R.A.P. Interview: Sean Bell

JV: Sounds like you’ve been marketing yourself the old fashioned way of knocking on doors with a good amount of determination.
Sean: A lot of it is word of mouth, or if it’s a station which I see is going to be launching, then I get in touch with whoever is the appropriate person at the station and offer my services. Salespeople tend to move around from one station to another anyway, so if a salesperson moves from one station, then hopefully they might take my services with them to a new one. So I get work like that. I get referrals. In fact, just this last week I had a station manager from a Scottish station call me. He rang me and said that he had been talking to a station manager from somewhere else who had recommended he speak to NYPD for his commercial production. So we sent the details off to him along with the demo CD, and hopefully in the next week or so they’ll be another station that we’re supplying our services  to.

JV: So once you come to an agreement with management, is your relationship mostly with the salespeople?
Sean: Yes. I work with the salespeople on a day-to-day basis. Once the management is happy with what I’m going to supply, happy with the prices and such, then they just leave me to the salespeople. The salespeople can put the work where they want. They can ring up myself or someone else. I’m always one of a small number of freelance suppliers at each station. I don’t work with any one station where I handle all of their requirements, and I really wouldn’t really want to be in that position. I am simply one of small number of freelance suppliers they can use.

With most of the stations they usually have three commercial production facilities they use, and when the sales exec makes the sale or has the potential client interested, then they’ll brief me if they think it’s something I’m going to be able to look after for them, or they might go to another one of their companies if they think they’re going to be able to handle that particular client better. It depends on what style of commercial they’re looking for or what they are looking for at the end of the day.

JV: It seems in the U.S. that most radio stations will out-source their imaging and have somebody in-house to do the commercial production. But it sounds like there is a lot of out-sourcing in the U.K. of the commercial production and maybe not so much of the imaging. How do you see that?
Sean: All of the stations I work with have somebody to do the day-to-day imaging in house. The commercial production gets outsourced. But these are the smaller stations. The stations that are in the big groups, they all have internal production facilities, internal hubs for their group.

Although having said that, there is kind of an exception. Back in 2001 most of my business was coming from four stations, and then one of the stations was sold into the CN group. Then the week after, the CN group bought two more of the stations. So in the space of about three weeks I lost three of my four big clients, which obviously you can appreciate was quite a shock. We were invited to pitch for the commercial production contracts. I think there were about twenty different companies that went to see them. But in the end, what the CN group decided to do was to set up their own in-house production departments. So they had somebody in-house producing and imaging, but they had a freelance pool of writing talents and I was part of that pool of writers that they would call on. I was just writing but wasn’t doing any of the production, except if somebody was off ill or if they got under a lot of pressure and couldn’t cope, then they’d put it out to myself or somebody else. This went on for about two or three years, and in the end, they decided they were happier with what myself and two of the production companies were doing for them. So they actually scrapped their in-house commercial production department, and myself and two other similar-sized operations are now handling all of the work for the CN radio group. They’ve got about nine stations across the U.K.

JV: Are the larger groups in the U.K. purchasing up all of the small stations and groups like they did in the U.S. during our consolidation period?
Sean: I think it’s something that’s happening slowly. There’s always more stations being bought by the bigger groups, and now we’re moving into a situation where the bigger groups are deciding to merge as well. I do see that being something that could happen in the future, so I’m very conscious of not having all of my business just in radio commercial production, which is why I’ve decided to voice a lot more as well. And I do writing too, including magazines articles and such.

I used to do a lot of location sound recording for television and film and corporate video and so on. I very rarely take any of that work on anymore, maybe a day or two days a month perhaps, just to get myself out and about for a change of scenery from the studio. But I’ve always got that that I can fall back on to if I want to, because I do see the radio market is getting smaller and smaller. The bigger groups are buying up the small stations.

JV: Do you think you will be out of radio business eventually?
Sean: Well, at the moment I’ve got investments in three new license applications, so that will see me through, and if we’re successful in all three licenses, that would be probably a five to ten year opportunity for me. So that’s going to keep me in radio for quite a while.

I’m also going to carry on voicing because all the voice-over talents in the U.K. are freelance, so I’ve always got that I can work with. And I do a lot of commercial production for advertising agencies as well. So that will always keep me in the radio production area.

And with the new digital radio stations sweeping across the U.K. now, there’s more opportunity for niche markets. One of the things I would like to do in the future is a lot more drama and documentary production, which I used to do for the BBC. With digital broadcasting coming in, I’m hoping that there is going to be more opportunity to do that in the commercial arena. And the other thing I want to do at some point in the future is live program production. Not as a presenter because I can’t be a presenter – I’ve tried and I know I can’t do it. But I would love to do actual day-to-day producing of a live program – probably a breakfast program because I’m naturally an early riser. I enjoy early mornings and the breakfast programs are fun. And I mean doing this alongside NYPD. That’s what I would probably find myself doing in some point in the future.

JV: Do you find that you have a lot of competition?
Sean: Alongside myself, I would say there are probably around twenty maybe twenty-five other established commercial production outfits across the country. I’ve not had a quiet period for well over eighteen months now. It’s been really, really busy. So if there is a lot of competition out there, then I’m certain it’s surviving. I’m not going out of my way to advertise and to attract new clients. I do a bit of cold calling for new stations, and like I say, I’ve got work coming through when people move from one station to another, from referrals and so on. So as far as competition goes I don’t see any particular competition because it’s not affecting me. And of the twenty-five or so outfits out there, there’s probably about ten of us that I would say all get on very, very well. Although we’re all in competition, we’re not in fierce competition. I’m not going to go after their clients, and they respect me and they’re not going to come after my clients. We work alongside each other rather than against each other.

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