Archives For Journalism

In April I did a talk at the 2017 Student Radio Conference about why I love radio packages so much. Below, better late than never, is some of the advice I dared to share.

Tim Johns at the SRA conference 2017

What am I defining as a radio package?

You know what I mean! But:

  • Something pre-recorded, giving information on a particular subject.
  • It’s probably somewhere between one and seven minutes long. It’s more than a quick clip but less than a short documentary.
  • It’s crafted. It’s been edited and stitched together in some fashion. It’s not just a recording of something that happened in one-take.

Why I love a good package.

  • They are mini works of art. If you work with audio, you’re using all your tools and skills to paint your own Picasso.
  • Making packages forces you to learn your craft. You need to become good at editing, recording, scripting, using music, sound effects, interviewing and so on. Packages demand many of the skills you need in radio under one roof.
  • Therefore…once you can make a good package – it helps so so so much with longer-features, podcasts, documentaries; you name it.

Jeremy Vine likes packages too. Working on his programme I make them frequently.

ps. If you watched the above and don’t know about the ‘rollercoaster’ thing you’ll need to go and read this once you’re done here.

Examples

If you’re still in any doubt what I’m on about, here are a couple of things I’ve made recently that you can listen to while you read the below should you wish. The first, about toilets (DREAM REPORTER GIG) is more of an ‘in-situ’ report.

The second is a ‘didn’t-leave-the-office’ production. If you do click listen – read on otherwise you might get bored.

Top Tips (finally!)

Rather than an all-round comprehensive guide, I tried to boil it down to a few thoughts that you might not hear everywhere else.

1. Be careful how you use sound effects

Don’t use sound effects like a bull in a china shop; a bull which has just learned to use Audacity. Every time you say the word “horse” you don’t necessarily need a neigh. Don’t always use a ‘car horn’ sound effect every time you say the word ‘car’ or ‘traffic’ in a package. Do what feels right but be purposeful about how you use sound effects – use them for a reason. Don’t be lazy with them. If you’re out and about always remember ‘wild track’ – recording the sound of where you are and what you’re doing. Weave it in during the edit. But try not to be clunky with it.

2. Scripting can be crucial

IF (and only if) you’re scripting something, script it again and again until it’s super concise. You can never spend too long getting the scripting right. Every sentence should have a fact. Every sentence should have an impact. Don’t waste time with a sentence that isn’t ‘just right’. If you have the time to read over the script again and improve it, do so.

3. If you’re making a piece about someone else’s life experience, one thing is THE most important

Sorry, that’s a vague header. But if you’re trying to extract the best from someone you’re interviewing for a package, there’s something you shouldn’t underestimate. The more personal, involved, emotional the story is, the more important this becomes:

Time.

Yes, you need good questions, decent recording equipment and all the rest of it. But often, to get the best from people who have something remarkable to say, the most important thing you need is time. Time to bond with them. Time for them to trust you. Time for you to have an open and honest conversation with them until they say the most important part of their story in the most honest and captivating manner.

This one extends way beyond radio packages!

4. Build a package around great audio. Don’t try and find great audio to fit your narrative.

If you’re making a package because of a topic, a guest or a news story – let the topic, the guest or the news story lead you. Don’t write a narrative and then try to find stuff to fit into it. Listen to the most compelling audio you’ve gathered and then script your package around it. Your words in any package should be there to explain and highlight incredible audio where possible, rather than the audio being there to support your script.

5. If you go out to record a package, edit it ASAP

If you’ve gone out and recorded a piece it’s all fresh in your memory when you get home. Edit it straight away – even if you only do a very rough edit. Be really picky. Ruthless. Chop out the best chunks and ditch the rest. It’s make the final edit SO much easier.

6. Don’t default to music with ‘appropriate lyrics’

Basically – if you do a voxpop about banking, don’t use Abba and ‘money money money’ in the background. Be a bit more subtle and creative.

7. Don’t ever use a record-scratch sound effect

This one’s personal. I’m on a war against this sound effect. Just don’t.

(For a different point of view see here.)

8. STOP. Think again.

I think this is my favourite tip. When you’re on the cusp of having everything done – be it during scripting or recording – STOP. Just think again. Don’t go through the motions. Give yourself 60 seconds to think “what haven’t I thought of yet?”. Now’s your chance to take the brilliant thing you’re about to create and make it even better. I always try to take 60 seconds to dream up one thing (and it can be the tiniest of tweaks) to improve and change what I’ve already got. It might just be adding a joke or altering a sentence slightly. But It could be changing your entire approach. Just shake things up.

9. Ignore all of the above

Some of the best radio ignores the ‘radio rules’. Same with packages. It’s all guidance. Take everything you’re ever taught about radio with a pinch of salt and trust yourself. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt you can do your own thing when appropriate.

10. There is no 10.

Lists with 10 items are boring.

*END*

pps. thanks to everyone who came to the talk I did and pretended to have fun:

Ultimate Fun.

 

 

I’d like to share something with you.

Someone asked me about my job this week. They were relatively new to the radio industry, keen to move on, and frustrated because they’d just applied for a job and hadn’t been selected for an interview.

When they learned that I’d moved to Radio 2 following a job application and interview they seemed deflated that the same hadn’t happened for them on this occasion. I made the point that they should create a greater number of ‘occasions’, then perhaps they’d have more luck.

