RAJAR Q3 2016


Once again, this post is brought to you in association with RALF from DP Software and Services. I’ve used RALF for the past 9 years, and it’s my favourite RAJAR analysis tool. So I continue to be delighted to be able to bring you this analysis in association with them. For more details on RALF, contact Deryck Pritchard via this link or phone 07545 425677.

All views here are clearly my own!

Just when you weren’t expecting it, along comes another RAJAR.

Overall, among all radio listeners, the quarter that includes much of the summer has seen a slight decrease, which is a regular seasonal thing. Reach has fallen 1.1% from last quarter’s record level but is still up 0.7% on last year. Hours are fairly stable too, down 0.7% on the quarter but up 0.4% on the year. Some – but notably not all – of the Brexit highs from last quarter have righted themselves, and we’ve got a second set of numbers from a whole host of new services.

National and Digital Services

Last quarter we saw a swathe of new services arrive on RAJAR, and indeed this quarter sees a first result for Heart Extra – a creditable 664,000 with nearly 3m listening hours.

But let’s have a look at the other newbies and see how they’re settling in after the flurry of activity around launch. TalkRadio has probably done the best, seeing some very solid numbers with a 36% increase in reach to 304,000 and a 63% increase in hours to close to 1.4m hours. Notably, the average number of hours spent listening to TalkRadio is up to 4.5 – not quite enough for it to be many people’s first choice station, but a solid secondary choice. I would expect this audience to continue to grow. I’m not sure to what extent News UK is promoting its services in its sister papers, but The Sun seems like a solid stablemate for the station.

TalkSport 2 hasn’t done so well, and is down 12.3% in reach (-3.0% in hours). While the football season began during this RAJAR period, it takes a little time to get up and running. So another quarter is needed to get a sense of where the station is at. Notably its older sibling had a poor performance this quarter, which only partly reflects that this period was post Euros. The station was down 13% in reach on the quarter, but 9% on the year. Hours were much more solid, down 1.3% on the quarter but up 2.7% on the year. The station has seen a couple of schedule changes recently with Colin Murray replaced by Jim White – although the latter hasn’t yet really been reflected in these figures. Virgin Radio is also probably a little disappointing, down 15.6% on the quarter in reach and 13.8% in hours.

Finally, Radio X saw a 6.4% increase in reach and a 14.4% increase in hours. I think the best you could probably say about that is solid, but the marketing and talent costs for the station surely need to warrant a larger audience than the current 1.265m reach that the station has.

Elsewhere, there will be some slightly tempered relief at Radio 1 where reach has increased 4.4% on the quarter (down 6.5% on the year), and up 5.0% in hours (down 7.4% on the year). It’s still just shy of the 10m mark though, which the station will be looking to return to.

Few will be too tearful that Radio 2 has lost a few more listeners down 1.0% in reach on the quarter and 3.5% down in hours. It’s still by far the biggest station in the UK, some 4m clear of the next biggest station Radio 4.

Radio 4 itself is down a little this quarter to 11.2m, but is up on last year at the same time. Coming in a period after the Brexit vote, that’s perhaps not surprising. Although it remains a busy time for politics, the same pattern seems to have been reflected in post Brexit newspaper ABC figures.

Radio 3 has had a bit of a fall this quarter, surprising in a Proms quarter. You may recall that they achieved some recent record figures in the last quarter, but now it’s below 2m again in reach.

Over at Five Live, they will probably be disappointed with a 6% decline in reach and 12% fall in hours during a quarter that included the Olympics. It should however be noted that year on year performance is relatively flat.

Classic FM has had a poor quarter too in reach terms, down 4.2% on the previous quarter and down 3.8% on the year. Hours are much more stable however.

Absolute Radio has had a strong quarter, up 21% in reach on the quarter and 24% on the year. In hours terms, it’s also a positive story with hours up 22% on the quarter and 17% on the year. Similarly, the Absolute Radio Network is net positive, with up in reach and hours on the quarter. But that slightly disguises the fact that Absolute 80s has fallen again. It’s reach is down to 1.458m (down 7.8% on the quarter and down 7.2% on the year), with hours down 1.4% on the quarter and 7.6% on the year. There has been a clear decline since the station moved from the Digital One to Sound Digital multiplex earlier this year. As a result, Kisstory (which is also carried on a range of local DAB multiplexes as well as Sound Digital) is now the largest commercial digital only service.

Kisstory has had some great results this quarter, up 4.6% in reach (23.3% on the year), and an essentially unbelievable 58.7% in hours (76% on the year). I’ve no idea quite what’s happened here, but I’d probably wait until next quarter before making too many pronouncements. Either way, these are both record results for the station. Kiss, on the other hand, has had a poor national result, down 10% in reach on the quarter (down 7.1% on the year), and down 6.7% in hours (down 8.4%) on the year.

[Updated] And 6 Music had yet another record quarter, up 3.4% to 2.342m. Hours were broadly flat, but well up on the year.

Magic has a mixed result with a slight increase in reach on the quarter (up 2.7%), but a fairly dramatic fall in listening hours (down 15%).

The Capital Network did well this quarter, growing its audience by 2.6% on the quarter and 8.1% on the year. It also saw growth in listening hours.

The Heart Network did OK too, up 1.6% in reach and 3.6% in hours. It was down on the year however.

Finally, LBC actually bucked the post-Brexit trend nationally, seeing its reach increase 4.2% and hours up 4.6%. Year on year these figures are remarkable – up 21.6% in reach and 32.7% in hours.

Along with Absolute Radio, I’d say that LBC had the standout set of results this quarter.


I won’t dwell on breakfast too much this time around except to note that Chris Evans saw his reach fall 4.4% this quarter (down 3.9% on the year) to 9.058m.

Over on Radio 1, it’s another disappointing set of results for Nick Grimshaw – his worst to date. He now has 5.249m listeners, down 3.4% on the quarter and down 9.1% on the year.

Meanwhile across the Absolute Radio Network, Christian O’Connell has just superseded his previous best ever results with a new record set of listeners – 1,949,000. That’s up 1.4% on the quarter and a massive 14.6% on the year. His is the largest commercial breakfast show in the country.


