Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where's the 6 Music of talk radio?

For a couple of months earlier this year the nation discussed the future of a minority music station as if its survival were the thin membrane separating civilisation from the abyss. The debate around 6 Music essentially hinged on whether there was only one kind of pop music or whether there were many. It was concluded there were many and 6 music was a sufficiently distinct variety to preserve.

Shouldn't there be a similar debate about whether the BBC could be providing more than a couple of varieties of speech radio? At the moment we have the news, arts and lifestyle mix of Radio Four; we also have the news, sport and phone-ins mix of Five Live. Both are admirable but it's clear that they do not cover the full range of what licence fee payers might wish to listen to.
Three things made me think about this.

Firstly, the appointment of a new controller of Radio 4 spotlights the peculiar challenge of introducing innovation in a place where listener satisfaction is so high. Anything new has to come by removing what is already there, which will be fiercely loved by somebody. If there is any change at Radio Four it will be at the margins.

Secondly, the uneasy introduction of "Men's Hour" on Five Live demonstrates how stylistically inelastic BBC stations are. The controllers have a highly-tuned idea of what fits. After a while the listeners become just as sensitive to what jars, which makes any innovation difficult.

Thirdly, I was listening to This American Life, Ira Glass's long-running show for NPR in the States, and wondering why British radio, for all its qualities, can't produce anything similarly soulful, hip and clever. The answer, at least to a certain extent, is it wouldn't fit anywhere.

There's no use looking to the commercial radio industry to provide anything like this because there isn't the advertising to support it. However you would have thought that the BBC, even in its current hair shirt mode, could divert a tiny amount of its budget (maybe the bit marked "taxis"?) to send up a probe of some kind to see if there is some new way of providing speech-based entertainment.

6 Music was saved on the basis that it did something that the commercials couldn't and, for many people, justified the licence fee on its own. Couldn't the same thing apply with a new form of speech radio? And surely it doesn't have to be a bureaucracy? Might it be possible to do something cheap and cheerful, without the normal overheads? Could it not curate material coming in from other sources rather than operating in the belief that all good ideas come from the centre? Why not start its own pirate ship? The web is teeming with talent and ideas which would benefit from some kind of broadcast outlet and at the moment digital radio has no reason to exist. This seems an opportunity to kill a number of birds with one stone.

Everywhere in media - whether it's in the big publishing companies or people running websites from their sheds - operators are having to contemplate doing things in an entirely new way. They're driven by necessity. The BBC, the only organisation in the media that has at least a rough idea of its revenue for the next few years, could innovate out of choice. I think they'd be surprised how much support they would get.


  1. Spot on, David. Problem is, BBC is not set up to support the "cheap and cheerful" model you suggest. The dead hand of compliance would kill the thing before it got started. The NPR example is not relevant in this country because the very existence of the BBC distorts the broadcast radio landscape. Radio Hepworth has to come from the commercial sector, I think, and is dependent on paywalls and such like. When/if commercial conditions improve, Sunday Times or Guardian might be possible partners/backers. Beautifully argued, though, David. About 10 years ago I made a pilot along the lines you suggest for 5Live, with Andy Kershaw, Jon Ronson, and Jake Yapp, which obviously never got commissioned. May have been something to do with Andy going on about how he was fed up hearing about Jenni Murray's gynaecological history on Woman's Hour - although he put it more directly.

  2. What Martin Kelner said. But, Martin, why no girls on your pilot show? I'd love to hear more female voices on the airwaves...

  3. I already have such a station, at home, when out walking, in the car, at the gym, etc: it's called an iPod playlist of excellent podcasts which is so long that I couldn't listen to them all if there were 25 hours in the day. From the extra-curricular excursions of genius broadcasters like Danny Baker and Stephen Fry, to the eye-opening ideas of TED ...not to mention dozens of ultra-niche podcasts aimed at an audience so small they would never get on to national Radio Hepworth, but which I look forward to avidly. And let's not forget the superb Word Magazine podcast.

    We need to look forward, not back. Live radio is for background wallpaper. Serious radio listening (admittedly a minority occupation in comparison) will increasingly take place in a time-shifted format, just as serious TV viewing has done. We do need something as good as Sky+ for radio though, or universal availability of speech-based radio in podcast format.

  4. Ditto the above comments particularly regarding podcasts - such as your own - which now provide a great deal of the kind of material I think you're referring to.

    The old GLR had a devoted following of people who loved its output, not necessarily because it was London centric but because it was interesting. The BBC felt the need to revamp it, I would guess because they thought a station with a catchment area of perhaps 15-20 million listeners (so not really a 'local' station in any sense of the word) should have been able to do better against the commercials. I think the GLR listeners were probably savvy enough to accept an occasional rebranding and fine tuning of the ouptut was not always a bad thing but to put Jon Gaunt into Robert Elms' slot almost seemed like a move specifically calculated to insult them.

