Monday 9 January 2017

What About the Old Folk?

My dad often moans about the others in his nursing home. Those old folk.  He also worries about how well he’s going to cope with things in the future. Not now, he says, but when he gets old.

He’s nearly 96.

It's not him in the pic, and my dad plays the harmonica and not the accordion, I should say, for the sake of Ofcom accuracy.

So I'm puzzled that BBC local radio news bulletins on some stations refer to ‘the elderly’ in various stories.

Here are stations aimed at people aged over 50.  Their typical loyal listeners are much older.

As each presenter or journalist opens their mouth on-air, they are walking into the kitchens, bedrooms and front rooms of these very people. These individuals do not define themselves as part of this mad collective called ‘the elderly’.  They are simply themselves.

Any reference to 'the elderly' will be taken as a reference to people other than - and older than - the listener themselves.

If your goal is to use language which connects, you have failed.  Why would you talk about your listeners rather than to them?

And if the listener does take ‘the elderly’ as including them, they’ll find it inaccurate and patronising. It's arguably a pejorative term.

Capital talks to its audience with skill. It has identified it and pursues it with vigour. Everything on-air assumes the listener is of a certain age and living, or aspiring to live, a certain sort of life. There is little need to define the audience to itself.

Referring on air to 'the elderly' - on a radio station targeted, inter alia, at those in their 60s, 70s and 80s - is a mad as wandering into a room full of people with disabilities, staring into their eyes and reading out an announcement about ‘the disabled’. You'd just say 'you'.

You are talking largely to folk over 50 - you don’t have to define them. At any given moment, the over-50 audience exceeds the under-50 audience by a significant margin. They are your listeners. You certainly don’t need to refer to a collective term which they feel excludes them anyway.

I ranted about this on Twitter the other day, attracting a welcome flurry of support.

The term ‘pensioner’ is another example of much the same thing. When a bulletin calls upon the epithet 'pensioner'  for a 68 year old woman who’s achieved something brilliant, it's downright insulting. If the age is relevant, put it in.

I appreciate the challenges of drafting news copy on particular stories when 'pensioners' or ‘the elderly’ is an easy option. But surely you are better at your job than that.

I bring to mind too those folk who are getting increasingly and rightly annoyed that a stock pic of a gnarled hand on a stick appears alongside just about every article online which refers to folk over 60. Not only is that not how they see themselves, it is often inaccurate.

At a time when we are ever more conscious about ‘labels’, is it not time for those radio stations aimed at those of us over fifty to take more care with their language.  Not for the sake of political correctness, but because great radio stations talk to their audience like a friend.

Thanks for the feedback on my book 'How to Make Great Radio'


  1. How amazingly accurate. I am a good 25/30 years older than most of my colleagues (in BBC local) and very much on the side of your Dad. If it was ever suggested that I was elderly, I'd be tempted to take up playing a large musical instrument and whack them with it. Fortunately, they are respectful and treat me as an equal in mind (if not body age!)

    1. Wish I could 'like' this comment - but good old Blogger does not stretch to anything that useful! Thanks.


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