Radio Festival

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.

Masterclasses
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.
Regards,

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.

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.

Radio Festival 2013 Day 1 – TechCon

The Lowry - Salford

Introductory Note: I’m writing these notes during this year’s Radio Festival. There will probably be typos and other errors. I’ll try to correct them as I go along. And with any luck, some of this might end up on the Radio Academy website!

First up – TechCon!

After a typically excellent introduction from Orion’s David Lloyd who is once again our master of ceremonies, we get a keynote from the BBC’s Director of Distribution – Alix Pryde. She notes that this is the first known keynote for TechCon!

Pryde’s theme is “Making Waves” and the security of radio’s future. She notes that there were fears for radio back when television launched. Although there were some at the BBC who television as nothing more than a stunt: “Are heads and shoulders a service … is there any artistic value?”

She says that audiences are resilient and want to use different media for different services.

She notes that earlier this morning during breakfast peak, 17m people were listening to radio. And delivering to that audience is “boringly mundane” using “big sticks on hills.” In IP terms that would be 2TB data per second. And that’s more than the entire UK broadband network. The broadcast backbone is resilient and enormously scalable. More than 9 out of 10 hours of radio is delivered via a broadcast mechanism.

“We forget this at our peril… It [IP] might change the world in time,” but not yet.

Pryde mentions that BBC TV will be fully HD by early next year. But she says that radio takes longer. She mentions that FM took a long time to become popular. She quotes Frank Gillard complaining about low audience uptake of “VHF” back in 1967.

She announces that over the next two years, the BBC will add another 160 transmitters for the national digital radio network. This is the fourth phase of their network buildout and is 70% more sites than currently. The first transmitter will be on by the end of this year – in Basingstoke! That’s 3 transmitters a fortnight and takes coverage to 97% of population from 93% coverage today.

Pryde says that by Christmas 2015, every community of over 2,000 people should have BBC national DAB coverage.

Next up is audio quality, and we start with a video explaining some of the issues regarding trying to measure audio quality on the road. Then Frank Melchior, head of audio research at the BBC, comes to talk about audio quality, what it means and how that might be considered in future audio design.

He begins by giving us a definition of quality, and notes that there’s an “individual” nature to it.

Frank Melchior at TechCon

He talks about the various layers of audio quality from loudness through speech intelligibility, dialogue quality and inter-aural cross-correlation. Melchior uses a concert hall example and explains how the different sound scenes are set.

Traditionally you might test audio by letting an audience compare a reference piece of audio with various different versions, the audience judging the audio from good to bad. Melchior says that it’s good at measuring how good any particular codec is, but doesn’t determine whether a particular codec is appropriate in the first place. Therefore it doesn’t provide the broadcaster what they need.

Depending where a listener is, the context of what’s acceptable audio changes. You don’t expect as much from audio on a mobile phone compared with audio at home. Melchior says we need to start form Quality of Experience.

He goes on to show us some tests that the BBC has done with environment dependent dynamic processing. You can use a device’s microphone to find ambient sound levels, and adapt the audio processing delivered to the device accordingly.

Another BBC test was a recent Championship playoff experiment conducted earlier this year with listeners being able to choose which part of the crowd they heard. In other words, you could choose how the audio was mixed between fans of either team. I heard a demo of this a few weeks ago, and it was fun hearing the Palace crowd as they conceded a goal – i.e. they were very quiet. The results showed that the audience appreciated the higher than usual audience quality.

This takes us into object orientated audio – the direction that most audio seems to be heading.

We take a break now to see a short video for the first of three nominees for the TechCon Innovation Award. In:Quality is an IP streaming solution to provide quality remote streaming to broadcasters from remote locations – audio and video. It even works in the Chrome browser.

After a short break, we’re back with a discussion about broadcasting and what 4G can offer.

David Lloyd Introduces a Session on 4G

Andy Sutton from EE kicks off to give us an overview of where we are with 4G and the architecture of 4G and how it’s being used. EE has about 120 towns and cities with 4G, and other operators are obviously starting too.