I tend to find that people who land a radio job and get ACTUAL PAID WORK ON A REGULAR BASIS often then wait around for their next dream job to come along, apply, don’t get it, and are then a bit crushed by the defeat. It’s always disappointing, of course. But in such a competitive industry you need to expect the majority of job applications to end in failure. It’s just the law of averages.

Some people will buck the trend and get every job they go for. Others will never move on and eventually give up. But everyone in-between can increase their chances of progressing by simply applying for a greater number of jobs. That’s what I did.

Here’s what I’d like to share. It’s a screenshot of my old BBC careers page showing all the times I applied for a job between 2007 – 2012.

jobs-applied-for-2007-2012

I count 38 submitted applications. One every month or two for five years. Plenty of these applications were ‘I’ll never get it but why not give it a go’ type-things. Others were ‘I’m not totally sure I want this job but I’m interested enough to try and get an interview’. And some of them I got. But loads of them I didn’t get close to. Or I got an interview and failed. I hope the photo gives comfort to some people who feel as though they’re constantly being knocked back.

The thing is, the whole time I was very happy in my current role and I was always doing a job I really enjoyed. I already had my foot in the door and was lucky in my career. I spent several years doing different roles in BBC local radio and absolutely loved every minute of it. I just knew that eventually I would want to move on and that to do so would require serious levels of prospecting.

This week isn’t the first time I’ve spoken to someone who has put all their eggs in one basket (having waited ages for a particular job) and it hasn’t worked out. In fact I speak to people all the time who are keen to move on but only seem to apply for one job a year, if that. I hate the phrase but ‘in it to win it’ couldn’t apply more. If in doubt just sling an application in.

“Getting the job you want is a campaign”

This is a wonderful piece of advice my current boss Phil once mentioned in passing. You don’t wait to see your dream job advertised and then apply for it out of the blue. If it’s something you REALLY want you mount a campaign over time.

In reality I didn’t simply apply for my current job and get it on the first attempt. I’d applied for another job on the same show two years earlier. In the meantime I’d sat in on the show, wangled a week working there, stayed in touch and then finally applied for the job I got. But of course it’s still not that simple – between then and now I had to reapply and interview for my own job several times because I was always working on fixed-term contracts.

The Radio Academy used to run ‘Foot in the Door’ events. It can be hard enough to get a foot in the door – but if you do – remember that the real challenge is to get at least your entire leg (and preferably your torso) through that very narrow opening.

Prince has died at the age of 57. Yesterday it was Victoria Wood. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett…the list of cultural giants who have passed away this year doesn’t end there.

For a few years now I’ve been boring friends and colleagues with my theory that the rate of ‘celebrity-deaths’ (please pardon the crude phrase) is only going to rise over time. It’s almost too easy to point to 2016 as evidence of this – but I do think it provides food for thought. It also provides a reason for me to write the following: we need to start the discussion about how the media covers celebrity deaths in the future. Why? Because I worry that these deaths will become so frequent that the way we currently do it is not sustainable.

“We’re entering an era of mass celebrity death”

Not sustainable?

When these famous people lost their lives this year, the coverage has been, arguably, suffocating. If you’re a Twitter user there’s no point in looking at your feed for hours after the news breaks unless you want to read the same tributes a thousand times over. And unless C-listers who-sort-of-vaguely-knew-the-celebrity-in-question relaying tenuous anecdotes at length is your thing, you must avoid any radio/tv/online outlet which deals with breaking news. World leaders pay tribute. And so on it goes.

Of course – for fans of the person who has just died – this coverage will always be appropriate. I’m not saying any outlet got their coverage wrong this year. I just wonder if we need to think more about how it’s done in the future because I believe it will happen more and more. And what do we do when two massive ‘names’ pass away on the same day as a massively important news event (eg. EU Referendum day)? The news world could implode.

The rate of ‘celebrity deaths’ will increase

In the age of The Beatles there simply weren’t enough media outlets to facilitate many big celebrities. Since then…radio blossomed, TV became commonplace in every UK household, the numbers of channels increased, magazine publishing went into overdrive, the internet arrived, smartphones and tablets came on the scene, and blogs and vlogs have recalibrated how easily and quickly people could become significant celebrities and role models for an entire generation. There are LOADS of celebrities these days.

I know, I know…the likes of Bowie and Prince truly are unique due to their position in history. When there were fewer world-famous artists each one had a deeper meaning (arguably) to a greater number of people. But in the same way that humans are capable of having anywhere between two and 200 friends they know and care about, I believe we are all capable of liking and caring about a huge number of celebrities. And there are simply more celebrities now.

We’re entering an era of mass-celebrity-death

The only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound crass. But if the ‘media revolution’ happened in the 50s and 60s – then the increased number of people we nationally love and care about are becoming more and more at risk of their lives coming to an end. Five, ten, twenty years from now that trend will increase massively. So if a daily ‘celebrity death’ becomes the norm – how should the media deal with it? Should there be rolling news coverage of each one? Should regular TV and radio programming be replaced by tribute programmes every time? Should big news stories be pushed aside for obituaries?

Of course – the answer will depend each time on who it is. Personally, I think the way forward is less blanket-coverage.

