Monday 13 April 2020

What can radio learn from how it has handled COVID 19?

In times like this, you turn to your friends. And radio is a friend. Day or night, it’s there to pick-you up, to comfort you, to explain, and tell you what you need to know. Whether live or voice-tracked proficiently, this real-time medium in the hands of the greatest communicators has again shown its worth.

We have learned that whatever the future brings, there will always be a place for content in people’s ears, curated by a human being. The power of the human voice can never be really substituted.

It has been proven that both commercial and BBC stations deliver real public service. Let’s never forget that.

We have learned too to attribute more value to the tech teams, IT and broadcast engineers. Without their enviable abilities, UK radio would not have kept on-air. Just as COVID has helped us salute people deservedly doing jobs in all manner of sectors which may have not been recognised hitherto, let’s recognise the worth of our engineering and operational colleagues - now and always.

The value of reputable broadcast journalism has been proven. Whilst no broadcaster ever gets everything right, I do not feel we can have anything other than huge respect for those who have valiantly tried to portray a complex and changing picture, sometimes whilst heightening the risk to themselves. They have largely held the right people to account, but also – and more importantly – they have tried to achieve clarity, with a measured approach. Most have avoided the easy dramatic, frightening headline or self-aggrandising confrontation. And they are required to steep themselves in sadness day in, day out; and sometimes accept vile abuse on social media for their endeavours.

We have learned the value of regulation - or maybe it's just our sense of fairness and decency. Our radio can be creative and free, yet not stoop to the irresponsible behaviour evident elsewhere in the  World: 'Let my people go', cries Mark Levin on WABC in New York, upset at the business shutdown.

We have witnessed great presenters - across all formats. Those who choose just the right words at the right time and balance the mood, weaving the tapestry of information with support - and distraction - without ever sounding out of place. Sometimes just a sense of normality. We have learned the importance of casting well. We have learned the great double acts, who know what each other is thinking even though miles apart when remote-working. And the presenters who were not as experienced have had the best possible crash course in what to do when the shit hits the fan.

From politicians and opinion-leaders, we learn about the power of words. Whose are best-received in these extraordinary circumstances and why? What is it about their delivery? And - well done, your Majesty.

We have learned how well radio does emotion. Many presenters have been moved by the stories they have heard - or both hardship and help - and responded as a human being should. Hearing Iain Dale choked up after the first #clapforNHS does the job for me. Just sometimes, on radio, as my mother used to say 'it's better out than in'.

Sadly, any bounce in radio listening will not be registered by Rajar research fully – and that’s a frustration – although all broadcasters I know have seen real growth in their streaming figures. What have we learnt about our existing radio research? Despite being an excellently managed currency, trusted by media and marketers and one which will somehow be sustained across this blip, Rajar is necessarily slow and cannot be conducted when researchers cannot knock on doors. And we quietly acknowledge that getting people to open their doors and admit researchers to their homes was also increasingly difficult in peace time.

I appreciate any changing of research methodology is a big step. As with any adjustment, it would quite simply result in different findings – ones which the BBC and commercial radio partners are unlikely to tolerate readily.  But just maybe, as media buying and selling restructures itself and everything changes anyway, is this a moment? An opportunity to get radio – and all audio - research more instant, efficient and cheaper to conduct?

We have been reminded of the value older people attach to radio. Whilst the BBC’s focus has understandably been on younger listeners, prodded by sometimes questionable direction from Ofcom, the heaviest shoppers in the radio supermarket are older – and we must make sure that UK radio provides for them.  And if that demo is not being addressed by the commercial sector - then it must fall to the BBC.  With Radio 2’s changes and local radio’s current approach, there is no companionable service with chat and appropriate music policy for the 13m listeners in their 60s and 70s. And if you hit those squarely, those aged over 80 would value that service too.

We have learned that ad revenues are vulnerable; and the advantages of scale and efficiency for resilience.

We have learned that we do not need lots of people in a building to make great radio. People have broadcast – and assembled built content - from their spare bedrooms. Voice-tracking has been used well and purposed skilfully. Individuals have made great radio – on their own – which is how it is so often consumed - without the distractions of the business of radio.

