HITS Daily Double


Radio in the U.K. has long been synonymous with the BBC, which is government-owned, commercial free, national in its reach and accustomed for decades to having the run of the roost. But in recent years, the Beeb’s dominance has been challenged by ambitious and aggressive commercial entities like Ashley Tabor’s Global Radio, whose Capital FM boasts nine identically programmed outlets spread across England, Scotland and Wales, billing itself as “The U.K.’s No. 1 Hit Music Station,” and the Bauer Media network of national and regional stations, including the Top 40-like KISS and the Absolute Radio family of rock stations.

Because of Radio 1’s unparalleled penetration and his oversight of the station’s playlist, The Guardian has described the station’s longtime Head of Music George Ergatoudis as “the most powerful man in the music industry.” But as the founder, owner and hands-on chief of the Global media colossus, Tabor is in a class by himself.

In the following Q&A, the key issues facing Britain’s radio industry are broken down by Ergatoudis and Jeff Smith, Head of Music for BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music, while representing the commercial sector are Dee Ford, Bauer Media’s Group Managing Director, National Radio, and Tabor himself.

With so many options for consumers these days, what steps are you taking to ensure radio’s ongoing prominence in the pop culture mix?
Ashley Tabor: Strong national brands that sound great and are marketed cleverly always cut through, whether radio brands or anything else, so that’s always our focus. There’s no question we’re competing with more things for our share of the consumer’s day, so quality/consistency is king.

George Ergatoudis: We are continuously innovating to keep the Radio 1 brand relevant, but fundamentally our young target audience trusts us for our music. Our daytime shows appeal to mainstream listeners with a carefully programmed balance of new music and entertainment, while our specialist shows appeal to music fans looking for a deeper experience. Great music radio must feature compelling content around the music. Our strategy at Radio 1 is built on the concept of “listen, watch, share,” with a strong focus on mobile consumption. We have kept Radio 1 relevant by extending our brand—video content now plays a particularly important role. We have a channel on iPlayer, the BBC’s on-demand video service, and almost 2.7 million subscribers to our YouTube channel, with 35 million views just in September. We also have our social-media channels (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and we have a presence on Spotify, where the Radio 1 playlist has over 320,000 subscribers. Since July, we have been able to offer all of our shows as downloads for 30 days, if you live in the U.K. We have over 11 million weekly listeners aged 10 and above, and we reach 40% of all 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.K. every week.

Jeff Smith: At BBC Music, we’re very aware of the multiplicity of choice for our listeners, and we’re also very aware that they want to view as well as listen. One of the first things I did when I joined Radio 2 was relaunch the classic BBC Radio brand In Concert and rebooted it with assets including the soundcheck into the morning show, Web Q&As, exclusive online interviews and the main one-hour performance show radiated through the BBC’s interactive TV service BBC Red Button. These shows, with artists like Coldplay, Elton John, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, often reach a million people visually as well as the large Radio 2 radio audience. We replicate this approach with online and social media for our annual Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park show and all our live event content on 6 Music such as 6 Music Live at Maida Vale and 6 Music Festival. At Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park this year, listeners and viewers enjoyed Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, the return of The Corrs for the first time in 10 years and a diverse mix of folk, rock and country.

Dee Ford: No longer do listeners expect or want a linear relationship with a broadcast radio brand; they want to be able to seek out content on multiple platforms. Each platform—digital, social, audio, video, downloads, events—needs to offer a complementary and uniquely engaging experience. For example, KISS in the U.K. is an entertainment brand spanning multiple touchpoints. There’s engaging audio, video and digital content, along with events and download compilations. The radio part of KISS is still growing because we’re relentless in the quest to make sure the product continues to be relevant and engaging and that it is available wherever the audience is. This “always on” content strategy has helped to grow the brand to an overall weekly reach of 14 million in the U.K. alone.

Smith: In 2014, I managed to coax Jeff Lynne from his L.A. studio and into the park to revisit the music of ELO for the first time in over 25 years; he has subsequently announced a new album by ELO and a forthcoming tour buoyed by the response of our audience. Radio 2 is Europe’s biggest music radio station with more than 15 million listeners every week listening for over 11 hours per week on FM and digital radio. 6 Music is totally future-focused, being on digital only (DAB in the U.K.) with over 2 million listeners per week listening more than eight hours per week. A quarter of our audience listens online. Our stations are also hot on harnessing the demand for credible and experienced curation using musicians as presenters. Radio 2 has given KISSGene Simmons his own rock series, while 6 Music has signed up Iggy Pop for an exclusive weekly program. Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Huey Morgan of Fun Lovin’ Criminals have also had their own shows.
Take us through the process of how records are considered for playlisting.

