Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Radio - and the Smart Speaker

It’s tough to believe that radio effectively used to require pin-code access.  You had to remember a string of random digits if you were to find your favourite radio station frequency on the dial. And, given sometimes you even had to change waveband too, it’s a real wonder my mum ever managed to track down Waggoners’ Walk.

Push-button FM, and now DAB sets, have made life much simpler.  Just in time too, given the number of stations available. Mind you, my car DAB radio still seems to be over concerned about which multiplex stations are sat on.  Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hoorah for smart speaker technology. However - and wherever – that tech is housed in the future, it is a real breakthrough for our medium. Radio is your friend – and all you now need to do is call its name and it’ll come and throw its arms around you.

What challenges and opportunities does that pose?

Firstly, listeners likely need to know the name of your station.  That should be easy, one imagines, but I cannot be the only programmer to have had angry emails from a rude listener demanding we supply a tardy prize which they actually won on a rival radio station. And, thinking of focus group respondents, after half a dozen radio station names cited top of mind, most folk start to struggle.  Yes, even with the BBC’s being conveniently numbered.  Is your station famous enough?

Thankfully, the smart technology, if well devised by informed folk like RadioPlayer, can recognise most variants of your name, so it’s not too much agony for the listener who insists on still calling you what your 1985 jingle package did. But they’ve got to call you something.  

Your station needs to be top of mind. When the listener is in the mood for whatever, your brand has to be the one literally on their lips.

Yes, smart devices can know your last station. But that may have been your girlfriend's wine-fuelled choice – so you still may have to shout it to play your favourite station – until such a time as the devices presumably can tell your voices apart.

This plays into the strategy which many groups have adopted.  Their stations are genuinely brands into which significant monies have been invested across large geographic patches.

Once, if you were on FM, you were effectively on the radio high street. Listeners might find you as they wandered down the band.  Now, you have to be asked for by name from behind the counter. You need a space in someone’s mind.

Smart technology does offer sampling.  It can get to know what you like and can supply alternatives – and in time will develop even better abilities to supply examples of a genre RadioPlayer is better than TuneIn here by some margin - that's good news as we believe that listening by 'mood' is becoming increasingly important.  There is the chance of discovery here, but also there is risk. A listener might just like the substitute station better than yours.

The algorithms which control where you are pointed are in the hands of the people who make and programme the gadgets and skills, so it’s good when the gatekeepers are part of our clan and understand UK listening habits.

Early findings suggest that people are listening to more audio thanks to smart speakers.  Seven out of ten (Edison 2017, United States) of those who own a smart speaker say they listen to more audio at home since acquiring it. Whatever they did before, whether radio, podcast or streamed services, they do more.

Rajar (MIDAS study, Autumn 2017) suggests  that live radio enjoys the lion's share of audio delivered on smart speakers. Whilst radio's dominance is reassuring, it may also remind us that here is a chance once again for others to steal ‘our’ clothes.  

Major brands could provide well-programmed branded audio streams which just might be more famous than ours. Such streaming services are about to become ever more readily accessible (if, of course, they are, themselves, financially viable). Free of all the complex history of our medium and now offered an easy platform and simple access, could they disrupt?  They could - but thankfully, radio’s a touch more difficult to do than it sounds – and we are the experts.

Those who say that anyone can programme a streaming music service to the quality of a radio station don’t fully appreciate  radio's science and art  – and where there are bits between the songs, we certainly know our stuff, whether links or imaging.  But if proud new investors are really spending money on quality 'radio' channels which do attract appreciable audiences, that’s probably good news for our industry and our job opportunities.

‘Alexa – Open the BBC’

Yesterday, the BBC launched its first full voice app for voice-controlled smart speakers, an Amazon Alexa skill for Echo devices, with other smart speakers to come. This brings access to the BBC’s full range of live radio stations - and podcasts.  It’s intelligent and I like the vocal sonic BBC identity as you open the thing. It does find the most recent Desert Island Discs or ‘previous’ or ‘previous’ again – but still can’t track down the Judi Dench edition - or indeed the shipping forecast - by name – a challenge RadioPlayer has also faced in its fine work, making earlier content accessed with ease. 

That will come.  In the very long term, does that beg the question whether stations like the Radio 4 of today have a linear future, if streaming were ever to replace 'broadcast' significantly?  I’m a heavy Radio 4 content listener, but Today, as a news programme, is the only regular one of the programmes I consume live. How much of radio necessarily needs to be live and where does live really add value?

As Matthew Postgate, Chief Technology and Product Officer, BBC, said: “Today we’re making sure audiences can find what they love from the BBC on any device they use through a single, easy-to-use service. But there’s potential to do more and we’re just scratching the surface.”

