Is now a good time to take a break?

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about working in commercial radio is the ongoing banter between Programming Teams and their counterparts in the Sales Department. I’ve been reminded by cocky salesmen (and women) on numerous occasions that receipt of my pay cheque is dependent upon their ability to perform – I of course remind them that without myself and my colleagues delivering the goods, they wouldn’t have a product worth selling. Both sides of the argument are equally valid, but a commercial radio station minus the commercials is likely to be a business venture with a pretty short shelf-life.

Whilst programmers all accept that commercials are a fundamental part of the output, it doesn’t stop them constantly trying to find new and clever ways of pretending they’re not really there at all. That’s right – those sales staff work their bollocks off to seal the deal, using those trusted old sales pitches (ad avoidance among radio listeners is far lower than in other forms of media, a radio presenter is your friend – having a presenter play your ad is like a personal recommendation etc…) only for the programmers to try and minimise the impact those ads will have on their precious listeners.

You only need to look at the various strategies used over the years to ‘get away’ the commercials, and the impassioned debate those strategies can generate, to realise what a hot topic this is. Of course radio programming is not an exact science. Whilst research, focus groups, listener panels and the rest all play a part in influencing, or informing, programming decisions, the thorny issue of where to stick the ads continues to cause division even among the most respected radio minds.

Clearly opting for fewer stop-downs, giving your listeners fewer potential switching points, is the way forward. Except if you go for more breaks – shorter in duration – you’ll be back to the music that much quicker. And where do you place them? At equal intervals through the hour? Maybe you could back-load your hour to accommodate a big music sweep after the news, after all surely the best way you have of convincing your listeners that you really do play more music, is to…err….play more music. I’ve heard an argument for always making sure you’re playing music when the opposition are playing commercials. Their listeners hear the ads, flick the preset, hear you playing Ed Sheeran, decide to stick around, job done. Until of course you go to your commercials. At which point they flick again to find this time it’s your competitor pumping out the tunes.

Hang on though; if your Sales Team are telling their clients that ad avoidance by commercial radio listeners really is that low, is there actually a problem in the first place? Why are you worried about listeners tuning out when the evidence your own sales team uses suggests that they don’t? The whole subject really is a mass of contradictions!

Radio is very much an industry for  both innovators and followers. There have always been those that come up with the ideas, take the risks, break new ground, and reap the rewards. Then there are those who watch the innovators take the risks and reap the rewards, before ‘borrowing’ their ideas. It’s been this way since back in the 50s when a couple of American gentlemen realised that playing a small number of very popular songs on tight rotation was a great way to win an audience. My point here is that radio is full of good practice and accepted norms, yet so far nobody has claimed to have discovered the perfect spot laydown. Trends come, and trends go.   I’ve certainly tried various combinations over the years before, like a favourite pair of shoes, returning to what I’m most comfortable with.

My view, for what it’s worth is very simple. Your listener will only tune away during the break if it’s in their subconscious to do so – in other words if your station is just one of several they may listen to. They’ll do it if they get into the habit of hitting the preset when the commercials come on.  So make sure you are the undisputed number one in your patch. Ensure your presenters sell creatively and persuasively across the breaks. Make sure your  listener knows that what is coming three minutes from now will be better than anything they could possibly find elsewhere. And if they don’t know what is coming, use your forward sell to make sure they want to know. If you avoid giving them a reason to tune away, then generally they won’t. Don’t ever show them the exit. Getting those things right  far outweighs the importance of where the breaks go. Plus, if you get it right you’ll have a very happy sales team as well, not to mention a pay cheque at the end of the month!


Are PRS biting the hand that feeds them?

The Performing Rights Society (PRS) has managed to gain a decent amount of publicity over the last couple of years. An organisation that for many years had gone quietly about the business of looking after the interests of performers and composers was suddenly finding itself plastered across both local and national press. It was no longer going about its business quietly – in fact it was making a right bloody racket and had somehow managed to become public enemy number one amongst a host of small business owners. That it did was down to a combination of heavy-handed tactics and a public relations disaster not seen since the likes of Gerald Ratner (younger readers should Google ‘crap jewellery’).