IMS , says Sutton, opens up a world of possibilities regarding the carriage of voice. As 4G evolves there are changes taking place with a full IP backbone meaning that internet capabilities are enhanced.

Sutton notes in an aside, that he’s already working on 5G…

He runs through some of the technical advantages of LTE including the range of channels over which it can operate. It turns out that there were originally 5 categories of LTE device capability, but that there are now a further 3 categories which include some very high upload capabilities. 50Mbps and even higher is achievable. By aggregating multiple SIMs you can send high quality video.

Sutton says that he wants to maintain the “wow factor” of using 4G for the first time. And that means maintaining the load factors carefully on cell sites.

Large screen devices use more data. On a smartphone 25% of data might be video, but it goes up to 40% on tablets. Sutton references a report that EE recently published that gets into this data.

He closes by concluding that there are a world of new opportunities for the TV and radio broadcasting industry.

Colin Muir of the BBC steps up and starts by explaining how excited he is by the opportunities LTE offers radio. He shows us studio from 2001 and says that “lives” would either be telephone (hopefully not mobile), ISDN or perhaps a satphone. Now in 2013, while the same technologies exist there are some challenges. ISDN is going to close down, the architecture behind some outside broadcasts are being switched off, and the world is moving to IP solutions.

Muir has been looking at how to use mobile networks to take this on. They started with 3G, and it works. When there were few people using the networks, they could broadcast in good quality. But the networks are now congested, and despite good engineering, it becomes difficult or impossible. He demonstrates this with some video of demonstration which rapidly degraded.

LTE is an all-IP system with Quality of Service (QoS). It’s not quite there yet, but it could be. And he notes that connectivity will be much better in rural areas especially compared with 3G.

He shows us another video of the same demonstration using 4G. The picture and audio are much improved, and is useable.

Muir notes that there are no publicly available maps of complete 4G coverage from all networks. As we’ve heard EE will be in 117 locations, O2 in 13 locations, Vodafone in 12 (Vodafone and O2 are rolling out in partnership) and 3 will being rollout by the end of the year.

Muir says that he’s now spending time in both London and Glasgow. He shows some very stark differences in his own experimentation between LTE and 3G from the same operators in his particular part of London.

Finally Muir talks about mobile bonding to use multiple SIMs and streams while minimising failure rates. He says that this has been most used in live TV news. And since December 2012 it has been in their London radio cars. And it’s beginning to be used in outside broadcasts. He ends with a plea that we work together as an industry to use these services, and to share our experiences.

Andrew Murphy from BBC R&D is next up to ask whether LTE is a long term distribution mechanism.

Currently there are capacity constraints, rebuffering and quite tough data caps that limit how much streaming consumers do. Indeed many devices don’t have their FM chips enabled. Listening is important because it works while we walk. People listen to audio longer than they watch video when they’re mobile.

LTE does has a broadcast mode built into it – eMBMS (or LTE Broadcast) which is a worldwide standard. And it doesn’t require anything else built into the handset which Murphy thinks means it could be adopted more easily.

Demonstrating some of the LTE Broadcast Possibilities

Murphy suggests that this technology is most useful for out of home live streaming.

The technology requires it to be enabled in both handsets and at the cell level. But it might only be needed at the busiest sites during the busiest times – so a train station during rush-hour. It could be deployed as a hybrid, dynamic network.

Frank Hermans of Ericsson is next up in this 4G session to think about some use cases. Ericsson is looking towards there being 50bn connected devices in the world with 15bn of those devices having video capabilities. This is the kind of network capacities that they’re looking at. They believe that by 2016 there will 1.1bn video subscribers of one sort or another.

