Friday, 14 December 2012

A Fairytale of Aston

My earliest recollection of Christmas on the Radio was 1981.

I was a young, single brmb DJ, sharing a flat with Brendan Kearney in Walmley. Being single, I had the dreaded 2pm-6pm shift (no Christmas lunch for me!) and Brendan was on at 10am, doing the Christmas bloopers show. Brendan was famous for his collection of radio faux pas and cock-ups, and his Christmas Day "best of" show was always a festive highlight.

Ed Doolan was doing breakfast, and had invited then PD Bob Hopton to join him to act as the voice of Father Christmas (Bob did have a wonderfully deep voice). Jimmy Franks was driving the show.

The show had gone well. All of the children calling in had spoken to Father Christmas; all of the batteries had been handed out (firms like Ever Ready and Duracell used to give us big stocks of them to hand out on Xmas morning for parents who had bought their kids an electrically operated toy, but had forgotten the batteries!); Slade, Wizzard et al had been played, and all was well with the world.

The clock ticked round to 9.57. Ed picked up the programme schedule for the rest of the day - and ran through Brendan's show in some detail, picked up the features in mine, and the show afterwards - and highlighted the late night phone in scheduled for 10pm  The day had been well sign-posted to listeners, young and old, across the West Midlands

Ed then wrapped up - thanked Father Christmas, spread some peace, happiness and general Christmas bonhomie amongst the population of Birmingham who were tuned in, and gave Brendan's Christmas bloopers show one final tease - the best radio bloopers in the world - coming up after 10.

And then Ed put on his most serious tone, and uttered the words ".....This is brmb, it's 10 o'clock on Christmas day morning....and now... Her Majesty The Queen."

Now, at this point I have to tell you I was in the bath, having a good soak, getting ready to spring up, dry off and head off to "The Sauce Works" as brmb's Aston Road North studios were affectionately called. The Queen's Speech in those days went out on all radio stations at 10 am, and was, at 8 minutes in duration, the perfect opportunity for me to get dry and dressed, and then listen to Brendan's show whilst getting ready to go out - after all, who doesn't enjoy a good radio blooper......

Anyway - back to the radio.

"....Her Majesty The Queen" ...slight pause....followed by what can only be described as farting noises...followed by more farting noises! The whole of Birmingham, expecting to hear the words of HM The Queen, was instead being treated to trumping sounds coming from 96.4FM.

By this time I had almost drowned with laughter - but what the hell was going on?

It dawned on me at about exactly the same time as it dawned on the folks in the studio.

Someone had put the tape on back to front, and we were listening to the strains of "God Save The Queen" ....only backwards! I could only imagine the frantic rush by Jimmy to stop the tape. The bum-clenchingly excruciating part of this was knowing that Bob Hopton, the big boss, was in the studio watching his chances of a New Year's Honour going out of the window as his senior tech-op tied himself up in knots trying to turn a 3 1/2 inch reel-to-reel tape around in double-quick time.

Back up went the mic fader - Ed was told by Jimmy via talkback to fill.

As it was Christmas Day there wasn't much by way of news, no lists of "what's ons" to run through - just the upcoming schedule. So Ed, ever the trooper, started again to tell us all about what was coming up later in the day - only at half speed - pausing a lot -  trying to pad for time - and undoubtedly watching the pandemonium in the control room with utter disbelief.

Rereading that schedule must have been the longest couple of minutes of Ed's career.

Eventually the tape was reversed - and Ed was freed from his misery to cue in the Queen's speech correctly.

Brendan came on 8 minutes later to start his blooper show - knowing one of the best bloopers of all time had probably occurred 10 minutes previously, right in front of him.

None of the people involved in this have ever been knighted, although Ed did receive an MBE. And as boss, I've tried to avoid being anywhere near a studio on Christmas Day ever since!

Merry Christmas, and may all your bloopers occur in the middle of the night. In June!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Think I'm gonna run into bad weather...

I posted a tweet earlier this week:

"Loving the T&T / weather service on this morning -and other local stations too. Not hearing much info on Spotify tho!"

This was a little dig at the streaming service because in an earlier blog referring to the radio festival, I had commented on the business model of Spotify, and had been criticised in return by fans of the service. Fair enough, it clearly is very popular, but what irks me about Spotify, and I know this is true of US broadcasters and their American equivalent Pandora, is the claim that this is somehow a "radio" service.

No it isn't. Computer-driven automatic streaming of music is most definitely NOT radio. It might be good, or bad, profitable or a money-pit, but however you describe it, please don't use the word radio.

Once again the good people who work at Free Radio and Gem 106 have spent the past three days coping with a massive increase in information relating to the current bout of bad weather. School closures, impassable roads, traffic incidents, dangerous flooding have all contributed to a significant increase in the amount of local information we have been broadcasting. And I'm not claiming any special work ethic from my guys - staff at local radio stations the length and breadth of the country will have been coming in early, staying late, manning phone lines, getting information into the studio and on-air, and posting information online now as well, in order to deliver the sort of service they know local listeners want, need and deserve.

And in particular it is the unique nature of local radio that makes responsiveness to bad weather so powerful.  Local radio comes into its own during these periods. because it is live and immediate, responsive to listener feedback, capable of being delivered to people whilst they are on the move, and geographically focused - it is the perfect medium to cope when conditions turn inclement. I live in rural Warwickshire, and Radio 5 Live, brilliant service though it is, can't possibly tell me that the main road through Marton is flooded, or that Leamington Hastings Primary School is closed this morning - but JD did on Free Radio.

In the USA, where weather conditions can become dramatic (Hurricane Sandy, New Orleans etc) local broadcasters are very sensitive to their perceived response - and then make great political play out of that fact. No post-hurricane political speech goes by without the relevant authorities thanking local broadcasters for their efforts. In the UK, the weather conditions, whilst occasionally severe, are probably not quite so dramatic, and our very tendency as a nation to prefer reserve over bombast means we as local broadcasters don't ask for praise, or expect it, as often as our transatlantic cousins.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make, which is that in a period when regulators (OFCOM, DCMS, Competition Commission) are all engaged in critical decision-making which will have a long-term impact on our broadcasting eco-system, are they really giving enough thought to the health of the core tier of local radio in this country given all the other competing voices? Looking forward to the next few bouts of rain/flooding:

Will Local TV be as useful in similar circumstances?
Will a multiplex full of music-intensive DAB services spread over the entire country, with huge footprints and no local presence, be as responsive?
Will the remaining small local stations, possibly stripped of much of their resource because larger radio groups (and local TV) have out-competed them for listeners and advertisers, be as able to respond.

Local radio is currently a vital presence in our communities, and will remain so for as long as it can commercially survive. We are, however, in danger of letting a rush to a digital, online, multi-media future damage the very basis of what makes local radio so unique and important. The very nature of these trends represent huge threats to the future of local radio - particularly the smaller services, and all of us in broadcasting run the risk of the whole radio system being devalued in the eyes (and ears) of listeners if we let the local tier wither away during the next few years.

So, whilst I am genuinely in favour of larger radio groups; network brands; sensible platform migration; growth in online services etc, at the same time we must ensure that in designing our future we recognise and protect the role that local, predominantly FM, radio can play in supporting local they can still be around as a source of information and advice next time we ".. run into bad weather.." (c. S Wonder!).

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

It's Grim Up North

Well I wasn't planning to go to this year’s Radio Festival. I went last year, and the debates do tend to come round a few times, so I thought I'd sit this one out.

