Where next for commercial radio?

Radio player images

The latest Rajar figures , Absolute Radio’s sell off and increasing consolidation have signalled a warning to commercial radio in the UK in 2013.

A few things have shaken the radio landscape in the last 8 or so years. Radio can no longer rely on exclusive access to playlists, a limited choice of in-car entertainment, live travel info and apathy towards moving the dial. There’s more choice of listening from non-linear sources and more utility via digital devices. Research consistently tells us that these choices are where younger people turn to instead of radio. Add to this the 4g spectrum, bringing with it the disruptive impact of the broadband web to cars and transit, then there’s a perfect storm to unsettle radio.

The BBC have made enormous efforts to move from a linear led offering, to on-demand, multiplatform audio brands. The commercial sector however has been much slower to move; partly due to costs and partly due to prioritising where advertisers see the greatest value. Now that the advertisers are required to gain more measurable and targeted results, a significant surge in online advertising has moved money away from previously trusted print and radio. The cost of not doing, is now outweighing the cost of doing effective digital offerings for radio broadcasters.

Rather than doom and gloom-monger, what are some possible ways in which commercial radio can still prosper?

1 – Work with advertisers to create more entertaining and effective marketing – to avoid switching off listeners.

Annoying adverts are the biggest reason why people switch to BBC stations. Having to carry ads is the biggest compliant from commercial broadcasters who struggle against the BBC stations. So why not make radio adverts better, even enjoyable? Most are clumsy, grating and on too loud. TV adverts can be as interesting as the programmes, with great film-makers showcasing their talents on adverts first. Why isn’t this the case for radio? The key is to make adverts distinctive and yet blended into the sound of the station that the listener has chosen.

Have a listen to some good examples as highlighted by Campaign and some terrible ones as highlighted by Fake Plastic Souks .

2 – More effective measurement and qualitative research.

RAJARs are such a crude measurement of success. The power of online listening, engagement and mobile interaction needs to be used to measure success. The greater the level of interaction, the more attentive the listener is likely to be, for instance. The length of listening, demographics and behaviours need analysing more to allow stations to tailor to audiences, build loyalty and attract advertisers.

Absolute Radio are very open about the range of metrics that they judge success by and RAJARs are just one part . Absolute are also pushing ‘logged in listeners’ as a strategy which allows for more personalised engagements for listeners and more powerful insights for advertisers .

3 – Go for distinctive not familiar.

Familiar can be replicated, taken for granted and forgotten about.  This is different to something being engrained in your way of life. The often mentioned John Peel shows were part of listeners’ habits, but not familiar. Danny Baker is always surprising as a broadcaster but is still part of a routine for many. We’re tired of the identikit standard radio presenters with ‘radio presenter voices’ that could exist on any station at any time in the last 25 years. We’re sick of the standard formats of hit factory playlists and banal self-promotional smoothness. That’s why we’ve switched from many commercial stations, now that there’s a choice of personalised music on the move, news on the go and podcasts from our favourite personalities. The inertia of switching is vanishing. The time has come to stop worrying about casual (AKA default) listeners and focus on loyal listeners (AKA people actively choosing you).

4 – Bring in a range of voices and new personalities, especially ones that carry an audience.

Social media and podcasting are integral to the current media marketing mix, with its virtually free production and distribution costs. Presenters now have the power to leverage their personalities without traditional radio stations. Whether originally launched on radio or from different backgrounds, the likes of comedians and pundits are able to build large followings by themselves. This power to the presenter, brings an enormous advantage as well as an obvious threat to broadcasters. The advantages are that you can sign up a presenter who has cut their teeth on their own time, proved their popularity and has an audience they can bring with them to your station. Student, hospital and local radio played this role in the past but it was hard to know if presenter talent would translate to a larger and wider audience.

The threat comes in the presenter’s ability to build a following that’s loyal to them rather than the station and their ability to monetise this audience off the back of the publicity your station has created. It is a fuzzy border between a personal twitter and an official proclamation, but as a radio station you may need to write in certain commercial publicity clauses into contracts. This ensures your station’s activities are promoted with its stars or at least not usurped, even when they’re off-mic.

5 – Build social elements into the heart of the programme, not just as call in format.

