There’s lots of Americanisms that make me cringe.
I never want anyone to “reach out” to me unless I’m being washed away in a torrent and they’re standing on the riverbank, holding a lifebelt. But there’s one US radio consultant term that really sums up that magical dust that you’ll find sprinkled over successful radio stations. Stationality.
It’s a catch-all term for the sums of the various parts which make your brand distinctive. As the word implies, it’s your station’s ‘personality’. Your musical definition is part of this but,in the main, it is the the human elements of your programming that convey stationality. Yet I think that few UK stations are embracing the true power of the human voice for branding.
In the early days of UK commercial radio there were restrictions on the amount of music that stations could play. To avoid eating into limited ‘needletime’, presenters talked a lot and they were given very, very long jingles to play. You knew when the PD had returned from Alfasound because all the 2-minute carts in the building had, strangely, vanished.
Back then, there was no need for a station voice. Music sweeps were exceptional, so you’d rarely have the need to ident between two songs. There were also fewer radio stations. Branding was not so important.
By the start of 1980s only a handful of stations used station voices and they were often used for jock idents. North American voiceovers were often chosen for anorakky reasons. The accent seemed cool to UK radio types. Radio Aire used Bill Mitchell’s deep tones to ident presenters and growl the 3-6-2 frequency. I remember some jocks pausing the playback of the cart between each of the numbers in order to hit the vocals on song intros.
By 1989, I found myself in a room of ecstatic jocks listening to a 12-inch spool of liners that U.S voice ‘Bumper’ Morgan had read for Viking Radio. Looking back, the script was utter gibberish with lines like “ Viking- because FM means no static at all”. I am sure that meant nowt to listeners in tower blocks in Bransholme.
Then, all of a sudden, every station had their own station voice. By 1991, tuning up and down the dial along the M42 was like driving the Santa Monica freeway. Well, sort of. JR Nelson boomed out on BRMB and Mercia imaging. He had ‘powerful pipes’, as the yanks would say.
It was GWR who changed the soundscape of UK radio during their rapid expansion.
Jingles were out and the station voice was in. It was an integral part of the “ better music mix” format. The advancement of the superb Greg “the voice” Marston across the UK radio map was swifter than the arrows crossing Europe on the opening titles of ‘Dad’s Army’.
In 1993, I remember finishing my DevonAir breakfast show and driving to York and it was Greg announcing stations all the way. Anoraks were grumpy. It meant fewer jingles but it wouldn’t have mattered to listeners. GWR mopped up the first-in-market older ILR stations, usually county-wide franchises. To punters, there’d be one station in the market that would stand out because of their stationality. Greg, A pleasant sounding man would tell you what that station did. He’d also inform you what wouldn’t have to sit through in order to get to this, which was usually a cue for Simply Red to play. And he’d do it consistently, 24/7 over a KPM Powershot CD effect. The station voice was born.
Since then, I think that some stations are missing out on the incredible power of picking the right voice to represent what they stand for. The age, tempo, timbre and accent of your voiceover can do so much to define your stationality. We all make assumptions based on how people sound, don’t we? Commercial producers wouldn’t normally have Penelope Keith advertise a trendy nightclub in her Margo Leadbetter voice. They’d be unlikely to book Keith Lemon to read a care home spot. So why don’t stations pick distinctive voices to make an emotional connection when ‘advertising’ the station? It’s a form of sound-design shorthand that means you can be brief with the words.
Jack FM’s hiring of Paul Darrow is one of the best examples of using a voice to set out your stationality. On the bloody brilliant Union Jack his dry, tongue-in-cheek reads embody the station’s sense of irreverence and Britishness. The station’s topical liners are well written but it is Darrow’s delivery that brings them to life and gives them personality. When Jack switched to Sam in Bristol, the voice artist changed. For me, the new voice didn’t make the same connection. You have to choose your voice carefully. It’s your stationality that’s at stake.
If locality is important to your brand, I’ve learned that a voice that gives ‘a sense of place’ can work better than a pronounced accent. The late Philip Madoc, who played David Lloyd George on TV, used to play each hour on South Wales’ Touch Radio.The way he used to say “Dowlais Top” may well have sent a shiver down the collective spines of Merthyr. Inspired by this, I hired a local Welsh actor, known for his Eastenders appearances, as the voice for Scarlet FM in Llanelli. Listeners disliked him as they thought that his (genuine) accent was put on. I replaced him with another Welsh actor voice who had a subtler lilt. That worked. Clive Roderick is another great example of a pleasant, appealing voice whose intonation says ‘Wales’ without the script requiring it. I took a punt on him as the voice of Valleys Radio in 1997. He sounds even better today as the BBC Radio Wales station voice.
Enough Welsh reminiscence. Actor Craig Kelly sounded superb, and very local, on BBC Radio Manchester’s imaging when paired with the queen of Female station voices, Trish Bertram. Conversely, I find Pirate FM’s northern male voiceover an odd choice for a county where you can be considered foreign if you’re from Tavistock.
Even if you don’t want (or need) a local twist, why not trawl through the voice talent showreels to find a voice who will be unique to your station? I’ve often found that a trained actor will craft your copy in a more engaging way than a voiceover who is used to doing double glazing ‘30s.
Don’t limit your talent pool by only considering artists with home studios, either. Get them in for a big session. Find a solution for top-ups. You’re more likely to retain a unique voice if they don’t tout their easy ISDN access!
BBC Northampton used ‘This Life’ and ‘Teachers’ star Andrew Lincoln for their imaging. He sounded great, although I suspect he’s hiked his rates after the success of ‘Walking Dead’! Southern FM’s use of Michael Jayston gave their station a unique, stand-out sound which worked in Sussex in the 1980s. If you want to hear how an actor can bring a life to an A4 sheet of liners, check out Louise Jameson’s work. She’s the voice of Manchester 80s station Max. She’s also been in Eastenders.
That show seems to be a rich seam. Ian Beale for TOHs anyone?
So when you’ve got a different voice, can you try something different in production? There’s a tired station sound formula on many services now. Is your current imaging an upbeat 30-something bloke saying something, which an eq-filtered woman with a strange drawn-out upward inflection then repeats? Rip it up and start again. Same-y doesn’t stand out.
So where can you find a special voice? Well, other than series-linking Eastenders, it is worth considering TV when searching. I’ve found myself scrolling through the closing programme credits to find an actor’s name. I ‘discovered’ the Radio Carmarthenshire voice following his narration of an S4C show. Where else could you go? You could try monitoring Radio 4 plays. In fact, you can start your hunt anywhere where you’ll hear actors bring life to a script.
Have you heard someone who sounds like your station? I’d love to hear from anyone with examples of new voice talent that conveys stationality. Please get in touch. Please email me. I’d just rather that you didn’t ‘reach out’.