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15 February 2015

We've Forgotten Maureen

Two firsts for me, this week. I was invited to attend a Lord Mayor's Civic Reception in Bradford as a guest, not as a reporter, at an event to celebrate the 21st birthday of community radio pioneers BCB. I was also invited to appear as a pundit ("journalist and lecturer", no less) on Made in Leeds TV, the local service that launched in November.

Two different experiences - one common theme. I was reminded very strongly of why I was once so passionate about local radio, and how sad I am, in many ways, to see what it has become. Here's why.

Let me say right at the start there are many, many committed and motivated individuals working at all levels in both BBC and commercial local radio. They're not lazy or complacent. Quite the reverse; they're struggling harder and harder to keep going as the environment gets more hostile. But there are too many distractions, in both the public and commercial sectors.

When I first started in radio it was a huge learning curve.

As a media graduate, at a time before the term was an insult, I had ideas. My first programme controller, Peter Milburn, had the patience to disregard most of those and instead channel my youthful enthusiasm towards one goal. What does Maureen in Baildon want to know about the topic of the day?

I learned that no subject was too big, too difficult or off limits, so long as we applied that filter. Transport policy is questioning why there are queues on Canal Road. Waste management means asking where the tealeaves go when we wash them down the sink. International aid means helping Javid's grandma in Pakistan to see properly again.

Now, putting it bluntly, radio has forgotten about Maureen. Perhaps 'forgotten' is too strong; everyone knows she's there, vaguely, but other things cloud our vision.

In the commercial sector the controllers .. sorry, the programme directors, or group content managers, or brand audience delivery co-ordinators or whatever they're called this week .. have a clear objective. Get the RAJAR numbers up. That's always been the objective, of course, but to them Maureen is no longer a person, she's a number. She's to be lured in with a new logo, or a new jingle ... make that 'sonic identity' ... or a vacuuous strapline that tested well because almost nobody hated it.

If all else fails, sack a journo and use the money to give away a car. An uptick in Q2 is worth that long term sacrifice.

BBC local has a different set of problems. Fighting for survival comes top, but given that no politician is going to shut down Radio Grimshire just yet - after all, it is an election year - the issue is deciding what, exactly, its role is.

I won't repeat the arguments set out by John Myers in his provocative blog on the subject; he's in a far better position than I am to know, having written a report on BBC local radio three years ago which has been largely ignored. I disagree with John over the role of news, but agree entirely that the network needs much clearer leadership and direction.

I was a judge for one category in the BBC local radio Gillard awards last year. Whilst there were some really outstanding examples of radio journalism in contention, many more than made the shortlist, there were also too many entries that sounded like an ROT of "what I did today at the office"; hard working journos, no doubt, but filling quotas with little sparkle or passion to communicate with Maureen, address her interests and curiosity.

Then I read about Radio Scilly. At a time when council reporting is all but forgotten in commercial radio, this community station funded by a micro-lottery of the islands' tiny population is tackling the big issues by holding politicians to account - and winning repeated challenges to OFCOM when those same elected members aren't happy with what they hear. [EDIT 1745 - You can read @RadioToday's full piece from Keri Jones here ... Roy Greenslade appears to have lifted quotes for his Grauniad piece without a credit for Radio Today]

I feel the same spirit when I look around the banqueting hall in Bradford City Hall at BCB's reception. A far more diverse bunch - socially, in particular, as well as race and gender - than you'd find at a similar gathering for the district's other media. BCB may not have taken -yet - to bombarding the council with FOI requests, but when there's an EDL demonstration in town, a newly elected UKIP councillor to quiz or a football victory to celebrate they're in the forefront. Just doing it, when others make excuses not to.

A topic is only boring if it's not made relevant to Maureen - all too often 'boring' is given as the reason for not tackling a story that's difficult. So much easier to rip'n'read showbiz gossip from IRN.

Also at Made in Leeds, leaning on a doorbell in Chapeltown on a cold February night, I feel a spirit I'd forgotten. The green room-cum-kitchen is a mess of glam and grunge - think Audrey Hepburn prints and unwashed coffee cups - but the young team is high on enthusiasm and adrenaline, working long over official hours, because they want to be there. Just doing it. For Maureen, if not Maureen in Baildon, then Maureen in Beeston.

