Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘radio’

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.

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.

TRUE freedom of expression – not a reality on SA radio

In Eish!, Free-thinking on August 26, 2015 at 9:06 am
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Thinking carefully before opening mouth

The question I am most often asked is, “Why did you leave?” It seems it’s still something of a mystery why I just ‘walked away’ from a highly successful career in breakfast radio. The ‘successful’ part is true – by the time I left East Coast Radio at the end of August 2009, my show delivered the bulk of the station’s 2 million listeners (the highest ever), helping make it the biggest English-medium independent radio station in Southern Africa.

It’s the ‘career’ bit that was a little wonky. The reality is I didn’t see a future in an industry threatened by the suppression of the freedom of expression.

Now that may surprise those who believe South Africa’s constitution champions the freedom of expression. It does, it’s just its citizens that don’t; they believe rather in what Mick Hume, in his brilliant book Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech, calls “freedom of expression, but…”. In short: a freedom of expression, but with restrictions. So, in effect, not free.

Case in point: Last month the Acting SRC President (of the Vacation Committee) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) made some disparaging remarks about gays on her Facebook page. In reaction to the US Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriages be legalised, Ms Zizipho Pae posted the following: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us.” I found her comments puerile, her sentiments towards gays archaic, and her invoking of a deity pathetic, but I respected her right to say what she felt. I also knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Sure enough, a Twitter-storm erupted, which was good; again – freedom of expression. Ms Pae was pilloried for being homophobic (arguably true), out of touch with the university’s policies around discrimination (debatable – she wasn’t discriminating against anyone), or engaging in hate speech (inciting violence? I don’t think so). Ms Pae would’ve received a brutal reality check; and things should have stopped there. But she was then kicked out of the SRC. Why? Because they found her comments offensive?

Tough! Because that’s her right, just as it was the right of others to challenge her.

That’s what most people seem to forget about the freedom of expression. Because opinions are diverse, expressing them invariably means crossing paths with people who think differently, even running the risk of offending them. So saying something that others may find offensive is interwoven with the freedom to express oneself. This is democracy in action.

Ms Pae’s case reminded me of my own brush with public rancour in February 2003. Sri Lanka had just knocked South Africa out of the Cricket World Cup in a controversial, rain-shortened match in my home town of Durban. In a misplaced act of national pride I went on-air the next day and made disparaging remarks about the Sri Lankan teams’ names and the size of the manhoods. In retrospect it was infantile and not my style of broadcasting at all. One of the listeners who phoned in hit the nail on the head; he said I had ‘crossed the line’. Worryingly, I was widely misquoted by people who never even heard the broadcast; and that did a lot of damage.

The fallout did me the world of good though: it pegged me down a notch or two, and I was genuinely distressed that I had clearly upset a lot of people. In the station’s defence they took me off-air until things died down, then put me back again, acknowledging, as the BCCSA later found, that I was simply exercising my freedom of expression. I saw out the end of my contract, went on a sabbatical, started focusing on my writing, and spent a couple of years in talk radio.

I returned to East Coast Radio in 2006, leaner, meaner and a lot more mature; but by the latter part of 2009 I was acutely aware that the radio industry was about to undergo fundamental change, forced by the growing empowerment of the media consumer through social media. I knew that if it were to survive, radio would have to engage directly with its listener; meaning more talk.

I was prepared for that, in fact I was looking forward to it, but I knew that in an immature democracy where everyone seems to lay claim to the status of ‘victim’ based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or whatever, South African listeners were not prepared to embrace true freedom of expression.

And I didn’t want to be part of that.

Will local radio survive social media and the smartphone?

In Eish!, Science on April 8, 2015 at 3:15 pm

John Maytham

567 Cape Talk’s John Maytham – holding the key to compelling radio

It hurts me to say this, but I no longer embrace something that was my life’s passion – local radio. The reason is two-fold: there has been a dramatic change in the media landscape, and local radio is failing to adapt.

