February, 2008

Bagless Mail

So the Daily Mail has suddenly become devoted to going bagless – that is, seeing the end of the free plastic bag.
Earlier this week it launched a massive campaign, and by a complete fluke, and in no way pre-planned, the next day Marks & Spencer announced that it’d no longer be supplying free plastic bags for its food shopping. Instead customers would be encouraged to get bags-for-life and later it’d start charging 5p a bag if you still wanted one.
I’m not going to complain about this, as I’ve desperately been trying to cut down on plastic bags myself. I have a variety of reusable bags now to take with me when I go grocery shopping, and I carry a “fold-up” reusable bag in my rucksack for those unplanned shopping excursions.
At the same time, most retailers are beginning to ask if you want a bag rather than automatically giving you one.
But what I’d like to know is this – will the bulky Saturday Mail and its sister Sunday title begin to start being distributed without their own plastic bags? It’s called poly-bagging, and given the number of supplements, leaflets, CDs and DVDs that come with the average paper now, some retailers demand plastic bags around the papers. You especially notice this at supermarkets and train stations.
So I’ll be on the lookout this weekend to see if the Mail has the courage of its own convictions.The Mail on Sunday is giving away a Nigel Kennedy CD the weekend after this, so how will it be distributed without a plastic bag? We shall see…

Ed Reardon on New Grub Street

Thanks to Chris for noting that Open Book on Radio 4 recently covered nineteenth century novelist George Gissing and his novel New Grub Street.
The main character is one Edwin Reardon, and there’s also a Jasper Milvain. Familiar names to fans of Ed Reardon’s Week like myself. Listen to the extract here:

powered by ODEO
Or go to the Radio 4 website and listen to the whole thing.
I’ve immediately got a copy of New Grub Street and will fascinated to find out what links there might be. Christopher Douglas, who’s immediately recognisable as the voice of Ed, who co-writes Ed Reardon’s Week, claims here that there aren’t a great many parallels. Nonetheless, it’ll be fascinating to read more.
And just another plea at this point, if I may, to the good burghers of BBC Audio: please release Ed Reardon’s Week on CD! I get fair bit of traffic to this website from people searching for mp3s and the audio since aside from hoping it pops up again on BBC7, there’s no way to legally get hold of the episodes.

Earth Tremor

Utterly bizarre. I was just sitting here in my flat at 12.55am, when the sofa started shaking.
I live on a top floor flat, and the light hanging above me was moving while the rather precarious stack of CDs against one wall started to move. It all went on for about ten seconds.
Turning on Five Live reveals that the tremor was felt across the country – as far afield as Rochdale, Bedfordshire, Norfolk, and, well, London.
I’ve only ever felt one earth tremor before which was in Athens (i.e. very close to the meeting of some of the earth’s tectonic plates). That was an aftershock that I felt in a sixth floor bedroom.
I’d say that this was actually quite a similar force. This time I was on a sofa, last time I was lying on a bed. In both instances it felt like someone bouncing on a bed near me.
Anyway, Sky News now has it as breaking news…
[UPDATE] Here it is (thanks to the magic of Twitter) – a magnitude of 4.7.

Taxi To The Dark Side

The winner of this year’s Oscar for Documentary Feature was Taxi To The Dark Side.
This film was shown on BBC2 as part of the Storyville strand. Having just won an Oscar, the BBC are obviously rushing to repeat the film for those of us (including me) who missed it.
So when and where is it on? Well you’ll be pleased to learn that the schedules have been cleared, and it’s going to be shown at 9.30pm this Saturday… on BBC Parliament.
That’s right.
BBC Parliament. You know. It’s somewhere beyond the news channels on Sky.
Not BBC2. Not BBC Four.
BBC Parliament.

Is 6 Music Too Male?

Well, the short answer is that I don’t know. But that seems to be what Lesley Douglas has been suggesting recently following a backlash against George Lamb. Now I’ve not heard him, so I’ve no idea how good or bad his show is, or what kind of audience it might be attracting.
Douglas is quoted in the piece though:
“The remit absolutely hasn’t changed in the six years it has been on air,” she added.
“What was true of its first few years was that its audience was very male biased. I think it’s only right that you make it as open to female listeners as it is to male. That is something we have tried to address over the years,” she said.
Douglas added that the station could attract more female listeners by changing the way it talks about music and she said giving Lamb the morning slot was part of that process.
“Men tend to be more interested in the intellectual side of the music, the tracks, where albums have been made, that sort of thing,” she said.
“We want to broaden it out – there is absolutely no reason why women shouldn’t love 6Music as much as men love 6Music.”