We have learned the value of local radio when times are tough. Every local station - BBC, commercial and community- can point to examples of cases where they truly have made a difference.  Whilst my good friend Keri Jones is not yet on air with his community station, just listen to the half-hour Alfred Daily podcasts he produces on his own – every day – for his lucky town of Shaftesbury.

I keep arguing for a fresh look at local radio generally – bringing together the needs of small commercial, BBC local, community and audio-on-demand sectors in a coherent fashion - and maybe recent days have illustrated the art of the possible technically. We could use the available public monies to deliver a better depth and spread of local radio and hyper-local radio – and spend less.

We have learned skills. How to cobble things together. How to stop your back bedroom sounding like a tiled public loo. And when filming for social media, daily lessons on how to get the lighting right and making sure you’re using a proper mic. We have learned that we do not always need to dispatch a convoy of vehicles to source a report in person. If well-directed, viewers are quite content to see someone on Facetime – and listeners appear happy with a voice from wherever. Of all media, ours can be agile.

We have learned we don’t need so many meetings in our buildings and we don’t need to travel to head office quite so much. A phone call – or a dratted Zoom meeting – can suffice. Free Zoom cuts off after 40 minutes and we have learned how often that is easily sufficient.

And we have learned perspective. For all our usual moaning about our sector, we are privileged to have a truly wonderful job which brings us fulfilment and happiness.

Simon Mayo, in his episode of my Radio Moments Conversations series suggested it’s a time to look again at our ambitions in life. What do we really want to achieve? What really makes us happy?


Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting. 

Read this book and gain insights into: 

Tight contemporary music presentation-

Generating engaging talk content-

Developing authenticity and likeability- Handling double-acts, callers and contests-

Understanding the audience and keeping them listening -

Whether you are a newcomer or a seasoned performer, RadioSecrets is essential reading.

Friday 6 December 2019

How Long Must this Competition and Markets Madness Continue?

Bauer acquired a tranche of radio stations in February - yet can can still not press ahead with integrating them into its group, owing to a protracted CMA process.

My blog post on this matter sits on my new BLOG on my website here

Follow my blog (RSS) here.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Where the News Never Stops

Global launched its new LBC News offering yesterday - rolling news for the UK.

I've offered a perspective on it - coupled with a few observations on the matter of rolling news generally - across on my new blog on my website.

The latest post is Here.

And here's the RSS for the new blog. 



Sunday 29 September 2019



Thanks for checking out my various posts.

My blog has now moved across to my website.

Hope to see you there. New posts now up about why we can’t just use the term radio for all the new ways of disseminating audio - and whether the BBC’s complaints process is up to scratch.

(This blog will remain as an archive)


Saturday 7 September 2019

Has Video Killed the Radio Star?

Forty years ago today, the Buggles released Video Killed the Radio Star. Since that unseasonably warm day in 1979, we’ve had to tolerate that miserable headline being wantonly applied by journalists to every minor bump in the road for our great medium.

What’s really happened since 1979 in radio?

Back then, as Thatcherism began, we had four national BBC radio stations; Radios Scotland, Wales, Cymru and Ulster; 19 commercial radio stations and 20 BBC locals - plus Radio Luxembourg in the evening and the dying days of Radio Caroline from a rusty Mi Amigo ship.  If you were dedicated, you might have found the World Service on crackly medium wave or on short wave.

The BBC could barely suppress its excitement as it announced that Radio 1 and 2 would have more separate programming - and Radio 2 was going to continue past midnight. Fresh-faced new talent came in the form of Peter Powell on Radio 1. According to BBC data, Tom Browne's Top 20 had the largest audience (6m); with Junior Choice attracting 4m on Saturdays and 3m on Sundays. Saturday's Any Questions on Radio 4 delivered 900,000 (931,000 Rajar W2 2019).

At best, however, in London - where most choice has always existed - a listener in their baggy jeans had the luxury of just eight stations from which to choose. No wonder they embraced the Walkman, which arrived on the market in July ‘79.

The BBC claimed radio listening in the late '70s amounted to 8 hours and 50 minutes a week per head of the population. Even taking into account hugely different methodologies and questions on who the heads belong to, is there even a suggestion that the time spent with radio by each listener is greater now than in 1979?

