@johnco online

the internet home of John Collins

June 7, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on How a TV sitcom broke music radio

How a TV sitcom broke music radio

There’s a presenter in New York called “Broadway” Bill Lee. He hosts afternoon drive on WCBS-FM and he’s revered around the world as a one-of-a-kind who delivers his tunes with unmatched energy and precision. I’ve been a fan for years thanks to some airchecks of him bossing an analogue studio and delivering 20″ links that entertain, do all the bits of business required and still get neatly to the vocal.

But it’s impossible to understand his work if you cant hear it, so here are a couple of bits…

Energy, excitement and what we now call “cheese”.

Bill is unique and I don’t for a second suggest that aspiring presenters go straight out and copy him – or the other radio presenters of his generation that had similar acts.

Here in the UK we had the Radio 1 DJs, almost all of whom were influenced by the pirate DJs of the 1960s – or had started out offshore. Some were well past their sell-by date while others evolved their style over the years still sounding very much themselves but building more into their links and primarily setting out to entertain. At one extreme you would hear Steve Wright – at the other people like Gary Davies or Peter Powell.

I doubt any of those presenters would disagree that there was a dose of artifice in their work. Real people being the best “radio version” of themselves.

Then came Radio Fab.

Smashy and Nicey took on the old-school radio DJs who had never really moved with the times. I’m convinced that you have to have some aspects at the core of your gig but everything else needs to be reinvented depending on the show, the station or even just the passage of time. Cartainly that’s why I feel I’m still standing.

But in sweeping away the dinosaurs, a lot of particularly good presenters found themselves being let go. It was no longer enough to love music, keep your head down and play the hits as that was “cheesy”. Meanwhile radio became full of “storytellers”, many of whom struggled with the basics.

As always, some of the new breed have been superb and have grown strong followings on the radio.

But I fear that with many, we’ve lost the simple art of getting away the music while chatting to the listener as we get through the day together.

The launch of Boom Radio has begun to address the slide, but I fear that for many British Radio landscape wasn’t changed by shifting demographics and highly paid consultants.

It was changed by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse many years ago.

May 7, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Live & Local v Jolly & Generic

Live & Local v Jolly & Generic

I was listening to a station that prides itself in being “live and local” yesterday. I was lucky enough to hear the last hour of one show and the first hour of the next.

It sounded neither live nor local.

A generic morning drive with a presenter talking a lot, reprising a first-hour general knowledge question and talking about football and showbiz.

Then an hour of hits and headlines from a particular year, with listeners invited to call in with their guesses in return for a mention on-air.

It was all very competent and slick. The imaging was on the money and the morning guy kept reminding the listener that he was indeed live and local.

But he didn’t need to be.

I didn’t hear anything about the area he was based in outside the news and weather. No local place names, arcane local information that the community would want to know. Just generic, slick radio.

I presided over the worst and later best audience figures at little Clan FM in North Lanarkshire almost two decades ago. When I got there the programming had lost all focus and I quickly turned it into a generic 25-44 while we worked out what to do with it.

The audience continued to slide.

Then Real Radio Scotland launched with the same imaging voice, music and an enormous war chest. It wasn’t local, but it totally blew us away.

Then we went counter-intuitive. I borrowed an idea from the US and dropped the music position, favouring a “Love Lanarkshire, Love Clan FM” strapline. The music was the same but the imaging all moved on. We had an ID for every town and hamlet – “Love Strathaven, Love Clan FM” and so on.

Presenters were encouraged to appear at every event in our patch and while they were there capture audio from local people telling us why they loved where they stayed.

We effectively gave away OBs, just covering our costs while gaining exposure.

In six months we clawed back all the losses inflicted on us by our larger competitor and became an attractive target for a takeover – but that’s another story.

The point is that live and local has to be something you believe in, not just something you say. It means thinking about your patch. Understanding it. Reflecting it. Going big when a local business closes. Being at the 100th Birthday party.

Listening to yesterday’s output several hundred miles away I learned nothing of the area and the reasons to love it. All I heard was a couple of presenters claiming a uniqueness they weren’t delivering.

Live and local can work if you’re prepared to work at it. Jolly and generic is doomed.

Work out what matters to your listeners and work hard at delivering it. You’ll be delighted with the results.

April 24, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on There’s no ‘stop’ button!

There’s no ‘stop’ button!

Gary Muircroft at Go Radio

The nominations for the Aria awards were announced earlier this week. They’re the industry awards that radio folk in the UK hand out to each other celebrating excellence in our industry.

