Where the News Never Stops
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Wow. Global strikes again with another UK station launch – LBC News. The old LBC News service on AM/Digital for London is re-purposed as a pan-UK offering, whilst localised travel news and weather remain.
It’s an obvious move, but Global have carried it off with typical agility and excellence.
The rolling news format is tried and tested. WINS in New York was one of the earliest stations to move to all-news, famously adopting one of the best liners ever - "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world". For the UK, however, accustomed to lengthy fireside bulletins on Radio 4 just before a dash of comedy, it would always be a stark contrast.
LBC News in London has been a decent offering, attracting 612,000 London listeners (Rajar, London TSA, W3 2019) - although it rather lay in the shadow of its spiky UK-wide LBC sister Leading Britain’s Conversation.
Others have trodden the rolling news path, albeit many got lost in the undergrowth. There was 'News Direct' - and Chrysalis experimented too with DNN on the regional DAB multiplexes at a time when DAB sets were owned by the privileged few. A branded deal with Sky was also entertained. It's worth noting that News Radio UK is on-air now, although its DAB footprint its relatively limited.
Although DAB and its digital friends provide a platform for such formats these days, news remains an expensive business - and its audience is a challenge to sell to advertisers. It's useful to lean on existing infrastructure and in an increasingly competitive world, you need the marketing muscle and stature to ensure that listeners seek out your efforts. Global has them both.
The BBC has not ventured into rolling news with any great enthusiasm – or indeed a continuous news service, whether rolling or not. There was a trial of sorts during the ‘first’ Gulf War in 1991 when Radio 4 spun off its FM service into Radio 4 News FM, which was quickly dubbed ‘Scud FM’ after the Soviet missiles oft-discussed in the dramatic coverage. There were those at the BBC, however, who were not awfully keen on this sudden sister. Jenny Abramsky, then Editor of News and Current Affairs Radio, recalls: "They feared permanent damage to Radio 4, but, in reality, their greatest fear was that, once established, the service would never come off". And what of the BBC radio news service promised in early '90s? Well, that would have meant, inter alia, Radio 4 forsaking its treasured Long Wave - and, at that time, only a DG with a death wish would have pursued the concept.
After the murder of BBC Radio 5, BBC 5 live vowed more of a marriage with news, but its bigamy with sport often forces grumpy compromise. When the UK held its breath the other weekend for a rare Saturday Commons sitting, no BBC station was carrying continuous coverage. Radio 4 held its schedule and 5 live dipped in and out of annoyingly important sports fixtures. There was a burst of Commons coverage mid afternoon in between two games, but suddenly adjourning critical political commentary just because there's a kick off is rather like match coverage opting out before the final whistle. When 5 live is on the job, it’s great - and Chris Mason typically rose to the challenge on a subsequent occasion - but a station that ever tells a listener 'Sorry, I'm too busy' when they ask for the news will never attain the desired reputation.
Is now the time for the BBC to launch a radio news channel? I suspect not. They are trying to spend less, not more, and they’d have to seek regulatory permissions which would be contested. The commercial sector would kick off – and in the interests of plurality, I suspect Government would not be awfully keen on yet more BBC news. And – I get the feeling that Auntie is not awfully keen on the thing called ‘radio’ just now.
Could this change? One imagines that many Radio 4 programmes are almost better-suited to on-demand. You really have to be in the mood for Melvyn Bragg. If such content were carried on-demand only, the live path would be free for an all-news Radio 4 – but that’s not happening any time soon. And it still would not be rolling news at Global's pace.
LBC News shone on its debut day - moving through the elements in each 20 minute sweep with real confidence. Fast, but not breathless showing-off, well-written - and bloody slick. Not just the London station piped around the UK, but a fully reinvigorated service - and a real utility. It's good to hear too that it'll carry PMQs live - and presumably would have kept across the ebbs and flows of the Brexit vote debate the other weekend.
With Global's investment, passion, creative vision and enviable operational excellence, LBC News was always going to impress. Leaning on the powerful brand equity from its chatty sister, this will be a winner. When Global introduced parent credits on its radio services, its vision was clear. According to BARB figures (checked by RadioToday), Global is now second to the BBC in UK news broadcasting in terms of weekly audience reach - standing at 23.7m – more than Sky, ITV and ITN.
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