Now in 2019, across the UK, we have ten national BBC radio stations plus part time and pop-up services; Radios Scotland, Wales, Cymru, nan Gaidheal, Foyle, Ulster; 30 BBC locals; around 34 national commercial stations; almost 300 commercial stations, many of which are united under national brands; and community radio. Plus thousands of stations online should we wish.

Radio doesn’t sound very dead to me.

In 1979, most listening was on crackly AM (medium wave or long wave), although FM was making headway at last after 20 years.  Whilst FM radio sets were line-fitted in some cars – others did not even have an in-built radio at all. You bought one from Halfords, dismantled your dashboard and installed your own – which was fine until a local delinquent broke into your Cortina and pinched it. Cassette players were on sale too, beginning to replace the 8-track cartridge players.

In the home, medium wave sounded OK on your battered tranny – until you turned on the twin-tub.  

Finding a station was a veritable bingo game, as you tried to remember the frequency numbers. In the absence of pre-sets, my mother used to be petrified of not finding Waggoners Walk on Radio 2 once she’d finished with Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. And, in 1979, listeners were still coming to terms with many stations having suddenly moved frequency the previous year as part of new international broadcaster agreements. Unsurprisingly, folk latched onto their favourite station and stayed there.

Now, radio sets tell you which station you’re on – and what’s happening on-air at the time. Finding another is a simple matter and smart speakers allow you to do it without lifting a finger. And - about every human being has access to radio anywhere, any time via their phone should they wish.

The BBC licence fee (colour TV + radio) was £34 in 1979 (around £190 in today’s money)- and 18.3 m were issued in total (inc black and white TV).  In 2019, around 26m are now issued – at a cost of £154.50.

In '79, a Binatone clock radio would set you back £19.99 (£112.93 equivalent in 2019); a Sharp radio/cassette recorder £48.99 (£276.77). There is no doubt that today's tech is a snip.

At the end of the '70s, local radio was poised to grow again at last, having been thwarted by governments for alas too long. The BBC was chuffed that Lord Annan had been ignored and a new 'local radio authority' was not about to be created embracing both its local stations and the commercial sector's. Both prepared to open new services.

In 1979, commercial radio was still struggling to find its deserved place in the advertiser’s mind. The patchwork quilt of very different stations made it an unattractive option for big national brands. Unlike in many other countries, the six-year old medium had just not yet had time to build its reputation. Luckily, the ITV strike of 1979 meant that some TV revenues were displaced to radio. Accordingly, revenues rose to 45m from 30m.

Commercial radio, however, depended hugely on local revenues in the ‘70s. Press was the
principal competitor, and sales execs merrily sat at their desks cutting out leads with pinking shears from the many established local titles. Apart from in London and an appreciable Beacon/BRMB overlap in the West Midlands, you were unlikely to bump into a rep from another radio station in a client's reception area.

In 2019, whilst press is no longer a key competitor, the battle is angry, with a gamut of ‘digital’ options from the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to skyscrapers on websites, key words on Google, pre-roll on Youtube, podcast sponsorship - alongside a revitalised ‘outdoor’ (OOH) sector which no longer relies on a man up a ladder to change the creative. An endless range of TV channels now sell affordable offerings – more targeted than yesteryear, even selecting by postcode or audience traits via Sky AdSmart. More native advertising - and brands creating and distributing their own content – alongside enviably creative experiential and sponsorship offerings. All that, alongside rival radio offerings – from competitors who steal your listener and client lunch.

It is easy to see why commercial radio, for its long-term future, needed to act preemptively to ensure it remains economically sustainable. For the first time now, following consolidation and brand-spread, ad agencies can select from a range of clear, huge radio offerings and buy them with ease.

Has video killed the radio star?

I’d suggest there are about as many true on-air radio stars as there always were and - for the first time - commercial radio can build them nationally too. The job is increasingly challenging, and most established acts would likely concede that building their reputation afresh would be more difficult were they to start now.