Last quarter there was something of a surge in London with a massive growth in listening. This quarter, that seems to have righted itself to a degree. All Radio listening was down 2.8% in reach but down 6.1% in hours in the capital. However, year on year, the reach is up 3.1% and down just 1.6%. So I would think of this as a correction.

The figures are similar for both BBC Radio and Commercial Radio, with the latter losing a little more reach. But in London, Commercial Radio continues to lead the BBC with 51.2% of listening compared with the BBC’s 42.5%.

One consequence of all of this is that Capital becomes the biggest commercial station in London in both reach, despite seeing an 11.2% fall in reach and a 12.2% fall in hours.

Kiss has had a poor result all around and that means that they lose they’re just pipped by Heart (9,179,000 v 9,177,000 hours!) who lost a relatively modest 2.4% in reach.

The biggest commercial station for hours is LBC, despite actually seeing a massive dip in both reach and hours on last quarter – down 23.3% in reach and down 27.6% in hours. I’d firmly put that as a consequence of Brexit however since year on year, they’re up on both measures.

Magic is also notable since it has bucked the London trend and grown 10.5% in reach (5.4% in hours). Hours are down on the quarter, but up on the year.

Radio X really is suffering in London. It’s at just 378,000 in reach, down 14.5% in reach (and 25.4% down year on year). Hours are steady.

Finally BBC London has had a poor result on the back of last quarter’s decent one, back down 17% in reach and 40% in hours.

Digital Listening

Digital listening has grown again, from 45.3% of all listening, to 45.5%. The chart below shows the extent to which this is driven by different platforms, with notably DAB accounting for nearly one in three hours of radio listened to.

More interesting perhaps is that among 15-24s, digital listening has now reached 50%! (It’s also reached 50.1% among 35-44s for the record).

While overall radio listening continues to fall among this age group, that listening that they’re now doing is much more likely to be digital, with internet streaming quickly approaching DAB as the preferred digital platform.

The following series of charts is perhaps useful.

While the digital/analogue chart above got close in 2013, this is a clear trend.


It’s easy to become obsessed by youth listening, but as well as the behaviourals of how younger people listen (I hesitate to say “millennials” since that’s ill-defined, and a constantly moving goal), the volume of listening is important to consider.

This chart shows that while the overall proportion of radio listeners who are 15-24s has declined over time, the proportion of hours they account for has fallen even faster. So in Q2 2007, 15-24s accounted for 15.9% of all radio listeners and 13.3% of the time spent listening, in the most recent quarter this has fallen to 13.7% of all radio listeners and just 9.4% of listening hours. This is an increasingly hard audience to reach.

Here’s another worrying chart. It shows the proportion of 15-24s with no radios at all. Sure, they can stream or listen via digital television, but streaming sessions still seem to be much shorter – your phone or laptop can do so much more to entertain you after all.

While these aren’t stratospheric numbers, the rate of “no radio” ownership growth is large, and considering how trivial it is to own a single radio (e.g. your alarm clock), this is still a concerning trend. Even the much vaunted LG phone with DAB has done little to change things, and pretty much none of the flagship phones of 2016 have included any kind of working broadcast radio chip.

Station Repertoire

Radio listeners are remarkably loyal. In a world of an ever growing multiplicity of radio stations, the average radio listener listens to just 3.0 services. But this number varies by station, so the chart below has a select list of services and the number of stations listeners to each of those services listens to.

In other words, Radio 2 listeners are basically average, listening to on average 3.2 services (including Radio 2). At the other extreme, Virgin Radio listeners have a repertoire of 6.2 services.

As is perhaps understandable, it’s digital stations, who often act as “secondary” services who have the largest repertoires. In the industry vernacular, the station you listen most to is your first preference or “P1”, followed by your P2 and then P3 choices. Radio directors always want their listeners to be P1s.

Further Reading

For more RAJAR analysis, I’d recommend the following sites:

The official RAJAR site and their infographic is here
Radio Today for a digest of all the main news
Go to Media.Info for lots of numbers and charts
Paul Easton for more lots analysis including London charts
Matt Deegan will have some great analysis
Media Guardian for more news and coverage
The BBC Mediacentre for BBC Radio stats and findings
Bauer Media’s corporate site.
Global Radio’s corporate site.

Source: RAJAR/Ipsos-MORI/RSMB, period ending 18 September 2016, Adults 15+.

[Updated to include 6 Music which I somehow overlooked!]

Disclaimer: These are my views alone and do not represent those of anyone else, including my employer. Any errors (I hope there aren’t any!) are mine alone. Drop me a note if you want clarifications on anything. Access to the RAJAR data is via RALF from DP Software as mentioned at the top of this post.

Devil’s Dyke

Devil's Dyke Walk-16

There are at least two Devil’s Dykes in the south of England. I decided that I’d be walking the one in Cambridgeshire, following a mention both in an autumn walks supplement in The Guardian, and an appearance in Tony Robinson’s Britain’s Ancient Trackways part of the Icknield Way. Naturally, I took my drone with me.

Devil's Dyke from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

I was going to start in Newmarket, but instead alighted the Cambridge to Ipswich train a stop earlier at Dullingham. The station is a short walk from the village, and my reason for getting off earlier was that I should be able to do more of the Dyke. However, the onlhy real option for the route was a walk along the quite busy B1061 – a road that doesn’t have a suitable grass verge to walk along. Going slightly further out of my way, and joining the path at Stetchwork Park might have been more sensible.

Almost instantly I was on the Dyke, an ancient earthwork built sometime in the 6th or 7th centuries. It actually runs over 7 miles in length stretching between the villages of Woodditton and Reach. I was walking the northern end – a stretch of about 4.5 miles, and skipping a woody section.

Devil's Dyke Walk-1

Devil's Dyke Walk-3

The Dyke comprises of both a bank and a ditch. It must have taken years to complete and involved significant labour to get it done. Even today, with heavy lifting equipment it would take a long time to build.

Devil's Dyke Walk-5

Devil's Dyke Walk-7

Devil's Dyke Walk-9

Crossing the A1304, you reach Newmarket Racecourse sat on top of the expanse of Newmarket Heath. There are stables all around these parts of the country. The Dyke itself (marked as Devil’s Ditch on Ordnance Survey maps), bisects the course, with the July course being on one side of the Dyke while the main stand is the other. Eventually the Dyke falls away as the Cesarewatch Course runs across your path and circles around to the main grandstand.

