Sunday, April 7, 2013

TFM.Time for Unions and MPs?

UPDATE: 9th April


Ofcom believes removing a WEEKLY Asian programme would "substantially alter the character of the "'Bee" radio (Bolton) service so needs to take the request to consultation"

BUT..... it's okay to let Metro move ALL programmes for Teesside to Newcastle- without even being asked!?!

I met an old friend the other day at a conference; I had not seen her for years. She stood sideways on so at first I could only see her name badge as I approached. Just seeing her name made me feel warm, nostalgic, for I had been in a 'kind of' relationship with her for over 15 years. However, I suddenly saw she had not only changed her hair colour, but her face was very different, in fact, unrecognisable. The warm friendly glow had gone and a blankness replaced it - she seemed very 'distant.' As I said a jovial 'hello', she finally spoke. But it was not even her voice...

How could this be? We'd grown so close, had endless breakfasts together, shared love songs late into the night, and she'd advised me for many years about travel problems in my area and been very useful with her snowline..... Now all I could see was a gaunt, distant echo of what had once been - she was a stranger....

'She', was of course a radio station.... and the scenario above could have been applied to many stations in the last 6 years, though most recently (and suddenly) to TFM. 

The  snappy, modern TFM was of course Radio Tees in the 1970s when I was on Metro Radio in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. TFM was still doing quite well* but was suddenly put in an 'arranged marriage' last Friday.

This week a gaggle  of radio 'gurus', researchers, advisers, and consultants**, will probably be pontificating, telling Twitter, Facebook, the World and the whole radio industry how THEY believe, why, it went wrong. Telling us 'how' THEY would have handled it in the past, how things 'might' go in the future.

But hang-on. WHAT do they REALLY know? 

Because like every radio service in Britain, TFM has listened to the advice of endless radio 'gurus', researchers, advisers, and consultants. Yet despite the advice of a legion of 'informed opinion' who now suddenly know what went wrong (some of whom have never even presented a regular daily show on radio) the staff at TFM found it is not them, it is a whole radio station.... 'for the (local) chop'. 

More precisely, as the Evening Gazette+ reported:

"22 members of staff will leave the iconic Radio House in Yale Crescent, Thornaby, to move to Metro Radio in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle.

I was on Metro Radio from day one in 1974, and though it seemed like a long time it was only for the first 21 months of my ILR ‘life’. However I do hold dear many memories of the  Swalwell studios, the anticipation of us being the first commercial station in that area, our great team which included James Whale, Giles Squire, Maggie Mash,and Dave Gregory. Indeed Dave moved down to Radio Tees to do breakfast there, and I visited the station in 1975. 

Looking back I can safely say that there is VERY little in common between these 2 areas, and Metro has always been the ‘glossier’ station, (Radio Tees) TFM was the more ‘real’ one ~ a reflection of their different life-styles and areas. Therefore, I find the fact they are to merge programmes completely, and just have 2 journalists to cover all of Teeside, VERY disturbing. 

Of course, some will dismiss my points (last year I was called a 'radio dinosaur' by one young would-be radio 'guru') but even as I wrote this I was delighted to see that those in a stronger position than I am, are equally disturbed, such as Graham Robb++ who has reported that:

“Local MPs are rightly concerned as the radio licence for Teeside has effectively been extinguished – there is a moral case to re-advertise it although the rules might prevent it”. 

The word MORAL is what matters here; the station should be run for its LISTENERS not its ADVERTISERS : a point Ofcom might well remind Bauer of, and certainly MPs have a national and local voice via the House of Commons and television. 

If Bauer cannot make it LOCAL and viable, please let another group at least try!

And WHY did Ofcom give them the licence+++ right through to 2025 !!??

With social media being strong now, and northern listeners being more faithful to 'their station' there will be a lot of ‘word of mouth ’advertising’ about it (mainly negative I suspect) which WILL colour local people’s opinions about this.  
Bad ‘word of mouth’ can be very effective…

If I was the husband, wife, partner or parent of a TFM employee who now has to commute all the way to Newcastle daily, I'd certainly voice my thoughts....

Importantly, for the whole (shrinking) I(L)R industry remember TFM had 20% weekly audience reach. So the staff have not 'failed'. 

The Teeside BBC local station only has a 15% reach

...yet the BBC will not close it or have to justify its existence, thanks to the legally enforced licence fee (time for a review?) 

With a 20% reach TFM easily beats the Smooth and Heart networks*.  And even in my 'old' radio area, the once mighty East Midlands, (heavily tv marketed) Capital has shrunk down to 25% weekly reach, and the regional GEM106 has 3% less reach than TFM.

