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20 October 2014

Time to Scrap the Radio Bulletin?

I always enjoy David Lloyd's radio blog, so I was delighted this week when he turned his attention to something I'd like to think I know something about - radio news.

The gist of his piece, which you can read in full here, is that the news bulletin has outlived its usefulness.

In a era when news breaks on Twitter it's rare to actually hear something for the first time at the head of a bull. Today's sad announcement of the death of the actress Lynda Bellingham is a good example. Social media had it (via PA) a good ten minutes ahead of the 'flash' on my bedside radio. That's not untypical.

Bulletin order can appear arbitrary; listeners have differing priorities and (in many cases) very different priorities to journalists. Far from being a switch on point, David quotes research from Peter Neigel in Denmark that suggests the news fanfare can be a major switch off; it's the klaxon reminding listeners it's time to get on with their lives.

All interesting stuff, and food for thought for any thinking newsperson. It got me thinking.

I'd really like to work for, or listen to, the station that gives the priority to news and information David's piece imagines.

Scrap the bulletin - give out the information in real time.

Everyone on the team ... sales, S&P, presenters, engineers ... contributes to the process by spotting things on their own personal radar and feeding it in to what I'd call a 'news hub' if that term wasn't already used for something rather different. We would then need a 'curator' - or a team of curators - to prioritise and schedule the output. I'd like to think this is not a million miles from what happens in a good, well-managed station already. The journalists are, or could be, the curators.

What we come back to is the vexed question of scrapping the bulletin. This would require massive vision, and massive trust from all involved. The news bulletin is the one construct that has remained more or less intact from the highly regulated days of early 'ILR'. It's right to ask the question why.

The sacred 'bulletin' can be a sorry thing of bread-and-marge stories too often read by a tired, overworked journo on a 57-minute tether from the microphone.

The jam's gone - sport, entertainment, even finance stripped out and sold separately, lucratively sponsored away from Ofcom's gaze. Bulletin length, whether that be too short or too long, is often determined by a network window. It's a rare individual journalist who combines in one body the three vital news skills of being an incisive reporter, a creative storyteller and a fantastic reader. At least one attribute is likely to be iffy.

And yet ....

We've agreed such a move would require a buy in from the whole station team. OK, so what happens if the news of Lynda Bellingham's death comes in five minutes from the climax of the competition to give away the car?  Probably hold it, agreed?  Now what about a bomb blast in London? Not so easy a choice, but one that would have to be made. Now what if the blast is in the local shopping centre? A fixed bulletin time and space eliminates such dilemmas.

Who would give out the news on such an integrated station? Attempts at presenter-read headlines have had mixed results. Really depends if the presenter understands what he or she is reading; golden rule in training journos is that we never say ask anyone to say anything on air they don't personally understand.

Would the lines be scripted, or ad libbed? Scripted can be stilted. Ad libs .. along the lines of "police have arrested the man who robbed that jeweller's shop" ... can have dreadful consequences.

On balance I think I'm warming to the concept of "news when you need it". It would require someone to make the leap, then others would join in. The first station to try would need an impeccable pedigree with Ofcom to be allowed the freedom to experiment, it's so easy to see how the freedom could be abused by a cynical management.

There will be stories and letters in competing, dying and jealous local newspapers accusing the station of "dumbing down" - and it could take a while for the audience to adjust to the new structure which could manifest in all kinds of positive and negative ways on RAJAR. That's before all the complaints flood in about the loss of the hourly klaxon.

Whoever leaps will have to hold their nerve for at least a year. I'm excited to see who does make the move, if anyone dare.

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