'Key to successful radio programming is to know what territory you can own & defend against predators' : Steve Martin - BBC World Service on-air editor

BBC World Service on-air editor Steve Martin has been responsible for the present on-air image that BBC's English Radio Network holds, be it the sound identity of the network or its on-air promotions. Radio, to Martin, is something that establishes a certain personal connection through what it offers.

According to Martin, content should be strong enough to trigger emotional reactions among consumers. He emphasizes that the players should better know their audience, the better knowledge they have, more acceptable forms of presentation will be created.

Martin has his own theory on the sales & promotion aspect, which goes beyond the commercial break. He says the content should be creating and raising awareness of the product or the service.

On his way to London, BBC World Service on-air editor Martin spent two days in Mumbai, attending a seminar organized by FM channel Radio City.'s Manisha Bhattacharjee caught up with Martin during his brief stay in the city, to get a perspective on the evolving business.


Could you provide a brief of overview of the current radio status in UK?

Today, it is an extremely mature and diverse radio market. BBC now operates 10 national networks some of which are only available on the digital platform, the rest of them on FM and AM in the traditional way. And we also operate a network of 38 local radio stations which is centered in all different cities and towns in England. We run two radio stations in Wales, two in Scotland, and two in Northern Ireland. So in any one place in Great Britain you are guaranteed to get at least five to six BBC radio stations. Plus you will get a similar number of commercial services in some places and in some places there are more. It's a very developed market now.

Now that is really diverse. Was there any kind of regulatory push, which also enhanced the market?

In Britain, it is permissible for a radio group to own several radio stations in one market. This isn't the case in India.

When this happens you don't find much similarities between two radio stations, because if you are going to own two radio stations in the same market, the last thing you want to be doing is exactly the same thing and cannibalizing the same audience. So you ensure that the two radio stations are broadly complementary. That makes good business sense and you ensure that on each radio station in a particular territory, which is not only hugely successful but it is also defensible against any other outside broadcaster. The key to successful radio programming is to know what territory you can own and defend against predators.

That works for the public service as well. In BBC we are publicly funded and do not have a commercial imperative. We are all there to maximize revenues. However, because we are publicly funded, we have a duty to serve absolutely everybody of the UK population. So we have an obligation to ensure that our services are broadly complementary.

For example: We run a national new music service, which specializes in breaking new music. It is a patronage in the arts in terms of supporting new talents in new music and it plays hits also of the popular culture.

Please comment on BBC service radio networks' programming strategy. How different is it from that of commercial radio stations?

BBC service radio networks are distinctive from the commercial radio stations. It would be wrong to say that we solely do things that the market can't support. Because we have an obligation to provide something to everybody, the services have to be popular. But these are absolutely distinctive.

We would take creative risks with our programming such as of BBC Radio 2 - we will do a speech based consumer phone-in and discussion stations are doing that. On Radio 1 we will break great new music and we will take risks with that. We invest in social action programming, investigating issues that young people are facing in Britain today. And on BBC Radio 3 we support orchestras. So our patronage of the hour is not just something having on the plaque on the wall, it is actually real money going into supporting musicians creating music and support the cultural life of Britain today. So that some of the stuff that we do in music, commercial service radio stations don't indulge in.

In speech radio, we are the single biggest broadcast news gathering operation anywhere in the world. And in UK specifically, we run an intelligent speech radio station which is not just news and current affairs but includes drama, documentary and cultural programmes.

Please comment on the competition between BBC and the commercial radio stations. How does it affect the market?

Commercial radio is first and foremost a business and these radio stations will try to know the most profitable territories in programming terms. I think it is fair to say that because of the pressure of BBC, which is innovating in programming, the commercial radio stations have raised their game and are not going in for cutting the investment in programming and creating the cheapest programming possible.

Because of the competition from BBC, we have got a healthy creative section within the commercial radio stations in the UK. Commercial radio stations invest heavily in research and keep us on our toes.

Also, the regulatory framework ensures through the system of licensing that the stations are held to a particular format and have to comply with the terms of format licensing issues by the regulator. This ensures that there is a spread of different formats in any one market. But the commercial stations would want that in any case because they wouldn't want two stations duplicating the same output.

In the present scenario, how different is the US radio market from that of the UK radio market?

They have a public radio network but that is quite different from what BBC is doing and it appeals to a particular niche audience. In recent years, the arrival of satellite radio through XM Satellite and Sirius Satellite Radio, which has made a huge number of formats available from coast to coast, which is great if you are driving. It allows one to listen to the same station through the journey.

'Last year, 25 % of UK radio revenues came from S&P activity'

The evolution of the radio industry, in particular it's rapidly growing digital uptake, does that signify a threat posed by digital radio to terrestrial radio?

More radio is good for the industry; it is good for the consumers, because, it gives more choice. You are more likely to hear what you want when you want it. That's a positive force. BBC has been a pioneer in digital radio in UK, we have strongly welcomed it. It has enabled us to provide new services and are able to reach sections of the community which were otherwise being undeserved.

