Monday, 5 January 2009

Heart disease - turning 'big fish/small pond' into 'big pond/small fish'?

Today has seen Global Radio extend its Heart FM brand to more local markets in England, replacing heritage names such as Chiltern, Hereward and Broadland that seem to have existed for decades. There seem to be at least three different issues involved in these changes:

1. The loss of ‘heritage’ station names. One of radio’s biggest long-term challenges has always been the difficulty users have had finding stations on their analogue radio and identifying them properly. The more crowded the AM/FM wavebands become, the more imperative this ‘finding’ and ‘identifying’ becomes. In the early days of UK commercial radio, most station names did not include their frequencies simply because there was so little choice on the dial. Although the switch to Heart FM does not involve frequency changes, it is bound to cause confusion amongst some listeners that their radio might have tuned to something other than their favourite station. If they then switch the dial, there is the potential to lose their listening to a competitor. Anything that encourages dial twiddling can only be a bad thing.

2. Brand duplication. In markets such as Bedfordshire, Heart FM was already heard across parts of the area from the Londonwide station of the same name. In Dunstable/Luton, Heart FM London attracted a 3.1% share, compared to local station Chiltern FM’s 8.6%. From now on, two Heart FM’s can be heard on different frequencies. How exactly will RAJAR determine if a respondent in Bedfordshire was listening to Heart FM Dunstable or to Heart FM London, particularly at times when they carry the same programmes? For the consumer, is this not reducing the content choice in the market? For Ofcom, is this not wasteful duplication of frequencies, something for which the commercial sector has always been quick to point an accusing finger at the BBC?

3. Networked programming. Heart FM stations will retain local programming on weekdays 0600 to 1000 and 1300 to 1900. The PR script from Global HQ to be used as quotes in the local press runs:
“We have increasingly found our listeners have more than just a local outlook. They read national magazines like Hello and Heat, they watch national TV shows and they surf the net, too. As well as local news and information, listeners are telling us they want more showbiz gossip, more celebrity interviews and a bigger professional sound from their local station. Currently, they have to switch to national stations like Radio 1 and 2 to get this.”
The networked shows on Heart FM are presented by Toby Anstis (1000 to 1300), Matt Wilkinson (1900 to 2200), Simon Beale (2200 to 0100) and Gareth John (0100 to 0600). I am sorry but, when you compare this talent to the name presenters and significant editorial content on Radios One and Two, it pales by comparison.

The problem? Global Radio, just like GCap Media before it, and GWR Group before that, bought a bunch of local commercial radio stations and wanted to turn them into something they are patently not – an almost, kind of, quasi-national station. In the UK, we have local commercial radio stations licensed to serve local populations, and separately we have national commercial radio stations licensed to serve national audiences. They are different. If I were to buy a grocery store in Dunstable, and then I buy a similar store in Luton, and suddenly hang an identical sign on the front of both of them that says “Global Supermarket”, it does not automatically put me in the same league as Tesco, Asda or Sainsbury. Surely, the way a local shop can thrive commercially is by striving to perfectly complement the offerings of the big supermarkets, not by trying to emulate them. As a consumer, if I want Asda, I will go to Asda. If I want Radio Two, I will go to Radio Two, not jumped-up, local-ish, quasi-national Heart FM.

Global Radio’s aspirations ‘to make a station what it is not’ are no different than many previous radio station owners. When Jazz FM won the first specialist music licence in London, its owners tried their hardest to make it anything other than a jazz music station. When EMAP bought KISS FM in London, it wanted it to compete head-on as a pop music station with Capital FM. When EMAP bought Melody Radio in London, it wanted it to be anything other than an easy listening station. A succession of owners of Virgin Radio tried to make it anything other than a straight ahead rock music station. Now that Global Radio has bought Choice FM, it seems to want it to be another KISS FM, rather than a station for black Londoners. I could go on and on…. The wheel is being constantly reinvented day in, day out. Many times, in radio, it turns out square.

Forgive me a short anecdote. Soon after it had opened, I visited the new local commercial radio station for Reading called Radio 210 for a guided tour. I lived only 14 miles away, but I could not pick up the station’s signal because its transmitter covered only the city of Reading. In 1979, the station had a weekly reach of 41% adults and cumed 2.4m hours/week [JICRAR]. Between then and now, the station’s owners lobbied the regulator successively (and successfully) to allow them to extend the station’s area by adding relay transmitters and increasing power outputs. Today, that same station covers most of Berkshire, North Hampshire and as far west as Andover, which is almost 50 miles from Reading (does anyone in Andover feel a connection to faraway Reading?). Today, Radio 210’s weekly reach is 28% and it cumes 1.3m hours/week, even in its much expanded coverage area [RAJAR].

The conclusion. You can become a big fish in a small pond, with a lot of hard work and effort. You can deliberately move to a bigger pond. But you must accept that you will now be a smaller fish….. and the massive risk is that you might never be a big fish ever again….. anywhere, any when.

For the US experience, “Why Local Radio Is No Longer Local” is a very worthwhile (lengthy) read [thanks to Mark Ramsey for the tip].

1 comment:

Reader said...

Good article.

Nice one Mr. Goddard - I enjoyed the extra blurb that I couldn't read in the Radio Magazine.

Rick Young
Castledown Radio 104.7fm