OPINION: Changes in the airwaves – Robin Valk

Ex BRMB presenter (Rockin' Robin) and founder of www.radiotogo.com

For this column, the Birmingham Review asked me some thoughts on radio.

Hmmm. Tricky.

The radio industry is still full of talent, from community level up to national networks. Listening is holding up. But I’m worried.

Cuts continue at the BBC; it’s going to get worse. The commercial sector continues to ramp up automation and networking: this week, 200 jobs went as Global rationalised 18 stations out of existence. And despite great work and some sparkling talent at community level, many stations worry about the future.

The Digital Economy Bill will oversee the change from Analog (AM/FM) to Digital. The scheduled date for this is 2015, but that depends on digital listener numbers. Right now 2015 looks unlikely.

Why? Well, analog AM/FM radios are everywhere. They’re on your phone, your stereo, your iPod/MP3 player, in your car. Analog radios are cheap to make and easy to use. Digital takeup is slow. Britain’s iffy digital tech standards are not used elsewhere, making UK sets pricey. I’ve got a digital radio; I keep having to reboot the thing. There’s a wider choice on digital, but many services are contemptibly bad, with no effort to engage the audience. They’re cheapo placeholders, only there to protect future market share.

And the BBC wants to close 6 Music. This is insane on so many levels, especially strategically. 6 delivers dirt cheap passionate programming. It’s meant to attract listeners to Digital.

To sweeten the commercial sector towards Digital, concessions have been made that allow co-location, reductions in local hours, and the abandonment of local output in some cases. That spells continuing job cuts: there’s been a fifteen year retreat from localism in favour of branded national programming delivered from London or Leeds

Take a look at the audience graphs for any commercial station on www.mediauk.com

It’s not pretty. Fifteen years ago commercial radio led the BBC, with mainly local output. Now, heavily networked with national brands, the BBC beats it with 60% of the market.

And the upside?

Production tools have never been cheaper. Building your library has never been easier.  Local Music has never been better, Good local radio and the right local music are a marriage made in heaven. Many community stations have cottoned on to this.

Barriers to production have gone. If the kind of radio you want isn’t there, go create it. You can audioblog, podcast, and upload to SoundCloud to showcase your work.  So this means you can practice and polish while waiting for the one good aspect of the Digital Economy bill: this allows, after the switchover, for the FM band to be turned over to small-scale and community stations, available on those many, many FM radios you have in your house and your car. You will be doing it for love, in every sense of the word.

As they retreat to their glossy digital network centres in London, the commercial boys have left the field WIDE open. I can’t wait to see what local wonders step forward.

Robin Valk has worked in Radio for over 40 years, notably as Rockin’ Robin on BRMB. He now runs Radio To Go, an independent broadcast advisory and analysis agency www.radiotogo.com