As the contributors to MediaGuardian’s Media Weekly podcast said, I’m not so sure that this isn’t just a little unfair.
Anyway, I thought that it’d be interesting to have a look at the profile of the BBC’s national radio audiences. First reach:

And here are the hours:

(Source: RAJAR Q4 2007. Reach is defined as the number of different listeners weekly who hear a particular serivce, while hours are determined from the amount of time people actually spend listening to those services).
What’s clear at first is that all the BBC’s main services are more male than female, which considering that the population is only 49% male and 51% female, is a little surprising. Some services are more male than others, with perhaps the least surprising result that Five Live is especially male with its plentiful sports coverage.
But BBC7 is nearly as male as 6Music, which might say something about the greater propensity of men to listen to digital services as much as it does about those services’ appeal to women.
The most female friendly BBC national service seems to be Radio 4 with 55% of listening hours being consumed by women. While the listening hours of 6Music are low at just 36% for women, perhaps Douglas should be more concerned at Radio 1’s strong male bias – 59% of the stations’ hours being male. That’s especially relevant considering that the service is thirty-six times larger than 6Music (The Chris Moyles show is also 59% male and 41% female, incidentally).
(As ever, this blog entry is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of my employer.)
PS Did anyone hear the car-crash radio that was Nicky Campbell “interviewing” Stevie Wonder at a post-Oscar’s party this morning?
[UPDATE] I note that the Google Spreadsheets charts embedded above don’t have the chart values showing (and I can’t see a way of doing that – if you know, please leave a comment), and unlike the charts on the original spreadsheet, you can’t click on a bar to see the underlying values. So, I’ve published the data here should you wish to see the underlying data.

I Have Magnetic Legs

Well that can be the only explanation. Unless the system is just flaky of course.
Let me explain. I live in London, where the public transport system is divided into circular zones. The further out of the centre you live, the more you pay for your all zone ticket – or travelcard.
A couple of years ago we were introduced to the Oyster Card – a smart card system that removed the need for paper tickets with magnetic strips. Instead of putting your card through a slot, you just swiped your Oyster Card and the gates opened. Magic!
Except I get on an overground station, and although the Oyster system could work there, the fact that the gates to the station aren’t permanently manned means that travelers can’t use all aspects of the Oyster system.
I get an annual travelcard from my local station and each day I have to use it at least twice to get through barriers – as I say, there are no barriers at my station, otherwise I’d have to use it a lot more. A piece of cardboard being used several times a day is not going to last a full year, so every so often I had to get it replaced. This would happen a couple of times a year. I’d always go to the station at the weekend, because you can’t possibly realise how complicated a procedure this is. The assistant has to find my details on the computer system, invalidate my previous card and then issue a new one. He or she then has to print it, and write on it. A bore, but an infrequent bore.
I did once go very early in the morning during the week to get it replaced, and got told off my the ticket assistant for attempting something so rash at such a busy time! The assistant’s incompetence meant that it took a full ten minutes to get a replacement issued.
But last year something changed. My ticket stopped working just a week or so after getting it. I got a replacement. That lasted a few days before it again stopped working. When tickets stop working in a station, you have to wander around looking for a station employee to buzz you through the barrier. Often you have to queue behind someone who hasn’t paid for their journey, and are arguing their point. It’s terribly frustrating.
By now I was convinced my ticket wallet had somehow become magnetised – the tickets work on a paper magnetic strip system. I replaced the wallet. The ticket stopped working again. I got another new plastic wallet, and kept my ticket in a different pocket altogether, well away from my wallet. It stopped again. I removed my photo card (you’re supposed to keep it with your ticket) and put the travelcard in its own entirely separate wallet. It stopped working once more.
You can’t believe the frustration. I’ve had perhaps seven or eight cards in less than twelve months, all of which have stopped working. Yesterday it stopped yet again – the card only being a week or so old. As I say, I can only think I have magnetic legs. Is something in my diet giving me too much iron?
People who live in London will probably be laughing and pointing at me asking why I don’t get an Oyster Card. Although the pay as you go system doesn’t operate in my locale, the annual card system does. The problem is that I still have several months to go with my current card before I need to renew, and I have some serious issues with the Oyster system. You can be tracked quite successfully with it, and I quite like my civil liberties (Yes, I know that by having my mobile switched on, I can be tracked quite effectively enough thank you – check out the recent Google Maps update for an idea of the precision available).
But enough is enough. Come and find me authorities! Next time around it will be an Oyster Card.
There is one additional advantage that the ticket assistant who sold me my last card pointed out (even though he can’t sell me an Oyster Card) – you can cancel them. When I first got my annual travelcard, I lost it within a month. The rail company issued a replacement, but sent me a letter explaining that this was the first and only time they’d do this since the lost card was still ‘live’, and I could be a fraudster (They didn’t spell it out in quite these terms, but that was certainly my understanding). They suggested that in the future I might like to look into seeing if my home contents insurance covered any further losses. At least with Oyster Cards, you can cancel them remotely, like mobile phones, ensuring that your personal losses are minimised.

