Written by Radio

Some Final Thoughts on Radio Festival 2013

The Lowry - Salford

Well it’s only been a little under twenty-four hours, but having essentially just published notes on what took place during the sessions I saw, I thought it was better to step back and have a more considered view.

First of all, there are a few things I missed, but have since caught up with. Charlotte Church’s John Peel Lecture made headlines and is worth catching up with on iPlayer (although I’m unclear as to why there’s a relatively short expiry date on catching it).

I also missed Helen Boaden’s speech on Monday, but that’s up at the BBC’s Media Centre.

And I hope that Simon Elme’s audio soundscape, recorded and edited during the Festival, gets uploaded somewhere. Due to an overrun at the John Lloyd session, I missed a chunk of it.

Over the last year or so, Sound Women, the organisation dedicated to raising the profile of women in the radio industry, has had a significant impact. I would be surprised if there’s a single radio executive who, when making an appointment hasn’t considered some of the issues that Sound Women has rightfully raised. Perhaps the organisation’s biggest success to date is the recent announcement from BBC Director General Tony Hall to aspire to have half of BBC Local Radio stations’ breakfast shows presented by women by the end of 2014. Well – I’ve used the word “aspire” but it’s not completely clear what the deadline really means. However, even without getting into the nitty-gritty of whether co-presenting counts, or what happens if current presenters have longer-term contracts, it’s clearly a fine aspiration. It’s not without its critics, with some wondering if men in some of those roles might be dropped through no fault of their own. While others wonder if there are enough high calibre candidates in place right now. Clearly there are “enough”, but the argument goes that if we agree that there has been an institutional bias against women in the past, it might need longer to get top quality candidates who are at the right level.

I’m not a programmer or a presenter. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that this year’s Festival was at the very least informed by Sound Women. There was a starkly noticeable increase in female speakers – quite deliberately so.

Fi Glover and Jane Garvey were brilliant hosts replacing Radcliffe and Maconie who’d been running things for the last couple of years. I should though note that in another reversal, Jon Holmes held the fort in room two, replacing Margherita Taylor who’s done the job superbly in the past.

And most panels or discussions had women on them. There was at least one short film (and may have been more that I missed) entitled the XX Factor which attempted to make us rethink some of our preconceptions. So we had a version of 5 Live’s 606 presented solely by women.

But perhaps most notably, former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith spoke at the Festival. I missed that session (as it clashed with a superb session from Laurence Grissell), but Smith said enough to generate press coverage. Smith called for positive discrimination for women in radio but in my view, I think that’d be a very dangerous precedent to set. If we set quotas for women, how about ethnic minorities (also likely to be under-represented), or those with disabilities? And just radio? Why not every industry? The Cabinet’s still quite male too.

I thought that Ashley Tabor hit the nail on the head when he explained that Global Radio hires people based solely on their skills:

“At Global we have a saying – good honest casting. By which we mean the right person gets the job at the right moment based on their skills and qualifications. It has absolutely nothing to do with their sex, race and creed. The person has to get the gig based on their credentials and skills and abilities.”

Of course, there clearly is an underrepresentation of women in radio – particularly in presenting. And the industry needs to make sure that there are the opportunities for women to learn the skills to mean that they can get that job when they apply.

That underrepresentation is especially notable in technical areas, where there’s a much broader issue of significantly fewer women working in those professions. In the IET’s 2012 Skills Survey just 8% of IT employees are female, and women represent just 6% of engineering employees.

Whereas it seems as though there’s a significantly better representation of women in the radio sales industry (I should note that the best figures I could find came from the IPA’s 2012 Census which reports 49% of the advertising industry is female – although it’s certainly a much lower figure in the senior roles).

But gender diversity is not nearly the only area that needs addressing in radio.