Tabor: The pre-playlist team listen to everything and filter by brand, and then bring the records into playlist that are right for that brand. In addition, anyone in the room for the playlist of that particular brand (it’s a different group of people for each brand) is free to bring a record in or flag a record, and they often do. The decisions are then made in the playlist meeting. Each brand has a meeting a week, so every day at Global we’re meeting for playlist on one brand or another.

The process tends to be similar across our radio portfolio. The weekly playlist meeting is populated by the playlist committee—key programmers, producers and, sometimes, presenters—who decide which of the current songs are suitable for that stations playlist. Those choices are usually presented to the playlist committee by record label reps through various meetings. When it comes to what works for the playlist process within different music genres, we get some slight differences. At our rock station Kerrang!, for example, the radio team, pluggers and record label execs have forged great relationships. Labels now know exactly what to send us and what not to. In reality, a small number of people look after the vast majority of the bands we play, and we trust their judgment as well as our own. This means that only the good stuff gets through to a playlist meeting in the first instance. When we consider music for playlisting on our more mainstream pop stations, the key things we take into account are first, is it a good song, then how relevant is the artist and does it fit the radio brand? Among other things to consider are, is it a huge returning artist? Is the song doing well at Shazam, featured in a film, getting good views on YouTube? The most suitable tracks go into a playlist meeting for discussion. When it comes to KISS, we will always champion an artist or track when we believe in it. New music is key to the sound of the station.

Smith: Our Radio 2 and 6 Music playlist processes are fairly similar. We review songs at the respective weekly playlist meetings—for Radio 2, it’s three weeks ahead of an impact/release date and four weeks at 6 Music. Songs are submitted to us three or four weeks prior to that to secure spot plays that shows are free to add into their mix. With the arrival of the global release date, we are often adding songs earlier to reflect their availability if we particularly like them. In the playlist meeting all I am expecting is people to champion their favorite songs based on the support of their presenter and based on the station’s music policy—timeless and melodic music from a range of genres at Radio 2 and alternative spirited music at 6 Music. We don’t “test” our records at either station. We pride ourselves on leading, not following, at our stations. Where there is doubt in the meeting, and if we cannot find consensus on a song, then I as head of music I will make the final call. I chair the playlist meeting at Radio 2, and Lauren Brennan manages this process for me at 6 Music.

Ergatoudis: Radio 1’s production team and DJs all play a part in our filtering system. We employ music fanatics who love nothing better than talking about new music and sharing their discoveries and opinions. The formal process begins with a meeting on Tuesdays where we capture what’s popping in our specialist music shows. My music team and I predetermine some priorities for discussion on Wednesday morning, then in the afternoon we have our main meeting to discuss the following week’s playlist. This meeting is attended by our playlist team, handpicked by me; it features 50% men and 50% women with a wide range of music tastes. We listen to and discuss at least 20 tracks each week and we add, on average, six new tracks. We bring objective information to the table including the weekly Shazam charts, YouTube views, etc., but personal passion still plays a critical role. There are always more tracks worthy of support than we can possibly add, so the meeting can get quite heated at times and we’re often left with critical voting at the end of the meeting to decide the final few additions.

How big a portion of your playlist does U.K. music represent at any given time?
Ergatoudis: One of our main objectives is to break new U.K. artists, whether that’s someone like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith or Royal Blood and Disclosure. Over the last few years the percentage of the music we play that is from the U.K. averages between 50% and 60%. We also have dedicated slots for BBC Introducing artists, emerging artists who we believe in. Around 600,000 tracks have been uploaded to the BBC Introducing website, and 150,000 artists registered since its launch in 2007, supporting artists such as Florence + the Machine, Jake Bugg and James Bay.

Smith: Every week on each of both Radio 2 and 6 Music, more than 50% of the music we play across the stations are from U.K. artists, and currently more than 70% is U.K. on our new music playlists. At 6, the playlist process has given breaks to the likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen thanks to initial support from DJ Steve Lamacq via BBC Introducing. We’re also proud of the part we have played in the success of artists like Daughter, Ghostpoet, Savages, Young Fathers and C Duncan in the last year. I’m very proud of our recent successes in establishing new U.K. artists at Radio 2 such as that rare commodity—a U.K. country band!—The Shires, plus U.K. soul musician Shaun Escoffery and Andreya Triana and singer/songwriter Jack Savoretti. Recent early and exclusive support by Radio 2 has also given a lift to singer/songwriter Jamie Lawson.

Ford: There is no official quota of domestic product that has to be aired in the U.K. However, without any formal targets, over 50% of the repertoire heard on Bauer Stations tends to be U.K.-sourced. Dance music has seen a stronger representation of European acts such as David Guetta, Avicii or [German DJ] Robin Schulz, so a station like KISS is probably more likely to have a higher proportion of content originating from continental Europe than a rock station like Absolute Radio.