Privatising Radio 1 and Radio 2

In today’s FT, the former chairman of Endemol UK, Peter Bazalgette argues for the BBC selling off Radio 1 and Radio 2. As part of an argument to solve the BBC’s problem of facing losing a “top-slice” of the licence fee, Bazalgette has noted that the BBC still has a 55% share of radio.
His solution is to therefore sell off those two stations, which would overnight increase commercial share substantially, and reduce that of the BBC’s.
But there are two reasons why we needn’t and indeed shouldn’t do this.
1. While the BBC is biggest amongst the overall adult population, it’s doesn’t have the biggest share among the commercially attractive younger audience. Amongst 15-44s, commercial radio has a 53% share, while the BBC has a 44% share (the 3% difference is made up of “other” non-RAJAR measured radio listening). So although the BBC remains a powerful competitor, commercial radio is no weakling amongst listeners who’ve grown up listening to a commercial alternative.
2. Selling off Radio 1 and Radio 2 would be disastrous for the rest of the commercial radio industry. There are only five national FM stations broadcasting in the UK: Radios 1-4 and Classic FM. What Bazalgette is proposing is to sell off the two popular music stations. This is fine if you’re part of a commercial group that ends up winning these stations, but disastrous for everybody else. Commercial radio revenues are fairly static at the moment – about £600m – and they’re not likely to grow significantly in the near future. Indeed one of the issues facing new entrants to the industry is that, like television, everybody’s seeing a slightly thinner slice of the pie as more stations launch.
If Radio 1 and Radio 2 became commercial, you can be sure that the lion’s share of that £600m would go to the owners of those stations; everybody else would be fighting for metaphorical breadcrumbs. The biggest stations always get the most advertising, and these two would strangle local stations who rely on national income.
It seems a strange thing to argue coming as someone who works in commercial radio, but I think you’ll find the same is true if I was at ITV. They don’t want to see their revenues halved if money had to flood into BBC1. As a nation, we’re not large enough to support such a diverse selection of mainstream, and expensively produced services as we currently have. The advertising market just wouldn’t sustain it.

Digital Radio – What Now?

