Radio 1 movies back on song

The imminent release of a cinema ad for Radio 1 heralds a change in its fortunes and points a lesson about reviving markets supposedly in decline.

BUSINESS

I gather that a 15-minute commercial documentary breaks on British cinema screens this Friday, charting the recent success and present attractions of BBC Radio 1.

In part, I guess this could be interpreted as the welcome return of the B-movie, and I trust titles and trailers will reflect this fine old genre. In Radio 1’s case, we should look forward to Death of The Hairy Monster, or Chris Evans – The Creature From Beyond Belief.

But, in truth, the 15-minute short is probably more in the mould of Look at Life. For those readers too young to recall it, Look at Life was an early example of sponsored broadcasting. In it, plummy, and probably BBC-trained commentators, led us through fascinating insights into modern baking techniques or the place of the rivet in shipbuilding.

What is completely different about the new cinematic form is that it is entirely commercial. We are to be shown a movie about Radio 1 the purpose of which is to win more listeners for the station. I respectfully suggest that the number of Sixties cinema-goers who went out and bought a ship after watching Look at Life was limited (an under-estimated cause, perhaps, of sponsored broadcasting’s demise).

Here, in the Radio 1 documentary, we can detect symptoms of three commercial developments that are worth noting. First, there is the progress of advertising as a discipline in a multimedia environment. Then there’s the further evidence of the redevelopment of British cinema. Finally, and most importantly, is the renaissance of Radio 1 itself.

Let’s take the advertising issue first. It is self-evident that those ad agencies that survive and prosper into the new millennium will be those that use new media and understand the most potent methods of exploiting them.

In this respect, it is interesting that the Radio 1 cinema documentary should emerge from an agency in a state of corporate flux. In June Marketing Week reported that Chiat/Day in the UK may be forced to fall in line with its Omnicom-owned American parent and merge with TBWA, or go its own way through a management buy-out (MW June 9).

Sometimes the very best work emerges from a company in a state of such flux. And sometimes it doesn’t. With regard to the latter, I respectfully suggest that the much heralded “new” ads for British Airways from M&C Saatchi will not go down in history as the airline’s best work.

Nevertheless, we can be assured that we will, for the time being, hear a great deal more about M&C Saatchi ploughing the same old, increasingly infertile furrows than rather more innovative outfits such as – if the Radio One campaign is anything to go by – the London rump of Chiat/Day.

In the longer run, those ad agencies that are on top of trade innovations – such as advertising through a short cinema movie – are likely to be reflecting the fragmentation of new media more appropriately than those that are not.

It is odd, maybe, to call cinema a new medium. But, as I said in “Movies make a reel stand” (MW March 24), reports of cinema’s death are greatly exaggerated. In an increasingly fragmented multimedia market, it has a strong role to play, so long as it is intelligently tied in with the marketing tools available.

Little wonder, then, that Richard Branson fought hard to beat heavyweights such as Sony, Rank and Carlton to the ownership of Britain’s largest cinema chain, MGM. There is no such thing as a dead medium, only one whose market has faded away.

Which brings us to the rebirth of Radio 1. A year ago, Radio 1’s ratings were through the floor and wallowing about in some sub-basement drain of Broadcasting House.

Lately, the station has picked up more than 500,000 listeners between March and July, with some particularly hot spots such as Chris Evans’ new(ish) breakfast show attracting ten per cent more listeners than the old format and taking the total to 6.8 million.

BBC marketing people are falling over themselves to endorse station controller Mat-thew Bannister’s corporate strategy over the past couple of years. But I suspect that support was rather less fulsome as he began to implement that strategy.

Insiders tell me that Bannister was almost impossible to talk to in the months after he took over. What he was doing was systematically and scientifically scheming Radio 1’s downfall. In an industry better known for gut-feelings and hunch, Bannister apparently plotted the two years in which the station’s ratings would collapse (almost), before returning with an entirely new market.

I have no idea whether he is the sort of speccy swot – in the tradition of Brains in Thunderbirds, whose white coat protects him against the ordinary pressures of life – but the move required bottle as well as science. Had he got it wrong, Bannister would doubtless have been dubbed an “isolated mistake”. Now it looks as though he was right. Everyone at the Beeb was, of course, behind him all along.

Among other moves, out went that Hairy Monster I mentioned (Dave Lee-Travis, for those under pensionable age) and the likes of Simon Bates, an immensely unpopular move at the time. They have been replaced by products such as Chris Evans and Lisa I’Anson, who have begun the process of building a younger market attuned to bands such as Oasis and Blur.

They have left it to commercial radio – and, indeed, Radio 2 – to play interminable re-peats of The Eagles’ Hotel California.

Well done, Bannister. But this is no simple attempt to grease up to a possible future director-general. It is also an attempt to draw a wider lesson about what to do about markets supposedly in decline.

Regeneration is always possible if the strategy is sound. It doesn’t need to be a grand strategy – it might involve changing the name Marathon to Snickers – and it is as true of major media as it is of chocolate bars.

This is a big principle, but its value can be contained within relatively simple and innocuous developments – such as the launch of a B-movie this Friday.

George Pitcher is joint managing director of media consultancy Luther Pendragon.

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