Written by Radio

The Future of The Radio Academy

On Friday, The Radio Academy released an unusual press release that detailed how next year’s Radio Academy Awards were being cancelled, as was the Radio Festival. Furthermore, buried at the end, was news that the “Executive Unit” was being closed down. A new, unspecified London-based event, would replace both the Awards and Festival in due course.

What did all this mean?

First of all, I have no specific knowledge of what the underlying problem might be, but let’s go through some of them in turn.

Ending the Radio Academy Awards, aka The Sony Awards is very sad indeed. Sony themselves, ended their very long sponsorship run in 2013, and this year the awards didn’t have a headline sponsor, instead having a number of category sponsors.

I’ve always been a big fan of the Sony Awards (I even compiled a complete list of every Sony/Radio Academy Award ever), because they were the one place where both BBC and commercial radio competed together for excellence in UK radio. There were always fights and divisions over whether the BBC did unfairly well because the award categories were biased towards them, but in recent years newer categories meant that for the most part commercial radio could compete (and if it wasn’t winning awards, might that be because a lot of their radio wasn’t good enough?). Anyway, while I’m not privy to discussions surrounding it, I don’t tend to hear ITV moaning that the BBC has won too many BAFTA Awards.

And let’s be clear, the cancellation of the Sony’s is the equivalent of BAFTA deciding not to bother with the television awards. A Sony win always ends up on the CV of anybody lucky enough to get one, and it certainly did anything but good for someone’s future. For many, the Sony’s were the truest recognition of radio excellence among their peers. Commercial Radio has its Arqivas, and BBC Local Radio has its Gillards, but the Sony’s were the one thing that everyone fought for.

Furthermore, last time I checked, Award ceremonies usually made money. Although the details aren’t clear from the Charity Commission’s website for the Radio Academy, even allowing for the cost of feeding the radio industry with luke warm chicken in a Park Lane hotel, the entry fees and attendance costs for the night itself, should mean a profitable enterprise. Indeed many awards ceremonies outlive anything that they were previously tied to because they’re profitable in their own right.

Then there’s the Radio Festival. For the last few years, this had settled into a new home in Salford – attempting to replicate the Edinburgh TV Festival model of making a permanent home. Previously it had floated around for a few years. Salford was never perfect, with a decent chunk of the industry having to come up from the south, but the area is hardly out of reach, being a couple of hours away on the train.

This year’s Festival was the first for ages that I’d missed, but I heard very good things about it, and having subsequently spoken to a number of attendees, many thought that it was the best Festival in years.

I confess that I am slightly biased having sat for the last couple of years on the TechCon committee, the technical sub-conference that takes place annually, also under the auspices of the Radio Academy. But that too was a useful place for a discrete group of radio “techies” to get together and discuss what they’re doing and what the future holds.

I suspect that the finances of the Radio Festival are harder to calculate. It’s never cheap hiring out somewhere like the Lowry theatre for several days (this being a working theatre that usually accommodates week-long touring productions), as well as attendant costs surrounding staffing, technology, and so on. Some of this is probably mitigated by sponsorship, but I suspect that the overall event is break-even at best.

Radio does need its own conference. However uncertain our industry is at the moment, with new technologies delivering audio and fighting for our “ears” – we still need somewhere to talk about things honestly, hear best practices and celebrate our medium. And make no mistake, it wouldn’t be that hard for someone else to fill in the void – particularly if a conference was to be broadened out to include other streaming and audio services. “RadioDays UK” anyone?

Let’s hope that a new event that encompasses the Awards and the Festival does really achieve that. I would, however, point out that attendees of the Sony Awards and Radio Festival were not the same people. Yes the very senior-most probably get to go to both. But the Sony’s were primarily there for those who actually make radio. So presenters, producers and those who help craft the audio were those we truly celebrated. It’s not for nothing that I only ever got to go to the Sony’s once – and then at short notice when someone dropped out. On the other hand, at the Festival, it was more the “suits” – the executives who delivered new strategies or ways of thinking and doing business. Certainly the art of radio was also discussed, but for the most part, the only “talent” attending the Festival were there to speak rather than to sit in the audience.

So whatever this new event is to be, it’s important to remember that there are different constituencies that the Awards and Festival used to serve.

Then there’s the closure of the “Executive Unit” – the four fulltime staff who sit in the Academy’s small London office, neighbours of DRUK, RadioCentre and RAJAR. These are the people who actually put these events on, and administer the things that the Radio Academy has been doing. I’m not at all clear how this new event (or the others that continue under the Academy’s auspices) will take place without a staff to administer it. Certainly you can outsource your events management, and I assume that’s what the Trustees have decided is better value. But that comes at the cost of knowledge.