The A14 is as busy as a motorway, and a footbridge lets you cross it, before the Dyke continues.

Devil's Dyke Walk-11

Devil's Dyke Walk-13

The Dyke runs between the villages of Swaffham Prior and Burwell, and the path crosses the road that connects them, as well as a dismantled railway before finally ending at the pretty village of Reach.

Devil's Dyke Walk-20

Devil's Dyke Walk-22

I stopped at the very nice Dyke’s End pub where I just about managed to squeeze in for lunch. Reach is where many people start and end their walk along the Dyke. However I was heading onwards, to get to Waterbeach where I could catch another train.

Devil's Dyke Walk-23

My initial plan had been to follow Reach Lode as far as the village of Upware and the enticingly named Five Miles From Anywhere pub. But I decided to shorten the route a little (it was long enough as it was), and instead headed west along the Black Droveway past some caravans, and then on towards Slades Farm which sits close to the Swaffham Bulbeck Lode. There’s a nice cycleway in this area, and I saw a couple of families making use of the autumn weather to follow it.

Devil's Dyke Walk-24

Devil's Dyke Walk-25

Devil's Dyke Walk-28

Devil's Dyke Walk-26

Devil's Dyke Walk-30

The banks of the Lode got me as far the pumping station at Swaffham Lock. Here the channel met the River Cam which flows on to Cambridge. I turned southwest and followed the south bank of the Fen Rivers Way, passing a small marina and a number of anglers.

Devil's Dyke Walk-32

The last strech was a bit of a march as I realised I could just about make the hourly train at Waterbeach station. I arrived with about five minutes to spare, thus avoiding an hour’s wait.

All told, a really nice, if quite long walk – just short of 15 miles. But aside from climbing up and down the Dyke at intervals, it’s entirely flat, and is very reachable from London.


An Egregiously Bad Chart


The chart above is screen-grabbed from an otherwise excellent ITV4 documentary called When Football Changed the World. It looked at the state of the game as the old First Division broke away to form the Premier League at the end of the 80s and start of the 90s. It interviewed plenty of key figures from the period both on and off the pitch.

At time of writing, it’s on the ITV Hub and is well worth watching. I’ve no doubt it’ll get a few more outings on ITV4 over the coming weeks and months.

But that chart is just dreadful for a couple of reasons.

The documentary was trying to illustrate the spiralling increase in UK Premier League costs over time. The first deal starting with the 1992/93 season was indeed worth £191m, and the latest beginning this season is worth a cumulative £5.1bn.

To put that in context, the latest deal is nearly 27 times the original deal!

Whereas, looking at the graphpaper-styled background this graphic is using, it looks like 5.1bn is about 1.5 times as big as 191m.

They’ve just not used a proper vertical scale on the chart. Revenues have risen extraordinarily, and this chart just doesn’t show it.

In fact, the chart should look something like this:

Just using proper scaling shows the quite stratospheric rise in rights.

But in fact, the value of the overall deal each time doesn’t really show the whole story. The first deal that started in the 1992/93 season was for 5 years, whereas since 2001/02, they’ve been for three years. So if we look at the rise in terms of cost per season rather than per deal, we get this.

Note that since the changes only really effect the first couple of deals, the charts look pretty similar. But the growth per season is actually 44x the price of the first Premier League deal rather than 27x if you consider each deal in isolation.

The other thing that has changed is the number of matches covered by each deal. Basically the number of matches under each deal tends to increase over time. And that does mitigate some of that inflation. The first deal saw each Premier League fixture costing Sky about £600,000 each. This season, on average games cost £10.2m each. Again, it’s a massive jump, but it’s 16x the first deal’s cost, which goes some way to mitigate the 44x increase in rights costs per season.

I think the per season chart is the fairest though. This represents the real amount going into the game from TV companies. And to the clubs, looking at their much healthier bottom lines, that’s what matters.

Note: I’ve tried to use the widely reported values of each Premier League TV deal, but the 2001/02-2003/04 deal in particular seems a little opaque with some conflicting numbers. More recent deals are widely reported because they have a material effect on PLC’s bottom lines.

The Amazon Echo – A British Perspective

Amazon Echo

NB. I’ve included some detail about how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub, as it definitely seems to be causing an issue to many users who get Error: 7:3:0:0:1. Hopefully this page will help a little.

Amazon has been somewhat tardy in bringing the Echo to the UK. It launched in the US in November 2014, so it taken nearly two full years for the device to cross the Pond. So this review is nothing new and there are no doubt hundreds of others on the web. Nonetheless, localisation was always going to be a key part of the device being made available in the UK.

We don’t tend to think about it, using a service like Google Assistant (née Google Now) in the US is a vastly superior experience compared with using it in the UK. Google has tied down all the key US services, and suddenly it’s an invaluable service as opposed to an OK service as it was in the UK, although the UK has improved over time. Indeed I suspect the reason for the long delay in Alexa reaching the UK is that it takes time and resources to localise it for each market.

I’d been keen to try Amazon Alexa out since I first saw what it was capable of. It does seem that the Echo (the device), and Alexa (the service), is very powerful in interpreting spoken word English and giving you back what you want.

For those who don’t know, the Echo is basically a cylindrical speaker that’s about 24 cm tall. At its top is an array of microphones that can listen to commands from all directions, with an LED light ring indicating what it’s doing and a manual volume control sitting at the very top. A couple of buttons are there to either mute the device or to help with some set-up and pairing processes.

Alexa is the technology that sits behind the Echo, listening out for a command word – “Alexa” being the default – and then either playing audio or performing tasks as directed. These range from Siri or Google Assistant style answers to questions (“What’s the capital of Australia”, “How many yards in a mile”), to online shopping since this is of course Amazon, making diary arrangements, playing music from a connected service to controlling your smart home devices (e.g. your lights or your thermostat).

Key to all of these are what Amazon call “Skills.” These are developed by third parties such as Uber, The Guardian or National Rail, and they allow you to use their technologies to perform other tasks by voice control.

Audio as an interface is really interesting, and of course has the potential to have an impact on audio/radio services. So I was particularly curious to see the Amazon Alexa implementation of these services.