Immediate tributes – yes. Well-crafted and thoughtful obits on the evening news – yes. Hours/days of rolling coverage? No. A few years from now, if ‘celebrity death rates’ increase, I just don’t think that will be possible. Otherwise, the only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

ps.

I’ve just listened back to last Friday’s episode of ‘More of Less’ (Radio 4, 15th April 2016).
They looked at whether more celebrities have died in 2016 than in other years, and discovered how many ‘official’ BBC obituaries have been run in the first quarter of this year compared to the years since 2012.

obits

I was pleased to hear the BBC’s Obituaries Editor, Nick Serpell, sort-of agree with part of my argument. Here’s what he said on the programme:

Before television arrived in the early 1950s, the only really famous people that people came across all the time were movie stars – because they went to the cinema.

In the 50s we had television, that brought more famous people into people’s rooms. Music in particular; we had the growth of rock and roll. Remember The Who sang about ‘my generation’, hoping that they’d die before they got old. But whilst some of them did, the majority of them didn’t. And all these people, in the ‘rise and the growth of celebrity’, if you like, are now reaching that period in their 70s and 80s where they’re going to start to die, and I think that’s causing this.

I’ve worked as a Producer on the Jeremy Vine Show for more than three years now, and I love it. Great team, great presenter and great network. But…it’s a big network. Radio 2 is a beast. And our programme reaches more than seven million people a week. I love pulling together stories and booking guests for it, I love reporting for it, but I’ve never aspired to present it. So what happened last week was…something else.

Reluctant

Reluctant

Because…what happened last week never usually happens. And so I was asked to write an account of it for the BBC-staff magazine-thing. I reproduce it below:

 

Jeremy arrived at work and had lost his voice somewhat. It wasn’t too bad, but weakened shortly before the programme went to air and it was too late to arrange cover. His first links were croaky but fine – his enormous energy kept things going. It got worse though – he’d really lost his voice.

The Editor (my boss) Phil Jones’s phone was going off constantly. I knew he was consulting with management and Jeremy about continuing the programme but, with nearly an hour gone and no replacement on the scene, I presumed Jeremy would carry on.

I was getting on with my usual job for this time of day, filtering listener comments through to Phil, and lining up guests and callers on the phone to go on air.

Aside from my occasional reporting duties, the last time I’d been behind a mic on air was more than three years ago, when I’d occasionally cover-present a thing or two at BBC Radio Lincolnshire. So what happened next was something of a surprise.

The Jeremy Vine point of view

The Jeremy Vine point of view

At 12:57, I asked Jeremy if he wanted another cup of hot water to go with his honey, lemon and Lemsip so I was just about to nip out to the coffee machine. (NB. You’re NEVER too senior to make the drinks).

At 13:00, Radio 2’s Head of Programmes turned up at the studio door and Phil nipped out for a quick chat.

At 13:01 they were in the studio, in conversation with Jeremy.

At 13:03 Phil popped his head round the studio door and said: “Tim – can you come in here?”. Sure, great, perhaps Jeremy wanted another cup of hot water after all. Phil continued: “You’re doing the next hour.” Oh. Right.

Unusually, I had not been in the morning meeting that day nor read any of the scripts or briefings. And I hadn’t even produced an item because I’d been working on a programme for the festive period. The Jeremy Vine Show gets 7.1m listeners a week. So I took a very, very, deep breath and grabbed my bottle of water.

Jeremy pointed me to the presenter’s chair and showed me the main faders I’d need (fortunately our superb studio manager Gareth took care of the music and jingles so I didn’t need to fully learn to drive this desk in less than one minute).

At 13:05 Jeremy pressed play on a song out of the news and left the studio. He was gone. That moment was like being strapped into a rollercoaster – and I don’t like rollercoasters – with no way of stopping it. The music track was counting down to the time at which I had to open the microphone and say something live on Radio 2.

Phil and Gareth keep me on track

Phil and Gareth keep me on track

The hour was surreal. It flew by. The first item involved speaking to listeners who had recently been bereaved and how they would get through Christmas. So not exactly…simple. Thankfully, I had a wonderful guest in the studio, Barbara Want, who did most of the talking to callers. Then there was a fairly ‘straightforward’ story about the UK’s butterfly population; I guess I had a relatively easy ride. As ever, Phil was superb at keeping me straight and producing it every step of the way.

By the end of the hour I’d relaxed and was able to fully enjoy introducing the news jingle: “This is BBC Radio 2”. As a radio geek: WOW.

 

I got out of the studio, instantly exhausted, to find my phone and Twitter feed had pretty much exploded. My colleagues were very nice about it all. I guess the only thing you don’t want to do on your Radio 2 mainstream presenting debut is to cock it up. Which I think I avoided.

If you work on a programme that has a daily debrief, you’d probably be delighted to get rid of that tedious after-show meeting where you pick apart what you just did. And most people involved agree (I’m sure of it), so why do most of us still do it? I was absolutely delighted when I first joined the Jeremy Vine Show team to find they don’t bother.

I’m mainly talking about news programmes. My experience is mainly within the BBC. And usually it’s the ‘bigger shows’ that have a daily debrief. From the local radio breakfast show in the counties of x y and z, to PM on Radio 4 (and everything in-between) – a gathering after the programme to look back at what worked and what didn’t is common.