My own particular bête noire in the industry, is the lack of diversity in backgrounds of new entrants. Radio, I believe, is profoundly middle class. And while necessarily, it’s exclusionary on the basis of education – most roles requiring a certain skillset even in entry positions – I think that it actively discriminates against people joining from the industry from poorer backgrounds in the way people practically enter the business.

Again, Ashley Tabor was on the money when he pointed out that many people who find their way into radio, get into it via work experience and through people they know. The singularly best way to get entry into the industry is to work for no money and make yourself useful. I’m looking in particular at commercial radio here but I’ve heard stories about the BBC too.

And that’s profoundly exclusionary.

You almost certainly have to live in a big city – and quite probably have to come to London. You need to be able to support yourself, and have somewhere to live, perhaps for weeks, months or even years at a time before getting a paid position. And if you manage to jump through all those hoops, and you’re good, then with a fair wind, you’ll get in.

However if you live a long way from the big city, and don’t have a friend in London in whose flat you can crash, or have a ready means of income to support your own board and lodgings while you’re doing “work experience”, then you’re out of luck. In reality, that means you need parents who can afford to subsidise you as you seek that permanent job. And that means that we miss out on talent.

(The issue was recently raised on the Media Guardian podcast with an unnamed station accused of serially using unpaid staff for paid positions.)

I think it’s vital for the radio industry that a wider range of voices gets through our doors. So things like Global’s Academy are really important.

This isn’t a radio-only issue either. I’ve never worked in television sector, but from what I’ve read, the problem is much worse there with unpaid positions rampant.

Anyway, I only mention all of this because the women in radio issue was very overtly tackled in this year’s Festival. And I’d love to see some of these broader issues about the lifeblood of our industry tackled in a future Festival. To stay relevant, we need a broad church of voices and creativity.

Back to other thoughts that occur to me after this year’s Festival.

I still hate panels I’m afraid. That’s not to say that you can’t put several people on stage at once. It can work well. But the structure I particularly dislike is one where each person gets to speak for a few minutes, and there’s then a “discussion.”

More often than not, each speaker will overrun, the “discussion” can end up unfocused because the three speakers have been put together by committee, and before anything meaningful is reached, we’ve run out of time anyway. You’re also asking a great deal of your moderator to try to generate a genuine discussion in those circumstances.

But there were a few good debates – with the highlight perhaps being the Richard Bacon session on BBC Trust. It was rough and tumble stuff, and Bacon kept things moving bringing in audience members and panellists alike.

That said, I felt terribly sorry for Belinda Allen of Celador who was essentially silent throughout the discussion. She didn’t say a word for the first half an hour, and barely anything thereafter. As I say, it was clear that the organisers were trying to ensure most panels had female representation, but between Alan Yentob and Trevor Kavanagh, it’s always going to take an especially feisty individual to get their voice heard within that session.

What I would say though, is that she was the only real link to radio on the panel, since the discussion was actually about BBC management practices and BBC TV. It still made for an enjoyable session.

Nihal has a good future as an interviewer! I don’t know to what extent there had been a “pre-interview” with Jonathan Wall or Liam Fisher, but he was lobbing grenades into the conversation from the off. He’d be an interesting voice if he ever wanted to head in a current affairs direction.

I thought that TechCon was pretty good this year (Disclaimer: I’m on the committee), with really interesting discussions on quality and the how radio might be able to utilise 4G. Sadly, as I had ducked out into the main festival, I missed a session on Loudness which I do think is an important issue in radio today. There is an awful lot of poor quality being introduced into FM radio to make it “louder”.

It’s always great to get a live demo. And the highlight this year was surely the work done by Rashid Mustafa of Ofcom. It was a wonderful thing to be able to tune my pocket DAB radio into a digital service originating on a Raspberry Pi! Yes – you needed another PC and some other kit to make it all work, but it’s a terrific proof of concept and allied with his fantastic report into low-powered DAB, opens up lots of doors for stations that have hitherto felt left out by a digital switchover in radio.

