Archive for March, 2010

Hilversum calling the future of radio

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Just back from the EBU’s Multimedia Meets Radio in Hilversum which was fascinating on lots of front - including the Sound and Vision building where it was located. Its the national audio visual digital broadcasting archive where decades of Dutch radio and television output is digitised, stored and used. A wonderful public interpretative centre, especially engaging for children, is part of the multicoloured cube building and its frankly something which we in Ireland can only look at in envy.

We were there facilitating the podcasting workshop and showcasing our project as well as chairing a discussion with the Apple podcasting team who (because of somewhat restrictive guidelines in Apple) only wanted to be know as ‘Pete’ and ‘James’. Both lovely American guys with proud Irish roots although Pete did get a reaction and causes a lot of tweets when he answered one question about iTunes, podcasting and the future by simply saying ‘we can’t talk about the future. period.’. While Apple were not talking too much about the future many others were including Mark Friend of BBC Interactive who showed us the soon to be released (coming by the end of this year) BBC Radio Player which will allow users to play all forms of radio both public and commercial with added digital extras. One of the most popular presentations was that of Mark Rock of which is a simple to use audio-blogging tool which ironically grew from the failed Channel 4 Digital Radio initiative. We loved audioboo and can’t wait to use it in our work and to share it with those who find creating RSS feeds just a little bit too techy. The BBC is using audioboo in promotions and blogs and its rapidly growing across the world. One of the hilarious asides of this seminar was the use of twitter on screen during the two days of workshops. Its quite disconcerting to present to 150 people and see most of them have their heads down furiously tweeting on their iphones or laptops and then seeing a parallel conversation emerge on the twitter screen about your presentation! Many of the conversations, points and twitpics are online under the twitter hash-tag #mmr10 if you want to re-visit the sessions and find out what people were saying and sharing. Or visit the EBU site which has trapped all information relating to the event including participants.

So what is the future of radio? Visual, mobile, on-demand, multi-platform and multi-media but retaining its personal, emotion heart which works so well with social networking and social media. One of the key learning curves on the final day was the use of applications via iphones, mobile hand-sets and social media to facilitate radio’s future. Radio’s future is ubiquitous, flowing into every part of the digital landscape and remaining close to users by increasingly opening up interactivity to content-creation. The loser in the digital landscape is DAB which hardly got a mention during the seminar and workshops and indeed the BBC has just announced the closure of two of its DAB Radio family, BBC Radio 6 and Asian Network. The good news from the BBC’s message was that the money stays in digital but will be focussed, supporting the extended digital life of the main radio family rather than growing the empire of stations available from the BBC. The problem, according to Mark Friend, is that digital has moved too slow and the demands of both a terrestrial and online expansion are hurting the industry. The answer, he says, is not to stop or make a choice but to move faster and focus the offerings.

BBC pull back

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

We were in London on Friday for the BBC Radio 4 producers briefing. Its a big annual event intended to brief internal and independent producers on the commissioning needs and briefs for BBC Radio 4. Its always interesting and gives an insight into how the station and indeed BBC Radio is thinking. The audience figures for BBC Radio 4 have been growing in recent survey from RAJAR (the radio listening data resource) and the station has about 10 million listeners. Audiences for speech radio in UK, Ireland and US has clearly grown in the past year and a half with some attributing it the financial crash and gobal recession. Bad news, whether its 9/11, Iraq invasion or Lehman Brothers, makes us want to know more and understand more.
Its interesting the briefing happened on the same day the Times of London front page was running with the BBC internal review which threatens to close two BBC digital stations, BBC Radio 6 and the Asian Network as well as cut web staff by 25% and close online and digital projects like JAM aimed at young people. Strange you may think since the buzz everywhere else is how broadcasters get half as good at digital as the BBC. But the decisions seem less about the performances of these projects, or even about the future needs of broadcasting and audiences, but more about matching the BBC to the public debate on the public broadcaster’s ‘mission’ and ’scale’. With traditional media companies, in newspapers and radio, suffering badly during this recession the BBC feels the need to stand back from openly commercial or digital projects. Many feel it is part of an internal preparation for the return to power of the Conservatives in the coming elections in that the Torys may feel cutting the BBC down to size is an easy first year target. The BBC is big - over 23,000 staff - and it has massive resources but its impact and strength affects broadcasters far beyond the UK. A strong BBC has always been seen as key for the security of very small public broadcasters like RTE or YLE in Finland. The challenge the BBC faces is less about public appreciation (it is higher than it has been in a decade) or audiences (which are high) but about the growing debate on the role of public broadcasting in the digital sphere. In a sense the BBC’s problem, if it can be a problem, is its success and size.
One would think the issue is cleaner for the BBC since it takes no advertisement, unlike RTE, and therefore is not pulling revenue away from commercial broadcasters and newspapers but the challenge now is that the level of high quality free content that the BBC supplies on the Internet is seen as reducing the competitiveness of commercial players. One would hope that the thinking on the digital channels is open to discussion since both BBC Radio 6 and Asian Network have loyal and commitment audiences and have both proven the need for niche radio offerings and have been key to the strength of the UK digital radio market. It is far from clear that commercial players will provide either channel given the evidence of what is currently available. The decision to stop projects which have taken over a decade to develop and grow will be devastating for those involved but equally for the audiences who now support them. Its one thing to look at the cost of production and the match to mission. It is another to cut off projects which can grow the future of the BBC and indeed, through leadership, the future of all public broadcasters. BBC 6, JAM and Blast are all aimed at the next generation of BBC supporters. Its seems a shame that they are they ones to be targetted and strange that BBC Radio 2 is one of the few stations globally being told to recruit older listeners, 60+, and add more speech to what has always been one of the BBC’s most successful and most loved radio stations.
For BBC Radio 4 there is some fear about the move to add more speech to Radio 2 and how it can affect its remit and audience. Ironically they key concern flagged by commissioners is the obvious one facing the UK this year and its the coming elections and the potential of a major shift in both policy and public thinking. Its a concern in that they want us as programme makers to pitch for programmes for 2011 but none of us know the political framework of the world and society we will be operating in within the UK. Not a big issue for programme makers as we’re used to that process but for the UK which has been in Labour administrations since 1997 the potential shift in power and politics will be significant. For the coming period the big theme is the London Olympics in 2012 and it may surprise some to know that BBC Radio 4 is the most popular station in London. A major London season is planned to celebrate one of the world’s great cities. Although we have to say, while we love London, the city is suffering from one of the worst service attitudes we’ve seen in any major city in recent years. Poor service, unqualified staff, often with no English or knowledge of the place they are working, met us at every location we visited and stayed in across several days. Maybe the London season needs to reflect that as well as all the capital’s glories, history and character. London for all its joys has lost a sense of identity and even pride.