Eight Ways BBC Radio 1 Is Reinventing Radio…Through Video

Most disruptive ideas and innovations spring up during difficult times when industries are in trouble and tend to cling to old business models. And most of those disruptive ideas come from companies outside of the disrupted industry. For example, Napster and Apple reshaped the music industry, Netflix changed the way we consume TV and movies, and Pandora transformed radio from a one-way linear broadcast to a two-way personalized stream.

That makes it all the more remarkable when a traditional media company that is already doing extremely well generates new ideas, takes bold risks and grows new audiences. Yet that is exactly what BBC Radio 1 is doing. Despite BBC Radio 1’s pervasive brand awareness and loyalty, millions of existing listeners and a reputation as a cultural tastemaker both at home and abroad, its team has created a very unusual strategy (at least for a traditional media company) and refuses to rest on its laurels.

Here are the eight ways BBC Radio 1 is inventing the future of radio… through video.

1. They created a Visualization Department for radio
Joe Harlan holds one of the more unique titles in the radio industry: Head of Radio Visualization at BBC Radio 1. His visualization team has six members, all but one of whom have radio backgrounds. Their job is to bring visual content (i.e., video) to BBC Radio 1’s radio programming. And the visualization team is busy: from celebrity interviews in their radio studios to A-list musicians performing covers, and from music festival coverage to original content from their radio hosts, there is a LOT of video on the BBC Radio One’s YouTube channel.

2. Radio remains the top priority
Radio still rules. Everything BBC Radio 1 does is about radio first. BBC Radio One’s visualization strategy evolves from existing radio programming—not the other way around. Hence the decision to predominantly hire radio producers to create the video content, says Harlan: “Coming from radio, you know the opportunities to bring visual to life… And you know where not to compromise.” Rhys Hughes, BBC Radio 1’s Head of Programming, breaks the service’s strategy down to three words: “Listen. Watch. Share. The main priority is the ‘listen,’ but ‘watch’ is growing. And ‘share’ is how we engage with the audience on social media.”

The radio-first philosophy was the result of trial and error. “Early on, we tried to create visual moments that weren’t directly connected to radio,” says Harlan. “The results were not really playing our hand best. Everything is now affiliated with the radio. There remain a few one-offs, video-only ideas, but in general, everything stems from radio.” They train their entire staff to search for what Hughes calls “the elegant compromise.” The goal is not to turn radio producers into TV producers, but to make the entire team aware of the possibilities made available by both media.

3. They understand their video competition
For music performance video, Harlan explains: “Our competition is Jimmy Kimmel Live, not just other radio stations. We need to step it up.” And so they did. They created a dedicated original performance space on YouTube. ‘The Live Lounge’ is a recording and performance studio designed solely to make beautiful performance videos for YouTube. And the space is hopping. In the week I visited them, they were taping performances with Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5. The place was a bee-hive of A-list activity and felt very much like MuchMusic or MTV in their hey-days. The YouTube audience also seems to like it a lot: BBC Radio 1 currently has over 1.2 million people subscribed to its official channel.

4. They understand multi-platform content strategy
Harlan explains his multi-platform philosophy very succinctly: “Put the right content on the right platform at the right time in the right format.” And because of that, online is the one place where radio is not the top priority. With ‘share’ as a core element of the strategy, they are focused on the formats that people actually share. “In general, we’re posting less audio,” Hughes says. “Audio is just not generating the numbers online.” Harlan agrees: “People seem happier to share a video clip than an audio clip.”

A solid multi-platform strategy also includes a smart definition of the overall service. “Radio is on our name, but we don’t seek to tie ourselves down by saying ‘BBC Radio 1 is the greatest audio service available’.” Instead, BBC Radio 1 aims to be the most engaging and entertaining music outlet for young audiences in the UK. This allows the staff to think beyond radio and makes it easy to say yes to new ways and new platforms to reach young music fans.

5. They have reinvented the radio studio
The radio studios have been equipped with an astoundingly simple video production set-up. There are only three buttons for video in the entire studio: one for lights, one for changing the colours of the lights, and one for live streaming. Fixed cameras have been strategically placed to capture multiple angles covering the entire space. They are automatically activated and require no camera operators, so a radio host can push a few buttons and start recording video within seconds.

The BBC has even invented its own software, ‘Trigger Mix,’ which monitors audio waveforms on each mic to automatically edit interviews in real time. When someone starts speaking, the software inserts for a slight pause and then cuts to the camera focused on the speaker. Every interview is recorded with video and is ready to upload to YouTube within 30 minutes. The solution is quick, easy and effective.

Most importantly, the video set-up still puts radio first. “It’s a priority to ensure that video doesn’t take over the production and ruin the radio program,” says Harlan. Even so, video quality does not take a back seat. In fact, one of the most discerning of Hollywood’s image-conscious celebrities recently complimented the lighting set-up. “When Kim Kardashian gives you a seal of approval, you know you’ve done a good enough job with how everyone looks in a radio studio,” jokes Harlan. “After all, if you don’t intend to do video well, why would anyone intend to watch it?”

6. They offer artists and labels a one-stop shop to reach music fans
With the radio service and YouTube channel, BBC Radio 1 now has large audiences on two platforms that are relevant to young music fans, plus a horde of social media followers. The mix of strong traditional and digital platforms is an offer that few competitors can match and is likely to keep them on the ‘must visit’ list for any A-list artist for a long time.

7. They are rethinking radio hosting and radio programming
In a very bold move, the service hired two prominent young YouTubers, Dan Is Not On Fire and Amazing Phil… not to make videos, but to produce a recurring radio show. Every week, the pair ask audiences to make videos on YouTube requesting the songs they’d like to hear on BBC Radio 1. Dan and Phil then take the best of those videos and turn them into a new form of all-request radio programming that regularly trends online worldwide while the show is airing. The show receives ten times the volume of live streaming compared to anything else BBC Radio 1 produces. There are also regular on-air slots that feature other high-profile YouTubers—including SMOSH, Zoella, and Tyler Oakley—almost all of whom have millions of subscribers. The result? YouTube fans are becoming new and loyal audiences to BBC Radio

8. Their social channels aren’t all about BBC Radio 1 on-air programming
Hughes says that they have found great success on social media by openly acknowledging the wide array of BBC Radio 1 audiences’ interests and entertainment choices that ARE NOT BBC Radio 1. With a dedicated social media producer whose role is to actively participate in conversations with the audience, “we are trying to develop a tone of voice on Twitter and Facebook so that there is some humour and some edge and it doesn’t come across as corporate spam.” They were the first official BBC social channels to actively acknowledge programs like X Factor, which are not produced by the BBC. “It shows that we are bigger than just the radio station we are involved in. We are plugged into the larger zeitgeist.”

BBC Radio One’s forward-looking strategies are something every traditional media company can learn from, and it appears that at least one already has… The larger BBC itself. This fall’s launch of BBC Music, with a celebrity-filled and visually stunning version of God Only Knows (below), was an ingenious way to make a splash with a new service. As you probably guessed, the song instantly went viral on YouTube. In less than two months, the video has accumulated over 9.5 million views, and BBC Music already has over 2.3 million YouTube subscribers. There’s little doubt we will be hearing—and seeing—more smart digital strategy from BBC in the future.

Steve Pratt
Steve Pratt is the co-founder of Pacific Content and former head of Digital Music and CBC Radio 3 at CBC. He creates content strategy solutions for both media and non-media businesses.
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