While I bought the Echo device, Amazon also sell the Dot, a cheaper device that doesn’t have a powerful inbuilt speaker. It’s designed to contain microphones, but to be plugged into an existing speaker via an Aux cable.

So what are my initial thoughts?

Well, these are based on some early experimentation with the device. I’ll perhaps return to this review, or offer additional thoughts, when I’ve played for it for longer or more services and Skills have launched.


Note: Including detailed instructions of how to connect Alexa to a BT Homehub.

Setup is designed to be simple. The preferred way is to install an app on your phone and set it up from there. The device essentially needs to be connected to your WiFi network. Unfortunately, I found it more complex than it should have been, to the point that if my problems are common, this will cause lots of headaches from the start for many users.

Once you’ve powered the Echo, you open the App, the Android version of which you will be pleased to hear, is in the Google Play Store (other Amazon specific apps aren’t).

Because I had already registered both a Fire TV and Fire TV Stick with Amazon, the app gave me lots of detail about them that at this point that I wasn’t interested in. Indeed, so cluttered was the screen that I couldn’t see how I should initially setup the device. I had to dive into the Settings menu to do it when it should really have been the first thing I was presented with.

You either have to press a button on the Echo or power it on for the first time to get into setup mode, and then it’s a question of connecting your phone or tablet to the Echo’s own WiFi network to give it details of your WiFi password. This isn’t dissimilar to setting up a Chromecast.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times I gave it details of my WiFi password it wouldn’t connect. So I tried from a Chromebook, since you don’t need to use a phone or a tablet. This failed to work too.

Finally, fearing I may have a defective unit, I setup a portable hotspot on my phone, and tethered the Echo that way. It worked absolutely fine, so I knew it wasn’t a technical problem with the device.

Trying once again to connect it to my WiFi router I noted the error code I kept receiving.

Error: 7:3:0:0:1

Googling that took me to a Reddit page which contained what I took to be the solution.

My router at home is a BT Homehub 4, and a quick search a day or so later suggests that I wasn’t alone in not being able to initially connect the Echo to my Homehub.

The Homehub 4 (and later versions) uses both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to broadcast WiFi on.

All devices will connect on 2.4GHz, but more recently 5GHz frequencies were added to WiFi and newer devices will use both.

By default the Homehub uses the same SSID for both frequencies. That means you see a single WiFi access point when you’re connecting a new device to your WiFi network, with that device connecting over either frequency. Even though the 5GHz frequency tends to perform better, I’d never seen fit to change the default, and all my WiFi devices worked fine choosing either frequency as they saw fit themselves.

But it looks like, for whatever reason, the Echo really doesn’t like that.

The solution I found was to go into the Advanced Settings on my BT Homehub router. You will need the admin password to access this menu, which unless you’ve changed it, will be attached to your Homehub device.


Click “Continue to Advanced Settings.”


Then choose Wireless. There are then two tabs for 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You need to change one of the SSIDs so that your router has in effect two access points for each of the frequencies.


I changed the name of the 2.4GHz SSID to something slightly different (e.g. add “1” to the end of the name), leaving the 5GHz SSID unchanged.

On the 5GHz tab, ensure that “Sync with 2.4GHz” has “No” selected.


Apply the changes, and then try the Echo’s WiFi connection process again.

This time the Echo connected flawlessly for me. I was properly up and running.

There are other solutions out there, but this worked for me. I’m surprised that Amazon/BT hadn’t fixed this ahead of launch, as BT is the biggest ISP in the UK, so there will be potentially millions of these routers in use.

I certainly never had that issue with either the Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, nor any other WiFi device.

Initially, I just left things as they were, with two slightly differently named SSIDs to my router. However, once the Echo was up and running, I found that I was able to rename the 2.4GHz SSID back to its original name, and the Echo still connected. This was useful as some legacy WiFi devices I own are unlikely to have the radios in them to work on 5GHz. Consequently I’d have had to have gone around and reconfigured all of these to work with the differently named SSID.

Depending on how many older WiFi devices you have that you use, you may be happy leaving two different SSIDs running on your router.

Usage of the Echo

The first thing Amazon does once you’re setup is to watch a short video. Unlike those for the Fire TV products, this hasn’t been Anglicised. We get an American video that runs through some of the things Echo can do.

Then you’re walked through some live examples, getting the news or playing some music.

The ecology of Alexa seems to be multi-tiered. At the top level are things that will work for everyone out of the box. For example, answering questions with factual information, or telling jokes.

Then there are those that are baked in as partnerships with Alexa. If you ask for a radio station to be played, it will by default be served by TuneIn. If you ask for the news, it comes from Sky News.

The third tier are the Skills, and these tend to need a second keyword to alert Alexa that she should be looking there. There can be overlaps, with broadly the same services being offered by different parties, and depending on quite what you ask Alexa, the service that responds can vary.

News is a good example. Alexa has what Amazon call “Flash briefings.” In other words, news headlines of the type a radio station might play at the top of the hour. If you ask Alexa to give you your flash briefing it will default to a Sky News bulletin from the last hour. I’ve not compared this with any radio output, but this is either an Amazon-specific bulletin, or as I suspect, a the same bulletin Sky News sends to commercial radio stations up and down the country.

The bulletin seems to be timed from the last hour – 9pm, 10pm, 11pm etc – and lasts a couple of minutes.

If you delve into the settings of the Flash Briefing in the app, you can find other news sources which you can turn on or off. Sky News is turned on by default in the UK, but you can turn others on. Annoyingly there’s no option to reorder them. So if you want your Flash Briefing to have more than one source, the default order the sources appear in Amazon’s list determines the order you hear them. This feels like something Amazon could fix.

You’re also limited to the sources that Amazon has included, but there’s a reasonable range including the BBC, CNN, The Wall St Journal and others. I had a play with the BBC sources.

First off is BBC Minute, which is a one minute bulletin produced every 30 minutes by the BBC World Service, and aimed at partner stations around the world (it’s not actually broadcast on the BBC World Service itself). The bulletin is available as a podcast and that’s how Alexa is pulling it in, serving the bulletin via TuneIn.