No longer can you expect to claim a crown just because you’ve been on one TV channel on a Saturday night - or because you host the breakfast show in your city. Now there are so many outlets, audiences are divided – stars need to be shining at their brightest – across all media - to cut through. There are many more names around; and breaking through from being known - to being a true star takes talent, luck and hard work

Radio’s great asset lies in its authenticity. In the days when it built ‘stars’ readily, it likely did so in the absence of listeners having little else to do in their lives. Hence, the crowds of thousands to see a fat local DJ in shorts on stage doing daft contests and throwing vinyl singles out dangerously to adoring fans. Now, the real radio stars with longevity are those whom listeners simply embrace as part of their life – and yet still look up to for their wit, intelligence, the people they mix with and the mood they engender. There are many of them now – at the top of their game.

In 2019, an average UK listener enjoys unprecedented choice, almost wherever they live.  Whilst, in many cities, they may no longer may have the dominant dedicated local station, they can, at any moment in time, choose exactly the radio entertainment they want - at the time they want it. Consolidation has meant that the major groups now do have most to gain by spreading their wings - into Country, Classics, Oldies and Talk.

Little wonder that 49m adults – and 16m under 15s - choose radio every week.

Challenges lie ahead and there is no place for complacency. You wouldn’t punish a child now by taking away their radio. The medium's place needs to continue to be earned. Similarly, UK radio will likely face new competition from international entertainment brands as the gateway to audience ears is freed by platforms other than FM/DAB.

Putting to one side the considerable personal cost incurred by those in the industry who have suffered at the hands of painful re-organisation, UK radio is in fine shape forty years on. For listeners, I’d suggest it is in a healthier state than it was in 1979, as it struggled to find its new place alongside the marvel of television. 

Thankfully, the calibre of many individuals I witness leading today’s great radio stations is high and respected around the World. We look good too. Great stations hold their heads up off-air, with immaculate gigs - from Bauer's Hits Radio Live to Capital's Summertime Ball. All a little different from the 1979 gig to celebrate ten years of BBC local radio - with Pam Ayres and Tom O'Connor at the De Montfort Hall. Similarly, radio's charity events now deliver millions to deserving causes. Good stations are truly part of a brand; and - ironically- it is radio which is choosing now to visualise.

Our sector is growing in scale and sexiness, boosted by podcast and on-demand. It's unlikely to go away - people will always have two ears and will need something to fill them with. 

Video did not kill the radio star. Now let's put that headline to bed. Forever.                                                          Contact me

NEW! Radio Secrets - An insiders's guide to presenting and producing powerful content for broadcast and podcast 

Also - Radio Moments - 50 years of radio - life on the inside

Tuesday 27 August 2019

The Difference a Leader Makes

“Great people coalesce around great leaders – and who they can learn from.” (Simon Cole, former UBC/7 Digital exec)

Bookshops in airports are full of cheap publications on leadership, and I am ill-qualified to write another. It occurred to me however that many of the subjects I have interviewed for my RadioMoments Conversations series have volunteered some fascinating thoughts.

I cringe on recalling how I behaved as a new ‘General Manager’ at Leicester Sound in the 80s. Given my first management title, I thought that alone, with a few stern words, would be enough to motivate and direct the team around me - most of whom had more experience of radio than did I. They weren’t.

The gifted and sadly-missed John Myers remembered much the same of his early efforts: “I was more aggressive then (as a manager) than I am now” he told me. That may have been because, in his earlier career, he was managed by someone whose management style “looked quite vicious”. Role models matter, and like me, you may have observed those who are incapable of managing well, because they simply have never witnessed it.  By contrast, many of the senior figures in my Conversations interviews gush about the one person who truly inspired them.

John referred too to an early BBC local radio manager who "managed in the old Colonial style" – and would not even allow staff in the lavatory when he was using the urinal.

When faced with a critical early career decision in his BBC local radio days, Simon Cole told of a senior BBC radio manager who agreed to meet up with him to talk over the dilemma. Simon recalls that the lofty chap took the trouble to find out all about him, afforded him generous time and counselled wisely, even though that advice led Simon away from the BBC. Simon asserts how he “respects above all other” qualities” “the ability to give people time and to respect potential”. “We never know who the next great leader is until we spend time with someone who at the moment might not look like they’re going to be the next great thing”.

Great leaders persuade and influence. Simon Cole refers to another encounter: “like those great people in your life, he persuaded me that what he knew was good for me was the right thing to do”.

