Written by Radio

Radio Academy AGM: Some Thoughts

Yesterday was a very interesting evening at the Radio Academy’s AGM. Ordinarily this is a rather dry affair formally closing the previous year’s accounts. It usually happens just ahead of a London event – if only to ensure that the meeting is quorate (a favourite word of Academy Chairman Ben Cooper, we learnt).

But last night was somewhat different. As you may well know, the Radio Academy is in something of a state of flux at the moment. Read my previous piece for a bit more on it.

Since then, all four members of the “executive office” have been made redundant, and we’re no closer to really knowing what the future of the Academy is.

James Cridland live-Tweeted last night’s meeting, and he’s cleaned it all up a bit over on his site. It’s well worth reading in full.

In summary, these are the points I would take from the meeting:

  • The Academy only has money until the end of March next year.
  • The bulk of its money comes from its patrons – big companies like the BBC, Global and Bauer. Subscriptions from others don’t really come into play much.
  • Both the Radio Academy Awards (formerly the Sonys) and the Radio Festival lost money this year.
  • Getting a replacement sponsor for the “Sonys” is really hard since Sony was sole sponsor for 32 years (A new sponsor will get frustrated that people keep using the old sponsor’s name. Cf the “Perrier” Awards in Edinburgh.
  • It’s unlcear what, if any help will come to local and regional branches in the coming weeks and months to organise local events. Ben Cooper expressed a hope that Trustees would be able to help.
  • The Trustees are all stepping down in March and elections of some sort will be held for a new set of Trustees and/or the re-election of some of the current ones.
  • There are some key disagreements between different Trustees as to what the future of the Academy should be.
  • There will be an EGM early next year where members will be presented some views of what a future Radio Academy might look like.
  • There was a really good attendance last night, with a lot of longtime members who really care about the Academy’s future.
  • Ben Cooper does not take criticism lying down. When one questioner suggested that he was failing to show leadership, he gave a fairly impassioned defence of his time as Chairman; the fact that he’d been given a “hospital pass” from the previous Chairman (I assume Ashley Tabor), and that there were some fundamental differences in opinions.
  • Jez Nelson of Somethin’ Else alluded to some of the deeper divisions among Trustees, and got Ben Cooper to agree that those differences which have so far been kept private, need to come out into the open. This, he suggested would happen at the EGM next year.
  • Ben Cooper said that he would like a single day event, taking place in London (since that’s where most of the industry works, and transport and hotels have been identified as major hurdle in attending the Salford-based Festival) with a broader conference during the day, and renewed set of awards in the evening. The awards needn’t be the traditional sit-down meal in a Park Lane hotel. And the conference would include a wider group of attendees including those from “Silicon Roundabout” and the advertising agency community.

It was probably only towards the end of the meeting that we really got to the heart of the matter. There are some serious differences in what some of the big radio groups think the future of the Radio Academy should be. And because the big groups prop up the organisation, they have a lot of implicit control.

In a year when both the Awards and the Festival lost money, that means those groups have a lot of clout. And there’s no agreement between them. The Festival making or losing money is almost completely in the hands of the big boys. If they choose not to send as many representatives to the event, then who do you imagine is going to attend? Certainly times are tough and budgets are tight both commercially and within the BBC. But it can be make or break dependent on who comes. As for the Awards losing money? I’ve still no idea how that happens. Even without a headline sponsor, I’d give the Awards to a private company if that’s the case.

Because there’s been so much consolidation within the radio industry, we’ve ended up in this place, and seems to me that even if we get through this, that makes the organisation’s future untenable. So we’re left with two choices. Either fund the organisation from individual subscriptions (with perhaps small contributions from patrons), or broaden the membership of the group. I can’t see that we can avoid asking other “audio” groups to join a new “Audio Academy.” There is a demarcation of lines – where does radio start and stop any more in an on demand world? That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a set of radio awards – awards given to programmes regardless of delivery mechanism. I look at television and note that Netflix and Amazon get nominations in the US Emmy Awards for example. The delivery mechanism is frankly irrelevant.

And that’s not to say that I don’t believe in a popular linear, mostly live radio listening experience.

But broadening the base would strengthen the industry. And if one group decides it’s not going to fund the organisation, then we have a wider financial backing to rely on. You can’t be held to ransom.

But in the meantime, it does feel like there are two different Radio Academies, and the Trustees aren’t perhaps as aware of the “other” one. There was a lot of talk about the Awards, the Festival, and the Hall of Fame dinner that took place only last week. I know how important it is for radio talent to be commemorated at such events.

But there also needs to be a realisation that the pool of people who can attend big expensive events like that is limited. Furthermore, the people who attend a radio conference are not necessarily the people who attend a radio awards ceremony.

To most members, the Radio Academy means their local/regional regular meetings with talks from people within the industry and events like quiz nights. And that does take some organisation. Someone has to let members know that there are meetings happening in London, Leeds or Glasgow. Someone has to find a venue, probably free of charge (especially hard in London and you’ve got 150 people coming). Someone has to manage numbers and put information on a website.

It’s that resource that the Academy is going to be lacking. There are clearly differences in how various regional branches are run, and that’ll be down to the people involved. London has its own branch committee, but it’s undoubtedly relied upon the resources of the Academy’s office to help out with venues (which need to be sizeable), and administration. Consequently, I completely understand Sandy Warr’s feeling at last night’s meeting that members have been left high and dry.

It does feel that the old Academy has been dismantled before anyone has any clear vision of what the new Academy will look like. And that’s probably the biggest frustration everyone has. We’re left with an interim CEO, Gloria Abramoff who with the best will in the world seems likely to struggle with some of the practical issues surrounding immediate Academy needs. And we’re left in a state of flux where there are clearly massively divergent views on what the Academy should look like, from different Trustees (Cooper was clear that it wasn’t a single outlier view). These need to be surfaced, because it’s clear that we’re not yet in full knowledge of the situation. Are some Trustees unhappy with the Awards which they feel they can’t win in their current guise? And what should the new membership structure look like? Do we move back to more reliance on individual subscriptions rather than “free” with your employer? If it’s the latter, then there needs to be rationale for people paying £25, £50 or £100 per year to be members.

But I’m not completely downbeat.

I think that there’s enough love for the Academy that something will come out the other side. But it’s going to have to change shape substantially. And it’s going to need a broader membership – both in terms of corporate patrons but also in terms of individuals. I still find it annoying that of the many thousands of people who work in radio in London, I see so few at Radio Academy events. Whether that’s a lack of relevance to their lives or a lack of knowledge, I’m not sure. But that’s an area that the Trustees really need to work at, because they all sit in the businesses where these people work, and where they can engage their staff.

Further Reading:

Comments beneath James’ piece
David Lloyd’s blog
John Collins’ blog