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Are You Obit Ready?

(Picture: All Saints Church, Highweek, Devon, England. Pic: SmallJim)

Two things are guaranteed – death and taxes. Every 3 months, when I pay my company’s VAT bill, I’m glad that I’ve reached another tax date and not the alternative!

Radio is an immediate medium, meaning that when news breaks, we can react quickly. For many years there was an official “Obit (obituary) List” and a procedure that would be rehearsed here in the UK, in case of the death of a royalty or head of state. A blue light in the news room and studio would flash, and at the top of the hour we’d all opt in to IRN, the national commercial radio news provider, who would share the solemn news with the nation.

Link: Death Of A Princess

But that was in the days of live presenters, round-the-clock presenters and no social media.

Nowadays everything is very different. The station that I run is entirely automated, and live overnights are a rarity outside from some of the national networks, meaning our approach needs to be updated. Plus, we’re not just talking about the death of royals… the world we’re living in is an unpredictable place with terrorism in our minds more than ever.

On the basis that at some point we’ll need to go into “obit”, here’s a checklist of things to think about for your station…

What will you do when the news breaks?

Prepare now – don’t wait until it happens. I have an “obit log” that’s basically all the ballads from our playlist, minus any that talk about death. I can dial in and reprogram the music using this log, and then look through it to make sure that there aren’t any songs that aren’t right. If the cause of death is old age it’s easy to prepare, but death of other causes requires more sensitivity. Fast Car wouldn’t have been at all appropriate after Princess Diana passed away.

I also have a few generic announcements voiced that I can play between songs, saying that out of respect, we’ve adjusted our music. Some are Royal-specific, some aren’t. They can pad things until you have a presenter or relevant content.

Does everyone in your team know what to do? Who’s the least experienced person?

When was the last time you shared your obit procedure with your team? Social media means that the release of news is much less controlled in the past (hello TMZ!) and can happen at anti-social times. What happens if you have a specialist presenter on air, or you’re on an outside broadcast?

Plan with the least experienced person in mind, and ensure that everyone knows what to say… and what not to say. If you have a news team, they’ll already be trained in all of this.

Who will manage the situation if you’re not around?

I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to programming Chris Country – I know the system inside out, and it’s rare for anyone else to work with the scheduling system. However, there are two times when my phone is always off – when I’m in the cinema and when I’m on a flight.

As a result, the technical team at our parent group have all of the TeamViewer details for our machines, and one of my colleagues is within driving distance of our building in case the machines need some physical assistance. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to sort things yourself.

I once had a playout system meltdown as I was boarding a ten hour flight. Knowing that trusted people had access to the system meant that I could get on with watching movies and eating dodgy plane food!

What support will you receive from your news & information suppliers?

Whether you use IRN, Radio NewsHub, your own team, or an alternative supplier, get to know their major story incident procedure. What will they supply? When can you air it? How will they communicate it with you?

What about other serious news events?

This is less about “Obit”, and more about “Major Story Response”. Here’s an example… In October 2017, there was a mass shooting at the Route 91 country music festival in Las Vegas. 58 people died and over 800 were injured.

While this led bulletins on many UK stations, at Chris Country this was an obit-level situation. We changed our music dramatically that day, lowering the pace and the tone, and running news bulletins twice hourly all day. We also removed all songs connected with guns (and there’s a lot of them in country music!), and removed all promotions. Our social media reflected the tone. We wanted to reflect the shock and sadness of the situation that our listeners were feeling.

Commercials, Competitions, Content

I was assisting at a Heart station during the week of the terrible Manchester Arena bomb. As soon as the news broke, Global pulled all features, competitions, sponsor tags and content from the station and updated the music log, allowing the presenters to reflect the shock of the nation. There was no discussion about lost revenue, it just happened, and for the record, I was extremely impressed by the systems the group had in place. Friends at Bauer tell me the same happened there too.

When a major story breaks, there won’t be time to speak with all clients before altering your output, so ensure that all commercial contracts include a clause that in exceptional circumstances, you can pull features, ad campaigns, and so on. It’s for their sake too – a wacky “our survey says” feature with their brand on will sound crass at a time like this.

