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13 August 2013

Memo to PD: Shedding a Journo is a False Economy

When hard choices have to be made in commercial radio it's always tempting to sack a journalist.

They're expensive, after all, being trained in all that legal stuff and knowing how the council works when all the punters really want to know is what we think of Paxo's beard.

So if the choice is between (say) a sod-off-and-die on-air competition in the autumn, or keeping an extra body in the newsroom, which is it to be?

The problem with news is that it's boring if it's done badly.

We can never forget that the three minutes .. or two minutes .. or sixty seconds at the top of the hour is competing for airtime with an extra play of a high-rotation turn-up-the-volume music track.

That's why commercial radio journalists like those you employ have always had to work harder to make their stories more appealing and relevant to their target listeners. They have to write tighter, think smarter and innovate with novel presentation styles.

But here's the issue. PDs quite rightly judge the success of their news team by what they hear coming out of the speakers. The process that gets it there is as remote and mysterious to the listener, and usually to the boss with the signed celebrity photos in the office, as nuclear physics. So here's a guide.

All news ultimately comes from people.

News gatherers know this, and mix with people online as well as in real life. A good journo in 2013 keeps an active presence in social media. They have a career's worth of contacts that need to be sustained and nurtured as part of the working day in the same way that a good sales rep will build relationships with a client. A good journo needs to spend a proportion of their newsroom's time listening, even to 'the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story'. Listen long enough, and the station has an attention-grabbing exclusive.

Sack a journo and what comes out of the speaker, superficially, won't change much.

Radio journos are too professional for that. The mic light comes on and a stream of friendly, concerned, authoritative, sometimes jokey and just occasionally flirty words come out. It's like your big sister or brother telling you all you need to know to get by in the coming day's water cooler encounters. Just like you want.

Behind the scenes they'll be working longer hours, getting more stressed, giving up sleep and holiday and crucially neglecting to maintain the real-life people contacts and on-spec 'what's happening?' calls that make sure your station gets the story first - and the opportunity to tell it effectively, not running to catch up.

Over time such overworked journalists ossify from being interactive, proactive news gatherers into passive, resentful news processors.

The news, still chirpily delivered on time, begins to sound exactly the same as everyone else's.

Audiences start to tell researchers they saw something first on the internet, rather than that they heard it first on your station, because your journos are reduced to picking up their information from the same web sources the punters can see for themselves.

There are various tricks to tweak it, to make it sound fresh, the journalistic equivalent of warming yesterday's bread through in the oven, but the story itself is stale and dry.

There will be greater reliance on IRN and other agency sources. Even great audio loses its impact, because the same audio is available at exactly the same time from all your competitors. Your station becomes bland and indistinguishable from the others.

Vitally for your RAJAR figures I, as a punter, lose an important reason to listen.

You'd be upset if your breakfast crew lost their edge, but you've done their job. You know what works. You were the best in your generation, and you know how to coach the best from them. News, on the other hand, is .. well, news. Like turning on the tap. But also difficult.

Cutting a team from four to three cuts out a big chunk of 'hive' expertise.

A good news team will have a balance of skills and interests. A sports enthusiast in the team is more likely than a dedicated sports editor in 2013, but that passionate fan's insight into the world of  balls and bails is vital.

A journo who's into fashion, or films, or travel, or green issues can bring proper perspective to a story which others will miss. A more conventional hack's knowledge of politics and history can knock the spin out of a council news release - too many local government comms teams now get their versions of events recycled uncritically because no-one questions the official line. Actually employing someone over 35 would allow some longer-term perspective on local events even the brightest and keenest 22 year old new graduate lacks.

Cutting from three to two gives up any flexibility for reacting to events that matter.

It should go without saying that shedding a journo is like giving up fire insurance. You don't need them (or it) until you do. It's too late when the bomb goes off, the missing celeb turns up, the child is savaged or the demo marches past your front door to wish you had a means of covering it effectively.

Audiences remember your station for the way you cover (or neglect) the big stories that matter to them. Nothing is more certain to alienate your local audience than inadequate coverage of a big local story that really matters in their lives. "It might as well have been coming from London" should be words to chill any programmer's heart.

Ultimately cutting that journo means the news will become more boring. 

Because it's being done badly. We're back at square one, and the cycle continues.


  1. ! Bravo !

    The continuing cut-backs of news departments, centralisation, homogenisation, increase in shallow 'glitzy' stories on UK syndicated stations, (and putting a rhythmic music track under the news reader) have all made I(L) R news a complete joke.

    For LOCAL news, people have no choice but to listen to their BBC LOCAL radio station.

    But, THAT means they have to endure the toe-curling choice of 'safe' music. This is often presented by a young former university student (often female) who did 'Media Studies' who has NO idea how to communicate warmly with an audience, and who was not even born when most of the music they play was issued!

  2. I'm all for things being done efficiently but this isn't efficient. Weakening your product means less reasons for people to bother turning on their radio. It's a sure-fire way to slowly sign your own death warrant as you become ever less important in the lives of the people that matter.