But then I got a call from John Myers asking me to be on a panel defending local radio. You can't really say no to John - so off to Salford it was.

The festival started on Monday afternoon with a keynote speech from Tim Davie, the departing BBC Head of radio. Or rather it didn't, as Tim had already departed to become acting DG and was busy walking off a Sky News interview when he should have been on stage. His place was filled by BBC stalwart and R2 controller Bob Shennan. He played a straight bat apparently, not tripped up by anything contentious. I didn't actually get to the festival until a little later, and sat down to hear the chap from Spotify tell us how wonderful they were. When the time came for questions I really couldn't be bothered to put my hand up to ask when they could ever hope to become profitable - because I knew there wouldn't be an answer I could understand. Let them carry on is my view!

The head of Twitter for round here (or European VP as I expect he is really titled) was on next - and he was brilliant. I love twitter - and he explained why. He was a radio guy himself, and had tailored his presentation to press all the right buttons with us radio folk (unlike Mr Spotify, who I don't think realised he was even speaking at a radio conference).

Up at the Tech-con conference David Lloyd was chairing the biggest engineering brains in the industry baffling us with science. I went up and caught the tail end of an interesting presentation from an American explaining how programmers over there were using the people meters to develop more insightful thoughts on output. Apparently very few people tune out during ad breaks (less than 10%), songs get progressively more popular (i.e. less switching) and then in time less popular (who’d have thought) - and finally the local post-game sports phone-in is much more popular when your team has won than lost. Not so reassuring for Tom's phone-ins with some of our teams then!

I was invited to the posh dinner hosted by Radio Academy Chairman Ashley Tabor. And very nice it was too - although you felt the BBC bigwigs there would rather have been anywhere else - not a good time to be a boss at the corporation right now! Jeremy Vine was there and told some great stories from his book. Myers too was on form, and started a round of Kelvin McKenzie tales - I contributed my own - which I will not repeat here for fear of breaking some blasphemy law or other.

Yesterday started with Stephen Miron on stage, being lightly grilled by the Telegraph's Emma Barnett. Emma also works for Global which meant she was more insightful about - but perhaps a touch easier on - Stephen than say an interviewer like Steve Hewlett would have been. Just as Bob had done successfully the day before, Stephen avoided any career limiting utterances.

Anyway - with my usual luck, I was on next - being interviewed by Steve Hewlett! 

Actually I was one of four "local bosses" and I spent my time explaining the decision to change to Free, and how it was all going. I suspect Steve has been so distracted by Newsnightgate (he has been an ever present pundit on the state of the BBC for the past month) that he didn't have time to do his normal level of research to properly skewer folk, unlike last year. Then, I was on stage with Andrew Harrison on a general commercial radio panel, and Steve metaphorically pinned Andrew against the wall and fired pellets into his head. I sat, arms folded, and hoped Steve would run out of pellets before he got to me. This year I think Steve's pellets have all been fired at BBC apparatchiks and he's not had time to reload the gun.

After my bit we had the wonderful Fru Hazlitt in conversation with Linda Smith. Fru calls a spade a shovel at the best of times - and as she now runs lots of important things at ITV, she felt suitably unconstrained during her conversation. In the nicest way she is a bit batty, which always livens up a stage. Sadly no youtube link exists to Fru's forthright views on the Welsh, expressed at a previous conference, but Linda did find some video on the comments which amused those in the hall.

David Joseph, the boss of Universal, was up next. He gave a really insightful presentation into the music industry, and was broadly positive about the future, which was good. He couldn’t resist asking commercial radio to do more to support new music, to which the cynical response might be - here's our rate card - buy some advertising, like other folk wanting to promote their products.

Last up before lunch, we had Jeremy Vine interviewing John Myers about his book. Apparently John had interviewed Jeremy the day before about his book. They are moving in together next week.

John was his usual larger-than-life self, and much mirth was had about just how egregiously John used to break OFCOM competition rules. I don’t think there is a statute of limitations on fiddling callers – and I demand an inquiry.

After Lunch, Frank Skinner told Adrian Chiles why he loves radio - and I thought he was really passionate about the medium. He also name checked Tony Butler (and the late Tony Trethewey got a mention too) along with Les Ross, and the wonderful "yesterday never comes". Almost brought a tear to my eye.

I left at that point, and so missed the gala dinner, which apparently featured Sir Alex Ferguson giving a music award to Mick Hucknall, with Peter Kay looking on - that sounds all a bit too surreal for me, and not at all grim either.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Don't Stop Believing


We are testing Free Radio 80s - and it sounds great.

It's particularly poignant for me to be launching a new station on 1359 and 1152 am, as these were the original frequencies for Xtra AM, which was my first station launch, back in 1989. Free Radio 80s will actually cover a much larger area, being also available on the Wolverhampton/Shropshire AM frequencies too. The Shropshire 1017 AM TX is in particular a "big stick" (technical term) which means folk as far up north as the Wirral should be able to tune in if they have a decent medium wave radio. I think the predictions from Arqiva are that over 5m people will be able to hear the station during daytimes!

Why have we done it though?

Well, we inherited "Gold" on AM when we bought the Orion stations, and really didn't have the time at first to do much with the frequencies. Gold has been quite successful in audience terms, with over 100,000 listeners regularly tuning in across the patch, and both David and I are actually fans of the station itself - it does what is says on the tin, very effectively.

In our patch, the audience for Gold has actually increased under Orion's ownership, and we think a fair amount of the station's recent success is because of our investment in football commentary, of which more later.

However, three years in, we faced a real dilemma. Nearly all of our transmission agreements were up for renewal (on both AM and DAB), and in truth although the Gold service was doing OK from an audience perspective, it was losing us money hand over fist. The TX contracts, and sports rights deals, were costing far more than the station was bringing in in ad revenues. And our own sales teams were finding it difficult to sell, because it was a disconnected national station with no relevance to our local FM output.

So we faced a choice. Close the transmitters down and hand the licences back, or see if there was a way of doing things differently. We decided to have one last go at making a predominantly AM service workable. We've negotiated long and hard with our transmission partners, and been prepared to compromise in order to bring our TX bill down. We've also redone our football deals to make that element of the output most cost-effective. The final element was to make the station one our sales teams could go out and sell easily as an add-on to our FM output.

Changing our FM stations to one brand gave us the opportunity to create a new sister brand - and that was how Free Radio 80s was born.

Why did we go for 80s?

Well to be honest we decided we didn't want to replicate a pure 60s/70s/80s oldies type service, as we are sure Gold will still be available to oldies fans on DTV, online, and possibly back on DAB. We needed to create a station which lived within our format parameters (Oldies for people aged 35-54) but which was distinctive and could generate good word of mouth (as we're not planning a big marketing push) and which felt like it was genuinely "the next station along demographically" to Free Radio FM, making joint selling possible. 80s jumped out in our brainstorming, and we all felt comfortable with it from the start.

Sitting here writing this I am listening to the tests - and it sounds absolutely great to me. Pure pop from a great music decade.

The station itself will have a bunch of real DJs - Dave Sherwood, David Francis, Tim Disney, Fresh, Ed Nell and of course Tom Ross. We'll be running local news, weather, travel for the West Midlands during peaktimes, and of course Tom will be running football commentary across the station for all of our local teams, splitting output across the frequencies when appropriate.

Changing stations and brands is always a risk - and Free Radio 80s represents a considerable investment by Orion in keeping some transmitters going with quality output when we could easily have just switched them off - but we think it'll work out just fine.