Thing is, they’re boring, time-wasting, negative, and rarely result in big changes to the way things are done. Rather than improving and shaping the programme over time, they drain motivation, waste resources and have the capacity to make people feel crap.

meeting

#meetingfeet Photo thanks to @theemmabritton (not necessarily during a debrief)

If you’re learning your trade (eg. on a journalism course or in student radio) then great, why not? You need to be self-critical and spot your weaknesses. But once you’re getting paid to produce a daily news programme you should know what sounds good and what doesn’t; what worked on air and what didn’t quite fire. You’ll know it the second you hear it. Presenters and producers only need to glance at each other to share the enjoyment of something incredible on air, or to appreciate when they know something hasn’t quite worked. If there’s a bigger problem, you can have a separate chat about it. Ongoing issues will come out in normal conversation a bit later on.

But if you set aside a specific time for a ‘debrief’, certain things will happen:

  • you will have one extra meeting in your day to attend, and no-one likes meetings, because they’re mostly a waste of time.
  • there will be some obligatory back-slapping. “That was great!”, people will say. Some members of staff will feel buoyed by this. However…
  • at meetings everyone feels pressure to contribute at least something. And the point of a debrief is to be self-critical to improve. So everyone will have something slightly negative to say.
  • you probably just did a great programme which was mostly as good as it could be, but people will say negative things about it.
  • the programme is the culmination of a huge amount of work and on-air pressure. You’re all buzzing. So it’s the worst possible time to pick over the negatives.
  • everyone will feel deflated.
  • everyone will feel tired.
  • very little will come of it.

Across the radio industry budgets only shrink. People complain of ever-diminishing resources. Yet a handful of staff on your station spending 30-minutes every day on a debrief adds up to hours of productivity which could be put to use elsewhere.

The ‘debrief’ should be continuous. In real-time. As a team you can share what you think has been brilliant with the right people as it happens. If something’s good tell them there and there. If they’re not in the same room send them a one-line email or tweet them. If there’s someone who did something wrong, tell them personally, later on. You know when something’s gone badly – you don’t need a tedious daily meeting to hammer that out.

If you ask people privately whether they think a daily debrief works really well, the vast majority say no. So why do we persist?

Anyone studying or starting out in broadcast journalism or radio production will probably be familiar with a certain set of ‘rules’ and best practice. A lot of that is great guidance. A lot of it is nonsense and depends entirely on the situation, the story, your audience and the programme and station you’re working on.

rules

Here are five radio rules the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 often breaks:

Write short snappy scripts/cues

The ‘rules’ tell us to write around three precise sentences to introduce an item. They must be straight to the point, with the first sentence being something like a ‘headline’.

This is a great default. If you have a good guest lined up, keep it short and snappy, and let the guest do the talking.

But sometimes, if you have time to craft just a few extra words, you can use the cue to give excellent context to the discussion and to give it a sharp editorial angle. The cue sets the scene for the many minutes which might follow. For complex topics or ones which you want to put your own spin on, the introduction is vital. It shapes the conversation.

So often a short cue is good. And concise is always better than waffley. But in some instances a slightly longer, well-crafted cue can be much better. You do, however, need a good presenter to do justice to a longer cue.

Keep interviews/reports short

The ‘rules’ state that professional news radio interviews should usually be no more than a few minutes long. A reporter going out to record something will be told “you have no longer than two minutes” by an editor or a producer who, obviously, hasn’t yet heard how good what’s about to be recorded will be! It’s usual for a particular ‘slot’ in a programme to be a certain length, and the interview must fit into it. But that’s not the right way to do radio. If the audio is interesting, captivating, fascinating, exciting…let it run longer. Change the ‘slot’.

Again, the ‘rule’ isn’t a terrible one. Keeping things short and snappy is generally an excellent idea. And you need structure. But don’t let that rule steamroller an incredibly special bit of radio to an early ending.

Avoid obviously boring topics

Whatever you do avoid booking a train spotter! Or a stamp collector. Yawn. And please avoid the girl who collects exhaust pipes.

No! The more niche and ‘boring’ the topic, the more interesting a guest you might discover. If you book someone who has spent 20 years collecting washing machine manuals, they’ll be an expert, passionate, unusual, and even if they sound a little…dull…they may well do so in a captivating way. Never write-off a niche topic you’re not interested in just because you think the guests for it might be boring. Predictable popstars talking about their latest album are boring. But a long-term washing machine manual collector could be the best person you’ve ever booked. Honestly.

Book guests with radio experience

Reporters, correspondents, commentators and regular guests are a radio staple. And they will continue to be. But don’t be afraid to book people who have NEVER done a moment’s radio in their life, if they sound good to you on the phone. They are more likely to deliver their argument in an unexpected, unscripted and off-the-cuff way. And it is that which can make for exciting, anything-could-happen radio. Also – if someone really knows their subject inside out and are just a naturally great ‘talker’, they are often GREAT on air even if they’ve never been on the radio in their life.

Use vox pops to set out the arguments

I used to hate collecting vox pops (asking the public what they think about a given topic). Radio wisdom has it that they’re a great addition to any debate. Collect the ‘views of the people’ and away you go. I was absolutely delighted when I joined the Jeremy Vine Show team and realised that the Editor – Phil –  couldn’t care less about vox pops. I agree.