There is also a BBC World Service news bulletin which again comes from TuneIn. This is a two minute bulletin and is your best bet for serious news.

There’s the World Service Daily Commute, a thirty minute daily news podcast. Finally there’s a BBC Radio 4 option which unfortunately is the most recent Today Programme podcast. The Today Programme is of course a very fine morning news programme, but their podcast stream is complicated because it outputs around 3 different clips each morning – a business roundup, a more serious piece (e.g. their main 8:10am interview) and perhaps something a bit more quirky. None of those things are actually a news bulletin, and I wouldn’t really want them in my Flash Briefing.

The sports section is frankly pretty poor.

When you set it up on the app, you’re invited to select your favourite teams. A few Premier League teams were pre-selected for me. But I couldn’t find any Championship teams, let alone those lower down in the leagues. And there were no Scottish teams either! Nor could I find rugby or cricket teams. From what I could tell, this has only been very lightly localised with most of Alexa’s database filled with American sports teams of various sizes.

This is really poor and those other teams need to be added as a matter of urgency. There are no national teams either.

As I’m an Arsenal supporter, I’m OK for my favourite club. So I asked Alexa to tell me the latest score. That night Arsenal had just beaten FC Basel 2-0 in the Champions’ League. However, Alexa didn’t know that and only gave me last Saturday’s result against Chelsea, as well as alerting me to this weekend’s fixture. Good to know, but not enough. Amazon needs to buy in a lot more data sources to cover all the football competitions and plenty of other sports too.

The sport is also very team oriented. If you want general news about cycling or F1, or want to know Andy Murray’s results, it’s simply not set up for it. It would have been rubbish during the Olympics.

As well as baked in services like maintaining a to-do list or a shopping list, not necessarily just Amazon purchases either, although those are easy to manage, Alexa can also integrate with your calendar. At least if you’re calendar is a Google calendar. I couldn’t see how to make it work with Outlook or iCalc. Fortunately, my personal calendar is indeed a Google one, and you can get Alexa to tell your day’s appointments as well as add things to your calendar. What I didn’t see was any email integration. Amazon does warn you that your calendar will be available to everyone in your household, so it’s worth bearing in mind depending on who’s using Alexa.

Music playback is a key part of Alexa, and it works with a number of services – notably Amazon Prime Music (of course) and Spotify. You can choose a default service, and asking Alexa to play Coldplay will come from your choice of service. Notably, it won’t work with either Google Play Music or Apple Music, at least without using the workaround of playing via Bluetooth.

It is relatively easy to pair your phone or tablet to Alexa via Bluetooth, and then use a voice command to connect and disconnect your device accordingly. That means that you can listen to those services, but of course Bluetooth streaming does eat more battery than something like Chromecast.

Incidentally, there’s no Aux socket on the Echo, so you can’t use it as a dumb speaker for sending your audio to.

As I’ve mentioned, radio by default, comes from TuneIn. So if you ask Alexa to “play Radio 1” or “ESPN Radio” it will come via TuneIn. That does lead to some oddities. I asked, “Alexa, play Capital Radio,” and it dutifully played Capital Radio. The Madrid-based, Spanish-language Capital Radio who seem to be a speech service. To be fair, when I rephrased that as “Capital FM” it worked. Then I asked, “Alexa, play CNN Radio,” and it played CNN Radio Turkiye, CNN’s Turkish partner service. On the other hand, TuneIn selected the correct UK version of Virgin Radio when asked.

Fortunately RadioPlayer is a skill on Alexa, and that means you can get all the British services by specifying “RadioPlayer” in your command. So if you say something like “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Capital Radio,” you’ll get a local UK version (RadioPlayer asks you for your closest city when you set it up, so it will serve me, for instance, Capital London). Given the multiplicity of similarly named stations around the world, Radioplayer is the safer bet for getting the UK station you expected. The only shortcoming I could find is the lack of on demand programming which the mobile app does offer.

Having both TuneIn and Radioplayer means that I can get the same radio station in two different ways. “Alexa, play Absolute 80s,” will give me the same result as, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute 80s.” To my ears, they sounded the same. Also, in my tests, I heard no pre-rolls for any of these stations. And when I tuned into ESPN Radio, no geo-blocking seemed to prevent me listening to a baseball game they were broadcasting.

It’d be great if I could teach Alexa to use Radioplayer in the first instance, and then drop back to TuneIn if it can’t find the service I’m asking for.

Each of the Skills you enable on Amazon – and you do have to actively enable them – means learning a few new commands. I enabled The Guardian (The Telegraph and Mail were both there too), and you have to say, “Alexa, open The Guardian” to get into a voice sub-menu. Alexa reads back the top three headlines and you can choose to have an article read to you. Because these are likely to be chunky stories, it will alert you to the fact that reading the article might take five minutes. “Alexa, stop,” is a useful command.

The Guardian also allows you to listen to its sports news as well as podcasts and other parts of the paper. The key here is how easy they’ve made it to navigate their articles, and how much information they’ve put into their details in the Skills section of the app/website. The more, the better!

Sometimes the US origins of this device shine through. You can set up your commute on Alexa, but that actually means your driving commute. Alexa will helpfully tell you about traffic congestion on your drive to work. But what if your commute is via rail? Fortunately, National Rail is a partner and you can enable its Skill. It quickly asks you to set up your rail commute. As long as both ends are National Rail stations, it works (although in comments, I see some struggled with getting the right local station variant understood). If your commute is Cambridge to London King’s Cross, then it’s fine. But if it’s Cambridge to Oxford Circus, then you might want both information on the National Rail part of the journey and details about the Victoria Line. National Rail can’t help you with the latter. TfL would be a really useful Skills addition for Londoners, as would other regional transport companies.

One disappointment so far is listening to podcasts. I use PocketCasts to play my podcasts, and that does mean that I have a uniform list of podcasts across different devices and platforms no matter how I listen to them. If I listen to a podcast in one place, PocketCasts in all the others knows I’ve heard it. PocketCasts is Chromecast enabled too.

