“Always ask why the audience has chosen to listen to you. If you have the answer to that you will be ok.”
Director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden thinks one of the keys to success for any radio stations must be to have a clear understanding of what the station offers and why the listeners have chosen it.
Being local is important to keep radio relevant to her audiences. “Local radio is part of a community with so many other threads. Our job is to tie those threads together.”
While acknowledging that radio is already very successful, she said the medium must face the digital era and have a clear strategy.
She dientified 5 key moments that have helped her to from her strategy: NPR’s Serial podcast, Zane Lowe joining Apple Radio, The launch of Radio 1 iPlayer channel, The announcement of MyBBC
and Radio 4’s adaptation of War & Peace.
“We have to do more, the future is digital… The biggest mistake we can make is thinking that digital is only for young people, it’s for everyone.
“We need to meet the needs of today, but we also need to win the battle for tomorrow,” she said.
Full Text of Speech
For this session, I was asked to identify some of the most significant developments in radio during the last year and what they mean for us.
These are the five moments I have chosen:
1. NPR’s Serial podcast
2. Zane Lowe joining Apple Radio
3. The launch of Radio 1 iPlayer channel
4. The announcement of MyBBC
5. Radio 4’s adaptation of War & Peace
Each one highlights an issue – and opportunity – that makes working in radio right now more challenging and exciting than ever.
1. The Serial podcast
You will all, I’m sure, be aware of this podcast from NPR.
A reported five million downloads worldwide. Number one on iTunes for weeks. It was described as “a new genre of audio storytelling” and “an unexpected phenomenon”.
It was indeed a phenomenon. It was also very well-made, gripping storytelling.
It may have shared similarities with speech radio programmes broadcast around the world every day and used 10-year-old podcast technology, but Serial did something unusual and very important, which is why it is my first moment:
It vividly demonstrated the power of audio in the digital age.
It isn’t often that radio receives that level of global attention. But Serial, in capturing the zeitgeist, reiterated what we already knew: that our output is ideally suited to the modern world.
Which takes me to my second moment.
2. Zane Lowe leaving BBC Radio 1 for Apple
Firstly, I should say that I haven’t chosen this out of sour grapes! Zane was a long and loyal servant and we wish him all the best. We are also delighted to have the brilliant Annie Mac replacing him on Radio 1.
This is my second choice because it neatly illustrates that we broadcasters aren’t the only ones aware of the power of radio.
The global tech giants have woken up to its potential and Apple’s recruitment of one of the BBC’s best-known music taste-makers was the first overtly competitive example of this intent.
Amazon’s Audible says “many writers and producers are excited about working in the audio space.” iTunes Radio claims it “combines the power of human curation with technology to deliver the right music at the right time”.
Does any of this sound familiar to anyone who works in radio?!
Now I should make myself clear. My point is not to criticise. Tech companies’ innovations have enhanced our lives in ways we had never imagined.
We welcome healthy competition, but the sheer scale of the new entrants should prompt some serious self-analysis for the radio industry and raise some serious questions – like why we are here and where are we going?
Well, we should remember that we have always offered curated music and speech audio. This has been our stock-in-trade for the best part of a century. We should also recognise that radio was also the original social media and that we have a uniquely intimate relationship with our audiences.
But we need to build on these deep-rooted strengths. We need to question what curation means in the digital age. We must make sure we are still a central meeting-place for people. We must enhance our offer for some listeners and put them in control.
Essentially, we must innovate and experiment around our core principles.
So to moment three…
3. Launch of the Radio 1 iPlayer channel
…which I have chosen because it neatly symbolises that principle
The Radio 1 iPlayer channel was launched last November, offering on-demand video content based on the station’s output.
It offered existing formats like the Live Lounge alongside new commissions like Charlie Sloth’s Rap Up and, in its first two months, gained two million views.
The channel exemplifies BBC Radio’s strategy of Listen, Watch, Share, and draws on Radio 1 principles – a prerogative to offer distinctive, public service content, a passion for new music and a mission to champion young people – and gives even more to audiences who expect – who demand – mobile video content.
The launch was a historic moment for the station and the latest stage in its development from simple radio station to fully formed multimedia youth brand.
Which leads me to the future.
4. Tony Hall’s MyBBC announcement
Earlier this month, our Director-General, Tony Hall, outlined the MyBBC strategy.
He said that, in the internet age, the BBC’s mission is simple – great British programmes and a trusted guide, for everyone. But he also said we must put audiences in charge of their consumption.
I agree (of course!). Some listeners do want more control. We would be foolish not to help them.
And our research shows radio has become more of an active, ‘lean forward’ experience for increasing numbers of people: skipping between programmes or within them, engaging with programmes on social media, listening to – or watching – short-form content. Their habits are changing too. Our research shows, for example, that many of today’s Radio 4 listeners listen to a lot of 6 Music.
These insights – combined with the MyBBC strategy – are informing our thinking on the future for radio as we look towards the next decade.
We want to enhance the experience for those ‘lean forward’ listeners through a personalised radio experience. So we are in the early stages of developing a ‘smart’ online radio service that could let users build their own radio station from our live, on-demand and archive content, alongside a traditional, linear-scheduled listening experience.
We have a constantly evolving portfolio of live BBC radio output, podcasts and programme clips, alongside a huge online audio archive. We need a simple offer that puts listeners in control of this treasure trove.
We also want a radio service that recognises listeners’ preferences and circumstances, and responds to them. One that that knows your favourite programmes and recommends similar content; that responds to your mood or location; that works seamlessly across all your devices, including in-car; that could switch intelligently between live listening and on-demand programming – maybe because it knows you don’t like the next programme in the live schedule or because it realises you are losing network coverage.
This is still a vision and we are a way off being able to offer some of this functionality, but – as I hope you’ll agree – the possibilities are incredibly exciting.
Alongside this, we are looking at how to combine FM, DAB and IP to optimum effect. This is vital in a multimedia, multi-device world and is the reason why we are working with a range of European broadcasters on co-ordinated plans for ‘hybrid radio’ in smartphones.
These sort of developments could give us the opportunity to reinvent radio for the internet age, based on its core principles: a simple, portable and personal experience.
However, the success of the service would still rely on one thing:
Because in a world of infinite choice, I believe quality content will be more, not less, important.
Which brings me to my final moment of the year:
5. War And Peace on Radio 4
Broadcast over 10 consecutive hours on New Year’s Day, this adaptation lent itself to the modern trend of ‘binging’ on media. It was also available to download in 10 parts and had an online presence that acted as a ‘digital companion’ to the audio.
But none of these are the reason I have chosen it. I have picked it as my final choice of the year for one simple reason: it was outstanding, ambitious, high-quality content.
Because, as we struggle to face up to proliferating, global competition, we must not lose sight of what our ‘family silver’ is.
It is our output.
And our unique relationship with our audiences.
Whether we’re talking about Serial, Annie Mac or Tolstoy, we must ensure our content is outstanding. We should always consider our audiences above everything else. We have to play to our traditional strengths whilst seeking new ways of enhancing our listeners’ experiences. If we don’t, traditional radio broadcasters will start to wither on the vine.
At the end of a turbulent year, we still face significant challenges, but our future is in our own hands.
I have no doubt next year will generate more unexpected moments, but we can and should enter it on the front foot, prepared for challenges and primed for opportunities.
See our other Radio Days Europe 2016 reports here.