Monday 26 September 2016

What made Terry Wogan a radio great?

“They’ll probably have to drag me away from the microphone when they decide to elbow me. I shall cling to it. There’ll be a lot of tears and screaming“.

It was a crackly performance on the Light Programme, ‘down the line’ from Ireland, which saw the voice of Michael Terence Wogan appear on the BBC for the first time this week fifty years ago.  

He had applied beforehand, only to be turned down by BBC 2 Controller, David Attenborough, who advised they already had one bloke from Dublin, thank you very much. Of course, Attenborough assured Terry limply that he’d pass the letter on to the head of presentation: “If a suitable vacancy should occur, he will get in touch with you directly“.

His voice deepened and lilted a little less in the ensuing decades at the Corporation, but he was to emerge as one of the radio industry’s favourite performers.  

After serving loyally on major BBC shows, Terry ascended the Radio 2 breakfast throne in the decimal days of 1972, entertaining the Nation with his ramblings, interrupted only by JAM jingles and pan-pipe music. Although television was to wag its beckoning finger for a brief brown-suited spell in the mid eighties, he returned home in 1993.

As the entertainment world changed  beyond recognition, Terry continued to rule. By the end of his early stint in 2009, he was attracting almost a fifth of all breakfast radio listening and almost 8m weekly listeners.

But what was it about Terry which endured?

He would explain the answer more clearly, more colourfully and with fewer cliches, but, in his absence, let's try.

He simply did well what radio does best.

His whimsical storytelling was profound. Tales founded on fact  would be embellished with a Wogan flight of fancy.  A few words from a 'listener' on Basildon Bond turned to gold in the hands of the master.  A river of vocabulary flowed effortlessly from his wryly smiling face.He recognised that radio’s intimate conversation continues in a listener’s head. “People think when they listen to radio; TV eschews thought, your thinking is done for you”.

Terry became an amusing, eccentric uncle muttering from behind his newspaper. He spoke to you and you alone. He did not tell me to get ‘my brollies’ ready as a weather forecaster insisted I do last weekend.  In the words of John Humphrys: “Terry liked his audience  - and they liked him. He wasn’t broadcasting talking to them, he was talking to them.”

That connection serves to explain why listeners' grief was so fulsome on his passing. Each listener in each corner of Britain had lost a friend. To say that you’ll miss someone is the greatest tribute of all: “Such very sad news, the world will be a lesser place without you Terry. Will miss you X”

He recognised too that the breakfast audience was, in his words, ‘susceptible’. Most great breakfast radio, even the most frenetic of formats, becomes sufficiently comfortable not to annoy you too much at a critical time of day.

His delivery impressed. ‘I can impose my own pausing, my own timing”. The Wogan pause meant that this high-earner took home almost as much for saying nothing as saying something.

He was himself on-air. Broadcasters only reach their true potential when they can be themselves. We acknowledge we witnessed a daily amplification of the most likeable and entertaining parts of his character, but we certainly know it was him. Radio exposes fake like no other medium.

Like many BBC greats, he tolerated the Corporation like an errant brother. Despite the annoyances, there was unconditional love and pride: "It's the greatest broadcaster the World has ever seen."

Terry protested that his was an easy job, whilst quietly recognising the skill involved.

"The proliferation of radio stations has led to a tremendous lowering of standards. The people are beginning to sound like blancmange. If what you are being paid for is to introduce a record must give it something more than..the hip phraseology ...a request....banality. If you are being paid to produce a record programme you must give it: yourself."

The delivery of his his famous farewell speech is a lesson to all broadcasters. I gather he was annoyed at the rabble of assorted bigwigs gathering in the adjacent control room to witness the end of an era. They were not even treated to a passing fond glance; his eyes were only for the listener.

"I’ve always said that I hope I’ll have enough sense to get off the beach before the tide comes", said Terry.  He did.  We'll miss him and we'll remember him.

Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio' now on Amazon. Available in print and e-book. Food for thought for today's presenters and producers - new and experienced.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Commonsense Call Charges Apply

In our adult lives we are required to perform all sorts of duties. We are asked to fill in tax returns or benefit forms; take the driving theory test; compare energy tariffs, fill in mortgage and job applications; and vote on who runs the country.

Yet it is believed we are too daft to know that when we pick up the phone to call a radio station or text, it might not be free…but might cost our ‘standard call/text charges’. Our ‘standard call charges’ being called ‘standard call charges’ because they are, well, ‘standard’.

Radio and TV programmes are replete with dull announcements saying the blindingly obvious. Wasting everyone’s time.

I can probably understand the merits of announcements suggesting I am going to be charged significantly extra than I might imagine, but there are even requirements to sing and dance about the amounts of pennies few would bother to pick up from the street. 

You don’t need to tell us that picking up the phone might cost us something. We know that. We don’t have signs outside shops saying that buying things might cost us. Or signs in pubs saying drinks might not be free. And I don't recall Jean Metcalfe having to bother announcing the price of a stamp when she requested Family Favourites' letters.

The final straw was the Twitter poll from the Archers. Deep into the current plot, which is being excellently delivered, alongside stunning digital media support, the Radio 4 soap chose to stage a Twitter poll.

If you use Twitter, you’ll have seen them before. It was clearly a ‘just for amusement’ question, with no prize listed - but it was evidently felt by Head Office that the poll Tweet had to be accompanied by a second Tweet with a link to a terms and conditions document. 

I clicked on the supplementary message, praying for a parody - but no.

We know such things are free.  We know they are run by Twitter. We know they are a bit of fun. Goodness, we know it all.

The painful prose was, no doubt, approved painstakingly in some nice central London office by people whose salaries we are paying. 

We probably have more cause to be alerted to the cost of unnecessary compliance procedures which have resulted from the over-regulation of this sector, when the pendulum swung too far from poor regulation.

Is it time to credit our citizens with an ounce of common sense and free our media from the sort of pointless coda which serves no-one?

Is it time for individuals to take responsibility for their own lives, and not expect the ASA's advertising rules to prevent us from eating too much; nor Ofcom's content rules to stop us being violent?

Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio' now on Amazon. Available in print and e-book. Food for thought for today's presenters and producers - new and experienced.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Digital News vs Broadcast News - Who Wins?

As the reassuringly smart newsreader delivers their glossy, lengthy TV news programme impeccably from their hefty newsroom, they sometimes seem oblivious to the breaking story vibrating on my iPhone as I lie on my settee eating a Time Out.

I imagine their phone merrily buzzing in their inner suit pocket as they think ‘shit, what’s happened’, when reading a jolly cue into a ‘why so few butterflies nowadays?’ package or something.

I recall hearing on BBC social media of Anne Kirkbride’s death thinking, surely BBC TV news will mention it in the half-hour news programme somewhere, even if they do not have an obit poised. They didn’t. Given dear Deirdre was covered amply later, I concluded this was not a matter of news judgement but just because they oddly hadn’t got round to it.

I was curious to establish the role and efficiency of broadcast in a world where those same broadcasters have their own social media presences. How speedy is broadcast media and what does it add to the understanding of a story?

Accordingly, on a clement Tuesday 6th September, Migraleve tables at the ready, I surrounded myself with an panoply of news outlets as the day’s news unfolded. BBC 5 Live; BBC Radio 4; LBC (97.3); IRN; BBC News Channel (TV); Sky News (TV); the websites of BBC News and Sky News; and the Twitter feeds of BBC News; BBC Breaking, Sky News; Sky Newsbreak; LBC; LBC  Breaking; alongside the news alert notifications of Sky and BBC News.

At 1025, LBC Breaking Twitter declared the number of arrests following the protest at London City Airport. BBC TV showed live pictures from the scene. BBC Breaking Twitter communicated the number of arrests at 1029, with BBC News re-Tweeting. 