There’s an impressive list of the great and the good including the best showing from Scotland in some time including two Station of the Year nods for stations that have a big part of my heart – Forth & Clyde.

But one nomination made me happy on a whole new level.

Gary Muircroft ran the programming for one of the major groups in Scotland until a couple of years ago and when the inevitable happened he did the right thing and decided to chase an ambition he’d had for some time. So he started training for a career in nursing – a gig that his radio skills, empathy and passion made him a great candidate for. It’s also a much more stable calling.

But when you’re as good as he is something else is inevitable.

Challenger brand Go Radio got serious about asserting itself in the market and approached Gary about coming back on air. Thankfully he did and his breakfast show is one I dip into regularly.

Now he’s been nominated for “Radio Times Moment of the Year” for a segment where he opened up about his IVF journey and his love for Fox – potentially the most famous vegan baby in Scotland.

It was personal, warm and engaging. Exactly what great radio can be. It wasn’t a contrived, micro-managed campaign. Just the work of an excellent broadcaster.

So I’m glad Gary pressed the pause button on the nursing career for now. He’s helped more people with one on-air moment than most of us will do in a lifetime.

He also has proven once again that broadcasting isn’t like any other job. We really don’t do it for the money (though that’s nice) and we certainly don’t do it because we’re addicted to it.

It’s closer to a vocation. We want to sit in a room and get through the day with people we’ve never met – offering support, friendship and maybe a few chuckles along the way.

There may be a pause button but there’s no stop button. Especially when you’re as committed as Gary!

Vote for Gary in the Arias here

April 17, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on And now my weekly podcast is live

And now my weekly podcast is live

Not everyone likes to read – as I should know! So I’ve decided to make a podcast version of the blog for those who want to grab it that way. It won’t just be me reading out the words – there will be asides and such. Otherwise it would be a horrible listen.

At the time of writing I’m in the process of adding it to all the usual places and it’s already live on Spotify (just search “John’s Radio Room”.

If you’re old-school and want the RSS feed – here it is! https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/873643.rss

I look forward to hearing from you!

April 12, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Keep Calm and Start Booming

Keep Calm and Start Booming

The talk of the radio industry recently has been the launch of Boom Radio. It’s a station for Baby Boomers aged around 60-plus: a demographic underserved by music radio generally. The music and the on-air team both reflect this market with at least one of the team well into his eighties.

This got me thinking about the radio industry generally.

We’ve been making some strides in increasing the representation of women and people of colour. Less so people with disabilities, though they are coming through the education system and I hope to see more there too.

But it’s all very slow.

Flicking through the ‘dial’ it strikes me that you’re hard-pressed to hear a music broadcaster over the age of forty. I’m lucky enough to still be allowed on air in my late 50s but there are so many of my generation who now work away in other industries, their years on air building experience and rapport a mere memory.

I’m struggling to understand why this is. At least I was until I tweeted the question out the other day.

It eventually comes down to economics. Show fees in the lower reached of the industry aren’t much more than they were ten years ago and as presenters get older and take on more responsibilities it becomes harder for them to pay the bills. This isn’t just a UK thing – it’s around the world.

Meanwhile, technology allows broadcasters to use less staff to cover the available gigs. Some older presenters find it hard to change their act to work in the new systems (something I’ll come back to in a future post).
So they either move on or get moved on.

Similarly, a number of women who have overcome all the well noted issues the industry has had in the past find that the hours and insecurity that go with the gig don’t match up with their life plans.

It’s not ageism – after all most of the senior managers I know are of my generation and they would have put themselves out to pasture if that was my mindset.

There are also many new starts willing to work (as I was in the past) for not much money but bring tons of skill and enthusiasm.

What does this mean for radio?

Lots of disenfranchised presenters talking down our industry from the sidelines, while appearing to be dinosaurs to the people coming in today.

This isn’t fair on anybody.

As Boom Radio has proven, you don’t need to be 18 to do a great show. Perhaps the ability to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ now requires less cash than before. Perhaps that means that some of these people can build a plan that works.

I hope so.

April 5, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Embracing the Fear

Embracing the Fear

I strongly believe that many of us who are involved in the media have a heavy dose of ‘impostor syndrome’ – I certainly do. It extends into my other life as a radio lecturer at City of Glasgow College. It’s not a feeling – it’s the certain knowledge that I’m going to get found out.

That said I’ve managed to remain in-demand and people have a habit of asking me to take on work for them. The facts demonstrate that I must be at least “OK”, but the impostor syndrome is always there. It could be delivering a lesson for the 40th time, crunching and rolling on a big 80s hit or just editing up some production. But it’s there.

