MEDIA: Niche radio needs to follow the BBC’s fab Five example

Lunching out at the Sony Radio Awards I found myself brooding over the contrasting fates of ailing Viva! radio in London, and the soaring national success of Radio 5 Live, which won the coveted accolade, Station of the Year.

Lunching out at the Sony Radio Awards I found myself brooding over the

contrasting fates of ailing Viva! radio in London, and the soaring

national success of Radio 5 Live, which won the coveted accolade,

Station of the Year.



There is a double lesson here: firstly about the limits of niche

broadcasting, and secondly, about never losing sight of the

fundamentals, such as making sure your message is getting across. Viva’s

weak signal makes for horrible listening.



The violently differing fortunes also speak volumes about PR limits.

Some of the sassiest operators from Lynne Franks downwards won Viva!

more headlines and column inches than the minus 500 weekend listeners

the industry’s measurement system detected. But the launch publicity

never told you the basics, like where to find the new channel. In

contrast, Radio 5 Live’s recasting as a news and sports channel

initially got a bad press, but with 4.8 million listeners a week, the

blokes have voted.



The basic problem with Viva! is that the concept is wrong. I’m the first

to pick up glossy women’s magazines when time allows, but it has never

been clear that this impulse to browse could translate into enjoyable

talk-based radio for female achievers. I often listen to Woman’s Hour on

Radio 4 but it is an honourable exception. To aim a station at women,

especially professional women, is daft: we are too diverse and busy to

build a commercial radio brand upon: it does not meet a desperate need.

When busy women get into the car, or mooch around on Sundays, we just

might want to tune into the mainstream.



I have every sympathy with Viva’s new owners, Liberty Radio, who say

that since the initial output has ‘failed miserably’ they want to

abandon the all-women format, in favour of interesting programmes which

anyone will want to turn to. They have immediately run up against the

Radio Authority regulator, which hates seeing performance promises

junked. Surely Liberty should be allowed to renegotiate. Viva! was

always going to be an experiment.



Meanwhile the question is how long Radio 5 will be allowed to get away

with its hold on sporting radio rights, brilliantly identified by the

BBC as an undervalued asset. As the Sony awards made clear last week,

the station won through because it was providing what large numbers of

listeners could not do without: top class commentators matched with live

radio rights. One of its finest moments, recognised by the Sonys, came

with last autumn’s Ryder Cup. Since TV rights were controlled by Sky,

Radio 5 was able to act as the people’s friend.



Radio 5 Live is a kind of throw back, allowing the BBC to display its

news gathering strengths and hark back to a lost era when radio was the

popular way of spreading news. Enjoy it while you can. The secret is

out.



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