R.A.P. Interview: Steve Martin

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R.A.P.: With the BBC stations having such a large share of the listenership, I would imagine the commercial stations are doing their best to take listeners away from the BBC. How does the BBC counter this competition?
Steve: Part of the importance and the distinctiveness of BBC services is that they are public service stations. They are there with a remit to provide information, education, and entertainment. BBC stations are there not just to go for the highest audience share. Yes, of course we prefer it if we have stronger audience figures, but there are certain qualities and values attached to BBC programming which would not be taken on board by commercial stations. They wouldn't need to. The commercial stations are there solely for their shareholders and, in a sense, have a freedom to buy their listenership. You wouldn't find, for example, any BBC station giving away thousands of pounds on a breakfast show.

R.A.P.: Give us an example of the promotional material you produce on a regular basis.
Steve: For Radio Scotland, the promotions on air are very much promotions for the station rather than for any individual piece of our output, although our scheduling is made up of individual programs. And part of our regional diversity is built on the fact that some of our programs are made in Glasgow or in Aberdeen or in Inverness or Edinburgh. Programs are broadcast from all those different areas of Scotland and are broadcast as self-contained programs. Only when it hits the air waves does it become part of Radio Scotland. So my job in creating a cohesive sound for the station is very important.

In terms of promotion, the aim is, as always, to draw on the strength of the programming to encourage listeners to stay with us longer. We have no giveaways. We don't give away thousands of pounds. People listen to us because we're relevant with the program content. The editorial is relevant. So the types of promotions we would make would be to highlight particular features on air. If our morning program is devoting an hour discussion to shoplifting, that may well be something that touches people's lives. Then I would construct a trail using, perhaps, program material, if some has been prepared in advance. Program producers will supply me with background information and clips from the program in advance and, quite often, this will spark an idea. But I feel uncomfortable if I'm not familiar with the program before I produce the promo. I tend to procrastinate to the last possible moment, then I'm confident I've given the promo as much thought as possible. You want your best idea BEFORE you make the promo, not when you're listening to the bad one on the radio! Right?

The other sort of promotion which we produce is a more generic, image-building type where we would want to make a statement about the radio station, influence people's perception to it. We would want to again encourage people to stay with us longer, and, where possible, once again, I'll use extracts from our programs to illustrate the station, in whatever creative way it seems suitable, and make it memorable. Quite often people will join us for one program, but we clearly want to encourage them to join us for a longer listening span. The key point then is to get people to remember that it's on Radio Scotland that they heard the program they enjoyed so much.

Your best ideas are often drawn from personal experience, so I try to socialize away from the media community wherever possible. I love clever comedy which is terrific for lateral thinking. I'll read satire and observational stuff, too--P.J. O'Rourke's just about right.

R.A.P.: How much promo production would you say you are doing weekly?
Steve: Every week we identify about six priorities to be set for heavy promotion, usually particular programs, but sometimes themes, personalities or station achievements. Promos for these will demand a good deal of my time. They run on rotation, so I like them to be written well and to sound polished.

As well as the six weekly priorities, each of our daily magazine shows will have a daily "menu" promo, often produced by the program teams to a set of house-style guidelines. We generate about fifteen promo carts a day, but I get a lot of help from our announcers who all understand our on-air profile and help me with promos, ideas, and the mechanics of production. I'd love to reduce the throughput of promos and concentrate on a few key priorities, but it's important for Radio Scotland to sound busy. So it's a very hungry station for promos.

I also have responsibility for managing our "Audio Design," an "anti-jingle" package, distinctive with no singing! It's a series of twenty station idents, and all our main program themes are inspired by three Celtic musical motifs. The way in which these logos are woven into the texture of the music is inventive and sophisticated, but then, that's Radio Scotland!

When your program content is so diverse and eclectic, I believe it is essential to highlight and develop the points of consistency -the style, the tone, and the on-air behavior that mark your identity on which station loyalty is built. While Radio Scotland can't pretend to be consistent in content, and wouldn't want to be, we can promote a single, solid identity. That's my job; I'm supposed to be a triumph of style over content.

R.A.P.: What's a major change you've noticed in British radio since the commercial stations have flourished?
Steve: Listeners are becoming more promiscuous. At one time, many listeners would have a favorite station, and it would be the only station they listened to. Now, as more stations come on the dial, stations are specializing in a particular format, whether it is a talk format or a music format or a particular kind of music--jazz, classical, soul. Listeners are choosing more by station than by program, which is contrary to the television method. In this country, the way people use television is that people will have a favorite program. It might be a soap one evening, a quiz show another evening, or it could be a news program. If you ask people what they saw on TV last night in Britain, they will give you a list of programs. If you ask them what they chose on the radio, most likely they'll give you a list of stations they listen to. So, as more stations come on, it's very important for us to keep our name and station identity at a high profile level, and that is an important part, the key part in fact, of the work we do with promotions on air on Radio Scotland.

R.A.P.: Is there any outside promotion done as with billboards or print advertising?
Steve: Yes, and where that is the case we would work to coordinate the external advertising and the on air work. Even if we don't draw on a common theme, the message is supportive. If you have seen the external advertising and you have heard the station, there is no conflicting message there. We would spend less on advertising than a commercial competitor.

R.A.P.: How does Radio in Scotland rate technology-wise?
Steve: Well, the BBC stations have been developing for many years, and what tends to happen with equipment in the BBC is that it becomes replaced on a life-cycle basis. Because the commercial stations have been increasing in number, and a lot of new stations have been built recently, all of those are being built with the latest technology. It is the case quite often that the most recent technology is to be found in commercial stations. But the BBC has its own research and development department which is actually at the forefront of many technologies, and those will quite often find their way into BBC studios before they find their way into commercial studios.

R.A.P.: What kind of studio setup do you have at Radio Scotland?
Steve: Let me first explain a little about how our station runs. As I mentioned earlier, we have programs made in Aberdeen, in Edinburgh, in Inverness, and in our largest center which is in Glasgow. At each of those centers there are two, perhaps three, studios which can go live on air. So, when a program is being broadcast from there, the signal will be sent from the studio where the presenter is, and it's probably going to be operated by an audio operator. That will be sent to our continuity suite which is in Glasgow. Any program which is live on air will pass through the continuity suite where the news bulletins are read, where the promos are slotted in from, where any recordings would be made if a program is to be repeated at a later time, where, basically, the station is directed from. The continuity suite is on air all the time and is always staffed.

Now in terms of promotion production, we have two continuity suites here, and we only use them both live on air when we have split our frequencies, when we're providing different programs on the FM channel than on the medium-wave channel, the AM. The second continuity suite is available for production work through the day, so we've invested in some additional equipment in that to turn it into more of a production studio. It is centered around a SADiE digital editing system, and that's where I do my promotions production. It's a self-op studio without a separate voice booth, and we produce all the promotion material in that one studio.

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