Is your radio station smart enough for smart speakers?

Image: Mack Male

I’m a firm believer that smart speakers are the best thing that’s happened to radio in a very long time.

While so many advances in recent years have involved devices with screens – forcing radio listening to compete with more visual activities – smart speakers are perfect for radio.

But this new technology comes with a few challenges too. So, if you’re a radio station that wants to make the most of the smart speaker revolution, there are a few questions to bear in mind…

Do smart speakers know who you are?

If your listener can’t get their smart speaker to play your station in the first place, it’s game over before you’ve even started.

Smart speakers often struggle to play stations with names that have less-than-obvious pronunciation, sound too similar to other stations or are also the names of well-known bands or songs.

James Cridland has been having a well-documented nightmare getting his smart speaker to play his local community radio station 4ZZZ – pronounced ‘four-triple-zed’.

I’ve been having similar problems with Mi-Soul – and asking for ‘Magic’ (as opposed to ‘Magic Radio’) got me a Coldplay track.

Think of a smart speaker like a search engine – if your listener googled your name, would your station be the top result?

It’s also really important that your on-air brand matches the name you go by on TuneIn and your own smart speaker skill. Otherwise your own station imaging is working against you.

Hits Radio and Greatest Hits Radio are two straightforward new brands that may well have been created with this issue in mind.

How will you get your listeners to ask for you?

Many radios never get retuned, so your station may benefit from simply being the default one whenever that radio gets switched on. And preset buttons are an easy way for people to flick between stations they like.

Listening on a smart speaker is a much less passive affair. With no ‘on’ button or presets, someone has to specifically ask for your station.

This means that you need to keep your station on your listener’s mind.

Your brand, marketing and PR are becoming more and more important in getting people to ask for you instead of one of your competitors or Spotify. Speaking of which…

How will you compete with streaming services?

While Spotify’s been around for years and radio’s still doing just fine, smart speakers make the competition more direct than it’s ever been before.

For years now I’ve had a DAB radio in my kitchen, which is user-friendly and sounds nice. Because of that, I’ve always been far more likely to listen to the radio in the kitchen than fiddle with my phone or iPad in order to listen to Spotify through a tinny speaker.

But I’m about to replace that DAB radio with an Echo Dot – and, when that happens, it’ll be as easy to stream commercial-free music as it is to listen to a radio station.

The battle has already been partly lost in the bedroom, where nocturnal listening on my bedside radio has been replaced by an Alexa routine that bids me goodnight, plays me relaxing music and switches itself off after I’m asleep.

But, while beige jukebox-style stations could really struggle with this newly-levelled playing field, radio can do plenty things that streaming services can’t. The music stations that invest in really great content and personalities in between the songs are the ones that’ll stay competitive.

My bedroom Echo still wakes me up with my favourite breakfast show, and I can’t see that ever changing.

How skillful is your skill?

DAB radios have scrolling text that often tells you what song you’re listening to. Music streaming services on smart speakers will tell you if you ask them.

If your smart speaker skill can’t do this – or makes it too difficult – then you risk giving your listener a worse experience than they can get elsewhere.

If your brand is a network of local stations, how easy is it for someone to get their local version?

Do they have to ask for it specifically or choose from a list? Or does your skill use the device’s location to automatically give them their local station?

Invest in your smart speaker skill like you’d invest in upskilling your team. In both cases, the possibilities are exciting and limitless.

Advertisements

Should radio do Christmas by halves?

Why I wish it could be Christmas every other song

Christmas is magical – and this year Magic is, er, Christmasal.

Since November 30th, Magic Radio has been playing nothing but Christmas songs. It’s the first major UK radio station to try this (Free Radio 80s is the only other FM or AM station I know of that’s ever done it, back in 2014).

Good luck to them, I say. It’s a bold move which plenty of people will be happy with – and an opportunity to introduce those who aren’t to some of Magic’s other stations.

But the the inevitable ‘bah humbugs’ about the flip got me thinking about my ideal kind of Christmas radio format – one that you don’t hear very often.

That format is Christmas music every other song.

It makes perfect sense to me. A constant supply of music to get you feeling festive. But plenty of room for regular tracks too and less chance of hearing the same festive favourites over and over again.

