What can radio learn from how it has handled COVID 19?
Updated: Jun 28
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.
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