Thursday, 20 February 2014

Life begins at 40, so they say.....

In 1974 Brmb launched in a different media landscape to the one we find ourselves in today. Radio 40 years on is dramatically different, with significant local and regional competition, and dozens of national stations available on DAB and other digital platforms. Local radio stations have had to change and adapt or they will wither and die – hence our decision two years ago to create one single brand for the local stations we own across the West Midlands. But changing the name to Free from brmb was just that, a name change not a product change. And just like marathon changed to snickers, or opal fruit to starbursts, the product inside the wrapper is as good as it ever was.  
So as we celebrate 40 years of local commercial radio in Birmingham, on behalf of Orion Media I’d like to make two points.
The first is that I hope you can all see, by the very fact we are here tonight, and have invested so much time and effort in putting this civic reception and tonight’s party together, how much we appreciate the heritage of brmb, and the history of local radio in this great city, and that we are only too happy to commemorate it. We even have a room in our offices in Broad Street named “The Les Ross room” in honour of past glories, and Les of course was a debut guest DJ on Free Radio today – thanks Les for bringing your old record collection in. We’ll call your agent.
But the second thing I want to say is we are equally as proud of what we are doing today, and how we passionately believe that Free Radio in 2014 is carrying on the great work started by brmb back in 1974.
When I was a presenter on brmb, back in the halcyon early 1980s, our music policy, as dictated by then head of music Robin Valk, was “pick a current from the front of the top 40 box of singles, play it, and then put it at the back of the box – then you can play an oldie. Then pick another top 40 single etc etc” today, on Free Radio, despite all the computer technology, and the many £1000s spent on music research, our philosophy is still “play a top 40 single, then play an oldie, then go back to the top 40 etc etc” In fact “today’s best music mix on Free Radio” is driven by that same goal – to create a blend of songs that kids and parents can both feel comfortable listening to on the school run, and which keep everyone happy if on in the shop, office, hairdressers etc. Really broadly based, but right for a local, broadly based station.
And in live music we are still active. Live studio sessions are still part of what we do, with Pixie Lott, John Newman and Sam Smith joining us on Broad Street in the past couple of weeks to record live acoustic sets for playback on-air, and from the days of “Party in the Square”, and “Party in the Park”, and the G8 events, Free Radio is still today ensuring local fans get to see the big acts in a live setting. Our fourth annual “Free Radio Live” LG arena event in 2013, headlined by Olly Murs, was a 15,000 sell out, and we’re delighted that this year we’ve teamed up with promoters Live Nation to bring the internationally renowned Wireless festival to Birmingham, with Bruno Mars and Kanye West headlining at Perry Park.
And if brmb started with personality presenters at its core, that’s also true for Free Radio. And not just at breakfast, where personality is expected. But throughout the day, whether it’s the cheeky approach of Andy Goulding, Dan Morrissey’s subversive wit, the anarchic Jo and Sparky, the ebullient Adam Wilbourn, the voice of sport Tom Ross, or the charismatic Sam and Mark at the weekends, we are still chock-full of larger than life characters. Personality still reigns supreme on our airwaves –And as for stunts and pranks – well brmb married two strangers, and Foxy and Giuliano have just married two dogs!
The line we use to capture this personality driven output as a station is “Never A Dull Moment” - a line which I think would have fitted brmb perfectly throughout its time too.
And if brmb championed listener access, so does Free Radio. We might not still do late night phone-ins discussing the finer points of sexuality – stuff which used to leave me speechless at times in the 80s – but we’re more than happy to let real brummies onto our airwaves at any time, night or day, to entertain and amuse us. Our constant, high levels of local listener engagement are simply not replicated anywhere else on the music radio dial here in the Midlands.
And on news and information, Free Radio earns its corn. Brmb rose to fame covering the pub bombings, Leyland, the Handsworth riots etc. And we, as Free Radio, are still there today, covering the terror trials – nominated for an IRN award only two weeks ago, doing live reporting from the summer riots of 2011, or simply keeping an eye on the council. We might not take 15 minutes to read it all out anymore, but our commitment to covering local news is still strong – and as for travel, school closures, snow lines etc – we think we are harnessing new technology and social media to do those things bigger and better than ever was the case.
And in terms of community involvement there’s no let up either. In the past four years, we’ve raised well over £1m – in fact closer to £1.5m, for causes like Fisher House, built for the families of wounded troops at the QE, the refurbishment of Acorns in Selly Oak, the redevelopment of the A&E department at the Children’s hospital, supporting the neo-natal unit at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, providing funding for nurses for Cure leukaemia for Kids, and lots of support for Help Harry Help Others. The list goes on, and although we’re taking a break from the walks this year, we are teaming up with the Children’s Hospital again by putting in we hope one of the largest teams of runners ever assembled, into the Great Birmingham Run – another civic event we are delighted to be partners with. By the way – we were present at over 25 major bonfires/fireworks or Christmas Lights displays around the West Midlands this year, with around 200,000 listeners in attendance.
I was proud to start my career 34 years ago at brmb, and I’m proud now to be heading its successor, Birmingham’s Free Radio. It is worth pointing out that brmb started out as locally owned and managed. And today, that’s exactly what Free Radio remains, locally owned and managed – and there aren’t too many local stations can make that claim.

The first 40 years have been a blast, and I’m sure that in 10 years time, whoever I have passed the baton on to will be able to stand here and say music; personality; listener involvement; information and community support – those are the key pillars upon which we continue to thrive and prosper as a radio station in this great city.