As it’s a specific proposition – as opposed to a general ramping up of Christmas music – it comes with the same kind of sponsorship opportunities as a flip to 100% Christmas.

Although a small handful of US stations have tried this format, they’re few and far between.

Star 99.9 in Connecticut is using the format at weekends this year, but that’s the only current example I can find.

International broadcasting consultant Valerie Geller tells me that the popularity of stations that play wall-to-wall Christmas music means there’s not much interest in doing things by halves.

“The all-Christmas music seasonal format has been a success,” she says. “Many others mix in seasonal music into the programming, but not specifically every other song.”

But online music service Accuradio sees some potential in this format. Over the past few years, they’ve introduced 11 ‘holiday blend’ channels covering genres from pop hits to country and classical.

My personal appetite for Christmas music is pretty ravenous at this time of year, so I’m enjoying the festive Magic – and, judging by some of the feedback I’ve heard, plenty of others are too.

But I still think the 50/50 format could be a largely unexplored sweet spot.

For those who want Christmas music, never being more than one song away from it is likely to suffice.

And never being more than one song away from something else might be enough to keep the rest happy.

Regardless of whether or not it’s on your radio, I hope there’s plenty of magic in your Christmas. See you in 2019.

Reasons to be cheerful

Why radio news can afford to look on the bright side

Happy ball

Image: Mike Hoff

It’s 7.03 in the morning. I’ve been awake for three minutes, and the events of those three minutes have already got my day off to a bad start.

I spent those 180 seconds listening to the news bulletin my favourite radio station wakes me up with every morning. Very often, that news bulletin paints a fairly gloomy picture of the world and the people who live in it.

But that’s just how news works, isn’t it?

Well, maybe it doesn’t have to.

I’ve recently heard (thanks to John Myers via James Cridland) about a radio station in Cape Town called Smile 90.4FM – a station that focuses on the good news.

Smile isn’t a niche or novelty radio station. It plays Cape Town’s best mix of the 80s, 90s and now. In between the songs, the presenters talk about the same kind of things that presenters on lots of radio stations talk about.

But, when it comes to their news bulletins, they always start with something positive. So, when I tuned in to sample it myself, the top story was about people being thanked for their outpouring of support following wildfires.

They don’t ignore major stories about bad things happening, but they try to put them in the kind of perspective that leaves you feeling that the world might not be as terrible place as others would have you think.

I really think Smile could be onto something here.

Let’s start by thinking about why most news is the way it is – with the negative typically trumping the positive.

The whole ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach to news is centuries-old and inseparable from the concept of news as a consumer product.

As far back as 1556, newspapers were something you had to pay for. I’m no psychologist – but I’m going to hazard a guess that people have always been more likely to pay to read something shocking than just to be told that all’s well in the world.

So, as more and more newspapers came onto the scene, they increasingly had to shock to sell, and they still do. Similar commercial forces apply to a lot of online news, 24-hour TV news channels and news/talk radio stations – they need to hook in the readers, viewers and listeners in order to sell advertising.

But music radio can afford to be different.

I very much doubt that many people choose a music radio station on the strength of what’s in its news bulletins. Sure, lots of people want their radio station of choice to have news – but it’s part of a much bigger package where the rest of the output is the big draw.

No-one’s going to switch from Magic to Radio 2 because Magic’s news bulletins didn’t make them cry into their cornflakes enough.

So, if a station sells itself on its feel-good music and fun presenters, why should it adhere to an ancient convention of prioritising bad news over good?

As Smile have realised, there’s no reason at all.

It’s not like any of this is revolutionary. If it’s big enough, good news can triumph – recent events like the royal wedding and England’s World Cup success prove that.

It’s just a case of turning the exceptions into the rule. Of not going in search of a negative angle. Of not assuming that passive consumers of news need to be sold it in the same way as someone buying a paper.

A more positive approach to news could become a huge selling point for music radio – and great news for broadcasters and listeners alike.

Why Zoe Ball is more than a woman

So, Zoe Ball is the new Radio 2 breakfast show presenter. And, yes, she’s a woman.

But here’s a question for anyone tempted to put Zoe Ball’s appointment down to box-ticking by a station with too many men on it… Which men could have actually done the job?

As far as I can tell, there weren’t any obvious male candidates. Zoe Ball got the gig because she was the strongest candidate from a field dominated by great female broadcasters.