And listening this morning, I'm feeling very positive. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

We're all going on a Summer Holiday (from the regulators)

I haven't blogged for quite some time, but I have been a) busy; b) on holiday and c) at the Olympics. So a word about b) and c) before returning to a)

Holiday was lovely. Mallorca. I miss going to Florida (which we did a few times when the kids were small & the call of theme parks was overwhelming) because whilst there I got to hear a couple of weeks of US radio - always interesting to hear how things are going there. I'm sure Spanish radio is equally interesting (I know a couple of consultants here make a good living advising in Madrid) but I don't really speak much, if any, Spanish, and the music mix is not of great appeal - so it becomes a two week radio-free zone (as opposed to Free Radio zone!) except for the daily diet of emails you would expect me, as a classic Type A, to respond to.

Then we got back just in time for the Olympics. I got to go the the Ricoh once, and the Olympic Park twice. I'm not sure I can add much to the general commentary that it was all brilliant etc etc.

If I have one observation as a grizzled 30 year music radio veteran (!) it was that the music within the final closing ceremony didn't quite work for me as a celebration of 50 years of our creativity. Not much Beatles, no Stones, no Led Zep, no punk (I heard Clash "should I stay...." this morning on our Free Radio hall of fame and thought how good that might have been in the closing ceremony). There were some questionable inclusions too (George Michael's second song, Beady Eye, One Direction). In the end I'm sure the guys who put it together did the best they could with the acts that were prepared to perform (at least there was no Cliff) - I just think it could have been even stronger.

Anyway - I've been busy. I'm currently working on three separate pieces of regulatory work (everyone's eyes glaze over) but they are all important from the perspective of how we shape our industry for the next 10-15 years.

One piece is our submission to the OFT and OFCOM with our thoughts on Global's deal to buy GMG Radio. It is important that all radio owners, and other interested parties, get their chance to share their views on this with the regulators. We are a democracy and run a free market, private enterprise economy. One of the hallmarks of that is appropriate jurisdiction of markets, which includes letting people express their opinion and address their concerns when major deals are being executed. That paper has gone in and although it would be wrong of me to publicly discuss our views, one aspect of the deal which I didn't talk about in our submission because it doesn't affect the Midlands is my personal view that, taken in isolation, the rumoured creation of a national AC brand should Global be allowed to retain the Real licences and convert them to Heart, would be a good thing. This is a long-standing view of mine. My good friend John Myers is writing a book, and I know in it he will refer to the numerous times he and I tried to get a merger between Chrysalis Radio and GMG Radio sorted out and failed - so that looks like one point to Ashley, nil ponits to the big men! That Chrysalis/GMG deal never happened for reasons too complex to mention here - but the driving force behind our thinking was the creation of that single AC FM Network. I think the whole of commercial radio would benefit from a major music competitor to R1/R2. Of course this view does not mean I have examined this deal on a market by market basis in the Real areas in terms of the other assets Global owns, and whether this specific deal can stand - that is a matter for the OFT - I just do feel that we need a "national" pop music station of some description in the commercial sector - and this seems our best shot at getting one.

The second piece is a response to OFCOMs cost benefit analysis of DAB. This is the sort of thing that thinking about too deeply really will make your head explode - but if the economic boffins don't look at the future of radio in the right way, we can easily end up making the wrong decisions as an industry, and heading down the wrong path completely. I'm a contrarian on DAB - I think it's great, and here to stay, but I'd keep all local radio off DAB and on FM, use that DAB spectrum for more national services, and foget about FM/DAB switch-over and leave both bands to find their natural equilibrium. At the moment I'm in a very small minority with this view - but I will keep plugging away.

The third piece is some thinking for our political masters at the DCMS. We were due to have a new communications bill in the next year or so. That's been put back, but the DCMS still want to know from the industry what we think of formats, localness etc and if there need to be further changes. I’ve been asked to go to a seminar on the subject at the DCMS in September so am trying to get my thoughts in order.

The trick of course is to say things to the OFT on competition, and then to OFCOM on DAB switchover, and then to the DCMS on localness/formats, which when read together look like they make sense as part of a whole.

I'm getting there, but as David Lloyd said to me the other day after a diary full of HR and H&S meetings "... was this really why I got into radio?" I don't think I got in because I wanted to spend my days writing to regulators - but if it makes our business better going forward I'll do my best.

I'll need another holiday at the end of it all though.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The perils of being a substitute


I attended the Westminster Media Forum on the future of radio last week, intending to sit at the back and let others do the hard work. However, the forum was held just two days after the Global/GMG announcement, and therefore many of the planned speakers from local commercial radio had suddenly decided to "go walkabout." As I signed in the organisers asked me if I would step in and talk on one of the prepared topics, "The challenges facing local radio." 

You know me - I will speak at the opening on an envelope, so I was happy to step in, and thought you'd like to read my comments below. I've edited them slighlty to make the written text read as eloquently as my brain thought the words coming out of my mouth actually sounded, and to remove the non-jokes which appeared funny in my mind as I said them, but as usual looked pretty lame on the page!

The challenges facing local radio
Phil Riley, Chief Executive, Orion Media

Good morning.  I’m a late substitute, as Jimmy said. I think the people who were supposed to be here speaking are now locked in panelled rooms with anti-trust lawyers and economists, and if Clive Dickens is right in his prediction of earleir, they will be there for the next 2 or 3 years.  So, I do hope they enjoy that.

So what’s the challenge for local commercial radio?  Well I think we could probably start with the comments that the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, expressed yesterday, that we were only half way through a 10 year recession.  If you want a challenge, that’s the challenge.  Thank God I’ve got none of my personal wealth tied up in the industry.  Oh no, shit… right. 

Orion Media is a private equity backed investment company which bought a chain of radio stations from Global Radio the last time they dealt with the OFT / Competition Commission 3 years ago and they were forced to divest. We had a 3 year plan when we started, and 3 years on we’ve still got a 3 year plan! In fact I sat with my finance director yesterday and said, just go into the plan that we put to the private equity firm before we bought these radio licences, about how much national revenue would have grown by 2012, and let’s compare it to where we actually are in 2012. He has gone away to do the work, I haven’t got the numbers with me, but I guess that gap between where we thought it was going to be and where it is, is quite significant.

So, if you want the large challenge for a purely commercially funded local radio organisation such as ours or any of the other local groups, it’s struggling and managing to make ends meet in very, very difficult economic circumstances, and one of the problems of that, of course, is if you can’t see a return to the sunlit uplands of double digit growth on an annual basis then it makes planning for the future very difficult. If the some of the graphs that Sean or Tabitha showed were right, then the real plan for the future ought to be to manage 1 or 2% per annum declining revenue. That makes planning extremely challenging.

I think the second challenge that the local radio industry faces is the rise of the national radio brands, and by here I’m talking about Heart, Capital, Smooth, Kiss and others, because in many markets where there were 3, 4, 5 local radio stations, what you now have is essentially a single local station and either a regional or a national brand or a number of them competing.  And there are some big challenges there because a national brand can afford better marketing in terms of being able to spread the cost of marketing and advertising production across a wider range, and being able to buy media much more effectively because they are a national brand. So you are up against competitors who are really trying to steal your audience.  Potentially arguably the programming quality is better on some of the national brands, certainly Ashley famously said there aren’t 37 good mid morning presenters in the UK commercial radio.  Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly true to say that if you have got the pick of the crop to populate large segments of your output, you are going to deliver a level of quality and consistency in your output which local stations might find difficult to challenge.