Simon recalls too making a text-book error as a producer at Piccadilly, prompting his MD Colin Walters to walk into the studio asking: “tell me, do we employ producers to ensure mistakes like that don’t happen?”.  “Yes”, murmured Simon. “OK”, said Colin: “Just checking”. There’s a way of making sure things don’t go wrong, and it’s not always telling off someone who’s already furious with themselves.

“It’s easy to know what you’re good at – more difficult to recognise what you’re not very good at", observed former Radio 1 Controller, Andy Parfitt. Former Chrysalis and Orion boss Phil Riley agreed: “I was never going to maximise my potential as an on-air presenter but I was quite good at organising other people and helping other people get the best out themselves”.

On managing change, a key job for any leader, Dirk Anthony (former GWR and GCap programmer) talked about the rigour and preparation needed: “My biggest interest in today’s world is leading change and how you bring about results through change in a way that’s safe - for people and for businesses, for organisations for shareholders”.

Whilst sound, reasoned judgement is key, few great leaders can demonstrate success without risk. In the words of John Myers, who was given 18 months to win licences or lose his job: “Life is a gamble”.  Many leaders embrace failure. The thinking goes that failure aids learning and if you’ve never failed you’ve never taken quite enough risk; and Simon Cole laments the way it is viewed by Brits.

"I've always been that elder brother - and occasionally, headmaster. I have never believed in giving people a real bollocking. I have a couple of times." - Tim Blackmore - early Radio 1 and Capital producer and programmer

It’s not a popularity contest. Famously, Margaret Thatcher said: "If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at any  time, and would achieve nothing". John Myers referred to an early boss who was “A lovely man - but probably the worst (manager) I’d ever met”.  Great leaders can polarise. Whilst so many I have interviewed have had some flavour of Richard Park story to relate, there is no doubt about the way he made people feel when he wanted them to feel good. Pat Sharp relates how Richard took him out for a lunch after his last show.

It’s stressful. Andy Parfitt described managing change at the network as “hugely stressful” and, on leaving the Radio 1 Controllership after 13 years, he confessed: “You get used to being slightly on that adrenaline trigger and that takes a long time to withdraw. The effects of that for a decade are not trivial”.  In politics, Prime Ministers are usually retired by their country or their party looking visibly older than when they took office. Do our radio station leaders know when it’s time to step down?

Leaders talk to their staff. John Myers’s PA recalls how long it would take him to get to his office when walking through the building as he’d stop to chat merrily to members of his Team.  Former Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas recalls how, in her early career, her Director of Radio visited her in her own territory: “she came to my tiny little office in the corner of the ground floor of Western House and sat down and said please will you stay for six months”.

Radio is a mad world – and the greatest presenters can, on occasions, be complex to handle.  Andy Parfitt insists on respect: “You (managers) have to like or love and have a passion for what they (the talent) do”. If as a programmer, you feel you have no faith in your station’s breakfast show, you really should be making a change rather than making the team’s life a misery. You have to believe in it.

Often top talent may be earning more than you are – and seemingly less dispensable than you are. With regard to Chris Moyles, Andy said: “I really got on with Chris and admired him. If you have an authentic admiration for what they can do – then you’re at the starting gate”. Lesley Douglas’s love for Chris Evans was clear to see. Regardless of reporting lines, wise leaders cultivate a special bond of trust with the talent who define their station: “It’s a ridiculous word ‘manage’ talent – because you can’t" said Lesley. "The only way to get the best out of on-air talent is to have an ongoing relationship, a consistent relationship. The important thing is to talk about things so they don’t become big issues”.

This ongoing relationship with key individuals point was echoed by John Myers speaking of his GMG boss: “He often just rang up to see how I was doing. Never work for anyone you don’t like or respect”.

Supporting your team is key. John Myers used to tell with a smile how he often did not show his presenters listener complaints “The reason I never told you is because I never agreed with the complaints”. The fruits are clear when talent and leaders reflect fondly on their firm but supportive influences, whether Chris Moyles on Andy Parfitt or BBC Northampton’s Bernie Keith on Stuart Linnell. Lesley Douglas pays tribute to a former Radio 2 Controller Frances Line: “incredibly supportive of me personally”.

“People call them the soft skills. In fact, they’re the hardest skills to learn”, said Dirk Anthony.

