My father was always going to speak at conferences, as I recall. Or at least attend them. Several times a year he would announce he would be away at some mysterious location for a night or two, leaving my sister and I to run our mother ragged until he returned home with what we always hoped was a present to compensate us for his absence from our lives.
I think the first radio conference I ever attended was a student radio one sometime in 1992, the highlight of which turned out to be a talk from a big burly man from the local BBC station who had a rather unfortunate Robin Williams fixation but who bellowed enough anecdotes to make me utterly convinced that his job was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and who left me dreaming of the day that I’d one day get to express that same enthusiasm to other bright eyed industry hopefuls.
Even as a grown adult though, most conferences are for the big guys – the bosses and management. For people whose lives appear to revolve around summoning people for meetings they are surely the equivalent of an ice-cream sundae. A huge auditorium sized meeting for people who like to have meetings.
So I’ve never actually been to one in any of the jobs I’d had. Until this week, when the best £99 I’d spent on the credit card all summer meant I was in the audience for nextrad.io. This, stated the organisers, was a conference for the people at the coalface. A chance for the ordinary people in radio to be treated to a series of talks by some of the most enthusiastic people in radio. Thursday morning saw myself and a 100 or so other nervous looking radio presenters/producers etc. from all over the country eyeing each other up diffidently over coffee before assembling in the intimate surroundings of the main theatre at the Magic Circle for the first of the day’s series of mini-lectures.
This being the 21st century and most of the attendees being geeks of one form or another, tapping away on laptops and tweeting the proceedings was more or less de-rigueur, leading at one stage to the hashtag #nextradio trending nationwide, presumably to the bafflement of most casual observers up and down the land. I took time out to be personally more amused by the fact that the theatre afforded no place from which to source power and speculated that most people would have run out of battery juice by lunchtime, which proved indeed to be the case. I have to confess I did spend the first half an hour trying to figure out the wireless password for the venue, tweeting my frustrations from my phone. This prompted host and organiser James Cridland to announce for my direct benefit that it was printed inside the programme which I clearly hadn’t read. Naturally I hadn’t, I was too busy staring at people diffidently over coffee as we arrived. Nonetheless this did mean that I not only now knew where to look for the crucial information but having had my name announced on stage was thus briefly the most important and high profile member of the audience. I’d call that a result.
The “less is more” policy of the organisers in timing the length of the talks given meant we zipped through a wide range of speakers, virtually all of whom had something interesting, relevant and thought-provoking to say, and it is worth dealing with some of the more notable ones.
The morning started with Matt Edmondson and his producer colleague from Radio One, waxing lyrical about the one hour show they put together on Wednesday evenings and how they take great care to expand the show beyond its broadcast horizons with as many multimedia elements as possible, such as comedy interviews with celebrities which populate the show’s website. I didn’t want to spend the entire day taking a cynical approach to everything but I did find myself questioning just how “new” a comedy show with every link carefully scripted in advance actually was and the way the pair boasted about how the show was an intimate club crammed with lots of running gags that you have to listen regularly to get made me wonder just how inclusive a listening experience it actually was. But I’m not their target market, so go figure.
They were followed by a short ten minute chat from Nik Goodman who played some creative ideas lifted from radio stations around the world to demonstrate there should be no boundaries to a good idea. The climax of his talk was the playing of Jacksonville, FL DJ Gregg Stepp apparently quitting live on air and walking out of his show on WFYV-FM after learning he was to be fired at the end of the week. The incident from October 2008 is now a famous radio moment, although I’m not sure most people in the room with me grasped that the whole thing was a stunt, dreamed up by the radio station itself in order to drum up publicity, the presenter in question having resigned several weeks earlier to take up another job elsewhere. Nonetheless the incident stands proud as a fine example of how to make an impact by making people wonder if they really were supposed to have heard what they did.
The legendary Trevor Dann gave a short presentation on the use of archive material, playing some famous radio moments from the past and bemoaning the way most radio is thrown away and forgotten the moment that it is broadcast. The BBC have their own archives but are apparently planning to open their doors to anyone who happens to have old broadcast tapes – causing me to think back once more to my cupboard full of Top 40 tapes and whether it will end up being worth anything to anyone one day. Maybe the answer is closer than I thought:
I also noted on Twitter that talkSPORT has an extensive archive which, although it has gaps, stretches back to the 1990s, although it is only since 2008 that we’ve had ready online access to previously broadcast material and I suspect I’m one of only a couple of people in the building who knows how to work the machine that retrieves the data from the boxes full of DAT tapes which comprise the older archive. Nonetheless it can be worthwhile, as I demonstrated once when doing research on David Beckham and turned up a tape of our present boss hosting the evening show in a previous life. Discretion prevented me from circulating it around the office.
A talk from the BBCs Brett Spicer attempted to turn us on to the way social media can help grow audiences and call attention to local radio. By this he means the circulation of important clips and moments via non-broadcast mediums, citing the recent example of “Angry Melvin”, an hilarious ranting caller from BBC Three Counties earlier in the year which briefly became a national sensation. Actually it is not just local radio which can use this trick to good effect. Check out the recent attention paid to “Jonathan in Swansea”, a caller to talkSPORT’s weekend overnight presenter Matt Forde which served only to further raise the profile of the most popular host that slot has ever had. All thanks to a random YouTube upload by an interested listener. The Nazis were all hippies, remember.