Up until a few years ago it was a terrible thing that I honestly believed would hold me back on a daily basis. It was impossible to commit to any project fully because the inner dialogue was always telling me I had bitten off more than I can chew and was on the verge of being “found out”. I think a lot of people in our world have that problem, constantly reading the bad review and concentrating on their last near-miss.

Now that voice is still there, but I recognise it.

The other day I started a run of phone in shows for Clyde 2 (and its siblings across Scotland). Political chat with the leaders of the Scottish parties ahead of May’s Holyrood election. Not something I had done before and something I had always wanted to do.

By heck I had the fear. Would there not be any calls? Would the line to Inverness where our main contributor was stay up? And what about COVID protocols?

Now I don’t get semi-paralysed with the fear. I work my way through it all, sometimes going as far as making lists and asking questions. Then there’s my habit of appearing not particularly prepared but actually having lots of notes and so on stashed away “just in case”.

I’m happiest at the end of a show if I haven’t needed my ‘secret prep’, but the reason I call it that is because it’s the secret to making a show work for me.

There are some extraordinary talents who really can just wing it. But for me listening to my inner panicker and using it as a force for good has been a lesson well learned.

March 26, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on What a Time To Be Alive!

What a Time To Be Alive!

The last year has been a stellar one for commercial and community radio in the UK. The level of innovation has shot through the roof and broadcasters unseated by changes at heritage stations have decided to spend less time being annoyed and more innovating and reinventing.

My friend Nails Mahoney pointed out the other day that it’s healthy to be fed up when your gig vaporises, but if you decide to get back into the game then know that they won’t come to you. The 2020s have seen some leaps and strides that tell me radio is going great guns.

The consolidated larger stations are getting their act together. Bauer’s recent moves to build out Greatest Hits in particular will pay dividends when we start measuring audiences again.

Two national launches have really stood out for me. I had high hopes for Times Radio – and it’s exceeded them. A very strong lineup and a station that’s constantly interesting. I wish their early breakfast started at 4am because Calum McDonald is just so good. Every time I listen to it I end up wondering when BBC 5 Live lost its way. One issue for me with them is the number of technical errors in their overnight when highlights don’t fit their slots and audio gets chopped off. Outstanding work though and if it’s working financially I’m delighted.

The station that’s blown me away though, is Boom Radio. Designed for over 60s and operated on a tight budget, it has replaced Radio 2 in my listening – I’ll tell you why later. It’s not the on-air team that attract me as many of them were never available on my radio in Scotland back in the day so they’re new to me. They’re certainly talented and experienced. No, it’s the music that does it for me.

With Radio 2 moving younger it makes too many excursions into tunes I just don’t get. I’m 58, I get that, but it’s pushing younger and nudging me towards the door.

Boom on the other hand shares much of the same canon but its excursions mean a deeper dive into 60s and 70s hits that don’t get played as much (if at all) elsewhere. To me that makes for an overall listen that surprises and delights, and one I’m listening to more and more.

Add to those successes the plucky online stations that are popping up all over the country. They vary in size and sound but one thing pours out of the smart speaker – passion. These presenters come from many backgrounds and their music selections come from all manner of places, but their offerings matter and some of the innovations will change British Radio going forward.

We now have the virtual radio dial I dreamed of as a boy. Signals from all over the world and the ability to pick and choose like never before. As a broadcaster I have more opportunities than ever before (always looking for more ;-))

We really never have had it so good.

March 16, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Being Yourself

Being Yourself

Jane McDonald – pic from ‘What’s On TV’

I have a guilty pleasure.

Actually, I have quite a few, but this is the one I’m owning up to.

I really, really like Jane McDonald’s cruising programmes on Channel 5.

It’s not just the boats and the destinations. It’s the presenter herself. She’s been around showbiz for many years, sings well and all the rest. But she does something that many of today’s presenters or influencers (God I hate that word) fail to do. She comes over as a real person.

Nothing about her persona is perfect because she’s a real person. Engaging, funny and warm. Every hair isn’t perfectly coiffed and every item of clothing not astronomically priced. She talks like a normal person with a regional accent and seems genuinely interested in her subject matter.

There’s a trend in radio to concentrate on storytelling, somehow combined with word economy. The belief is that if you tell compelling stories in the shortest possible time the listeners will flock to you. You see eyebrows lift when a speech link gets longer than 30 seconds. I think that’s only half the story.