A related challenge with the rise of these national brands is, of course, in national sales. For local radio stations there’s normally a mixed ecology, with some of our revenue coming from national advertisers, and some coming from local advertisers. Clearly if there are now easier ways for national advertisers to buy their way into living rooms in Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow or whatever, then it might mean that the local station’s share of national revenue potentially is in a period of decline.

So three huge challenges there for local radio to face. 

In addition, people this morning have mentioned local television, which lots of people are concerned about.  Certainly from an industry lobbying perspective, I think we are right to say we are concerned about it, we think it’s the answer to a problem no one thought existed, and I think at its worst it has the potential to destabilise the local ecology of the radio marketplace.  My concern about local television isn’t that it will be a success, because I don’t genuinely think it will be, my concern is that it will be a failure that won’t get killed off any time soon, and the problem about having a failing player in a local market ecology is there will be a race to the bottom.  These guys, if they are in a difficult situation, will become increasingly desparate and will start to discount their prices for airtime in order to try and capture some share of the market.  Now that eventually will feed through to the whole of the local broadcast marketplace, and I do think there’s a real concern there.

I think the final challenge I would pick out is online, and the potential growth of online and digital media into the local marketplace, as opposed to the national marketplace.  I think when you look at some of those earleir graphs and you see the 30% online share, you do ask, where’s all that revenue come from?  Probably most of that initially has come from a shift of national marketing, but increasingly there is concern that perhaps online activity will seep into the local marketplace and local advertisers will find digital and online increasingly part of their marketing mix, again putting downward pressure on the ability of local radio stations to take local advertising.

So those are the challenges - how do you respond?  Well I think there are a number of answers.

The first response to the 10 year recession is to become more efficient and I think you have seen commercial radio in general across the piece become far more efficient in how it manages itself over the past few years, whether it’s networking mid morning presenters or local stations finding new and innovative ways to do things, we are certainly a very, very efficient industry, and in part we have been helped by some of the changes in regulation that we have seen through the Digital Economy Bill. We are pushing for more relaxation of regulation because we clearly are going to need to become even more efficient as we go forward.

In terms of competing against the rise of these national radio brands, I think the right way to respond is to sell the benefits of localness, and it’s interesting because I think one of the things that we are seeing in the Midlands is that as our competitors increasingly become national in their output and their outlook and where most of their programming comes from, it does provide us with an increased opportunity to go to local advertisers and say, we are the alternative, we are the place where you can talk locally, 24/7, we’re certainly the place where if you want to do sponsorship and promotional activity, you can do it with us and you can do it with us in a very flexible way. It’s very difficult for national brands like Heart and Capital and Smooth etc. to do local sponsorship, local promotions, because so much of their output is networked and is coming from London, so there’s a great opportunity there for local radio stations to be closer to local advertisers.

With local TV I’ve said I don’t genuinely think it’s a competitor, I think there’s a risk there that it destabilises the market.  One thing that I think we will look at as these licenses get awarded, certainly in our market, is whether there’s any opportunity to collaborate with local TV. Certainly I’ve had a stream of people who are intent on launching local TV in Birmingham come through our offices and talk to us about sharing news and programming etc. I think when we know who has won that licence and what they are intending to do, there may very well be a conversation about a collaboration. I’m not expecting it to transform our fortunes as a provider of content, but there may be a way there in which we can offset some of the damage that local TV might do.

I think my biggest and strongest message in terms of how to respond is that we, as local radio operators, need to be more aggressive with marketing our own content. We need to grow our own audiences at the expense of the national networks and I think there is an opportunity for us to do better at challenging stations which are increasingly seen as coming from London, and offering an alternative, which works for both listeners and advertisers. Certainly our own audience growth over the three years that we’ve been running Orion is testament to that.

We’ve heard talk this morning about new advertising formats and I think that’s true of radio, whether it’s national or local, we need to be innovative. No one really has talked too much this morning about branded content/brand integration, but I think branded content is a great way of extending even further our ability to relate to advertisers and involve them in our programming in a way which is transparent and fair, but adds value for them and adds value for us. I think branded content is a clear way in which we can do more, and certainly at a local level, offering branded content to local advertisers is a very powerful win-win for both clients and stations.

Finally  I think the other way that we need to compete and rise to the challenge is by using our own digital involvement, via the use of social media and our digital channels to augment what we are doing.  Radio stations are more than just a signal on an FM platform, we are now the interaction between the presenters and their listeners on Twitter, on Facebook, we are the station inviting its audience to come in to its website to interact on our online platforms. All of those different ways in which we interact with our listeners can provide us with a way of benefiting in the future.  As one stat, for example, our total Orion radio audience as measured by RAJAR, is 1.3 million listeners a week, but during the course of June, when measured across Twitter, Facebook, online, and all the other social media that we are on, 700,000 of those listeners also interacted in one way or another with us. That’s a very significant percentage of our overall audience that we are talking to in channels other than our FM and DAB platform, and that, I think, gives us a great way of trying to compete and generate new listening and new interactions and new revenue opportunities going forward.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Grab 'em while they're young

I was honoured to be asked to be the guest speaker last night at the Coventry & Warwickshire young Enterprise awards.
It was a great night, with seven teams of students from across the patch demonstrating their business ideas and pitching to a panel of expert judges. Well done to all of those who took part - but congratulations to "Cheers" from Kings High and Warwick schools, who scooped the main prize on the evening with a great, innovative and socially useful take on beer mat advertising.
I also awarded a new prize, the "Free Radio Media Award" to one of the groups, "Strive Eleven" from three schools in Rugby, who had come up with a great way to make use of something those of us of a certain age all have sitting in our loft or garage - old vinyl LPs and singles. They will now come to our Birmingham headquarters, meet the team there, take part in a brainstorming session on how best to market their product - after which we will physically make an ad for them, get JD to interview them, and then broadcast the ad. I hope it will be more great experience for them.
I really enjoyed thinking about, writing, and then presenting my speech - entrepreneurship is something I'm really passionate about. I thought I'd share it with you - please pass it on to any young person you know who might be thinking about starting their own business


