Never Go Out Of Style

Gone For A Leak

For a couple of days at the start of this week, it appeared to be all anyone with even the remotest connection to the radio industry could talk about. The “leaked” (ie, a single photograph posted on Twitter) excerpt from a new presenter style guide issued by Bauer to the presenters on its Big City stations in the wake of some brand new positioning. It prompted a great deal of brow-clutching and reaching for the smelling salts of those who determined it to be the final proof that radio had lost its spirit and soul.

The document also inspired some creative responses, such as the quickly knocked together parody by Jack FM, emphasising their own differences, and a near 15-minute rant by talkRADIO’s Iain Lee, himself a believer and a master at the art of more freewheeling uninhibited radio, who had hammered together his own version.

Bauer themselves felt compelled to issue their own statement shortly afterwards, musing on the “hyperbole” their presenter guidance appeared to have stirred up. And the funny thing is I’m inclined to agree with them. Because nothing that was in this document was particularly startling, surprising, unusual or even for the most part wrong. It was simply good common sense radio coaching.

Note that I don’t work for Bauer, never have, nor am I likely to any time soon it seems. What follows is simply my own damn opinion based on what I’ve learned over the course of my own 25-year radio career.

Let’s take the leaked snippet line by line.

Designated speed links are the way to keep the music flowing in daytime radio shows, playing songs more or less back to back without resorting to segueing songs with or without a station sweeper or ident. Instead, the presenter plays the role of link man, identifying the station and its slogan and bringing in the next track. They are used sparingly – once or maybe even twice an hour – but they have to be regimented. All too often a presenter’s idea of a “quick link” is to be diverted into reading out a tweet or commenting that it is raining. So the instructions make it clear. You sell the positioning, you remind people what they are listening to (important for anyone with a RAJAR diary) and you introduce the next song. Keep it simple, make it slick and far from sounding mechanical or forced, it makes you and the radio station sound bright and dynamic.

The final bullet point here is also true. Streaming technology has shown to the world what radio programmers and music researchers have known for years: the general public (ie non-music fans) takes time to grow to love a song and even longer to tire of it. That’s why these days the biggest hits hang around the charts for weeks on end and maintain their streaming numbers long after sales have died away. They are just following the way the ordinary Joe – the commercial radio listener – engages with the songs. Even if you have played the same song once a show for the past 10 weeks, there are still plenty amongst your audience who shout with joy the moment you cue it up. So nothing on your music log should ever be undersold.

What a radio presenter does into a commercial break is vitally important. It is the one moment when there is a genuine risk of tune-out from the dial-surfing listener. You can be as creative with your content as you like, take as much care over the programming of the music as you can, but if people really hate listening to adverts and would rather press a button to avoid them then they will do just that. All you can do to mitigate this is to give people a reason not to move. To stay right here because there is something they don’t want to miss. That’s basic stuff – Radio Presenter 101. The first line here is also perfectly sensible. It makes utterly no sense to tell people you play the biggest hits right before you play something that is neither hit nor music. Given you have to say it every time you open your mouth say it after the record.

This line is the only one I’d disagree with. Yes OK, this is a brand new format, the stations having been repositioned recently and the need to keep everyone on message is strong. Yet making all presenters script their “teases” beforehand and having someone senior authorise them just on the off chance they might be “wrong” smacks slightly of excessive micromanagement. If you have no confidence in the people you employ to do their jobs properly, then why are you employing them in the first place? Your presenters are trained professionals, so let them work and present to the best of their ability. And if they get it wrong, tell them so afterwards and watch to see if they do it again tomorrow.

Back to the sensible stuff again, and once more this isn’t outrageous or insulting. Just basic common sense for making good radio. All presenters know now they should throw forward into the break and encourage people to keep listening, but the bad ones can be very lazy at this. It is not enough just to list the next song on the log or lean on the “Rihanna plays next” presentation crutch. So this document reminds them that the ‘tease’ can be creative and fun. Far from being corralled into a closet of blandness as some critics would have it, this encourages and frees them to make the links into a break work hard.