He shows charts of data usage from the Olympics, and Verizon has announced that they’ll be trying broadcast over LTE at the Superbowl in 2014. Unicast just doesn’t work in such an environment. Broadcast has very high efficiency in such circumstances. It only takes 2 people in a cell to be more efficient to use Broadcast rather than Unicast. The standard allows for 10% of the spectrum to be used for broadcast. That’s enough for something like 3 SD video broadcasts simultaneously.

They’re looking for the Superbowl to offer four camera angles to users simultaneously, alongside broadcast data with stats from the game etc. And interestingly you can broadcast podcasts. This all allows popular media to be pushed as required.

And there are opportunities to boost quality as required using single frequency network techniques.

Other things that can be used are geographic regions at quite localised scales if required. You can schedule times in advance. And you can also decide what are the required bitrates, thereby making maximum use of the frequencies available.

And you know who has been consuming the broadcasts.

LTE Broadcast is actually three standards, eMBMS, HEVC and MPEG-DASH combined.

He ends by saying that LTE Broadcast will be switched on for some operators in 2014 – although he can’t tell us who. There is some work with handset providers to ensure that only software upgrades are needed to enable it.

5G, it seems, will be coming in 2020 (www.metis202.20.com) with data rates between 1Gb/s and 10Gb/s with 10 times longer battery life!

Next, there’s a short talk from Andrew Jones to talk about the IET. His over-arching theme is about life-long learning. He wants more of the radio technical industry to keep up to date with developments through membership.

Ann Charles from the BBC is up now to tell us why accessibility is not boring!

Ann Charles on Accessibility

Accessibility is not quite the same as usability. However if you make something accessible, you will make it more usable anyway! The idea is that it’s not something that you do for just one or two people, it’s something that makes life easier for everyone.

E.g. Keyboard shortcuts tend to be good for anybody. The same is true for adjustable height desks.

Why bother? Well there are some legal requirements, and that can present issues during employment. Hopefully this will result in better programmes, and from there make more money. Ann quotes someone from P&G who said at last year’s Festival that the more diverse your team, the more money you can make.

She talks about the BBC’s Playout System project and how accessibility was built into everything from the tender onwards.

Some questions to consider:

– Can you adjust the font size?
– Can you change colours?
– Keyboard control – can you do everything from keyboards?

Beyond that, you’re into Assistive Technology. So that includes screen reading software, zooming software (to magnify parts of the screen), and vocal keyboards (e.g. Dragon Naturally Speaking).

Other things to think about are touchscreens. While they’re brilliant, but there are cases where they’re not great. So make them compatible with keyboards. If you’re using pictures, have text alternatives!

And you can use scripts or macros to do things that you can’t do any other way. They can break quite easily, but sometimes needs must.

If you need to adapt studios, there are things to consider include additional keyboards, access rights, extra speakers, keeping noise from both your neighbours and on-air.

A video showing Mani, a World Service journalist illustrates a lot of these things. He can now produce his programmes on his own without having to engage a colleague to help him drive the studio.

And finally before lunch, a video for the second of the TechCon Innovation Award nominees. This time the Virtual Radio Mixer from Psquared. It’s a very smart looking touchscreen mixer.

As for the last couple of years, TechCon overlaps with the main festival, and so I’ve dived into the main theatre for a session on radio talent with Patrick Kielty hosting a session with Aasmah Mir, Rhys Hughs of Radio 1 and NIck Canham from The Richard Stone Partnership.

I came in during a discussion on accents. Kielty posits that an estuary English accent wouldn’t get to do the news, although other panellists disagree. Mir says that she doesn’t think she’s adapted her accent much although her family might say otherwise. Kielty thinks the BBC in particular has been very forgiving over accents and the Northern Irish one in particular. Belfast accents and LA accents are both through the nose! He notes that both Colin Murray and Eammon Holmes have softened their accents quite a lot though.

Canham says that radio would sound very dour if everyone sounded the same. He says that more people think they can become instant celebrities. It doesn’t work in radio “no disrespect taken, Patrick.” “Disrespect taken!”

You can’t leapfrog from radio in TV he says. You don’t want identikit presenters.

