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05 November 2012

Give Me a Reason to Listen

I've read and respected James Cridland for a number of years. A lot of years, actually, ever since he started as a young presenter at whatever Pennine Radio was officially called that week.

He now bills himself a 'radio futurologist', a term simultaneously as exact as it's vague, and lives half his life in various airport departure lounges as he carries his vision around the world. I don't pretend to understand all his posts, which feature exotic terms such as 'Radio DNS'. Radio DFS - now that'd be musak in a sofa showroom, I get that.

In fact I'm turning, slowly but surely, into a clone of a certain lovable former BBC editor I know who, walking out of a presentation on the latest hi-tech gizmo coming into service, beamed from ear to ear and said "I don't understand it - but it's bloody clever".

However I did understand and appreciate James' latest post on MediaUK headlined 'Speech is the most important part of radio. When will the industry realise?'

Even me and that former BBC editor know how to follow a hyperlink, so I won't repeat the content here. It's clear, it's a simple message and it needs saying. 

It echoes sentiments expressed in John Myers' book 'TEAM - It's Only Radio' which I read over the weekend and can also heartily recommend.

Some of John's most successful station launches - and he's had several more than any ordinary radio mortal has any right to expect - have involved formats committed to 55% speech in peak time, with properly staffed and resourced newsrooms.

The message that comes loud and clear from both James and John is one that has been unsayable in British commercial radio for the past decade or more.

We've steered away from speech because it's difficult.

When I go into The Pulse in Bradford these days the thing that hits me more than anything else, more than the fact that the newsroom that reported the Yorkshire Ripper and the Valley Parade fire has been turned into a sort of playpen for presenters to chill out in, is that the big production office echoes.

It's a cavern of a room and it echoes because there are so few people in it.

But the internet robots can produce jukebox 'radio' even cheaper and with even fewer people than the most slimmed-down operation.

I'll never forget, when I started two years of consultancy work for Real Radio in Yorkshire, being given the welcome tour of the building. I was in the racks room when the engineer gestured casually at a PC on a shelf and said 'careful you don't touch that .. it's Smooth Radio'. Banging out music to the world is that simple. We've done what we can, going down that route. It's time to be brave and to try something different.

I've argued before that Independent Radio needs a new map, and it was interesting to read in John Myers' book that the UK radio groups did actually attempt to agree on a redistribution of the existing dog's dinner of licences between themselves to create a coherent structure but, perhaps inevitably, negotiations collapsed because all the players involved wanted to come out with net gains from a zero-sum game.

Speech radio is difficult, and we lack programmers with the skill to manage it.

In the early decades of commercial radio programme controllers - the 'PD' title inflation came later - were often former journalists, or professional managers brought in from another industry. They understood the value of news and speech alongside music in generating audience, in getting the station talked about, in giving a reason to listen.

Now controllers are overwhelmingly former jocks who've proven their worth through good audience figures, and know how to devise (or at least re-hash) a workable breakfast show competition mechanic to suit a sponsorship deal. That's fine so far as it goes, but they really, truly don't understand the role of speech as part of the mix.

Neither is it clear where the presenters will come from.

With so little choice on the dial there are few role models for wannabe speech presenters to learn from.

James and his generation spent impressionable years listening to ingenious and original talk shows and quiz features from the likes of James Whale and Julius K Scragg. Talented writers like Alan Ross and Martyn Healy sweated long and often unpaid hours to put added value, entertaining speech-based comedy features into programmes.

Over on the factual side of output I was taught by programmers such as Jeff Winston, Will Venters, Peter Milburn and Steve Martin that no subject was too difficult or too obscure, so long as it was approached, written and produced in the right way.

"If it can be done at all, it can be done in three minutes" is the mantra we lived by, although not advice to be applied in every aspect of life.

"Write it so Maureen in Baildon will understand it" is a nine-word, three-second perfect summary of why The Sun is deservedly the most popular paper in the country. These are the lessons I now try to instill in my own trainees at Leeds Trinity.

BBC local radio ought to encourage original, creative and maverick speech presenters but as the Danny Baker sacking (and other examples, some closer to home) have shown often extraordinary, out of the ordinary talent can be difficult to manage and fear of those problems can and does create a bias towards the bland.

The skills of original speech radio aren't dead, they're just disregarded.

I'd start a Campaign for Real Radio right now if it wouldn't be misunderstood. John's genius for choosing station names has created a problem here.

Speech radio is hard.

That said, JFK had some famous words about doing the hard thing.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It remains to be seen if commercial radio can rise to the challenge of speech. If someone accepts that challenge I for one, and potentially millions of listeners, will be over the moon.

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