Capitalism / Private Enterprise / the Free Market economy.
Call it what you will, it’s one of my passions in life, and I’m thrilled to be here tonight to see some of the next generation of entrepreneurs take their first steps along the road, I hope, to running their own successful business.
Young Enterprise is a great organisation.
In my view, schools don’t do nearly enough to encourage and promote the study of business, private enterprise, and economics, and so YE fills a much needed gap.
And why is business so important. Well, to answer that, you have to start by asking where are we in Britain on the ladder of human wealth?
Well, we are one of the richest countries in the world, ranking 20th out of 200 countries overall.  Given many of the countries below us have significant populations (China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Brazil), the average Briton is probably in the top 10% of the world from a wealth perspective.
So why are we so rich in Britain?
It’s because of three reasons, which have their roots in our long history as a nation.
The first reason is the creation of Limited liability companies. These allow you to invest in an enterprise, knowing that if all goes wrong, you will not be made to pay for all the debts of that company. That’s important, because if you thought that any company you backed could end up with its creditors chasing you for the company’s unpaid debts, and that you could therefore go bankrupt – you’d never invest in anything, especially anything risky, even if it had potentially high rewards. This concept of limiting someone’s liability just to the money they invest was a critical innovation that allowed risky enterprises to flourish after it was invented.
The earliest recognized company was the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, chartered in 1553 in London with 250 shareholders – and the definition of  “Adventurer “is a businessman who ventures capital – i.e. invests money. I love the fact that adventure and business are linked terms. And you can see why we needed limited liability. Putting ships to sea to explore strange lands to bring back exotic gems, spices etc – hugely risky – but potentially very rewarding. We needed a mechanism to let these explorers fund their adventures – and this was it.
Trade between nations flourished because of these companies. Great trading cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai sprang up because of these new found links.
The second Innovation was the industrial revolution.
This was a period from 1750 to 1850 where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the world. It began here in the United Kingdom, and then subsequently spread throughout Western Europe, North America, Japan, and eventually the rest of the world.
In the two centuries following 1800, the world's average per capita income increased over tenfold, while the world's population increased over sixfold. And Great Britain provided the legal and cultural foundations that enabled entrepreneurs to pioneer the industrial revolution.
The third innovation is the fact that the intellectual underpinning for the concept of “The Free Market” also sprang from the United Kingdom, with Scottish philosopher Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” – the first modern work of economics. Smith’s description of the invisible hand remains, today, the most powerful descriptor of how free markets work.
“......It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages...”
Whilst we rightly revere the English language itself, Shakespeare and the concept of parliamentary democracy as some of our greatest cultural exports, I would also say that the establishment of limited liability companies, the industrial revolution, and the intellectual underpinnings of the free market represent a trio of British exports to the world which stand head and shoulders above anything else in terms of their effect on global living standards
So – we need business to maintain and increase our wealth – and we need you guys to be in business to carry that torch forward to the next generation, and to continue to create that wealth for us all to enjoy. So I want to spend the next few minutes talking to you, the finalists, to encourage you to think about making business your career.
Why should you choose business, and not become a doctor, teacher, architect, or any of the other professions your parents probably want you to pursue.
The first reason is – you just might not have a choice in the matter. If you have discovered that starting businesses and running them is your passion in life, you simply must do it.
I believe we must all strive to lead great lives – not just good lives or OK lives – but great lives. And that starts with passion. Only by pursuing your passion can you lead a great life, and if you are genuinely passionate about business and enterprise – we need you to pursue that passion at all costs for everyone’s benefit.
As well as passion by the way, you need perseverance, resilience, call it what you will – and a positive mental attitude. I think you need those three traits to lead a great life in whatever path you choose – but you most certainly need them if you are choosing the path of the entrepreneur. You won’t meet too many successful businessmen who aren’t passionate about what they do, give up easily, or feel miserable most of the time.
The second reason why I’d encourage you to go into business is because it’s great, competitive fun. There’s much talk of the need for competitive sports in school. But not everyone is good at throwing a ball. However, collectively we can all apply ourselves to competitive enterprises. And that is what business is. The daily pursuit of competitive advantage over one's rivals.
O2 competes with Vodafone every day. Coke competes with Pepsi. Lloyds competes with Santander; Free Radio competes with Capital FM.
And this rivalry has two effects.
Firstly, if you are competitive, it makes it stimulating to go to work – and I can tell you there are many “good” careers out there where you will not be stimulated every day. And secondly – it produces benefits for the consumer. Every day, in every great business, the people who work there are thinking of ways to outsmart their rivals – and that inevitably means thinking of ways to increase the benefits for customers – exactly as Adam Smith predicted back in the c18th.
The third reason to go into business is that it teaches you teamwork – and this is particularly why I think more emphasis should be placed on business in schools. You simply can’t build a great business alone – you have to be able to recruit, retain and inspire the people who work alongside you. That requires you to develop skills in emotional intelligence. Being able to manage teams, and inspire them to great things, is integral to business, and certainly gives me a thrill when I see it happening in my own business.
One other benefit of running your own business by the way is that you don’t have a “Boss” to answer to – which for some people is reason alone to start their own firm.
Another reason is giving something back. Businesses don’t work in a vacuum. We are all part of society. And whilst I dislike the term “Stakeholder” and the increasing view from government that they can “force” businesses to be social partners, many, many businesses do engage in socially useful activities off their own bat – because they want to.
My company organises a series of charity walks each year. There’s one here – walking from Warwick to Coventry on Sunday June 17th, and it’s sponsored by this great University we are in tonight. There’s another in Brum, one in Wolverhampton and one in Worcester. Together we hope over 20,000 local people will participate, and that they will raise over £600,000 for local charities. It takes us a lot of time and effort to organise these – but we do it because we can, because we want to, and because it helps us help others.
Finally, you should go into business to make money.
Let’s be clear – being in business and being successful means making money. Money is the scorecard – and if you are successful you should expect to earn great rewards. And if you’ve created jobs for others, improved the lot of your consumers, and given something back to the community in the process – there’s nothing wrong in you enjoying material rewards too.
I don’t want to belabour the financial point – because, in Britain at least, discussing money is quite often seen as “not the done thing” but it is precisely because the butcher or baker wants to make money that he offers us the ingredients for a good dinner. So we should all want these young people to make money – because by doing so they will make us all richer as a result.
And the end result of amassing great wealth quite often turns into the creation of huge social benefits. Just look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Two of the world’s richest men, who have not only pledged all of their money to a foundation working to alleviate poverty and illness – but they are busy persuading many, many other rich businessfolk to follow them in putting their money to good work.
Starting and running business is hugely challenging. Raising capital, dealing with banks, sorting out the legalities of it all, finding customers and suppliers, all difficult,  all challenging, sometimes even frightening.
But it’s also one of the most exciting and important things anyone can do. Aspiring to lead a great organisation – like Richard Branson, James Dyson or the late Steve Jobs – creating jobs, creating new products and services is a worthy goal – in my book entering business is on a par with entering medicine, finance or law. Well done to all of you for achieving the goal of being here in tonight’s finals. You should all be rightly proud of what you have done so far, and I hope this experience has given you the appetite to “take on the world” by starting your own business.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

And the Sony for best strapline goes to....