The arrests featured in LBC’s 1030 bulletin; and the story appeared on LBC’s Twitter and on IRN's 1100 radio bulletin, a bulletin which ignored Vaz speculation, in favour of matters like Obama being insulted by other leaders.

LBC’s hour on-air was dedicated to a typically beautiful James O’Brien ‘revenge porn’ angle on the Keith Vaz story. 

James paused to make clear, however, exactly why he was not bothering with the protest story. He said people will do silly things to protest and the more we talk about them, the more silly they will be. He has a point.  

LBC’s travel news, however, in great colourful and useful conversational style was keeping us in touch with the genuine implications throughout the hour in a 'matter of fact' way.

By 1133, LBC Twitter stated that protesters had been removed, and the fact was repeated in 5 Live’s headline at 1134. BBC News Twitter had got to it by 1139 and it was on the BBC TV news ticker by  1140.

At 1134, LBC Breaking Twitter had run with the guilty verdicts for the manslaughter of Elizabeth Edwards and her daughter. This was issued as a Sky Alert by 1143.

1142 saw BBC Breaking Twitter reveal the  protesters had been removed; and Sky Newsbreak Twitter relayed the Elizabeth Edwards story. 1145 saw the protesters removal on BBC TV. At 1149, James O’Brien at LBC briefly repeated his stance on the whole protest affair.

1145 saw LBC’s Travel news usefully repeating the airport was now open.

I do love the BBC’s comfy reassuring and leisurely weather forecasts up the hour on TV. I sometimes wonder what level of story would be needed to displace it.

By 12.00, BBC TV news had live pictures following the protesters removal, although you couldn’t see very much apart from a distant plane and some Lowry type figures nearby. IRN had a live reporter in the 1200 bulletin.

The ‘will he or won’t he’ resignation story from Keith Vaz rumbled on through the morning.

By 12.00, Sky’s  Darren McCaffrey  had Tweeted on his own account that he'd heard from a committee member that Vaz would resign.  Sky duly followed with a Sky Alert ‘Vaz expected to resign’ and accompanying Sky News TV ticker and discussion.

At 1203 Sky News Twitter suggested Vaz would resign and Sky News Breaking Twitter followed at 1207.  Radio 4's 1200 bulletin suggested the afternoon might herald a decision.

BBC TV News joined in at 1210, with speculation and comment. The correspondent did not share the same source as Sky, indeed their correspondent was altogether more bullish about Keith Vaz’s likely ’carry on as usual’ obstinacy, but he conceded that there were many opponents to that strategy.

Sky’s line was ‘he’s expected to go’. Auntie was sticking with ‘we’ll hear later', as probably befits the style and approach of the two news providers. “Committee to urge Vaz to stand aside’ suggested BBC News online, whilst the Sky News website stated ‘Keith Vaz set to quit as committee chair’.

At 1215, LBC travel reminded us that the airport was still closed. It is important, sometimes, for news providers to remind normal people what they need to know to live their lives when the excitement of a story has died down.

1230 LBC news declared the runway had reopened. 5 Live's headlines did not mention the re-opening and nor did the ensuing travel news.

By 1235, 5 Live had moved into topical discussion, and reflected the Black Lives Matter protest story with an interview on the cause, but without an update on the state of the runway. Presumably this is the sort of outcome the protest group desired; even if they were duly  challenged by an unusually animated Adrian Chiles and risked Nick Ferrari's Taser. 

BBC TV news, was reveling in the airport drama, with a decent live Q & A about the protest from near the scene. I did like the commentator’s use of what appeared to be one white iPhone earpiece with the wire dangling down. I presume that was for cue and not because she got bored and was enjoying Drake as she waited.

Vaz is resigning! It's happening. BBC TV news was in front at 1239, with the confirmed resignation - and the full statement on screen. The resignation had arrived before news sources had indicated (1445). BBC TV won, but its tickertape slightly lagged the developing story.

At 1245, 5 Live covered the announcement and flashed efficiently to a correspondent. At the same time, LBC Breaking News tweeted it, and the main LBC account was Tweeting James O'Brien's angles.

