Since leaving Real Radio at the end of March, when news operations were transferred to Global (only a few weeks in reality, but it seems a LIFETIME ago) I’ve been pretty much occupied with freelance work. Until June, when my weekdays have been a little more empty.  And as I’m not currently beavering away in a radio studio or at a newsdesk somewhere quite so much my thoughts naturally turned to radio news. That in which I have plied my trade for most of the last 20 years. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to exorcise some of my daemons, to have a good old whinge about a few things that have hacked-off this hack over the two decades.

To the uninitiated (and non-Latin speakers) where you get a clips from a bunch of people in the street and ask them about something and put the clips together and put them in your news bulletin. I hate vox pops. With a raging passion. And I shall list my reasons:

1)      Who cares what Bob from Barnsley or Julie from Dewsbury thinks about anything – are they particular experts in their field? No. So what’s the bloody point of them being there? Does it make listeners think “hey, that’s someone who sounds like me opining on that subject, therefore I shall opine too”. No, I don’t believe it does.

2)      They are subject to the easiest manipulation by the person editing them together – I’ll just use all the ones where people say the new bypass is great and introduce it with “everyone in town agrees it’s brilliant”.  But ethical journalists would never do that, right? Maybe not consciously, but certainly you’ll use people who sound better – so there’ll be favouritism to the eloquent, educated, erudite or eccentric. Which may well include people who are particularly passionate about a subject and therefore skew the neutrality of the piece entirely.

3)      They are HORRIBLY time consuming, for a few seconds of audio it can take an hour of walking up to people and being told to “sod off” repeatedly – frankly I’d rather that hour was spent writing a better script, or researching  an expert who can enlighten us and explain the story better, or someone directly involved in it 

4)      Most people couldn’t give two hoots about most things you ask them about. If you can get them to stop and talk to you in the first place, that is.

There’s a reason the work experience kid always gets sent out to do vox pops and a reason why they’re few and far between in bulletins when there’s nobody in on placement.

A voicer, voice piece or voice report is when a reporter tells you something themselves. More details on a story, their observations from the scene of a thing. I don’t have the same hatred for voicers that I do for vox pops, but I would reserve a special place in Hell for Bad Voicers. And it would be very full that place, because unfortunately it seems many purveyors of the radio news art are incapable of doing voicers properly.  How many times have you heard this:

A man’s been killed and three others injured after a crash on the High Street in Blogstown at about 7 this morning. Fred Snerg has more details for Made Up Radio.

A man was killed and another three hurt in the crash on the High Street in Blogstown just before 7 o’clock this morning. Police don’t know what caused the crash that involved two cars and a rampaging manic 30 foot tall mongoose.

Ignore the bit about the mongoose, that’s not the problem. It’s the introduction and the reporter saying the same thing, often almost EXACTLY the same thing.  Time is precious in our news bulletins (more of THAT later) why are we wasting it saying the same thing twice? It’s just dumb. Two questions we should be asking ourselves, firstly – does it need a voicer at all? I’d argue that in this case the newsreader could’ve just read a straight script (a piece of copy, as we say in the trade) with all of the detail in it. Secondly, if we ARE going to use a reporter clip, what does it add? If the answer is nothing, then don’t do it. The best voicers are what I call reporter clips, where the journalist at the scene/summing-up speaks more naturally, more conversationally, to offer a considered view (not an opinion, we’re not allowed those) of the story.  If you don’t think this is a problem, listen carefully to the next few news bulletin you hear!

Oh, it boils my petunias when I hear presenters say this. It immediately takes a great big ice-cream scoop and lifts the news out of the rest of the station. Way to make us feel welcome and worthy members of the team. It’s almost as if they’re saying “don’t worry, the boring old news will be done in 2 minutes, then I’ll be back with more wackiness and great music.” The best stations, the best radio programmers and the best presenters don’t alienate the news like this, it’s integrated into output and valued. Often when listeners are asked what’s most important about their local radio station – news will figure very highly. (They probably mean travel news, but I’m taking the crumbs here, we get seldom few leg-ups!)

“The news bulletins aren’t very good, but we have to do them, so let’s make them shorter”  Seems to have been a mantra applied in commercial radio a few years ago. Rather than looking at the root cause of WHY the bulletins were not up to standard: chronic underfunding, lack of resources, lack of qualified personnel, lack of interest from the powers that be. We’ve gone from 3 minute bulletins being the regular thing when I started out 20 years ago, to you being lucky if your local or regional station does 2 minutes of news.  There’s no reason why a decent bulletin editor can’t get all the relevant national and local news into 2 minutes, but it’ll always be at the expense of something – and if that something was the one thing that the listener wanted to hear about, you’ve lost them. And if you lose them in the news, will they stay for the rest of the programming and commercials? Salaries have always been terrible in commercial radio news, generally, so there’s a natural talent drain to the BBC where “things are better”, whether the grass is actually greener on the Auntie side is a debate for another day. But certainly equipment is more plentiful, resources exist and wages are much better – on the whole. So commercial radio is left with the die-hards, the newbies, the jaded and the useless. Any wonder that the quality dips?  It’s like a self fulfilling prophecy. And if the news is good, relevant and engaging then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be allowed to run for 3 minutes, that’s still shorter than most of today’s pop songs.

My personal buzzword for news is “relevance”. Is everything that’s included in your 2 or 3 minutes as relevant as it can be for as much of your audience as is possible? If this means running a news bulletin that’s 100% local, or 100% national, so long as you can justify its relevance to your target audience, I’m happy.  Too many news outlets seem to play follow the lead, especially with the newspapers. Whilst I’m not denying that there is still a lot of influence in our press, especially in the corridors of power – this does not translate to the audience in general of most of the radio stations that I’ve worked at. Newspapers sales are dwindling, let’s stop being beholden to them as if they’re some great bastion of integrity and truth in whose shining light we should all bask.  They have their moments still. But let’s realise that the world’s moved on. And from the banal “Chair Found In Street” type of stories in local newspapers, to the horror of phone hacking, this is not an institution that we should follow unflinchingly. Yet we do. More radio stations and their news editors and bulletin editors should be proud to stand up and follow their own path, decide on what’s right for their audience and cater for that. Even if they’re the only ones doing it. That’s what makes distinctive radio and stops the news being boring.

Now, all that having been said, if anyone would like to employ me, I have availability in August onwards…