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Category Archives: The Training Zone

Tips and tutorials for would be broadcasters. Click on RADIO STUFF (right) for the main blog.

History : Past and Present

Louis Armstrong airport is about a twenty minute drive from downtown New Orleans, and the cheapest way to get there is by using the shared van Airport Shuttle service. The driver tells me his family were from England – Exeter to be precise – but that was around 300 years ago. He’s full of facts about the region, not least how the early settlers had to modify the swampy land to get anything out of it.

Fortunately, my hotel is also the first stop, enabling me to freshen up and head for some entertainment on Frenchman Street. At Bamboulas, Monday is all about the brass band. 


This isn’t trad jazz, at least how most people define it. Bands like these (and there are many) do a neat trade in cover versions of modern songs.

“If you see a girl on a bike with pink dreadlocks, tell her I’m just in the bathroom.”

In any other city, this might seem like a weird conversation. But in NOLA – and specifically at Molly’s At The Market – it’s pretty standard. Lyndon is in his early twenties and works at the bar two doors down. He lived in San Francisco for a few years but wanted somewhere smaller. Along with being a bar tender, he designs furniture and the pictures he shows me suggest a real talent. As if on cue, his friend shows up as he’s in the gents. Another random conversation drifts into the night. It’s early for New Orleans but I’ve been awake for nearly 24 hours.


At the Cabildo building on Jackson Square, the turbulent history of New Orleans is brought to life. The French influence here is obvious, but over the centuries the Spanish and the English tried their own bits of colonialism, and that’s before you ever get around to the Civil War. The list of conflicts is summed up in a long gallery overlooking the square, decked with flags denoting each era.


A joint ticket allows access to three buildings operated by the Louisiana State Museum service. And in the Presbytere, there’s a focus on the city’s more recent turbulent past.


The piano belongs to Fats Domino, and was recovered from his house when it was hit by Hurricane Katrina. It’s more than a decade since the disaster and the exhibits charts in graphic detail the gross dereliction of duty by the national authorities. The city’s cries for help were ignored by Washington for days, leaving thousand stranded as refugees in the Superdome. While that might sound like a safe place, it had no power, no sanitation, conditions akin to a third world country.

A lot of work has gone on since. The French Quarter suffered, though not nearly as bad as other areas. On most of its buildings today, you’d hardly know anything had happened.

 

Rocks and hard places

I should open this blog with a disclaimer that these are my views as a Journlaist, and not necessarily those of my employer. The piece is meant as an observation of the relationship between reporters and their sources, and may well stimulate some debate on the subject.


Since the start of the year, I’ve been covering the story of a group in Nottingham who set up two makeshift camps, with the claim that they were supporting the homeless. They were also demanding that the city council opened up empty buildings as shelters, something which happened in Manchester.

As usual, it’s been something of a war of words between the activists and the authorities. But this one has been made all the more difficult by walls of silence on both sides – a somewhat unusual scenario when trying to accurately report the situation.

 
By their very nature, the activists – operating under the umbrella name Fightback Nottingham – were rather erratic in their behaviour towards the media. On some days, they were more than happy to portray themselves as modern day urban warriors, not only supporting the homeless people who were apparently sleeping in their tents, but sending our a wider, social, political message. Activism at its best, you might say.

But on other days it was a different story. “We’re not talking to you (the BBC) because you’ve twisted our words. We’ll only do live interviews because they can’t be edited.” Clearly those are editorial demands which we wouldn’t and couldn’t agree to with anybody.

Yet from the authorities, there’ve also been mixed messages. Officially, the City Council wouldn’t provide anyone for an interview. The policy seemed to be one of written statements, as getting into a debate might lead to difficult questions. Questions which we were unable to put in a broadcast environment. 

But off the record – though there for all to see on social media – were comments from senior council officers, and the head of Safe Nottingham (a police and council partnership) openly condemning the activists, calling them “hired anarchists” – before quickly retreating from their attack by hiding or deleting Tweets.

The challenge is that we all live in a 24/7 media society, fuelled by instant claim and counter claim. And that raises questions about the relationship between journalists and their sources. It might be argued that social media is king, since everybody has access to it all the time. Though it doesn’t help when some individuals choose to bulk block entire newsrooms from their accounts, lest they actually report or challenge what is being said.

The camps have now been cleared, the final one was being dismantled as court proceedings for eviction were still underway. But  there’ll doubtless be other fights in the pipeline : this weekend the war of words was taken to public buildings, where abusive slogans were chalked up. It remains to be seen who exactly has gained the upper hand.

Our job as journalists is to keep asking questions. And we will.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone

 

Ratings or Reputation?

