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21 January 2018

Heart and Soul

I'm just back from a lovely weekend in England's lake district, doing the winter warming hygge thing of good food, wine, board games and hot chocolate with some close friends lucky enough to have made their home there.

The Lakes are a rare bit of "the North" Londoners are likely to have experienced, even if they think of it as "sort of Scotland" as they drive around in their company SUVs just off the M6, getting the wheel arches all dashingly mudspattered in a way the weekly shop at Waitrose can't match.

They're also home to two traditionally-programmed local commercial radio stations, The Bay and Lakeland Radio, although not for long as they're about to be assimilated by the Borg-like Global as they roll out mega brands Heart and Smooth into Cumbria.

I have mixed feelings about that.

I heard a bit of The Bay during my time away, and frankly I didn't hear much that struck me as award-winning content.

It was competent, if a bit old-fashioned, and I was mightily chuffed to hear ".. and local news" pared with whatever specific variety of music they promised (in all honesty I forget) in the idents.

The presenters were friendly and engaging. I was impressed by their professionalism; I have no idea which of the voices I heard are facing an uncertain future under Ashley's new regime. Yet there was nothing in the on-air sound to suggest looming pessimism, and there were plenty of relevant local mentions in just about every link. Good stuff.

What was more important was the ease with which the station passed the chip shop test. Or given this is the lake district, the posh warm jumper shop test.

Whilst my better half was choosing robust and weatherproof leisurewear in one such "designer outlet" The Bay was playing softly on the speakers. Not just there, but in a number of shops, and wafting through from a pub kitchen as the steaks were grilled. As I've written before, this level of engagement is always a good sign that stations have their finger on the pulse of local communities.

Ah yes, The Pulse. The West Yorkshire station where I spent the later part of my front-line career. That's how it was rebranded from Pennine Radio after marketing consultants tested a number of P-words on prospective listeners who were (apparently) turned off by the original ultra-community feel of the little station on Forster Square. Too many lost dogs, allegedly, so time to become Power. Or Pop. Or The Pulse. That was favourite.

I'm hoping The Bay and Lakeland Radio survive their makeover into Heart and Smooth. It goes without saying they'll be a commercial success.

Global will add the extra listeners as part of a national sell to existing clients, there'll be a slick and well-rehearsed marketing push in the launch period to bring in new audience, and many existing punters will just keep tuning in by habit, eventually accepting new names and London syndicated content without much fuss.

But something important will have died.

Back in Bradford I remember being called into the programme controller's office shortly after a new guy took over. Always a tricky interview. The new guy with the shiny buttons was Steve Martin, and when he asked me what I thought about the output on The Pulse I could have played safe and parroted the party line.  More music - fewer lost dogs. In fact none. Ever.

Instead I opted to tell Steve the truth. I said that whilst the station was in many ways more slick and professional than it had had ever been, in adopting policies to homogenise output across days and time bands it had lost its soul.

That might sound a bit mystical, and in a way it is. But it's also very practical.

A compelling reason to listen is more than the frequency of songs and the words in a strapline.

It's the belief that the presenter a listener is sharing their time with on the radio actually cares. Cares about the listener, uniquely, as an individual. Cares about the shared community the listener calls home, at a level of granularity that includes the schools, the hospitals, the weather, the annual show and the football result.

A presenter can be well informed about all of these, but still fail to demonstrate concern at a level where the listener senses real, unfeigned empathy.

I'm fortunate that Steve listened, and didn't replace me there and then with someone who'd read the memo. I went on to be his news editor in a later management buyout. Every dog has his day.

The Pulse was left behind as the unwanted child of the marriage as EMAP adopted Hallam and Viking to run together with Aire in the first of many subsequent rounds of consolidation.

Steve went on to deftly modify "The Pulse" into "The Pulse of West Yorkshire", thereby regaining some of the lost common identity with the Pennine hills, and he picked up a Sony Gold Award as programmer of the year for community initiatives including charity campaigns, educational outreach and a brilliant "dirty but proud" car sticker to back a water saving campaign by Yorkshire Water, then struggling to cope with the drought of 1995.

As we showed then, as we showed again as Bradford was rocked by rioting in 2001, and as the original Pennine Radio had amply demonstrated when the city was grieving following the Valley Parade stadium fire disaster that claimed 56 lives -  to succeed as a medium that matters to people's lives, radio needs both heart and soul.

Just Heart alone may not be enough. However Smoothly delivered.

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