Tuesday 4 September 2012

Listeners are allowed to be awkward

Wearing a long beige coat, his face wrinkled with annoyance, he was clearly not happy we had made some changes at the radio station. So annoyed, he’d popped into reception personally to tell us off and inform us he was about to write to his MP. We were a public service and we’d let him down. By changing.

Listeners are demanding. I remember once, having introduced some major changes on a format, getting angry calls from listeners saying ‘What have you done to my radio station’. Calls tantamount to a landlord ringing his tenant in disbelief on learning the tenant has just knocked down the living room wall.  We are but temporary custodians of someone’s else’s property - their radio station. Each call started with the words: ‘I’ve been listening to station X for Y years’; I could even recite their script before they started.  Whilst temporarily distracting, the calls must actually be a comfort to us: such listeners genuinely feel we belong to them.  We are part of their lives; part of their family.

One listener some years ago once wrote to me about a presenter change.  She hated the new presenter.  She told me he had offended her 13 times so far on the day she wrote.  I pictured her, sat with a chewed HB pencil gripped in hand, crossing off another strike on the third five bar gate on her Basildon Bond notepad.  A former colleague related to me too the story of the listener who could not believe that a programme time had been changed – she had always had her Sunday bath accompanied by this show. I think he gently suggested she revise the timing of her ablutions instead. Isn’t it flattering, though, that listeners believe that the station is for them alone - as, actually, that is exactly what we suggest to every broadcaster: you are speaking to one person.  Mind you, be careful who that one listener is: I recall the tale of one brand change years ago when a listener had a coffin delivered to the station boss.  He had killed their station.

The BBC get a few concerned listeners too.  The ‘don’t take Radio 4 off Long Wave’ campaign was reputed to have that famous polite protest where the grey-haired gathered politely outside Broadcasting House to chant: "What do we want? Radio 4. Where do we want it? Long Wave; What do we say? Please”.  And Mark Damazar probably still rues the day when he thought innocently that Radio 4 listeners might prefer to wake up with a little more solid Radio 4 content, rather than a medley of sea shanties.  Don’t mention the UK Theme. Daa, da da da da daah.... Mark later conceded: "I don't regret it but I think I underestimated the fact that I was causing some people considerable pain". Considerable pain?

What of a station closure? I recall tales from my Radio Authority days of the volume of response which the regulator had received on its decision not to re-award the London talk licence to LBC. Was that more or fewer letters than its fellow regulator, the ITC, received about the demise of Thames Television?

As a friend, we are turned to.  Many presenters can cite listeners getting in touch to say: ‘you really helped me’. I cannot be the only programmer who has taken a call from a listener in real danger who reaches to their radio station for help.

Listeners can be demanding of their friend.  We had a major competition once to win a car, or a runner up holiday prize.  The two contestants duly arrived, one happy and great to be with; the second, a career competitor, who simply wanted the prize.  That’s fine, I guess.  Should we really expect participants to be sufficiently polite to realise that the fair exchange for a free competition might be to provide us with some entertaining programming?  Thankfully, quite fairly, he did not win.  As you can imagine, he took it in good spirit.  He lodged a complaint that his questions were deliberately harder.  They weren’t - tempting though it would have been.  Nor was he satisfied with the holiday prize, it was in the wrong country.  He demanded we change it as he did not want to go there.

Holiday prizes are often riddled with difficulties.  Listeners who find the stipulated dates inconvenient complain. They argue too if they want to take an extra person because they feel the excess is unreasonable and blame us.  A old colleague reminded me of a Barbados trip winner who looked to the radio station for compensation for her sunburn. 

On a Mystery Sound-type premium-rate competition, one chap rang to complain when he got his phone bill for £400.  I took his call.  His question was simple: ‘what are you going to do about it’.  I asked if he’d heard the cost announcements, which we’d duly carried over and above the statutory minimum.  He had.  I asked if he’d seen the web page on which it was given in large letters.  He had.  I asked him if he was aware that using the phone a lot would cost more money than not using it very often.  He was.  But, no, he was going to ‘go the papers’.  I heard no more of him.
The much-needed clampdown following the outrageous and unfair behaviour by some media has made things worse: the trust in competitions has been eroded. The many of us who would rather die than do a competition unfairly are faced with contestants who presume we are guilty of fiddling until proven otherwise.  Rigorous Ts and Cs are assembled for all competitions, read by no-one until there is a complaint – and then the cleverest person wins. Not a battle of wrong and right; more about semantics. It is not that contestants believe we are in the wrong; some just seem to see the potential for ‘I know my rights’ gain.

No longer can stations easily select the happiest-sounding contestant to play competitions; it must often be the luck of the draw.  But, is it right for us to expect a listener to be fairly cheery when taking part?  No, on paper.  But in some ways, is it not like you inviting someone to your party, offering them free food and drink, and then having to accept they sit in the corner looking utterly miserable? Maybe we should have terms and conditions which demand a hint of happiness.  Chris Moyles tries:

“Each day, a shortlist of entrants will be randomly selected from all those who have registered within the past 24 hours. They will be telephoned by a member of the production team who will ask them 3 questions about the Chris Moyles Show and questions about their hobbies and interests to assess their suitability for taking part in the quiz”

And then, just to make sure:

“Given the nature of the quiz, which is solely for entertainment purposes, and the style of the presenter, contestants should be aware that the presenter might help one or other of the contestants.”

We know radio is special.  I’m sure we all go the extra mile, calling back listeners personally when they are aggrieved; and helping them where we can.  Suggesting alternative programmes, or even helping them retune their radios.  It’s right that we do.  It truly is tough to please all the people all of the time.

The day listeners stop moaning at us and stop expecting us to be utterly beyond reproach  - and stop us wanting to please them and them alone  - is the day we should start to worry. 


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