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02 December 2014

Radio Must Have Soul

The time for cringing is over. It's time those of us who love and understand radio to be heard, and above all to stop apologising for the fact radio isn't new, isn't particularly high tech and doesn't require expensive branded designer "i-Kit" to listen.

For too long radio in the UK has been in a state of paralysis.

It's been inward looking, obsessed with the internal issues of the industry, the biggest of these in the commercial sector being who owns what, whilst the BBC stares relentlessly at its own belly button. The industry's wasted a decade or more fretting about DAB to the point of paranoia. And, being simultaneously smitten with and fearful of social media, radio has developed a kind of digital schizophrenia.

Above all else, radio has lost its soul.

Much of commercial radio has abandoned the things it used to do, and do very well, either because they were deemed too expensive ("Leave news to the BBC ...") or because, for a while at least, less really did mean more in terms of increasing audience.

The more content was stripped out, the more listeners liked it - perhaps more accurately, they found less to dislike. Guess what - doing less costs less. For a sweet moment the interests of audiences and beancounters were perfectly aligned. Jocks were encouraged to play three .. five .. ten in a row. Cut the chat, stick to the liner card. Eliminate any trace of personality. Employ the young, the fresh, the cheap.

Radio became a lot like Spotify or Pandora, and that worked ... until those services actually came along, and did robotic better.

Now radio must evolve again. As science fiction writers have been telling us for generations, the problem with a robot is it doesn't have a soul. Radio must have a soul to give us a reason to listen.

That's the exact message I delivered in the early nineties to Steve Martin, the talented programme director who went on to win a Sony Gold Award for what he did in bringing The Pulse - the station formerly known as Pennine Radio - back from the brink of extinction to become a primary focus of the community during an unprecedented Yorkshire drought and the devastating Bradford riots of 1995. He also initiated a range of charity and community projects.

"The Pulse" regained a sense of place as "The Pulse of West Yorkshire" and the team became focused on what mattered to the audience. As we demonstrated, serving the listener with the content they need when they need it doesn't mean abandoning the interests of the advertiser who pays for it all.

It does mean respecting the audience, putting their needs first and treating listeners as intelligent people, not docile, demographically-sorted cattle neatly penned and sold to the client to be force-fed with whatever random message that client dreams up.

Giving a station a soul means providing a reason to listen. If I can get my hits from Spotify and my headlines from Twitter I need something more from my radio service.

I'm delighted to see stations like Stray FM in Harrogate rising to the challenge, providing extensive OB coverage of the summer's Yorkshire Grand Depart of the Tour de France and more recently what some would regard as very "old fashioned" coverage of Remembrance events tied to the First World War commemorations. That's a station with a soul.

If there's a big event on, whether that be a political march through the streets or a fun run with thousands in the park I expect my station to be there, not just relegate any mention to 90 seconds of news or a gabbled what's on announcement in a sponsor's doughnut. My maxim as a news editor was to throw resources at the big story because listeners remember the station's response, and value it accordingly.

This is also where the bigger, better organised community stations like Bradford Community Broadcasting come into their own.

When a big EDL march came to Bradford, BCB was out on every street corner giving context and reassurance whilst the city held its breath. BCB also achieved national impact last May when presenter Peg Alexander put a newly elected UKIP councillor on the spot; he found it hard when challenged to give his top three priorities in office. That's the kind of "fearless" coverage cited when the Radio Academy awarded BCB the Station of the Year Award for Yorkshire for the second year running. BCB is most definitely a station with a soul.

The challenge is a stark one.

Give me a reason to listen, or perish. Spotify won't go away, and over time the content and the algorithms will become more sophisticated. Whether it be personality, a real commitment to the locality, or (preferably) both - radio needs to get some soul, quickly.


  1. I agree with everything you say here, Richard. But I think there is something missing. In my opinion, the future of radio will, eventually, be exclusively internet driven. I think the concept of a "radio" as a stand alone device, will, increasingly, be an unfamiliar concept. I believe it already is to many young people.

    In this context, Radio becomes an app which sits on people's phone or tablet. Thus, as an app, Radio has to compete with other apps, which include Spotify and Pandora, but they also include Facebook Twitter, Youtube, Vine, erc.

    How does radio sit in the panoply of apps?

    1. John - thanks for a thoughtful response.

      Whilst I agree radio should be 'platform-blind' in that the concept of a live, shared, audio experience should be the same no matter whether it's heard on AM, FM, DAB, old tin cans or 3G I can't agree that radio is just another app on the smartphone.

      Radio transmission has its problems, but they are insignificant compared to the issues around internet delivered radio on mobile devices; specifically cars and phones. Until the paradise of free fast wifi everywhere at negligible cost becomes a reality there is a place for the standalone device on the bedside table, on the dashboard and (via an FM chip) in the smart device.

      There's no way I could afford to stream radio (or any other streamed content for that matter) on my 3G phone contract - at least in the short term.

      Until then, as so often in the past (with the birth of TV, compact cassettes, Sky, and the interweb in all its forms) reports of the death of broadcast radio are premature.

      In particular the shift of the commercial 'brands' off the FM spectrum onto other platforms could pave the way for a new tier of community stations .. unless of course the 5G monster gobbles all available spectrum for clients who can afford to pay for it and pass those costs on to wealthy consumers.

      Broadcast radio is free at the point on consumption, with receivers (as I enjoy showing my classes) cheap enough to be given away with a burger.

      The day I get an iPhone equivalent with my Big Mac and fries I'll concede the web has won.