April 24, 2012
George Ergatoudis is in a truly unique and challenging position. He's the Head of Music for the U.K. government-funded BBC Radio1 and Urban sister 1Xtra ... and while his job is naturally to attract the largest audience possible, his primary mission is to attract teens, the one demo whose attention is increasingly geared toward digital technology and online services. What's more, Ergatoudis simply can't attract that audience by jamming the biggest hits; he's also tasked with the "public service" of breaking new and emerging U.K. artists at the same time. Here's how he does it:
Early on, you seemed to bounce back and forth from being a producer on Radio 1 and doing label work. What made you decide to stay in Radio?
Music has always been the driver for my career; it was why I got into the business in the first place. While I was working as a trainee producer for Radio 1 in 1989, I still had my eye on working for a label to see what life was like on other side of the fence. So I joined the 4th & Broadway label at Island Records as Club Promotion Manager, a position that turned out to be very promotion-driven with not much room for me to be creative. I didn't really enjoy the job too much and I realized I had to be in radio.
The brilliant thing about radio is that it's a communication medium. I've always been passionate about music, where I'd tell a friend or two about my music discoveries; being in radio gives me the opportunity to do that on a mass scale. That certainly appeals to me and that has fundamentally driven my career.
Describe the life of a "producer" on Radio 1 and Kiss 100.
When I started as a trainee producer at Radio 1, I got to work on pretty much every show on the network. When I produced at Kiss 100, I migrated from producing all their specialist music shows to working on all their daytime shows, where the focus was on building reach and hours. It was an exciting and creative period for me ... for instance, coming up with big ideas for our sponsors; it was a very different experience to working on BBC Radio.
I worked with a guy named Charlie Wilde on his breakfast show. He was an American DJ and we developed a really creative partnership. I then worked on the Steve Jackson breakfast show where we introduced "Street Boy," a sidekick who'd go out on the street doing crazy live stunts. Although that was common in American radio, no one had really done it well in the U.K. at that time. We found the right guy to do that and we had a lot of fun.
I came back to BBC Radio 1 in 1997 and for three years, I worked on big daytime shows, working closely with DJs to find areas that could be improved: booking the right guests, feature ideas, competition ideas, etc. Basically making sure the shows were as entertaining as possible.
When you first took this position in 2005, what was your overall impression of BBC 1 Radio, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses, and in what you wanted to change?
In the great scheme of things, I found that Radio 1 was in reasonably good health, but one of the key things I thought I could improve was the process of deciding what music to play. Radio 1 must perform a careful balancing act between delivering our public service commitment which requires us to support U.K. music and new emerging artists and the more populist side of what we do. I wanted to refine that balancing act.
Historically, the Radio 1 playlist meeting was primarily attended by the producers who worked on the daytime shows. I threw that out and started from scratch. I opened the process up to anybody in the building who had good ears. So we built a new panel: half men and half women with a wide range of subjective tastes. My vision was that in a crazy, small way, it could mirror the taste of our audience.
Now, some of the playlist team members have mainstream tastes while others are more focused on emerging talent in different genres: electronic dance music, rock, etc. I want them to represent a real breadth of music -- and I refresh the panel every few months. The reason we need to do that is that we can't rely on research to deliver new music hits. That just doesn't work for us; we need to balance a sense of objective information with great subjective taste.
Two things about that: First, won't the producers who had the most sway before object to being a much smaller part of the process and 2) when you have more musically diverse input, isn't it harder the balance the music out?
If you build the panel carefully where you have the right people at the table and you explain the new process well, then the buy-in becomes stronger. Actually, quite a few daytime producers ended up on the team anyway; their input was just balanced by new voices. Yes, that led to a lot of debate at the table, but in the end it's a pretty democratic process.
I also introduced a lot more objective information to the team. For the first time, we started looking at stats such as YouTube views, demo breakdowns, MySpace info and Shazam info. There are a lot more places online to get quality information about what's happening.
Another thing I wanted to improve was Radio 1's relationship with the music industry. We spent a lot more time developing that; they had told me they weren't getting clear information from Radio 1 about their records, for instance, so I ensured they started to get regular clear feedback. In general, they now know where we are on their records.
The other thing we did was own up when we were late on a hit, or missed one completely. We felt it was right to throw our egos out in such a situation, admit that we missed it and get back on board.
In America, of course, ratings (and the revenue generated off them) are the be-all and end-all in terms of success. How important are ratings at BBC Radio 1?
It's still very, very important to us; the BBC's goal is to provide a service to everybody in the U.K. The model is that since pretty much every household has to pay our license fee, every household is entitled to get something back from the BBC. It's really important that Radio 1 plays a part in delivering the hard-to-reach young teen audience. Nowadays, our young listeners are faced with a bewildering choice of media, yet for BBC Radio 1, to keep justifying its current license fee model, it's imperative we do everything we can to reach them. The fact that we still get 44% of the 15-24 audience in the U.K. demonstrates we are still succeeding.