Mir says the pitfall that many TV presenters coming into radio get is spaces. “You have to fill every corner,” she says. You can’t use a look to camera that you managed in TV. Radio is a conversation. “If you’re putting on a voice, you’re not speaking to people.”

Kielty wonders if the cult of celebrity which has polluted TV has spread to radio. Hughes says not, as they take specialists and try to turn them into presenters. They have a scheme to put people through and they’ve piloted quite a few people over the last year. He has heard pilots where voices don’t “sound” Radio 1 or 1Xtra.

Canham doesn’t think there’s a straightforward “voice of Radio 1” or “voice of Heart”.

The session ended with a “The Voice” style game with presenters like Terry Wogan and Emma Bunton. I think Kielty would acknowledge that the “game” didn’t go quite as planned. Some cheating did seem to go on. But we did see a remarkable picture of Dale Winton at Beacon Radio.

At this year’s Festival, some of the Radio Academy’s 30 Under 30 are conducting short on-stage interviews. So Will Wilkin of BBC Oxford interviews the BBC’s Director of Sport Barbara Slater. She started in a much more male dominated BBC – particularly within the sports department. “Now if you’ve got the talent, ability, drive and determination,” you can go places.

There have been changes in sports rights, with new entrants in both television and radio. So the BBC has to get on the front foot over what they can do, and the reach they can offer sports. She believes that this is a supporting rationale beyond just the highest fee.

Cross-platform is very important too. Production has been turned on its head, with producers and editors grouped on the types of output rather than the broadcast medium.

A recent innovation says Slater is a series of lunches with senior people meeting new entrants to the BBC and generating fresh ideas. They’ve already instituted changes as a result of these. Indeed the BBC is now a less hierarchical organisation.

On sports rights, there are and will be occasions when rights will get out of reach. So there’s never going to be a guarantee of the BBC always having all those sports they currently do.

Between sessions we have the Jane Garvey and Fi Glover show. Much fun is to be had at the chairs and scarves set that’s being used this year.

He’s a terrible angle to explain what I mean.

Radio Festival Set from Extreme Angle

Fi Glover then leads a session called State of the Radio Nation. Miranda Sawyer of The Observer amongst other places kicks things off. Having polled lots of people to see what they think, she quotes a few stats from people like Ford Ennals (mostly RAJAR derived).

Sawyer’s mum and dad are digital radio listeners, via Freeview and DAB. They don’t use their laptop because they put books on it, and turn off the router so as not to “waste the internet.”

She says that in spite of everything from Playlister, Absolute Radio’s decades, and Kisstory, we mostly add on to what we already do. She thinks that collaboration is a way forward and cites Buzzfeed/CNN collaboration. There are still problems over recording and saving radio programmes. And there is the DAB in car issue.

Even in DAB households, people listen to 3.1 stations a week compared with 8-9 TV channels a week.

And what about more serialised drama? What’s the radio equivalent of Breaking Bad? (Linda Snell cooking crystal meth is mentioned).

Sawyer is asking for some OAP respect though! We’re an ageing nation. The median age today is 39, and it’s going up. The elderly population are propping radio up. “This is the truth that dare not speak it’s name.”

If the right listening is not offered to older listeners, then there’s a concern that radio listening might fall of a cliff.

“Love your old people. Don’t chuck the pensioner out with the bathwater. They don’t bounce like babies do!”

Now we have a “young person” – Millie Riley from Grape.

She shows a video of how she uses radio today. But she thinks there’s a disconnect between radio and younger people today. She notes that someone in her family left the room for a favourite radio programme rather than watch Strictly. It’s inconceivable that this would happen amongst 15-24s.

“They don’t listen to radio, and they don’t care about it.”

Radio no longer sets the agenda. They have smartphones and can hear the music they want at any time. Evening listening is where the millennium generation changes can be seen – she quotes a 20% drop in evening listening in a year.

