You can’t get anymore central to London than Leicester Square. Global Radio’s impressive headquarters runs its main networked operations from its recently refurbished block, right in the center of the capital, sandwiched between some of the biggest cinemas in London’s West End. I went to look around and talk to Dave Walters, head Technology and Broadcast Operations for the Global Group.
As the home of the Global groups radio operation, Leicester Square is the national hub for Capital, Classic FM, Choice, Heart, XFM, LBC. Each of these radio stations are nestled snugly together, while occupying a separate zone within the building. Each with a clear sense of individual identity, but each maintained separately in a building that has an overall sense of interchange and fluidity. Moving from one working zone and set of studios, to another was surprisingly easy. There are few barriers and few partition walls. The walls are painted white through the building, with a minimum of visual branding, some mood lighting in places, and with office furniture stripped back and minimal in the Swedish design style. While this is not a large building, and has many people working in it, it feels open and bright.
Dave explained that the big innovation that Global Radio are pushing through the company at the moment is their shift from Windows based PC, to MacBooks and tablets. Making use of more open and collaborative work spaces, production teams are as likely to meet and talk over a coffee in the roof-top atrium (with it’s very impressive London skyline vista), or in the break-out areas that pepper the studio and production room spaces.
With the consolidation of the radio industry in the last decade, many of the smaller local heritage radio stations that have been absorbed by successive waves of take-over have meant that Global has championed the network approach for it’s national operations. With the exception of Classic FM, all the other stations that Global runs are regional or local, and yet they have the feel of a cohesive network. With split operations and programming mainly run from the network centre, and some local input from the remaining satellite operations. This is not everyone’s idea of how radio is best delivered, but it is, according to Dave, a successful business model that is allowing Global to prosper in an increasingly competitive and fragmented media world.
When Dave stepped up to the job of running the Global operation he had many problems to deal with. Local studios that had very little investment for years. Seven different playout systems that meant that content couldn’t be managed efficiently and advertising value that couldn’t be maximised. This was combined with a whole set of different network and operational systems that meant that simple on-air functions, like delivering networked news, couldn’t easily be managed across different sites, because they each had a different time-source, which meant simultaneous programme elements couldn’t be linked automatically.
Dave’s chief job has been to bring all of this together and to ensure that production teams are aware that their national operation, despite being run mainly from London, still has a local feel, and still maintains it’s integration with the local network transmissions. Screens on the walls in each of the production suits identify the status of each broadcast service in each area. Are they running to time and are the broadcast signals at the right levels?
Moving into the Global news room, the most impressive level of integration is the ability of correspondents and reporters to link directly with the broadcast studios from their desks. Each workstation is fitted out with a microphone that ties directly to the main news studio. So there is no dropping in to soundproof booths or studios, as reporters can read their script directly from the Burli News Management system, and can ingest their report without moving away from their desk. The next stage of Global’s shift away from fixed workstations will be the news operation, with reporters linked by 3G or WiFi data networks out in the field.
I asked Dave what his thoughts are about how this removal of barriers between the production teams will impact on the output of the different networks? If XFM’s Danny Wallace is rubbing shoulders with Classic FM’s John Suchet in the coffee bar, what will this mean for the programmes that the listeners tune in to? According to Dave the future is about collaborative working and mixing with a lot of different people, so the creative space that this takes place in is as important as the brands that these different voices represent.
Finally, we talked about the skills that new producers and programme makers will need as they prepare for working in this high-pressure, dynamic environment. According to Dave, just as you have got used to a technology and learnt how you apply it, a new one comes along that changes the nature of what you do and the way that you do it. Being flexible and multi-skilled in a multimedia world is the challenge facing new producers. Being an engineer by training though, Dave still values the traditional competences. Soldering-up an XLR cable gets you credit still with Dave, because if the microphones don’t work, how can you do radio in the first place?