Radio’s Concorde Moment – Video didn’t kill the radio star

In 1980 I bought my first ever record. I got my Dad to take me to WH Smith and I used my pocket money to buy The Buggles – Video Killed The Radio Star. I was young, I had no real idea of what it meant, it was just a catchy song.

These days the record regularly spins on my own radio station, Atom Radio, and I’m fully aware of the meaning of the song. In 2020 I get the meaning of the song but I disagree.

UK Commercial Radio is suffering it’s Concorde Moment. The radio moment has lasted longer than the demise of the world’s greatest commercial airliner but just like Concorde, the end has come in two parts. In May of 2003 the French retired their Concorde fleet leaving the British to pick up all the costs associated with the aeroplane. British Airways retired it’s Concorde fleet in October of 2003 as three Concordes lined up and touched down in succession at London Heathrow. As BA002 touched down, arriving from JFK bang on time on the afternoon of October 23rd 2003 commercial air travel stepped back in time. Where the option previously existed to cross the Atlantic at Mach 2 in, on average, a little over three hours, the best option now was making the journey on the subsonic Boeing 747 which, with Concorde retiring, became the fastest commercial airliner but the fastest way to cross the Atlantic was now more than doubled in time. Air travel went backwards!

Radio is having its Concorde moment. The parallel to the French retiring of Concorde came when Global started buying local radio stations to use as relays for their London based Capital, Heart and Smooth. Ofcom, the body responsible for the administration of radio in the UK obliged by allowing Global to drop the local commitment in the licenses they acquired. Previously commercial radio licenses contained a requirement for a certain number of hours (usually 7 per weekday and 4 per weekend day) of live, local broadcasting. It took a little while with Global retaining local Breakfast and Drivetime shows but eventually, that part of the license was removed and the output all came from the London origins of the stations these former radio names now relayed.

Advancements in technology allowed for what’s called splits to be inserted into programming. A split is an event triggered by the original playout computer which fires a local element on each local station. This allowed for local news and weather output, local travel information and crucially local sweepers allowing this centralised broadcast to tip a local nod to the areas it was being broadcast too. While London got mentioned in the sweepers broadcast across the capital city other local areas got their locality mentioned within the same London broadcast by virtue of a split.

It’s also fair to say that certain other radio stations had, it appeared, worked a way around the 7 hours rule. There were certain stations running a format that called for only a breakfast show of 4 hours leaving 3 of the 7 within the live and local commitment. These stations argued that their Drivetime filled these 3 hours by virtue of a journalist reading news, weather and travel but to the average listener these hours had no presenter.

With Global taking the equivalent of the French side and acting first in the Concorde moment the UK’s other radio giant stepped in to take up the British side of the Concorde moment.

Local Magic stations had been merged to become a national feed and then the pattern from Global was repeated by Bauer. Bauer bought UKRD, Celador and Wireless and Lincs FM stations.

Of the eight radio stations purchased from Lincs FM only one will remain its own identity with the other seven becoming part of the Greatest Hits Network.

Of the fifteen stations purchased from Celador only one survives. Of the other remaining fourteen, thirteen join the Greatest Hits Network and the other joins the Hits Radio Network. Sam FM Bristol is the lucky one to retain its identity, presenters and programming.

All twelve of the stations purchased from Wireless would become either Greatest Hits Radio Network or Hits Radio Network stations. Those transitioning to the latter started in mid June of 2020.

Nine of the ten stations bought by acquiring UKRD will become part of the Greatest Hits Radio Network with solely Pirate FM retaining its identity.

I had a good understanding of UKRD but having been interviewed for a position within the group a few years ago I did my research fully before my (unsuccessful) interview. UKRD was a good company to work for, UKRD was almost the definition of local radio integrating its radio stations fully with their communities. Local presenters presented from local studios, the radio stations attended events within their communities. Local areas had unrivalled news and travel that affected their daily lives.

I know certainly Eagle Radio last year sent presenters to every single Christmas light switch on within the TSA. Just one example of a radio station in harmony with its community.

According to the latest RAJAR figures Eagle Radio, covering Surrey and Hampshire, was listened to by 111,000 people per week, a reach of 22%. It operates in a tough market where all the London stations are available on the FM dial. With total listening hours of 735,000 the station had a listening share within its TSA of 7.9%.

On Thursday 4th January 1996 at 7.45 Peter Gordon was the first presenter heard on what was then 96.4 The Eagle. The station has rebranded over the years but the integration in the community has only grown stronger. On Friday 7th August 2020 that launch presenter, after just over 24 years and 7 months signed off for the last time just before 9am.

Eagle Radio started its rebrand a few weeks back. The Eagle Radio imaging was dropped for imaging mentioning that it was now part of the Greatest Hits Network. While the station had provided real music variety for Surrey and Hampshire it now played the Greatest Hits, a significant change to the playlist of a station who’s music variety had, to that point, included current chart hits alongside classics from the 80s and beyond. Now, as the remaining few staff sign off, Eagle Radio will become a relay for the majority of the day, playing Greatest Hits imaging and a greatest hits playlist presented by a network presenter for all but the duration of the local drivetime. There’ll also be a regional breakfast show but that’s regional and not local.