She thinks radio is still a lean back medium, because the bulk of the population are still in that mode. But young people don’t know “what’s in your shop.” You have to involve young people in the programmes you make in an internet world. That means being visible and having a conversation.

You need partner content to go with your on-air programmes. And conversations need to be real.

But radio stations do still have figures that other media can only dream about. The brands can adapt to new audiences.

The final speaker in this session is Dee Ford of Bauer Media. This is our moment she says.

She begins by talking about the size of Bauer and the scale of the reach it has. She says that Bauer’s focus is on the right target – the computer. They were early to see the promise of digital TV and DAB. She thinks we can see through a digital switchover. There will continue to be a device called a radio through which services can be delivered.

Growth is coming from digital only radio stations which have increased reach by 80% since 2010. She also references the Bath test (coming up in a session shortly). She talks about the digital brands that Bauer has of which she is proud.

She says that they’re “Really, really excited” about the Absolute acquisition about which she can say very little since it’s going through an OFT process.

Ford talks about how proud they are of Kiss, and how even recently they only talked about it as a radio station. But many touchpoints are now coming via places other than radio. She also talks about the importance of multi-platform brands as proved by research projects that Bauer has conducted.

It’s “Game on” for local radio in a digital world too. It’s more important than ever to know your audience and serve your community.

She talks about the success of Planet Rock and how consolidation has worked for that station.

We needn’t see iTunes and Spotify as a long-term threat to radio. People want companionship. That’s why people have always come to radio, and will continue to do so. And she references the new RAB research which is very powerful.

Radio is “Closer to you than any other medium.”

Unfortunately, because I was in the main auditorium for the last couple of stations, I missed the Loudness discussion in TechCon, and came in during a debate: This House Believes… We Should Get Rid of Radio. Just to be clear, that’s the physical buildings rather than the streams of broadcasting.

Although contentious sounding, the idea of the debate to try to find out what we really need from professional buildings and studios today. I came in during an impassioned plea for stations’ importance from Ruth Peacock. Quentin Nield from This Is Electric tried to persuade us of the extravagances of expensive studios. Tim Cockram from Bauer argued that domestic set-ups just don’t cut it. (I missed Sharon Green, coming to us via Skype!).

While the vote wasn’t quite unanimous, if I tell you that only four people voted “for” getting rid of stations, you’ll know what the audience thought overall!

David Lloyd then presented his own Radio Moments from a technical perspective. I’m afraid the clips are going to lose something in my blogging.

But we saw a Psion Wavefinder from 2000, the first transistor radio from 1954 – the TR1. In 1941, Broadcasting House was bombed. Seven people died.

David Lloyd's Radio Moments

And in 1973 Capital Radio launched, and Stoke got a station back in the sixties.

The BBC launched this week in 1922, and Pye campaigned for commercial radio 53 years ago.

And Radio Player launched in 2011 this week, audiences doubling since launch.

Stereo transmissions were tested this week in 1953 using the BBC and ITV audio signals for left and right channels.

The third TechCon Innovation Award comes from Town & Country Broadcasting and their “silence detector.” It tells them very simply when something is broken. It’s so simple, that they can run it on a Raspberry Pi.

In the main hall, I’m missing Helen Boaden is giving a keynote, which I shall try to catch up with later. But up here in TechCon we’re learning about the “Go Digital Pilot” that took place in Bath earlier this year (Disclaimer: I’m responsible for this session).

Jane Oster of DRUK at TechCon

Jane Ostler from DRUK, who was very heavily involved in the project, presents a summary of the findings. The research was conducted on behalf of the DCMS by Ipsos Mori. They had an initial interview about their radio listening habits. Then, having been given radios, they had a further questionnaire about how they’d coped setting up the devices. Finally, six weeks later a final questionnaire was completed.

Overall satisfaction was 9 out of 10 with 80% preferring DAB to analogue and over half listening more often – people discovered new stations.

