Tested to Destruction 

22 June 2008 tbs.pm/3236

In recent years the majority of commercial radio stations have somehow lost the ‘rough edges’ that once made them distinctive. This change has been attributed to what some regard as the scourge of modern radio, namely a near-slavish adherence to demographics and surveys.

A problem with much of music radio – commercial stations in particular but some BBC stations can also be included – may relate to the practice of relying too much on measured trends to dictate a station’s playlist; a problem exacerbated by industry consolidation and with station policies seemingly dictated by marketing departments.

Factor in highly-paid market consultants who benefit financially from the compilation of reports based on demographic research, and you start to realise just what has changed in recent years. It’s useful to know what people think of a radio station but an obsession to calculate every facet of broadcasting for marketing based outcomes has an inevitable downside.

Reliance on surveys can result in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation that results in programme directors feeling obliged to repeatedly play the same tracks. When radio stations play a relatively narrow selection of tried and tested music, this in turn results in listeners becoming accustomed to hearing predominantly the same tunes.

If you then ask a sample of those listeners to rate music tracks based on 40 second excerpts, they will naturally rate anything that they are accustomed to hearing and they “quite like”, higher than anything unfamiliar to them, since anything new may require repeated listening on separate occasions in order to properly appreciate.

You would require to sample a huge amount of lesser-known music to determine what additional tracks are worth listening to, which at 40 seconds a go would take up an inordinate amount of time. It’s no wonder that the music variety remains restricted when based on a sampling survey.

A radio station’s playlist ends up being constructed using by raw statistics as a foundation on the premise that anything cosy and familiar is preferable to something that’s challenging and unfamiliar, since commercial stations in particular don’t want their listeners to switch to rival stations.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by cosy and familiar music tracks and the holy grail of many stations is to be the only station listened to in a workplace and thus being a captive audience that cannot channel hop during the adverts.

There is a problem with this cosy scenario – apart from the risk of inducing terminal boredom. A listener cannot be expected to like all the music tracks that are played, even if they happen to conform to the perceived listener stereotype – women aged 30-55, or whatever is used as a benchmark – that is being targeted.

The inherent risks of alienating listeners as a result of playing more ‘challenging’ music tracks may be less than is thought to be the case, especially when listeners end up liking the different or unusual music that gets played instead.

You can either bore listeners with Robbie Williams’ Angels for the hundredth time – listener switches off – or play something more obscure even if still by Robbie Williams; the listener may switch off as a result but they may later listen again with the expectation of hearing something that’s new as opposed to just plain dull.

A little variety doesn’t go amiss, and it’s not hard to see why BBC Radios 1 and 2 are still hugely popular both in the workplace and elsewhere. They use big name personalities combined with a reasonably safe selection of records for much of the time but crucially mixed in with tracks that probably wouldn’t see the light of day elsewhere.

There’s the radio presenter personality factor too. If most of your music tracks are indistinguishable from other stations on the dial then the quality of presentation becomes even more important. XFM tried dropping presenters from daytime slots but that didn’t go down well with the target audience.

Some large commercial radio groups such as Global Radio have blamed local radio’s decline on the varying quality of the presenters used, citing the popularity of BBC national networks to justify a desire to use more networked material amongst many of its local stations.

There’s the vexed question about the amount of freedom or personality that a commercial radio presenter is permitted to have within a fairly rigid format dictated by a marketing department. It’s unlikely there would be a place for someone like Kenny Everett in the modern radio world when presenters have to target specific demographics with their between record chat.

A good presenter with a tightly regulated playlist is not the same as a good presenter with a wider selection of music tracks. This is one differentiation that the likes of Global Radio and Bauer should learn to properly appreciate before claiming to be a direct competitor to BBC national radio stations outside London.

Ironically the reason that radio stations like ‘Heart’ are doing better in London than elsewhere is because they appear to have a semblance of regionality about them for their target audience. They cater for actual London residents as opposed to mere listeners of a pseudo-national network. It may be that London-based management of chains of local stations outside the south east, have little grasp of the needs and cultural norms of listeners in the provinces and see non London stations as merely relays of their metropolitan formats.

That question leads us to the vexed matter of what makes local radio worth making locally, rather than being a mere outpost of a semi-disguised quasi-national service – with local cost control always a pressure – inevitably leading to a hybrid format. Is it trying to be national? Local? Or somehow both at the same time?

Let’s face it – radio groups owning chains of local stations want a national FM radio station in order to compete with the BBC. It’s cheap and has an inherited audience, as well as being so much easier to do when the advertising market is stagnant. Cutbacks sound better to the ears of shareholders than investment. Shareholder needs outweigh listener needs; this is not public service broadcasting.

At the other end of the spectrum is the small community FM radio station which has been all but neglected by most of the industry; One example is an interesting one, namely ‘ALL’ (Ardwick/Longsight/Levenshulme) FM which technically speaking covers parts of East Manchester but is receivable in a wider area.

I have heard ‘ALL FM’ ‘ whilst travelling through Manchester and it is the very antithesis of most of the other so-called ‘local’ radio stations, exposing them for the sham that they really are.

It’s hard to imagine a more eclectic playlist even though many of the tracks they play are familiar. It’s this combined with presenters that obviously have a real love for the music they play, especially as they effectively do it for next to nothing. You may not like everything you hear but you’re not supposed to.

As for listener surveys, ‘ALL FM’ presumably can’t afford to conduct them, especially if they can barely afford a new sofa for their guests to sit on. Such stations have to pay very close attention to the needs of the community that they serve as opposed to concocting conceptual playlists based on snatches of what some people might like.

So are stations like ‘ALL FM’ a desirable future for all of local radio? Many so-called local radio stations could do a lot worse than to listen and learn from them. Bear this in mind the next time you hear Robbie Williams – again – on your ‘local’ radio station.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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