links from the web tool with custom music and mainstream national content, to make bespoke stations, as Tris suggested?
What do you think? Has this been tried, and failed before? Or do you think it's feasible? If so, what's the best way to get started?
Posted at 19:54 BST, 1st September 2009.
It has been a while since I've written anything media-related here. Oddly, even though I have been rather busy working on interesting stuff, I though I'd write on a topic I know relatively little about: what to do about the poor old U.K. commercial local radio industry. Apologies in advance if I blunder clumsily into a sophisticated debate!
Syndicating , or 'networking', or just plain centralisation has been the major strategy to improve the fortunes of this struggling sector. But this approach is running out of steam. It's time to get back to trusting local teams to produce good content, and time to use technology to enable more creativity, more trust in creative talent, and more localness.
I have some outdated personal experience in radio. As a kid, I produced and presented radio shows for a couple of local stations in deepest, darkest Suffolk. Some very kind and often rather bemused adults taught an enthusiastic yougster the required skills over a few years. By the age of 16 or 17, I could knock out professional-quality programmes with little or no guidance, and got paid a reasonable rate for it.
By the time I was 19, the web was a reality even in Suffolk. I quickly found it was more profitable, and more fun, to make fundimentally interactive websites rather than one-way radio shows, despite the dramatically lower audience. If I were born 30 years later, I am sure I would have started by making podcasts or web services – something interactive and distributed over the Internet, and competing for audience and advertising revenue with today's radio stations. Even if this younger me was interested in radio rather than the Internet, I doubt that today's industry could afford to train and pay me - they're rather busy fighting to survive!
My experience is somewhat illustrative of the trends in the radio industry:
- Less money for big media companies, as the advertising pot shrinks and fragments
- Competition for audiences from specialist content creators, and other digital content
The response from the U.K. commercial radio? Syndicate shows across an ever larger network of local stations. Remove control from local staff, and centralise it with their best creative and managerial talent at corporate HQ.
This is a trend that, for good reason, has been going on for 15 years, pioneered by GWR, the group that grew, merged and morphed into GCap then Global Radio, and is now the U.K.'s largest radio operator. They continued to pursue this approach, most recently merging a majority of their large local stations under the Heart brand.
When GWR started their aggressive roll-up strategy in 1994, there were ~100 commercial local radio stations in the U.K. (based on my rough count of the Media U.K. list). Each had been allocated prime frequencies and transmitters, and reached a large urban or suburban audience on FM. Today 33 stations (almost all among of those original prime 100 stations) are consolidated under the Heart brand.
In Ipswich, my home town, people can now listen to "Heart 97.1 96.4", which trumpets syndicated shows from the likes of Jason Donovan and Toby Anstis, sandwiching Nicholas Pandolfi and Paul Morris, a couple of former colleagues who have become big names in the area, and managed to hang onto a rare local show. I've not spoken to Nicholas or Paul in years, but I imagine they get little or no freedom in how they run their show. The playlist, and even 'liner cards' telling the presenter what to say, were tightly controlled from HQ 10 years ago.
There is a huge contrast between the station today and the situation 20 years ago at the Ipswich commercial local radio station, then named Radio Orwell after the river that runs through the town. In 1989 Radio Orwell involved tens of local people, including a substantial news team, specialist Folk and Country music experts, and presenters with personality who made all their own decisions. In those days local radio stations were grand, elaborate, exciting and varied affairs. Perhaps they has a tendency to over-extend themselves and maybe to misunderstand what listeners wanted from them. But they did build strong connections with the community, and almost everything they broadcast was local.
For much of the last decade centralisation and syndication has been a good strategy to reduce costs and keep up with rising listener expectations. It has helped the radio industry to survive, despite trend #1 above: 'Less money for big media companies'. But is it enough?
Does centralisation and syndication also help with the second, newer trend: 'Competition for audiences from specialist content creators, and other digital content'?
