Network’s loss is local’s gain

Brett Spencer is a clever man. Returning to my nom de plume radio roots for a moment, I shall explain why…

The face of UK radio has changed significantly over the past few years, with major radio groups merging or being sold off.

I remember sitting in a keynote lecture at the Radio Festival back in 2002, before any of the big scale changes had occured. Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays, with a strong American drawl, opened his speech by saying “I remember when I bought my first radio station”. His tone made it sound more as though he were speaking of an old banger of a first car, than an entire radio station, but as he carried on, we quickly realised he may as well have been. It was small fry compared to the hundreds of stations he now owned, all of them part of the Clear Channel group.

He went on to talk about the cost benefits of networking programming; why bother with local DJs when you could bring a big name to all you stations at once? The room was silent. Local content, we knew, was powerful, important, part of our identity…

You couldn’t argue with the size of his empire though; he was obviously getting something right.

It was around this time that ownership rules were being relaxed. Foreign companies could now buy UK radio stations and there was a note of fear in the air at the idea that Lowry was still expanding his empire.. The next speaker took to the stage quipping that we should watch out for Clear Channel who could come knocking any moment.

But that was then, and this is now. The networking that proud UK local radio people seemed so keen to avoid back then is now a matter of fact for Global’s Heart brand.

Stations have been rebranded to fit the Heart mould, others merged to create ‘broadcast centres’ and only breakfast and drive slots seem to have escaped the inevitable roll out of networked coverage from London.

Now I’ve always loved the way that radio stations build relationships with their listeners, it’s part of the magic of radio. Presenters are invited into our homes, they become ‘friends’, members of the family almost. That sort of loyalty is priceless in a media landscape that offers more and more choices. It should be nurtured, and never ever taken for granted.

A good example of what listener loyalty can inspire is that of Jo Dawkins. Upset that blanket programming on heart Dunstable meant the loss of her much-loved presenters ‘Gaz and Babs’, she started a campaign to save the on-air duo. She quickly gathered over 2000 similarly disgruntled listeners, and asked them to boycott the station for a week. Not only that, but she made sure advertisers knew about the campaign, and urged them not to spend their money on a diminished audience. Smart move, money talks after all…

Jo's Facebook campaign page
Jo's Facebook campaign page

The campaign was picked up by the local paper, and this is where Brett Spencer comes in. He’s recently moved from his post as Interactive Editor at BBC 5 live to become the Managing Editor of BBC Three Counties Radio, a station which, you’ve guessed it, covers Dunstable.

Despite having been in his new job for little over 10 days, he sprang into action, offering Gaz a one-off slot on BBC 3CR – during the Heart boycott week. (Babs retains her job with Global, but has moved from Dunstable.)

I’ve seen many changes in radio station management, and watched Programme Directors make their mark on a station by shipping in people they know from previous jobs, perhaps because change is needed, sometimes just because they can.

The difference with what Brett has done is that he’s listened to local people, and is trying to work with them to take his station forward. ‘Four days into my new job I discovered loads of post in my pigeonhole from listeners, keen to tell me how much they value the station, what they like, what they don’t like, and emails as well. People clearly feel they have a much greater sense of ownership of their local station than at network level’ says Spencer. ‘The campaign Jo Dawkins has mounted shows how passionate people are about local radio’.

So Gareth (Gaz) Wesley has got a chance to shine somewhere new, Jo’s voice has been heard and Brett Spencer has shown he has his finger on the pulse in his new patch, and is ready to take some risks.

As I said at the start of this piece: Brett Spencer is a clever man. I’ll be watching with interest.

Wesley will present a show on BBC Three Counties Radio at 2pm on August 27th.

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4 thoughts on “Network’s loss is local’s gain

  1. Is it not a bit much to single out Brett Spencer as being “a clever man”? For decades, radio programmers across the land have been hiring jocks previously employed by local competitors. In fact, this move is often to be found at the top of newly-hired P.D.s’ “to do” lists; perhaps because it’s a quick and easy way of making one’s mark, whilst keeping it “local”.

    1. My point is that instead of just poaching a local jock, Brett has tapped into the passion of newly disenfranchised listeners. By giving this presenter even a one-off show, his station will now register on the radar of a group of listeners who are actively seeking an alternative to their usual listen, but who previously might never have thought to tune in to a BBC local station.

      Brett also realises the power of social media, and will be well aware that news of this signing, albeit it for a single show, (which would I wager, usually go entirely unnoticed) will get spread by people, annoyed that Heart have dumped their favourite presenter. Word-of-mouth recommendation is the stuff of dreams for many advertising agencies, paid thousands to come up with innovative campaigns, but with one easy move, Brett has got people talking. I mean – we are, aren’t we? Given the stuff I usually post about, you can bet the previous commenter only stumbled across my website because he was actively searching for news of Gaz… (something I know for a fact, seeing how people get here via search!).

      So no, I don’t think it’s a bit much really, I’m not singling him out as such, but I think this was a smart move and should be celebrated. If there are reams of other stories about PDs that have similarly responded to local Facebook campaigns then I’d love to hear them. It’s always good to hear about interesting an innovative ideas from other people in the industry.

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