As is often the case, it was the most extreme stories that made the press. The print media has developed the ability to allow one or two sensational stories to over shadow the serious issue at the heart of them. PRS had begun to pursue businesses they believed did not hold the appropriate workplace licence required for ‘public performances’ and were keen to address the situation. Cue the story of the 61 year old garage owner who was told he would need a licence to cover radios that could be heard in cars parking on his forecourt. That one must have been true – it made the Daily Telegraph. Anyway, more on Len the machanic later.

Whilst that scenario (true or otherwise) is clearly daft, there is a bigger debate that needs to take place. What should constitute a public performance? Who should need a licence to stick the radio on at work? And are PRS beginning to bite the hand that feeds them – are they inflicting a slow and painful death upon the golden goose?

As a radio station Head Of Music, I deal with PRS on a regular basis. Regular returns are completed, detailing all the music played on my stations – not just songs but also incidental music used in idents, imaging and commercials. This I am told enables PRS to make accurate royalty payments to their members and I have no reason to doubt that. To complete this process, our Finance Director needs to handover a sizeable sum of money each year. The over-riding principle that performers, composers, and musicians gain financially from the use of their work by others sits at the heart of PRS very existence – and it’s a principle I support unequivocally.

In this age of social media, streaming services, YouTube, a plethora of music based TV channels, try before you buy downloads (the list goes on) radio stations need musicians more than musicians need radio. It is far easier for a band to find alternative outlets for their work than it would be for us radio stations to fill that 48 minutes per hour currently taken up by music! It’s therefore right and proper that we compensate those artists whose work we rely on to sell and shape our own commercial product. Without their work, we are nothing. The process by which radio station charges are calculated is also progressive, sensible and transparent. Quite simply we pay a pre-agreed percentage of our turnover in royalties – the more money we make, the more PRS gets. If we have a bad year, so do they!

Of course in a recession many radio stations are having ‘bad years’ so the latter comes into play. PRS revenue is therefore down and like any organisation, they are looking at ways to make up the shortfall. This is where the problems begin. This where we return to our 61 year old garage owner.

Len Attwood was (or probably still is) his name. He had been running his garage for more than 30 years when he received a call from PRS. Despite not having his own radio on the premises, he did mention that on occasions, customers would drive onto his premises with music clearly audible in their cars. That, PRS said, was a public performance and Len would have to ensure car stereos on his premises were turned off – either that or cough up for the appropriate licence.

The Federation of Small Business tell the story of the small web design business with three employees who were told by PRS they must purchase a licence in order to continue using their radio in the office. They now listen ‘privately’ to their iPods – it’s not very sociable but it’s free. And of course they could all still be listening to the same radio station anyway, just through headphones rather than a communal speaker. I challenge anyone to robustly defend such a scenario.

The questions for me should be these: Is a business using music to enhance its product and make it more attractive to the consumer? Is it carefully pre-selected music to create a specific ambience or atmosphere? Would the loss of music be directly detrimental to the core function of the business? Ted could confidently answer ‘no’ to all of those and therefore should not be expected to cough up for a licence. So too the girls in the office with their iPods on. I never have and never will choose where to have my car serviced on the basis of their choice of radio station. Likewise the guy in the overall about to change my spark plugs hasn’t turned up to work just to guess the year on today’s ‘Time Tunnel’. The presence of the radio is not in anyway linked to the productivity of the business. This is where PRS need to get real . Where do they draw the line? If four employees in an office need a licence, do those same four employees travelling in a company car also need a licence to turn the stereo on?

Restaurants and pubs, however, would answer ‘yes’. Hairdressers and clothing retailers may also answer ‘yes’. If you have in-store radio, it’s an automatic ‘yes’. Why would you pay to create your own tailor-made in-store entertainment if you felt it would not be beneficial to your business?  But the likes of BP, Argos, and Debenhams are a world away from my dentist who may just chose to have a radio on in the background whilst extracting one of my molars. I’d like to think that at this precise point, the low level drone of Take That would not in any way enhance or detract from her performance!

So where is all this heading? Evidence suggests that more and more small businesses will shy away from paying for a licence – particularly as we enter a double-dip recession. Some will leave the radio on and take the chance, others will simply switch off the music. All of which will adversely affect daytime listening for many radio stations – the natural conclusion being less listeners, less advertisers and therefore less revenue for radio stations. That, as previously explained will in turn hit PRS revenues elsewhere. Their search for a short term fix seems to be at the expense of longer term gain – bearing in mind we are talking about a not-for-profit organisation that exists to serve its members both now and in the future, I think the time is right for a serious debate on what constitutes a public performance.

