February 7th, 2009
05:38 AM GMT
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LONDON, England — I spent an enjoyable day going “back to my roots” for our report on how the UK’s commercial radio sector is coping in the current downturn.

I began my career in radio some 25 years ago and have a lot to thank it for (Heavens! Is it really that long ago? I feel so old. I reported from Stockholm recently and my CNN producer for the trip was born in the year I started working!).

As well as providing me with solid journalistic training and experience, it taught me many of the broadcasting skills I use today here at CNN. For instance, the apparent “effortless” ability to talk about nothing in particular, without a script, at a moment’s notice and for any length of time.

There are of course no pictures to disguise unintentional gaps on radio and, as silence is far from golden, the host has to talk. Thus I learned to think on my feet (in television we call this skill “filling.”). Or the ability to “fill” while someone is counting down to zero through my earpiece and to end a sentence just as the countdown reaches one.

I learned to convey emotion and warmth through my voice and how to read a script out loud without it sounding as though I was reading words on a page. People often remark about the rich quality of my voice, which I can assure you has not been acquired thanks to any of life’s “excesses.” Radio taught me the “singer’s technique” of talking from my stomach. I now do it habitually, which gives my voice the “warmth” that people seem to find attractive.

The UK commercial radio industry seems to be coping pretty well in the current “difficult trading environment.” Some networks, due to their aggressive acquisition strategies and the fact that they have paid a premium for licenses, are saddled with high levels of debt and are finding things particularly tough. There are others in the bigger radio markets like London that are struggling purely because they are competing against so many rival stations. But on the whole, the industry is optimistic that it can see the recession through. Radio advertising is relatively cheap compared with other forms of media and the fact that radio is a medium you use while doing something else means that it complements, not competes with, television, magazines or the net. All this makes it very cost effective from an advertiser's point of view.

We visited just two of Britain’s 300 plus stations for our report: London’s Magic. Flagship of the Bauer media empire’s 25 Magic branded stations and Hertbeat FM, which broadcasts to a small chunk of Magic’s territory to the north of the capital.

Magic is top dog in London with more people listening for longer than any other station. Big, high spending advertisers are keen to be associated with the brand which owes its success to a polished “more music, less talk” format of feel good hits linked by household name presenters. Every song, every ident, every link is planned for maximum impact. The studios are plush and hi-tech and have a very “big media” feel. It’s all very impressive, but somehow rather soulless.

Contrast that with tiny Hertbeat FM, broadcasting from a converted outbuilding at Knebworth House, a stately home famous for the rock concerts held in its grounds. The station gets only the crumbs of the national advertising cake and so relies upon the ad-spend of hard pressed local businesses for its living. But Hertbeat’s very “localness” is the key to its success … “Made in Hertfordshire, not in London” says one of its jingles. Listeners and advertisers alike appreciate the feel-good mix of music and talk about local places, people and issues.

Hertbeat FM’s zoo format breakfast show is the one that blasts my household awake each morning. The music and infectious chemistry between DJ Steve Folland and his co-hosts Chris Hollis and Dawn Easby are popular with the whole family (all three are up-coming stars and I dread the day when they’re snapped up by one of the big networks, as they inevitably will be. Breakfast just won’t be the same without them).

The morning after my report aired on CNN’s Quest Means Business there was a lot of on-air banter and gentle leg pulling about Richard’s larger than life personality. I quickly arranged for Richard to call the Hertbeat studio and there followed one of the funniest and most entertaining pieces of radio I think I’ve ever heard when a grumpy, never at his best in the morning Richard was cajoled into growling the word “sausages.” Afterwards Richard remarked how much he’d enjoyed his live radio appearance. And then he said that he envied the Hertbeat presenter’s freedom. I asked him to explain what he meant. “Their freedom to deviate from the format, dear chap”, he said. “I bet they have a damn sight more fun at work each day than anyone at Magic or the other big stations.”

And I think he’s got a point. Perhaps big is not always best and it’s the more agile, smaller stations with loyal local listeners and advertisers, and less rigid formats, that will come through the recession best.



soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Debbie

    I agree totally with the views of the writer. As a start up business we find the cost of national print media to be exorbitant and beyond our budget. The local Williamsburg radio station WBach plays a wide variety of classical music and it reaches our target audiencefor a fraction of the cost. The flow of convesations, ads and announcements is well balanced and flows well with the quality of the music and its genre. Big media needs to borrow a leaf from the local radio stations, or they will lose touch with their publlic.

