Wednesday, May 23, 2007
You are looking at the future of radio
Xfm, a UK alternative music station broadcasting in London, Scotland and Manchester to an audience of more than one million, is axing its daytime presenters in a radical move to a computerised playlist decided by listeners. The six-hour DJ-free "all music" daytime schedule is being marketed as "Radio to the Power of U", and will play songs programmed by listeners via text, phone and the Xfm website.
Human presenters are the latest casualty of the inexorable rise of the computerised playlist, and it is a trend that is affecting classical broadcasting as well as rock. In the UK computerised playlists were pioneered for classical stations by Classic FM who use GSelector playlist software originally developed for rock stations, and seen in my header image. The working of this software was described in a 1988 copyright court action:
"A detailed categorisation of each track of music in [Classic FM's] library fed as a data base into Selector enabled Selector to select the individual track for any hour of the day in accordance with any choice of programme made by reference to a combination of categories by a programme director. The particular advantage of the Selector system was that it enabled [Classic FM] to provide a balanced rotation of music, composers and performers and to reflect in the frequency of choice of track and in the choice of time when it was played its popularity and mood, and to avoid repetition or the personal preference of the presenter influencing the selection of the music played on the air." (Robin Ray v Classic FM Plc  FSR 622)
Classic FM's use of the computerised playlist has been devastatingly successful in the ratings war. In the first three months of 2007 Classic FM reached an audience of 6.03m listeners, up from 5.71m the previous year, while during the same period BBC Radio 3's audience dropped below the important 2.0 million threshold, declining from 2.1m to 1.9m (source Rajar via BBC).
Ratings, and not quality, are now the primary focus of BBC management, and the success of Classic FM has been the driver for successive changes in Radio 3 in recent years. One of many knee-jerk reactions was the recruitment of Classic FM presenter Petroc Trelawny who has contributed to the BBC station's 9.5% audience decline by alienating most of Radio 3's core audience with his folky presentation style. Trelawny has been joined by a swathe of similar primetime presenters such as Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Sean Rafferty (photo below) whose role is simply to provide the aural laxative that maintains the flow of ratings-friendly programmes.
Radio 3's attempts to counter Classic FM have become increasingly desperate, ranging from 24/7 'Diana moments' such as the Beethoven Experience and Bach Christmas to giving away unrestricted downloads of complete symphonies to the horror of the music industry. But as the ratings show none of these worked, and the biggest blow to the BBC has been that its massive investment in new technology has failed to translate into increased audiences. As reported here the BBC Trust recently blocked on-demand replaying of classical music, and questions are now being asked about the lack of return on the BBC's massive investment in new technologies .
The core problem is that the Radio 3 can't do ratings, and now very rarely does great radio. The ratings war is lost because Classic FM is a commercial station and can do ratings better than a public broadcaster. To do great radio you need to be distinctive, inclusive and personal, and Radio 3's strategy of chasing down Classic FM means it has lost its distinctiveness. Its bland ratings-driven schedules have no place for diverse music so it is no longer inclusive, and the challenging output created by visionary personalities such as William Glock and John Drummond has been replaced by ratings-chasing mediocrity devised by BBC apparatchik's such as Roger Wright and Nicholas Kenyon.
All this doomsaying about BBC Radio 3 gives me no pleasure at all. I once worked for the BBC, and Radio 3 and the Proms were a central part of my music education. Radio 3 can still do great radio, and I have praised here the work of Michael Berkeley and Iain Burnside and others, and this week there are live evening concerts from the Bath Festival including a recital by oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef - albeit presented by the ubiquitous and egregious Petroc Trelawny.
But Radio 3 is now between a rock and a hard place. Classic FM is the rock against which ratings are judged, and new media is emerging as a hardplace on the other side of the network. The BBC bet the farm on new technology and lost. But the very new media which the BBC failed to leverage may well be the undoing of its classical music network. Webcasting, podcasting and the new third-tier of low power community stations in the UK will bring a new generation of boutique broadcasters that can ignore ratings and focus on being distinctive, inclusive and personal. Where does that then leave Radio 3?
* A great example of the new wave of boutique radio is Amsterdam based Radio MonaLisa, which I have written about previously. Each Thursday from 6.00 to 7.00pm Central European time presenter Patricia Werner Leanse proves that radio can be distinctive, inclusive and personal. Tomorrow (May 24) she broadcasts sixty minutes of vocal music from a composer featured here recently, Elisabeth Lutyens. On May 31 Patricia showcases Out of the Dark (1998) by Texan born Pauline Oliveros, who has already made one appearance on the path this week. Follow this link for Radio Monalisa. Across the Atlantic San Francisco based Other Minds also does great boutique radio via radiOM.org, their current podcasts include John Cage and David Tudor in concert in 1965, and Stravinsky in rehearsal in 1947.
Now read about what happens when BBC Radio 3 gets it right
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