Now we’ve sorted all that, I’m off to do a tax return…

Chris Stevens is the founder of Devaweb and Ignite Jingles in the UK. He also consults stations on their imaging and on-air branding. He’s on twitter at @chrisukstevens

An audio producer’s travelling nightmare

My work leading Ignite Jingles means that I travel a fair bit. Having an American wife also adds to the international travel, and the result of all this is that I consider myself a bit of an expert at airports. I pack efficiently, I have an adapter for all occasions, I can edit audio in any seat or café, and find power supplies and wifi pretty much anywhere.

I’m also well disciplined at protecting my data and at planning for the worst – although a recent journey made me reconsider that!

Working with external drives means that I backup regularly, and I also have audio, phone contacts and essential files in the cloud. Should a drive go down, I can pull the files from elsewhere and lose at most a day’s work.

One of my favourite places to work – Drugstore Cowboy in Deep Ellum, Dallas

But recently, I managed to almost cause a disaster that I’d never planned for… I picked up the wrong laptop when collecting my baggage through security.

It was still a shiny silver MacBook, but it wasn’t until I got settled in the lounge that I realized something was amiss. My thoughts were something like this…

– Hmm… my laptop feels lighter than usual.
– Hold on, this is a MacBook Air.
– Why did I bring our MacBook Air instead of my laptop?
– Hold on, this isn’t even our MacBook Air.
– Where did I get this from?
– And where’s my laptop?!?

Very quickly I realised that I picked up someone else’s laptop from security after our bags were scanned, put it in my rucksack, and headed off.

Panic. Major panic. I was about to be 5000 miles from home, and my laptop is the centre of all my work – editing, admin, communication and more.

Luckily for me, the owner the laptop I’d collected didn’t have a password on it, so I was able to discover his name, and the fantastic team at Manchester Airport tracked him down after searching the lounges and gates. Panic over, after an extremely stressful hour or so., which I don’t want to go through again. Phew! But, I’ve learnt some lessons…

Editing audio in Newark Airport, New Jersey.

Stuff I’m going to do differently now:

Firstly, I’m going to put some contact details on my laptop. As in, physical details on a sticker. If he’d had a password on his laptop, I’d have no idea whose I had, and he’d have no clue from mine. My laptop would have been heading to Amsterdam while I was on my way to Dallas.

Action Point: Basic contact details on base of laptop

Secondly, it begs a bigger question. What if I’m traveling and my laptop breaks down, or I accidentally pour coffee in it, or it gets stolen? Reality is, I’d need to buy a new one, which then leads to how I’d get all my software reinstalled to allow me to do the basics until returning home. In my case, email and Pro Tools are the essentials (including various PlugIns).

Action Point: Copy install files to the cloud so I can download them onto a new machine if possible.

Thirdly: More items than ever are cloud-based, but what files on this computer wouldn’t be stored there? I ran a full backup last night, but that drive would be sitting in the office until I’d get back and could run a Time Machine install.

Action point: Make sure that someone back at the office could plug that backup into a server for me to access.

Fouth and finally: In a world of shiny silver Macs, it pays to make yours look different. If I had Ignite stickers on it, I’d have looked for them when collecting my laptop.

Action point: My laptop now looks like this:

This episode has a happy ending, but the panic made me think about all those “what ifs”, which I’ll also be applying to my iLok, external drives, and everything else that are essential for me to keep working on the road.

And hopefully this article will help other people avoid the situation I got in!

PS – Back in the lounge, the rum and coke tasted all the sweeter once I was reunited with my laptop!

UPDATE

Thanks to Ricki Lee for sharing a little-known MacBook tip… you can actually have a message displayed on the lock screen, such as contact details. This only works if you laptop is switched on and asleep – not if it’s powered down and then switched on. Info here.

Chris Stevens is the founder and creative director of Ignite Jingles. Based in Manchester UK, Ignite’s jingles are heard every minute of every day, from Mexico to Muscat, and Austin to Australia! If you’re looking to refresh your station sound, email him or call +161 883 2200.

Taste and decency in radio imaging – how far is too far?

