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20 March 2012

What's in a Name?

What do commercial radio managers do all day?

Not the Programme Directors; they're busy massaging egos, kicking butt and desperately trying to find a freelance to cover early breakfast on Easter Monday when 'the talent' is whinging for time off.

Not the harassed Sales Director, anxiously tracking the graph with a week to month-end, sorting out disputes over who gets what new company car and trying to motivate some of the best paid but least-appreciated people in the industry; the execs who have to put on a brave Monday-morning face with the latest RAJAR figures and go knock on another door.

No, I'm talking about the corporate managers. The wheeler-dealers who negotiate mergers and who shape the future of our industry. What they appear to do all day, mainly, is to dream about brands.

There's a lot of merit in that. As I've previously commented, no sane person would ever develop commercial radio in the haphazard way it's evolved in the UK. There's a big job to be done reconciling the dog's breakfast of studio centres and transmitter allocations into something which can compete effectively in a digital, online-centred world.

However, in the quest to bring rationality to the mess there's a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Many readers, like myself, will have experienced a 'night of the long knives' in a radio station. A takeover, or a merger, or a buyout. Maybe all three at once. Maybe several times.

Without warning the place is suddenly full of strangers in suits, and there's an urgent staff meeting called for 10 o'clock in the boardroom.

The folk who actually keep the needles wobbling and the money coming in crowd uneasily round the walls, perching on boxes of leaflets and character costumes from the last wacky promotion. Under the gaze of ten-year-old award trophies they learn that the previous management has gone. The guys in suits are the new managers. And they want to be friends. Really.

They understand the enormous contribution you've made under impossible pressures. It will all be better now. Sadly there may have to be a few changes. Someone cracks open a warm bottle of alleged Champagne and everyone drinks a couple of swallows, smiling grimly.

The easiest way for a new broom to sweep away the old is to clear out the debris. Not only the leaflets and the furry animal suit but the logo, the history, the station's very reputation.

That's the past. The future starts here. The future is shiny, and that needs a new coat of paint, and a tarted-up image.. or better still a new name. It's a strategy which can work. For any station that's been struggling for a bit a major marketing push should work wonders. And of course the new manager gets the credit. Result.

Remember though that danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I'm a rank sentimentalist for my own early days in radio, and for that reason no station will ever compare for me with Bradford's Pennine 235 in the early eighties.

That said I like to think I'm professional enough to appreciate the need to move on and evolve. Much though I can enjoy Len Groat's re-invention of 'radio like it used to be' I also appreciate the sheer power and brilliance of Heart's pre-launch branding (which I heard for the first time recently thanks to David Lloyd's 'radio moments' collection - a real treasury on Audioboo).

But we're forgetting that baby, getting awfully cold now ....

Economic necessity has forced just about all major stations onto the key 25-44 battleground; it's what the advertisers demand. Generally speaking, children, younger teens and most crucially the over-55s are ignored by Independent Radio in the UK.

Personally I'm always depressed when I hear a new station tagline that includes the words 'variety', 'choice' or 'mix' as that (to me) translates as 'trying to do something for everybody' ; ironically the very thing old-style ILR was accused of being before the branding professionals got to work with their word-association tests, mood colours and focus groups.

Guys, the baby's in a really bad way ...

As others (notably Robin Valk in his 'Radio To Go' blog) have commented, commercial radio is in danger of neglecting the treasure it has inherited. Names like BRMB in Birmingham, or Pennine in Bradford mean something to audiences.

To the under 30s they may well mean 'dated' and 'naff', and the corporate managers understandably want to sweep those associations away.

But for an older audience, a fast-growing demographic with capital in their homes (though not Capital in their headphones) and an old-style final salary pension coming along in a few years the heritage brands mean youth and sunshine and fun and, perhaps most importantly, trust.