Great leaders are not threatened by the calibre of those they recruit: “Find the best people you can get – and go for them”, said Lesley Douglas. The legendary Jim Moir would say "cast up".

As a manager, you will become better. “I learnt a great deal about management and managing people.  I don’t think I got it all right at all – in fact, I was probably getting more wrong than right ‘cos I was just 30 or 31”, said Phil Riley. Support matters too: "I was a little out of my depth", confessed Helen Boaden (Radio 4, Head of BBC News, Director of BBC Radio) as she was promoted to her first senior role: "I was the most junior member of the management team. I had to make the first compulsory redundancies in news in ten years - and not a single BBC senior manager came to help me - and I have never let that happen to anyone else".

People need to be recognised. Paranoid, insecure creative types such as many presenters certainly do. If you are on-air, nurturing even groundless fears about whether your manager rates you, you are possibly not going to produce your best work.  You’ve got to believe in yourself to even bother opening your mouth on-air; and your manager should help that with genuine and specific approbation. Helen Boaden related with a smile the early feedback she received as a manager, when a programme producer implored her to start by saying something positive about the programme before launching into what could be better.

After a challenging year at Orion Media, Phil Riley sent me one of his hand-written notes. I know the exact words he used - as I have kept it to this day. Whether a note or an occasional smile and thumbs-up through the glass when you’re on-air - it all pays dividends.

In radio and, I guess many sectors, the spirit of the office counts for something. We've all worked in a building where a visit from a head honcho casts a cloud which can last months. “You’d have men walking about in suits – and as nice as they were on the surface, they weren’t Virgin and they weren’t Ginger”, said John Revell (Virgin, Ginger). On the other hand, regulator and programmer Martin Campbell spoke of how other leaders use 'scarcity' constructively.

What other qualities are needed?  Andy Parfitt attributed “Courage of conviction and intellectual rigour” to his predecessor Matthew Bannister.

Andy alluded too to the British military doctrine: 'Serve to lead'.  “You’re there as the boss - to serve your people - and that service might be sometimes dishing out a total bollocking when something‘s gone wrong that easily shouldn’t have gone wrong - but that service is also about supporting and mentoring and coaching  and so on…”.

Great leaders aim high, but things can get in the way. Andy Parfitt said: "We’re all a product of our limiting assumptions – and it took me quite a long time to undo those limitations" (as a comprehensive school kid).   He suggested: “ambition and investment and clarity of where you think you’re going is required”.  Similarly, John Myers talked of how he felt when being summoned to meet Sir Bob Phillis at the Guardian: “(I was) the Carlisle lad who left school with no education whatsoever heading down to London to Guardian HQ to see the guy who had been deputy DG of the BBC to talk about radio”.

Behind the public confidence of many great leaders lies some private and healthy self-doubt.

Follow the RadioMoments Conversations podcast here                                                Contact me

 New! Out now!

 RADIO SECRETS - An insider's guide to   presenting and producing powerful content for   broadcast and podcast.


Thursday 8 August 2019

The Future for News

I can’t be the only person who watches the opening sequence of the Ten ‘O Clock TV news – and then promptly switches over.  It’s a far cry from when I’d sit there with a cup of tea and salmon sandwich, transfixed until the dying strains of the programme’s closing sig tune.

They’ve told me the headlines I need to know – and that’s enough.  As for the other stories they’ve chosen, they’re not the one I’m interested in – or they’re ones I already had had my fill of.

No offence to the BBC’s fine editorial team, maybe things are just changing.

Broadcast news began on radio in 1922, with Arthur Burrows chuntering through a few pages of foolscap - from a rowdy meeting with Winston Churchill to the billiards scores. In many ways, news has changed little since – with TV bulletins a video variant of the radio options. Sure, we’ve now got actuality, two-ways and frightening animation, but we are still force-fed hourly lists of stories on linear media. Some we are interested in, some we are not.

Now, we may feast our news appetite in several efficient ways, with news users drawing on an average of 6.7 different sources (Ofcom 2019). Which media will play which roles in the future? Do the broader range of sources make matters clearer - or do we become more judgemental in discarding seemingly conflicting accounts?


In news consumption, I theorise a number of factors come into play, although those better qualified than me have likely written lengthy books on the matters.