...well not us obviously, if James Cridland was on the voting panel.
James, who is one of UK Radio's good guys, and a particularly insightful futurologist, ventured into the murky waters of marketing and programming yesterday. We'd posted one of our new jingles to give people a taste of how "Free Radio" might sound - and James took a twitter potshot at our music positioning phrase "Today's Best Music Mix"
In his subsequent posting, here, he uses our decision to use "Today's Best Music Mix" to start a debate on whether or not commercial music radio is inspiring or not - and whether or not it should even be marketing itself using music as the primary focus - so let me deal with that before moving onto the phrase itself.
Let's be clear on a couple of points - firstly, most commercial music radio listeners tune in because of the music - absolutely every piece of research bears this out. And we need to be honest with ourselves. If this country can produce 25-30 outstanding personality based music radio presenters, then most of them are going to end up working for the BBC networks because of the platform and prestige it gives them - not all, but most. The BBC also does not run adverts on its radio services, which gives them the scope to play 3 or 4 more records per hour than its commercial rivals - and still let its presenters express their personality within its output. Any professional marketer or programmer would take this industry structure and the available research analysis and come to the conclusion that having, and marketing, a more focused music approach is the only coherent way to effectively counter the BBCs clear competitive advantages of higher music intensity combined with stronger personalities.
And sadly, it simply isn't enough to say "you should play the local card then." Local is critical to us, and we embrace it far more than any of our regional/national competitors can ever do. However, the big groups like Global have very skilfully combined powerful national brands with localness at peak times. For a lot of radio listeners, the presence of a local presenter at breakfasts & drives, with some local news, sport and traffic, seems to be enough, if the station's music offering is compelling. This is not true for everyone, but it is for enough listeners to make it very difficult for the truly local stations to rely on localness as their key "marketing" benefit to attract new listeners away from these networks. So from a promotional perspective, this serves to dilute the impact of marketing your localness in any advertising. I'm not knocking localness at all - we already win the "localness" statements in our research hands down, but in order to win new listeners we need to break out beyond this.
So, if we would inevitably find a "personality" contest with the BBC challenging to win, and if "localness" isn't the key USP to drive new listening, then stations like Free, sitting in the same market as BBC networks and both Capital and Heart, and with a format that has to sit between those two, need to find a compelling music-based proposition as part of their offering.
Now, outside of music, we don't think we are uninspiring at all. In fact, we think our stations are full of character. We think we do have great personalities on-air (although clearly not with the profile of an Evans or Moyles), we give them the freedom to have fun, and we do lots of activities which we think add character, content and meaning to the output of the station(s) - so our brand message to our creative agency was actually "a music station with character, playing "Today's Best Music Mix" " and I think when you see the advertising, which will break in the next fortnight, you'll see both a clear message explaining what our "mix" represents, and a creative approach in both outdoor and TV, which shouts "character."
A more pertinent criticism from James is that the phrase "Today's Best Music Mix" is itself uninspiring. Well, it's been used before for certain, as have nearly all music positioners in use today in the UK. Hit Music Stations and Variety/Mix lines have been around for donkey's years - and I'd say we keep coming back to them as an industry because that's what listeners want us to do. When you ask a room full of listeners to describe their "ideal station" they'll tend to say (depending on demographics of course) "...I just want a station that plays the hits...", or "...I want a variety of songs..."or "I'd like to hear a mix of today's stuff and some oldies..."or "...I want a station that doesn't repeat songs too often..." so our positioners tend very much to echo what our listeners tell us they want. Maybe not very inspiring - but pretty powerful.
And as for the specifics of our phrase - well we've simply refreshed our  "...Best Mix of 80s, 90s and today..." line which we've been using since we took over. We realised that a) it's too long for an ATL marketing campaign, and b) the reference to 80s and 90s would overemphase those tracks and their profile in the mix to potential new listeners - hence a shorter, more contemporary refreshing of the line.
Our on-air positioning throughout the process of moving to Free has been to reassure,  "...nothing is changing - apart from the name..." so it would have been wrong for us in principle to ditch both our music mix itself and how we position it on air. Of course if you actually listen to the station, the mix proposition is explained pretty relentlessly - just like all good stations do. And as "Free Radio" we'll be using the strapline in quite an amusing and enterttaining way we think.
And why are we playing this "mix" - essentially the most popular tracks from today, backed up with all the strong recurrent and recent oldies, and a solid spice category of 80s and 90s. Well, we're playing that mix because our listeners have told us that's what they want too. And across the network of existing local stations that will make up Free Radio we have more listeners than any other commercial station in the West Midlands. And we're only about 40,000 listeners behind R1, and 100,000 behind R2 - in a market of knocking on for 4m adults - despite none of our existing brands having had any serious marketing behind them for many, many years. So we must be getting that mix right to a degree!
If you don't believe in research - stop reading now! I think I'm right in saying I was the first person to do music research in the UK, when Rachel Steel and I got 100 people into the upstairs room at the Yew Tree pub in Yardley in 1989 prior to the launch of Xtra (anyone beat that with an earlier test?) We played a lot of Beatles, Elvis and Beach Boys cuts to a bunch of 35-54 year olds - and it seemed to work, as the station hit a 23% reach within a year of launch if I recall correctly (despite being on AM only.) If you buy into music research as a philosophy, then there is only one real decision you need to make - how far down the list you need to go before a song's unpopularity rules it out (you might also choose to lose some strong tracks because they "don't fit the sound" - but that's a finer judgement call and I'm not sure why you'd test a song in the first place if you didn't think it fitted your "sound".)
I recall one producer from the BBC likening me to a "baked bean salesman" at the 1990 Radio Festival when I was on a panel discussing the research - I still claim that as a badge of honour (I think attitudes within the Beeb have changed since then though!)
So - we've researched our music - and it is the same format we've been running with for some time - we've even researched the strap-line - and it has great, positive resonance with both our listeners and potential listeners, and we've researched our marketing, testing concepts and executions.
If you want to argue gut feel vs gut feel, no one can ever win - but when you're putting your own money at risk, you should back up that gut feel with some knowledge of what your listeners actually think about your station, radio in general, what might tempt them to switch stations, and what they want when they switch on.
I think with Free Radio we've done all we can - so let's get on and see if we're right.

Monday, 12 March 2012

2 4 6 8 Motorway

How did Tom Robinson ever end up with that song as his biggest hit? Apparently there are allusions to gay truck drivers in it - but I just remember it as a piece of throwaway 70s pop - and from the guy who produced the sublime "War Babies" as well. He still performs it at gigs though - so clearly it matters to him.
Anyway, I was prompted to think about that song as I've spent much of the last week driving up and down our motorway network, including driving up and down the M6 twice. Once on Thursday was to take my daughter Alex to her first ever match at Old Trafford, where we were dispatched by a very good Bilbao side. I'd previously taken her with me to see United lose to Barcelona in the champions League Final, so I suspect she's become a bit of a jinx as far as United v Spanish sides are concerned.
There's a gap on the M6, you may have noticed, between where our stations end, just north of Jcn 14, and where the big North West stations start, around Jcn 17. I know it's the Stoke/Keele area really - but it always feels to me like a bit of no-man's land between the two great English conurbations. I think the West Midlands ends when Beacon fades out, and the North West starts when you can pick up Key 103. In between, none of the FM stations ever seems to have an RDS message because they're all "a bit far away." of course Signal does brilliantly well, probably simply because it's the only big station that is unequivocally for "round there." [It's the same with London isn't it - you think "I'm here" when you can pick up 95.8]
Anyway, driving up, once past the barren wasteland that is "The Potteries",  I was flipping between Key 103 and Capital 102 as I approached the M6/M56 interchange. It felt like both stations had wound their processors up too much in an effort to be ultra-competitive, and both felt very ad heavy. Nothing too wrong with that - unless you are waiting for traffic news, as I was, and getting closer to a potential hotspot as the break went on...and on...and on. There wasn't a lot of "big game night" excitement on either station - but that could have been them being a bit blasé about the Europa League - I imagine we'd be hyperventilating if two of our local WM teams were both playing in Europe on the same night - I'm actually not sure Tom Ross's heart could take the strain!
Driving back late at night after the game, I always find I've got to listen to speech radio to keep myself awake, so a combination of Robin Lustig on R4, Tony Livesey on R5 and Carloine (when I got into range) kept me going. I do find music much harder to listen to late at night - I'm sure it's something to do wiith needing to keep your brain active - otherwise I'd fall asleep whilst driving - with not very nice consequences.
Then on Friday I had to drive the comparatively shorter distance to Kettering and back at lunch-time. Luckily I was never out of Gem range, and sleep wasn't trying to overtake me, so that trip passed off without radio incident.
More interesting was my trip back up the M6 on Saturday morning. Again sport was involved - this time my son playing in a rugby 7s tournament in Macclesfield, but I took the opportunity this time to listen to Absolute, and the Frank Skinner show. I'm a huge fan of Frank's, and think Absolute have done a great job with him. If I was being ultra-critical, I think his team can take too high a role in the show sometimes (mind you, one tweeter did criticise one of his co-hosts, and Frank put him firmly in his place to much amusement in the Riley car!) This week the topic was tea, and you have to admire a man who managed to get at least 30 minutes worth of material out of doilies, teapots, tea bags, warmers etc etc.Probably not a Sony Award winning edition, but amusing enough for a long car-trip and that's all you can really ask for.
I was listening on AR80s, where his show was being re purposed in-between a steady diet of Tina Turner and Bon Jovi. I quite liked it, although I suspect Frank would have liked a bit more of The Fall. The same show was also being re-purposed on AR90s between Oasis and Blur - so if I inadvertently nudged the dial, I'd get the same link, slightly delayed, followed by a completely different song - it's the future!
My biggest frustration really with all this motorway driving is the lack of pre-sets on my car radio - you'd expect a DAB car radio to come equipped with hundreds wouldn't you, given DABs big selling point is lots of choice. But no, just 6 is all I get - and only 6 on FM too. For a man like me that's not far off torture!
If I did ever perish in a car crash, I expect the coroners report would state "Accidental death, due to reaching for another pre-set"
Happy driving.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

....There's only a month to go!

