Christmas - a special time for the radio

Oddly, Christmas is the time when I really miss being on the radio (and my last regular gig was 22 years ago).

I loved being on-air on Christmas Day. The last time was probably 1999 or 2000, on Hallam FM in Sheffield. The music log was the typical music log for Daryl Denham’s weekday breakfast show: but I was not a relatively speech-heavy “zoo” format show, so I rapidly ran out of music. It being Christmas morning, I reckoned I could break with format and just play any old Christmas tune, the cheesier the better; and so this was possibly the only time this top40 station had ever aired Christmas songs from Bing Crosby, The Beatles (yes, I got the fanclub Christmas song away), or Tom Petty. Or even Doris Day, my memory tells me, but perhaps even I thought that was going too far.

I remember taking calls from kids, from grannies, from some people who may have been already quite inebriated at 8.30am, and from some people who were lonely and grateful for a friendly voice. I loved it.

Imagine my concern when I noticed, at 9.50am when throwing forward to the next presenter, that it was the programme director, who presumably had heard the show as he was driving in. And, indeed he had. “I’ve really enjoyed the music this morning, James,” he told me when he came in, though I couldn’t quite tell if he was being serious.

On coming out of the studio, I bumped into the managing director, who used to come in at 10am on Christmas Day and therefore catch the two breakfast presenters, the two mid-morning presenters, the news reader, and the security guard, and give us all mince pies.

I’m also very aware that very few people would actually have been on-air on Christmas Day this year. Voice-tracking wasn’t very widespread when I finished up on-air. Today, my guess is that much of music radio, at least, was automated over most of the Christmas period. In the UK, where I was on the radio, almost all the stations with live talent would have been networked, either from Manchester or London.

Sometimes, I view some of the more anorakky Facebook groups as being full of angry old men with an inability to understand how the world has changed. But then, I catch myself deeply sad that things have changed.

One of the last opinion pieces I wrote for my media directory website was about Aussie radio over Christmas. The six-week summer holiday here coincides with Christmas and a ratings-free period, which means that for six weeks, I don’t recognise anyone on-air.

This year, for three weeks at least, the local newstalk commercial station 4BC has had Spencer Howson on. He’s sounded relaxed and in control; a busy show with lots of prep, some knowingly local references. Spencer normally does weekend mornings. The station - once nothing more than an outlet for Sydney’s 2GB - has been revitalised in recent years with local programming; and during the Christmas holidays the whole thing has been local. It’s been really good, and there have been big local stories that have helped 4BC reap the rewards from being here.

I switched to 4BC partly because Spencer is a friend, partly because I used to listen when he did breakfast at the ABC up the road, partly because he’s very good, and partly because our regular listen on ABC Radio Brisbane isn’t there.

David Iliffe is doing ABC Radio Brisbane this week. He’s normally on a station 90 minutes’ drive away, so he’s an unknown voice to us. Before Christmas we had someone called Joel Spreadborough, who seems to live in Sydney according to his Twitter bio, though I gather also does fill-in for evenings on occasion. The rest of the station isn’t local, and comes from all over the place; James O’Brien doing mid-mornings from Lismore. Not that James O’Brien, if you’re reading this in the UK. The other one. (Who reads this in Australia).

I find it perplexing that ABC Radio Brisbane isn’t using this time as an opportunity to introduce listeners to a voice from a different daypart. As ever, Australian christmas radio seems like a missed opportunity to me. But then - it’s always been this way here, and who am I, with my foreign ways?

‘The longer an audio ad, the less effective’, claims the write-up to this work from Dollywaggon in the UK.

The more you look into it, the research doesn’t quite say that. “Creative standout” drops by 1% for every extra 10 words in an audio ad, which “could lead to lower conversion rates”. Could.

UK radio advertising is sold in blocks of 10", unlike US radio ads; so you might think a 40" ad “has 3% less creative standout” (there are roughly 3 words a second) than a 30" ad.

But it doesn’t even say that. It is actually talking about the speed of voiceover, not the length of the ad.

It really says that faster, more gabbled ads work less well than ads spoken slower and given the time to breathe.

It says a target is 147 words a minute (that’s 2.5 a second); and says that if you go like a train and fit in 195 words a minute, that could translate to a fall of 27% in ad response (through a drop in “creative standout”, then a modelled drop in website response rate from 1.8% to 1.3%, and then a guess of how many web visits you’d miss out on as a result.)

As a radio copywriter for more than seven years, I’d suggest that absolutely a gabbled ad will work less well. But it’s entirely wrong to suggest that a 40" ad will work less well than a 30" - or, the misleading headline of this piece, ‘The longer an audio ad, the less effective’.

I do worry how many people will look at the headline and decide to buy a 30" ad - because they think it will work better - than a 40" ad that has more time to make the point.

Of interest: I once worked-out the average duration of the ads that our department wrote over a period of a few years. It came to about 42" (so many were 40", some 50"). We wrote them that long because they worked better for the client.

Have an excellent New Year. If you’re in Australia, watch me signing Auld Lang Syne just after the midnight fireworks on the ABC. The good news is: I’ll be doing it with 700 other people.