"You’d be hard-pressed to find a young person who asks for an analog radio for Christmas," admits Joe Harland, with wry British understatement. Harland works for BBC Radio 1 as its "head of visualization." If that sounds like something of an oxymoron for a radio station, well, that’s sort of the point.
Though BBC Radio 1—a station launched in 1967 in response to the rock and roll pirate radio stations that sprung up—still has an audience of 11 million, "listening hours are going down," Harland acknowledges. And as radio faces the contraction—and distraction—of its traditional audience, it’s Harland’s job to find novel ways to engage listeners and attract new ones. In part, he does that by thinking of listeners as viewers.
Because increasingly, as Harland’s example shows, radio is something you watch.
Last March, BBC Radio 1 had around 100,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel. Harland made it known around the office that he would grow a kind of protest beard until the YouTube channel earned its millionth user. Over the months, his beard grew to Biblical proportions. "It will tickle and assault you in the night," he says to anyone thinking of growing out their own facial hair unrestrainedly. "You’ll have to go shopping for particular types of beard wax, and drink through a straw."
But last Sunday, the torture ended—the YouTube channel earned its millionth viewer, and BBC Radio 1’s future in a digital age was fortified.
How did he do it? And what—beyond questionable grooming strategies—should you bear in mind when trying to build a YouTube presence of your own? We caught up with Harland for a few dos and don’ts.
"I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘I’m gonna create a viral hit!’—and then did," muses Harland. "If people try to make a viral hit, it’s hard to stop that from smelling like marketing, and the moment an audience smells marketing on a video, you’ll struggle."
And yet, there are exceptions to every rule, he says. "When Miley Cyrus’s 'Wrecking Ball' came out, the team gave itself 24 hours to create a good spoof. It became a viral hit, and indeed got 4.5 million views."
It turned out that there was only one wrecking ball in London. "The builder’s yard we used were deluged with phone calls, but we had got there first."
"In the past we’ve made some mistakes where a presenter may think, ‘I have an idea for a thing! I’ll just film myself trying on hats! Isn’t that funny? And I’ll post it online.’" But this is an old media mindset: Online is not merely a dumping ground for the miscellaneous secretions of your whimsy.
"If you haven’t carefully considered your visual content, how you’re going to surface it, how shareable it will be, and how the audience will engage with it—if what I’m watching is an afterthought, where the camera was just left running—then that’s what I’d deem a random act of digital." And it just won't work.
"We work very hard not to post clickbait or to try to jump on a meme, because that isn’t true to our values," says Harland. At the same time, you’ve got to "nail the art of compromise," he adds. After all, radio is an auditory medium, first and foremost—but sometimes it’s beneficial to do something on air that affords a good visual for YouTube rebroadcasting. "You might have to compromise that little bit to get a good visual," he says.
Interviews, too, are changed by the presence of a video camera—and not always for the better. "If there are no cameras, you are much more likely to get beneath the skin [of your interview subject]." Still, if Kanye or Jay-Z is coming into the studio, you’d be a fool not to roll cameras on them.
BBC Radio 1 hired several personalities who already had a YouTube following and brought them into the BBC Radio 1 fold.
While it's important to stay true to your brand's voice, it's also important to pay close attention to nuances between your audiences on different platforms. For example: While the radio audience might prefer recorded hip-hop music, Harland has found that his YouTube audience especially digs hip-hop freestyling. Go figure.
Okay, this one may be particular to the experience of Harland himself, who wound up "looking like a druid" by the end of his stunt.
A couple of YouTube stars that BBC Radio 1 had brought within the fold—a pair of baby-faced fellows who go by the handles "Amazing Phil" and "Dan Is Not on Fire"—had the honor of shaving Harland's face, live. "They took it in turns," says Harland, who found the experience somewhat harrowing. "I don’t trust those guys with razors. They’ve never shaved in their lives."