And I’m not at all clear what this means for the regional events side of the Academy, and the Masterclasses that they organised to help people learn how to get into the industry. All those meetings where you could sit and learn about what we do as a medium. Will those continue? Who will organise them? Indeed with only a part-time CEO left, I’m not sure what the Radio Academy is going to be able to do for itself. While many of these events have local volunteer committees, it’s the guiding hand of an overall Academy that helps them achieve their aims.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more misleading the release we had on Friday really is. This isn’t just an amendment to a couple of events; this is a fundamental change, and arguably, is the dismantling of the Radio Academy. It’s particularly vague to say that the Academy has “an ambition” to create a new event. We all have “ambitions” don’t we? Whether we get close to achieving them is something altogether different.

Now I’m not going to argue that the Academy was perfect. Over the summer, the Radio Academy’s Chairman, Ben Cooper, asked “what does it mean to you”?

And here is what I wrote back:

Dear Ben,

What does the Radio Academy mean to me?

To put my thoughts into context, I’ll begin by saying a little about me. I worked at Absolute Radio (and Virgin Radio) for 17 years until earlier this year latterly as Head of Strategy & Planning. I have sat on the TechCon committee for the last three years, I was very briefly on the London committee, and I regularly attended both London Radio Academy events and the Radio Festival for the last few years.

At the moment, I am on a six month contract in News Strategy at the BBC – so indirectly with radio since the World Service is one of the areas I’m looking at.

From a practical perspective, the Radio Academy to me is – or should be – made up of several areas:

  • A place where the industry can meet and exchange views and ideas

  • Somewhere we can celebrate our industry in all its forms

  • A body that can help promote the strengths of the medium to wider audience

  • Somewhere to help people both begin and progress their careers

Beyond these, and in more detail, I have a number of observations. It should be noted that although I’ve been working in radio for more than 17 years, I probably only “discovered” the Radio Academy in the last eight or so.

London Events
It’s disappointing that relatively few people attend some of the London events. The number of people who work in radio in Central London must be a healthy four figure number, and yet you mostly only get the “regulars” who come to pretty much anything that the Academy puts on. They might have an interest in what’s being discussed, but they treat it more as a social event (I must confess to being in this group).
It’s not as though events aren’t “sold out” – but there could and should be a more diverse range of attendees. Indeed, the Academy should be desperately trying to find a bigger venue to meet demand!
Critical to the future of the Radio Academy is attracting a wider reach. I think it can act as a social gathering, but it mustn’t be a closed shop. It needs to be welcoming and try harder to reach the vast number of people who work in the industry and yet have never felt the need to come along.
I would personally forward emails to all staff detailing events that I thought would appeal to staff members. But even then it was like getting blood out of a stone.
Incidentally, I don’t think that this is an issue with the London committee who I know work hard to put on a wide range of events. I think it’s more of an organisational or cultural issue amongst patrons’ stations and groups.

Recognise The Breadth Of What We Do
A lot of time is spent on the craft and output of radio, and rarely on that important and dirty bit that affects half the industry – the commercial part. I suspect that the problem there is that half the Academy’s members might feel that it doesn’t affect them.
If 50% of commercial radio employees don’t feel that the organisation is relevant to them because it ignores what they do, can it really be said to be all encompassing? Similarly, aside from the odd speaker on the occasion, I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone from any agency that buys radio advertising bothering to attend the Radio Festival. A common complaint that’s rightly levelled against commercial radio is that the quality of creative in advertising is pretty poor. This isn’t the place to get into that, but the Radio Festival probably is the right place. And while I’m not sure that I’d see too many agency faces in Salford this October, I’m pretty sure that plenty of their television cousins are heading to Edinburgh in the next few days!
Even persuading people who work in sales teams that they were eligible to enter 30 Under 30 was a challenge.

Do Organisations’ Employees Know They’re Members?
All the big radio groups and many of the smaller groups are patron members, but does everyone within their groups know? And did they realise that they were entitled to attend? Is it part of the induction process when new staff join? How do people even discover the existence of the Radio Academy?
This was a constant battle I fought when I was at Absolute Radio, trying to get a wider group of people beyond “the usual suspects” to attend.

Essential For Your Career
The Radio Academy needs to present itself in a way that would seem to help people’s careers. There shouldn’t need to be a stick to get people along to things, but if sessions were framed in such a way as to help you get on in your chosen profession, then people would attend. Indeed, in a medium that has consolidated significantly, there are fewer jobs in radio, so progression becomes harder. Showing your face amongst your peers should necessarily help people within their careers.