You might think that’s ridiculous given the number of talented male radio broadcasters out there. But, when you consider how Radio 2 works – and how that affects the way they approached the task of replacing Chris Evans – it all makes sense.

The station has a massive, loyal audience that isn’t a big fan of change. The listening figures prove the first part of that statement, and reaction to Chris Evans starting breakfast and the recent changes at drivetime proves the rest.

So Radio 2 handles changes to its daytime line-up very, very carefully. Chris Evans moved to breakfast after four years on drivetime. Jo Whiley’s move to co-host drive – the first change to the daytime schedule in eight years – came after seven years on the evening show.

And those changes still annoyed a fair few listeners.

This means that, realistically, Radio 2 was only ever going to promote someone to the flagship breakfast slot from within – someone listeners are used to hearing on the station. So that rules out all the men working anywhere else.

With them out of the picture, who did that leave?

Looking at the rest of the daytime line-up, Ken Bruce, Steve Wright and Simon Mayo – at 67, 64 and 60 respectively – aren’t the right people to launch a breakfast show to bring in the next generation of Radio 2 listeners. And Jeremy Vine would probably be the first to admit that he wouldn’t be a great fit at breakfast.

When you look at the rest of the schedule, the options get even more far-fetched. It’s hard to see the likes of Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady, Dermot O’Leary or Trevor Nelson wanting or being right for the breakfast show.

So who from the Radio 2 schedule might have realistically been in the running if they were open to it?

Sara Cox – weekday late-night presenter and popular stand-in for Chris Evans. Maybe Claudia Winkleman – weekend presenter with a massive TV profile. Maybe Jo Whiley – a familiar voice to listeners across a range of age groups.

And Zoe Ball – Saturday afternoon presenter with years of experience in radio, and TV shows on two channels to boot.

These all have the right kind of personality and energy levels for weekday breakfast. They all have the potential to bring in younger listeners. They’re all experienced radio broadcasters – and, for some, this is backed up with a TV profile that adds to their star quality and gives them a fan base beyond Radio 2 that they might bring with them.

Quite simply, Zoe Ball was a great candidate from what I strongly suspect was an all-female field that emerged completely naturally. I honestly can’t think of any man who’d have grounds to think he lost out.

And that wouldn’t have been the case if it wasn’t for Radio 2’s investment in female talent over the past few years. It probably doesn’t stop here, either, because those women who didn’t get the job are in pole position for other daytime slots that might become available in the future.

So the station might not have had the best gender balance in its daytime line-up until now – but they’ve certainly made up for it in their succession planning.

Chris Evans and the ultimate test of the radio star

On Monday morning, Chris Evans announced that he was giving up his Radio 2 show – the number one breakfast show in the country – and moving to the same slot on digital-only Virgin Radio.

The astonishing nature of this apparently voluntary move is hard to put into words. It’s possibly best exemplified by listing a handful of the stations that have a bigger audience than Virgin:

  • Heart Four Counties
  • LBC London News (the AM/digital-only rolling news station)
  • Mellow Magic

This is a massive coup for Virgin. And, for Chris, it’s a new challenge after what’ll be nearly nine years in the mornings at Radio 2.

Throughout those nine years, he’s had more listeners than anyone else since day one. While staying on top is still a big achievement, I can see why maintaining a status quo might lack the excitement that a high-energy petrolhead like Chris probably craves.

And what a challenge he’s taking on. In fact, it has the potential to be make or break for the whole idea of the radio star.

Chris Evans currently has 9 million listeners to his Radio 2 show and Virgin has an overall audience of 413,000. If Chris can bring even a small fraction of his Radio 2 audience over to Virgin, it’ll be a complete game-changer for the latter.

But radio listeners can be creatures of habit – especially Radio 2 listeners. Many radios never get re-tuned. Despite speculation that Chris Evans would shed listeners after taking over from the much-loved Terry Wogan, he actually grew the audience.

There’s also the possibility that not everyone who wants to listen will be able to. Realistically, you’ll need to have a DAB radio and live in part of the country covered by the Sound Digital multiplex. Not the biggest barrier to entry, but still a hurdle for some.

Whether or not Chris will be able to bring a decent number of his analogue and digital listeners over to a digital station is hard to say, as there’s not really a reliable precedent – at least not in this country.