How do you quantify a hit? What role does streaming data play in that determination? Is Shazam a big factor?
Tabor: Streaming, downloads, Shazam, research, international success/signs of promise of a record elsewhere in the world all play a part, but by far the biggest factor for us is gut feel. It’s hard to comment on playlist decisions individually, because at the end of a day it’s done on brand fit and the instincts of the playlist team.

Smith: I’d say a hit is a song which we feel keeps our music relevant to our audience. I’ve always understood that if you get the music right, the listeners will stay longer and ultimately the reach/cume will build. Our producers are very connected to our listeners and are our “ears” to find music that will appeal to those listeners and will become the new “hits.” We are all about the music. Our station’s music programming talent, our music teams, producers and presenters are the only things that are really important to our musical decisions. That said, of course, I look at any and all data based around the relevant station’s music policy, but it would not be the first reason to add a record at 2 or 6.

Ford: The definition of a hit for us isn’t necessarily aligned with the view of the label. A hit for radio is a song which may surprise, delight and engage a listener—keeping them listening for longer. In isolation, chart position, streaming numbers or Shazam tags are of little interest to a radio programmer. The mix of insight from all sources, though, allows a talented music programmer to form better views on music and playlists for their brands.

Ergatoudis: For us, the benchmark for measuring a hit is still the Official U.K. Singles Chart. Now that our chart includes streaming data, it’s a far better reflection of song consumption than before, and real “hits” are sticking around in the Top 40 for many weeks. Shazam is still a powerful tool, but we largely use it as a tool to help predict future success.

What other forms of research do you most heavily rely on?
Ford: Online research is the staple research tool used most regularly by Bauer. We invite people to complete an online interactive survey—sampling listeners and non-listeners of our stations, playing them hooks of songs and then asking them to rate their response to the song on a scale that ranges from “love” to “hate.” We then break down that information into subgroups to determine the response by age, gender, heavy or light listeners, geography and so on. We also use these online surveys to determine whether listeners actually know the songs we intend to play them. The lower the familiarity of a song, the higher the risk in playing it on air—no programmer wants to have a listener switch to a competitor if they hear a song they don’t know. We also conduct music mapping and auditorium testing and focus groups throughout the year.

Ergatoudis: We still commission weekly online music research from a company called Entertainment Media Research. This is particularly useful to us because it shows us that our audience loves tracks from artists like Bring Me the Horizon that don’t necessarily show up as “hits” using our other indicators. We normally only test a song once it has had at least 100 spins on Radio 1, because it’s clear that familiarity drives passion. We use the data to understand our audience’s tastes and to help us decide which songs are worth holding onto for the longer term. It certainly helps us understand the market, but gut instinct will always be the main driver when it comes to adding songs in the first place.

Ford: The most enjoyable research we rely on is actually going along to see artists perform to a live audience—feeling the genuine reaction to a performance is a very powerful influence.

How does your online component work in tandem with broadcast?
Smith: BBC Music Playlister supports both our new-release playlists, with 6 Music’s playlist being the star performer; it’s followed by nearly 75,000 people. BBC iPlayer Radio supports both stations and all BBC outlets with streaming output and added-value links to artist info and additional playlists through Playlister. Our recent 6 Music Live series at Maida Vale was curated by music producer Gary Bales and delivered an online audience at lunchtime on video, as well as demonstrating the “alternative spirit” of 6 Music with exclusive performances by New Order, Leftfield, The Staves, Mercury Rev and Bloc Party.

Ergatoudis: We now have a Radio 1 channel in the BBC’s iPlayer on-demand video service that is delivering 2 million views a month. We also have our YouTube channel that continues to do great numbers. Our general belief is that our target audience should be bumping into the Radio 1 brand in as many places as possible—from physical gigs to playlists on Spotify. And, of course, we maintain a strong presence across all social-media platforms. Broadly speaking, our online activity is designed to be entertaining content in its own right and to encourage the audience to check out more from the Radio 1 brand. And it definitely seems to be working.

Ford: Through a “hear it, see it, share it” strategy, our digital platforms build communities around our products and programming. We are seeing more listening time spent with our products through online mobile and desktop streaming and a large engagement with listen-back programming. Bauer also uses logged-in online listening to offer extra music content and fewer ads—the payoff being that ads are specifically targeted to the listener. A win for artists, labels, Bauer and the advertiser alike.

Tabor: It’s critical. Online, on social, on an app—radio brands aren’t just radio brands any longer, they are visual content brands that live online and on TV as well as through the core radio station. That’s why Capital TV, Heart TV, our apps and social-media platforms are all woven together and edited centrally.