Your radio station bores me

Have we stopped fighting for audience?

I don’t wish to be rude, but I think your radio station is pretty boring.

I can be pretty broad with that comment because there’s very little on-air at the moment that makes me excited as a listener and especially very little that would encourage me to change radio station more permanently.

Perhaps my miserableness comes from the fact I’ve just finished my (er, 5th?) re-read of The Nation’s Favourite by Simon Garfield. Easily the best book about radio. It follows Radio 1 when Matthew Bannister came in and shook it up - and all hell broke lose. It covers the end of the dinosaur DJs (DLT etc), the Chris Evans/Jo Wiley/Pete Tongs joining through to the early days of Moyles.

The book’s great because it charts a rollercoaster time for the station (and its competitors). No one is entirely in control - DJs, management, the newspapers - they all have a chunk of influence and created a very memorable time. If you work in the sector and under 35, you’re probably too young to have seen radio like that.

Today, the radio ‘product’ is much better, there’s about ten times more choice, and lots of formats to choose from. It’s also much slicker as nearly 50 years of competitive commercial radio has taught people a thing or two. It’s also on a much better financial footing. Global, Bauer and Wireless’ radio divisions do pretty well financially (consolidation has resulted in lots of cost savings) and the BBC’s stations are well funded (if you’re a BBC person who disagrees, give me a day to explain a commercial operation and let’s see if you still have the same view).

Consolidation has also meant that competition has moved from stations competing with each other, to groups competing, with operators using station launches and formats to tackle and blunt competition.

The result is a positioning battle, but no individual station ever putting its head over the parapet. Scratching my head, there seems to be few examples of anyone doing much to get press attention or drive much talkability. There’s little or no stunting, no DJ’s said anything outrageous, or even particularly moving. The idea of well storylined ideas over a week or two seems to be non-existent or so weak it hasn’t registered. And I look more than most.

The only exception is Greg James ‘locked in a camper van challenge’ designed to introduce the excellent Vick and Jordan to the audience as they get ready to launch their drivetime show. It was very enjoyable and executed well and generated a little local press too as well as having a nice launch on the One Show. However, it is the third time they’ve done a variation on escape rooms.

I don’t know whether this lack of get up and go is talent driven (have the right people been hired?) or a production issue (have young production teams been taught to make market-moving radio?).

Maybe we just had a good run of talent in the 90s? Chris Evans, Sara Cox, Zoe Ball, Chris Moyles, Johnny Vaughan did stuff, said things that captured imaginations (and headlines). The fact that they’re still on the air says something about their talent, but also the potency of their act from their younger days. There doesn’t seem to be many hosts that could, or are given the chance, to create striking radio.

I think sometimes there’s a view that the growth in digital media means its almost impossible to cut through and so just being consistent is the best option. I think that’s bollocks.

Over in Australia, Kyle and Jackie O, a raucous pairing who’ve been around for ever, but constantly update their act and focus - are still all over media. They get the Prime Minister talking about whether he pooed himself and can capture the press’s imagination when Kyle endorses getting vaxxed. They are always at the centre of a story.

Trending

I saw Piers Morgan was trending again today. This time he was saying that if you don’t get a Gold medal, what’s the point? Basically Bronze and Silver are for losers.

After this tweet (off the back of a stream of the Olympics being a bit rubbish this year) he doubled down on the Bronze is rubbish stuff and rode the responses.

This would be a great radio bit. One presenter making the statement, the team disagreeing, it running over a couple of days and the presenter having to ‘give in’ and do a forfeit as the medals rack up etc. A great opportunity to have stories from families, olympians on the line etc. It would likely (as Piers knew) generate coverage and social media talk up etc.

I’m not saying that you need to be a shock jock, but having something to say - a position - does at least prompt discussion and helps define you, when you sit in a crowded media market.

Contesting

The other thing I’m surprised about is how contesting is used by radio stations at the moment.

There’s a certain alchemy to doing a competition right. Is it an hours builder (getting people to listen longer) or is a reach builder (attracting new people over)? I guess the more recent addition is whether it’s a revenue builder (through premium rate phone lines). It’s difficult to do all three well.

The balance with all contesting is generating passive entertainment value. There’s always going to be a small percentage who call in, but there’s far more people playing at home. ‘Secret sound’ worked so well over the years because it has lots of passive entertainment value. Families enjoy playing it in the car and don’t need to ring in to get any value out of it. Variations on a thousand pound minute do the same. Big station wide games like ‘The Fugitive’ are an entertaining listens as well. Often great contests make you cheer for the winner - a person you’ve never met. Bad contesting listeners just find annoying.

I’m a little dumb struck when I hear the same contest played across a number of different stations or brands. It ends up meaning the competition has to be lowest common denominator ‘remember the amount’ etc, so there’s little brand salience, and then due to Ofcom rules the execution of the winner is done by a generic presenter, or I kid you not, a robot sounding voice. Surely, why bother? Okay, you may think a big cash prize will keep those premium calls coming in, but at what real price? It’s almost an anti-tactic to grow any audience.

There’s no reason, of course, that a great well-executed contest, that’s truly of the brand can’t get those two quids rolling in on the phones - but to genericise to such a degree? I’m not sure that helps your positioning in the market and seems such a waste of a great opportunity.

Grumps

Hey, maybe I’ve just written this at a bad time. Coming out of COVID is tough. We’re just entering the dead period of the Summer. There’s been no RAJAR. Sales has been hard. The team have been at home.

Perhaps I’ve missed loads of stuff? If so, leave it in the comments.

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Maybe the good stuff’s ready to go in September. I hope so.

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