Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘music’

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
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Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

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There’s a new radio station in town, and it’s going to fail

In Eish!, media on March 4, 2016 at 8:36 am

radiomFirstly, forgive the hiatus in posting. I have been immersed in writing my next book, which is now finished and due out in July.

Now let’s talk radio. I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade no other industry in the world has been as disrupted as traditional media. For that you can thank two things: technology and social media. Technology has provided the tools to disintermediate traditional media organisations from their role of providing media content to consumers, and social media has further empowered those consumers, making them fellow media content creators and effectively competitors to traditional media organisations. Whereas printed newspapers are the most obvious victims, the vulture are circling over terrestrial radio.

So, it takes someone either very brave or very foolish to dip their toe into the traditional media space, especially radio.

This is why I was excited when I read back in 2014 that a new radio licence had been awarded in Cape Town, where I live. I immediately wanted to know who had the won the licence and what format they had proposed. The name Tony Sanderson popped up together with Cape Media and Sekunjalo Investments (part owners of Independent Media). I also noticed they had been awarded an AM licence, and the station was to be called ‘Magic’. But it was the format that surprised me: “mainly music”. Further digging around uncovered plans for a classic hits format. My heart sank. I had an idea what was coming.

Tony Sanderson is a highly experienced radio man and was a big name in the 1980s and 90s. But that was an unfortunate time for radio. Music programmers were taking centre stage in content creation, and on-air talent were being sidelined.  The key programming phrase was ‘more music, less talk’. Radio stations became beige wallpaper. When, as I predicted, the iPod revolutionised music content consumption, music radio stations found themselves lacking the creative on-air talent to engage with a listener who had all their favourite songs – without any ads – nestled in their pockets.

The arrival of social media empowered the listener further, and I saw how it was going to affect radio. In 2012 I told Omar Essack, then head of broadcasting for Kagiso Media, that radio stations would need to become social media hubs, recognising their listeners as fellow content creators, incorporating their presence and aggregating their content into programming. He agreed. He’s an industry visionary, so I wasn’t surprised.

Back in Cape Town, Magic 828 decided on a quiet launch in September 2015. I only found out early in 2016 they were on-air. I tuned in – I occasionally still to do, and almost immediately tune out again. It is a snapshot of 1980s/90s formatting of familiar songs delivered according to a strict ‘more music, less talk’ mantra. The station’s website – which should champion its programming and promotions – is almost sterile of active content (check out their photo galleries). The on-air talent, mainly seasoned radio people are delivering station-dictated content, with no little or no attempt to connect with, let alone include, the listener; and they believe playing Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ and then telling me it’s Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ is not insulting my intelligence. All this on a muffled AM signal. Opposition stations, including Smile 90.4 and Heart 104.9 are playing similar content but in ‘crystal clear’ FM stereo. If Magic is to differentiate it needs to be creative, adaptive and entrepreneurial. In their defence, they can be picked up on the TuneIn radio app.

According to industry news Sanderson is banking on DRM technology to produce a better quality signal; but that would require listeners forking out for DRM receivers. And they’re not cheap. My belief is that by the time that comes about, if it comes about, the station will be bleeding money. Let’s hope its owners* have deep pockets.

*This has been edited to reflect that Sekunjalo Investments is part of the Western Cape Black Media Consortium, which, together with Cape Media, owns Magic 828AM.