Tim Davie - Radioplayer, 4Extra, and two aborted closures
As BBC Audio and Music Director Tim Davie prepares to leave the department to become CEO of BBC Worldwide, we look back at what he achieved during his time in charge of BBC Radio.
Jenny Abramsky, his predecessor, had been in charge of BBC Radio since 1999. A former producer of Radio 4's World At One, Editor of Today, and the architect of BBC Radio 5 Live, she'd been working for the BBC in radio since the late 1960s.
Davie's career history had no such radio pedigree. Working for Procter & Gamble then for PepsiCo, he was well known as a marketer, and, as Mark Thompson's first senior external appointment as Director General of the BBC, Davie joined the organisation as Direct of Marketing, Communications and Audiences. It was difficult to think of a more different person to fill Abramsky's shoes - particularly as he was unlikely to copy Abramsky's disarming habit of taking off her shoes and putting her be-tighted feet on the table during meetings.
The lack of radio career wasn't to hinder him, however, in his new role.
Eager to learn - he confided to me one day that he had loaded his iPod with classical music from BBC Radio 3's Building a Library programme to expand his musical horizons - he instantly came across as a man keen to take views from his staff and get things done.
Davie wasn't dealt the easiest of starts.
In 2007, the BBC's radio programmes were criticised for a number of cases of listener deception. Competition winners on Liz Kershaw's 6music show were discovered to have been faked; Russell Brand's 6music show was claimed to have been live but was, in fact, pre-recorded, and Jo Whiley's Radio 1 show was found to have been guilty of twice faking a competition entrant. Competitions on all BBC radio were suspended, and rigorous Editorial Trust work was put into place, severely hampering BBC staff's ability to make programmes the way they used to, and damaging morale. Davie caught the tail-end of this change - but without experience in making radio, was unable to empathise with staff as clearly as his predecessor.
The worse was yet to come. On 18 October 2008, in a pre-recorded programme cleared for broadcast on BBC Radio 2, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left a number of lewd answerphone messages for TV actor Andrew Sachs about his grand-daughter. The programme produced a high number of complaints and considerable media interest. Just one month into the role, Davie ended up having to apologise. He lost the Controller of BBC Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, and the station's Head of Compliance, David Barber, who were both forced to resign.
However, Davie was quick to recover: and quickly used his marketing knowledge to help all of radio, not just the BBC. In an internal email from July 2009, he wrote that he was proposing a number of partnerships with commercial radio, with an overall strategy of: "Work together in areas where we can grow the radio market together", and "Present a stronger voice for radio as a medium". He announced the formation of the Radio Council, a monthly meeting with the CEOs of the BBC, Global, Bauer, GMG Radio, and the RadioCentre; and he discussed the appointment of a CEO for what was to become Digital Radio UK.
His email also announced a further development, again in partnership with commercial radio:
A radio player that allows one place for all radio to be listened to on the web. This will start by offering live listening and then we may add 7-day catch up. This allows us to make agreements with other websites who would like to offer a radio player within their own site (e.g. a social networking or shopping site). The BBC would continue with the TV/Radio core iplayer which would continue as it is today.
The UK Radioplayer, as it is now known, helped internet radio's total listening increase by 37% in the first twelve months after launch. Tim's understanding of marketing resulted in a significant development in radio listening.
Tellingly, in the same internal email, he also was keen to point out to his staff that he was doing this for the BBC's benefit.
Importantly, none of the proposed initiatives will impact negatively on the BBC and our content, I am only focusing on areas where we can gain mutual benefit. We will not recommend anything that detracts from the appeal of BBC radio services to our listeners.
Then another misstep. In March 2010,
April 2011 was, however, a time for a new initiative: the launch of BBC Radio 4 Extra. A re-branded BBC7, Radio 4 Extra was a audience success, despite mostly running the same content as the previous station (with a few, high-profile, changes). Once more, the marketer had struck - and succeeded.
Never quite seen as a radio man, yet repeatedly professing to be "passionate about radio", Davie leaves Audio & Music in a more consistent, better-marketed, shape: with March 2012's audience figures on record highs: and with BBC Radio escaping the worst of the savage BBC DQF cuts.
But, more importantly, Davie leaves the radio industry in good health: after having planned and executed some effective, efficient partnerships with the commercial radio industry. As UK Marketing Manager for Pepsi, Davie was responsible for the sponsorship deal for commercial radio's Pepsi Chart, and was comfortable crossing the floor and talking commercial radio's language: even speaking in RadioCentre and RAB events. He understood that in order for BBC Radio to be successful, radio as a whole needs to be successful: a model that is the envy of many radio markets across the world.
The ideal next Director of Audio & Music? Someone who's made radio - but who understands, like Davie, the need to act with one voice as an industry. And someone who won't shut down 6 music. That would be nice, too.
- James Cridland worked at the BBC between 2007 and 2009.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article said that the closure of 6music and Asian Network were Tim Davie's plans. In fact, Mark Thompson announced and led these plans, although Davie publicly backed them.
James Cridland is the Managing Director of Media UK, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business.
E-mail James Cridland | Visit James Cridland's website
I was always suspicious of the plans to close 6Music and Asian Network. It reminded me of when Heinz said they were going to stop making salad cream. In other words, very good marketing.
As a technologist in Radio, Tim has been an empowering and inspirational leader. He listens to my ideas and then says “yes” or “no”. If he says “yes”, it’s yes all the way, not “yes until it starts to get difficult” or “yes until I get distracted”. Equally, if he says “no” then there is no point going back to him a month later with the same idea! Refreshingly, he doesn’t want pages and pages of detail before saying yes or no, one slide presenting the idea and three saying why the audience will like it is sufficient.
Frustrated with TV getting all the “buzz” from widescreen, HD & 3D, Tim asked me to come up with some audience-facing innovation for radio. This led directly to the high quality wide dynamic range Radio 3 “HD” stream on IP, which has been very widely welcomed. He then gave backing for me to move onto a longer-term project, dialogue enhancement for those with a hearing impairment, which led to the NAB award winning experiment from Wimbledon which the press tagged the “Grunt Controller”. The audio innovation strand of work he sponsored is ongoing and will be part of his legacy. He has also provided strong support for the BBC Audio Research Partnership with 5 universities; this has directly led to a significant increase in the amount of fundamental audio research being undertaken in the interests of the radio audience. It’s true he doesn’t have a background in making radio programmes – but he has a whole team of people who do. What he brings is an understanding of the audience, of the competition and of the importance of making radio work better internally. BBC Radio now has a culture which thinks far more in terms of partnerships, not just with commercial radio and research at universities but with commercial companies and with organisations such as the British Library. He will be a tough act to follow.