At 1247, Sky TV were onto the matter, accompanied by a Sky News Alert and coverage on Sky Newsbreak Twitter. 

By 1249, BBC Breaking Twitter had seized it (ten minutes after their TV channel carried it), retweeted by BBC News Twitter. Sky’s tickertape still suggested it had not happened, contradicting the in-vision story for some time. 1252 saw a BBC News alert, with a Sky News Tweet at 1253.

LBC usually rule with breaking news on radio, in my view, but it  was 1253 before they broke this story. The report, however, was typically engaging, with a natural dialogue  asking exactly the questions normal people would ask.

By 1.00, all news sources were Vaz-aligned for their news bulletins.There was no agony about the lead - and even IRN joined in at last. 

Throughout the morning, Radio 4's news bulletins had updated hourly and artfully in the manner of an avuncular figure poking his head calmly round the drawing room door on the hour, gin in hand, to ask 'anything I should know?'".

Just as I was poised to give up the exercise and reach for a glass of chilled Macon Villages, the news of Anjem Choudary’s sentencing flashed up on a Sky News alert at 1309.

First to the post on broadcast media was LBC, also at 1309. Shelagh Fogarty interrupted a call to do what LBC seems to do best, hold whatever they are doing to tell you something. Just in the way a friend would naturally but politely interrupt a conversation.

LBC Breaking Twitter followed almost simultaneously, with the line added to the BBC TV news ticker at 1310. 5 Live was engrossed in a package, but read the headline immediately afterwards at 1311, by which time BBC TV news was live from the Old Bailey. Sky Newsbreak Twitter was across it by 1312 and a BBC news alert was dispatched at 1313; BBC News Twitter at 1515. It was also on the BBC website at 1318, with Sky website just earlier.


It was an altogether exhausting exercise. I had in mind my old MD's comments that we shouldn't break our necks to be first with a story, as if they were listening to us they wouldn't know we were not first, although that rationale has diminished since social media descended. But, anyway, does five minutes matter - apart from to the puffed up chest of a heady journalist? Not least when accuracy is key.

The exercise did remind me of the importance of being aligned, and not forgetting a single ancillary channel as stories develop. Also, not allowing the rich and considered broadcast news and programming environment to impinge on the ability to interrupt, when necessary. That's what LBC usually masters. 

It reminded me too of the 5 Live dilemma. The station can, of course, ditch everything to deal with a huge breaking story excellently, but has more agony when a routine rolling story conflicts with the daily array of deep personal and engaging stories. And - if it can cope in daytime, it finds it impossible in times of football fixtures. Is it perverse that, despite the efforts of many in the BBC over the years, it does not have a rolling radio news channel?  

Could there a time when the excellent BBC Radio 4 non-news content sits online or on a dedicated channel, and Radio 4 becomes all news? That would leave 5 Live able to let sport lead.  

It might make sense on paper as an option, but I suspect the might of the Home Counties green ink combined with pressure from the commercial radio industry would quickly dash the plans. Being radical is really difficult for the BBC, and it demands real leadership.

I shall put to one side, for this blog, content questions of how media should report protests; and whether, in general coverage on Sports Direct, 'duly impartial' should require, at least, some nod in the narrative to the many businesses who use zero hours contracts fairly to the benefit of both employee and business.

My hours of analysis reminded me of the value of analysis, reflection and human response which our agile radio medium allows. It also brought to mind the extremely high quality of LBC's work nowadays, even though newspaper columnists seem to ignore its existence. 

More generally, how lucky are we to have what the Government would call 'plurality of views' in our news providers. They operate to a high quality with almost comparable speed and efficiency. 

There are countries in the World who would, and do, kill for what we sometimes fail to treasure.

BBC Home news online 0900

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Grab my book 'How to Make Great Radio' now on Amazon. Available in print and e-book. Food for thought for today's presenters and producers - new and experienced.

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