Overall, is BBC Radio 1 a reflection of your audience's tastes ... or a trend-setter for them?
We're at what I call "the front of the wave." We have to be really careful to balance established artists and big hits with unknown acts and new records. If you stretch your lead on the audience too far, you confuse them; they lose touch and stop listening. So we have to absolutely be in tune with the market and play a careful game when introducing new genres, songs and artists. It's essential for us to be at the right point of discovery, but to never stretch it too far because the mainstream audience always take a little longer to catch on.
It's also critical for the music industry to still be able to deliver new artists and songs to our huge audience. We get 13 million people a week hearing new music and that makes a big difference.
You have a reputation for breaking new talent. What's the best way of doing that without turning off those who want to hear the established hits ... and possibly negatively impacting ratings?
There are a few factors. One is the classic "sandwiching" model, where you play an established hit on either side of something a bit more difficult or new to the audience. That's very important to how we program the station. The other thing is the DJ sell. He or she has to communicate with passion, with information around a new artist and song: that makes a huge difference. We utilize that a lot. We also make sure there's a lot of dialog between the production team and the presenters to make sure we're capturing that passion for music.
Obviously, not every new artist project you take a chance on becomes a major success. When do you realize that a certain track or artist just isn't connecting with your audience and it's time to move on?
The most important aspect, if we are really committed to an act, is to actually put it in high-rotation A-list. Only then do we look at the research. We normally give artists three shots -- three singles -- to prove themselves. For instance, with Mumford & Sons' first two singles on our A-list, research told us the audience was not getting it, but on the third single there was a complete turnaround of the market. Sometimes you have to have long-term belief that an act can get there and finally click.
Of course, the act also has to work the market, doing live gigs to build fan interest and working the online and social media space. That's equally important.
In America, a record gets researched after generating a certain amount of spins. Do you have a similar spin count threshold when you evaluate your new tracks?
There's no spin count, not at all. If we believe in an artist and the first track isn't catching on, we'll just go to the next track. We have a dialog with the labels, who we ultimately work very closely with. We have more of a partnership with the music industry and we're label agnostic ... we look at projects on small labels and major labels equally. It's whether we have passion for the artist and the repertoire first and foremost. And it's about taking a certain number of risks; it's not like America, where it seems like radio is largely trying to optimize risk-reduction.
The business model we have is a rather privileged position, a privilege we take very seriously. To justify why a public-funded radio station should exist, you have to take those risks - and when we do, we can make a difference.
Of course, not everything will click and go mainstream and mass market, but we can certainly introduce a large number of people to artists and music they might never come across otherwise.
Back to your Mumford example: Did you have the three singles all lined up when you committed to the band and that record? Or did the labels choose each track after the preceding track was finished?
We let them choose the tracks, although we obviously did get into a dialog with them. I'll give you another example: Take the band The XX ... we really believed in them, but we thought very carefully about when to put them into the mainstream spotlight. So we waited quite a long time, until they had put a few singles into the market. Essentially the point came about a year after they first emerged on the specialist/blog level, when we decided it was time to get on board and put them on our A-list. Then we started to revisit the singles that were actually released early on. For some acts, though, we do get into a dialog with the label on the best single release order to go with.
What makes for a successful air personality at BBC Radio 1? What separates those who "move the needle" from those who don't?
Clearly we look for great communicators, people who have a real original approach and develop a brand identity of their own. Ideally, they should be funny, which I think is a really critical part, although humor can be delivered in different ways.
That's more important for daytime personalities. It's slightly different for the specialist DJs, who have to build a brand in a niche of music, be it rock, House, electronic, alternative or dance. They need to develop followings, both online, in clubs and on the radio.
We want our on-air talent to be ready to work with our production team as well, to come up with quality content, be willing to work behind the scenes and be engaging beyond radio. We now do more visual content in the social network space to build our brand, so they have to build a Facebook and Twitter following.
Being team players is another thing. Our DJs often appear on each other's shows and they reference each other. We like to create something of a soap opera: a sense of one big interconnected family.
Please describe the competitive environment of BBC 1 against GMG, BBC Radio 2, Internet Radio and other parties. Do you counter-program against any of them?
We don't program against our competition at all. We set out our own agenda; it's not as much arrogance, as it is confidence. We know what we're doing; we understand our audience and the fact that we need to lead and let others follow. That's why Radio 1 has stayed so competitive through the years and continued to be successful. I'm not denying that we look at our competitors, but the bottom line is that we concentrate on what we do first.
There have been press reports that you're being pressured to attract more young listeners because the average age of BBC1 Radio listeners is over 30. How are you reacting to that?