  5. This is what Guardian radio c/should be. Forget podcasts. You need a linear schedule to gain real traction.

  6. Hi David/Martin

    Radio Hepworth shouldn't be that far away with the likes of Audioboo (disclosure - I am founder and run the company). The ability to record high quality audio direct from your mobile device, add info to it like an image, title and location and then upload it direct to the web opens up, for me, a new kind of radio future. One that is not obsessed with the artisan craftsmanship of old - broadcasters broadcast, everyone else listens - but instead an new form of curation that crowd sources content via new technologies and then presents it in a structured and entertaining form.

    Complaining about the BBC or lamenting the fact that commercial partners are currently available misses the point. There are new technologies out there that fundamentally change the economics of broadcasting and will give birth to the kind of radio you're talking about.

    Will just take a bit of effort, that's all.

  7. Amen, of course. Couple of disconnected thoughts:

    * We're complacent - people routinely talk about 'the best speech radio in the world' and so on. We do make some quite awesome speech radio (obviously, you can hear it at but we honestly need to innovate - and experts tell me that the best stuff actually comes from the parts of the world where they have the cheek not to speak English, which is obviously a doubly low blow.

    * When you mention the best of NPR's output to UK speech Radio producers, some of them haven't heard it (there's that complacency again) and others turn their noses up (pretentious, maudlin...) but most know all about it and already interact - you'll regularly hear items from BBC radio on the world's best science show, WNYC's Radiolab, for instance.

    * I love NPR but it can't be our only model - otherwise we'll be overrun with quirky, knowing, witty, emotionally literate output like Glass' - we need our own models and they'll be a bit tougher-minded, slightly more sceptical, funnier...

    * And, in a small way, the 6 Music of speech radio is... Radio 3. Between the Ears, Sunday Feature, The Essay, innovative drama and one-offs. It's all there - just needs to be a bit more accessible...

  8. I am a consumer of radio, TV, books and magazines. I have written loads of technical articles, but I would not claim to produce anything for mass consumption. I presume that I am close to the thoughtful audience that might switch from Radio 4 for alternative speech broadcasts.

    Whilst I appreciate the podcast recommendations, they don't work for me. What works for me are the products of commissioners, editors and programme designers. They understand broadcasting history and, generally, understand what people expect at a certain time of the day.

    The Radio 4 team presume that when I have finished listening to the news at 18:30, I am ready for some light relief. And I listen to the programme when it is funny. But aside from Radio 7, there is no comedy on speech radio. Whilst Radio 5 Live is a joke, it is only funny to listen during sports programmes. Ditto local BBC radio.

    I consume most of my BBC consumption on a Sunday. I don't have to think about it:
    07:30 --switch from Radio 4 to BBC 6 to avoid religious content.

    09:00 onwards -- switch to Radio 4 if there are impending sweaty moments in The Archers or if the subject on Desert Island is human. Preferably a bonkers subject on DI.

    12:00 ish -- sport.

    20:00 -- Top Gear: three entertaining idiots who have worked so closely that they are able to talk through their mates' bottoms.

    That is called programming. Interesting content that will be followed up with more potentially interesting content.

    How many podcasts are there that might substitute for 30 minutes on the radio? And how long to find them?

  9. "What people expect at a certain time of day?"

    Having my entertainment served up to me when someone at the BBC decrees I should have it is a concept which is at last becoming as Orwellian as it deserves to be. Fortunately, 1984 is receding ever further into the distance.

    To my 9-year-old, the idea of being there, in place, ready for someone to start broadcasting something pre-recorded at you, is an alien concept. It's Sky+ or nothing. That's why there's a generation growing up who might listen to podcasts but will never even consider listening to talk radio. And quite rightly. We will one day look back on being told to listen to a radio programme at a certain time with all the condescension with which we will (or already do) look back at AM broadcast quality or "tuning in".

  10. I'm coming to this a little late in the day I realise, but...

    I really don't think that starting a new speech network is really on the cards for either the BBC or commercial radio to be honest, unless it's a phone-in station. I suspect that even Talksport is surprisingly expensive to broadcast. While they don't have the music costs that other commercial stations have, they need more staff to take calls and produce the shows. Your average music radio show - outside the BBC - has nobody except the presenter. Only the top shows with bigname talent will even get a producer or two.

    I'm also not entirely convinced we need a British version of Ira Glass. He does what he does brilliantly. But there are lots of other ways of producing speech radio, and we shouldn't be constrained into thinking that we need to replicate something already there. It's like those TV discussions that always start with "Why can't the British make The Wire?" It's the wrong question. Keep everyone on their toes and innovating withing the medium, certainly. And don't imagine that the way we've always done something is the only way or the "right" way.