    February 7, 2009 at 6:10 am |
  2. Thomas

    This makes me think back to the early eighties when I first caught on to Radio Luxemburg. I would look forward and wait in anticipation every night when it signed on. This little dicoavery transformed my life and brought me to another world. I know this is not what you were talking about when you posted your blog, but reading your words brought me back to a happy place and maybe that is what radio is all about for me...

    February 7, 2009 at 8:41 am |
  3. Amos Corpus

    Please allow me to express my concern on the global economic crisis. I was thinking that there is a solution to this situation we are in now. It might be hard for the world leaders to do it because of greed or the like.
    I think it would ease up the situation if we have to go back 15 to 20 years ago, where the prices of raw materials for production will be based on those years. Of course, we have to adjust our salaries years back.
    Speaking of the prices of basic goods and that to include oil prices, almost everybody, once again can afford to purchase it, just like the good old days. Is it that hard for our leaders to take this advise? At least we can start all over again, to boost the economy once again.
    Good Luck to us, earthlings!!!

    February 7, 2009 at 2:33 pm |
  4. Amos Corpus

    I'll be watching CNN now. I'm from the City of Masbate, Philipines

    February 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm |
  5. Mike Souter

    When I first started in radio in, err, 1976, ILR was truly local and deservedly successful. Now I hate it. The vast majority have remotely produced programmes and almost insignificant local news operations. I know there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

    I was lucky. I was trained in journalism at Radio Clyde, whose news organisers made you do it again and again until it was right. It was a tough baptism, but many of Clyde's people are now seriously senior journalists, which says it all.

    Interestingly, when I joined the BBC, I found their much vaunted trasining scheme was not a patch on that offered by alex Dickson and his team in Glasgow.

    February 7, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  6. Steve

    Really enjoyed the radio piece. The way I see it, the current climate is definitely changing the fortunes of the big guns for the worst, with the likes of Global Radio in the UK rebranding the majority of their stations as "Heart FM", with much increased networking/centralization of shows, just to make the brand more marketable. All very well for advertising reasons, but in the long term who will want to advertise on a network of stations where the listeners are turning off increasingly due to the lack of choice, reduced local sound and the tiresome repetitive format.

    Whereas the smaller independent stations still have the freedom to do their own thing, are more creative as a result, and more attractive to the listener. And I'm sure they're mopping up the listeners shed by the bigger stations.

    February 7, 2009 at 4:03 pm |
  7. Lauro Silva - Brazil

    Adrian´s story reminds my own, happening, neverthless, much longer than 25 years ago, but, under quite different circumstances. Different circumstances,however, with the same, though more emphasized, simplicity, loyalty,friendship,effectiveness,charm and glamour of the 50s, that I learned to respect and love in my lifetime. It was a very small station in a small country-side town, with TV systems starting to crawl and very few imported automobiles and trucks. The more afortunate people were equipped with a noisy radio set and pretty much impossible to listen to, let alone when it was about to rain.At that time we were living 8 km outside the town and for four years I had gone to work on horseback, on my own black horse named Cyclone. During four years no one delay, traffic jam ,flat or whatever. In town I went by the name of Speaker and I took pride in that. Funny and unforgetable events took place. I remember one when a little bunch of boys climbed the window near me and I shouted at them ´´ get out of the window sons of a ...´´ and the microphone was on. It was a very goddamn day,for sure. No doubt, during the present crisis and after radio can do a lot as Adrian has already said.

    February 8, 2009 at 1:17 am |
  8. Starshadow

    I used to work for a radio station myself, as a news reader on the night shift. This article brought back a lot of good memories – and I do agree with Richard about being able to deviate from the format; it's what our night shift DJs would do sometimes, and how the phones would ring with listener approval!

    February 8, 2009 at 1:15 pm |
  9. Radio GaGa, Radio GooGoo

    Thomas,

    I am with you. I met my wife through Radio Luxembourg from behind the Iron Curtain. Every night at the beginning of the show, they read an address of some fan who wanted a pen-friend (ask you parents, Facebookers).

    One night they read her address. I wrote. She replied.

    The rest is history.

    February 10, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  10. Nam(South Korea,Busan)

    The video will live with the radio star.

    February 12, 2009 at 8:02 am |

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