The second of the DMU RadioLab lectures was given this week by Dave Walters, head of technology and operations for the Global Radio group. Dave travelled up from London to talk to sixty students from DemonFM and the media courses at DMU. Dave delivered a concentrated and detailed overview of the the commercial radio sector in the UK, and explained how consolidation has meant that there has been a concentration of ownership from many hundreds of stations, a radio economy that is now dominated by three large commercial networks.
Dave talked about his time working in the industry and some of the changes that he has witnessed and lived through. Dave was trained as an Electrical Engineer, so his natural interest is focused on the platforms and technologies that have evolved to make radio what it is today. From the earliest days of broadcasting with the valve was the biggest technological innovation, to the microprocessor, when many millions of electronic switches are built into to a chip the size of a fingernail. What once filled an entire building can now be squeezed into a hand-held device.
Dave’s passion for technology and the way that it is used to service the production of radio programming clearly runs deep, and while the route into automation might not please everyone, the challenge working through of the technological demands of running a networked commercial radio service was something of a wonder. The best example of this challenge that Dave gave was the Smart Radio Studios that run ClassicFM. While the station has a single studio it feeds-out into a layered network of transmitters and alternative media platforms that must all do things at the same time and in the same way, despite sending different commercial messages out to each of them. It’s a bit like landing a jumbo jet in eight different airports at the same time from a remote control base in the middle of London.
Dave is convinced that radio has a great future, but it’s going to have to work hard to differentiate itself from the online and multimedia industries that are now dominating the web and mobile media. The rise of Facebook offers a new challenge – personalised advertising that is bespoke to the individual user based on the expression of their interests. Will radio be able to cope with the shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting? One thing that radio has in its armoury however, according to Dave, is the ability to cover live events and react to what is happening in the world. Sports events are likely to become more important to radio as no one ever listens to a recording of a football commentary.
Afterwards, in the pub, Dave and I chatted about the recruitment requirements of the technical teams coming in to the radio industry, and he was keen to emphasis that anyone who wants to consider a broadcast engineering or technical development role in radio should have experienced radio by getting involved in a student, hospital or community radio station. Experience and a sense of the priority of ‘liveness’ is what drives radio. With music production, there is always the chance to take a recording way and polish it, or to remix it. With radio, according to Dave, the challenge is to ensure that the broadcast systems and the production management systems all work together to ensure that the listener gets an experience of radio that is of-the-moment’ and immediate, while also being an increasingly high-quality audio experience. What passed for good quality audio in the past today sounds thin and weak in comparison. Things move on, and our expectations about the quality of audio moves with it.
I’m hoping that we can work more closely in the future to develop the technology, multimedia and production management skills that DMU radio students get, as well as making great content for DemonFM.
Oh, and when I explained to Dave that BSc Radio Production & Technology is accredited with the IET he said ‘Cool!’