Friday, 2 September 2011

Goodbye Traffic Radio

So farewell Traffic Radio. At 3pm on Wednesday 31st August, the Highways Agency’s own radio station went quiet.

I had been involved in the whole project from the very beginning. More years ago than I can even remember, my colleague Will Jackson and I discussed the idea with the consultants advising the Agency. The station grew from a very basic online feed into a 24 hour a day England-wide terrestrial station. Will and I were there right to the end.

The main complaint we got about the station was not about its content or delivery, but the fact that it was only available on DAB. In fact, I’d speculate that this very fact caused its death, when, last September, the Mail on Sunday produced a story headlined “£2.8m of tax is wasted on traffic radio we can’t hear”, with the gist of the story being that there’s a traffic radio station broadcasting on DAB when hardly any cars have DAB receivers. I reckon somebody in a new Government, looking for savings and seeing a headline like that wouldn’t be too keen to sign off any further spending on the project, and this was just at the time that the decision was being taken about whether to extend the service life or not – and we know how that turned out.

We’d all have loved the station to be on FM or even AM, rather than DAB, but you can hardly go out and invent more frequencies on these bands, so DAB was the next best thing. But because of the lack of in-car receivers, the station’s business case had to stack up purely as a pre-trip planning tool, any in-car use was a bonus, not a requirement. Being able to help people manage their journeys before they set off has a benefit to managing the road network, if people know they’ll face a jam on their planned route they can either take a different one, change mode of transport or delay making their journey altogether. This reduction in the number of vehicles joining a jam had a proven positive effect on the road network and in turn, the economy. It was a popular station – online listening, which can be accurately and easily measured – grew ten-fold in three years. But, of course, that truth didn’t fit the story.

The other disappointment is that the number of DAB receivers in car is growing faster than ever before, and will grow even more next year. So an established station broadcasting on-demand traffic to vehicles automatically had a growing audience. Add to that the need for a system to broadcast fast-changing information for London 2012, and shutting off the station now, after all the investment that’s gone into it, means that taxpayers’ investment really has been wasted, because the true benefits which would come back to the economy in spades now won’t be realised.

What can the radio industry learn from Traffic Radio? I think it shows such a dip-in-dip-out station has a place in our multi-channel radio future (as it has in places as diverse as Dortmund, Vancouver and Rio). Traffic Radio wasn’t trying to become somebody’s favourite station (I’d be rather worried if anyone said it was their favourite!) but it was offering up a specific type of service delivered when the listener, rather than the programmer, decreed. Thanks to rolling news channels, people expect to get news updates on TV when they choose rather than waiting for programmes at 1, 6 and 10. I predict that in the future, radio will provide similar on-demand services.

Before you ask, yes we did try to create a commercial version of the station, continuing to broadcast on DAB, online, mobile etc and we came darn close to achieving it. We were very hopeful of taking a successful Traffic Radio, removing some of the programming shackles which inevitably come from representing the Government to make it a bit more “Top Gear” and building a really successful, entertaining and informative station. Our Traffic Radio partners Trafficlink have launched an online version and I really hope it’s a success. It’s just a shame the DAB platform’s gone quiet and they’re having to start from Square One again, but at least they’re doing it.

Given the contractual and platform restrictions placed upon us, I think my team did a pretty good job of creating a relevant, informative yet listenable radio station. My biggest regret is that, despite all the investment in the programming, the station lacked the marketing it could have had, meaning that many people who may have used the service, missed out. Anecdotally a large number of people who used Traffic Radio found it by chance whilst scanning through their DAB station list. My tip for anyone offering an information service, on whatever platform, is that you need to make a big noise about it, which will build up the sort of following and loyalty to guard against incorrect allegations of “waste” – and these allegations can be treated the way they deserve.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The relevance of radio traffic news

My friend, the radio futurologist James Cridland posted an interesting link on Twitter on Friday asking if radio traffic news was still relevant.

I gave a very short comment on the site, alongside current and former colleagues defending the continued existence of the content on air. Having had a good think over the weekend, I thought I’d expand on the issue here today.

Firstly, as Will Jackson stated, although traffic isn’t necessarily right for every station, Ofcom research suggests seven out of ten people say local traffic and travel information is important when deciding whether to tune into a radio station. Furthermore, I’ve spoken to makers of in-car traffic units and they’ve found in their own research that respondents’ most trusted place for traffic information is Radio 2 - a national snapshot of information rather than detailed local content.

This suggests to me that, when you get experienced people providing traffic on a popular station, they are trusted by the listener. So the answer to whether traffic and travel news is relevant needs to take into account the way it’s delivered on air. If you get someone fresh off work experience to come on air to gabble a few roadworks and guess on the regular queues, your traffic won’t be relevant. If you actually put some effort in, you’ll get your reward with listener loyalty. Think back to the days of Flying Eye Russ Kane on the amazingly popular Chris Tarrant show – he was a major personality on air, but alongside the banter, he was also allowed up to two minutes to convey the information.

Traffic information has come on SO MUCH over the past 20 years. It used to be largely collated from check-calls to Police control rooms and – let’s be honest – a fair degree of (albeit educated) guesswork. Now you have national, regional and local traffic control centres, access to cameras, three or four different ways to gather extremely accurate traffic speed and flow data plus thousands of your own listeners who will call in with tip-offs. There’s no real excuse for not knowing what’s going on.