Internationally, the closest comparison is probably Howard Stern’s move from syndicated terrestrial radio to satellite radio in the US. While there have never been any listening figures produced for the latter, the fact that the relationship has endured for well over a decade – with subscriber numbers increasing – suggests that it’s been a success.

If  Chris Evans doesn’t make a significant impact on Virgin’s figures then it’ll call into question whether listeners care as much about the concept of the radio star as the media do. But, if he can pull this off, we’ll know for sure that it’s not just a concept but an enduringly-valuable commodity.

5 takeaways from Ofcom’s deregulation consultation

20180814_143106

Ofcom’s consultation on some pretty significant changes to the rules for local commercial radio is done and dusted.

In case you need a reminder of what exactly they’ve been consulting on, they’re proposing to:

  • reduce the number of hours that have to be locally-produced on weekdays to 3, any time between 6am and 7pm, for stations that provide local news all day (or 6 hours for those that don’t) – and drop the need for local programmes at weekends altogether;
  • significantly enlarge the ‘approved areas’ where stations can share premises and programmes, bringing them roughly in line with the ITV regions.

So how has all this gone down? Here are some key points from the consultation responses that have just been published…

1) Mostly a thumbs-up from inside the industry – but concerns from outside

Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, the vast majority of responses from within the radio industry welcome the proposals. Global’s views on the proposed changes to local programming hours are typical of the major players:

We support Ofcom’s proposals and believe that stations will retain their ‘localness’ irrespective of the number of hours of locally made programmes. The notion of a mandatory seven hours is outdated and doesn’t take into account the impact of technology or the variety of operating models across the industry.

It’s not just the big groups supporting the proposals. Lincs FM are in favour even though they don’t stand to benefit from them.

But there are concerns from a couple of other small broadcasters, and Radio Exe‘s response is an interesting read. They want Ofcom to restrict the kind of advertising that stations can sell depending on how local they are:

Let us say that a group in the west of England region decides it wishes to provide three hours of local programmes and daytime bulletins only for that wide area – which we estimate is roughly fifty thousand square miles of ‘localness.’ In this eventuality its advertising inventory should be for that area too. If a group is going to split its three hours of local programmes further – into say, Devon, local advertising may be sold across the six FM local transmitters in the county (which in this example make up the Heart network in Devon). If it chooses to provide programmes and news for Exeter, then it may sell advertising just for this city.

Outside the industry, Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is one of a handful of MPs who voiced concerns about the impact on local broadcasting, along with the Scottish Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

There are around 20 published responses from what appear to be listeners, who generally object to the proposals.

2) All the big groups are keen to push the boundaries

Unsurprisingly, station groups like the idea of being able to share programmes across new, larger approved areas – but they’re keen for Ofcom to go even further.

All the major groups are asking for flexibility when it comes to stations near the boundaries of these approved areas, so they can join up with stations in a neighbouring region if they want to. Wireless uses Peak FM as an example:

We propose that Ofcom introduces a concept of overlapping approved areas, allowing stations located at the borders of adjacent areas to decide which ‘region’ would best fit them for the purposes of a co-location or programme sharing request. An example of a station whom this policy would benefit is Peak FM, which shares geographic and cultural affinities with both South Yorkshire and the East Midlands – a reality which is not acknowledged in Ofcom’s proposed approach.

Some are asking for specific parts of the country to be moved into different approved areas altogether.

A while ago I mentioned the Dee Radio Group, whose two stations in Chester and Macclesfield would sit in different approved areas despite both being in Cheshire. So it’s no surprise that they’re asking for the whole of the county to be placed in the same region.

Bauer, by the way, seem intriguingly interested in areas where they don’t actually have any FM stations. They’ve proposed that the Home Counties should become part of the East region, Gloucestershire should be part of the West region, and Solent (where they do have Wave 105) should be part of the South region (where they don’t have anything else).

Nation Broadcasting and New Wave Media (which owns Original 106 and Central FM in Scotland) are pushing for Scotland to be treated as a single approved area – rather than being split into north and south. It’ll be very interesting to see what Ofcom makes of this – while geographically it’s a big ask, Wales and Northern Ireland are treated as single areas under the proposals and there’s a case for consistency across the devolved nations.

