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30 January 2022

The News Isn't a Nuisance, Liza

Well, erm, hello. Bit of preamble first. It's been a while. Two years in fact. 

Back in late 2019, well before anyone knew Covid was coming, I decided to opt out of commentary on radio and journalism. It had dawned on me I'd been out of a full time job in radio for longer than I'd been in one. 

OK, I'd also spent a big chunk of time teaching news, and annoying proper academics with my single minded focus on vocational outcomes for my trainees over floppy hats and the rest of the HE theses, but the last thing I wanted to become was an out-of-touch armchair critic. 

Even worse, a cardigan, railing on about how much better things were in the past (spoiler - they weren't, they were different). So I quietly went quiet. 

It's all James Cridland's fault I'm back. He's been nudging me into doing a bit of interview training for his cool podcast mates who are right up there on audio's cutting edge; and he even goaded me explicitly in his latest circular email to hit the commentary keyboard once again. If a proper radio futurologist does that, who am I to argue? 

So here goes. 

The argument is this. Liza Tarbuck wants to drop the news in the middle of her Radio 2 show, or failing that morph it into something that features positive, innovative stories from around the world (if I've understood correctly - Matt Deegan summarises here). I disagree.

Let me say first of all I have huge respect for Liza Tarbuck - an entertaining and engaging presenter well worthy of a slot on a national network, and a rare authentic regional voice on any national station that isn't too-cool-for-school 6 Music. But she's wrong to suggest canning the news.

Firstly Brand R2 is bigger than Brand Liza. For a long while Radio 2 was my go-to station whilst driving long distances outside Yorkshire. That preference has now shifted to Boom Radio, partly because of the music, but mainly because I rather like the idea of a stroppy insurgent punching above its weight. Bit like my PG course, in fact. If only they'd sort the ad rotation .. but that's a topic for another day.

With Radio 2 on button 2 I know when I turn on the ignition when emerging into daylight in Folkstone, or picking up the car from a field not actually that near Gatwick, I'll instantly get three things - a familiar voice, traffic conditions on the M1 or the M6, and a three minute news summary at the top of the hour. 

I don't normally want Today or PM whilst driving. It takes too much effort, and the style often annoys me. I need well produced, quality presenters making those miles of tarmac as inoffensively painless as possible. 

Liza, however, considers the bulletin an intrusion ... "if my listeners’ energy goes, I have to work harder at the beginning of the second hour". Yes. Yes you do. With the greatest respect, that's what you're paid for - and it's second nature to anyone in commercial radio who's regularly baiting the audience with reasons to tolerate the ad break three or four times an hour. 

Big beasts on the Radio 2 network integrate the news seamlessly - Steve Wright on the Big Show warmly namechecking newsreaders in London and sports reporters on the end of a wire in Salford as valued members of the intimate little world he rules, and Jeremy Vine cueing in the bulletin as an integral part of the programme after setting up the discussion topics at midday. 

Once you start dropping some bulletins to allow private little lagoons within the overall flow of the station, the listener no longer knows what to expect. Frankly, I don't know without checking when Liza's on. If she has one news policy,  Jamie Cullum another and Elaine Paige a third - it all gets very messy. I can understand a presenter's pride in their craft, and of course individual names will attract their specialist fans, but no one personality can or should break the overall format. 

So what about the content of the bulletin? Liza Tarbuck's got some interesting ideas:

"I don't watch the news and I don't listen to the news. It actually is quite blandy bland and not the sort of news I'm after. I kind of want to know about science departments in the universities. What are they coming up with? Exciting stuff, that's actually relevant to me and mine or might even punch some sort of use, thoughts of what could be, rather than 'this' [meaning lockdown etc]."

James Cridland also does a forensic dissection of one particular R2 bulletin from 1900 on 22 Jan, commenting on the length and selection of items .. in particular he notes ".. nothing particularly positive apart from the [skiing] gold medal".

0:03 Blackmailing MPs
0:58 Man charged with double murder
1:18 Anti-vaccination protests
1:58 New COVID cases across the UK
2:10 Everton v Aston Villa report
2:41 UK skier wins gold medal
2:55 Weather

Now, I am (or was) a radio journalist, and whilst no-one would claim this is an award winner it appears to be a workmanlike job - not terribly exciting, I'd agree, but it updates me, if I've been away from the news for a bit, on the two main running stories - Sleaze and Covid - with a just-happened 'orrible murder charge, a current Premiership football game of wider general interest to those who follow such things (not including me or James, but we're a minority) and a -ahem- positive story of GB medal success to hand back to Liza with. 

If you break format to prioritise stories from "the science departments of universities", for instance, you're going to annoy the hell out of those who'd rather hear specialist stories from personal finance, gardening, showbiz or computer gaming. 

The related Pollyanna demand for "positive news" emerges at regular intervals, and fails against the harsh test of reality. Like "proper local radio" (TM) it appears to be something people like very much in opinion surveys but don't actually read or listen to in any great numbers.

The curse of the internet has been to create an infinite number of tiny interest bubbles all conned by Big Tech into believing their pet obsession matters to more people than is actually the case. 

An editor's job is to look at everything and to compile what she decides, professionally, will have the greater appeal to the greater number. 

That doesn't mean Radio 2 bulletins can't be improved. Of course there should be a continual two way dialogue between programmers and editors, and it would be ideal if the nation's biggest radio station could have the resource to enable this to happen. 

I'd like to see the BBC break away from slavishly reflecting the Westminster-centric agenda created and fuelled by other media, particularly the Infotainers Formerly Known As Newspapers, most of which are actively hostile to Auntie.

The BBC has two unique resources, if it chose to use them - a network of worldwide bureaux capable of feeding in stories I'm sure Liza would approve of, and an unparalleled network of local and regional reporters within the UK who get shamefully little national exposure (or TV airtime within the Regions unless you're also a Nation, which is just a Region with more political clout).

But at a time when the BBC is facing renewed austerity, and with a Culture Secretary vowing the Corporation's next licence settlement "will be the last", I guess they've got bigger fish to fry than the seven o'clock news on a Saturday.  

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