They absolutely do have their place. They really can be a quick way to set out clear and differing arguments on a given topic. They’re a way to get the audience on air. And with a great editorial idea, they can enhance any news report if done in the right way.

However – I would suggest that most of the time vox pops are undertaken in a lazy editorial manner, and are utterly boring and banal.

So goes the editorial meeting: “Let’s do topic x. Let’s do a vox. Then we’ll book a guest”. And that’s that. TV news does it too.

Often ‘members of the public’ do have brilliant insights, but more often than not what I hear is generic ‘filler’ in an attempt to make an item more varied. If you go shopping for a new bath sponge and someone thrusts a microphone in your face and asks what you think about the closure of six posts in the local police force you might not give an answer which helps to inform and educate the people who will hear your answer when it’s broadcast. In those instances – especially for radio – I’d rather the reporter’s hour spent collecting and editing the vox pop was instead used finding a great contributor who actually cares about the subject and who can bring an informed discussion to life.

ps. If you do go hunting for voxes – here are my top tips on how to! (Not hypocritical whatsoever).

pps. This is titled the ‘worst’ vox pop ever but that’s not true because it’s thoroughly entertaining…

Below you’ll read the story behind one of most unusual things I’ve ever produced for the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. And, in his own words, a journalism student explains the bizarre events which led to his debut on the county’s biggest news programme.

By Tim Johns, Producer, The Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 2

This story is the story of a story. And it’s a great story. It all led to this:

In September 2014 a deer was decapitated by a roller coaster at a theme park near(ish) Ripon in North Yorkshire.

I should say: our thoughts are with the deer… Take that as a fact so that the below doesn’t sound too callous.

We spotted the story one afternoon after the lunchtime radio show. It was a striking and unusual story. Our first thought was that getting a journalist to do a report while riding the actual roller coaster in question would be an ‘interesting’ way to cover it.

For many reasons, it was a long shot. Why would a theme park in the headlines for accidentally killing a deer give us permission to go and report on it? I called the theme park. They asked me to ‘send an email’ to someone who was ‘in a meeting’. Never a good sign. Especially for something like this where I’d need to do some ‘charming’ to best explain that it could somehow be good PR for the park. I sent the email but didn’t get a response. I called the head office of the park’s parent company and was referred to their external PR company. Finally I spoke to someone. I gave it the hard sell. The answer was, understandably, “probably not”.

Imagine my surprise the next morning to find an email saying they’d let us do it. Imagine my even greater surprise when I learned that due to the time of year the park was actually closed, and that they’d be opening up and running the roller coaster just for us. Wow.

In the office, we had our morning meeting and with enough other ‘proper’ news on the programme we decided to go ahead with the deer story. Now I just had a few other minor problems to overcome… I needed to have everything in place by 11:30, ready to go on air at 12:30. Our morning meeting finishes at 09:00. The immediate problem was that I needed a freelance journalist who was free, and available to get to Lightwater Valley theme park. So I needed to find:

  • Someone able to get to the middle of nowhere quickly…this theme park is an hour drive from its nearest cities York and Leeds. Therefore…
  • Someone with a car
  • Someone willing to record a report about a decapitated deer. A couple of very experienced freelancers I spoke to weren’t interested. Others were unable to for various reasons – including John Bowness who suggested someone else
  • Someone good enough at reporting to stick on Radio 2
  • Someone with their own recording device

During our morning meeting, one of the many people I had contacted ‘just in case we did the story’ sent me a message. Richard Horsman (as suggested by John) is in charge of the Leeds Trinity University postgrad Broadcast Journalism course and he had managed to find a student perfect for the job. Say hello to Liam Smedley. Below we read Liam’s story of the what happened next. Meanwhile, I had a few more things to consider…

  • Was Liam was actually good enough to do the report? (I trusted Richard’s judgement on this).
  • Could Liam drive at least an hour to the park, get to the ride, research the story, record the report, and send it back in time for me to edit it and get it loaded in?
  • Was there any phone signal at the very rural theme park? Did they have wi-fi we could use if not?
  • Health and safety forms and considerations. Everyone’s favourite.
  • Liam had an iPhone but nothing else to record with. Would wind noise on the roller coaster ruin everything? Either he or the park would need gaffer tape to secure the phone.
  • If this doesn’t work out – what will we do on air instead?

The clock was ticking. I phoned Liam.

Liam’s side of the story

By Liam Smedley, broadcast journalism student at Leeds Trinity University

I’d been working every day for more than a month. After being busy all hours for ‘Bradford Community Broadcasting’ (as part of my journalism course) my plan for a rare day off was to stay in bed for as LONG as possible. So I was fast asleep when I was awoken by a text about 8am. I didn’t look – instead I did my best to roll over and get back to sleep. The phone went again, so I had a look. It was my lecturer Richard.

Do you want to do some freelance for Radio 2 today – for the Jeremy Vine Show?

The second text read:

involves going on a roller coaster

Of course my instant reaction was “yes of course!” as a huge fan of Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine Show specifically. I presumed that Radio 2 needed me to go and obtain ‘quality audio’ of an interviewee (ie. record their answers to set questions on a microphone – giving them better audio quality than a telephone interview). However, I couldn’t anticipate what would happen next.