3) Wireless plan to stay local – but they’re keeping their options open

The savings to be made by reducing local programming are significant, and I’d wondered whether the sale of Wireless to News UK might make those economies irresistible to a group that’s always valued local programming.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, as their consultation response suggests that deregulation won’t change much for them – although they’re not objecting to Ofcom’s plans either:

Though we have not pushed for this move towards liberalising local FM programming rules we consider affording stations more flexible delivery of local programming commitments is appropriate for a post-internet market. In the case of Wireless’ local stations, in all likelihood we will continue to maintain current levels of locally made programming and news output, which already exceed Ofcom’s minimum requirements.

4) People with AM stations feel hard done by

A couple of the responses from groups with stations on AM have an issue with the fact that the proposed changes only benefit FM stations. Here’s what Bauer said:

We note that Ofcom is not proposing to change the rules for AM stations, which are currently required to produce at least ten hours a day on weekdays from within their respective nation. This leads to the anomalous situation whereby FM stations could be networked across the UK for all but three hours a day, while AM stations would have to maintain separate programming for each nation throughout most of week.

This is a valid point in terms of programmes – but it’s worth noting that FM stations will still have to provide a service that’s locally-relevant in each individual licence area (through news and travel, for example). There’s no such requirement on AM.

5) Where’s UKRD?

As the group that uses ‘proper local radio’ as its strapline, I was very interested to hear their views on the proposals.

No such luck, sadly. Ofcom hasn’t published a response from them – and neither did the government when they first consulted on deregulation last year. So they either didn’t contribute to the consultations or asked for their responses to be kept confidential.

Radio deregulation: the show’s on the road

Things just got real.

Six months after the government confirmed its plans to press ahead with the deregulation of UK commercial radio, Ofcom has announced the first concrete proposals, focusing on localness. These are:

  • Reducing the number of hours that have to be locally-produced on weekdays to 3, any time between 6am and 7pm, for stations that provide local news all day (or 6 hours for those that don’t) – and dropping the need for local programmes at weekends altogether.
  • Significantly enlarging the ‘approved areas’ where stations can share premises and programmes, bringing them roughly in line with the ITV regions.

Ofcom’s consultation runs until August – and the clear mandate from the government means it’s highly likely these plans will go through. If so, we could see some big changes to local commercial radio by the end of the year.

For me, there are two main questions.

1) Will this really mean the end of local programmes at peak times?

The proposed changes to the number of local hours – and when they can be – are no big surprise. After all, the government’s consultation response from the end of last year talked about letting station networks develop national breakfast shows.

Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, though.

As the very knowledgeable Matt Deegan has pointed out, local – or regional – breakfast shows can be a good source of local sponsorship and promotions.

He highlights the fact that Capital North East already has the option to network all its output from London. The rules are that, if you hold a regional (as opposed to a local) licence and have national DAB coverage, you don’t need to do anything local.

Kiss and Radio X are two stations that have taken advantage of this, but Capital hasn’t.

Global could also very easily have given Heart the national DAB slot where Heart Extra currently lives, which would have enabled them to drop all regional programming in the North East, North West and West Midlands.

But, again, they haven’t gone down that road – and they actually chose to reinstate regional programmes when they bought Smooth, which was on national DAB at the time.

And then there are The Wireless Group’s local stations, which currently broadcast 13 hours of local output on weekdays – far more than the 7 that are currently required.

So, given that not everyone is exploiting even the existing possibilities to the full, I wouldn’t necessarily expect every station network to bump all local programming down to the afternoon slot as soon as they get the nod.

2) How will everyone feel about the new ‘approved areas’?

The much bigger ‘approved areas’ were something I didn’t see coming, and this is probably the more significant of the two proposals. Ultimately, it’s this one that removes both the need for local programmes to come from a station’s licensed area (or very close to it) and the need for any staff or premises in that area.

For station groups that want to take full advantage of this, the impact on jobs outside the major cities could be significant. So I won’t be surprised if this proposal generates a bit of criticism on that basis – just like we saw when the Main Studio Rule was abolished in the US.

If my back-of-a-fag-packet calculations are correct, Global would potentially be able to merge 24 sites across the UK into 10 and Bauer could go from 21 down to 9 if they wanted to.