The UK’s original Jack FM has been in trouble with the radio regulators this week, for an ident which said the following, while accompanied by the Ski Sunday music, two days after this terrible news story

Jack FM: As dependable as a Germanwings co-pilot

Yikes. Certainly edgy, and according to Ofcom, not acceptable. This is a quote from their decision…

While the Licensee may have believed that none of the victims had Oxfordshire connections, Ofcom noted that this incident, which had happened just two days previously, resulted in the death of 150 people in horrifying circumstances. In Ofcom’s view this was a clear attempt to make humour out of the very recent murder of 150 people. We therefore concluded that the material clearly had the potential to cause offence. (link)

Even Jack FM pulled the piece after one broadcast, so while they defended their actions, I suspect that everyone involved is probably regretting broadcasting the audio.

But that doesn’t mean we should always err on the side of safety and that we should never cause offence.

The world is not short of safe radio stations – ones that would never cause a moment’s worry. In particular, the AC format has carved a niche out of being listenable to by anyone without any upset or anguish. I’ve tuned in to stations with slogans such as “Safe for the whole family” and “Lite rock, less talk” and suchlike – they’re as cuddly as you would expect.

But not everyone wants to listen to safe radio. Radio 4 Extra’s repeats of Victor Lewis Smith’s 1990 Radio 1 series are a good reminder that being controversial to the point of not knowing whether you should laugh or not is nothing new, and Jack FM (in particular the Oxford Jack FM) has made controversial liners part of its station sound. I have examples that I’ve played in lectures that I would never, ever dare broadcast, but that doesn’t mean that they were wrong to make or transmit. It might just be that my taste-buds aren’t as able to deal with spicy radio as other people’s.

During my time as Group Production Director at GMG Radio, I oversaw the Rock Radio (laterly Real XS) station sound. Originally created by Ian Ferguson who won a European Imaging award for it in Barcelona, then Roy Martin (of Radio Today fame) and James Espley (who now makes loud and rather cool noises at TeamRock), one of my responsibilities was approving – or not – the “quirkies” – one-liner idents voiced by Nick Coady which helped give the station personality during its automated hours. The plan was to update them regularly, keep them relevant where possible, and make listeners smile.

I would estimate that I rejected 20-30% of the liners, for being too outrageous, controversial or offensive. Some were dayparted out of the main shows, others never made it to air at all. And, occasionally, I’d hear one on air that I’d approved, only to decide that, on balance, that was the wrong decision.

The fact that every time I would reject some was brilliant. Without that, the producers wouldn’t know where the boundaries were – we’d have been playing too safe, and we’d not be creating the unique station sound that helped make Rock Radio such a fun station.

When it comes to writing imaging, and even producing it, anything should go. An idea on paper can change mood and tone when it’s produced, and that mood & tone can change again when heard in context. To be creative, to brainstorm, to experiment, it’s all good.

Sure, Jack broadcast a piece that shouldn’t have gone to air. But we mustn’t condemn creativity because someone made an error of judgment. And we mustn’t presume that Jack FM is full of monsters just because that particular piece was offensive. It was a mistake – a bad one admittedly – but just a mistake.

Why Five Live was right to drop its imaging this week

It’s been a fast-moving week of news from France, with many UK outlets sending reporters to the area for on-location coverage. Because I’ve mainly been in the car and I don’t have DAB in the current vehicle, I’ve mainly been getting my radio news from BBC Five Live, who in my opinion did a great job. I was also impressed to see Global’s Simon Conway in France too; he has blogged about his experiences here.

For much of the time, 5 Live dropped their imaging. While some imaging producers might think of this as an odd thing to do, I think it was the right decision, for a number of reasons…

1. In such a serious situation, jingles can talk about the wrong thing. They’re usually about us – our frequencies, our branding, our platforms – and at a time like this we should be getting straight to the reporting. You don’t need to flag that you’re a news station right now.

2. Often they’re the wrong mood. Dance-driven beds and stabs into hostage situations? No.

3. The lack of them adds something to the situation. Removing these reliable benchmarks of the clock helps to underline the gravity of the situation.

