If there’s one area that often gets maligned, often unfairly, it’s the domain of the local radio DJ. An odd blend of personality, cheese and the rural/urban area they broadcast to, for all those who sneer, they’ll be just as many who’ll tune in religiously.
Perhaps GCap’s Chief Executive, Ralph Bernard, has heard too many doomsayers as, along with other radio heads, he’s asked for the amount of local programming to be cut to just three hours a day, so the stations can compete with the likes of Chris Moyles and Chris Evans.
Now on one hand, I can see several reasons for the GCap board, why this would make sense. However, as an ex-GCap employee, I also think it would be completely the wrong move to make.
Commercial radio cuts its cloth quite fine, and with increasing competition for advertisers, it’s a move borne as much out of necessity as anything else. Like any company, there are efficiency savings to be made and if roughly 2/3rdof their local DJs around the country can be cut out in favour of networked shows, then that’s going to make a big difference to the balance sheet and possibly the shareholders. And if the network shows can be demonstrated to appeal to a more lucrative advertising demographic, then there’s an opportunity to increase revenue.
But that may make for a very healthy balance sheet and please City investors, may cause long-term problems for local stations. As somebody who’s recently worked on the front line for a GCap local station, if you will, and used to regularly interact with listeners, then I can firmly say one thing: locality matters to these people.
Yes, there are the popular networked shows. Late Night Love has a cult following. Myleene Klass may be proving popular as the girl of the moment. But these work well in the timeslots they’re scheduled for – early evening and late night.
To me, the argument that local stations can’t compete against the likes of Moyles and Evans doesn’t ring true, as I don’t believe local stations should necessarily be aiming for exactly the same audience as Moyles or Evans in the first place.
Local commercial radio occupies a niche that isn’t always fully exploited. Sure, you could network Johnny Vaughn’s Capital show, and it may prove popular in cities such as Brighton, Bristol and Birmingham. But one-size certainly doesn’t fit all, and whether Johnny’s shtick would prove quite so popular in Hereford, Cardiff, Somerset and Plymouth is a moot point.
Local commercial offers is very different from the more speech-heavy local BBC stations, which tend to attract a slightly older audience, but for those who’re not so keen on Radio 1’s playlist, or Moyles’s laddish humour, don’t want their programming too speech heavy, but still identify with local issues (and there are a significant number who fit into this category), then local commercial radio fits the bill nicely.
The letter from GCap, Emap and others to offer says: "We all agree that localness is important to our listeners. However, it is also clear that quality of output is of greater importance.” This implies localness and quality output are mutually exclusive. I’m sure a lot of local DJs, and listeners would find this both offensive and slightly patronising.
The principles of good programming are no different in Exeter, Edinburgh, or London. Get a good presenter, or presenters, who can make entertaining radio and connect with their audience. Often the best local DJs I’ve heard are the ones who love getting involved in local issues, be it local carnivals, breast cancer awareness campaigns, new shopping centres or follow the local football and rugby teams.
Get that blend right, and for the listener it gives them a show that entertains, informs, educates and even evokes empathy. Reithian core values need not be the exclusive domain of the BBC.
The argument that any money saved will be ploughed back into making one quality programme doesn’t wash with me. Radio is all about building hours, and if you’ve got listeners only tuning in for one three-hour show, and turning off for the networked content, you’ll achieve a loss. And, having had plenty of contact with listeners and potential listeners over the past 18 months, I strongly believe that for any new listeners commercial would pick up as a result of networking, it would lose as many, if not more, for those who tuned in precisely to hear the much-maligned local DJ give them the lowdown on move to redevelop the bus station. Unlike Morrissey’s disc jockey, these broadcasters do have something to say about my life.
It may not be entirely politic to criticise your recent ex-employers, but I’ve just got a problem with the upper-echelons of GCap’s management in this case, as the station I used to work for was a prime example of how local could work wells, as sounding more local was something they’d been pushing in a big way. I was proud of the balance struck between good programming and including the right amount of local balance.
To give an example, recently the station did an OB at the opening of one of the city’s large new shops. In the middle of this, they cut to an ongoing on-air promotion live elsewhere in the city, before a live promo teasing a major event that weekend. This was highlighted as an excellent example of what the station should be aiming for and, if the response was anything to go by, it achieved it. Now if you add the buzz those outside events would have created in the city anyway, you’ve got an excellent example of how local radio can, and should, work.
It can take years to build up that reputation and the listeners that come with it. It can take just a couple of months to lose them. As John Plunkett says, “How the heart lifts when Andy, H and the other one (Steve) mention some local south Bucks gossip, some irritating roadworks or there's yet another trail for Hazlemere food hall (I still haven't been).”