I took careful note of the presentation from Francesca Panetta from The Guardian on the subject of podcasts and the wide ranging ways on demand audio is used by audiences. As a speaker who actually did not work in radio at all and who was instead charged with creating audio content to enhance a newspaper brand, it was interesting to hear her take as an outsider on the way radio deals with podcasting. It often frustrates me that so many radio station podcasts are simply re-edited highlights of already broadcast material, something which strikes me as totally self-defeating. What motivation does a listener have to tune into your output when they know the notional “best bits” are going to be served up to them later. Podcasts should be treated as mini radio broadcasts in their own right, covering topics and discussions that possibly would never find a home on a radio schedule. Certainly that is the approach I take with my own podcast, one which has been a labour of love on and off for three and a half years now. It makes me no money and with downloads in the hundreds rather than the thousands is hardly helping me broadcast to the vast audiences I can achieve on a “real” radio station. Nonetheless, nobody is likely to invite me to broadcast a weekly show about chart news, but the podcast gives me the freedom to exercise the creativity the way I want to. If people are entertained by it and my reputation is enhanced as a result – that’s just a nice bonus.
Just after midday at nextrad.io came the moment I, and my two other colleagues in the audience, had been waiting for as our own boss took to the stage to reveal the secrets of how he added a million listeners in a year. Having been subject to these kind of inspirational talks by him at programming meetings for well over three years now it was fascinating to see the reaction of everyone else in the room as he talked up the success of our station and the reasons why we go from strength to strength. As a former actor, I always think he knows only too well the power of delivery and how to make the most of an oratory. That’s how he makes most of us want to give our all to him each day at work, and by the end you got the feeling half the room were prepared to as well.
The most interesting talk straight after the lunch buffet (during the course of which incidentally, the crudites and savoury dip remained untouched, revealing more than planned about the people in attendance I felt) was that given by Steve Ackerman. He is a brilliant, well regarded man who runs independent production house Somethin’ Else and whose building I’ve visited on a number of occasions as a contributor to documentaries they have been making. His talk wasn’t about broadcast radio at all but instead showing how his company had used radio drama techniques to create a series of audio-focused mobile games to benefit clients such as Wrigleys. It was during the course of this talk that I ended up in a heated twitter discussion with another member of the audience as I noted with some frustration that the innovative and fascinating applications being talked about were confined to the iPhone platform. I pointed out that as I didn’t own one and was unlikely ever to do so, I was never going to be exposed to the brands being thus assisted. Plenty of people in the industry (and indeed earlier on at the conference) bang on about how radio in the future is platform agnostic and how the listener should not have to care about the medium of delivery. If that is the case, why not this particular branded content too? My online correspondent wondered if ROI wasn’t the key, given that it is easier to make money from iPhone games than on other platforms. This did however raise the question as to what the purpose of creating the game was in the first place. We were told that it wasn’t there to necessarily make money (and indeed the game in question The Nightjar is a free download) but to make people aware of a brand of chewing gum. If it doesn’t work on my phone, it follows that the gum is never going to be bought. We left the issue to be chewed over, so to speak.
As the day wore on, some of the later presentations began to be a bit of a blur, perhaps an inevitable consequence of trying to cram so much in. Nonetheless my attention was grabbed once more by a talk by legendary programme director Dick Stone on the issue of show prep. As a knarled old veteran of on air work, I’d had most of what he said about internalising your content and not simply reading out loud things that are written down on more occasions that I care to count, but it was still worthwhile to be refreshed and reminded of the pitfalls of just reading out the weather forecast as it has been sent down from the met office. He also did note that offering presenters a critique of their work is vitally important and how it can actually be difficult to get through their defences. He understands why only too well, presenters having given so much of themselves on air that it is hard for them to accept criticism. If you’ve just done what you feel is the best job possible, it is a hammer blow to the ego to sit down with the boss and be told why it is rubbish, a feeling I remember only too well. If I took anything at all away from the conference, it was this lesson which I’ll remember if my career ever leads me to start running radio stations of my own.
The day wrapped up as it began with a talk from members of the Radio One interactive team. They told the story of radio’s attempts to use pictures as part of its output and climaxed with a demonstration of the exciting new Radio One website which is soon to be publicly unveiled, an exciting looking design which presents all selected content in a lightbox from the front page, removing the need for anyone ever to actually navigate from the landing page. Their talk reminded me of my own efforts to try to visualise some of the work I do, something I do with caution as it is all unofficial and my bosses sometimes frown on the drawing back of the backstage curtain that is the result. Nonetheless I’ve been known to stream our activities in the control room during major broadcasts as a Twitvid, something I’ve half a mind to do again during the Rugby World Cup.
5pm arrived and we all emerged, blinking, into the sunshine once more, thanking profoundly James Cridland and Matt Deegan for their organisational efforts before the hardier souls in the audience retired to the pub around the corner. I sloped off home, with the prospect of another early start for a Rugby broadcast looming although still with this odd feeling of euphoria. My mind wandered back to the Robin Williams impersonator from 1992 and his love for his job and his medium. There is nothing like being shoulder to shoulder with people who adore being on and working in radio, who know deep down they have the best job in the world and who armed with little more than a microphone and a voice have the ability to tap into people’s emotions and be a part of their lives like nobody else can.
That’s why if they do it all again I’ll be first in the queue for a ticket. Or maybe up on stage explaining just why I do nothing so brilliantly.
Oh yes, and I lasted the whole day online thanks to my netbook and carefully putting my phone in aeroplane mode to conserve the battery. Even the chap next to me with a Macbook only had 15 minutes of juice left by the end.