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
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 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.
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 ;-))
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.
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.
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.
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.
I remember the first time that I ever had to write a piece for radio.
It was a script for a package I was making for BBC News in Glasgow about kids activities during the Easter Holidays. I had gone out to the location got lots of great audio came back and edited it up into a package.
But I had no idea how to begin writing the script.
Luckily one of my colleagues in the newsroom, Sandy Murray, took time out of his busy day to sit down and find out what I wanted to say. Within 20 minutes we’d knocked up a few lines of script and I was able to record them and it sounded fine.
The takeaway for me wasn’t about writing style. Instead I learned not to be afraid to try something new. People are invariably helpful and generous with their knowledge and time. So thanks to Sandy’s help I was started and over the years I’ve written countless scripts. Most of them have been alright!
This lesson come back to me in the last couple of months while I’ve been trying to reinvent myself as a voice over.
I know what I want to do. Heck, I’ve made a living with my voice since the mid 1980s. But there is no replacement for reaching out to talented colleagues and friends for tips and advice on converting myself from a “radio presenter” to somebody who can use his voice in a variety of ways.
As before I’ve learned that the key is not to do what I’ve always done, get past my nerves and try something altogether new.
So I’ve spent weeks with scripts, a revised posture and all manner of different settings trying to find a different voice. One that still recognisably me but is slightly less DJ-ish.
I’m not quite at the point where I want to advertise myself with a showreel or for that matter share where I feel I’ve got to with a few people.
But I know I’m making progress and I’ll soon be able to tout for work in the field I always thought I was not quite good enough to get work in.
All thanks to advice and support from friends and colleagues – for which I thank you.
Back in January 1998, I did my first ever ‘voice track’ show. I had recently arrived from Paisley’s Qfm and was the new Programme Director of Scot FM where one of my jobs was to take on the Late Night Love shift on Saturday and Sundays.
I had no particular wish to be in Leith seven days a week so decided to use the technology Scot had used on and off and enter the world of ‘tracking’.
For the uninitiated, a voice tracked show should sound just like a live show. But rather than record a three hour show in three hours, you can do it in just 30 minutes. The computer plays you the end of the song you’re coming out of, you do your link and then play in the next song exactly as you would. The computer takes care of playing the songs so you don’t need to hear – you just progress to the next link and so on.
I can report that despite me not sitting in the studio pressing buttons, the audience shot up and we actually started getting letters. Lots of them.
The process put me in mind of the way we made many programmes at BBC Radio Scotland in the mid 80s, with presenters sitting at a table and folk like me doing the techy stuff.
Both experiences taught me a lesson. Presentation and pressing buttons are two separate things. It’s possible to be the slickest operator in the world and be a terrible presenter. Similarly it’s possible to be great on the microphone and terrible with the fiddly bits. There are many who can do both really well.
But radio training at many levels has a habit of concentrating on the technology, not the skills required to bring a programme home and engage with the listener. The net result is that a lot of people are incredibly proficient operators but lack the skills to talk directly to their audience, one at a time.
Voice tracking has forced presenters to concentrate on what their chosen job title suggests – present. Since the pandemic I think we’re hearing much better programming on any number of small stations. One-to-one communication and fewer technical mistakes.
Getting back to basics, albeit using modern technology, has raised the medium’s game.
I wrote this on 13th February on Facebook, just a wee post to mark World Radio Day. It got a ridiculous number of likes and kind comments, so I thought I’d post it here for posterity!
Back in 1977, 14 year old me passed my ‘test tape’ at the local hospital radio station and was awarded my first show. Radio Royal’s “Country Clinic” aired at 7.30pm on Thursdays.
It’s been quite the journey since: BBC Scotland, Forth RFM/ FM, Qfm, Scot FM, Clyde2, Beat 106, Kingdom, Clan, Forth2 and all sorts of deps, network commissions and one offs along the way.
Then there’s the teaching. I thought it would be a bit of supply to augment the radio work for a wee while. 15 years later I’ve still not been found out.
This year saw the 10th World Radio Day and the wheel has turned full circle.
I still do many things for Radio Royal and get to play Country music nationally on Chris Country Radio. (I’m there in the afternoons, by the way)I’m very fortunate to have been involved in the medium I love for 43 of my 57 years. Let’s aim for the half-century and beyond!