  • Relevance and convenience
  • Immediacy
  • Perspective, trust and transparency
  • Analysis and depth
  • Investigation and challenge
  • Responsibility
  • Reflection, comfort and occasion

Has digital media has turned relevance on its head? We connect with the story about the school our child will attend - and we connect equally to a photo of a slain elephant in Zimbabwe and the story behind it. The communications democracy which now exists may be eroding that old journalist tenet about the relationship between distance and caring. A story has relevance because we care about it - or the treatment makes us care. It can affect us directly or emotionally – whether down the road or across the globe. What does that mean for local media - not least in pretend regions invented by broadcasters?

Immediacy: we want the news we need - now. When we hear a worrying bang outside, we turn increasingly to social media and digital, as neighbours pitch in with their accounts of what's happened - and their odd theories. Ofcom's 2019 survey suggest 66% (and rising) of adults 16+ now use 'the internet' for news, compared to 75% (and falling) using TV - with 'internet' leading by some margin amongst 16-24s (83% use); and similarly minority ethnic consumers.  

Then, swiftly, as conflicting reports emerge from the man on the street - we want perspective and trust. We need to hear from someone with ability and access to give reliable insight. The pedigree and reputation of the big news purveyors will likely be ever more important here. Heightened transparency on their funding may become relevant - and a better public understanding on how they are regulated - and a proud trumpeting of such regulation. The protagonists – the council, police, fire brigade etc – are also seen as trusted ‘experts’, now acting as their own publishers for the first time.

In general terms, whilst one can now assemble one's own online 'news page' from a variety of sources, most people still turn to familiar sources. They are not only trusted - they are convenient. News can be sourced anywhere - but to what extent can people be bothered to act as their own news editor - and do they know what they're doing?

Then we seek understanding through analysis and depth. What exactly happened? What are the facts? Why has this happened? What are the key players saying? What happens next? Whilst analysis has traditionally pursued ‘truth’, our world is increasingly more complex - and consumers show ever more suspicion. I witness the excellent Evan Davis on the PM Programme on Radio 4 increasingly ‘showing his workings’, as my maths teacher used to say: that was one perspective – and here is another – and you will form your own view. It’s correct that this is now seen as a perfectly acceptable approach rather than simply engineering an uncomfortable ding-dong. (BBC World Service explains here why 'covering breaking news is not enough for today's audiences'.) 

The case for the expensive business of proactive investigation remains.  Many matters need unearthing and scrutinising. Original journalism from curious and persistent dedicated professional asking the questions that no-one yet has.  There is clear case for challenge too, where an offending figure needs to be heard being held to account; justice being seen to be done. In the wake of Brexit, some broadcasters have begin the healthy process of scratching their heads wondering whether they actually asked the right questions.

Responsibility is a thorny issue, if it is not to confused with social engineering; and the work on constructive news/solutions-focusedjournalism is highly relevant. ‘What’s gone wrong here?’ may be an accurate story – but it does not represent the entirety of any topic. Even ‘duly impartial’ broadcast media can ultimately affect the world we live in by the stories it chooses to cover and how it covers them.

Finally, when something happy or troubling happens, people want to talk. They want to reflect, derive comfort - or share a sense of occasion. Are the evening local TV news magazines - which continue to attract good audiences - as much about companionship and belonging as news.

Media solutions

The original news sources are changing, not least as newspaper circulations fall from 22m in 2010 to 10.4m last year.

Social media is growing, despite low trust levels (37% of users say it is impartial, vs 61% for radio). Facebook rules as the most common social media news source. The BBC remains the most followed news organisation, being used by just over half of Facebook and Twitter news users. New brands are breaking through, with Ladbible attracting 19% of Facebook news users, and Buzzfeed 17% (Facebook) and 14% (Twitter) - both ahead of established press titles. Of those who use traditional media, Global's radio stations reach a healthy 19% of traditional news media users vs Sky's 27% and DMGT's 25%.

What future for the news bulletin?  In a sense, they serve as a regularly updated landing page for the day and for the hour, helping us navigate the news of the moment through trusted eyes. We discover what's happened - and ascertain which stories we might want to hear more about.  On linear broadcast,  however, we only hear these updates at times the schedulers choose - on the hour or half-hour - and we are usually treated to at least a paragraph of further detail beyond headlines, whether we are interested in the specific or not.  And - on broadcast - if we seek further insight into a story, we must turn to different media - or maybe wait in the hope that it might feature in a full news programme if it exists on that channel.