From what I can see, aside from going via a specific app like The Guardian, podcasts are delivered via TuneIn, but they seem to be very hit and miss. When I asked for This American Life, I got some kind of 24 hour This American Life stream which was obviously mid-episode. On the other hand, asking for 99% Invisible got me straight to the most recent episode. I tried getting both Guardian Football Weekly and the Telegraph Cycling Podcast, but despite trying lots of variants, Alexa failed to find either. Indeed at one point, she decided to play me an audio book from my Audible account! That’s great in itself, but wasn’t what I was after here.

One thing that is absolutely seamless is hooking Alexa up with Philips Hue lightbulbs. Yes… I have some.

At first I was confused that I couldn’t find Hue as a Skill before I realised that it was baked in. You do a search for smart devices, press the button on your Hue Bridge (key to getting the Hue system to work), and hey presto, it found all my bulbs. Alexa then lets you group these smart devices together. In my case I added two bulbs to create the “Hall” and three bulbs to create the “Living Room.” Then I added all five to create the “Flat.”

Having done this you can bark commands like, “Alexa turn on Hall lights,” or “Alexa, turn off Flat lights.” And it does so very quickly indeed.

It’s at this point that you begin to think that you’re living out all your science fiction dreams!

Other Skills I’ve yet to turn on include Uber, Just Eat, and Jamie Oliver. There is a reasonable collection of them, but they could do with more. In recent months, Amazon has been adding Skills almost daily in the US, so let’s hope they’ll take a proactive approach in the UK too.

One real disappointment is the Echo speaker itself. Whisper it, but it’s not that great. Sat next to my dumb Sony X55 Bluetooth speaker, the difference in sound quality is clear. They both cost me similar amounts. Indeed I bought the Echo at a special launch discount of £99. It’s back to £149 now.

I bought the Echo knowing it wasn’t that great sounding, but it’s a shame Amazon didn’t improve on it a bit in time for the UK release.

However the volume is perfectly good for filling a room. I wouldn’t use it for a party, but it’s fine for listening in general – aside from being mono of course. You can control the volume either with the dial on the top of the device, or by saying something like, “Alexa, volume 5.” The only problem I had was after pumping the volume up to 9, Alexa could no longer hear me above the sound of the music it was playing! I had to walk over and manually turn the volume down to regain voice control.

There’s no audio out from the Echo, so you can’t send stereo sound to a better speaker system either. On the other hand the much cheaper (£49) Echo Dot does allow you to send the output to another speaker via a 3.5mm jack. At that price, Amazon might sell stacks of these things.

The microphone pick-up is really excellent. Alexa hears her name above a certain amount of ambient sound (but not maximum volume as I say), and the range is decent enough that I’m able to send instructions to Alexa from my living room and bedroom. But then I don’t live in a mansion. I note that Amazon will be bundling 6 Dots for the price of 5, so clearly they’re aiming at a multi-room world. Using either these or Chromecast Audio devices is vastly cheaper than something like a Sonos system.

In my experience, response time of the Echo is really excellent. Amazon has obviously worked hard interpreting audio as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yes, I have a fast broadband connection, but the Echo is ridiculously fast serving you with what you want. There really is minimal delay in it doing what you asked. It’s mightily impressive.

One small downside is responding to secondary questions. In some instances, a call-response-call-response is required, and if you’re not careful, you can drop back to the main menu. There is a certain language learning curve here, and sentences do need to be formed a bit more carefully than natural language.

Another thing to note is that, so far, I’ve not heard any advertising beyond standard broadcast radio ads. The National Rail mobile app, for example, is advertising supported, but there’s none of that hear. It’s all a nice clean interface. We’ll see if anyone starts adding audio ads.

The one thing that did worry me lot before buying the Echo was the fact that I was essentially buying some kind of bug to put into my home. For Alexa to work, the microphones have to be live all the time. There is a mic-off button on the top which prevents Alexa from working if you choose, but surely everything else is being listened to all the time?

Amazon assures users that Alexa is offline when listening out for its own name. Only when it hears its name and switches on the blue LED at the top does it start sending audio to Amazon’s servers for interpretation. I’m sure that were that not the case, someone would have found out quite quickly, but clearly there are privacy concerns, and I’m certainly not going to ignore them.

I bought the Echo as much as anything to experiment. In many respects, it may have been smarter to wait for the upcoming Google Home device, which will potentially be cheaper, and more tied into Google services. In particular, my music is stored on Google, and I’m not about to replicate it on Amazon, at extra cost. And Google’s Chromecast infrastructure works well. I use it to play music in my bedroom on speakers and via my TV in my living room. Google Home will reputedly allow you to throw to TV from audio as necessary too.

But it’s a bit of an unknown, with an expected retail announcement next week, that may or may not see it released in the UK. It’ll be worth looking out for, and there could be an interesting hardware battle played out between Google and Amazon (Apple, despite Siri, really isn’t in this game just yet).

What is clear is that the usefulness of these devices is not just the very clever voice analysis technology, but also the services the various providers sign up. Getting these partners on board is key to the form’s success.

Amazon is clearly backing Alexa in a much bigger way now, with them encouraging other manufacturers to add Alexa to their devices (e.g. Pebble phones, or the Raspberry Pi project), and they’ve announced that the next generation of Fire TV Stick will include Alexa capability in the remote.

I also think that the adoption of voice interfaces is more likely to be successful inside the home or in the car than elsewhere. Despite phones having had Siri and Google Assistant for a number of years now, you rarely see or hear anyone using them in public, as you feel like a bit of an idiot. I’m much more comfortable talking to a device in the privacy of my home or car.

The other thing critical to the success of these devices will be explaining to users how they work, and what they’re capable of. While geeks like me will explore to an extent, others will need lots of demonstrations to see their value. I find that too often, functionality is there, but a bit hidden away. You don’t know what you don’t know. That means lots of examples, and good, clear, documentation where appropriate.

Who’s Missing from the ARIAS?

Virgin Radio's First Sony Award

Earlier this week, the nominations for the inaugural ARIAS were announced. These are effectively the replacement of the former Sony Radio Awards, following Sony departing as a sponsor, and the Radio Academy reorganising itself and slimming down.

Over the 16 award categories, the BBC has 54 nominations, including several catetgories that only feature BBC nominees, while Bauer has 8 nomations, the Wireless Group 3, and several other groups one each.

Notably absent are any Global Radio nominees.

