Radio Festival 2012 – Some Thoughts

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During the Radio Festival, I was busily writing some contemporaneous notes about what was happening at the sessions I attended. But these weren’t really a considered view – more, what struck me as interesting or worth repeating at the time I was writing them. Having had a couple of night’s sleep since then, these are a few reflections.
It’s also worth adding that it was only thanks to my employer, Absolute Radio, paying for me to attend that I was able to go. These, however, are my own thoughts.

And so ends another Radio Festival. It’s true, I missed Foot in the Door, but once the PPL Hall of Fame dinner has concluded, it’s time to wind down a bit.
If you’ve never been to a Radio Festival – and this is my fifth – then you perhaps don’t know the make-up. There are some keynotes, some panel sessions, and few other sessions thrown in. There’s a sub-conference in Techcon, and for the most part there are at least two simultaneous sessions ensuring that you always have a choice of things to see.
Techcon is there largely for the IT and engineering communities to discuss the breakthroughs in those arenas. But these days, technology is becoming an integral part of the main conference, so events now actually overlap. Once upon a time broadcasting was pretty straightforward, but today your web strategy can significantly affect how a show is actually put together. I suspect that these boundaries will continue to blur.
It was a good Festival overall, I felt, with more sessions hitting their mark than not. The nature of things is that you can’t see everything, but I saw some really interesting speakers, learnt some useful things, and came away with plenty of thoughts flying around in my head. And of course it’s about meeting up with people, having chats in the corridors and hallways of the Lowry in Salford Quays.
Of the sessions I saw, I especially enjoyed David Joseph from Universal Records. I think he had some fair points to make about commercial radio not supporting new artists to the extent that it might. Yes, they would say that, but I was genuinely surprised how little artists like Ben Howard and Lana Del Ray are actually being played on UK radio considering their relative sales success.
The “Mscore” that RCS is able to derive from data they collect via Arbitron PPMs in the US is fascinating. I still have some issues with that way of collecting ratings, but it’s great that RAJAR is working with Ipsos and their smartphone technology to provide finer granularity of listening data with their Mediacell project – also demonstrated at the festival.
I also thought that Billy Bragg’s John Peel Lecture was absolutely excellent. He had a real focus for what he wanted to say and made some very strong arguments. I didn’t necessarily agree with all them – the national curriculum hasn’t placed enough importance on maths and science. Although keeping the arts on it is important. But even if I wasn’t 100% in agreement, I thought he made a cogent case. And he was right in some areas. In particular he examined the case of Jake Bugg, and how he used his local radio stations to break through. It truly is awful that kids of his age think the only way into the music business these days is through shows like The X Factor.
Frank Skinner was an excellent guest, and being interviewed by his friend Adrian Chiles got the best out of him. And he did talk about radio and its importance in his life.
And of course, the work that Michael Hill and his team have done over a proof-of-concept hybrid radio is truly excellent. I really hope that some of this gets built into an actual retail unit.
The session on speech radio was interesting, although I still fail to understand why there isn’t more commercial speech radio in the UK. I do think that perhaps Global is missing a trick not rolling LBC out nationally. While the “L” does indeed stand for London, I know that the name “Capital” also means London, and that doesn’t seem to matter to people around the rest of the country. I don’t think it’d take a lot of tinkering to make it a national station.
While I respect Talksport’s Moz Dee’s concern that commercial speech shouldn’t just be about phone-ins, there’s still surprisingly little speech available. While London’s RAJAR figures are little unstable, the fact that LBC is currently bigger than Heart London should at least provide some food for thought. Speech isn’t easy to do, and isn’t cheap, but I’m convinced there’s still room for more than 5 Live and Talksport.
The award for fieriest panel of the Festival must surely go to #IsAnyBody listening. Roger Bolton was not a happy man. In particular a video featuring manufactured controversy to publicise the launch of Absolute Radio 60s really roused his ire; as much as anything because so many media organisations had given it publicity. I would point him in the direction of Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News and what he coins to be “churnalism.” I think the session got slightly sidetracked on a couple of occasions. That said, I thought what a woman in the audience noted of the Today Programme Facebook page – there’s no engagement with programme makers – was really enlightening. Not so much in relation to that programme in particular, but any station working in the social media sphere.
I know I missed some good sessions that others told me about including Bruce Daisley’s Twitter session. Fortunately he came into present to the Absolute Radio sales team recently, so while I’m sure he some new stuff for the festival, I do know what an excellent presenter he is. People also said that Ben Cooper from Radio 1 was well worth listening to. I’m impressed at what he’s up to, giving the station a refresh with the new breakfast show and pushing a couple of the old guard out. That said, I thought Miranda Sawyer on this week’s Media Guardian podcast had some good points to make about music becoming a bit more ageless. But even though breaking people up on age might be hard at times, Radio 1 does need to serve a youth audience. If it doesn’t, then the medium will die. It’s as simple as that.
I sometimes have problems with panel sessions, and one thing the Festival sometimes struggled to do was open up the conversation to everyone attending. Sometimes that was due to time constraints, but in other cases it can be down to people not keeping to time. I do have a bit of a bugbear with panels where each member gets to talk for a few minutes, usually with the help of PowerPoint or a video, and invariably they all overrun. That leaves the panel’s host less time to get into a proper discussion. And all too often that meant either no time for questions from the floor, or perhaps just time for a single question.
I think that panelists should not need to use any props to get their points across. If you’re running a presentation, then perhaps you need your own session. I don’t want things to be overly simplified, but we need to be realistic about how much can be covered in 50 minutes.
That all said, the best discussion I saw came off the back of The Sound Business Case For Women panel where there were some indubitably strong feelings in the room (only 14 men according to a Tweet), but it was a good debate. The conversations actually developed as the discussion continued. It was all really quite involving.
I should add that while I’m writing this immediately after attending the Radio Festival, I’m actually talking as much about any conference as this one in particular.
If I had a few criticisms (and perhaps I should be a little wary here since my boss was chair of the Festival committee this year!) it’s that there were probably one too many “senior person in the industry talks about why they’re so good sessions.”
To be fair, I tried to avoid these, so not having sat in the room, I might have missed some gems. And I’m not saying that there’s nothing to learn in these sessions, but I think I probably prefer looking forward to looking back. I want a speaker to say something bold.
Reading the reports of Fru Hazlett’s speech (which I missed), she had a bit of that about her. And as I mentioned above, in the John Peel Lecture on Monday night, Billy Bragg certainly took the ball and ran with it. I want someone to stand up and make a call to arms – a declaration. I want them to tell me where they think the industry is heading – tell us what we’re doing wrong, or what we should be doing. While anecdotes are great, personally I’m looking for something a bit more meaty at a conference.
And it’s always great to actually hear some radio. Yes your TV ad is great. But do we really need to see another video? Invariably videos are too long anyway. But there were relatively few actual radio clips.
I really enjoyed Vicki Blight’s interview with Steve Lamacq because it was punctuated on occasion with extended extracts of some favourite or relevant tracks. A really nice idea. It was almost as though he was being interviewed for Desert Island Discs, where as Frank Skinner later expressed to his delight, they truly play the whole record when you’re recording the show, even though it’s often tightly edited for broadcast. Similarly we heard a lovely three minute excerpt of an edition of RadioLab to illustrate that programme in a later session. Let’s have some belief in the audio that we make – it really can engage an audience in a big room as much as in a small one. And unlike many radio conferences, the audio facilities here were excellent.
Don’t be scared of radio. It is what we – as an industry – are good at after all.
Finally I should just praise Mark Radcliffe, Stuart Maconie and Margerita Taylor who acted as room hosts. They’re just so good. Margherita Taylor in particular is just incredibly professional and can speak without any kind of notes.
What would I like to see next year? I think we’re a little light on international faces and ideas. Perhaps even from somewhere that doesn’t predominantly broadcast in the English language? Yes – there’s RadioDays Europe, but relatively few of us get to attend international conferences compared with those who can make the Radio Festival.
Data is going to become key in a lot of industries and radio will be no different. I’d like to see some examples of what can be done with that. I also think that it’s inevitable that there’ll be more technical aspects to the Radio Festival as the way we listen changes.
And the single best thing about the Festival? The WiFi! It worked flawlessly. And as some people noted, there was better connectivity in the Lowry than most have at home. Congratulations to all concerned for getting that up and running. Now if the Lowry theatre could be persuaded to sprinkle a few more plug sockets around their building…
Congratulations to Margherita Taylor, Helen Mayhew, Danny Baker and Sandi Toksvig on all being inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame.
And because I recorded it, here’s Peter Kay “inducting” Danny Baker:

