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31-05-2010

Most music-based local radio is in decline - and no wonder argues legendary jock Robin Valk. But in this passionate polemic taken from his excellent Radio To Go blog he argues there's plenty of scope for hope.

I was the keynote speaker at Creative Networks last week.

Brilliant, interested audience of students and practitioners. I gave a seemingly bleak overview of the state of UK radio and the shrinking opportunities for creative work, as cuts continue to bite at the BBC, and the commercial sector continues to strip jobs out, and ramps up automation and networking.

All is not lost, however – in fact, all is never lost, if you approach things the right way.

We still have great radio listening, but the BBC continues to thrash Commercial Radio – it’s now nearly a 60/40 split, down from a 49/51 split a few years ago.

The Government’s planned migration to digital is not going that smoothly – the scheduled date for the big Digital leap forward is 2015, but that, being dependent on a critical listenership mass being reached, looks unlikely.

Why? Well, you can lead a horse to water, and all that. AM/FM is ubiquitous; Digital takeup is slow. Technical standards are iffy at best, and not uniform worldwide, which pushes up manufacturing costs.

Few people listen to digital by preference. We do have a wider choice on digital, but a lot of services are shoddily put together, with sloppy use of automation to keep costs down, and not a huge effort to engage the audience. Here’s a useful article from last Monday’s Guardian with some extra perspective.

The proposed closure of 6 Music is insane on so many levels, especially strategically; they provide dirt cheap (but passionate) programming, designed to pull listeners over to Digital. And it’s not a threat to Commercial Radio; the big bad Commercial Radio boy here is Radio 2, which does what it does pretty damn well.

I could add a personal note here: instead of bitching about Radio 2, the Commercial boys could try pinching the Radio 2 act – providing great programming with valued and intelligent presenters, and actually attempting to relate to audiences instead of pumping out positioning statements for their, ahem, brands.

It’s not expensive – it just requires an effort of will.

To sweeten the Commercial sector in the move to digital, concessions have been made that allow co-location, more reductions in local programming, and the potential virtual abandonment of localism in regional services. That spells job cuts. Lots of them.

With Commercial radio's ten-year retreat from localism in favour of brands and national programming, has come a decline in listenership. Sometimes it’s been spectacular. Here’s another interesting article from Tony Stoller, who used to be one of the Radio Regulators in my youth, also from Monday’s Guardian, which backs this up with a vengeance.

Hey… interesting to note I’m not alone here.

By the way, the pay’s crap, assuming you have a paid job at all. No change there.

Now for the upside.

Production tools have never been cheaper. Go create.

Building your library has never been easier or simpler.

Local Music has never been better.

Good Local Radio and the right Local Music are a Marriage Made In Heaven.

The web lets you blog, podcast, and upload to SoundCloud and elsewhere to showcase your work. Again, go create.

Eventually, the FM band will be turned over to small-scale and community stations, who have maybe five years to get ready for this.

Even after the switchover, there will be way more FM radios out there than digital sets. They’re not going away. I expect manufacturers to continue making and supplying them, and cheaply at that.

As they retreat to their glossy digital networks in London, the Commercial boys have left the field WIDE open. I for one can’t wait to see a raft of lairy, undisciplined, anarchic, creative, open and experimental stations step forward on the FM band to take their place.

That’s how the creative process always works: something comes in from left field and kicks the doors down. Radio’s not any different.

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