(First off, it’s worth me reiterating that these are my personal views and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer)
The following is a revision of a comment I made to a blog posting by The Guardian’s Matt Wells last week. I think it largely addresses the issues of where radio – and commercial radio in particular – needs to move to today:
There’s been a lot of talk about how technology has really been the main failing of DAB, with commentators continually addressing issues like the emergence of a successor to DAB, DAB+, and low broadcast bitrates of DAB stations as being reasons behind the lack of explosive success of DAB digital radio in the UK.
I think the technology arguments are a little specious. Sure, if you were launching digital radio in the UK today, you might well choose DAB+. But the only real difference with that is that you can squeeze more stations into the same space – and one thing we currently don’t have is a shortage of space. With technology we’re going to be constantly playing a catch-up game. If we backed DAB+ today, “DAB++” would be announced tomorrow and we’d be back to square one.
DAB essentially works on MPEG2 which is the same system that Freeview uses – the phenomenally successful Freeview that is – now in more homes than any other digital platform. What’s under the bonnet doesn’t really matter. In this instance, it’s programme or station choice, audio clarity and usability that count.
Sound quality is a well trodden argument. Radio 3 has a high bitrate and needs it. Pop stations tend to be lower – yet even the original recordings these days, are compressed enormously (ironically, so that they sound “loud” on mp3 players and FM radio), so there’s not a lot to be gained or lost, for many pop stations. I agree that mono is not the best option for music stations, but much listening is done in non optimal conditions on kitchen radios.
Now I wouldn’t for one second say that DAB could replace FM or AM today, tomorrow, or perhaps even ever. But what it does, it does pretty well. It has the ability to give us more choice in a format that for most people is an improvement in quality. Like all digital technologies, you either get a good signal, or you don’t get one at all.
If you want to listen in home or at work, then as long as you can get a signal, it’s a perfectly viable replacement. If you want to listen in car, it is a problem – largely because you almost certainly don’t have an in-car radio. There are rumours that Ford will start fitting DAB radios as standard is some models soon, but we’re heard these stories for a long time. I suspect that the profit on every new car sold is very tight, and if a car manufacturer can get away with fitting an FM radio, they will.
Out and about? Well portables are pretty good and improving all the time. They don’t work well in shops where my AM radio still lets me listen to the football when I’m out shopping on a Saturday afternoon, and battery life is poor. But overall, I can listen fine on my daily commute into work, again, as long as you have a decent signal along your journey.
There’s now an EPG on DAB, and the recent Roberts MP-Sound 41 allows you to programme your radio to record shows in advance straight to an SD card. In other words, exactly what you can do with your Sky+ – except that Sky doesn’t offer a full radio EPG because their early digiboxes have run out of memory so they don’t bother (this is also the reason why the list is now closed to new Sky launches).
The internet is not going to be a replacement for a while to come. You can’t stream radio in your car, and you’re not likely to be able to for some time. But it’s worth noting that not as much listening takes place in car as you might think. According to the most recent RAJAR figures, only 21% of radio listening is in car; most of it, 63%, is at home – the remainder is largely at work.
When you are able to receive a viable internet connection in your car, via WiMax, 3G or whatever, it’ll almost certainly cost you. And the infrastructure of internet broadcasting is not yet in a position that radio broadcasters would be able to serve the current broadcast audience via the internet. The bandwidth isn’t there. Putting a tall tower up and broadcasting the signal to anyone who cares to tune in, is still the most efficient way to get radio to the listener.
One of the more interesting numbers propogated by GCap is their claim that they have 15 million FM listeners and 1.7 million online. 15 million represents GCap’s weekly reach across the group on RAJAR – and it includes digital listening (including online). But their online audience, at least according to RAJAR, is not 1.7 million. It’s significantly less than that – at least for one week’s reach (RAJAR agreements mean that I can’t publish another station’s platform listening figures here). Now different measurement systems produce different results, and the online world has many different systems including a site’s own analytics software, but I’d be very interested to learn where this figure was derived from. 15 million represents one week’s listening to the network. Does 1.7 million also represent one week’s listening?
Podcasting certainly has a place in the landscape, but they don’t have the immediacy of radio, and can’t offer the choice of entertainment that broadcast radio can offer. If I want to listen to music, I listen to the radio. When I heard about the Camden fire a week ago, I turned on LBC to find out what was going on. The same goes for football, coverage of the BAFTAs, or even, god help us, the Brits.
So you’re left with what? A choice between the status quo, and the stations we have currently, or a digital platform that has space for new entrants. Indeed, for reasons I don’t understand, GCap’s new Chief Executive, and previously my ultimate boss, is arguing for switching off AM radio too. Obviously she hasn’t spent enough time in Snowdonia or the Highlands, where AM is the only radio option at all in many places.
DAB has to overcome some hurdles – principly the cost of transmission needs to come down, so that an econimically viable model can be found for some of the niche stations like Planet Rock and theJazz. But it’s not as though the wrong horse has been backed. There isn’t another horse anywhere else in the world that’s looking a likelier bet.
So is GCap pulling out of DAB a threat or an opportunity? It’s both. Channel 4 can’t launch soon enough for the good of the platform, although the latest we hear is that it won’t be up and running until the autumn. But if under the new Arqiva ownership, Digital One can arrive at a charging model that allows for some sustainable business models for smaller stations, then there is surely an opportunity for some new radio services programmed by people who care about the product?
In the meantime, the Digital Radio Working Group has begun to meet to try to determine what should happen next. But will the market end up making that decision for them?

Radio News

GCap’s announcement on Monday about its plans for the future were big news this week in the radio world (I’ll get around to some of my thoughts in due course), and the media sales trade magazine Media Week gave its cover lead to the story. GCap’s withdrawal from Digital One and the knock on effect that this might have on the DAB Digital Radio platform left some serious questions to be answered.
But curiously, today’s issue of Broadcast, the trade magazine which is “The Voice of British Broadcasting,” can only find space to mention the story on page 14.
This means one of two things: Either I’m living in the confines of a relatively small industry where such announcements are far more important that they are in the real world, or Broadcast has got its news values massively wrong.
It’s worth noting that GCap’s announcement saw coverage on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News that evening, and even The Sun covered it – and not on its business page.
I rather suspect that like the recent Broadcast Awards, if it doesn’t move on a screen, then they’re really not that interested in it. Certainly there’s a dedicated radio page, like there’s a dedicated multimedia page, but we’re in the 21st century now, and it’s really not all about TV.
At the very least, I would expect some kind of comment or editorial piece on the move.
But for Broadcast, the big news is that Five is planning to bring back Minder, with Shane Ritchie tipped to play Arthur Daley (I know. I just felt a shiver down my spine too).