I'm increasingly convinced that the best radio, the best innovation, is coming from the community sector and the smaller IR stations. Look at the UKRD cluster in North Yorkshire, Stray, Minster and Yorkshire Coast, launching speech-heavy offshoot 'extra' stations on DAB, or making documentaries to mark Yorkshire's Tour de France Grand Depart or the centenary of the outbreak of World War One.
Local television, despite the scepticism of many (including, amazingly, rival media) is also tapping in to this sense of place; talking to people as people, and not just treating them as anonymous punters to grow the brand.

In a social media age perhaps we need to learn all over again that small can be beautiful - and that if, in the long term, we're going to beat the streaming music robots, soon to be bolstered, apparently, by the talents of Radio 1's Zane Lowe, we must never forget that Maureen matters.


  1. Have we been picking up click-bait tips from the taboids Professor Horsman?

    Your suggestion that council stories are treated as “boring” and not done in commercial radio, does not reflect my experience of working for one of the largest commercial radio groups. It may be the case elsewhere presently, but certainly where I’ve worked the most this has most definitely not been the case, with active engagement and good relations with councillors leading to some great radio – which has won numerous awards. This has involved scrutiny and investigation.

    This contrasts with the newsroom where I learned my trade 20 years ago, where we were actively discouraged by our News Coordinator, later Editor, to avoid councillors at all costs because listeners turned off when the word council was mentioned. Also “councillors didn’t know anything” about the subject, other than what a press officer had told them, it was much better to get an officer who understood the subject, being as this was their job, day-in/day-out. This individiual was a rather feisty, forthright manager who wouldn't have swallowed the corporate BS, so I believe this was his genuine belief at that time. I wonder if he still feels the same? :-)

    But back to 2015 - your view also contrasts with radio I’ve heard elsewhere, where council stories and councillors seem to be the go-to for bulletins. Even with a thin veneer of scrutiny this is often little more than an easy-to-land story, rather than actually being engaging and interesting.

    There IS an awful lot of chaff in council reporting and the wheat can be difficult to get to, but not for skilled journalists with a good local knowledge. Neither of which is universally present in any local media organisation these days, be they small or larger IR or community, good or bad.

    I think you're doing a disservice to larger IR that IS doing “council stories” well – and getting listeners and awards for it – and unduly flattering smaller IR and community stations that are doing it badly, and/or not getting an audience.

    You also talk of enthusiasm and a “can-do” spirit within teams, again this is something I’ve not found in short supply in radio generally, but certainly in the resource-strapped commercial radio sector. But, I would urge a note of caution here - this is generally, not at any of the specific broadcasters you have singled out - there seems little point in a team being enthusiastic if the product that is produced is not wanted by any audience, you can have the best intentions in the world, but if there’s no bums on seats, your very existence is pointless. (and I don't necessarily mean if the numbers are small for specific, specialist interest content - but if there's genuinely nobody engaged with the broadcast).

    By the way, you've been somewhat dismissive of brand targeting - but that's exactly what Maureen is. Potatos, potatos. Tomatoes, tomatoes. That doesn't work written down. And any brand not using a Maureen to illustrate their target audience to their staff is missing a trick.

  2. Richard - thanks for your thoughts.

    You conflate 'covering council stories' and 'interviewing councillors'. Very often officers, 20 years ago and now, have a clearer grasp of the issue (as it affects Maureen) than their political masters. In the Scillies it appears that the councillors ARE the story. It's not only appropriate but necessary to interview them, or seek to do so, if that's the case. No contradiction.

    My argument is much, much bigger than just council reporting - although it could be a decent litmus test of community engagement.

    Thanks again for taking the time to engage.

  3. Regardless of my conflation of council/councillor, which I would not call conflation, but describe as a "decent litmus test" of whether council stories are being run personally :-), I maintain that your generalisation is not accurate. Or at least doesn't tell the whole picture.

    There ARE large commercial radio stations doing the sort of news that you're talking about and there are plenty of smaller IR and community stations not doing them, doing them poorly, or within an output that is unlistenable - so nobody ever hears them.

    I don't doubt that the reverse is also true and I'm not disagreeing with you - great radio, whether it's BBC or commercial or community should be highlighted and praised to the rafters, hence why I felt it necessary to point out that the "prevailing view" you mentioned doesn't prevail everywhere.

    There's a sense in your post that feels perilously close to the "all them big groups are ruining radio, we should go back to how it was in 1977" rose-tinted view of the past much belov├ęd of some of the more vocal commentators in the industry.