In My Opinion: John Collins: It’s called radio

TWO things during the last 24 hours have got me worrying whether the people who make radio might be in danger of losing sight of the medium’s 100-year heritage.

This morning, the great Robin Galloway tweeted: “Sharleen from Texas chatting on the show right now. The Robin Galloway Breakfast Show available on multiple platforms across Scotland.”

And yesterday, Bauer announced a series of new promotions as their radio business moves towards regional management. The new managers would previously have been called programme directors – they’re now called ‘content directors’. I get it: they make much more than just radio – they’re responsible for material across a wide variety of platforms. The change in job title reflects aspirations to be a 21st-century publisher.

This term, ‘multi-platform’, seems to be gaining a lot of traction within radio.

I wonder, though, if TV would be so willing to swap its name for ‘multi-platform’. Jeff Stelling is a TV presenter, synonymous with Sky TV’s Saturday football coverage. This, despite the fact that their coverage appears on a multitude of devices and in many formats.

Or newspapers. David Dinsmore of The Sun seems to be a newspaper editor – not a content editor. Even though The Sun operates right across the media, with print, audio, video and a premium online offering.

We know, as radio practitioners, that it’s a multi-platform world, where radio dovetails with video, social media and online. But do the listeners? I have a feeling that the 90 per cent of Britons who listen-in don’t consume content in a ‘multi-platform environment’. I think they listen to the radio.

A wise old sales director once told me that you don’t sell the sausages – you sell the sizzle. By extension, the last thing you want to do is complicate the issue by letting them know what’s actually in the sausage.

The same is in danger of happening to the medium I love – which I reckon happens to be the medium best placed to benefit from digital developments.

We’ve had a century or so to tell our ‘listeners-in’ that they are consuming ‘radio’, even though it’s just the name of the transmission technology. The word is used all over the world, in dozens of languages. To end users, that one word is instantly recognisable as a kind of content. Radio.

Many former colleagues started in radio and went off to TV and print. Interestingly, they describe their industries by the traditional name – despite working in a ‘multi-platform’ world.

Radio has changed before; from AM to FM, shortwave to internet. But it remains largely the same thing. One broadcaster, speaking to hundreds of people individually at the same time.

The industry’s ability to add video to the mix, support its audio with written content on the web and even mount outside events doesn’t detract from the thing that gives it ‘the sizzle’. It would be mad for it to abandon a word that’s existed 20 years more than ‘television’ in the public mind.

The amount of positive brand value that’s been built up over the years, when the device we use to consume has the same name as the medium, is worth millions. Even the new entrants who don’t really make radio in any sense I recognise like to use the word.

The consumers know what radio is and isn’t thanks to its heritage. And the consumers know, without prompting that producers don’t make sausage-filling content.

They know that the magical thing we produce is… ‘Radio’.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio at Clyde 2, or anybody else that’ll have him. Pic: Michele Dillon.