However, it’ll be interesting to see how the smaller groups react, as geographical reasons mean that some stand to gain less than the biggest operators. For example, The Wireless Group would be able to merge 8 local studios into 5 – a potential reduction of 38% compared with Bauer’s 57%.

And Dee Radio’s two stations – Dee 106.3 and Silk 106.9 – both serve Cheshire, but the two stations will sit in two different approved areas. If they wanted to change the status quo, they’d need to make a special case.

So, while this proposal will definitely be music to the ears of some of the industry, it might not hit quite the right note elsewhere.

Hits Radio: the first week

Hits Radio logo

Never review a new radio show – let alone a whole new station – on day one.

Really, there’s no point. Everyone’s nervous and things often go wrong that’ll quickly get ironed out. It’s not a true reflection of how it’s actually going to sound.

I think listeners get this. After all, who can honestly say that their finest hour in any job came on their first day?

So I’ve been listening to the new Hits Radio all week before drawing any conclusions, and here are my thoughts.

Given the station’s name, it makes sense to start with the music.

As someone (almost) in the middle of the 25-44 target audience, the fresh, upbeat and mostly-current playlist really works for me. I wouldn’t mind a few more of the slightly older tracks, but I think the music policy is generally pretty good.

Some songs are on quite heavy rotation – Portugal. The Man is starting to wear a bit thin – but, to be fair, I’ve probably heard a lot more output over the past few days than I’m likely to in any normal week.

After a cautious start on Monday, the breakfast team has really been starting to gel over the course of the week and I think they’re going to be fantastic together.

It’s a cruel fact that a new and much-scrutinised flagship breakfast show with multiple presenters can often sound less slick than single-headed shows elsewhere on the schedule. This shouldn’t be remotely surprising, though – obviously it takes a bit of time for a group of people who haven’t worked together before to hit their stride.

Even in these early days I’ve really been liking what I’ve heard at breakfast. It’s especially good to have Dave Vitty back on the radio. He’s a very talented comedy writer and I’m hoping we’ll hear more and more of his work as the show develops.

As you’d expect, experienced jocks like Mike Toolan, Debbie Mac, Wes Butters and Sarah-Jane Crawford are sounding strong. It’s great that there’s plenty of content and personality outside breakfast – this, combined with the music, makes the station a lively and entertaining listen.

One thing that I’ve particularly been enjoying is So Wright’s late-night ‘Hits Chilled’ show. I like that this show plays lots of acoustic versions and chilled remixes – not just the slower end of the regular playlist. The music is spot-on for that time of night.

It’s worth mentioning that there’s also a good gender balance across the presenter line-up, which you don’t see everywhere.

As a London listener who knows the station’s backstory, I have to say that, after a week, it still feels a tiny bit like I’m listening to a local Manchester station with national news and travel.

That’s mostly due to the fact that so many of the accents on air – most of the presenters and all the callers I’ve heard – are northern. There’s no reason why that should be a problem if the content’s right, and it’s probably just a reflection of how London-based other national stations are.

It’s just going to take a bit of getting used to, that’s all. But, as this brand new station attracts more listeners outside its heritage heartland, the callers should become more geographically diverse.

One thing that’s a bit weird is the fact that they don’t tell you what time it is on the news. Maybe this is a trick to keep us listening for longer – like those Vegas casinos that don’t have any clocks so you lose track of how long you’ve been gambling.

And one final observation that doesn’t actually have a great deal to do with the station itself… What’s with the glut of Taylor Swift tickets?

The station is practically throwing them at listeners. Every caller to make it on air this week has been given a pair – and lots of them don’t even sound that excited about it. One guy easily blagged a third so he could take his whole family.

I thought this would be a sell-out tour with tickets rationed out as competition prizes like Capital do with the Summertime Ball.

Then again, when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not in the pop world, maybe my knowledge isn’t what it once was.

I obviously need Hits Radio more than I realised. After a decent first week, I’ll definitely be back for more.

Why Hits Radio makes sense

Hits Radio logo

Bauer Media don’t do things by halves.

On Monday, not only are they launching Dave Berry’s brand new breakfast show on Absolute Radio – but they’re also launching a whole new national radio station.

Hits Radio will be replacing Key 103 in Manchester and going national on local DAB multiplexes across the country.

