Friday, 15 January 2010

The Brief Life of Oneword

The following is a piece I wrote last year for the Society of Authors which they have kindly published in the Winter edition of their magazine The Author. I post it here for the record:

It was a grand plan; an idea so evolved, so ambitious and pioneering in its conception that what occurred over the next 9 years could hardly have been planned for, let alone expected. That one of the prime movers behind it had been the man who ‘invented’ Radio 1, that it had support from an industry that had never seen the like and that it embraced a new and exciting technology should all have played into its favour. But it was not to be.

The idea? In the words of said prime mover, Tim Blackmore MBE, the man that wrote the original application for the programme contract:

We wanted to create a commercial radio station that was more than just a jukebox. Commercial radio had not yet provided an intelligent speech station… I believe that would have been our achievement.”

That plan became the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) station Oneword, which from May 2000 broadcast a range of content from serialisation of audio books to weekly publishing industry news, from film reviews to a unique thirty minute, daily author interview programme ‘Between the Lines’ that for some eight years was more than just my job, it became my life and my passion.

The team that had been formed to put the plan into action included professionals that were as inventive and keen as they were committed to the ideals of the new station. Not least Managing Director Ben Budworth, formerly the head of radio traffic report company Metro and Paul Kent, formerly Head of Readings for BBC Radio 4. Good people, solid people with impressive track records. People who knew and understood both the dynamics of arts programming and of radio’s commercial sensibilities and could apply their knowledge to the new station and the new technology.

In the year 2000 digital radio was a nascent form of broadcasting. At Oneword’s outset there were barely any DAB radios for sale. Few people had heard of DAB and understood what it was let alone owned a DAB set. Manufacturers were in a race to overcome various technical issues such as short battery life caused by the early DAB chip’s hunger for power. Digital One, the company responsible for erecting transmitters and to whom the stations paid hefty fees to use ‘their’ airwaves, were working furiously to extend the reach of the early service beyond the main motorway corridors. It was an exciting time, full of hope and optimism. It felt like a modern version of loading up a wagon and heading west across the plains and over the mountains. Pioneering stuff. At times one could imagine that the spirit of Marconi moved among us.

It was all part of Oneword’s plan though, that as the DAB industry grew, we would grow with it. The early days would give us time to try out new programming ideas, test the water and to slowly find our feet and our audience. In the beginning it worked well. We started to make some good programmes. A company called Pure started to make some good radios, not least the little pine box called the Evoke that soon became a highly desirable kitchen radio. Oneword won the first of its two Gold Sony Awards, the Oscars of British radio. It all looked as if the experiment might just work.

But soon after, the first of a string of problems hit. As Tim Blackmore, by then Oneword’s Chairman put it:

‘The take-up of DAB by its potential users was slower than had been anticipated, our most enthusiastic launch partner, Chivers Books, was bought by BBC Worldwide and with that sale we lost a major shareholder and a valued director… following our initiative, the BBC then planned Channel X which eventually emerged as BBC7 which with its guaranteed income was able to invest so much more than our resources would allow. The Chivers shareholding went to a Hong Kong based venture capital company who were bewildered by what they’d acquired and soon opted out.’

It was a hard time to be in the office. Suddenly all the joy and optimism had evaporated. All thoughts of our becoming the ‘biggest shop window for the publishing industry and it’s output” as Budworth put it at the time, were put on ice as we fought for survival against fleeing shareholders and stiff competition from the BBC. It is worthy of note that the BBC were later much criticised in a report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, by Tim Gardam. But the damage was done.

The trick in commercial radio is the commercial aspect. Oneword had set its stall out for listeners and slowly we were building a keen and loyal audience. Advertisers were another matter however. Media buyers, those gatekeepers of advertising revenue, were understandably slow to recommend that their clients spend their money on a new, little understood medium that had such small audiences compared to the more developed mainstream options. Even the publishing industry was unwilling to support what seemed to us to be a hugely effective medium for appealing their core market, and this was long before credit crunch hit. All this made Oneword highly dependent on the capital expenditure of its shareholders for it’s income and radio is expensive.

Oneword sustained its activities with a budget that barely made it into the “two commas’ category and the bulk of that was swallowed up with licence fee, transmission costs and such technical considerations. The little remaining went on office overheads and (very) modest salaries. With Chivers gone it couldn’t last and one fateful Friday afternoon Tim Blackmore and Simon Cole (MD of UBC, the majority shareholder) came to 19 Charing Cross Road to impart the bad news that redundancies would have to be made. It was painful. It was the end of the first chapter and the beginning of the second and, as it turned out, final phase.

Following a move to UBC’s offices in Marylebone and to a much smaller studio to save money, there was now a skeleton crew. Ben Budworth had gone as MD and been replaced by Simon Blackmore, Tim’s radio industry professional son and the inheritor of Oneword’s somewhat poisoned chalice. Paul Kent became a freelance programme director working part time. A much smaller team, with a much smaller budget, those that remained worked so hard to try and keep the spirit of Oneword alive in the hope that a rescue could be effected. UBC were covering costs on their own, a situation that couldn’t last for long. Soon enough a new partner was found in Channel 4 who made assurances that they wanted to expand into radio and that taking a 51% stake in Oneword would enable them not just to invest but to cross promote the station on screen. It all sounded hopeful. It began to seem that a hiccup had been cured and that Oneword could get back on track. But the assurances failed to become commitments. Channel 4 then pitched for and won the second, national commercial UK multiplex, a rival to Digital One’s multiplex on which Oneword remained, but without a sound economic future.

The harsh truth was now staring the station in the face. Simon Blackmore summarises it well:

Through almost constant challenge and without enormous resource, the various teams at Oneword produced [prize-winning] output which both stimulated and enhanced the digital radio offering. It was a worthy competitor to anything offered by the BBC, and on a fraction of the resource. It was a station that attracted loyalty, press attention and revenues out of all proportion to its size. The fact that those things did not in the end add up to a business… is a matter of regret, but an inescapable truth.”

It would be easy to write of what could have been. A radio station that did for the publishing industry what most others do for the music industry; a true radio window for Britain’s enormous writing and publishing output. ‘Between the Lines,’ my own show, was listened to by so many who then told me of their joy in buying and reading the books that I’d discussed with their authors.

It all could have worked, if DAB had taken off faster, if the BBC hadn’t been allowed to start their own version, if UBC, that most loyal of shareholders, had had deeper pockets, if Channel 4 had stuck to their commitments, if profitability had been more of a short term possibility than a long term hope. If, if, if.

In Tim Blackmore’s email to me, summarising the history, he starts:

Looking back at the creation of Oneword I can’t help but feel a deep sadness…’

I know of authors, former listeners and literary festival attendees who come up to me and express the same sentiment. I know how they, Simon, Ben, Paul Kent and Tim feel. As the only staff member who was there constantly from the beginning to the end I feel it myself. Deeply. Still.