Last week the latest audience ratings for UK radio were published. As usual there was more spinning from station managers than Alistair Campbell in a gym class armed with comedy plates. And, as usual, the raw numbers can never tell the whole story.

In unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, I’d like to think that my own sector – BBC Local Radio – trades less on audience figures alone, and more on distinctiveness. In other words, an element of public service that may not always pull in large numbers of listeners.

So it was initially refreshing to read the Radio Centre’s response to the BBC Trust’s current review of BBC Local services. In a rare fanfare of support, commercial radio’s trade body was bigging up the BBC’s role in providing high quality, in depth news coverage aimed at an older audience. But it turned out to be faint praise, going on to suggest that BBC Local Radio shouldn’t focus more on personality.

  
The report bemoans a recent strategy briefing, which recommended – among other things – that stations should put greater effort into bringing entertaining and engaging presentation back on air. Local Radio sits in a curious place within the BBC structure, being part of the News division rather than Radio. Down the years, programmers from all sides (including those who have a commercial background) have been banging on about personality being the key to success.

At the risk of again banging my own drum (though I was working elsewhere at the time)  it’s no coincidence that BBC Radio Nottingham’s breakfast show has just been named the best on BBC Local Radio at the Gillard Awards. Yes – it’s a self serving pat on the back – but the winning entry demonstrated how important persinality is : one clip of our reporter playing loud construction noises outside the council’s HQ after months of noise complaints from its housing tenants.

Commercial radio seen quite happy for BBC Locals to remain pigeon holed into “news” – but has the deluded idea that news and personality should never mix. Well, I hear no evidence of that on Radio X – where the excellent Dominic Byrne sits happily with Chris Moyles, yet retains complete authority when delivering bulletins. Or how about commercial radio’s best speech brand, LBC – does Nick Ferarri wear a dinner jacket and bow tie to relate the days’s big stories?

Ratings will always fluctuate, and it’s a harsh reality that no radio station can be complacent in retaining its audience. I stand by my argument  that public service sometimes means shockingly low numbers in the RAJARS. But equally, BBC local Radio cannot be expected to stand still simply because commercial radio’s having another mardy (look that word up if you need to).

It’s also worth remembering that only the BBC regularly subjects itself to such detailed self analysis and accountability. Something RadioCentre rarely has to be concerned about.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone

 

A Matter Of Factual

Here’s a question. What actually constitutes news these days?

Of course, there are as many answers to that question as there are listeners to your radio station of choice. And it’s long been claimed that “the news” is gradually being dumbed down by just about anybody from Radio 4 downwards.

Targeting the news to a particular audience is always going to be subjective. Personally, I’m a fan of the “sing when you’re winning” principle. If there’s a good news story – like England winning the Ashes – it should rightly be a contender for the top story on the next available bulletin. Equally, there’s nothing wrong with a cheery “and finally” to brighten up a gloomy breakfast broadcast.

Which makes the latest ruling from OFCOM a curious case in point. Global Radio – the owners of Heart and Capital (and a good part of Smooth) – has been found in breach of the OFCOM code for effectively “sponsoring” its “and finally” story at breakfast.

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The “Good News” feature was sponsored by Three, and consisted of one story of no editorial significance being given a sponsored credit. Global argued that this wasn’t technically part of the news bulletin, but a “specialist factual strand” – similar to, say, the showbiz or business news – which can be openly sponsored and would not break the rules.

Purists would argue that OFCOM has correctly drawn an important line in the sand, clearly saying that “news” and “factual” must be properly separated from each other. But it’s also a case of the regulator dictating what it considers to be “news” and factual”. In this example, the regulator has decided – against a flimsy code of conduct – that the “and finally” cannot be sponsored.

In absolute terms, OFCOM is implementing the rules by the book. And, as a rep of the National Union of Journalists, part of me thinks it’s a good decision – hammering home the fact that news of any description should not be sponsored. Allow it for the “and finally” and what’s next?

But in reality, no harm’s been done here. Global would have been extremely foolish to believe that it could extend this straightforward advertising deal to anything approaching “the actual news”. And, as the company said to OFCOM, this feature was not part of “the actual news” in terms of local content or length.

The regulator was only doing its job – responding to a handful of complaints. We have no way of knowing who made those complaints. It could have been a competitor, jealous of Global’s creative thinking when it comes to sponsorship. It might have been an anorak trying to “make a point”. Whoever it was, they went about it the wrong way.

It’s essential that OFCOM performs the task of upholding editorial independence of our commercial radio stations. But it has no right to decide on which features can and cannot run alongside a news bulletin. Providing the station is operating within its format.

On this occasion, the reguator stopped short of a fine. And wisely so.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone

 

Katrina – and the radio waves.

