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Planet Rock – will it soar as a standalone?

GWR Digital Production Suite

What a weekend for writing about radio stations changing hands. In the last 3 days, there have been two confirmed changes of ownership, and further speculation about the imminent future of Planet Rock. James has written up his thoughts on the sale of Virgin Radio to Absolute / TIML and the dropping of the “Virgin Radio” name, and XFM South Wales has been sold (7 months after it went on-air) to Jason Bryant’s Town and Country Broadcasting, and has been re-branded “Nation Radio” with immediate effect.

One change of ownership that is unlikely to involve a name change is the supposedly imminent sale (by GCap Media) of Planet Rock. The name of Malcolm Bluemel, an entrepreneur, has been mentioned in a report in The Times, although this is wholly unconfirmed at this stage. It’s certainly caused some ripples this week, as it appears that Brian May (of Queen fame) was rather surprised/disappointed to find that he wasn’t the only person willing to save the station. This Report also speculates that Mr. Bluemel will acquire the station for a “nominal sum”, which seems surprising for a station with 560,000+ listeners a week, and with a remarkable profile for a radio station which has spent virtually nothing on marketing in its eight and a half year existence.

I must admit to feeling a bit sad to see it leave home (although physically it’s not going very far); Planet Rock (along with Core) was one of the Digital Stations I started back in November 1999, and whilst I’m no big champion of classic rock music, I was involved in the research process behind the formation of Planet Rock and it’s left me in no doubt whatsoever that this is a radio station that talks to a very definite, passionate, and affluent audience, who – most importantly – are not traditional users of Commercial Radio. (Radio 2 and Radio 4 were the primary radio stations of most Planet Rock listeners).

I think Planet Rock could do much better, and realise its true potential, in an environment where everyone is focused and passionate only about the success of that station, and its standing with the (classic) rock community. Where influence is measured by audience figures, Planet Rock (and Core) always suffered from being a strange anomaly within GCap Media – national radio stations, but with regional radio station audience sizes. It’s understandable that the focus is selling Classic fm’s 6.8m listeners per week and the revenue expectations form that, rather than tending to and growing the Planet Rock brand.

One issue won’t change, at least as part of this deal, and it’s the unrealistic economics of the DigitalOne multiplex. If I was running Planet Rock (which I haven’t done for many years), I’d seriously be looking at the options to find it another DAB home. The reason that D1 is now half empty is that the costs of being on it appear virtually insurmountable. In my opinion, it’s a terrible business model for the wider radio industry, although I can understand D1’s attachment to, and defence of, it.

The interesting common thread of all these three sales is that the common consensus seems to be that the stations will fare better with their new owners than the old ones. And in each case, it seems that the new owners are smaller and more passionate about their purchases than the old ones. Maybe the radio industry is about to enter into a new phase of development, where smaller stations succeed through concentrated and focused passion about what they do best.

Update: 4th June – the sale of Planet Rock to Malcolm Bluemel’s “Rock Show” company has been confirmed. Good luck to the Planet Rock team.

(Photo: One of my own, taken on a frankly appalling first generation Digital Camera , of the first home of Planet Rock, Core and The Mix).

The hidden value of Local Radio

Photo (CC) left_handed_male @ flickr.com

“Local Radio”. What does that mean to people? Alan Partridge on the slide? Cats stuck up trees? Jumble sales and council tax moans? Smashey, Nicey and cheesey jingles?

Local radio has a poor reputation with media (sorry, meeedijah) types, and possibly justifiably so. From a distance, the UK’s local radio stations used to seem terribly, well, raggedy. I think it must be a bizarrely British quirk to name local radio stations after rivers (Trent, Wyvern, Severn), Latin mottos (Invicta), Victorian railway companies (GWR) or most inexplicably, Anglo-Saxon kings from the 11th century (Hereward).

National radio may have “brands” and “stars”, but local radio brands are astonishingly highly regarded in their local areas, and local radio stations have local heroes. You might not have heard of Bush & Troy or Jo & Twiggy, but to the people of Bristol and Nottingham they’re as prominent as Chris Moyles or Terry Wogan, and considerably more visible.

Local radio has a hidden commercial value too. National radio might be able to attract national brand advertising, but only local radio can take both national and local revenue. The economic cycle seems to be moving back towards smaller independent businesses again; my local coffee shop (Baristas) is 150m away from Starbucks, but does fabulously well and has more character and is more welcoming. I’m writing this in the Star & Dove, a gastropub which is doing roaring trade and knocks the spots off Wetherspoons. These are businesses who can invest in local radio advertising, in the same way they can invest in Google Adwords and local classified listings.

Google loves local. They know that they can create more inventory and make advertising accessible to more businesses by segmenting their audience based on where they live. (Thus, in a strange way, copying something that local radio did 20 years ago by splitting adbreaks across transmitters).

Of course, when Google do something, it gets a funky new media (sorry, meedijah) name…

Geo-targeting

So maybe a new way to think about local radio is geo-targeted radio.

On DAB Digital Radio, both DigitalOne and Channel 4 will have single frequency networks across the UK, which sounds lovely and “national” and big. But I would suggest that as digital stations get bigger and bigger, we’ll see something unexpected happen. The really big digital radio stations, will move to the local multiplexes. And the national multiplexes will become the home of the “community of interest” (= “niche”) radio services.

The geo-targeted multiplexes (local multiplexes) will deliver more profit to national radio stations. On FM, Classic fm has to split commercials into regions because it’s simply too expensive for most advertisers to buy as a single station; by making it available in smaller units, more business comes in and it makes more money.

So what’s the future for “local radio”?

I think it’s potentially quite bright, because geo-targeting works for content as well as advertising. I’ll always have more interest in things-about-Bristol, and choosing to listen to GWR Bristol automatically defines a filter-set for content that includes national/international stuff I need to know about, and local stuff I want to know about. It’s like adding “+bristol” to a Google query.

Whether or not the structure of local content remains the same is open to more debate. OFCOM apply a fairly broad-brush approach to “locality” which is largely disconnected from economics. That tends to make “local content” seem like a chore, a cost and something to be avoided, rather than being an essential weapon in the competitive armory. It worries people to think that local content in the future might be regulated by actual demand, not specified requirements.

I’m excited about the prospects for geo-targeted radio. I’m looking forward to commercial radio brands using star-power to knock the BBC into a corner, but combining that with essential local information and local content that the BBC can’t replicate on Radio 1 or Radio 2. (Nor should be allowed to – note to BBC Trust). The existing local radio brands (that are powerful and valuable in their local areas) could be supplemented by new national commercial brands, but all providing geo-targetted content and advertising.

There’s a growing understanding that delivering a national brand on geo-targeted platforms could be more profitable than delivering a national brand on a national platform. I’m expecting a renaissance for “local broadcasting”, one where local content continues to thrive but in a different way to now, and spread across geo-targeted DAB multiplexes populated by the famous local brands we know now, and new national commercial brands yet to be developed.