In essence, Surrey and Hampshire lose their radio station as do the TSA for the majority of the stations in this acquisitions. The Eagle presenter roster who were known within the community and attended the events will be replaced on air by the Greatest Hits presenter roster. The first to go, the man who launched the station back in 1996.

Peter Gordon was loved, he was hated. Either way as the presenter of the station’s biggest show he got the community talking. He was well known around the station’s transmission area, he had woken them up for nearly a quarter of a century. From his own twitter feed it wasn’t just a job to Peter Gordon, it meant something to him to present on the radio station that served the area he lived in but has also grew up in.

I was lucky enough to present a breakfast show on the commercial station that served the areas that I now lived in and had grown up in. It’s an honour to be the first voice that people hear every day. Waking up is generally not top of the list of pleasurable things people do every day but when your job is to try and make that more pleasurable, and you’re doing it in the area that means a lot to you personally it’s not just a job.

Eagle Radio was arguably the embodiment of what local radio should be. Listeners to the other radio stations who will, by September 2020 succeed their identity to the Greatest Hits radio network will probably feel the same about the stations they are losing.

In the 80s and 90s, through the commercial radio sector, local radio enjoyed a period of mass expansion. Many areas before who’s choice of listening was either national BBC radio or local BBC Radio now had choice. Local commercial radio was also free from “the BBC way”.

Local commercial radio has produced some of today’s stars. Chris Moyles for example cut his teeth in local radio before going on to be national stars.

Capital, Heart, Magic, Smooth, Kiss etc all have presenter rosters right now but what happens as those presenters hang up their headphones. The local commercial sector, where their replacements would have come from, has contracted rendering job opportunities minimal?

All those stations that will be disappearing as identities to become the Greatest Hits Radio or the Hits Radio Network will have employed staff in addition to the presenters heard on air such as journalists, producers, sales, and engineers, the majority of whom will find themselves redundant or in the case of freelancers just no longer needed. Having gone through that with my colleagues at Time 106.6 in October 2015 when Lyca called time (no pun intended) on Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead’s station after 22 years I can confirm its not a great feeling.

Radio people both on and off air have lost or are about to lose their jobs, kids have lost the path to the aspiration of one day following in the footsteps of the people currently in the process of losing their jobs. I know some, not all, of the people affected by these sweeping changes.

From my own experience at Time 106.6, we had undergone a tricky period. Before I joined the station was moved out of its TSA which made the local connection that little bit more difficult. But moving back into the TSA the station had a plan to reintegrate itself fully into the community. After years outside the TSA, we lagged way behind Eagle Radio in that element but after Time closed I received loads of messages from listeners who’d found me via social media or my website and indeed I got stopped in the street to be told how sad people were that their local radio station was no more. The listeners to the recently acquired stations have this adjustment now also, although the frequencies will remain alive it won’t be the same.

A personal memory here, I remember when my son was born in the local hospital I was queuing in the canteen to get some lunch. I’d done my show that morning and headed off to visit my son and his mum as he was in the neonatal unit. While queuing for my lunch I was behind two ladies who were discussing with each other a link I that had been done that morning on my show. They found it funny. I knew as far as they were concerned I had done my job that day in helping their wake up call be a little less groggy and a bit more fun.

Moments like that I’m sure will have happened to radio presenters up and down the country who have already been displaced by Global’s takeovers or are about to be by Bauer’s.

I never got to do a last sign off from Time 106.6 as we all believed Friday would be our last day on air. My last words were “Paul Owens is next, see you tomorrow” but just around 2pm on the Thursday we received the news the station would run its final 86 hours in automation, leaving myself and Paul joining the weekend presenters in already having done our last show with no final sign off.

I worked with some fantastic broadcasters, both presenters and journalists who are no longer involved in radio, despite being very good at what they did. That’s a shame.

Just last month I received an email through my website asking for my advice on how to get on the radio. I started my advice with a warning that while radio can still make a fine hobby the opportunity to make it your career is small, smaller than its ever been so bear that in mind before embarking on the journey. I gave the best advice I could before wishing him luck.

If you’re lucky enough, after September 2020, to still have a truly local commercial radio station, enjoy it and support it both by listening and by taking advantage of its advertising packages. Those still operating will find it tougher competiting for the advertising revenue they need to sustain a full service with nearby bordering stations that have shredded costs by becoming local relays for national stations.

Equally, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the presenters on either Hits Radio Network or Greatest Hits Radio Network remember radio is all about connection and while all the presenters on both those networks are good just remember that soon you’ll be trying to make new connections on a national basis with people who for many years have enjoyed presenters they’ve grown to think of as friends and local connections.

Happy memories from my own time in local commercial radio

In a world when you can subscribe to Spotify, Amazon Music or other services and play either random music or curated playlists radio remains important. These services cost a monthly fee, and they can provide music but what they can’t provide is connection and interaction, something the best radio presenters do/did with ease, becoming a virtual friend to their listeners.

The Buggles claim in their song that video killed the radio star …. since the 1980 release of that song Channel 4 and 5 launched and there was the satellite and cable revolutions but radio carried on strong. See video didn’t kill the radio star but radio, sadly, did that itself.