The view from the commercial side of radio street

In Coventry, commercial radio only fears the BBC Network giants Radio 1 and – more – Radio 2. BBC Local is considered no contest.

Two commercial radio moguls – Phil Riley, CEO of Mercia FM <http://www.mercia.co.uk/>/Orion, and Steve Orchard, CEO of Touch FM <http://www.102touchfm.co.uk/> – shared a Coventry Conversation as ‘The last men standing in local commercial radio’. The rest have concentrated into quasi national networks – Heart, Capital, Kerrang! and Smooth – to take on the BBC.

Riley and Orchard between them control 15 local radio franchises in the Midlands; they are decidedly local operators, and proudly so. Writes John Mair…

Orchard: “Unless we are able to recreate a passion for the area in which we broadcast, there is no future. Every successful local radio station should know how to get under the skin of its listeners and for Coventry it should be what makes the tribe of Coventry: what makes them angry and also what makes them swell with pride.”

They were less upbeat about the future of local journalism on their stations. Touch FM operates a newsroom of five, centralised on an industrial estate in Stratford-upon-Avon. That serves all seven stations. But, in an interesting aside, Orchard, who grew up in the great days of Capital in London and a newsroom with names like Hugh Pym and Jonathan Pearce, admitted “we realised we were producing newsreaders, not journalists. We had to address that. We are going to get them out there finding stories more.”

Riley employs just 12 to 15 journalists across his mini-network, whose flagship is BRMB in Birmingham. “We have a newsroom in every station and journalists present breakfast and drive-time shows,” he boasted. But “the whole concept of news and journalism is dramatically different today because of the ways people can get news content; each individual news operator needs to find the right way to present news.”

Not much hope then for the wannabe hacks in the 80-strong Coventry audience, but there were some tips to get the few jobs going:

Orchard: “Learn technology and have a hunger for content. You need to have the ability to tell the story. Don’t stutter or try to be somebody else, as the microphone is good at spotting fakes. Be yourself!”

Riley urged building a hinterland: “Get a life – and I mean that in the best sense. Writing stuff on Facebook and pinching other people’s work would not get you far … There is something special in everybody that people can connect to and you need to get your personality across in a matter of minutes.”

The two moguls differed sharply on the place of live sport.

Riley hoovered up rights to Coventry City Football Club matches as one of his first moves – almost an article of faith: “Sport was an absolute strategic priority when we brought the stations. The first thing I did was negotiate the rights to cover the games.”

Orchard was very happy that Riley did so. His Saturday afternoon audience is much enhanced by sports refuseniks fleeing from Mercia and Cov City live.

Both were ready to acknowledge the BBC elephant in the radio room. Both were willing to salute its quality. Riley: “Commercial radio has had a tough time since its inception as it is up against the BBC. It is a phenomenal competitor and, as BRMB radio has an audience share of 50% against them, it shows how well we are doing.”

Orchard was more of the ‘market failure’ school – wanting to privatise Radio 1 while respecting that “it is tough in this market but there is a sense that you make your own luck. Radio 2 is not bland. Radio 1 does have appalling blandness but generally speaking it reaches standards of excellence that you don’t hear in radio.”

Neither was exactly upbeat about the future on DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), either locally or nationally. Riley pointed to the unreliability of the sets – breaking every two to three years. And they both admitted to being reduced to buying very expensive cars simply to get a DAB set in it!

Both also poured gallons of cold water on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local television. Riley had done so face-to-face with Hunt a few days before.

Orchard had teased his audience at the beginning by pointing out that he had the future of radio in the holdall in front of him. He asked if it was still alive? When he opened it, he revealed a 1947 Bakelite set on which he had first listened as a child in Oldham – to magical voices from Hilversum, Luxemburg and London. The future was the past: finding an audience and serving it with content they wanted.

John Mair devised and runs the Coventry Conversations at Coventry University. You can listen to podcasts of this one and all of them here <http://wwwm.coventry.ac.uk/itunesu/Pages/itunesu.aspx>.

Many thanks to BBC College of Journalism

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