Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Capital Radio celebrates 40 years

The legendary Music Power logo.  Credit: This is ILR.
Happy Birthday to the UK's second commercial radio station.  Capital Radio started broadcasting to London as the general entertainment station for the capital on October 16th 1973, opened by Sir Richard Attenborough, who was one of the directors of the station.

The station was quite frankly the only outlet for new pop music in London as Radio 1 was until 1987 stuck on medium wave.

Capital in the early days mixed speech, such as drama with specialist music shows and the latest chart music with now legendary presenters such as Kenny Everett, Dave Cash, Roger Scott, Peter Young, Graham Dene and Michael Aspel.

The station became more music intensive in the 80s with the 'Music Power' branding which gave fresh new presenters an outlet on the premier ILR of the time.   Mick Brown, Pat Sharp, Jon Sachs, Richard Allinson, Neil Fox, David Jensen (formerly of Radio 1 and Luxembourg) provided a tighter formatted chart intensive sound.

Chris Tarrant joined after years of presenting children's tv from Birmingham on ATV and Central. He initially joined in 1984 and moved to breakfast in 1987 joined by Kara Noble as his sidekick, alongside flying eye travel presenter Russ Kane and newsreader Howard Hughes. 

His breakfast show added listeners and was the most listened to commercial radio morning show in the London market.  CT as he was also called on the station left in 2004 for Johnny Vaughan in an attempt to bring younger listeners to the station.

Capital were also visible at events across London, from discos in the 70s, to the big budget roadshows at Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace in the 80s and early 90s, to the more recent Balls at the O2 in Greenwich.

What made Capital special was the sense of comradeship from the presenting team, the heavy London centricity and the interactivity with the listeners in the pre-social media era.

Capital's charity Help a London Child raised millions of pounds for children's organisations through their Easter weekend radiothons.  This was an opportunity for presenters who'd never work together before to co-present.   The format was simple, listeners would pledge money to hear tracks on the playlist and get a dedication, alongside a premium product auction.  The charity still continues to this day with the auction format on LBC 97.3.

With the increase of radio stations, Capital no longer had a monopoly of music radio and went through various changes including splitting the FM and AM frequencies, the FM service continuing the 'Music Power' tight formatted FM service, while AM relaunched as the classic hits format Capital Gold, which included some heritage presenters from the 1970s era of Capital Radio.

New radio services which targeted Capital's audience were launched in the 1990s such as Heart and Kiss FM which eventually dented Capital's share.  This led to drastic changes to Capital FM's format in the noughties, however it has returned to being a hit music station, although as part of a national network of Capital stations, which has lost some of the station's charm of London centricity.

However Capital, like LBC has survived for the last 40 years and is still playing the hits.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Happy Birthday LBC

The various incarnations of LBC Radio over 40 years.
Waking up this morning felt like being in a timewarp.  Douglas Cameron was once again reading LBC 97.3's news bulletin with his effortless delivery.  It almost made me want to get my satchel on again and head off to primary school with my mother.

LBC is 40 years old today, the first commercial radio station to be launched in the UK (with Capital Radio on October 16th), it's main role to provide speech radio to London.  The business would at the time be viable as they would provide the national news service for commercial radio stations which would be launched gradually throughout the 70s, known as Independent Radio News (IRN).

My early memories of LBC was listening to the late evening phone-ins from the likes of Robbie Vincent and Mike Allen which mixed serious topical discussion with more light hearted discussion, however Clive Bull's show was legendary.  Moving from Through the Night to the late evening slot where callers became as much a listen.  Babs from Bermondsey, Adrian from Tottenham Court Road and others were great radio.

LBC's politics off-air was just as interesting.  Strikes in the 1970s, numerous owners, the business nearly going bust, being sold to a foreign company who moved the station away from the City of London to Hammersmith, being forced to split the FM and AM licences to provide alternative services and then eventually going bust in 1993 when the Radio Authority decided to award the award LBC's two licences for FM and AM to Reuters who then bought the station to maintain the output until the official licence handover in October 1994.

