4’s revamp comes not a moment too soon

The people who run Britain’s largest commercial radio stations now call themselves ’brand managers’. They devote their days to researching ways of exploiting their image beyond simple merchandising and sponsorship.

The people who run Britain’s largest commercial radio stations now

call themselves ’brand managers’. They devote their days to researching

ways of exploiting their image beyond simple merchandising and

sponsorship.



That is why Classic FM has just launched its own record label and

Capital Radio is branching out into glitzy cafes. This is partly because

they have nothing concrete in the way of archives to exploit, only

formats closely linked with certain life-styles. Capital is a uniquely

metropolitan station aimed at the under-30s, while Classic listeners are

comfy suburbanites.



Brand management was discussed for the first time at last week’s annual

Radio Academy conference in Birmingham, and is clearly only in its

infancy: For example, Capital Radio is expected to shortly get its hands

on Virgin Radio’s national frequency and then may well have the scope to

add national live football coverage to its mix.



In addition, all radio stations, including the BBC face broadly the same

digital/internet challenge as television: there will be many more

channels on offer, so a station’s brand will need to be powerful and

pervasive.



All sorts of new formats are under discussion: a ’Radio One and a Half’,

for people too old for Radio 1 and too young for Radio 2, is being

developed at the BBC. I heard shrewd business men talk about concepts

such as a channel built around repeats of The Archers and a network of

local stations charging ordinary people to be broadcasters!



I mention all this because it puts into context next week’s announcement

of radical new Radio 4 schedules which are already causing a barrage of

questions in Parliament. The BBC is most certainly seeking to recast its

unique speech network by simplifying and stranding the patchwork of

programmes - which have more in common with a medieval field system than

contemporary radio practice.



It is also appointing executives to oversee ’day parts’ to ensure

schedules flow, rather than constantly offer listeners a reason to

switch off because of abrupt changes in tone. Moves towards stripped

schedules, with integrated Parliamentary news, accessible talk at 9am,

Woman’s Hour at 10am, and a pepped up arts and media coverage are

changes in the right, not the wrong direction.



It is worrying that audiences dip more precipitously than for all other

stations after the Today programme, that only half of listeners tune in

for anything more than news, current affairs and The Archers. Radio 4

absorbs pounds 75 million a year, double the costs per hour of Radio 5.

Controller James Boyle is not engaged in a cynical move to dumb down.

His is an intelligent attempt to revive his brand - left perilously late

in the day.



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