The tokenism that surrounds social media’s use within marketing and broadcasting is lazy and naïve in most cases. “We want to hear your thoughts”, “This is what you think!”, “tweet the hashtag ‘iluvmystation’ to win prizes”; all terrible ways that commentary is sourced and fed back en masse in radio broadcasts (not exclusively). Social media is not a posture to make a station seem like it cares about listeners, nor is it a way for it to feel contemporary. If you want to harness the power of social media in broadcasts, open up and risk something integral to your programme and brand. Aggregation and the wisdom of crowds has its place is certain scenarios, but generally social media is about reaching out to places you wouldn’t otherwise know about, hearing about it verbatim at the time and reacting immediately. Hearing Rio Ferdinand’s intimate thoughts about the racism towards his brother or his interaction with England colleague Ashley Cole is fascinating and revealing. Reading reports from across London when the riots were going on, from both the officials and people on the streets was astonishing. If you bring the elements of revelation, reaction and responsive change as a result of this interaction into a programme, it will not feel tokenistic and will live a life outside as well as within your broadcast.

6 – Segment and distribute as part of the production process

As has been happening in places like Radio 1, radio producers don’t clock off after the show has ended. They are segmenting the show for podcasts, ensuring programme descriptions and tracklistings appear for on demand audiences, as well as ensuring photography and videos appear on the programme pages. The radio production teams also ensure updates to social media presences are updated within and after the show, rather than separate digital teams handed the tasks. There is a checklist that each show producer must complete before their day is done, recognising that the real-time elements are no longer just on the radio and the real-time is not the entirety of the show.

7 – Be in the moment and put yourself out in the world.

Surprise people with where you’re broadcasting from. New technologies allow broadcasters to nimbly move around cities, towns and villages without big trucks and ISDN networking. It is about standing out, being bold and being exciting within the station not just within the marketing. By focusing on exclusiveness and liveness, there’s a greater connection with the outside world and the appeal of ‘anything could happen’. This doesn’t mean moving a safe OB studio truck around, it means getting into listeners’ offices, village halls, musicians’ studios, events and colleges.

8 – Be visual in your identity.

Screens are everywhere, by packaging your digital products you increase their perceived value. By having a shabby website (that doesn’t work on mobile), poor digital TV design and unappealing podcast or Radio Player imagery, you are turning off a massive potential audience. It is astounding that many stations put more effort into their office receptions than their digital presences, which can reach hundreds of thousands more people.

Capital FM website

More than a decade out of date and just on desktop.

Every other corner shop now has a sophisticated digital design, that’s because it is cheap to do and most young people now have an eye for great design, so they expect it. Take a look at Capital FM’s website by contrast: it is from the early 2000s, loads the fiddly desktop version on my iPhone, yet advertises a mobile app, which pushes me to watch Capital TV. Across the site are tiny thumbnails straight from Press Association feeds and no investment in original photography. There is very little on this page that associates the content to the station and its output; it seems like any other celebrity gossip site. The only bespoke photography is a collection of guest grip shots in front of big logos, without any variety or variation. What promises to be a video clip of Samuel L. Jackson turns out to be a branded still with the radio audio as an embedded You Tube clip. They do have webcam shot videos of guests on their You Tube channel, but these are badly shot (as opposed to rawly shot) and the channel is branded in a poorly rendered, repeating Capital FM logo.  Every one of these embellishments chips away at the brand’s appeal, credibility and value. Maybe today they can trade on the lazy dial and casual listeners, but tomorrow they must change or be left on the wayside.

For good examples of visual radio look at Australia’s Triple J  and 3voor12 in the Netherlands  (who’ve introduced a fantastic response design).

These suggestions come from being close to the changes in BBC Audio & Music between 2006 and 2011, as well as being an avid and broad listener of commercial, pirate, online only as well as public service radio across the world. If you have an informed opinion or working experience about what might work better in practice, please suggest.

3 thoughts on “Where next for commercial radio?

  1. I think it gets overlooked that a large number of people listen to radio at work – in factories, kitchens etc. Advertising and adding social media into shows could be radically different if you consider that your audience might be working an eight-hour (+) shift.

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