All radio is about selling. Selling the radio station you are hosting. Selling the breakfast show to make people tune in tomorrow. Selling the Italian leather furniture that you have an S&P read for ready for a competition running next week. And here you are selling the reason to stay listening through three minutes of ads for motor dealers and double glazing. So to make it good, don’t just list the next songs, why not say “and on the way shortly on Viaduct FM, one of those songs which if you are in the car will make you want to nudge the volume up a little, just so you can appreciate it properly”. Because that’s the perfect tease. You’ve sold the listener on staying tuned. Because they now want to know just what the song is that is so good you will turn the volume up.

I remember once covering the afternoon show for an absent presenter. Our music database was cleverly structured so that just once in a while a random oldie from out of nowhere would appear to spice things up. So it was that at 3.15 on a Wednesday afternoon I was able to tell people “next on The Pulse I’ll play you one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I won’t cut it short either, you’ll hear all 7 minutes and 11 seconds of it, just to make today even better”. What was the song? I’ll tell you at the end. Call it a tease.

Another anecdote from personal experience. Many years ago at the start of my career, I’d routinely follow the late night phone in with an overnight show. At the suggestion of the Programme Director, I’d go sit with Alex Hall ten minutes from the end of her programme and have a conversation with her about what people could hear next. One night she asked me “What songs are you playing after 2 am James?”. I confessed: “I don’t know, I’ve not looked at my printout yet”.

During the news, she admonished me for that line. The listeners neither knew nor cared to know that the songs I was playing were as ordered by a printed piece of paper. I needed to take ownership of the music I was playing and make each one my personal choice, I was told. I didn’t make the same mistake again. The next night I confidently listed three sample songs from the first half hour of the show and told West Yorkshire I couldn’t wait to share one song with them because I knew it was one of everyone’s favourites of the moment.

That’s a basic radio lesson. And the teaching hasn’t changed in 20 years because it remains correct.

Setting Them Up To Fail

Some of the rantings I read in the aftermath of the leaked document suggested this was evidence of how big corporations were “killing radio”, turning stations into jukeboxes filled with bland automatons. Some of it doubtless from people who were convinced their own careers could have flown further if only they had been set free and not confined to “style guides”. Yes, there is much to be said for hearing a true radio talent at work, someone able to work freely with the medium and for whom any kind of barriers or constraints would be too much of a burden to bear. I do that every time I get paid to listen to Iain Lee. But these people are rare and it is often a talent that has to be carefully coached, just as footballers have to be trained and managed to bring them up to the level of the once in a generation prodigy. A good manager should hopefully be always able to spot that potential and direct it accordingly.

The problem is if you give everyone space to spread their wings then many will fall short. They won’t just make poor radio, they will make bad radio. I should know, I’ve done enough of that in my time. Just as bad as hearing a creative talent stifled by a narrow format is hearing someone with little talent dying on their arse on air because someone believes telling them what to do is a bad thing. There are multitudes of bedroom stations on the internet demonstrating that in spades.

So the managers of these Big City stations don’t want their presenters to all sound equally bland and dull. Far from it. They want them all sounding as drilled, confident and enthusiastic as each other. Which is why they have a style guide, which is why they are shown what to do, and which is why crucially they are all successful in their markets.

Only Natural

I was in one sense lucky to spend much of my on-air career at a radio station which wasn’t too tightly formatted. For sure there were rules we had to follow, clocks to stick to and were carefully coached and trained by a man who was a master of the radio art. But it was more about how we said things rather than what we had to say. Nonetheless, all of us on air actually found ourselves opening most links with the radio strapline anyway. To say “West Yorkshire’s Radio – You’re On The Pulse” was easy to do, told everyone what we were about in a second and cleared the way for whatever else we had to impart. Even when free we all instinctively knew the correct way to go.

A few years later I worked briefly for a temporary radio station run by a major group as a test for a licence they wished to bid for. On the wall of the studio was a strict notice: “106.6 The Edge must be the FIRST and LAST thing you say in each link. 30 seconds max”. That might sound intimidating but it was actually a fun challenge. Because it meant every time I prepared to open my mouth on air I had to prepare mentally exactly what I was going to say, how I was going to say it and then get out of the way of the music as quickly as possible. Far from being stifled I found that liberating, exciting and dare I say it inspired to better links than I’d broadcast for years.

So hand me a style guide any time you like. Because it gives me the tools to be a better broadcaster and to make a better radio station. Every single time.

Oh yes, the “7 minutes 11 seconds greatest song of all time”? Hey Jude by The Beatles.

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