No offence to Dave Berry, but it’s the launch of Hits Radio that I’m most excited about, because I think it’s a great idea on all kinds of levels. Here’s why…

It’s good for listeners

A brand new mainstream national music station is good for anyone who likes mainstream music.

It means more choice for listeners in the many parts of the country that don’t currently have a Bauer City 1 station. More choice means more competition. More competition keeps everyone on their toes, which helps to keep standards high.

The strong breakfast line-up of Gethin Jones, Gemma Atkinson and Dave Vitty sounds like it could be a particularly great addition to what’s currently out there.

It’s good for Manchester

Manchester has really been growing as a national media hub in recent years. It’s already home to the likes of BBC Breakfast, Five Live and 6 Music, plus Chris Country and loads of production companies.

A mainstream national music station based in the city is another big step forward.

Listeners in Manchester will still get all the local information they’re used to getting on Key 103. I’d imagine this will be top-notch, as Hits Radio will want to show the local audience that they still matter.

It’s a smart business move

Bauer doesn’t currently have a big national radio brand targeting the 25-44 audience. Kiss is a bit younger, Magic is a bit older. While officially the two target audiences meet in the mid-30s, you can see from Compare My Radio that there’s very little musical crossover.

So, when Bauer already have a regional network of stations targeting that lucrative middle ground, it makes a lot of sense to maximise its reach and the opportunities for a slice of the national advertising market that come with it.

They already have the studios, staff and output needed to run the current City 1 network. They also already have the DAB slots to carry Hits Radio in many major cities, including London and Birmingham.

So they’re essentially getting a commercially-appealing national station for the price of a rebrand and some extra local DAB slots. I like that.

It solves Bauer’s Key 103 problem

Key 103 has gradually been losing listeners and market share, so the rebrand to Hits Radio gives it a fresh start.

The publicity around the rebrand has positioned it as more than just a new lick of paint – it’s being sold as a brand new station made in Manchester and flying the flag for the city nationwide.

That might just work.

What we’ve learned about Hits Radio this week

Hits Radio logo

Mystic Meg had better watch out.

At the end of last year, I said I thought Bauer would approach radio deregulation by gradually converting its City 1 network to a new national brand – probably using the ‘Hits’ name they’d recently started reinvesting in.

Well, sure enough, Bauer announced this week that they’re rebranding Key 103 in Manchester to ‘Hits Radio’ on 4 June – and taking it national with Gethin Jones, Gemma Atkinson and ‘Comedy’ Dave Vitty on breakfast.

If only I was that accurate with the lottery numbers.

On the day of the announcement, the RadioToday Programme inteviewed Graham Bryce, Group Managing Director of Bauer’s new Hits Radio Network – which is what the City 1 network will become.

Here are a few interesting things we learned about the new Hits Radio from that interview that weren’t in the press release…

1. At least 80% of the population will be able to get it on DAB

There was initially a bit of confusion over this and it was thought the station would just replace The Hits on various local DAB multiplexes.

Graham Bryce said that, while the distribution strategy is still to be announced, coverage will be at least ‘D2-level 80% of the population.’

He also mentioned the importance of the station being available in London so it’s familiar to the all the people based in the capital who buy national advertising.

2. It will sound ‘quite different’ from other City 1 stations

This one’s really interesting, as the other stations in the network will be taking networked shows from Hits Radio – so you’ve got to wonder how that’s going to work.

You can achieve a lot with station imaging, though. And, of course, so much of a station’s brand is defined at breakfast.

3. There are no immediate plans to rebrand the other City 1 stations

There was a notable lack of ambiguity here. Graham Bryce went as far as saying that ‘it would be crazy’ to replace the heritage brands across the rest of the City 1 network if listeners still want them.

He suggested that, when media buyers in London can hear Hits Radio, selling national advertising on the rest of the network won’t be a problem – even if those stations have different names.

The one caveat he did add, though, was that he couldn’t say whether those local heritage brands would still be around ‘in ten or twenty years.’ I’d personally be surprised if they’re still here in five, but let’s wait and see.

4. Key 2 will become Key Radio

The Key name will survive for now on the AM/DAB ‘greatest hits’ station.

This could create some interesting tuning issues on digital radio for any Key 103 listeners who haven’t clocked that their station has rebranded. I’m guessing a massive awareness push over the next couple of months should mostly prevent that – although old brands do tend to die hard in people’s memories.