Ostler showed us a video of some of the participants and their thoughts afterwards. In particular, a lot of older participants seemed to be very positive.

One issue was setting up the radio, and older people in particular had to get help with things like presets needing help. Also the idea of searching for stations by name rather than number was very different. Instructions could be confusing.

One household in particular had seven active radios and they were won over during the trial. A small sample included cars, and some did need help. Cars is the big communication area that’s needed.

This all bodes well for a Government announcement later this year on a potential switchover says Ostler.

James Adams is from the Raspberry Pi Foundation while Rashid Mustapha is from Ofcom. Adams begins by just taking us through what a Raspberry Pi actually is. It was designed with education in mind. There was a concern that fewer students were coming through with any coding experience. So the device has to be the price of a textbook and children could learn to code on it.

James Adams and the Raspberry Pi

While low powered computers did appear in some phone, they weren’t accessible to anyone else, and you couldn’t just buy them on their own.

He runs through a potted history of the device, and quotes a few enormous numbers of how many people wanted the devices. 1.75m devices have now been sold to date! And they’re now all made in Wales by Sony having originally been manufactured in China.

And there’s a thriving ecosystem that has been built up around the original computers. There’s MagPi magazine available as free downloads that the community is putting together itself.

Adams highlights some recent educational projects: the Sonic Pi in Cambridge, and the Pi Lab in Ghana. And some quite young kids have written games using the devices. And he takes us through lots more projects. I do like Shard Cam which tells you whether it’s worth spending £25 to go up the Shard at any given time. And I like Dave Ackerman’s site too!

Ofcom’s Rashida Mustapha is on now to show us some practical examples with radio. He likes the fact that it uses Linux, is cheap, and is very low power with no moving parts.

He takes us through all the work needed to turn a Pi into a DAB encoder. However it does need a few other bits that have to be run outside of the Pi because it’s too low powered.

Anyway, having taken us through what is required, we got a live demo. And it truly does work as the photo below shows:

Raspberry Pi Powered DAB Radio

The penultimate TechCon session is on UI design and how emerging technology might be used in the future for interacting with the technology.

Lisa Baker is from DCA Design International and considers things like structure, simplicity, visibility, feedback tolerance and reuse of ideas to make life easier for users.

She takes us through the processes that designers need to consider when working in this field.

Lisa Baker of DCA Design International

What becomes clear is that there are a lot of things to consider when you’re working in the field of ergonomics.

Ali Shah and Robert Freeman are from the BBC’s Blue Room who are looking at some of the new technology controls that are being built into devices. Shah says that some of these technologies have begun to mature in the last 12 months and they’ll be demonstrating them to us.

Young children are already developing muscle memories built around touch. He mentions the recent Bill Gates admission that Ctrl-Alt-Del was a bad idea and should have been changed!

Freeman starts to show us some tech starting with the Leapmotion – a sensor that detects where your hand is in space in front of the screen. He notes that at the moment, there’s no accepted grammar about how we should use devices like it.

Next up is the interface of the new Xbox One which is truly remarkable. The camera system is remarkable in the way that it can render and work out what people are doing and is leaps and bounds beyond what was in the original Kinnect.

Microsoft Xbox One Control System Demo

A new phrase from this session is digital prosthesis! What Baker is now talking about is the profound way technology now changes our lives. Phones are taking over our memories. We no longer need to know things. The quantified self – with the emergence of measurement devices and apps – is another emerging trend.

What does this mean for the radio studio? In the last couple of decades, studios haven’t significantly changed. But with new technologies we need to rethink our studios says Baker.

Almost finally, James Cridland will recap today. I shall not attempt to blog him! The jokes will lose something in the retelling. Probably.

James Cridland shows off Basingstoke

James Cridland shows us Basingstoke – home of the first of the BBC’s new DAB transmitters.

And the winner of the TechCon innovation award? In:Quality!

Congratulations!

That’s it for today. My Chromebook’s battery only died at the very end! Back for more tomorrow.