Commercial radio has never had it so good – more stations, more listeners and soaring advertising revenue. But there is a down side to this success. Demand for on-air talent and quality programming is increasing, and some fear it is outstripping supply.
Small stations with limited budgets inevitably find it hard to attract the best talent. Broadcasters in a competitive market are looking for “hot properties” to give them an edge over their rivals. This is why stations are increasingly turning to syndicated programming.
Ex-Radio 1 DJs Steve Wright and Bruno Brookes are the latest to be used by local commercial stations – each now have syndicated programmes on offer.
The benefits are clear as sales and marketing director at radio group GWR Simon Ward explains: “None of our individual stations could afford Steve Wright on their own, nor would he ever sell himself to a single station.”
GWR recently struck a deal with Wright to develop a Sunday morning show featuring music and chat. This has been developed by programme production and syndication specialist Unique and is now airing on GWR stations. Unique is also syndicating the show to other commercial stations outside the GWR group.
It is one of three shows being syndicated, or networked, by the company. Unique also produces business bulletin Business Link – a joint venture between Unique, Financial Times Television and US group ABC Networks – which is carried by 34 local stations, and Entertainment News, a new property developed with London’s Heart FM which will be networked in the new year.
“Networking will undoubtedly grow,” believes Unique chief executive Simon Cole. “It offers stations access to programmes they might not otherwise be able to get, and can create new opportunities for advertisers. All of our programmes are available for stations to sell to local sponsors, that’s just one of the benefits we can give back.”
A syndicated programme is traditionally developed outside a station. It is funded either by an advertiser, or from the syndicator’s own reserves. It is offered to stations with a sponsor or without one – in this case, the programme is then bartered in exchange for commercial airtime within the show. The syndicator then sells this on to advertisers to recoup production costs.
The best-known syndicated show is the Pepsi Network Chart Show, but many others are in development. Apart from those created by Unique, other specialists are exploring a range of different programming.
USP Radio Projects has developed A Question of Business with Mercury One2One for London Radio. The show will be offered elsewhere as the Mercury network grows.
Small independent production company Somethin’ Else has already developed a syndicated “what’s on” show, The Guardian Guide, and Wella Shockwave, a youth entertainment strand, and is now developing a rhythm and blues chart show. Meanwhile, Glover Langford Lynds, which developed a syndicated extension of Channel 4 soap Brookside for radio and the Bacardi Club Chart, is now looking at syndicating live music sessions.
All agree the potential for programme syndication is great. “As demand for commercial radio airtime increases, advertisers will realise they must do something different to stand out,” says Tarrant Steele, head of sponsorship at Somethin’ Else.
“Interest is being driven by the growth of larger commercial radio groups,” adds managing director of USP Radio Projects Rob Jones. “Companies are realising you can own swathes of airtime, but what counts is how you fill it.”
Successful programme syndication must balance the interests of the advertiser or sponsor, the station and the listener.
“The content of the show must stand alone in terms of quality, whether there is a sponsor or not,” says Steele. “You must balance the requirements of the client with the need to make a good programme .
The early days of programme syndication were characterised by what Jones describes as “the smash and grab approach”. Often, programmes were developed only to meet an advertiser’s aims and without attention to relevance to a station’s format or audience’s taste. Some also offered cash incentives to stations for broadcasting them: “An unfortunate precedent,” he says.
However, close attention is now paid to meeting the best interests of all parties involved. Jones claims: “Stations can afford programmes they would not otherwise have been able to get, and the advertiser gets branding and the benefits of close involvement in the format and content of the show.”
Unlike commercial television, commercial radio allows advertisers an intimate relationship with the programmes they sponsor. Radio Authority guidelines only limit which advertisers are acceptable, otherwise advertiser input is allowed as long as the nature of the association is transparent.
To ensure this, the RA requires advertisers funding programmes to be credited on-air every 15 minutes within a programme. Jones says: “The irony is, that’s great news for the advertiser.”
That is not to say programmes can exist as little more than an advertiser’s plug. All syndicated programmes must be acceptable to the stations’ programme controllers, who strictly police their station’s brand and reputation. It is not in their interests to schedule an advertorial as they risk losing listeners.
“No programme director wants to feel editorially compromised, but if they see they are getting a quality property that they could not otherwise afford, they will invariably take the idea one step further, enhancing it for all concerned,” Jones explains. “They know a name like Steve Wright or Bruno Brookes will be worth it – they’ll do the business.”
Opinion is divided on the best way in which programme syndication should develop. Not everyone believes sponsored programme syndication is the way ahead.
At Unique, Cole predicts barter syndication will become more common. In this system, the syndicator offers the programme, in exchange for commercial airtime, which it then sells on. Cole believes it offers the station greater flexibility. He explains: “They can find their own local sponsors and generate additional revenue.”
However, barter syndication is not universally popular. Piccadilly Radio’s sales director, Barbara Gardner, spoke out against it at last month’s commercial radio conference in Dublin, where she accused some syndicators of selling station airtime at less than the station’s usual rates.
“It is a danger,” Ward agrees. GWR has already suffered one syndicator selling its airtime at a different rate to an advertiser its own sales team was already talking to. He adds: “To ensure confidence in the medium, we must be masters of our own [airtime] inventory.”
Cole acknowledges stations’ concerns, but believes the threat is exaggerated. “If we offered lower rates than radio stations, we’d be out of business tomorrow,” he says. He predicts barter syndication deals – including Independent Radio News which is paid for by bartered airtime sold through the Newslink advertising package – could be worth just over 5m in revenue to commercial stations by the new year.
“The reach of Business Link using 34 local stations is twice that of Classic FM and offers advertisers 40 per cent more ABC1s,” he claims. “Advertisers benefit from a nationally networked programme environment, with the added numbers only local commercial radio can give.
Get it right and a syndicated programme can generate significant exposure for an advertiser. Research conducted on the Wella Shockwave programme showed it generated awareness levels equal to that of a top ten hit record. “Not even an advertising campaign can hope to achieve that,” says Steele.