So where does all this leave the TFM staff? Well as we have watched various (money-based) mergers happen, on-air staff have largely been mute for fear of never working again if they (dare to) criticise the 'mighty radio machine' and the 'suits' behind it. But even though a few have got work on BBC local stations, there are still several hundred experienced I(L)R presenters and journalists now seeking work. 

Perhaps staying 'mute' is not necessarily a good option any longer? If the Teeside BBC local station was stripped of its staff this way the Unions would bring 'Auntie' to a halt. 

Maybe those still in work on some of the highly syndicated, quasi-national commercial stations should worry, it might be them next? Surely, instead of burying their heads in the sand they  could form a new UNION, to negotiate with the (millionaire) suits in these large groups? 

To start with, any show of more than 3 hours is a creative travesty. A ban on members using excessive voice-tracking might make the suits' sit-up and pay attention!? And as regards News there should be more journalist out in the area, not sitting behind a computer screen?

A Union might not bring back a local service to TFM, but at least that station would be remembered as THE one that inspired the poorly treated staff in commercial radio to finally say 'enough is enough', and be HEARD?

* TFM most recently had 20% Audience Reach - (all) Smooth has just 10%, Real Radio NE 12%, the Heart (Network) 14%, Capital South Coast 11%

** "Main reason for the TFM change? The world's changed but TFM (and lots of ILRs generally) didn't keep up." ( @matt on Twitter )

UPDATE: Four days later I asked this (would be) 'radio guru' "Would you like to enlarge on this Tweet-sized generalisation now some days have passed? 

He eloquently replied, "Nope"

A case of 'radio gurus' ain't what they used to be !



++ "airwaves belong to the people they do not belong to Bauer Radio or Ofcom"

+++ "most recent licence was renewed in 2012 with an expiry date of 28 June 2025, the long period this licence has to run makes it worth millions. To wantonly change the structure of delivery away from the local area with so little consultation is a serious mistake by Ofcom, especially given the hard work by the business and political community in Tees Valley to establish itself as a distinct part of the UK economy"


  1. Excellent post once again Len. Although I haven’t listened to any of the services from the big commercial groups, as a Teessider (and from where I write at the moment), for historical reasons I feel a profound sense of sadness at yesterday’s news.

    Sadly, probably most of the population could not care less as another item of local identity is stripped away from us on the altar of rationalisation, efficiency, ineffective weak regulation and corporate greed.

    One can only hope that outside of the BBC, community radio can somehow develop and foster creativity and be allowed to be a candle in the darkness that now envelopes the wasteland that is our commercial radio sector.

    As to why anyone would now wish to listen to the homogenised automated output of commercial radio in the UK is beyond me. The only creativity now lies in the production of the commercials which surely means most people would be better off just listening to their iPods with a randomised playlist!

  2. Thank you Andy

    Your focussed comment sums it all up perfectly:

    "As to why anyone would now wish to listen to the homogenised automated output of commercial radio in the UK is beyond me. The only creativity now lies in the production of the commercials"

    On Twitter @benbax (amusingly) suggested that TFM should stand for 'transmitted from Metro' - wish I'd though of that!

  3. @benbax 's comment was well worth the retweet Len!

    On a serious note, I feel terribly sorry for the staff being re-located or even worse, made redundant in the usual impersonal 21st century way.

    Ironic too that the MD Cath Ellington who started out at Radio Tees in 1988 has risen through the ranks to ultimately preside over the dismantling of the station.

    And yet, I find it difficult to blame Bauer Media for the demise of TFM (or any other commerical radio group when looking at the national picture). They are doing exactly what the shareholders expect: maximising profits by minimising costs (mainly people). It's happened in the newspaper industry where I worked too.

    If they could get away with it they'd be quite happy running a national network of wall to wall music and commercials from a laptop plugged in to the FM transmitter network running iTunes. Negligible costs and a licence to print money!

    In my opinion the fault for this sorry situation doesn't even lie with the regulator, who of course only oversees parliamentary legislation. The culprits are our elected representatives of all persuasions who since the castration of the Independent Broadcasting Authority in the mid-80s have embraced the idea of unregulated markets as the panacea for all ills in the broadcasting sector. The result would appear to fall way short of happiness.

    Perhaps ultimately with the advent of community and internet radio, it's up to those of us who care about radio and have an interest and passion (and time too of course!) to aspire to provide great creative radio on these relatively new platforms.

    It's a labour of love, and we may not be paid for it, but it's direct community action of the best sort!