So when people say “the radio doesn’t talk about the roads I’m on”, then that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. That is an implied confirmation that your road is OK, or certainly no worse than normal, so you’re OK to use that route. But when you hear something that does affect you, you can amend your plans accordingly. What other part of a radio show actually leads you to change your plans? The news is generally about other people, the personality content is entertaining but doesn’t affect what you’re doing today, the weather may lead you to change what you wear, but it’s the traffic which means you change your route, or mode of transport, or means you don’t bother making the journey in the first place.

If you have a nav unit, it’s great (I use a TomTom HD Live unit in my car, and it’s generally correct) but it won’t warn me half an hour before I’m due to leave that there’s a problem on my route – the radio will.

Notice I’ve not even got into the monetary advantages of having traffic as a sponsorship vehicle on air, because I think that it offers so much more than that. Check the RAJAR figures for Eagle Radio in Guildford and how they grew over the six months from the summer of 2008. That happened to coincide with them launching the Eagle Eye in the Sky spotter plane and having a greater focus on traffic. Listening hours rocketed as a result. Now I’m not saying all the rise was down to a traffic plane, but given everything else (station line-up, rivals’ line ups) was constant, it must have had a positive effect?

I think those of us in radio land, with super-fast broadband, the latest smart phones and tablets and every in-car gizmo you can think of, sometimes forget that for many the world is nowhere near connected as it is for us. The majority don’t have smart phones, a significant minority still don’t have broadband, and if they have a sat nav, it probably won’t have traffic on it. For them, our radio audience, the radio remains the way to receive traffic and it’s up to the radio industry to provide them with something decent to rely on.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Inrix purchase of ITIS

Interesting news today, as Inrix announce their $60m/£37m purchase of ITIS.  I first worked closely with ITIS when they were launching the first RDS TMC service (for Toyota around ten years ago).  Having been involved with them in one way or another pretty much ever since, I'm glad for Stuart et al to get a good price for the business.  And I think it's a good thing for the industry because too many different outfits chasing the same money wasn't sustainable.

From what I've learnt, Inrix is a good company with very clever people who have good business ethics.  And companies able to provide services across country borders is essential for the future, given that all the car firms and nav manufacturers (the main users of the data) are multinationals.  Up till now, too often that's not been the case, and although international information provision has been improving, this will speed up the process considerably.

Given what I've seen in the US and Britain, though, I think the British technology is more advanced than America.  (Caveat - at the moment, it's only a gut feeling and I need to go away and do some proper research before I make an idiot of myself.)  Having been stuck in Friday rush-hour in LA, and have witnessed North America's most congested road (apparently), which is the 404 in Toronto, I know how hideous the traffic can be there, compared with the M25, M6 or M1.  But I remember being surprised how poor, in comparison to the British equivalent, the flow data was for Toronto when I analysed it 18 months ago or so, so I suspect the ITIS know-how and algorithms will help the North American driver.  However, as I say, I write 18 months behind any Canadian advances, so ought to go away to do some proper research before returning to this subject.

What I can say is that having spoken to managers of Traffic Management Centres in America, they all face exactly the same challenges as their British counterparts!  So I think the future sharing of ideas has to be good for the industry.

The interesting thing is that American businesses now dominate the UK market, with Inrix buying ITIS and Trafficmaster already in American venture-capital hands (OK, there's TomTom too, and but they're not a British company either!).  So this sharing of best practise, should - if done properly - be good for drivers both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed both sides of the road.

About me

How does one become an "expert" in traffic?

I always wanted to be a professional cricketer.  But the more I played, the more clear it became that my chosen profession didn't want to choose me.  I've become an enthusiastic follower of the game instead.

As a kid, the other thing I loved was the radio, and I always fancied playing songs for a living.  Listeners to "Junior Choice" in the mid-to-late 70s would have heard that seven-year-old Paul wanted to be a DJ when he grew up, prompting Ed Stewart to ask if DJs ever grow up.

But I did, and I did become a DJ, but by the time I'd started playing songs, I'd (through growing up) become keen on news as well, so trained as a journalist alongside fantastic reporters such as Damian Grammaticas, Vicky Young and Chris Hogg.  They ended up as high-profile BBC reporters, whilst I moved into the commercial sector.  I started working on the Virgin Radio Newsdesk, which at the time was provided by a company called Metro, which was primarily a traffic news company, providing reports for radio stations.

From my seat on the newsdesk, I used to watch the traffic reporters and editors gathering information, and I admit I got frustrated at their lack of journalistic technique.  I used to moan to the then Ops Director, a brilliant bloke called Jag, that they could do so much better.  To cut a long story short I ended up taking a job running the information gathering and operational management of the traffic team.  I thought I'd do it for six months to gain some management experience.  That was early in 2000.  I'm still doing traffic.

Somehow, I've been part of the executive of the Travel Information Highway, been contract manager for the BBC travel contract, run a company providing the radio station for the Highways Agency, sat on a committee looking at in-car traffic and travel provision post FM switch-off, travelled the world talking travel, finding myself in traffic management centres as far apart as Perth, Western Australia and Kansas City, Missouri.

Somehow this cricket-mad, radio freak has become an expert in traffic information.