Strengthen the Academy’s Masterclass offering. Last year I had the tiniest of roles in a terrific day co-organised by the BBC Academy and members of the TechCon committee – the Radio Technology Masterclass. The event was completely sold out, and there was a waiting list to get into it.
Yet the Masterclass, for reasons I’m not completely clear about, has not been repeated this year despite a general willingness of those involved to give up another day to do it again.
I believe that the Academy should have a regularly run series of classes that take place throughout the year. These needn’t be completely free, but modestly priced to cover some of the time and costs, and not solely in London or Salford.
Indeed maybe this should just be considered “training.” I don’t know how much training Global or Bauer manage internally, but I know that the BBC Academy is well used resource. Is working with the BBC Academy a way to broaden offerings and make training available to a wider group of people?

A CEO Who Will Last The Course
Appoint a Chief Executive who’s going to be there longer than a year.
I don’t mean to sound flippant or facile, but it feels that the Academy has been a little rudderless for the last couple of years, with CEOs who probably had too much on their plates to spend the right amount of time with the Academy – actually being in the office and attending meetings.
While the calibre of person the Academy needs and the salary that it can afford to pay perhaps means that a full time CEO is hard or impossible to achieve, when the Academy employs its next CEO it needs to ensure that they’re in it for the long haul – ideally at least three years.

Facilitate Cross-Fertilisation
I think that in some areas, technology springs to mind, there’s a good cross fertilisation of ideas between BBC and commercial people. Initiatives including RadioPlayer and the Radio Technology Group allow this. But I’m not at all sure that this is the case elsewhere.
For whatever reason, too many people seem to think that there’s nothing that they can learn from the “other side.” I still recall sitting next to someone I didn’t know on a bus to gala dinner in The Monastery in Gorton who turned out to be a producer on Radio 4’s Front Row. He didn’t listen to anything apart from Radio 4, and the whole experience of attending the Radio Festival had opened his eyes. He hadn’t realised what an incredible breadth and range of offerings that there were.
Similarly, I see all too few programming people from commercial groups believe that there’s anything they can learn from those not in the commercial sector – indeed even from others in the commercial sector.
This all creates a very narrow vision of what radio is and might be.

Clarify Charitable Status
I must admit that I do find the charitable status of the Radio Academy confusing. I’m sure that there must be a good reason for it, and perhaps it makes it easier for Patron organisations like the BBC or Global Radio able to support it. I just wonder if sometimes it makes it a burden, limiting what it can and can’t do.

Consider Broadening The Academy’s Membership
There’s a battle being fought at the moment over what the word “Radio” actually means. Digitally music services often describe themselves as “Radio” services. In the US, iTunes has co-opted the word for its Spotify equivalent – banishing “traditional” radio to the curious “Internet Radio” nomenclature!
These services aren’t the same as broadcast radio, but most realise that what our audiences want from radio is evolving. Once upon a time you either played an LP or single, or turned on Radio 1 on your AM radio. Today you listen to your music on iTunes, rent music from Spotify on your smartphone, or listen Radio 1 on FM, DAB or mobile, or one of any number of other devices. But the delineation is becoming blurred. Is Spotify fulfilling the CD/iTunes need? Or is it eating into broadcast radio? Or (most likely in my view), a bit of both?
Across the industry there are different views about how we ought to react to these new services. I think the Radio Academy needs to have that discussion too. Do we invite the likes of Spotify to become patrons too? Do we pretend these services don’t exist? Or do we compete with one another for listeners as the BBC, Global and Bauer already do? One way or another, it’s always worth having the discussion.

Talk To Your Members More
By now you’re probably getting bored of reading my screed! But I love the fact that as a member, I’ve been asked what I think the Radio Academy should be. I don’t know how many responses that you’ll get to this. I hope it’ll be a lot.
But also consider using questionnaires for the membership in the future – particularly when there’s a more structured response that you’re looking for.
Anyway, I hope at least some of this has been useful.

Adam Bowie

So as I said – no – the Radio Academy wasn’t perfect in my eyes. But neither did I think it was a basket case. There are lots of things I’d have done to improve things.

As I say, I don’t know what the reason for these drastic changes, but I’d be amazed if they weren’t all financial. The organisation is propped up by Patron members – the BBC, Global, Bauer and so on. And I’d be amazed if one or more of those organisations weren’t looking to cut how much they spend on the Academy.

Once you cut back to a certain level, you can’t keep on a staff. That makes Awards and a Festival harder to plan. So they’re going to look for a new model. The swift nature of the end of the “Executive Unit” means that they’re trying to achieve these savings rapidly.

It’s even sadder when you compare the Radio Academy with perhaps its closest equivalent in television, the Royal Television Society (RTS). The RTS is also largely funded by its patrons – the big broadcasters – but the industry is bigger, and from the looks of their Charity Commission returns, they have some significant assets (their building?).

So if it’s the broadcasters who are pulling funding for the Radio Academy, that’s profoundly sad. Because there really isn’t anywhere else to go – in particular for BBC and commercial people to meet and discuss ideas.

One thing is clear: members need a clearer message from the Radio Academy’s Trustees about its future. Friday’s release really wasn’t enough.