I said yes and Richard said to expect a call from Tim Johns. Tim’s call came not long after I put my porridge in the microwave. Spoiler alert: I never got to eat that porridge.

Tim explained the story of the deer. I already knew I was going on a roller coaster but only during this conversation did I learn that it would me ME doing the report. My voice was going to be on Radio 2! That’s when the nerves started to hit me a tad. However, there was no time to overthink. I was told I’d need to head immediately from my home near Leeds to make to it to the theme park near Ripon in time.

Tim said Lightwater Valley wasn’t open on weekdays due to the time of year so they would be opening up the roller coaster especially for me. He kindly offered to email me a loose script so I’d have it on my phone by the time I arrived. It took just over an hour to get to Lightwater Valley. The park’s staff were expecting me and were hugely accommodating and helpful despite the fact we were about do a detailed run-down of how a deer died on their premises.

rollercoaster 1 Thanks to health and safety, my recording equipment (in this case my iPhone) had to be somehow secured. And so, as Lightwater Valley management led me to the roller coaster, someone else was dispatched in a golf buggy to fetch gaffer tape. Lots and lots of gaffer tape. Holding the phone in the recording position we taped it to my hand with just another wiggle room for me to press the record and stop button. The idea was to do one take, send it back to Tim so that he had something to be working with, but to then record another take.

The day was surreal already. But seeing the park completely empty from 80 foot in the air as the carriage slowly climbed and climbed – with my ride the only one operating – it gave me goosebumps. I’d started recording. It wasn’t long before the first ‘drop’ on the ‘Ultimate Roller Coaster’ and my now-famous (thanks Jeremy Vine for replaying them repeatedly) screams of “AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHH” occurred. The worst part of the drop is the stomach churn, where it feels like your breakfast is being turned upside down in your belly. On a few occasions I felt my phone starting to slip. I was probably gripping on to it tighter than my other hand was holding the railing.

I composed myself and recorded my report. Soon enough, I was back where I started. I leapt out of the carriage and the Lightwater Valley staff kindly cut the tape on my hand to free my phone. There wasn’t much signal so I got a lift in a buggy back to the reception to borrow their wi-fi. The nerves were hitting me again. Tim ideally needed the raw audio to edit by 11am and it was 11:15. I hoped I hadn’t missed the deadline; that it hadn’t all been in vain.

I called Tim and said take one was done. I went back for the second. On Europe’s longest roller coaster take-two took another stomach-churning six minutes. As I returned (windswept), I found that Tim had been trying to contact me and had passed a message to the Lightwater Valley team that the first take was fine, edited, and ready to go!

It was getting nearer broadcast time: 12:30. The day had moved so quickly I hadn’t even contacted my family to tell them what I was doing so I simply sent parents and grandparents a text saying “Long story, but going to be on BBC Radio 2 in ten minutes – get it on”. I hopped in the car to return home and put the radio on.

It wasn’t long before Jeremy Vine was explaining the story and I gripped the steering wheel in anticipation, hoping my name would be said on BBC Radio 2. Before my journalism course I spent time working in commercial radio. I know how things work. And so I expected my efforts to result in a few seconds on air. To my surprise after Jeremy said the words “Our reporter Liam Smedley took a ride…” I was listening to myself on air for several minutes! A huge amount of my commentary made the final cut. In my pocket I could feel my phone vibrating constantly but I was driving so I couldn’t check it. Jeremy was in hysterics and kept replaying my screams. He said:

Lots of people are asking us ‘who is that guy on the roller coaster? It’s made my day!’. Well, his name is Liam Smedley. I’ve just looked him up on Twitter, he’s a student at Leeds Trinity University doing Broadcast Journalism and he stepped in last minute to do that for us today. I’m sure he’s got a bright future ahead of him

When I was eventually able to look at my phone – things had gone bonkers! The screen was full of emails, texts, WhatsApps, Facebook messages and Tweets from people going…

You’re on Radio 2!

or

Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 is talking about you!

…all from friends, family members, old school friends and colleagues. The biggest surprise was how many of Jeremy’s listeners were tweeting me saying how much they loved the piece and that it had made their day. I haven’t counted how many new followers I received from the occasion but it was a lot! My lecturer also proudly tweeted how this year’s cohort hadn’t even graduated and already one of us was on Radio 2. The attention was obviously very lovely but I know fame is fickle so I tried to be humble and take it in my stride. I did my best to reply to every complimentary message. However, even now I still get the odd message on Twitter or Facebook from people saying “Hey were you the guy who did the roller coaster report on Radio 2? I loved that!”.

The story doesn’t end there

By Tim Johns

Me again (Tim). The tweets about the deer went on for days. Weeks and week later we received the most wonderful postcard in the office. It was sent by a listener in France:

postcard Liam stayed in touch and has recently done a two-week placement with Newsbeat. While there he came and watched the Jeremy Vine Show go out. It was the day of Children in Need and he ended up on-air again, reading out listener pledges for money. And of course, his roller coaster scream was played AGAIN.

This is a story about how simple yet ambitious radio ideas can pay off. This may be a long article but at the time it was all done and dusted in a few hours. It’s also a story about how exciting the first ‘big gig’ can be for aspiring journalism students. And – it’s about how a great tutor on your university course can open huge doors for you. And so I leave the final words to Richard – who was vital in making this happen.