It seems unlikely to me that Toby Anstis, or Nicholas and Paul as directed from corporate HQ, can continue to compete with a plethora of niche digital content distributed over the Internet, together with iPods, Spotify et al, and the opportunity to receive radio stations over the Internet from well outside the Ipswich borough limits. Global's response is likely to be centralisation. I'd guess Paul and Nick lose their jobs, and Heart enlists another couple of big stars broadcasting from London, across all 33 Heart stations. Costs trimmed, but more listeners lost. And what next? Surely, centralisation is a strategy on its last legs.
Luckily it's not all bad news for the radio industry. Revenues may be dropping, but costs are much more flexible. People make podcasts and write blogs for free, and technology allows us to schedule an hour of music in a few minutes. Why can't we combine local decisions with smart technology, to produce polished yet cost-effective local output?
It's hard, but I suspect that with a lot of effort from some very innovative people, the right tools, and the right incentives, a small local team could curate the best from their communities into excellent local output, supported and inspired, rather than controlled by the corporate HQ. If it was done well, a teen-age me would have gladly contributed, without the need for substantial training or payment.
Starbucks are the global masters of centralised control. They're legendary for dictating every detail of their stores to deliver a consistent experience worldwide. But with U.S. revenues declining, they've started some small, very different experiments. Maybe big U.K. radio groups should take a leaf out of their book, and test a new approach?
I'm passionate enough about this topic to write a jumbo post… And very keen continue the discussion. Let me know what I've missed and how this could become a reality, either below, on Twitter, or in person.
Posted at 13:32 BST, 21st August 2009.
A cross-post from the blog of MetaBroadcast, where I'm a founder:
We're excited that Channel 4's Test Tube Telly is live! It's a service that helps you to find and watch great content from Channel 4 and YouTube, with a little help from your Facebook friends. We record a list of shows you watched or liked, and share these among your friends.
The team at MetaBroadcast built the innards of the site, and advised on the UX. Fondly nicknamed TTT, the service uses our own social media libraries, and is built on top of URIplay, our open source metadata aggregator. We have been working on similar applications for two years now, and have extensive experience in binding video metadata and social networks, to the point where we build and iterate this type of service very quickly: a month for core development.
It is great fun working with Tom, Andy, and Halmat at Channel 4 to make Test Tube Telly a juicy experiment. Next step? We can't wait to enhance the site together with C4, and to release much of the metadata code open source, as part of URIplay.
Posted at 21:47 BST, 15th July 2009.
I've been experimenting with sausage rolls recently. They get eaten quickly around here, which gives plenty of opportunities to try stuff out.
This is my current recipe:
- 250g minced pork (I got mine from The Ginger Pig)
- 2 medium sized apples (I used a couple of old Pink Ladies that were hanging about suspiciously)
- 1 large onion (mine happened to be a French pink one)
- 3 large cloves of garlic
- 20 twists of pepper
- 3 tsp sea salt flakes (Maldon worked well)
- Plus puff pastry.
Chop the onion and apple very finely, probably with some kind of machine (I use this, which works OK). Mix with all the other ingredients, then put in puff pastry. I use the easy-roll stuff, leaving more time to play with the flavours. Splash some milk on top to help with browning, then 25mins at 200 degrees C should wrap things up.
I'm pretty happy with this recipe, but keen to improve. The apple seemed like an odd idea at first, but it really helped to make them lighter and more interesting. What next? I'd like to incorporate the almost caramelised taste of the outside of a roast pork joint. I'm considering flash frying lumps of pork in something sweet like honey or soy, then mincing so that the process above starts with a mix of soft/raw meat and sweet crispy meat.
After that, maybe I'll try putting small bits of crackling in the mix. A little crunch might complement the softness of pork nicely. Yum.
Mirona reckons I should add in thyme leaves. Other suggestions welcome.
Posted at 17:22 GMT, 12th January 2009.