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21 August 2013

IR News - What's The Point?

There are only two reasons to provide news on British commercial radio. Because owners have to, or because they want to.

Thanks to the cack-handed and haphazard way the industry has been regulated through much of its forty-year existence commercial radio news has come to be regarded as a burden rather than as an opportunity to grow audience, and particularly audience loyalty.

Worse, those who don't understand news are all too often in the driving seat, forcing journalists to do their job badly.

This post will attempt to flesh out some of these arguments.

From the early days of 'ILR' to the early noughties the biggest game in commercial radio was winning franchises. To win a franchise, you made promises. In IBA, Radio Authority or latterly OFCOM beauty contests there was always a tradeoff between the perceived commercial value of the licence, and the cost of delivering on the promises necessary to secure it.

The resulting cynicism of many franchise bids throughout this period remains breathtaking.

The language was always of news, local events, outside broadcasts and community involvement. The bidders behind what became Leeds station Radio Aire even promised 'original drama'. If that ever went out, it was on a night I wasn't listening. More recently there can be no doubt, surely, that Real Radio's promise of a 24-hour Yorkshire newsroom was a significant factor in winning a hotly contested regional licence.

The reality, of course, has always been that promises are scaled back, modified or ditched altogether once the licence is in the bag. "Events" throw politicians' programmes off track, and economic downturns provide the ideal cover to scrap news commitments. The DAB deal (by which franchise periods are extended if owners commit to DAB transmission) has reduced the frequency of re-advertisement and the need for everyone to pretend what their priorities are.

Even so, the legacy of extravagant news promises is the insidious perception that IR news is an expensive nuisance to be stripped back wherever and whenever possible.

Other factors are at work.

Cost-saving across the industry has largely seen the demise of 'middle manager' level programme controllers. Those in the driving seat are often those who would have been 'senior presenters' in the early days. They may still be presenting a show as well as doing the rosters and scheduling promotions. And ordering the toilet rolls. They may well be excellent on air but (by definition) they're a jock. They see the output with the mindset of a jock. They've never worked on a news desk. It's not their area of expertise.

News holds a special status within the various Broadcasting Acts. News can never be sponsored. Whether this protection is strictly necessary any more is a subject for another day. But Sports news can be sold, so can what's on stories and showbiz gossip, so these lighter, attractive elements are eagerly seized upon, stripped out and sold separately. News works with what's left. It's like a chef being told "no pasta, sauce, spices or salad - just create something lovely every day with meat and potatoes".

Journalists know the only safe way to report a court case is to be in court. That's out of the question with current staffing levels, and of course there's no budget to buy copy from a freelance agency**. So court reporting dies.

Council stories are boring. Wrong. Council news releases are boring. Guess what, guys who are paid by the council tend to suggest that the council is doing a good job. And they're also forced to issue releases about non-stories because someone with a title (who pays them) tells them to do so. These puff stories and non-stories are boring.

Councils deal with education, care of the elderly, sports facilities, parking charges, congestion, buses, noise, potholes and dog shit. Find me a listener - one listener - who doesn't care about at least one of these topics. Give your newsroom the space and time to find the story, not regurgitate the comms crap.

Stripped of content your 'news' becomes rip'n'read IRN, police news releases (free, no effort); charity events (ditto); National bra fitting week (invented PR peg with excuse of helping women in your core demo, also potential LOLs for your breakfast zoo); a made-up, localised survey commissioned by a big brand (ditto) and a local kid auditioning for BGT (for which doing the interview used up all your spare newsroom capacity yesterday). Oh, and a vox pop from the work ex student on whatever IRN's lead story is to give it local relevance ("these people in Grimtown have mixed views on the latest atrocities in Syria"). 

I wonder if the bulletin above is similar to the one that prompted John Myers to shame (but not name) the news he heard on one commercial station last month?

Think instead what could be achieved if the newsroom is allowed its potential. 

This is something I've written about before, in terms of relaxing regulation which is no longer appropriate, and to which I shall return in the very near future.

** As an aside I know of one OFCOM-licenced station where an undergraduate student on placement was told "We're only a small station, we can't afford court copy so it's OK for us to lift court stories from the BBC website because they're paid for by the government". That was a few years ago. We've never sent a student there since.

1 comment:

  1. A well-reasoned Blog Richard.

    Perhaps it is time for you, and some 'radio gurus' to NAME and SHAME the stations that cut journalistic corners, and time for Ofcom to introduce MINIMUM standards before it is too late.

    I recall that last year a regional newsroom of a large syndicated station was told by Ofcom it barely fulfilled its obligations, yet they won an award for the same coverage....