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27 December 2011

The Chip Shop Test

Congratulations to GMG Radio on their Smooth Xmas broadcast, which came to an end at midnight on Boxing Day.

As I predicted it was a 'must listen' for much of the week leading up to the big day, not only in our house but in many shops and homes I visited.

In the 21st-century world of commercial radio dominated by accountants rather than enthusiasts it's often easy to lose the gut feel for what output is going to work. By the time the concept for a service has been run by enough focus groups it tends to sound much the same as the half-dozen or so services whose names appear briefly as I autotune my DAB set following a reshuffle of bandwidth.

Bland and boring. Interchangeable. Unmemorable.

Those services which are run by enthusiasts - Planet Rock, or my personal own-time listening favourite Jazz FM stand out as distinctive. That's a purely subjective opinion, by the way, but then I'm a civilian these days, not an editor or a programmer, so I'm entitled to express a view.

There is however an easy way of telling which stations are in the ascendant and which are declining. A method which employs no consultants, no diaries, no hi-tech snoopy watches and no auditorium testing of playlists. A research tool which could save the industry a fortune.

Because it only costs £5-10 for haddock and chips with mushy peas.

The station they're listening to whilst I queue in my local chippy has been the best predictor of RAJAR for nearly 30 years. When Pennine Radio split frequencies to launch hip, trendy and happening Pennine FM on VHF and (the original!) Classic Gold on medium wave the experts confidently predicted what would happen.

The chip shop radio told another story, despite the crackle, and Classic Gold was a huge success.

When Real Radio launched in Yorkshire it boomed out of the back room where they gut the fish and peel the spuds, and the heritage market stations took a battering. For a while at least.

So it was no surprise to hear the salt of the earth (or at least salt and vinegar of the earth) counter staff singing along to Smooth Xmas in crystal clear DAB in the run up to the festivities.

And they're not the only predictors of success. Debbie who runs the coffee counter at Leeds Trinity spent weeks in a tussle with slightly younger sidekick Lesley as to whether The Pulse or Capital FM would play from the tranny by the smoothie maker. I could shout a greeting from round the corner before making eye contact with 90% accuracy as to who was running the stall that day. But they both spurn Radio 1.

There are thousands of Debbies and Lesleys and other barometers out there if only radio execs take the trouble to step outside and emulate Ray Beattie, the very first Editor of BBC Radio Leeds, who in those pre-iPhone days walked around Leeds city centre with a transistor radio clamped to his ear watching what people did whilst his programmes were on, who was listening and who wasn't.

So I wish John Simons, Chris Stevens and the GMG team all the best with Smooth 70s, the service which has taken over from Smooth Xmas now the tinsel is back in its box for another year.

I'll let you know in a couple of weeks if the outlook is sizzling - or scraps.

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