On a thoroughly dark day for journalism – in which two US journalists were apparently shot dead by one of their own disgruntled colleagues, it’s easy to see why our profession has something of “a reputation” – and all too often, the wrong reputation.

However, it’s worth reminding ourselves – and the rest of society – why we do this. And I cannot begin to explain it any better than BBC correspondent Rajini Vaydianathan.

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In a beautifully crafted multi media magazine article, she tells the story of the journalists, engineers and programmers who worked through Hurricane Katrina as it hit New Orleans ten years ago.

I will say no more, other than I urge you to stick with it until the last piece of audio.

This is why we “do” radio.

 
 

The Skype’s The Limit

Any radio producer will be familiar with the newsroom conversation when it comes to inviting contributors on air. Inevitably, the question will be asked : “Can you come into the studio?”

Seasoned guests know the form. An interview just tends to work better if it’s face to face. And the perception is that the audience gets more out of the experience if they can clearly hear what is being said. Above all, the producer gets a glowing feeling inside – that the content will be “in quality”.

The trouble is, quality audio doesn’t always equate to interesting content.

In recent years, there’s been a tendency for radio and TV stations to opt for interviews over Skype (or other internet video apps). The perception is that it’s a cheap halfway house between dragging a guest into a studio or speaking to them over a crackly phone line. I have to say, in my experience the results can be mixed.

The biggest problem is the quality of the microphone, and where it is positioned in relation to the guest. A standard “in ear” headphone/mic combo (standard with most mobile phones) can work perfectly well, until the wires brush against clothing or anything else. A headset with a built in mic can improve the output. But another issue comes with the fact that most people’s homes are not equipped with studio standard soundproofing. The end result is a guest who sounds as if they’re in the bathroom.

Put simply, Skype is not always the attractive option it first seems. So I was surprised to find a phone in show on Al Jazeera which was almost entirely made up of it.

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The Stream hosts a daily discussion with global guests making their contributions by Internet video. It’s an interesting concept. Obviously the main contributors are pre booked, but the show evolves by inviting anyone to join in online. Some make it on air in person, others – like the traditional phone in – have their comments read out by the presenter.

There’s probably a lot more production behind the scenes to make it work – but work it does. Maybe it helped that the edition I viewed was a debate on whether African radio stations should play all African music. But it made me wonder if the concept could be adapted to the radio?

It would firstly require a different way of thinking. And a certain amount of engineering. Most broadcast desks typically contain two on air phone lines and just one incoming Skype line. Other “outside sources” could be adapted to accommodate more, but then there’s the challenge of convincing listeners to use their smart phone technology to get involved.

Essentially, it’s no different from the traditional “round table” discussion. Only the table is made up of multiple tablets. It’s an attractive idea – and it may well be that it’s already happening. What it can’t do, of course, is guarantee to make the content interesting.

Thankfully, that still involves human input.

 
 

Give Me A Break

The Daily Mail really is a nasty piece of work. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. However its latest tirade against the BBC raises some interesting points about the frustration faced by journalists trying to get a simple answer to a seemingly simple question.

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The latest storm centres around the BBC’s Creative Director, Alan Yentob, who is also Chairman of the beleaguered charity Kids Company. It’s emerged that Yentob tried to intervene when Newsnight carried a story about Kids Co. During an impassioned interview on Channel Four News, Yentob denied that he’d abused his position and created a conflict of interest.

Regular visitors to the blog will know that I’m no fan of senior management. But the Mail’s Katherine Rushton decided to hook her two day old story by blaming bosses for being on holiday.

The Mail's Katherine Rushton is outraged that people take holidays in August.

The Mail’s Katherine Rushton is outraged that people take holidays in August.

There’s an assumption by the Mail that Director General Tony  Hall, news boss James Harding and Director of Strategy are somehow “doing nothing” or – as the Mail puts it – “failing” to curb Yentob.

Given the BBC’s apparent silence – and Ms Rushton’s glee in telling readers that the BBC Press Office said everything was as normal – it’s easy to swallow the Mail’s guff. But I’d be pretty amazed if conversations weren’t happening behind the scenes, at the highest level and, correctly, in private.

On Twitter I asked Katherine Rushton if she’d ever had a holiday during August. She replies : “I have, but I have to do a thing called making sure there is someone to cover me”. What? She does that personally?

So I decided to call the Daily Mail to ask who was in charge on a Saturday morning. I called the main reception number and asked to be directed to the press office. “There’s nobody here from the press office. We have one reporter on duty.”

i then asked who was in charge? Could it be the long standing Editor Paul Dacre? How could I contact him? I was given a generic email address for the “Managing Editor” and told there would be nobody who could speak to me in person.

Perhaps they’re on holiday, eh Katherine?

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2015 in Journalism, The Training Zone