Apr 68 min
One late February day, I curled up into a ball and sobbed. There’s stress, there’s tiredness, there’s relief, there’s happiness. As you’ll know with any large, risky project it’s a mix of emotions you keep pent up until they all flood out when it’s safe.
In June last year, I had floated the idea of a station for those aged 60+ with my respected, tall former colleague Phil Riley. It was my view, and that of most sane people, that the BBC, which owned radio’s older demographics, had moved its radio offerings younger.
May I make clear I have respect for Radio 2’s programmers, understand fully its portfolio management, its strategy vs commercial competitors (see my blog Nov 2019 and March 2020) - and the wish to foment BBC love from younger audiences if its universal funding model is to be preserved. I don’t malign Radio 2 for making the move with enviable excellence, but might it be seen as a tad disingenuous for the PR folk to suggest it still serves 60+? We were amused to see a 1960s year featured on Pick of The Pops just after we launched - after almost six months with no pre-1975 years.
35+ is indeed its remit – but that’s not a target, it’s 70% of the 15+ population.
BBC local radio had the requirement to serve 55+ quietly withdrawn upon the BBC Trust’s demise – and I await details of the people it’s actually making a difference to these days. Again, no reflection on the many hard-working and long-suffering people who work there - but I think they too deserve a sense of coherent direction.
So – a gap shone through in demographics generally not targeted head-on by commercial radio. There are some great era or mood commercial stations, but not a ‘full service’ offering for people who just dare to be over 60. The challenge has always been to make such a service sustainable, given that too many media buyers feel that those aged 55+ are about to keel over and die and have made up their minds about everything they’ll ever buy. That’s why older audiences have never earned the yield commensurate with the wealth of this demo.
When you risk investing your pension in a venture, you calmly check your presumptions. The message was loud and clear from our research. Older listeners felt left behind by radio. They listened to their stations because they could not easily find something more suited to their taste. They clung onto their dear Ken Bruce and Tony Blackburn with huge fondness as an oasis of sensibility.
Aside from music, they missed being spoken to by the sort of people they would choose to mix with socially. In a vox pop, one listener suggested our presenters: ‘had elderly relatives, lost a parent…people….well…like me’. Our presenters don’t live in the past and we set out to be a station for 2021 which just happens to play a lot of oldies. We can say things which would puzzle a millennial. Our listeners do not see themselves as old. They get annoyed with the boxes on forms which say 55+, given that’s about half the population.
Boom Radio was born on Valentine’s Day, with Phil skilfully bringing together the investment from our friends, old colleagues and families with typical focus.
All content is programmed and operated by two people – with the aid of about fifteen presenters broadcasting from home. It proves the art of the possible with today’s technology. Ours - and similar ventures – raise real questions about whether radio stations do have to look like they did in 1995. And for those who poo-poo the use of voice-tracking and remote working, I would gently suggest I’ve heard much lazy live radio from very expensive studios. That’s all for another blog.
Every presenter I spoke to saw the potential instinctively; and bought into the dream. I have been blown away by their passion and professionalism – and how well they have adapted to the new skills. And, having loved and lost, they are authentic communicators – probably at their best - with stories to tell. How great to hear Les Ross come out on-air, naturally - and Nicky Horne speak of his mother in her care home.
A word about our elder statesman, David Hamilton. David disappeared into his loft for many days for dress rehearsals before launch, to be sure he’d feel at home once we went on-air. With his positivity, his quest for perfection, his understanding of the broader business and his work ethic, it is little wonder he’s still working and a familiar TV face, aged 82. I l love the man – and the feedback to his programme is off the scale.
As I sat in Boom HQ at home, clicking onto a Zoom call with Esther Rantzen, I smiled and wanted to tell my mother who would have been impressed with my career choice for the first time ever. But I couldn’t. And that’s a familiar sad thought for Baby Boomers.
Mind you, as I then moved on to a risk assessment for getting Jenny Hanley’s kit installed at her home in the middle of a pandemic by a guy in hazmat gear – and my husband and content director Paul Robey took a call from David Symonds about which French songs he wanted to play on a Sunday night, the beautiful ridiculousness of the whole venture occurred to me.
The feedback has blown us away. In 40+ years in radio, I’ve known nothing like it. For our listeners, it’s been like falling in love. They despatched, literally, thousands of spontaneous romantic emails and - after the initial surge and apart from the idiots - I’ve tried to reply to each one personally and enrol them as an advocate.
“Only found it Monday, but a what a breath of fresh air.”
“I absolutely love this new radio station have been listening now for 3 weeks and will never go back to (station).”
“Your playlist is absolutely spot on - a very wide, eclectic mix that almost defies definition.”
