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Manchester eyes the radio prize

Ashley Byrne, creative director of media agency and production company Made in Manchester, talks to Simon Power about the changing broadcast landscape in the northwest of England as the BBC prepares to move into new radio studios at MediaCityUK.

London has long been the hub of the broadcast and media industry in the UK, writes Simon Power. Or that’s how the people that work there like to think of it. The situation is set to change this spring when the BBC moves four departments, including Radio 5 Live, from the English capital to the MCUK media development at Salford Quays in Greater Manchester.

The BBC’s facilities at the site will also house productions for its Audio and Media department currently being done at Broadcasting House on Oxford Road in Manchester city centre. These include programmes made for the BBC by Mancunian independent production companies, among them Radcliffe and Maconie, produced by Smooth Operations for Radio 2, with the duo moving to daytime on 6Music in April.

The possible effect of this dramatic shift in the BBC’s production base on Manchester’s media community is the subject of an upcoming seminar by Ashley Byrne (pictured) at this year’s BVE. As creative director of Made in Manchester, one of the many media houses that stands to benefit from BBC Radio becoming less London-centric, Byrne naturally wants the move north to be a big success.

“Manchester already has a very lively radio industry,” he says. “Many of the big commercial radio networks have their bases in the north, while some of the BBC’s top national programmes are made by independent media houses.”

Byrne feels that with Radio 4’s File on Four, Radcliffe and Maconie and Radio 5 Live’s late night Tony Livesey show already being produced in Manchester there is the potential for even more opportunities in independent radio production as MCUK comes into operation.

The position of the northwest as a major centre for radio is, Byrne feels, underlined not just by the presence of Five Live but also through the Radio Production in the North conference and the Radio Academy Festival being held at the Lowry Centre in Salford Quays.

“All this has revitalised interest in radio production in the area,” comments Byrne. “In fact a fund has been set up by BBC North’s Peter Salmon and 5 Live’s Jonathan Wall to encourage new ideas from radio producers across the north. The process is a breath of fresh air because it is about ideas not systems. And it’s meant commissions for independent producers and freelancers right across the north.”

These productions include 5 Live’s first-ever drama, a 30-minute programme about Maradona’s 1986 Hand of God incident against England during the 1986 World Cup, produced by Made in Manchester. Also in the pipeline is an online comedy produced by Savvy Productions, while other companies, including Soundscape Productions in North Yorkshire and comedian Johnny Vegas’ Woolyback Productions, also stand to benefit.

Byrne’s BVE seminar will highlight a general renaissance in radio listening, with audience figures on the rise for radio stations across the board. Statistics show that 90.6% of the UK’s population tune in to radio every week and that digital listening hours are up 22.8% year on year (RAJAR Q3 2010).

The strength of feeling for radio was shown by the successful campaign to save BBC 6Music when it was earmarked for closure. An increase in broadband uptake, podcasting and ‘listen again’ media players have led to greater accessibility combined with a wider variety of output.

Manchester’s commitment to broadcasting includes investing huge amounts in MCUK. This complex is intended to house a wide range of media-based companies – from radio and TV production to music and the gaming industry. The BBC’s radio facilities there include presentation studios based around Studer OnAir 3000 desks and VCS automation, plus a multi-purpose studio, featuring a Vista 9, which can be used for drama.

“The plans for MediaCityUK have refocused attentions on what tremendous talents and skills exist in the north of England across all media,” concludes Byrne. “The area has been in need of a media boost and though radio budgets are much smaller than TV there is a thriving and growing sector here.”

Ashley Byrne’s Radio Production from the North – The Creative Renaissance, 2pm, 15 February.