Finally, I was asked in a letter from PRS just this week whether we have any music on in the workplace. The answer of course is yes – myself, the Programme Director, our Engineer and Sales Team all need to be across our output which is piped through the office PA twenty four hours per day. It’s not on purely for entertainment (although it is a great product), nor is it a public performance. It’s an integral part of our job. It’s music that we are already paying a tidy sum for the right to broadcast – and that many of our listeners will be paying a smaller sum to hear. Surely PRS won’t request a third payment in order for a radio station to monitor it’s own output on it’s own premises? Will they? Right now, I wouldn’t bet against it.

West Midlands stations going for ‘Free’

In just over a couple of months time, one of the most famous names in UK  commercial radio will disappear. BRMB – the heritage  Independent Local Radio station for Birmingham will cease to exist as, alongside Mercia, Wyvern, and Beacon, it becomes Free Radio. The reaction within  the industry to this somewhat surprising news has been mixed. Depending upon whose view you subscribe to, the re-branding exercise about to be undertaken by owners Orion Media could be foolish, brave, or even inspired.

For the last year BRMB has had to face the reality of being Birmingham’s third choice commercial station. It has found its position in the market squeezed by Global Radio’s two big brands – Capital, the new hit music service that was rolled out across the UK in January 2011, and the more established Adult Contemporary offerings of Heart. Commentators across the industry agreed that something had to be done if BRMB was to be restored to its former position as the City’s undisputed number one – very few though predicted that a re-branding of the station would be at the centre of Orion’s strategy.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad idea. Respected radio consultant Matt Deegan backed the move in his recent blog  – – arguing that BRMB’s name itself had become baggage. The new Capital is cool and contemporary. It’s a friend of the stars, a position re-inforced by it’s high profile TV campaign featuring the likes of Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas. It has a youthful swagger. Heart is a slick, consistent, aspirational brand with a strong appeal to the 25-44 year old females that the big advertising houses fall over themselves to reach. So what is BRMB? It’s Birmingham’s heritage radio station. Its standing in the market comes from what it is (or was) rather than what it does. What BRMB means to the people of Birmingham will depend upon the age of the person you ask, and the point within it’s 38 year history they remember most fondly. So maybe Matt is right. Maybe the name is baggage, and time is indeed right to think afresh and start again. There is, however, a big but…..

Why has BRMB fallen behind Capital and Heart in the ratings? Simple. The output is just not good enough. It’s not an awful radio station by any means, but it does lack the clarity of thought and sense of identity required to meet the twin challenge presented by the Global boys. It has stepped back from being an out-and-out hit music service. It has also stopped short of being an 80s, 90s and today type service. It’s CHR with an occasional bit of Huey Lewis or Duran Duran. It is trapped in a radio no-mans land – the audio equivalent of your confused Uncle who gets up at 4am and goes shopping in his pyjamas.

Whether the re-brand to Free Radio will change anything remains to be seen, however, to stand any chance of being a success it has to be exactly that – a full re-brand and not simply a re-naming. To date, Orion have been keen to stress that actually, nothing will change – only the name. That may of course be a platitude designed to placate those radio romantics who took to Facebook in their hundreds, condemning the change, and pledging to boycott the station’s new incarnation. But if they are serious about making Free Radio a brand that restores the licence to it’s past glories, taking on the combined might of Capital and Heart toe to toe, then things have to change.  They need to find their niche and get their mojo back, they need to develop brand values, and they need to present the people of Birmingham with a clear and compelling proposition – all of which Global have done incredibly well in making their brands the market leaders.

There is of course more to this. Phil Riley has spoken of the benefits of selling a single brand to advertisers – a strategy at the heart (excuse the pun) of Global’s re-branding exercises. This, however, is not quite the same scenario. Global rolled out existing brands with a proven track record, understood by advertisers, and loved by many listeners. That’s a very different proposition from creating a new brand from the ashes of a tired and potentially damaged predecessor. Orion face a massive challenge – I wish them well.