Few industries have been affected by advances in technology more than the media. In my 25 years in radio I wrestled with analogue (vinyl, reel-to-reel and carts) and digital hardware (CDs, DAT and minidiscs) and the varied PC programming software now used on radio stations. I have turned and pushed sliders and clicked many a mouse. As a writer and journalist I have worked in print – newspapers and magazines – and later online. I have even combined media formats by integrating radio and online content. But the relationship with the consumer has always been the same – I created the content and then shared it with the consumer, with the occasional feedback from calls and SMSs.

But things are different now. Social media has empowered the consumer. They’re no longer passive; they produce content as well as consume it – they are content ‘prosumers’. Importantly, the hardware used is not in a radio studio, it is in their hands – it’s the smartphone. And if radio stations aren’t there, they risk being nowhere.

Let me give you a snapshot of how I ‘prosume’. See if you can spot where radio fits in:

  • I wake each morning and, over a quiet cup of coffee, check my Twitter feed on my iPhone for any breaking news. I tweet/retweet what I find compelling. I then click on the apps for BBC News, The Economist, Reuters, RT, News24, and EWN.  I don’t turn on the radio for news.
  • I check the weather forecast via my weather app. No radio for weather.
  • I then sit at my computer, with a second cup of coffee, and access Feedly for non-current news. Using Hootsuite I schedule messages across my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. If I feel like listening to music while I do this, I access one of the hundreds of free online stations on iTunes, few of which carry any advertising. So I don’t turn on the radio for music.
  • However, I do enjoy talk radio. So when I feel like listening to really good talk radio in the morning I tap the UK Radio App on my iPhone and select LBCSteve Allen is wicked and the breakfast show host Nick Ferrari is one of the best in the business. I select the airplay settings on my iPhone and listen to them through my hi-fi speakers. Alternatively I use the UK Radio Player. So, no, I don’t turn on the radio.
  • In my car I have a 32GB USB with a selection from my iTunes library plugged in to my sound system, which is set to break into the music with radio traffic reports if broadcast. So….radio?…only briefly.
  • And when I am relaxing with an afternoon drink, looking for specialised on-air content I access the US Public Radio app on my iPhone and select any one of the many stations that carry specialised content – jazz, rock, blues, classical or folk music, or news and talk – with little or no ad breaks. I hook it up to the hi-fi and chill. Again, no turning on of any radio.

There are now so many options for immediate access to the diverse content I want, at no point during the day do I switch on my radio in hope that it will give me that content.

Well…there is one occasion. In the afternoons, if I am in my car. Then I listen to John Maytham on 567 Cape Talk. Why specifically then? Because John Maytham creates the one thing that can save local South African radio from its current mundane menu of music sweeps, insipid waffle (even our talk radio is too nice), and packed ad breaks: tension.

John is highly intelligent and uncompromising, even brutal at times; the result is radio rich in tension and intellectual rigour. When someone grabs you by the neck and tells you stuff, it’s hard not to pay attention.

So wake up, South African radio. There are apps without your name on them.

Jacintha Saldanha – Radio’s ‘Diana’

In Eish!, Scoundrels on January 2, 2013 at 10:12 am
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A small memorial to Jacintha Saldanha. Image: The Times

When I heard about the tragedy around Jacintha Saldanha – the nurse who was found dead after receiving a prank call from an Australian radio station – I knew I would soon start taking calls from people wanting my opinion on the matter. Most wanted to know if I agreed with their summation that the two broadcasters who made the prank call – Mel Greig and Michael Christian – were responsible for Jacintha’s death. They were all surprised when I said I didn’t, and were then shocked when I explained who was ultimately responsible.

To find out whom that is, we need to go back to the night of 31 August 1997, and the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, following a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her death was shocking for many reasons, but mostly because she was such a popular person; and therein lies a clue.

When someone dies under what is considered ‘tragic’ circumstances, and their death is carried in the media, there is invariable an outpouring of anger and grief, and with it a quest for causes and, ultimately, a measure of responsibility. A case in point is the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut in the US and the killing of staff and children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. It’s human to try and make sense of tragedy in an attempt to avert its future reoccurrence, and the best way to do that is to try and identify a chain of causal links. Read the rest of this entry »