    Steve's right that we produce some amazing radio - but that it's hidden.

    I think, as others have said, that a technological revolution might solve this problem. Radio is beautifully suited to be listened to just about anywhere we live our lives. Getting a smartly generated "podcast playlist" onto our device, following us around via the cloud or whatever, might be the way to go.

    I turn my device on, and hear programmes I'm interested in, curated via some Google algorithm based on choices I've made.

    Drop in some live or near-live programming, so we can keep up with the latest news and sport, and you have something very interesting.

    Rights holders will need to relax their tight reins on how we can access audio. It's incredibly frustrating that only a subset of speech programming is actually available in a form that can be listened to portably. And as for anything with so much as a hint of music in it? Forget it.

    We currently have to rely on things like the wonderful Speechification or even more nefarious methods to meet our needs. And that's too complicated.

    (A side issue - there are disappointingly few DAB devices that allow you to record radio in a PVR manner, and they're vastly more expensive than their TV equivalents).

    iTunes tells me that I have over 1000 unlistened to podcasts, so I'd better end here.

  11. Chris: "Having my entertainment served up to me when someone at the BBC decrees I should have it is a concept which is at last becoming as Orwellian as it deserves to be."

    The BBC does not decree what you watch or listen at any time of the day. If you want to eat your breakfast whilst listening to death metal or watching a Nazi concentration camp documentary, the internet allows you to do so.

    What the programme managers do is to create portfolios of programmes with very different content. From those portfolios, they choose to broadcast programmes at a particular time of day. The BBC used to broadcast Terry Wogan on the Radio 2 breakfast slot and millions listened because he had the right tone for breakfast. How many people listened to the Wogan repeat service on the internet?

    Consumers use broadcasting time shift technology to catch up with programmes that they missed when down at the pub. Some consumers even use the TV guide to schedule their social lives.

  12. These are good points and most of them are made by people who know far more about the subject than I do. I am flattered that anyone thinks my taste is distinct enough that it calls for "Radio Hepworth" or a channel providing 24 hours of Ira Glass. I don't think either would command much of an audience. I suppose what I'd really like to feel is that people in radio really wanted things to be different. Maybe it's the recession that accounts for the timidity I detect in the industry. Ten years ago a lot of people within it were predicting a future in which a million flowers would bloom. It seems to have gone a bit quiet on that front.

    And on the listener side even an a la carte radiohead like me swiftly tires of having to chase down new podcasts and make sure they're on my iPod. If there was a channel that just aggregated good podcasts and ran them one after the other then I'd probably listen to it. What I find appealing about podcasts, whether they're discussing football, new media or labour disputes in China, is that they're designed for people who want to hear them and not just people who can be persuaded to listen.

    Maybe a few of us should get together and do an app.

  13. I am in favour of releasing content production to a variety of specialist independent sponsored shows. There is no substitute/algorithm that can tailor shows to my tastes better than me.

    What we need is an audio version of A way to aggregate podcast 'feeds' into a 'channel' that can be simpy switched on or off perhaps. with recommendation engines to discover more of what we like? (itunes is still pretty clumsy at that)

    But i am so used to the sky+/PVR method of consumption that I favour that, as there are some podcasts that I want to hear & never miss & also choose exactly when I hear them. Isn't that the beauty of the era of 'on demand'.

    Perhaps the issue comes down to our hardware of consumption. It's frustrating the way I still have to sync my wireless enable iphone just to get the latest podcasts ready to listen too.

    Relating to specific shows. This American Life is really good but it seems a little to much is made of it as the epitome of talk radio. I still mourn (literally) the loss of John Peel - I strangely discovered him as a teen through overhearing my mum listening to 'Home Truths'. I think that was a the closest thing to a British 'This American Life'? I love the way podcasts can me more niche in terms of music genre/humour & mix of talk & music. Who else would want to hear a mix of 'E-town (Live recorded Alt American music & ethical campaigning), CBC Vinyl Cafe (new canadian music & storytelling), Hamish & Andy (Hilarious Australian Drive-time comedians), Danny Baker, Mark Kermode & Answer Me This?

    Actually, the 'podcasting' versions of radio shows such as Frank Skinner & Dave Gorman transform 'no repeat' guarantee Absolute Radio music shows into Talk Radio?

    The Word podcast is so good - get a sponsor & get a bit more new music on it, perhaps even a radio show companion to the cover CD?

  14. Re: your last point. The fact that we don't have a sponsor is not for lack of trying on our part. Advertisers have not been falling over themselves to support *any* of the many excellent podcasts in the market. Ask the major newspaper groups. As for adding a lot of music, I'm not personally convinced it's a good idea. Music tends to be divisive. If I wanted to listen to it I would.

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