I've launched a fair few stations in my time (Xtra AM, Magic 828, Heart 100.7, Heart 106.2, Galaxy 105-106) and re-branded and relaunched a bunch of others (Kiss 102 & 105 into Galaxy; Choice to Galaxy 102.2; Century 106 into Heart 106 - and then to Gem 106), so I should be used to it by now.

But no matter how experienced you are, every time is different, with new challenges and new hurdles to clear. The relaunch of brmb, Beacon, Mercia and Wyvern as Free Radio is no exception.

Of course this is probably the most complex re-branding I've done, converting 4 heritage stations into one new station - and the complexity is not helped by two of the stations, brmb and Beacon, having such a large overlap across Birmingham and the Black Country.

In fact the overlap population of brmb and Beacon is bigger than the whole of the Wyvern population. Just to put it into geographical perspective, the Beacon transmitter at Turners Hill is closer to the centre of Birmingham than it is to the centre of Wolverhampton - and is also closer to Brum city centre than the brmb transmitter! although 97.2 and 96.4 will be keeping local breakfasts and drives, and local news throughout the day, having just one brand on both transmitters does raise interesting issues for us with regard to marketing and measurement.Of course there is some criticism of the loss of two separate, famous, local brands for each bit of this patch, but all of our major rivals, Capital, Heart, Smooth, Kerrang!, and even WM, cover the whole of Birmingham & the Black Country with just one service on one transmitter - so even though both of our transmitters will share one name, their individual output will still mean a more localised service.

Anyway, we're figuring it all out and are hugely excited by the countdown. We've been public since the beginning of January, and have been talking about the change on-air for a few weeks now. I'm not saying we're out of the woods completely, but the week before last I had more emails from staff moaning about changing the milk order than I had from listeners complaining about the new name. In the end, I think being honest and up front with folk does help, and certainly a lot of both research and anecdotal evidence suggests a very high percentage of our listeners are already aware of, and relaxed about, the change.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of time is being spent getting our marketing right - particularly our TV ad. I think listeners would be amazed at both how much it costs to make a top quality ad these days (particularly if you want to include music tracks) and how much attention to detail goes into each second of the ad. Given they normally only last 30", they cost the same, pro-rata, as a major motion picture.Can't say any more right now though, as I wouldn't want our friends down the road to know too much!

Life goes on though, and our big on-air focus is getting our listeners to sign up to take part in our planned walks across the West Midlands this Spring/Summer. So far in Birmingham we are showing registrations up 65% year on year, which I'm sure is down to the immense emotional pull of our decision to "Walk for Harry". The "Walk of Warwickshire" is up by even more, and when you add in the "Walk of the Black Country", and the new "Walk of Worcestershire" (probably the prettiest of them all) we're not far off double the number of walkers this year signed up so far compared to the same day in 2011. And in total last year we raised the thick end of £500k - so this year is looking great for local charities.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

"What's in a name?...

...That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Well, I have taken some flak over the last few weeks for announcing that we were planning to change the names of our West Midlands radio stations - but another name change we announced yesterday seems to have gone down rather better.

A bit of background. We've been running the Walkathon on brmb for the last two years, in its original 1980s form - i.e. a full 26 mile hike round the city. We've introduced a few new twists, but the essence of having to walk round the outer circle bus route remains the same gruelling but ultimately very rewarding challenge it has always been.

In our first year, 2010, the walk raised cash to help build "a home for the brave" at the new QE (see earlier post below)

In 2011 it raised money to help refurbish the Accident and Emergency department of the Birmingham Childrens Hospital.

In total over those two years Brummie walkers helped raise £665,000.

And despite our impending name change, we were determined to do another walk for local charities this year, with a hope that we might might push the three year total to £1m or more funds raised, and spent, on good causes here in the city.

So towards the back end of 2011, we met with a number of the significant local charities in our patch to see if there was a way we could work together.... and the charity that jumped out was Acorns, a childrens' hospice based in Selly Oak. This is the original Acorns, and was built and opened in the mid-80s, as only the third children's hospice in the world. Part of the original funding came from the 1980s series of brmb Walkathons, so there was a nice symmetry to helping them again, in advance of their 25th anniversary. 

They are in desperate need of cash to refurbish the whole of their facilities; bedrooms, bathrooms, carpets, specialist equipment etc, so they were a perfect partner for the 2012 walk. In the course of our conversations with them, we got to talking about Harry Moseley, who had recently passed away, and was at that point still at Acorns in one of their special rooms, allowing his family to grieve and be with him prior to his funeral - just one of the remarkable things Acorns does for families in their time of need. 

Harry had rightly become famous for his unbelievable spirit, and his entrepreneurial approach to helping raise cash for other kids in his situation. His was a truly inspirational story which touched people across the UK, but particularly here in Birmingham. 

Harry had become close to brmb Head of Sport Tom Ross, after a very moving interview Tom did with him. So, via a combination of conversations with Acorns, Tom and the Children's Hospital, where Harry had been treated, we sat down with Georgie, Harry's mum late last year.

I suggested something quite tentatively, not knowing how she would react. "Would she mind,..." I asked, "...if we renamed the 2012 Walkathon as  "Walk for Harry," in order to help raise funds both for Acorns and for Harry's other initiatives?" Yes said Georgie, provided we guaranteed some of the funds would go specifically to help further the remarkable research work being done on childhood brain cancer by Harry's doctor, Andrew Peet, at the Birmingham Childrens Hospital. That was a pretty easy question for us to say yes to, and so project "Walk for Harry" was conceived.

Little did we know that, after Harry's interview with Tom last year, he had gone home and said to Georgie "I want the walkathon next year to be for my charity!" I think Georgie kept that from us until everything had been sorted out, for fear of jinxing the project!
As part of the preparation for the launch, we asked Foxy & Giuliano, our breakfast show presenters, to go and meet Georgie to help explain the idea of the walk to listeners, and you can see the extremely moving video they made here.

We publicly launched "Walk for Harry" yesterday, at the Cocktail Bar at Marco Pierre White's new restaurant in The Cube - what an amazing place to launch an amazing charity appeal. Central News covered it, and you can see their report about 8m 50s into this bulletin.

I have to say that Georgie is a remarkable woman, and her approach to keeping Harry's memory alive is both inspiring and humbling. We are simply thrilled to be able to play our part in the continuing story of Harry Moseley.