Stand by, I suspect, for ‘Alexa - open Global Radio’. They were canny long ago about creating a reputation for the parent brand. Invocation names, I suspect, will become as treasured as good website names. 

Let’s be mindful though that if life gets too confusing - with a choice of rather too many sovereign ‘radio listening’ skills - listeners may simply use the default one in the device, which may have questionable allegiances. That’s a good reason to be wholly supportive of the fine technical and political efforts of RadioPlayer.

For commercial radio, anything which allows even readier re-tune can be a challenge as a station enters a lengthy commercial break. For this, and so many other reasons, it’s time for a cool clear look at monetising radio – and that’s a topic for a future blog.

Our medium has always aroused much emotion from listeners, yet we, as broadcasters have demanded they remember text numbers, phone numbers, and spell our name correctly on social media if they want to get in touch.  The vast proportion of listeners are casual ones, however, and the least likely to trouble to learn how to contact us - yet they are the ones we would like to hear from most.  Smart speakers offer the listener an instant way of speaking an immediate message to the station or presenter, as demonstrated recently by RadioPlayer. That's a real win and plays to our strengths.

Opportunities abound too in the heightened intelligence about  listening habits which these new devices will offer us.

Let’s remember that now and in the immediate future, it’s all still a niche affair. Only a small proportion of radio listening is streamed at all (8% of all live radio listening, but including TV - with voice activated alone at 1%, RAJAR, MIDAS Autumn 2017). But, with faster broadband and 5G on the way, that proportion will grow. If, as is expected, most homes quickly become smart, one can expect voice-activated radio to grow alongside. I guess even ‘turn on the radio’, where the radio is a traditional hefty DAB/FM set could easily be commonplace.

For a medium which relies on audio, it’s hugely encouraging to welcome a device which treasures it too. Thus, radio - in whatever form -  is set to be centre-stage for its second century.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

UK Christmas stations 2017 - a review

We are but novice elves in the UK at the business of creating Christmas stations, but we've done pretty well.

Smooth Christmas was first down the chimney in 2011, complete with the memorable Simon Bates liner about toasting his nuts. Since then, many UK stations and brands have created new stations or flipped formats of subsidiary stations.

Let’s cast a critical eye over some of this year’s UK offerings.

Heart extra Xmas

Our present from Global replaces Heart extra on DAB and online.  It’s a typically polished Global offering, and the parent brand gets its honourable mention on the hour (I support that strategy, incidentally).  And the name is, indeed, 'Xmas', not Christmas.

Heart extra Xmas comprises a set of familiar favourites, with enough variety to keep it interesting. Songs span the eras, mind you, familiarity is not usually an issue for Christmas tunes. It’s generally an uplifting party, with the softer ballads wrapped in thick layers of more upbeat offerings.
  • Ronettes - Sleighride
  • Bon Jovi - Please come home for Christmas
  • Sia – Santa’s coming for us
  • Mud – Lonely this Christmas
  • George Michael – December song
  • Pretenders – 2000 miles
  • Spice Girls – 2 becomes 1
  • Coldplay – Christmas lights
  • Crystals - Rudolph the red nosed reindeer
  • Mike Oldfield – In Dulci Jubilo
  • Michael Buble – It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
(a ten song sweep as aired)

There are no presenter links – and the imaging is superb. A simple powerful, mood driven Global approach, with their fingerprints all over the processing template. The imaging has clarity – and fits the occasion.  The VOs are well-directed, oozing the right mood as they declare ‘turn up the festive feelgood’, complemented by some simple lines and voxes enthusing about what Christmas means to the Heart generation. There's even the occasional Christmas cracker joke, with the riddle punchline cleverly held across the break – delivered by a fully-qualified ruddy Santa.

It was great to hear the big brands on air in the breaks – including, of course, Coke with its stunning festive sonic identity. Good to hear Sudafed and Amazon in there too. Meanwhile, my Nottingham desktop feed treated me to some lovely ads about Christmas in Brighton. Maybe DAX has been on the sherry. Seriously though, how great to hear powerful FMCG brands on British radio.

The main London station was promoted, with promos in the hour for Jamie and  Emma. That must be a tad confusing for listeners who stay with the Christmas station in the morning or wake up to another Heart local brand in their area, but they choose to shout about their main station and I doubt they lose too many sleeps to Santa over that issue generally. There’s not really another decent solution. There is, though, little inference that that breakfast show does not feature on the station you’re listening to.

Desktop access was fine, but on mobile, after being instructed to download the app, finding Heart extra Xmas required my resorting to ‘settings’ to ‘find another Heart station’ at the bottom of a lengthy list of English place-names. Good job I was determined - and that most listening will likely be on DAB anyway, I guess. Mind you, they are running Heart TV Xmas too. They’ve a lot on their festive plate.