It does mean that more communication radio stations will compete against us but that said that adds to the totality of choice available to UK radio listeners and that's got to be healthy.

I think where the challenge comes for the commercial stations is to manage the investment. You've got to invest in the new technology of rolling out the transmitter networks providing new radio services before getting enough listeners to turn a profit from those. So there is the issue of funding. That's where the challenges lie from the business point of view.

BBC has been leading the roll-out of digital radio infrastructure. So we have been an enabler for the commercial. Because every time you buy a digital radio set, not only do you have new BBC radio station but you have access to the new commercial stations as well.

Radio is probably looking at greater fragmentation of its audience (like any other media). Is this an encouraging sign for the marketers or advertisers?

If I was an advertiser and I knew there was a radio stations that supports on a functional and emotional level, with a clear voice to my target listeners. I know I will be able to buy just that station and eliminate waste on my ad spend. It is going to be good for advertisers as there is more choice on where to put spends.

It may mean that in order to reach the audience you need more than one radio station but you can be selective in the stations you buy and eliminate waste.

If you have only one station in the market, or all the stations sound the same, then you are guaranteeing to be wasting some of your advertisers' spend. Because you will be talking to people who are not within your target audience or your advertising campaign. So, the more the fragmentation the easier it is to target the specific audience segment you are interested in.

More relevant, from an advertisers' point of view, is maximizing reach - the number of different people who listen in a week. But consumers generally hate advertisements as it is an interruption?

Well, listeners don't hate radio advertising. They primarily hate bad radio advertising. Secondly, the scene is changing, first there were advertising spots, and then came sponsorship. But now there's S&P (sales and promotion) and its growing fast. Last year, 25 per cent of UK radio revenues came from S&P activity. It takes the client beyond the commercial break by creating and raising awareness of the product or the service.

It can exploit the closeness and personal nature of radio for brands. It can also give brand endorsement from popular and trusted RJs and can create great radio entertainment for listeners. It can bring in new listeners for the radio station.

Today, the Indian radio market is perceived as an industry which is booming. What's your perception?

At the moment of course, we have a situation where a lot of radio stations are broadcasting music, of course with a very similar play list. It is yet to be seen, if anybody has the guts or intelligent research in order to tone down or target their music specifically. That's an inevitability. Whoever does that will be hugely successful in the market.

Knowing that the radio FM market is at its nascent stage; doesn't that give even more opportunities for the players to take risks as they are still craving a place for themselves?

You have to be extremely brave indeed to say good-bye to a certain section of one audience. The industry is booming at the moment people are running successful businesses with this model. I believe the only question is as the radio market matures, how long the situation can continue before the audience will expect a degree of choice? But I think at the same time it would be wrong to suggest that there isn't some choice there already.

Though music is largely played, the individual stations have invested in individual personalities who will become listeners' friends over time and they will be characterizing differently, between station A and station B. So it just doesn't have to be just about music. It could be emotional qualities, personalities, attitude of the presenters or RJ's on the air. There are a number of ways you can introduce to a radio station format something that is particular to your radio stations that is owned by you and over time you become famous for and that is about segmentation and building brands.

Are players reluctant to experiment primarily due to lack of news and current affairs?

In any market you have to accept the regulatory framework which is in place. And in India, that's the regulation.

In markets where it is allowed to broadcast different types of news on radio channels, it is a popular form of radio programming. And you will also find the people will have different news needs as the day continues.

At breakfast time for example, people tend to want information, the kind of information they need to get into the day and through the day. Then, later in the day, people may want to think a little more about the issues and not just get information but come to their own conclusion about what it means for them. So, we talk about this journey through the day from information in the morning to an understanding in the evening and people have a need for or devote a lot of time to knowing in the morning and thinking in the evening.

In the markets where we are producing speech programming through the day we produce a range of news programmes. We run a programme called World Today which is a fast moving double headed presentation programme by two presenters. Very high story counts and have live reports from correspondents from across the globe. It is fairly light in tone. Later in the day, News Hour is a longer broadcast with one or two big stories from the day so far with a range of perspectives from the other BBC correspondents and other figures who are involved in the news story.

We produce news programmes in such a way that they are available to listeners at a time when they better satisfy their news needs.

What is the strategy to have a successful station format and positioning of the radio channel?

A key thing about radio is that it is an emotional medium. Radio is company, a complement for life, and so the key thing to be successful in radio, firstly you research in an audience. Know exactly whom you are talking too. What makes them tick. What their interests are. What kind of tone of voice you need to adapt and from there devising a radio format and delivering consistently. So that your audience knows exactly where to find the things that you are offering and you are rendering the whole thing up in a consistent tone of voice which becomes part of your brand identity.

People around the world say what they love most about their favourite radio stations are personalities, the music, and the local information that helps get them through the day.

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