Would radio stations have scripted lengthy news bulletins on the hour were the medium invented today? It's interesting that whilst a healthy 43% use radio for news, only 9% of those who follow news turn to radio for their fix of local news - despite the hundreds of stations broadcasting local bulletins. When we want to understand a topic, is the engaging informality of the Brexitcast podcast or Theo Usherwood on LBC more illuminating than a package, voicer or script?

Whilst we will continue to value the major broadcasters doing the dirty work of exploring of each day for us - and the necessary journalism – the trend to bulletin brevity will understandably continue. Whilst Ofcom will insist on preserving the news bulletin on music stations, arguably breakfast shows just pausing every so often to list the top stories - or the updated stories - would serve the same purpose. At present, someone waking up just after 8 and dashing out the house at 830 likely hears no news on entertainment radio.

As voice-activated grows, one can imagine a future where we can scream 'more' at a radio or TV headline and expect further detail to be delivered, before returning to the linear. Similarly, another instruction might prompt insight into a story background. Where is the country? Why are these people fighting?  And - could it offer immediate 'fact checks'?

Flash briefings on smart speakers are experimenting with the format, having concluded correctly that just seizing the radio model may not be the answer. Indeed, the brevity of a true ‘flash briefing’ as opposed to a full news bulletin is probably what the consumer seeks. But will they also become purveyors of specific news stories on demand: ‘Alexa, tell me the latest on Brexit’.

Who will own smart speaker content – today’s broadcasters or tomorrow’s communications companies – or trusted news anchors. 'Hey Huw Edwards, tell. me what's new'.  Who will be the Uber of smart news? Is the NHS/Alexa arrangement, where asking her for flu symptoms will now serve the official NHS view, an interesting precedent - whereas Google Home still merrily tells you 'a fact I've found on the web'. What role will regulation play in this arena?

Rolling TV news - and radio newstalk on stations like LBC - appears to meet contemporary expectations: when I want it - it's there. It ebbs and flows with the news agenda, and is not afraid to dwell exclusively on the key topic at the expense of all others when the occasion warrants.

Will scheduled TV news programmes on general TV channels survive? Whilst BBC One TV remains a huge news source, the percentage of people who use it has fallen appreciably from 65% to 55% since 2010. Will people continue to sit down to watch lengthy TV reports on topics in which they may have scant interest? In linear broadcast, maybe we will feel more acutely the absence of a ‘next story’ button to skip the stories which do not chime.

TV's broad linear audience, however, certainly has a role to play in helping a sense of occasion: the Olympic opening ceremony or the Royal Wedding.

What role does context play in news on social media? Those using it for news struggle to attribute the original source - and, whilst Twitter news users estimate 55% of their news tweets come from news organisations, almost half come from friends and family or others they follow, placing news is a specific personal context. In the same way, 45% of Facebook users accessing news organisation posts read the comments too. Popularity also plays its part, and the lists of most watched/read stories online can seem variously illuminating and worrying. Trending stories generate their own momentum.

How can the social media platforms better distinguish trusted content from the spurious – and who will judge them?  Should algorithms be the conscience of a nation, doing their best to serve us dependable content? What are the risks of that - and to what extent should regulation play a greater part? 

Press has endured a challenging generation as 18th Century titles have struggled to make a business in a digital world.  Some have chosen paywalls, others not. Some, like the Times, supply the actual 'newspaper' in digital form, which looks reassuring familiar and yet often behaves oddly. Others, like the huge Mail-on-line, opt for a dedicated digital space. To what extent will we continue to want to 'read a newspaper' whether on paper or online. Will a UK podcast with the power and penetration of the New York Times Daily be created?

But - when it comes to informed conversation and commentary, comfort and companionship,there will surely never be a medium to match radio.

New! Out now!

RADIO SECRETS - An insider's guide to presenting and producing powerful content for broadcast and podcast.

What can radio learn from how it has handled COVID 19?

In times like this, you turn to your friends. And radio is a friend. Day or night, it’s there to pick-you up, to comfort you, to explai...