News bulletins have adopted much the same
production recipe since 1922. Whether
the 6.00 immaculately-presented nightly feast on BBC Radio 4 or the hourly
juicy snack on much commercial radio, maybe smothered with a funky bed.
Arthur Burrows, who delivered the first ever
newscasts on a dark November evening in 1922, would likely recognise the
bulletin formula were he still around and taking any interest in such
things. In essence, every hour, to this
day, a bundle of successive scripts are toasted and served, seasoned sometimes with reports
from gifted colleagues or a dash of illustrative audio. The newsreader duly reads
out the contents of the 'newspaper' before a colleague returns to put on a
Had dear Arthur wandered off in a strop that night
and the news bulletin had never been born at that time in that way, would we be
doing news now like we do?
In the halcyon days of this wonderful medium of
ours, families gathered round their Bakelite sets, bathed in the warm light of their
standard lamps, to eavesdrop in wonder on the World. Apart from the odd World War and too many incurable diseases, there was little else to distract. Radio was a spectator sport. Programmes and programme items were
appointments to listen. Listeners joined them at the start and likely sat through
respectfully to the end. Now, we know listeners dip in and out of the majority
Journalists agonise over the identification of the
lead story. They even argue amongst themselves, which is tremendous fun to
watch. The listener may well have a different view altogether of what's
important to them. Some may have missed
the start of the bulletin, in any case. Radio bulletins do not have a front page.
We know too, from much research, how
listeners zone in and out of radio even when they are 'listening'. The mind is
cleverly able to filter out what is relevant and what is not, so they may not
even 'hear' the lead story. At the very moment the reader thunders in with the
voice of authority over the crashing cymbals of the news jingle, the listener may well be
mulling over their imminent hot week in Majorca. When the story about airport disruption is pumped out
as story four, that's when the listener hears their lead. And, if you do believe in 'the lead', is it
not a puzzling objective to make the content of a bulletin deliberately less
interesting as it proceeds?
Since when has the BBC's 'most viewed online' story
list corresponded with the order of any BBC news bulletin?
What of this 'on the hour' business'? Radio was
once first. Its content was a day ahead of the local Chronicle and likely some considerable
way ahead of the heavy TV cameras trundling out to see what's happening. Now,
those who like to keep up to date glance at their Twitter feeds to see the
latest, and their friends become their personal news editors, sharing the stories they
feel are important. Such content is
'broadcast' and received within seconds.
Your friends, and indeed news organisations, do not sit drumming their
fingers on the desk until some arbitrary time to despatch a social media
update. Why do we afford our social media audience the luxury of priority
service, when we make our loyal radio listeners sit and bloody wait for the
With the exception of newsflashes, radio can be a
good 55 minutes away from the ability to
insert a news story. Whilst radio is better than Twitter at
bringing home the emotion, background, voices and analysis in a useful way, for
many people, social media like Twitter has broken the story. Why do we hold up the news to broadcast it on
Audiences are larger on the hour, surely. Rajar
indeed suggests that the first quarter hour is more heavily consumed. Most
sensible people would likely agree, however, that this says more about the way
radio is measured in the UK than how it
is consumed. In markets around the World
where radio is monitored by meters, there's a rather different conclusion. People are just as likely to listen to each
of the four quarter hours. They are as likely to have missed your bulletin as heard it.
Listeners value news hugely. They tell us so in every
focus group I've ever attended. So, when that news jingle chimes, one imagines
that attention levels soar. As the Jam or Wise Buddah singers chorus the
station's name, surely listeners say to themselves: 'hey, come on, something
important's happening'. No, suggests Peter Niegel, who troubled to analyse
audiences to a station called P3, a service from one of Denmark's national
public service broadcasters, which used PPM (metering) research. He observed that, whilst listeners insisted
they valued the news, “there was a big
difference between perceived listening and actual listening”. When they studied actual behaviour, they noticed listeners
tuning out when the jingle came on:
"The top of the hour is a natural switch-off moment because it’s an
appointment time.." "Every
time we ran the news jingle, people would say: oh my God, it’s eight o’clock, I
have to go!”.
Pavlov understood about conditioned reflexes. Whilst we hope the
reflex is to listen attentively when the
news jingle airs, are we sure the contrary does not occur?
When a major news event occurs, it's likely listeners
do find it useful to know when they can find out more? Does that suggest a wise policy of news
detail on the hour in exactly those circumstances?
Radio is great at many, many things. It's probably not so hot on lists of
detail. I challenge anyone to listen to
the twelve inch version of the weather forecast and then tell me whether I'm
going to need my coat tomorrow. So, why do we assemble the most demanding
content and broadcast it all at once.
Given most of us can barely remember a large round of
drinks, how many stories are safely recalled half an hour later by the average
busy listener? Ironically, it might be suggested that story memorability from
the longer news programmes, where time is taken to paint the pictures
at which radio excels, is likely much higher.
Had the tradition of hourly newscasts on all formats never begun, would
we not do it in bitesize chunks on many of them.?
I recall one foreign visitor asking me why our news
bulletins are always the same length. 'What if there's not much happening?',
they queried. Of course I told him how silly he was being, but between you and me, he had a point. We recall with a smile
that tale of the Good Friday bulletin in 1930 where it is suggested the BBC
declared that there was no news and treated us instead to some piano
Regulators used to have a fetish
about bulletin lengths. The difference between a 2' bully and a 4' one could have amounted to the deciding factor about whether your company won the licence to broadcast or not. Long was
good. Longer was very good.
What's more important, the news or the weather? What is
the most significant to listeners' lives really, in the long run? On most music stations, one hears the
weather, rightly, repeated over and over again on the hour. The news, often
bearing matters of life or death, is confined to its half hourly island. A
twenty minute breakfast listener, and there are many of them, will presume you
don't actually have a newsroom.
|The BBC's brilliant Lyse Doucet|
Owing to the very nature of this 'performance piece' on
the hour, it is usually presented by someone different from the programme hosts. The general presenters are, therefore, less likely to notice and
alight on the importance of a story. Were they charged with delivering the
titbits as they happened, like a friend tugging at your sleeve saying 'hey,
look at this', they'd likely repeat some stories many, many times in the hour,
on merit. When a despatch on a crucial story is available from a reporter in the field, you can guarantee too it would be readily trailed if the presenters 'owned' the news. Given the role of the
journalist and that of the newsreader demand such different skillsets, maybe
such a strategy could, accordingly, free journalists to go do journalism.
Has the time come to take a fresh look at this
thing we call the news bulletin? We know news content is hugely valuable
currency. What on earth should we do with it on radio in our much-changed world? Should
our news coverage take its inspiration from social media in frequency and
format, rather than the newspaper?
Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio'. Published by Biteback. https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/how-to-make-great-radio