I was very pleased to see far fewer videos this year. I’ve been critical in the past of videos which are really no more than sales videos selling your station or brand. This year, the videos that I did see were used well to illustrate points.

You can always tell the people who’ve practised their piece and those who are winging it. We did occasionally suffer a poorly prepared presenter, or more likely, someone with no understanding of time. But what I really like are focused presentations that deliver something specific. And as I mentioned, Laurence Grissell did that in spades with his piece on Storytelling.

The Radio Remembers sequence was once again excellent – and stern words from the host warned people not to try to leave (or enter) the room while it was playing. I do hope that a wider audience – including listeners – gets to hear and see the piece.

Scariest person at this year’s Festival was Millie Riley of We Are Grape and Radio 1. I don’t doubt for a second that her observations about how unimportant radio is in the lives of the young today were both unpalatable and accurate. It’s healthy to tell it as it is. Someone did mention in passing how bored they were of hearing about how youth is listening to less radio each year, but to ignore it would be to put your head in the sand. That’s why what Ben Cooper and Andy Roberts do with their brands is so important. And I had to laugh when Charlie Sloth (who I like, but I know leaves some people a bit cold) noted just how “old” the room was, and felt the need to explain that “sick” is actually quite good.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw at the Festival was a demo of iTunes Radio on an iPad that thought it was in the US. Yes – I know that there are instructions around, even in my inbox – but I don’t own any iOS devices so this was instructive.

I must say that I was actually quite underwhelmed. The service looks decent, but nothing special. Of course the massive strength they have is that millions of devices will automatically enable that button without owners doing anything on the day that Apple switches it on in the UK or elsewhere. Today, you have to proactively download Spotify, Deezer, Rdio or whatever. iTunes Radio will just be there. And that’s how they’ll get numbers.

And doing deals with the record labels to have personally curated playlists from stars like Katy Perry is very smart. Labels also have the space to plug their choice of acts. Time will tell how successful it becomes.

And here’s something I’ve noticed as an aside. iTunes has actually always had “radio” in it. But in recent years it has become a bit hidden and you’ve had to work harder to seek it out switching it “on” in the preferences of iTunes.

It’s also a horrible experience. To listen to Absolute Radio, for example, you need to know that the station is categorised as Top 40/Pop (!), and then find it in a long list of 798 similarly categorised stations.

In recent iterations “Radio” moved from the left hand bar to being a tab on top of Music – again, only if you turned it on in preferences.

In iTunes 11, “Radio” is now called “Internet Radio”. Whereas Apple’s new streaming product is called “Radio”.

That makes sense doesn’t it?

It’s one thing adopting an existing word for your new product. It’s another to rebrand the older product as something else!

Returning again to the Festival, I thought one of the missed opportunities was the session on causing offence. While it was an at times rambunctious session – and with Nick Ferrari on the panel, that perhaps wasn’t surprising – I’d have like the session to explore the disparity in rules between BBC and commercial radio a bit more. It always feels to me that commercial radio is treated unfairly – there being no radio equivalent of the watershed.

Also given the “explicit” nature of a lot of music today, there was a missed area to be explored. It’s interesting to read reports of student radio stations “banning” artists who use what they consider sexist material in their videos. Should we be glorifying artists like Rihanna or Robin Thicke as they race to the bottom with their rush to get views on YouTube?

The key missing element of this year’s Festival? Sales or advertising. There was a single session that properly tackled it, and not altogether successfully I felt. It’s a critical part of the mix for half the industry, and I’m always disappointed when I see so few attendees from agencies or clients. So I’d consider its inclusion could be an opportunity.

All things considered, I did enjoy this year’s Radio Festival. There will continue to be challenges as we contract as an industry. But it’s important that we have get togethers like this to learn from each other. You can research things online to your heart’s content, but it’s not the same as speaking with people and striking up thoughtful conversations.

It’ll be fascinating to see what direction Paul Robinson will take the Festival next year.