Monday, April 27, 2015

BBC executives warn about threats to radio

By Emmanuel Legrand

BBC Radio 1's Ben Cooper & George Ergatoudis
Los Angeles -- The transition to smartphones and the threat of streaming are two of the biggest challenges faced by traditional radio, according to two senior BBC Radio executives. 

Speaking at the Worldwide Radio Summit in Los Angeles on April 24, Ben Cooper, the Controller of BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, and the stations's Head of Music George Ergatoudis warned an audience consisting mostly of US radio professionals that radio faces the risk of irrelevance if it does not deal with these two issues.

"Radio is dead!" It is with this provocative statement that Cooper started his keynote presentation at the Worldwide Radio Summit 2015. What is dead, he added, is the old model of radio, where a DJ is a studio spoke in a microphone and then the signal was beamed across to radio sets via transmitters and eventually reaching an audience. Whoever thinks they can continue to do radio that way has little future, warned Cooper. 

The key to the future of radio is, according to Cooper, the smartphone, or rather how to engage with the owners of mobile devices. "We are in love with the smartphone, we are obscessed with our mobile phones" he said, adding that 80% of Brits aged 15+ had smartphones. "The time that you would normally spend with your radio station, you now spend it with your smartphone," said Cooper. 

"If you target a young audience, something scary is going to happen," he warned. In the UK, he said, streaming ranks among the 14th most used feature on a smartphone, while radio is at 33rd, "below banking," quipped Cooper. Another stat he suggested to take on board: 1 in 3 kids has a tablet, and only 1 in 7 have a radio set.

Radio 1 still reaches 10.5 million weekly listeners but the number of listening hours has dropped dramatically. "We lost three hours [per listener per week]," said  Cooper. "Where do they spend time? On YouTube. So the answer is to visualise a lot of our content." And in the process of doing so, Radio 1 "made a lot of mistakes" and put out "a lot of rubbish" but Cooper made no mystery that without a visual component, radio will have problems keeping pace with consumers' behaviour.

But not any content, he said. "I don't think our audience is interested in the image of jocks scratching their asses between two songs," he said. Content has to be meaningful, including a lot of live performances but also getting artists to provide unexpected performances. "People want to see interviews," said Cooper, "but do not want the old ordinary interview with the star. You have to let your creative people do things creatively. When you get famous people to do something different, that's great content. If you can make parodies and make audience laugh, it's a winner."

For Radio 1, the switch to TouTube has proven successful, becoming the first radio station in the world to have 1 million subscribers on YouTube, and now counting over 2 million, and over 1 billion views. "The audience is getting value from the brand in another way," said Cooper, who includes social media such as Facebook and Twitter, on which Radio 1 has 2 million followers.

"The reason social media works is that it gets the personality of the station in the tweets rather than carpet bombing audience with info about the programmes," explained Cooper, who added that the BBC "keeps experimenting with new media all the time."

Cooper said that going forward radio's future can be ensured by focusing on four things: presenters, with real personality; playlists, curated, "created by humans, not by algorithms; live music; and community. And in the end, radio needs to deliver "the right content at the right time to new audiences."

Meanwhile, Ergatoudis ironically called streaming services "the sharks taking our audience away," stressing that as the streaming market was already getting a very crowded place, the biggest threat to radio has not happened yet. For him, ""a huge disruptive monster is coming down the hill" in reference to Apple whose "pile of cash" and "ambitious ideas" could change the music and radio industries. "Apple has been totally revamping its iTunes store in preparation for the launch of its streamming service, and integrate it into the new iTunes eco-system."

Having felt the impact of Apple's ambitions -- Radio 1 lost host Zane Lowe to Apple -- Ergatoudis said that the Cuppertino firm is apparently building a service "with a huge amount of learning from traditional radio." For him, the combination of huge resources, coupled with a direct access to millions of smartphones around the world and a capacity to drive consumers makes Apple a serious contender that will set new challenges to the radio industry. "Whatever they announce will be hugely significant for the industry," he claimed.

Rob Sisco, President North America for radio service company SoundOut, was impressed by the presentation made by the two Radio 1 executives. He commented, "For me, that presentation was a homerun. Of course, no one has the same resources as the BBC, but what we should all be thinking about in the radio industry is how close we can get to that model."