It was hard to see past the thought that Global had simply not entered the awards. For example, you would quite comfortably expect LBC to be up for some of its news and current affairs coverage, while Classic FM has previously always done well.

This morning Radio Today has confirmed that Global simply didn’t enter:

“We aren’t members of the Radio Academy so we haven’t entered their awards. We wish everyone who’s been nominated loads of luck.”

It’s true. The slimmed down Radio Academy is no longer supported by Global. But that doesn’t actually mean that they’re not allowed to enter the ARIAS.

It seems as though Global has taken a “We’re not going to play” attitude to the awards, depsite being the biggest commercial radio group in the country. It would be analagous to ITV not entering the BAFTAs.

Look – I understand that for whatever reason, Global doesn’t want to support a cross-industry body that promotes radio such as the Radio Academy. Getting a group of people in a room to all agree on something is hard, and during the reformation of the Radio Academy, a consensus seemingly couldn’t be achieved.

It’s a real shame, but it’s just about understandable. Global’s attention is probably currently concentrated on their recently opened Global Academy in Hayes.

But not participating in the ARIAS is surely akin to a sulking child picking up his ball and saying he won’t play the game any more because the others have scored too many goals.

“Their awards”?

Was it the entry fees? Awards are expensive and entry fees and selling tickets go towards funding a glizty evening. Traditionally this has been somewhere fancy in London, but the ARIAS are moving away from the capital and will take place at the First Direct Arena in Leeds.

Is it the awards categories? Does Global not think they match the kind of output its stations produce. Actually, I think Global could probably enter in the majority of categories.

By not entering the ARIAS, Global is really denying its staff the chance to compete against the rest of the UK radio industry. Certainly there are the Arqiva Awards, but they’re only for commercial radio (and unfortunately, they suffer their own boycotts).

Whereas if you win one of the ARIAS, you can triumphantly proclaim that you are the best in the country regardless. It’s something you’ll put on your CV and will be with you for the rest of your career in the industry and beyond.

Winning an award engenders an enormous amount of pride in your staff. Winning something like Station of the Year can mean an awful lot, and filters through to everyone including those who don’t directly work on-air. And if you work on an award-winning show, you might find a better job, or get a promotion in your current place of work off the back of it. For commercial groups, advertisers love awards ceremonies. If something they had a part in wins an award, it’s reflective of them too. Agencies and clients love the glitz and glamour of the evening too.

This is the first year of the ARIAS, and undoubtedly there’ll be some teething problems. The entry period was a bit short. Making your entry sound great is key to winning an award, and this takes time. Some of the categories will no doubt need tweaking too. For example, I think that a category that can encompass radio promotions or competitions is important. Yes, that tends to be a commercial category, but perhaps the best and most creative pieces of radio that some stations produce actually come when they run on-air competitions. I’d also like to see a factual award that allows popular documentaries to compete.

And if you don’t think your station makes radio that can win awards in a fair fight against the rest of the commercial sector and a licence-fee funded BBC, I have news for you.

You can.

Be a bit more ambitious, and go out and make something!

Certainly, your schedule might mostly be music, but that doesn’t stop you producing, say, a one-off programme or documentary on something relevant or important to your listeners. And if you haven’t got the skills internally, then bring in an indie to help. It needn’t be expensive, and once broadcast, you’ve got something awards-friendly right there and ready to go! Obviously it’ll need to be good, but your station is probably brimming with creativity just waiting to be let off the leash and do something extraordinary. If you’re really smart, you can get it sponsored and it might actually make you some money too!

So I really hope Global has a change of heart and next year lets its employees, including some of the most incredibly talented folk in the industry, enter what are undoubtedly the UK’s premier radio awards.

My Problem with Reporting of the Fancy Bears Hack

There is much wrong in the world of sport, including doping.

Intrinsically most sports bodies are placed in tough positions, often at odds with their own self-interests. Should a sport admit to a doping problem when it may damage its own future?

Then there’s WADA – the World Anti-Doping Authority. It has an ineffectual leader in Craig Readie, has been criticised for not doing enough, and they’ve been hacked by a group calling itself “Fancy Bears.” While it doesn’t seem to be definitive, it would seem the hacker group is Russian, and there’s a widely-held belief that the hack is in response to the banning of some Russian competitors at the Olympics in Rio (as well as all Russian Paralympic competitors).

This followed what would seem to be prima facie evidence of state sponsored doping conducted in Russia in recent years, and notably during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The target of the hack group seems to be Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE); certificates given to athletes that allow them to continue to compete, while taking drugs that would otherwise be deemed illegal. TUEs are usually granted at a fairly high level, with doctors representing the governing bodies determining whether they are allowable.

While an athlete’s overall health is, like anybody else’s, a matter for them and their doctor, some have chosen to talk about them publicly in the past.

In this instance, the hacking group is presenting details of the TUEs of select athletes. And when I say select, I mean predominantly American, British and German. Curiously they have not published the details of any TUEs given to Russian athletes.

And that’s where my problem lies.

This isn’t like Wikileaks putting up a full database and letting people sift through it. It’s a staggered and potentially incomplete leak with a particular story to spin. And the press seems to be falling hook, line and sinker for it.

The weekend’s newspapers were full of stories about the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. But since it’s an incomplete set of records, we’re not getting a full picture. We don’t know, for example, how many TUEs are awarded full stop. Perhaps the majority of athletes have them, or have had them? We simply don’t know.

Instead we’re being drip fed records to support a hacker group’s own story.

Now I do think that there’s a very legitimate set of questions to ask around the use of TUEs. For example, if an athlete is so ill that they need strong drugs, should they be competing at all? Some sports may inherently cause health issues that mean many competitors are on similar sets of drugs e.g. asthma amongst swimmers and cyclists. Again, we don’t know. R

The problem is that we’re falling into the hands of selective leakers who are dictating the story.

Maybe all TUE certificates should be made public when they’re awarded. On the other hand, health records are normally very confidential documents. Many of us prefer not to have all our maladies out in the open. Should part of deal of being a professional athlete be that your medical records are an open book?

One way or another, a hack took place, and once the information is out there, it can’t be ignored. But let’s not forget the bigger picture, where all things seem to point east…

Getting Burnt

The whole fallout over the failure of the BBC and Love Productions to agree a deal over future series of The Great British Bake-Off is fascinating.

