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13 January 2018

The Horsman Test

As a news editor in commercial radio, I had a simple rule when it came to budgeting.

I would throw resources at a big story. No-one remembers the news on an "ordinary" day, just as no-one forgets the news on the day a city is torn by riots, as Bradford was in 1995 and 2001.

I engaged a freelance in Florida to deliver harrowing and compelling courtroom audio of a West Yorkshire woman whose boyfriend was killed next to her in a car in a botched robbery. That cost a year's freelance budget, but the content was worth every cent.

I met a former BBC senior exec in the region who admitted the little station on Forster Square "gave the Beeb a run for our money" and "kept us on our toes". No mean compliment when you compare the resources of the respective newsrooms.

These reflections matter when considering the future of commercial radio news.

As everyone will be aware by now, regulation is being swept away as the last Ofcom rules on what UK commercial radio can play, and where they can play it from, are removed. I highlighted the contrasts with old style ILR in a lighthearted post for New Year.

This post, originally published as a Radio Today UK eRADIO blog of the week, looks to the future.

We only have one chance to get this right. It's the last bit of station output that will be mandated; even if all your jocks are in London, the brand's generic and formats can flip overnight, owners will still have to provide local news relevant to each individual licence area. In the words of the DCMS response to its public consultation on the issue:
"The consultation revealed strong support for maintaining strong requirements
on commercial radio stations to provide national and local news and core
information such as traffic and travel information and weather. In bringing
forward legislation we will clarify Ofcom’s powers in this area to allow Ofcom
to set clear guidance on how these requirements are set and to enable it to
set requirements based on the size of the target audience for each station."
There's no doubt technology can be a great help. It's no big deal to insert local news, traffic, weather and ads into each transmitter feed. Presenters have long had the ability to pre-rec and insert local links into otherwise networked programming.

Reporters no longer need a radio car - nor even a studio to work in.

For all I detest the iPhone personally (I find touchscreens unreliable and fiddly, and I resent the idea of being locked in to Apple's propitiatory systems, however convenient they may be) mobile journalism is a liberating development, as pioneers like Nick Garnett were telling us a decade ago.

The use of iPhones in news is all but universal. Journos now require no external engineering other than bandwidth to function.
The key question, then, is to decide what kind of news we want and expect from commercial radio.

There are some bosses who believe some news should be left to the BBC. The difficult news.

Courts and councils for starters; the sort of thing journos need training to understand, and which are expensive to cover because of the time they take.

Politics, because it's hard to sum up Brexit in an eight word soundbite, and local politicians are irrelevant in a public sphere reduced to Leave v Remain, Corbyn v BoJo. And of course we don't touch community stuff like pensioners and pets, because they're boring.

These kind of bosses are rarely from a news background.

I learned my craft from the best radio journalists of their generation, and I learned quickly there are no boring stories, only boring treatments.

News is ultimately about people, and if you get out and actually meet people, you find great stories.

Dullness in news comes from the repetition and corner-cutting that goes hand in hand with asking too few journos to fill too much airtime. Which is why, as I've written before, Sacking a journo to save money is a false economy.

The alternative to hard news is soft news - especially the "s"s - showbiz, 'slebrity and social media (I'll leave "sport" for the time being, as that's a whole different -er- ball game). Which are conveniently free to report, or rather, recycle endlessly from the same YouTube viral videos and Twitter feeds your radio audience can already access for themselves.

Oh, and there's "selling"; PR puffs are always free. The colour of a Starbucks cup, or the arrival of a Greggs pasty as Christmas stories. No.

People still respond to the big stuff. This year's Gillards, as well as the IRN, Bauer, 02 and Global awards were full of mentions for radio coverage of the Manchester bombing and the Grenfell Tower disaster where local teams worked as hard as my generation ever did to get the stories out. The stuff audiences remember.

The issue now is how this plays out in the new deregulated world.

When on-patch studios cease to exist, news will increasingly be played in remotely from hubs.

There are huge benefits from hubbing, not least better newsreading voices on air. I was a cracking reporter, but I was never a great reader, and it's rare to find an individual who is brilliant at both. I speak from the experience of having trained more than 400 radio journos.

Those benefits are lost, however, if the newsreader is locked in battery-farm bulletin land.

When the same journo has to pre-rec bulls for half a dozen stations whilst somehow keeping those bulletins updated for each of the patches, something has to give. It won't be the on air performances, as everyone in wireless knows the ultimate bottom line is to keep the needles wobbling. So any shortcuts that have to be made will inevitably impact on the quality of journalism.

Hence breakfast-time cuts still being used at drive, and other crimes against news.

This brings me then to the point of this post. How is Ofcom to determine if the needs of a specific local audience are met, given the new landscape, enabled by tech but also enslaved by it?

I propose the Horsman test.

"To meet the requirements for delivering local news and information, a station must be able to get a reporter to the scene of a news story within that station's official transmission area within an hour of the story breaking".

 What's important is the boots on the ground.

Cutting and pasting social media is never the same as looking into the eyes of an terrified witness, a shifty company chief exec or a politician we need to hold accountable. Far more is picked up from the body language, the half-overheard exchanges, the other people coming and going from the scene than will ever be harvested from Twitter.

The ideal would be a staff journalist, based on the patch who gets to know important contacts well; it's so important to be on first name terms with key figures when disaster strikes. Note I don't specify a staff journalist; if groups can set up robust, 24/7/365 arrangements with local, appropriately trained freelancers that's also great, so long as they have the in-depth local knowledge and the necessary radio technique. (I'm available to give 'em that last bit - hint)

Stations should also build positive, two-way relationships with community radio, many of which are run by excellent broadcasters encouraging others to participate (arise, Mary Dowson BEM) or with quality hyperlocal news organisations like the West Leeds Dispatch or South Leeds Life.
And of course many BJTC accredited training courses at Universities and in the private sector can provide support, even for BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine programme when a deer meets an untimely end in a North Yorkshire theme park.

So that's my proposal. I look forward to debating it with others who have an interest. We can't afford to get it wrong.


  1. You've hit the nail on the head. As much as I have disliked regulators' interference over the years this time it is OFCOM's duty to ensure credible local news services, hubs or not.