“Bought another echo dot for upstairs just so we can listen to Boom as we go to sleep. Love the music, makes you feel happy all the time.”
“Like the fact that you never know what music might come on next.”
“It is a really cosy radio station. Well done everybody”
We’ve been lucky with PR. The press seized on our David vs Goliath story, with the always- beleaguered BBC being a ready villain for them. The press critics have been more perplexed. They don’t usually trouble with commercial radio very much, so are often out of tune with the 66% of adults who do. Miranda Sawyer’s review in The Observer was just downright odd. Asking her to review us is like asking me to commentate on a football match. As was the case with the narrative on some other major issues of our time, I feel that some commentators can be a little out of tune to how normal people feel. After every lukewarm article, our figures grew.
Naming a radio station is a challenge. We can quite understand why the BBC ended up with numbers. The name ‘Boom’ was Phil’s idea. I loved it too, but the early focus groups suggested it sounded noisy. We resolved to use it in a context - and the logo colours, the straplines, the nod to the Beatles in the typeface and the general environment all serve to illustrate the essence of Boom. It’s a brand already – and has become known quickly.
Having been bedevilled with brand challenges in previous lives, this was victory.
Finding a radio station on the dial used to be complex for listeners, given they had to remember the frequency numbers of a radio station. DAB was said to be the answer - just look for our name. But today, we have a multi-platform world, with every platform flawed in some way.
Our careful strategy of London DAB plus small scale, plus online, lasted about a fortnight. Purely on the strength of the early response, our investors were easily persuaded by Phil to put the hands in their pockets for national DAB coverage – a year ahead of our original thoughts. But that’s on DAB+ on the SDL multiplex – so not yet on all DAB sets – and not across every pocket of the UK. And as for Alexa and Google – getting those devices to play our radio station was mountain to climb – and access to that platform poses some serious questions for our industry far more important than the ones the competition authorities spent dilly-dallying with on the Bauer acquisitions. With all that to explain, little wonder that our ‘how to listen’ website section stretches to two pages and that, for a period, helping listeners to find us was a full-time job.
Watching streaming data unfold before your eyes is addictive. Suffice to say, our online listening is way above our expectations. Whilst we know it does not represent all listening – and the daily Spirograph pattern is not the same as for those using a radio set, it does help us understand listener behaviour better than ever before. You see what happens when one show goes into another – and you witness that Ken’s Popmaster is a real destination moment for listeners. Had streaming being around when Our Tune was at its height, it would have been a pleasing graph for Simon Bates.
Our music will cause music programmers to pull their hair out. I hope it sounds like a selection of songs as random as the musical tastes of folk our age. We major on oldies in line with the reminiscence bump of our audience – but we also bear in mind that many listeners told us that they’d grown to love some of the music their parents liked – and that they don’t want to feel totally out of touch with newer material. Research with our listeners since going on-air indicated that 94% of them thought we had the era pitch right.
There is method to the madness in terms of where we play less familiar material, where we sell songs in, and how songs are separated. I comfort myself that no listener in any focus group I’ve moderated for any radio station ever has uttered: ‘you can’t play X next to Y’. People like songs or dislike them – and they seek a mood. Ours is generally bright.
There is a brand sound, but each programme is flavoured differently – and, yes, the presenters do have a hand in what they play. To some extent, we have programmes not programming – and our generation understands that. I hope they know that if there’s a song or a show they don’t like – it’ll soon be over – and the wait is worth the jewel they’ll hear. They write to us, delighted that they've discovered new old music they now love.
I must pay tribute to Paul Robey who has programmed every song since we began. Without his knowledge and dedication, Boom would not have achieved what it has.
If we were fighting a typical commercial radio offering like-for-like, I know exactly the songs we’d play. But they’re doing that. We need to offer something different, so we dig deeper. Again, research with our listeners since going on-air suggests that 86% disagree with the statement ‘too many songs I don't know’.
We’ve given birth to something special. The sprog analogy came alive to me as Paul and I prepared to leave the house together in mid-March for the first time since the February launch. We gently placed the bag stuffed with a laptop and mic in the boot of the car with all the precision of a child’s safety seat - and prayed for the continued good health of the Royal family.
When normal people (not anoraks) volunteer that we have the spirit of the '60s pirates, we take it as a compliment. We mean to them something akin to that same sense of alignment to their generation that Radio London and Caroline did.
We are up against it and proud of what we’ve done on a budget about as large as a country pub. On our scale and initial budgets, we don’t expect to make a huge dent in BBC audiences any time soon, but we do feel we can provide a decent and viable listen for an appreciable number of people.
And – as a Baby Boomer myself - this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done since 1980. And that’s the sort of challenge many of us my age still have within them.
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