Finally, on an entirely different subject (although clearly it ran as an undercurrent throughout the entire Radio Festival), can I heartily recommend this week’s Media Show on Radio 4 for a much more measured take on the whole BBC issue at the moment. I’ve not attempted to write too much about it here, even though I have some fairly trenchant views on the matter, largely because I don’t know the full facts.
But that obviously doesn’t prevent some others from saying what they like regardless. When the news broke around 9pm on Saturday that the Director General was resigning, there was immediate live coverage on the news channels. And of course the people who made themselves immediately available tended to be people with knives to dig into the BBC in general. In the next few hours and days, there was a lot of ill-considered nonsense spoken about.
So it was rather refreshing to hear some genuinely measured and considered views on the whole mess and what it really means. In particular I found John Ware’s involvement compelling. He’s a journalist I’ve always respected, and he’s right to put things in perspective. When that edition of Panorama on the original Savile/Newsnight fiasco aired, I too thought that it was far too flip of John Simpson (someone else I admire) to rush to say that it was the worst crisis to ever hit the BBC. Ware was right to call him out on that. Indeed it was odd at the time that was practically Simpson’s only contribution to the whole programme.
Anyway, the guests were all considered in their views, and while I might not have agreed with them all, I couldn’t claim that they didn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart. I think it was right too that utter distractions like the DG’s payoff were avoided. That really isn’t the story; although at times you’d have been hard pressed to avoid that impression.