Richard Horsman runs Leeds Trinity University’s postgrad Broadcast Journalism course

By Richard Horsman

I have a simple rule when an editor calls asking for students for actual broadcast tasks. I say yes first, and then make it happen…somehow. My trainees are told from day one there is nothing more important than getting a foot in the door, and so they are usually prepared to change plans at a moment’s notice when an opportunity arises. Even so, Tim’s request was a tight turnaround.

Whilst listening round the breakfast shows, half awake at twenty past eight, I got a message from Tim. ‘Need a freelance…it’s in North Yorkshire – and by the way, they’ll be riding a rollercoaster’. The penny dropped – I’d heard the story about the deer over the weekend – but Tim was too professional to betray his prospects when I replied ‘This is about dead deer, isn’t it?’. A flurry of texts later and the intrepid Liam Smedley was dispatched to Lightwater Valley.

I still thought, deep down, he was going to be a human mic stand to capture the voice of a health and safety suit. Some parts of the Beeb have money for that kind of thing. How wrong I was… I’m a fan of the Vine show because where the Today Programme generates heat, Jeremy sheds light. I thought the proposed treatment was, frankly, bizarre. Do the ‘funny, screamy first time on a coaster’ thing whilst talking about a deer being decapitated and families sprayed with blood on a theme park ride. But it worked. In our MoJo world of iPhones and websites I’d forgotten the power of radio to take the listener on that journey with Liam.

Liam got more fan mail via Twitter than I received in 20 years of blameless local radio service. It gave Liam a bit of profile to get him noticed at the start of his career. I’m proud to have helped more than 400 journalists enter broadcast news over 22 years. Liam’s is, however, a debut few others in that time have achieved…from classroom to Radio 2 in a single leap. I wish him well in his future career and I’m grateful to Tim for making the call.

The report in full

You can listen below to the whole thing.

And a final word of thanks to both Lightwater Valley for being so accommodating, and to Richard at Boxed Off Comms for giving it the PR ‘ok’. He saw the full picture where many would have just given us a knee-jerk ‘no comment’.

At the Student Radio Awards last night (6th November 2014) Calum Macdonald won gold in the best male presenter category. I’m absolutely delighted on two fronts.

First, he’s from my old student station Fresh Air – which hasn’t won anything for absolutely ages!

But more importantly, his entry truly was exceptional. Why? Because he is the presenter of a news programme.

onstage

Breaking the mould

I think this is an important moment for the student radio awards and for the best presenter categories. 99% of all entries to these categories are similar in nature, and too often emulate successful entertainment radio formats, often to slightly boring effect.

You can hear the ‘advice on how to create a good demo’ shining though in many entries – but that makes them predictable. You have the standard hilarious anecdote, talking up to the vocal, a crunch and roll, back-announcing tracks and so on.

CalumawardBut Calum’s entry is completely different. It focuses on his presentation of news content. It shows that you don’t have to sound like Greg James to win this award (who in fact was a judge for this category). It’s entirely refreshing that a news presenter was spotted for his considerable talent and that engagement with politics and current affairs got him a win in a category normally reserved for music/entertainment presenters.

And, before you say “shouldn’t this entry be in the best journalistic category…?” – no. This entry (you can listen below) does not focus on the news content itself but on Calum’s presentation of it. And he shows us that he can present live radio, is adept at interviews, is comfortable presenting OBs in front of a live audience, has fantastic energy and authority presenting the headlines, and can have fun along with it.

News is cool

I always feel like broadcast journalism doesn’t get enough of a look in when it comes to student radio events. And that’s probably a reflection of the fact that so many people in student radio really just want a job on the music side at Radio 1.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some remarkably good student radio news teams. I chaired the best journalistic category this year and the quality was staggeringly good.

But the wider focus always seems to fall back to ‘showbiz’, which is so often seen as the thing to aspire too.

Perhaps a few people starting out in radio will hear Calum’s entry and be inspired to think about current affairs rather than popstars – because serious radio journalism absolutely is cool. It really means something. It has a direct and sometimes significant impact of people’s lives.

ps. Keep an eye on Calum – he’s going places.

 

There’s a new RadioCentre-commissioned report which says, according to Radio Today, that ‘Radio 1 and Radio 2 are failing’. RadioCentre is the industry body for commercial radio. The survey behind the report is independent. But I’m not so sure about this article, because it reads a bit like a RadioCentre press release: read the article here.

RadioCentre

 …according to independent research commissioned by RadioCentre…nearly half (46%) think that Radio 1 is the same, or only slightly different to Capital FM

In the name of accuracy you cannot lump these two things together. The phrases ‘the same’ and ‘slightly different’ are very different things. If 46% of all Radio 1 listeners think it’s ‘the same’ as Capital FM there’s perhaps a problem. However if 46% think it’s ‘slightly different’ then Radio 1 must be doing something right. Especially because presumably the remaining 54% think it’s ‘different’ or ‘very different’.

Whatever the breakdown within that 46%, the MAJORITY of those surveyed actually think Radio 1 is MORE than ‘slightly different’ to Capital FM.

