There are often excuses from the commercial radio sector for their complete inability to provide any form of commercial rival to BBC Radio 4. This is before we even look at their non-attempt to provide a commercial alternative to BBC Radio 5 Live or the easiest format of the lot, BBC Radio 2.
The whimpers from the commercial sector are about how impossibly costly speech radio is to produce. Well, speech radio with the high level of professionalism normally attributed to the BBC, of course. No, scratch that. Any speech radio. Only the evil and unfairly over resourced BBC which doesn’t have to please the advertisers can ever possibly do speech radio, right?
There is something highly profitable and extremely cost effective about not doing much more than programming a playout computer with commercials, songs, commercials, trailers (for the breakfast show), commercials, sweepers, commercials, jingles and commercials, throwing a monkey in front of it and telling it to make pre-set announcements three times an hour in order to comply with a promise to Ofcom that ‘live programming’ will be provided.
Speech radio, on the other hand, requires the use of talent, multiple decisions, maybe even chance taking and controversy. It also needs decisions to be made on an ongoing basis. It ends up costing a lot more than a computer playing 300 safe songs in a row.
Well, that’s what the commercial radio boys will tell you. They will warn shareholders that speech radio will mean a small dip in their massive profits, and could possibly bring their company into dispute should anything controversial accidentally get to air.
The negativity is pushed over and over by their PR and marketing people, again and again until it becomes written as a fact that can never be challenged: The commercial sector can never produce a rival or alternative to BBC Radio 4 (or 5 Live, or 2). End of.
Actually, the real evidence does tend to say something else. Speech radio, good quality speech radio, is obviously dead easy to produce. There is so much of it out there.
I’m talking about audio podcasts. The good quality podcasts that actually get downloaded and listened to in the tens of thousands, I’m talking about. Podcasts that are put together by volunteers. Podcasts that are paid for by the companies that own the websites they are promoted by. Podcasts that carry sponsorship information and announcements.
Yes, for every good quality podcast, there are thousands of crap ones. But don’t let the crap ones be used as a wall to obstruct the vision we are talking about here.
Let’s talk for a moment about British Public Radio (here). British Public Radio believe that there is another way to put together speech radio. For a starter, they have shown that a radio station could quite happily exist that just rebroadcast the higher quality podcasts. They are already doing just that.
Although none of the podcasts, or ‘programmes’ actually start at set times, nor are they advertised as appearing in any particular order, the production and presentation quality is easily, well, BBC Radio 4. Round and round it goes, showing off a wide range of speech programming, all garnered from popular podcasts.
Imagine putting a radio transmitter on with this same output. Well, ok, it would need re-formatting to strip scheduling and ‘clock starts’ and a proper programme guide. And it would need plenty more programmes to provide a full schedule, but in so many ways those are just semantics, small details in comparison to central thrust of the argument that the programme content already exists. There is no need to produce it in house.
I’ve mentioned Critical Mass Radio (here) before. Now, the production values in contrast to those expected by the BBC or British Public Radio are distinctly lacking. Ignore that for a moment. Examine the content. Again, it’s all speech, usually live speech. Ok, it’s all bunches of raving mad conspiracy theorists interviewing other raving mad conspiracy theorists, but all they need is technical training and a small time with some presentation coaching and you then have an acceptable quality of what is good content.
Remember when Rickie Gervais and his team were podcasting? Don’t dismiss the professionalism and popularity of podcasts. Don’t dismiss the many ‘community of interest’ groups who are funded in order to produce radio programming for their ‘community of interest’. Whatever happens to the radio programmes they put together? Usually they are just played back to friends and family, dubbed for them to take home, and, well, in so many ways, just wasted.
Let’s put them into the pot.
And then top it up with programming from the many speech streams in America.
Well, there’s just a few sources and already a commercial speech radio station is starting to take shape at next to no outlay. wrap some commercials or sponsorship around it and lo! – A commercial radio station that only cost a little bit more to put together than the computer locked in the cupboard regurgitating the same 300 songs. A commercial radio station that advertisers will love because it actually has people ‘listening’ to it rather than having it on as wallpaper in the background, oblivious to the content beyond the repetitive hooks of songs.
If I wanted people to actually hear about my products, rather than miss my message buried deep in the barely audible background of a music radio station, I certainly know which type of radio station I’d want to buy advertising space on.