Thursday 1 March 2018

Seize the Snowy Day

Isn't it great being on air when it snows.  You feel as though you are running the World. 

You are in control of the information - and telling listeners where they can and cannot go, and what they can and cannot do.

This is a moment when radio really comes into its own. No other media is quite so good at conveying key information speedily and immediately to mass audiences in local areas – and also offering a friendly voice of reassurance. It puts its arm round its audience.

If you’re a back-to-back music station and this is not your bag – that’s fine.  You are welcome respite from all the chilly messages. I’ve no problem with that. The great thing about today’s unprecedented radio choice is we don’t all have to do the same thing.

If, however, you are setting out your stall by being ‘the local station’ which really addresses the snow and all the complications it brings, then let’s consider what radio really does best. 

Are we any longer the best place for interminable lists of school closures? Many schools now text all parents – and councils appear to be getting their heads around websites which stand the strain on busy days.  Many no longer see contacting radio stations as their top priority, which means your list will never be particularly accurate. 

I appreciate (having run many stations across varied patches with all manner of school policies) that each area is different. Were I broadcasting to a frosty island with a handful of schools, I’d likely mention their names. Have you taken your own circumstances fully into account? And if you conclude you are best-poised to assemble the huge volume of data, is a list online on a resilient website a better way of distributing it, alongside generous on-air promotion? Here's how commercial radio coped this week. Decide your policy and discharge it impeccably.

Radio is a brilliant thing, but knowing how listeners use it, it’s never been the best place for a lengthy list, not least when broadcast in staggered bursts over many hours.  You know what it’s like, even when you read out school names, parents still call in to ask if you have mentioned theirs.

The longer your list of very specific information of limited appeal, the longer listeners wait to hear more critical major flashes. 

I have an unhealthy affinity with the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4, but if it did not already exist, they arguably wouldn’t invent it now – and I doubt they’d schedule it at breakfast time.

Data is all very good. But data is black and white. Radio is colour.  The more black and white you do, the less colour you have time for.

Colour is hearing the voice of the person who’s been sat in their car all night; the nurse who walked five miles to work; and the woman who has been up to all sorts to help someone in need.  The funny relatable story about what happened to you last night. The entertaining observation.  The impromptu story arc about one listener with a challenge which you prompt another listener to help address (check out this today on BBC Radio Lincolnshire).

Witness the engagement here of the BBC 5Live and social media coverage of the delightful Mr Snow, a genuine headteacher, who staged a pupils v teachers snowball fight.

Colour can be hearing directly from the person from the electricity company about the prospects of the power returning. Like a pilot on an aeroplane, it’s good to hear whether you trust the sound of their voice.

Lincs FM’s group director of programmes, Sean Dunderdale, remembers being on-air years ago when he had a helpful vet on the phone volunteering vital information to a farmer attending to a pregnant goat in distress. These were different pre-mobile phone days, but you get the picture.

And it is a picture.

The pictures you paint on the radio will be the ones I remember next week, next month and next year.  People want to post their snowy pictures online – and you have to do the same thing with your words. Carpe diem. Every piece of research I have ever seen about radio is about emotion – the way our beautiful medium makes people feel.

Great friends are there when you need them - and like the health and emergency services - I think as an industry, we are pretty good at turning up and doing our job when conditions are tough - and making solid contingencies to make sure that is possible. And adjusting and extending programming - not stopping just because our shift ends. Great friends hang around.

Signposting is critical too. When you are broadcasting more information than usual, listeners easily lose track. When is your next weather forecast? When is you next key travel update? When are you repeating the 'need to know' critical headlines on the situation? Have you told your busy, distracted listeners?

Let's remember too you may well have useful curiosity cume at times like this - and a rare chance to re-introduce lapsed listeners into your fold. Are you also showcasing what you normally do? 

Spinning across the stations in the last few hours, I’ve heard some great radio, but I’ve also heard some disappointing radio - where there is information without empathy. This is a dramatic day – it should sound that way.  If you are bothering to be on-air and to go the extra mile – make sure you have seized the drama of the day.

Put your best broadcasters on duty. Stand down the others.

Decent production values mean always asking the question ‘why?’. What is our station strategy in times like this – and why?

Do let me know if you’ve heard some compelling memorable snowy radio, I’d like to copy it off and add it to this blog.

Grab my book 'Radio Moments'50 years of radio - life on the inside. A personal and frighteningly candid reflection on life in radio now and then. The drama - the characters - the headaches - the victories.

Also 'How to Make Great Radio'. Techniques for today's presenters and producers.  Great for newcomers - and food for thought if you've been doing it years.

Need a conference speaker or help with strategic projects - or coaching or broadcast training? If we get on OK, I'd love to work with you.

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