Pennine Radio helped Bradford to grieve after the trauma of the 1985 Valley Parade fire. Audiences remember that, as a younger audience recalls 9/11 or the London bombings. In a very few years this will be a market with silver spending power and the corporate bosses could well have thrown away the chance to connect with them.

When Real Radio Yorkshire launched in 2002-3 I helped set up its 'media school' (now a much funkier 'academy') and that included activities hosted in schools.

With a full promotion crew and my brand new blue-and-yellow jacket to carry the corporate colours into the classroom I descended on an inner-city school in Bradford. I was astounded, but secretly very proud indeed, to see one mum take a sticker and lollipop from her tot and give them back to the bemused Real Radio promotions girl.

"No thanks luv" she said, not unkindly. "We're Bratfud people. We listen ter Pennine" (at that time it had been 'The Pulse' for more than 10 years).

I could have cried. Actually I think I did cry, well out of view of the punters.

That's the treasure the industry could and should be harvesting. That mum must be in her late forties by now. If she could listen to Pennine, she would.

Like old buildings in our town and city centres which become neglected and unloved at 30 or 40 years old, only then to be lovingly renovated as 'period pieces' when they're 50 or 60 the ILR heritage brands are becoming ripe for a bit of renovation and exploitation.

A certain generation of Birmingham folk will always have an affection for BRMB; that's an asset to be carefully conserved and maybe, just maybe, restored to a new glory when economic times are brighter.

Sadly that can never happen for my first love, Pennine FM in Bradford.

Various generations of uncaring Pulse owners failed to protect that brand from competitors.

It was therefore snatched by the owners of Home FM 107.9 and, understanding the power of the Pennine heritage and reputation, they tacked it onto their failing station in Huddersfield. Which promptly went bankrupt, trashing the 'Pennine FM' brand with it.

So much for my first love in radio. Let's care for the rest, and restore them as and when appropriate alongside the big, new, funky brands.

Is it too much to hope for the best of both worlds?

UPDATE 21 MARCH Paul Easton has also blogged on 'The Land of the Free'; a very insightful analysis of the logic of rebranding long-established stations. Seems that no-one in radio (apart from the marketeers) actually likes the 'best music mix' straplines; has anyone actually asked the listeners what they think? Could be interesting, that.

1 comment:

  1. Richard, a focussed and TOPICAL Blog.

    Thanks for mentioning my 'radio like it used to be' (the creation of this 'grumpy old man') but it is down to the few true talents in the business (such as David Lloyd) to 'keep the ILR' ship afloat, in financially turbulent waters.

    I can see BOTH sides now of this 'heritage' name thing. For example the Trent name was kept going by GWR and Capital long after the true 'spirit of Trent' had 'moved on'; the STAFF who LEFT as they would not stay with a station which moved so far away from its classy style and local roots of the 80 and early 90s.

    Should a presenter or manager 'hang on' and pretend to like a totally different format, or should they 'stick to their programming principles' and leave? I guess if they have kids and roots in the area they probably HAVE to knuckle-down and stay, but I feel sad for them having a less than enjoyable, free career.

    Someone such as David Lloyd was fortunate to move all over England planting new 'radio orchards' most of which bore bountiful 'Rajar fruit'. But in the quasi-national syndicated radio world of ths century few have that luxury.

    BRMB, Beacon, et al, are no longer the stations that mean Les Ross and Gavin McCoy. And whilst they may still bear acceptabe financial fruit, the 'trees' are past their prime, so a name change is perhaps over-due.

    I think Phil and David at Orion are acting bravely, going where some others may still have to follow, but I personally would avoid all the pressure of such a situation, and maybe 'escape', even though there are few places left to do that. Maybe Pirate FM in Cornwall?

    At the end of the day, radio is about ONE person, a mic, a transmitter and a listener. I think there is NO PLACE for this 'branding' euphoria for true 'radio lovers', and the management roles are a thankless task.

    Yes, BRMB and Beacon are going the way of Trent; but in truth the spirit left the studio years ago...