Only 6% of its listeners associated the station with social action and documentaries and 25% with programming for young teenagers

Did the survey question ask people about the phrase ‘social action’? In which case I’m amazed anyone said ‘yes’ at all. It’s a not a phrase most people use. And surely only a small percentage of Radio 1’s output is ‘social action’, therefore if 6% of listeners know about it that doesn’t sound too bad. More than 25% of Radio 1’s audience is NOT ‘young teenagers’ therefore for 25% of those surveyed to ‘associate the station with programming for young teenagers’ is not surprising.

And although Radio 1 is supposed to be aimed at people aged 29 years and under, 30% of 35-44 think it is aimed at them

Or to put it another way: more than two thirds of Radio 1’s ‘older’ audience (35-44) acknowledge that the station is NOT aimed at them.

I don’t know about you but I think it’s amazing that two-thirds of people will admit that they probably shouldn’t be listening to the station they actually listen to.

On we go to Radio 2:

Radio 2 listeners wanted to hear less mainstream chart music (35%)

Isn’t the key finding that ‘65% of Radio 2 listeners are AT THE VERY LEAST ‘happy’ with the amount of mainstream chart music on the station’? Why report the minority, unsurprising comment, headlined as the main finding?

Of the specific service requirements for Radio 2, only 21% said they associated the station with extending musical tastes

‘Only’ 21%? For a station as ‘mainstream’ as Radio 2 I think it’s not such a bad thing that a fifth of people in this survey cite the station as a ‘taste-maker’. In the previous paragraph of the report we’re told that half of the audience ‘highly associate’ the music with Magic and Heart. Are we told what percentage of people think that Magic and Heart are taste-making? No. My guess is the result might be lower.

only…11% associated the station with original comedy and just 17% with arts programming

There’s that ‘only’ word again. Less than 11% of Radio 2’s output has anything to do with original comedy. Less than 17% of Radio 2’s output is what you’d define as ‘arts programming’. So, these figures sound pretty good. Why are they written up as a bad thing?

Siobhan Kenny, Chief Executive of RadioCentre, will unveil key findings from the research at a fringe meeting on the future of the BBC at the Conservative Party Conference today. In particular, she will call for tougher regulation of the BBC to help prioritise the delivery of public service output in future

Ah.

 

——-

Important caveats:

  • I love Radio Today, even if not this article.
  • A survey like this raises important questions about the BBC and these should be debated. Always. Here I’m discussing the way statistics are used to form ‘findings’.
  • Disclosure: I work at Radio 2 and hey, I happen to like the BBC. However – this article is about the reporting of surveys, statistics and numbers. I’ve written previous similar articles on the same subject where I also slag off the BBC.

Perhaps you’ve seen this image doing the rounds:

flowers1

Since @OliverJamesUK posted it on 6th July it’s gone viral. Thousands retweeted it immediately, others nicked it and re-posted it, campaigners and celebrities like Frankie Boyle shared it, and it’s all over Facebook timelines.

But is it accurate? And where’s the picture from?

This is not about the pros or cons of the Work Capability Assessments. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest they’ve gone wrong in many instances, and the Atos contract is due to come to an end. This is about how a simple, powerful message can spread on social media even when people don’t really know what it is they’re sharing.

This picture was actually tweeted a few times over previous months, but never got much attention. It actually dates back to a rally against disability welfare cuts held on 28th September 2013. More pictures here… The fact that it’s gone viral this time suggests that the wording of the tweet was important.

The flowers are meant to represent “more than 10,000 people who died shortly after undergoing the Atos Work Capability Assessment“.

But hang on – the number of people who underwent the assessment is very different from the number of people who were actually declared fit for work, as the tweet stated.

So how many really was it?

The protest last September, and the ‘10,000’ people the flowers were for, are based on the table below, which comes from a DWP report from July 2012.

flowergraph

What does it mean? Those 10,600 people started the fit-for-work assessment.

  • Of those, 2,200 never completed the assessment
  • 7,100 were placed in the ‘support group’. These people were specifically deemed not fit to work.

The DWP states in that report:

“Those in the Support Group receive unconditional support due to the nature of their illness, which can include degenerative conditions, terminal illness and severe disability.”

  • The remaining 1,300 were placed in a ‘work related activity group’.

From the DWP:

“Those in this group are not expected to work, but are provided with help and support to prepare for work where possible.”

And here’s the most important bit regarding our original tweet. From the last page of the report:

“Data on the number of ESA claimants that have died following a fit for work decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit.”

So is the original tweet accurate? Absolutely not. Do people sharing it think it’s factually accurate and shows a new, current picture? Almost certainly.

Confusing a desire for accuracy with giving an opinion

The difficulty with writing things like this is that people jump to the conclusion that you’re somehow arguing one side or the other on the issue itself. I’m not. Just because I’m pointing out that the tweet is misleading doesn’t mean I don’t agree with its sentiment.

This exchange on Twitter regarding the ‘flower tweet’ is typical – if you go looking there are many like it:

flowerchat

Politics aside, @guy_herbert is right that a number with no context is unhelpful. Statistics are an important business. But when you question them on such an emotive topic people become angry, as if because you want accuracy you don’t care for those 10,600 individuals who died.

If you believe in a cause and want to campaign on it, those in power will ignore you if your numbers don’t add up, or if your facts are not facts. So if you want to share things to further a social cause, I would argue that asking what exactly it is you’re sharing, and whether it might be accurate before you click ‘retweet’ can help.