4. Finally, from a practical situation, you’re probably dealing with a large number of outside lines and non-studio presenters, possibly with schedule changes and a fast-changing situation. The last thing you need to be thinking about is who’s going to hit the junction on the news ramp, and who’s going to fill the donut afterwards. Do what you do best – report the news.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a fan of “breaking news” imaging. It’s far more powerful to use no imaging. BBC Five Live returned to their imaging shortly after the police stormed the two hostage situations and brought them to an end. This was also a great decision – I was in a meeting while the sieges ended, and hearing the TOH imaging when I got back into my car was an immediate subliminal message that normality was returning.

If you’re rolling the news, don’t be afraid to break the imaging rules at times like this. You’re going to get your ticks, your respect and your extended hours because of the content you’re putting in, not because of the news jingle. From what I recall, we did this at Real Radio through the night of the terrible Clutha helicopter tragedy.

What if you’re a music station? If you’re keeping the hits rolling, keep the imaging in place. If the situation’s not serious enough to drop the playlist and the ads, then you’d sound silly dropping the imaging. If you’re going completely off-format though, keep things off-format.

The positioning of promos…

I can go on about stuff like this for hours. But I’ll try not to…

Last week, while driving round the M25, I was surprised to hear a major London station play three promos, back to back, all containing the same station voices, and all for different clients.

It goes without saying that this is a bad idea. Each merges into the next and the effectiveness is lost, which is why traffic teams work carefully to avoid this kind of situation. Most stations will have up to four breaks per hour, with a maximum of one promo per break. It’d seem that the station I heard probably just made a mistake – possibly one was in the system as a commercial or the ad break lengths weren’t balancing. That said, I heard two promos back-to-back on the same station the night after, which is a lack of attention to detail.

Where should promos go?

Scheduling one promo per break is simple, and just leaves the decision of where to put it in the break. But things are complicated further when you add other S&P content to the breaks. By the end of Real Radio, we had a promo, a sponsor tag and a “partnership tag” (basically an unbranded sponsor tag) in most breaks. Add to that the station imaging, and the danger of fillers if the ad breaks aren’t of equal length, and the potential for bad sequences grows quickly.

Imaging producers and programmers spend many hours – often in pubs – discussing the best sequences. Should the promo go first, ensuring that the client’s message is heard off the back of the presenter? If so, where does the sponsor tag go? The end of the break? If so, is there a danger of it merging in with the station imaging? Especially if the imaging also uses station voices. And if you throw a partnership tag into the mix, where should that go?

Oh – and the other conundrum – if some promos are sponsored and thus scheduled by traffic, and others are programming promos and are scheduled by the programmer through Linker (or equivalent), it can be hard to keep all elements consistent.

At Real Radio, the general sequence was this…

Ramp into break ending in sung ID
Sponsor Tag (scheduled by traffic)
S&P Promo (scheduled by traffic)
Ad break
Partnership tag (scheduled by traffic(
Jingle
Music

This was all well and good, except when the promo was scheduled by programming, your Sponsor Tag and Promo would swap positions, causing an inconsistency and possible voice clashes…

Ramp into break ending in sung ID
Station Promo (scheduled by programming)
Sponsor Tag (scheduled by traffic)
Ad break
Partnership tag (scheduled by traffic)
Jingle
Music

Of course, you could just insist that all promos are scheduled by traffic, which cuts down on programming flexibility, or you can insist that all promos are scheduled by programming, which excludes the ability for the sales team to run the reports that they like to be able to supply to clients, and work out broadcast values etc.

Different groups approach it in different ways, and reality is that not many have partnership tags, and not many have the high S&P load that requires such strict rules. Plus, some have separate S&P voices for promos than they use for sponsor tags or station imaging (Global are particularly good at this, which benefits the flow of their breaks), and let’s not even get into the world of bingo promos, dating promos, local deals donuts or promos made by the sales team to encourage businesses to advertise on the station, often scheduled as commercials even though they use the station voices.

Anyway… back to the point… what goes where?

That’s up to you, and what’s right for the station. Decide your rules, and stick to them. Oh, and make sure that everyone involved is aware of them. One of the most important pieces of information when creating any audio is the context of how it’ll be used, including what’s before or after it.

Let’s discuss this more in the pub!