Having now done two walks, we know how special they are - but everyone involved has a feeling in their bones that this year is going to be extra-special. If you are in or around Brum on Sunday May 13th, and can walk either 10 miles (the Family/Junior half walk) or the full 26 miles -- we'd love to see you for what promises to be a memorable day. You can register here

So, whilst changing the name of brmb to Birmingham's Free Radio has blotted my copyboook (only temporarily I hope) with a few of our listeners, the one thiing I have consistently promised is that we wouldn't lose our sense of local community or belonging - and "Walk for Harry" is only the first manifestation of that continued commitment.

And today we also launched our Walk of Warwickshire, to raise money of the University Hospitals of Coventry & Warwickshire Baby Care appeal; our Walk of the Black Country to raise funds for Wolverhampton based charity Promise Dreams; and new for 2012, the Walk of Worcestershire, raising money for the Worcester branch of Acorns. 

Right - if I've got four Free walks to do, thats 60 miles - time to get training.

Friday, 3 February 2012

I was having to hold back the tears...

...inside the House of Commons the other day - and it's not often you can say that!

Let me start  a couple of years ago, in fact just before Christmas 2009. We had not long had our feet under the table at Orion Media, and were focussing on brmb, and thinking about bringing back some of the elements people had been saying to us they liked about the station. 

brmb's old charity walk, the Birmingham Walkathon, which was launched in 1983 but had been running intermittently during the last decade, was high on the list. Over a lunch with former brmb MD David Bagley, he suggested that the work being done with injured troops at Selly Oak might be a useful area to explore, especially as they were moving the unit to the new QE.

Good idea I thought, so Marketing Manager Andy Price and I went off to meet Mike Hammond, who runs the QEs charity arm, to see if there was anything we could do to help, and which would make a theme for bringing back the Walkathon. 

“Funny you should ask” said Mike “but we’d really like to build something so the troops have somewhere away from the surgical wards to relax, see family & friends etc, and that’s not something the NHS can fund for us.”

Well, you should never look a gift horse in the mouth, and this seemed like the perfect cause for us to adopt as part of our plan to bring back the brmb Walkathon, so we duly set about organising the 2010 walk, with the theme of building "A Home For The Brave" at the new QE.

To cut a long story short, we launched Walkathon the following February, and on Sunday June 6th 2010 over 8,000 brummies walked the best part of a marathon distance round Birmingham's highly glamourous Outer Circle bus-route, raising the thick end of £400,000 to help our injured troops.

It was a great day.

We duly handed over the cheque to Mike, and waited for news.

And waited.

Not that we didn’t trust Mike, but the absence of news suggested something was going on.

And so it was. Andy and I got a call late last year to come over to the QE to see Mike, We had a tour of the fabulous facilities there, and then Mike took us into a private room to show us "The Plans." The modest “Home For The Brave" we had envisaged two years previously had become a quite staggering 18 bedroom "home away from home" respite centre for the families of troops, enabling them to be with their loved ones as they recovered from injuries sustained on active service, and incorporating a fantastic range of community, sport and leisure facilities.

Mike had achieved this by parlaying our relatively small initial sum of Walkathon money into the seed-corn of a much bigger project, and had approached US benefactor Ken Fisher and major UK charity “Help For Heroes” to do the heavy lifting. And he succeeded – probably beyond his wildest dreams, as well as ours! 

The Fisher House story is now public, and culminated with a launch at the House of Commons last Friday, which Andy and I were priviledged to attend on behalf of all at brmb, and everyone who walked on that Sunday in June 2010. It was truly moving to hear Mike recognise the contribution all those brummies made to the project, and the brmb walkathon will live on forever inside Fisher House with a plaque on prominent display, reflecting the contribution made by our listeners.

Andy, Mike and Phil Look at the Model of Fisher House (c) QEHB charity

Bryn Parry , the Co-founder of "Help For Heroes" made a great speech on behalf of that wonderful charity, and when Ken Fisher stood up to speak, I have to admit I did well up at the poignancy of his words.

There are probably few finer places to make a speech than in the Mother of Parliaments, and I can only imagine his nervousness at the occasion. However, his speech was truly magnificent, and I thought I’d let you read his words in full...

Thank you
Much has been made of the concept first advanced by Sir Winston Churchill that there exists a special relationship between our two countries.  I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said we are two peoples separated only by a common language.  As with any friendship, we may tend to disagree on any number of subjects. But rather than focus on our differences, I prefer to comment on the things that unite us. There is a special relationship between our countries that is real and lasting.
            One of the greatest bonds – is that bond shared between the members of our nation’s armed forces.
            These men and women have stood side by side through numerous conflicts; some that literally preserved western civilization as we know it – side by side through two World Wars, the Korean conflict, the Cold War, the Gulf War and most recently – Iraq and Afghanistan – our citizen soldiers have answered the call and served with honor and distinction.
            And no matter what your opinion of politics or the policies that sent them to war, these men and women must never be faulted for their service.  Indeed, we owe them a debt of gratitude that is difficult to comprehend, regardless of which side of the Atlantic one calls home.   – I believe our Military families also share a common bond - one of service and sacrifice.  When a loved one is deployed, they share the battlefield dangers and a tough road to recovery should they become wounded – because life doesn’t stop for these families during this unimaginable time.  There are still bills to be paid, and children to raise. 
            The Fisher House program was developed in peacetime, but has proven invaluable in war.  It was created to help soldiers, sailors, and airmen heal from their injuries and illness by making it easier for their families to be with them – to help care for them during hospitalization, and to aid them in their rehabilitation.
            And when we learned the need existed here, it was our great desire to bring this program, which has aided almost 170,000 American families, to the United Kingdom.  With the wounded now together again in Birmingham, so too will British Military families support each other during this stressful time.
            It has been our experience in the United States that Military families are a special breed.  They volunteer to serve their country and their fellow citizens.  They not only stand as a bulwark against those who would harm us, but play a vital role in humanitarian, relief and peace keeping missions around the world.
                        So it is with great pride that we announce a Fisher House will be built in the United Kingdom, which will be located in the grounds of the magnificent new Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.
            I look forward to the day when families whose loved ones are being treated in the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine will be able to stay in their new “home away from home”.
            As in the United States, these accommodations will be very comfortable and offer a supportive environment.  There are rooms to accommodate up to 18 families.  The common areas – the kitchen and lounge – will allow them to interact, connect, and share their experiences with other families.
            We know this Fisher House will be a great complement to the 30-bed wounded warrior facility for Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  We are honored and truly proud to partner with the hospital trust and Help for Heroes – to build what will surely be one of our most important Fisher Houses ever.  We could not ask for finer organizations to join us in this endeavor.
            It will follow the Fisher House model and be built by private organizations working together – to meet unmet needs.  We are grateful that SSAFA will act as custodian and operate and staff the facility in perpetuity.
            Even as activity in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down, the world remains a complex and dangerous place.     As much as we pray for peace and stability in the world, our two nations know the price of freedom.  There will always be those who would test our resolve and threaten our way of life and values.  We in the United States know how the citizens of Britain respond when so challenged.  We will, no doubt, stand together again.
            May this Fisher House serve as a testament that the men and women in our armed forces share an unwavering bond and dedication to the common roots of law and liberty that sustain us. I hope that all who come to Fisher House and walk through it doors will understand that there are those who appreciate their sacrifices and honor their service.       In conclusion, may these bonds we share remain strong and our people flourish, may God bless the United States and the United Kingdom, and may God Save the Queen."

Finally, I should let you know the brmb charity initiative for 2012 is being announced on Tuesday - and it promises to be just as special !