It's a really interesting thing. The BBC and the entire radio industry are worried about keeping young audience listening to the radio. We have a bigger picture; we need to engage and find ways to engage young listeners who don't already have radio as a habit in their lives. BBC Radio has a portfolio approach, with different networks for different audiences. Yet all of our networks and audiences could suffer in the future if Radio 1 doesn't introduce radio to young audiences at an early age.
We are really strongly tasked to reach that young audience and to do whatever it takes to reach them. It takes a lot of time and an understanding of how young audiences behave - especially what drives them to radio. We have a very clear directive, which impacts our selection of content and music to ensure we appeal to the 15-24 age group particularly, but more broadly we still target listeners up to the age of 30.
Pundits in America claim that U.S. radio is also losing its younger generation of listeners because of their interest in the Net and digital technology. Is that impacting BBC Radio 1, too?
That's the biggest story we see at Radio 1 as a youth brand. Of course radio is absolutely at the heart of what we do. Increasingly, we're a lot more than a linear radio station. We need to be where the audience is -- and to do that we create more visual content and lots of online content ... small digestible pieces of content distributed on many platforms. That's going to be really critical to keep our audience.
We have to be on mobile platforms and keep improving. Amazingly, the BBC hasn't launched an app for Android or Apple that's specific to BBC Radio, but there's one coming soon. You also have to be present on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, etc. Where we put content goes way beyond a turn of the dial or a button to push.
Corporate American radio has dealt with financial pressure with staff downsizing. How has the financial pressures of the economy and Britain's austerity program impacted BBC1?
The BBC, as a whole, is undergoing a cost-reduction process at the moment and we looked hard at ways to reduce our costs and still deliver quality content. We're examining a reallocation of production effort and how we apply our creative time. It's at an early experimental stage, but it concerns how we can spread the creative force we have to produce not just linear content for radio, but content for social networks and the online space.
Have the growing use of multiple platforms for BBC Radio 1 changed its programming strategy at all? The way the personalities engage the audience, perhaps?
Our social network is one of biggest changes in relating to our audience. From Facebook to Twitter, how we connect to our audience has changed hugely. We got into that at a very early stage and we're still experimenting. In terms of making video content we are now visualizing the final hour of our Top 40 singles chart show every Sunday, where the promo video of each song is playing online in real time in a linear fashion.
Now you can go online and watch the presenter doing interviews with guests, and when they play a track, you see a video at the same time. The presenters have to carefully balance how they relate to the audience while linking to video content.
A bit of an experiment that's coming soon on Monday, May 7th - is when we count down the 150 biggest-selling singles of the Millennium ... and we'll be streaming all 150 of those videos at the same time.
You also oversee 1Xtra. How do you program that differently from Radio 1 ... and how you deal with potential time management problems when working on both networks at the same time?
Very obviously, the secret is to have really good people working for you. Radio1 is built on good people. What's more, before I took on this role, I was the music manager at 1Xtra; now Laura Lukenz is our music manager, and I trust her implicitly. She acts as my right hand in music policy; I do have a dialog with her over how things are developing and our ongoing music policy. But, these are broad brushstrokes; it's the detail that she works on that makes the station sing.
1Xtra, broadly speaking, plays music often heard on Urban music stations in America, combined with strong support for U.K. Urban artists, and we take even more risks on daytime than Radio 1, as it is a niche digital station. At the end of the day, I expect 1Xtra to do the heavy lifting to break new artists that Radio 1 can then follow on with.
It'll get on hot new tracks before we do and gauge the response, whether it's driving YouTube views or Facebook stats. 1Xtra now has over one million listeners. That's a very sizable audience in the U.K. and it's only been going for 10 years. It has a reputation for showcasing the hottest new Urban music and new emerging genres. A lot of tastemakers listen to the station now.
What of the future - do you feel BBC Radio 1 and Xtra1 represent growth media, or are they more of a mature entertainment model that best needs to be maintained?
Obviously, the biggest story of all is staying relevant to our young target audience, to make sure our content is directed back to our listeners, not just in a linear way, but to engage more listeners on all the available platforms: mobile, iPads, online, Net TV, etc. When that takes off, we'll still have to maintain the brand as a radio station, yet still be willing to take risks and experiment.
Of course, we realize that not everything we try will work, but we will concentrate on the things that work most effectively. The way we see it, we're in a privileged position and we have more ability to fund risk taking and experimentation and perhaps the wider market can learn from our failures and successes.
And what are your future plans? Do you have long-range goals or is it best to go day to day for year-to-year?
What I do next is my biggest question. Maybe I'll move to a different market such as America ... who knows? Maybe I'll move sideways, as long as it's music-focused. It would be very difficult to leave music; it's just so central to my passion and career. I really don't know if I could let that go.