Wander over to the sales side of the office and you quickly learn that people buy people. Being on top of your brief is only part of the job. You need to have warmth and empathy. It helps if you’re genuinely interested in the person you’re interacting with. The very best people in that world sell their product as something they believe in, taking the customer with them.

It’s the same in radio. We talk to tens of thousands of listeners – one at a time. The best broadcasters understand that in invest something of themselves into their programmes. Elements of their real personality shine through – and it’s the authenticity of the person doing the talking that attracts and keeps the listener engaged.

Sometimes a real person can be emotional. Other times they’re scatty or opinionated. I want to listen to people that are real and make me laugh, sometimes at myself. By doing that we all feel like we’re getting through life together and I have a genuine relationship with the broadcaster.

Jane McDonald’s warmth shines through and you feel her interest in her journeys and fellow passengers is real. It’s the same with the best broadcasters.

I look forward to the day when more of them are let out of their 20-second straitjackets to engage us all more.

March 11, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Could this year’s crop of radio students be the Best in Class?

Could this year’s crop of radio students be the Best in Class?

Thanks to a colleague being under the weather I’ve had a chance to work with our HNC and HND groups as a lecturer and general helper over the last few days. I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

A year ago we went into lockdown and college teaching hasn’t been the same since.

Studio access has been sporadic and almost all classes have been delivered over Zoom. Course and lesson plans have been reinvented at vanishingly short notice and working with the SQA Assessments have been modified to match the experience of many of those who are broadcasting from home.

Until a few weeks ago I felt a bit desolate about that as it meant the students weren’t getting the benefit of our years of planning and high tech studios.

I was so wrong.

The written work is great but more importantly, I’ve heard some of the best student audio I’ve heard in years.


Because they’re spending more time on it. Many have also invested in microphones, mixers and decent headphones. So they’re concentrating on audio quality to a much higher degree.

Today I’ve heard storytelling worthy of NPR, a trail that while long is as good as anything you’ll hear on the radio and a sports interview recorded over Zoom that you’d swear was recorded in a studio.

Perhaps in adversity we’ve created a group of students with grit, determination, creativity and good ears.

In anybody’s world, that’s a win.

March 9, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Ofcom needs to Change

Ofcom needs to Change

From time to time we read that major radio operators have asked for changes in the formats of their individual stations. Often this has been with a view to turning stations they operate from individual local services and moving towards either actual national networks or hybrid networks.

Ofcom’s offices in London (Wikipedia)

Unlike many, I don’t have any real problem with this. The newly networked brands tend to do well and offer listeners a polished and professional product. The large operators invest in content and enjoy a good relationship with the regulator.

To my eyes, Community Radio has been emerging as the new local radio over the past decade. Often running on volunteers and strictly limited resources, the sector has produced engaging local content with passionate presenters with constantly surprising music and speech.

A new tier has now appeared alongside these stations. Local operators distributing their content online via websites, apps and smart speakers. Often run by radio presenters with a good degree of expertise and funding, they aim to recapture the commitment of the local radio stations that once operated in their markets. Technology and many of the new tricks we’ve all learned during the last year play their part in keeping costs under control.

The large operators enjoy a good relationship with the regulator. Ofcom enforces a ‘light touch’ and is minded to allow them to make their moves as they see fit.

The new online stations don’t have content regulation and can do whatever they see fit! Their output is regulated by the general laws of the land – not the Office of Communications.

Meanwhile the Community FM stations labour under a regime where there are limits on their fundraising and the concept of ‘key commitments’. Rather than have a format like the larger operators community stations, community stations submit to agreed things like live hours, types of content and so on. To miss these targets attracts fines or possible licence revocation.

Surely this is an anomaly?

The biggest stations can generally run heir businesses largely unmolested. The online-only ones avoid the these hoops altogether. But the little stations with their low power FM signals and largely volunteer teams struggle under the full weight of regulations that they don’t have the power to easily alter.

Surely it’s time for Ofcom to abandon the regulation of formats and output. Instead they should concentrate on taste & decency while regulating the use of broadcast spectrum.

No sector of the thriving industry needs protecting from any other. Those with the creativity and fleetness of foot to grow and excel will. The people that will benefit most will be the listeners.

As always, of course, in the trenches of radio there will be the usual challenges. I can’t remember when programmers didn’t cordially distrust the “bean counters” and senior programmers didn’t have to make occasional compromise in the cause of revenue.

But removing content controls will allow the whole sector to plot it’s own future course. As we emerge from the most unpredictable time in many years that can only be a good thing.