Reuters replaced LBC with two non LBC branded stations, London News (Rolling news) and London News Talk (phone-ins), the latter taking on LBC's heritage in all but name.   However the two formats didn't perform as well as expected and a new consortium which included the Daily Mail and General Trust and upcoming media group GWR relaunched LBC on it's AM frequency and moved output to ITN's then new modern building in Gray's Inn Road, while keeping the rolling news service on FM.

In 2002, LBC was sold by the London News Radio consortium to Chrysalis who owned Heart FM, so once again moved from central London to West London.   The formats were also flipped, rolling news moved to AM while the talk radio format switched back to FM for the first time since 1994.  

The relaunch format was more highbrow, however Chrysalis didn't learn from the mistakes of Crown FM in 1989 which attempted to compete with BBC Radio 4 and then brought in David Lloyd who controversially brought in 'appointment to listen' radio.  This basically meant LBC's heritage format of news talk was axed outside of weekday breakfast and the rest of the output consisted of pub ammo style discussion.  One of the most controversial signings was Iain Lee, who brought with him younger listeners which Chrysalis desired to attract advertisers.  Yet it felt as if the heart of the station had been ripped out in Lloyd's attempt to bring revenue.  However he should be congratulated for the innovative LBC podcast where listeners paid a small fee to listen again to shows listeners missed.

Chrysalis eventually sold their radio business to a new radio group, Global who then acquired GCap Media, so Global moved it to their new broadcast centre in Leicester Square.   Under Global, LBC is at the heart of their newsroom, while a revamped news talk format was introduced which has seen ratings soar to over a million listeners.  Politicians are regulars on the station, with Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson presenting phone-ins and former London Mayor Ken Livingstone with former Tory MP David Mellor on Saturday mornings. 

LBC has finally settled down as an alternative to Radio 4, 5 Live and BBC London, but has returned to it's core values of news and giving Londoners a mouthpiece.

Happy Birthday LBC, it's well deserved.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Goodbye Smooth Radio 70s

In the early hours of Sunday morning, decades station Smooth Radio 70s will be replaced by a test transmission of Global Radio's new spin-off station Capital XTRA aimed at younger audiences.

GMG started experimenting with spin-off brands on DAB with the novelty format Smooth Christmas, which then led to the launch of Smooth 70s on December 27th 2011.  Less than two years later and after acquiring a total audience of 730,000 listeners to add to Smooth Radio's total brand audience, it'll be a part of digital radio history.

Unlike the main station under GMG, this was a focused product which played a broad playlist, those which anoraks and musos love, this despite being broadcast at 80 kbps mono on DAB.

I was at first very critical of the format, as it launched after Absolute Radio launched it's own 70s decade station earlier in 2011, yet like all good things, I doubt the station ever made money, so would be a drain on resources.

If you consider it from Global's point of view, they have two slots on Digital One acquired from the acquisition of Real & Smooth Limited, both serving the over 50s.  Sadly, it's a fact that younger listeners despite using other ways to listen to music are still the most attractive to advertisers.  Capital XTRA gives Global a national platform to attract listeners from Kiss and 1Xtra who playlist similar dance and urban music on the same digital platform.

Once Smooth 70s closes, there's still Absolute Radio 70s on DAB in London and online, however it is more rock focused due to the Absolute brand values.  This station and it's parent Absolute Radio are currently in the middle of being acquired by Bauer Radio who may use the space on DAB for other uses instead. There are other online stations providing 70s music all day long.  Some of which have promoted themselves on Digital Spy and social media outlets.

From day 1 of the opening of Smooth 70s, it was always inventable that it'd close.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Global's insensitive rebranding of Choice FM to Capital XTRA

Copyright: Global Radio Ltd.
The decision by Global Radio to close Choice FM abruptly at noon today ahead of a rebrand to Capital XTRA brought back memories of the sudden decision of Capital Radio PLC to move indie station Xfm from it's base on Charlotte Street to it's Leicester Square base in 1998 with an automated playlist and sacking of specialist presenters with a lack of support from listeners from a management headed by Richard Park who didn't quite understand the audience.  Mr Park is now the executive director of Global Radio.