The series started as a run-of-the-mill weekday evening BBC2 cooking competition show, where it was essentially one of many. Yet it morphed into a beast that became the biggest show on British television in fairly short order, transitioning across to BBC1 and making stars of its presenters and competition winners alike. Along the way it gained a number of spin-off shows.

Love Productions owns and makes the show for the BBC. Since 2014 it has been 70% owned by Sky, and perhaps its other best known show has been Benefits Street on Channel 4. But a quick look at their website shows how important the “Great British” brand is. As well as the flagship, there have been a Sport Relief and “Creme de la Creme” versions this year. We’ve also had Junior Bake Off, and Bake Off Masterclasses, and there have been two Mary Berry series as well as a Paul Hollywood series. There was also a two part documentary for primetime BBC1 featuring Nadiya, the winner of last year’s show. Then there are the sewing and pottery sister shows as well.

Bake Off is clearly Love’s core brand, since it would seem that Benefits Street seems to have had its day. Of the 2016 series on their website at time of writing, 32 hours are “Great British…” related, and 8 hours are all its other programmes.

So this contract extension/negotiation was clearly going to be a big deal for Love, and from media reports, negotiations have been long with rumours first surfacing back in April that all was not right and the two parties weren’t seeing eye to eye.

On Monday, as news broke, The Guardian reported an internal Love Productions email that said “this has never been about who might write the biggest cheque but about where we can find the best home for Bake Off,” which is clearly a load of nonsense. It was always about the size of the cheque. Maybe they did turn down an ITV offer in favour of Channel 4, as is the rumour. And perhaps that was a good call, with Channel 4 perhaps better suited of the two commercial services that could seriously bid for it. (NB. This really wouldn’t have made sense for Sky to bid on. The audiences would be tiny, and it just doesn’t seem to fit in with any of their core channels.)

Then came the bombshell that the talent hadn’t been tied up – or even consulted – before the show was sold to C4! Mel and Sue promptly decided that they would be bowing out (neither is short of other work, and they’ve done seven series at this point). Has C4 essentially paid £25m a year for a large marquee in a field?

I think what’s clear is that C4 won’t get anything like the ratings that the BBC got. But there’s probably a commercial equation that means, subject to relatively good ratings, and perhaps becoming C4’s biggest show, there’s a net commercial win for the channel. But at what cost?

A few questions come to mind beyond the emotional ones of whether the show is just quintessentially “a BBC show.”

  • How was a deal done without the talent already signed up? Now that Mel and Sue have dropped out, this really gives the whip hand in negotiations to agents of Mary and Paul. C4 will now be desperate to secure them, but if the production fee has gone up several-fold as rumoured, then the talent will be looking for something similar. It’s also probably slightly awkward that they’ve publicly said they want to stay with the BBC.

    I would imagine that what really comes into play here is what else they get as part of the deal. That probably means both Paul and Mary getting their own cookery shows, and the opportunity to really cash in on associated book sales. Channel 4 probably also lets them do more overtly commercial deals with their own ranges of baking or cookware, as well as other endorsements. But this will almost certainly come at the cost of audience, and that also impacts on what they can achieve in the wider marketplace. It’s not as though neither of them has had cookery shows on the BBC after all – with bestselling spin-off books. I’m sure the BBC would be very happy to keep offering them cookery slots as well.

  • What does this mean for future indies working in formats with the BBC? It’s an interesting time at the moment with indies and the BBC. The new Charter agreement allows for the opening up of more shows to be made by independents. And the creation of BBC Studios allows BBC producers to pitch for shows on other channels. We’ve not really seen a format owned by third party switch networks in the UK unless the format was dropped by the original broadcaster. Channel 4 chose to stop making Big Brother for example. Probably the biggest recent example was The Voice which the BBC also decided not to get into a bidding war over. But that was a format that the BBC had been criticised for buying in the first place as it was something they could have developed. While the intellectual property of Bake Off resides with Love Productions, it’s fair to say that the BBC helped develop the brand.

    But my question is whether this means tighter contracts over what an indie can do with a format that airs on the BBC, particularly after it’s grown and nurtured? Do exclusivity clauses become more onerous? Or when a commissioner is faced with two options – one from BBC Studios and one from an indie, are they now more likely to go for the BBC Studios option? I think I’d be a little worried if I was an indie.

  • What will audiences do? It may well be the case that if you have a TV (or internet device) you have access to both BBC One and Channel 4, but the fact remains that the same show on different networks will achieve different audiences. And in this instance, it means a smaller audience for C4. Making lots of money is not necessarily seen as a good thing in UK culture, and the fact that this is front page news means audiences know full well that the show has changed channels to make the producers more cash. Does that therefore devalue the show in audiences’ eyes? Paul and Mary are probably in a tough position right now. Stay with the show, and they might look like they’re greedy.

I’m sure Channel 4 can make this work commercially – with premium spot-rates, sponsorship and product placement opportunities. However, if it becomes too overtly commercial that does cause issues with the audience. And they’re going to have to fork out for talent one way or another.

It wouldn’t take a great deal for the BBC to come up with another cookery related competition show that didn’t break anyone’s intellectual property rights. They already air Masterchef after all, and like many other reality formats, it’s notoriously hard to pin down what’s original in this format that hasn’t been done hundreds of times before. I’m not sure that this will be the route that’s followed. There won’t be a “The Grand Tour/Top Gear” re-imagining happening. But star talent is star talent, and at this moment, I suspect Paul and Mary can choose what projects they want.

Is the show right for Channel 4? Perhaps, but it’s hard to see this sitting cheek by jowl with Naked Attraction. Yes, Jamie’s at home there, but the channel is still edgier after 9pm, and it’s not completely clear to me that it’s actually the right fit for a channel who’s remit is to be “Innovative and distinctive,” and “Champion alternative points of view.” Over on Mediatel, Ray Snoddy notes the broader issues about what such “poaching” might mean for the future of Channel 4 itself. Is it a smart thing for one public sector broadcaster to outbid another to buy the show? This isn’t the same as F1 or horse racing.

Incidentally, I don’t actually watch Bake Off very often. But I completely understand the appeal of the programme, and this is a fascinating case study.