February 7th, 2009
05:38 AM GMT
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.
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