Unlike the subtle change in output on local radio stations which rebranded to Heart and Capital and even the more recent changes on Smooth Radio on Tuesday, this was sharp, sudden and poorly thought out considering how Choice is ingrained in London's black community starting as Britain's first commercial radio station for black people, based in Brixton in 1990 before being sold to Capital Radio PLC in 2004.

I can see why Global's decision to rebrand Choice as a spin-off of Capital FM considering the demographics are very similar and it'll boost the share of the overall Capital brand which makes it very attractive to advertisers, however the audiences couldn't be more polarised.

Global are using Choice and Smooth as pawns in a game of radio chess with rival Bauer Media.  Their brands Kiss and Magic are market leading in the capital and Global has lost ground to those stations.   As Smooth Radio became part of Global Radio on Tuesday, this has allowed them to tweak Smooth towards a more easy listening format and are using the Digital One National DAB slot currently used by Smooth 70s to launch Capital XTRA in it's place.   Kiss is also on national DAB, so will also be competing for the youth audience with them and the public service urban station BBC Radio 1Xtra.

Returning to the black community in London, the feedback on social media is largely negative, although this may work to the advantage of community, DAB and pirate stations to cater for those audiences.  Colourful Radio is largely similar in format to the original Choice FM and has former presenters from the station, I wouldn't be surprised if Daddy Ernie's Superjam ends up on there, younger listeners in North West London may prefer BANG Radio on 103.6 FM and there's the pirate stations, such as Metro Love Radio, On Top, Genesis and TSOL - The Soul of London which may benefit from Choice's closure.

I wish Capital Xtra all the best for their launch on Monday, however they may have a struggle to keep the existing audience who feel that Capital is a brand focused on One Direction and Lawson rather than urban artists and the community they're supposed to support. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Smooth Wallpaper Radio

Today is the first day of Smooth Radio coming under the control of it's new owner Global Radio.  However the company only owns two of the licences currently in London and the West Midlands as the other licences in northern England and Glasgow remain in hold separate with Real & Smooth Ltd.

Moving the studio to Global's Leicester Square broadcast centre will stem the losses from the London licence, which has continually hemorrhaged listeners under GMG/R&S Ltd due to the clash in format with Hot AC Heart and Bauer's soft AC format Magic 105.4. 

Global have made some subtle tweaks to the output today, regular speech features have been removed, such as Our Tune from the Breakfast Show and Lynn Parsons's quiz alongside specialist output on a Friday evening.   It also appears that new music that was playlisted under GMG/R&S has been removed, although stubbornly the second to last song played on Smooth from Laser House in Salford was Daft Punk's latest track, which jarred terribly amongst the classic hits.  

However The Golden Hour has been saved, presumably as it's heavy on music.

Like other Global brands, Smooth has become more music intensive with longer sweeps and short speed links which has made it an easier listen for those who don't like speech heavy links on music radio.  It also compliments Global's sister brands, rather than competing with them.  There are tracks which crossover with Heart and Gold, however as Global specialise in 'mood radio', this isn't a problem.

I think Smooth will have more changes once the issues with the Competition Commission are resolved.  Global now own two over 50's brands, the male skewed Gold which broadcasts on AM and now the female slanted Smooth which if Global don't have to sacrifice any of the regional licences contested on the more valuable FM frequencies, which surely will either lead to a merger or a sale of the less viable AM station.

To the normal listener, there isn't much to complain about as the regular presenters during the day have stayed with only small changes in overnight output with a shorter night shift and an early breakfast show presented by Global stalwart Nicola Bonn who has presented overnight shifts on Heart.

Anoraks on the radio message boards are not happy alongside a couple of people on Facebook, however I imagine that is due to the company who has taken over, rather than any real programming changes.  Niggling about technical problems on day 1 is petty.

It's a big improvement to how the station was sounding last week or even yesterday as the takeover was near and Global should be congratulated on maintaining the brand, however toxic it has been in London.