This is an impressive offering as befits the focused practitioners at Global. It fits with Heart well and will deliver some listening bulk somewhere to the Heart brand.  

Magic Christmas

Magic is another brand which can easily have a brief love affair with Christmas. This year, Bauer has created Magic Christmas on DAB (Digital One). It replaces Kiss Fresh, which is quite a format shift, and plays ‘More of the songs Yule love’, arguably a line which is a little too clever, losing something on radio unless delivered with huge clarity. They also lean upon ‘playing nothing but Christmas classics’.

Although Magic bears a blue brand colour rather than Heart’s convenient Coke red, they make the most of its frosty feel in a nice-looking desktop experience. If you link straight to loading the app on mobile, it takes you straight to the right station.

There is utter clarity about the Magic family on air. 'Ronan and Harriet are ‘over on Magic’;' and 'this is the sound of our sister station, Magic Soul'. Magic Christmas is clearly hailed as being ‘from the people who bring you Magic'. The relationship is clear and they waste no opportunity to promote their peacetime stations.

Music seemed a touch softer than Heart, which befits its brand, and again a thoroughly familiar offering was delivered with just enough variety. Christmas is the one time when the whole family really can agree on a song or two.  
  • Darlene Love - Christmas 
  • Leona Lewis - One more sleep
  • Bowie/Crosby – Peace on Earth
  • Band Aid – Do they know it’s Christmas
  • Jackson5 – I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus
  • Kylie Minogue & James Corden - Only You
  • Bruce Springsteen - Santa Claus is coming to town
  • Wham - Last Christmas 
  • Pretenders - 2000 miles
  • Boney M - 2000 

It’s continuous music, like Heart, iced with festive imaging. Magic boasts twinkly vocal idents which I liked, plus some liners. 

Now, I don't want to incur the wrath of an imager, as I know that's a risky business if one wants to be alive by Boxing Day, and there'll have been a lot of time and care in assembling the liner material, probably into the night.  But I worried they risk sounding akin to a miserable character at your dinner table who just tolerates a festive hat.

I do get the ‘relatable' thing, and the bid to raise a smile, but I’d imagine that people choose the station when they are in the mood for festive cheer.

Nice vocals on the sung idents though - and the integration of the station sponsor, a holiday company, is thoroughly cunning. We're told a little about Christmas in every country they service. Simple and effective device.

And well-done on the Johnny Mathis edit.

Signal Christmas

Signal Christmas plays 'Non stop Christmas songs', 'making Christmas even more magical'.

The sponsorship from Winter Wonderland is well-parcelled. A Foxy and Emma breakfast promo and visual precedes the feed and delivers the sponsor - and the sponsor lines live within the programming too.  The website page is rich in content, even with listeners' Christmas tree pics - and a reminder of what not to do at the Wireless Group Christmas party.

Music is familiar - solid Christmas tunes and less contemporary than Heart extra.
  • Pretenders - 2000 miles 
  • Bing Crosby - White Christmas
  • Mud - Lonely this Christmas
  • Aled Jones - Walking in the Air
  • Ronettes - Sleigh Ride
  • Chris De Burgh - A spaceman came travelling
  • Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas
  • Sia - Santa's coming for us 
  • Crystals - Rudoph the red nosed reindeer
  • Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime

Santa's on some of the imaging, introducing 'another one of my festive favourites', supplemented by a station voice. I wonder whether there's scope for a tad more festive feel in the delivery, and fewer wooshes and bangs in the mix.  But hey, who am I.

Santa Radio

Away  from the major radio group offerings, Santa Radio is back online, with Guy Harris at the helm, best recognised by his voice on ads and production through the year - and one of the nation's leading Santa voices.

Santa Radio plays 'The World's best Christmas music', 'Christmas 24/7', and is the most interactive of the Christmas offerings I've sampled. You can even send Santa a recorded message from the app and hear your message between the Christmas tunes. These lovely messages are played in, even with 'answers' from Santa to the kids' questions. The way Guy turns it all round is impressive, and it's a great example of how intelligently programmed voice-tracking can be far from sanitised and out of touch when in good hands.

The whole website is dedicated to things Christmas, as its unique identity permits, and it revels in the season. Kids can also even get their own personalised Christmas message too. 

The imaging is thoroughly well-delivered by Santa himself, with just the right tone and feel for 'his' station. Guy's Santa is thoroughly 'believable' and delivers real festive conversation- maybe the beauty of a VO in this role who's presented shows too.

Unlike the traditional stations, not every segue  bears an ident, mind you, given listening is all online, the identity of the station is clear to all. I suspect Guy has not got the most expensive playout system - but it sounds perfect.

Music is much more varied and traditional than the branded offerings, as its independent status permits - and the whole large playlist is listed online with details of each track and accompanying videos, accompanied by an invitation to supply further ideas. So, some less well-known versions of familiar melodies are mixed in, but the overall feel is thoroughly decent.
  • Michael Buble - Blue Christmas
  • Boney M - Mary's Boy Child - 
  • Kylie Minogue - I'm gonna be warm this winter
  • Josh Groban - It came upon a midnight clear
  • Miss Piggy - Santa baby  (they do play four other versions of this!)
  • Pogues - Fairytale of New York
  • Aaron Neville - Please come home for Christmas
  • Beach Boys - Santa Claus is coming to town
  • Leona Lewis - One more sleep
  • Robbie Williams - Walk this sleigh

This is a great achievement again from Guy - and more of a 'family' station where the kids can get really involved.

Christmas FM

Christmas FM is an Irish tradition, first going on-air in Dublin in 2008, joined by other parts of Ireland in ensuing years and diversifying into themed offshoots. The main quasi-national FM station doesn't carry ads on this temporary additional channel, supported by a hundred volunteers, but does include sponsorships; and has raised  an impressive €1.25m for charity to date, with Sightsavers being 2017's chosen cause. 

This year, Santa's climbed the DAB masts in Liverpool and Surrey. It's available online and on-app too, although I found it all too easy to fall into listening to the non UK version. 

'The Sound of Christmas is  Christmas FM' , 'The UK's Christmas station'. And Santa on the imaging has a lovely accent.

This sounds most like a traditional full service station, albeit without news, with BBC Radio 2-length presenter links, playing a refreshing eclectic blend of frosty favourites, albeit probably the least familiar music blend of the broadcast stations. The story behind some songs is explained in mini packages: 'Unwrapping the classics at Christmas'. 
  • Jose Feliciano - Feliz Navidad 
  • Pentatonics - I'll be home for Christmas
  • Monster Monster - Christmas in Liverpool
  • Kay Starr - the man with the bag
  • Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas
  • Bruce Springsteen - Santa Claus is coming to town 
  • Jona Lewie - Stop the Cavalry
  • Michael Buble - Holly Jolly Christmas
  • Ronettes - Sleigh Ride

This is a cause-driven initiative which demands engagement to build a relationship which will pay off in donations - and it's delivered fittingly.

Merry Christmas

It's a fascinating experiment this Christmas malarkey. With a blank sheet of paper simply headed 'Christmas', UK programmers have a pretty free hand in the beauty they create. 

With very similar music and the absence of presenters in Christmas jumpers, however, the imaging assumes a new importance in such stations.  Imaging a Christmas station is a little like decorating a tree. A precision job if it's going to look just right. Not too much, not too little, lots of sparkle and do watch the colours. Importantly, step back a few paces at the end to see if it all really works.

The voice, the processing, the direction, the script, the effects. The tone and colour of our little imaging stars can make these wonderful Christmas stations glitter.

An imaging producer I know might have suggested well-cast and well-directed voice-overs should deck their studios with tinsel and stare at at a few pics of an excited young family waking up on Christmas morning whilst delivering lines if they are to lift that real sprinkling of magic off the page. And - if you are being inventive with this imaging, it demands great writing and real theatrical and comic talent in delivery.

In the years to come, smart speakers may rule this genre.  You'll shout for your favourite - and likely best known - Christmas station wherever you live. On 'play Christmas' or 'play Christmas radio', Alexa takes me to Christmas music from Amazon music. When Tune-in is invoked, she starts getting stroppy as she' can't play by genre'. RadioPlayer is typically more helpful and makes sure I hear a 'proper' station and certainly knows the variants of station names I might utter.

Are the stations worthwhile? For listeners, it's great to know you can get a stream of Christmas favourites chosen for you, whenever you're in the mood. 

Whilst no Christmas station enjoys its own dedicated Rajar figures, there's little doubt that the listening is captured somewhere on the relevant brand's published tables. No brand taking part has compromised its integrity by its Christmas associations - and the home stations can continue being not too formatically atypical as the big day approaches. I suspect RadioPlayer could deliver some useful comparative intelligence on adoption and trend. 

Overall, well done to all. I suspect these festive offerings are being crammed into the working days of staff who have a day job too, with clients, bosses and sales execs screaming down the phone.  You’ve done well. It’s a nice toy to play with.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Radio - and the Smart Speaker

It’s tough to believe that radio effectively used to require pin-code access.  You had to remember a string of random digits if you were...