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The importance of radio journalism
Journalism is an activity that we primarily associate withnewspapers,magazines and television. Indeed, among the many whoturn to sound broadcasting as a source of background music, few maybe aware that radio journalism exists. Hearing an occasional‘capsule’ of news within the sequence of records, they perhapsassume that compiling it is about as challenging and glamorous asCinderella’s day job. In this book we are going to be making somerather large claims for the
importance of radio journalism. But we should begin by pointing outthat it requires skills which, even in the preparation of capsulenews, are additional to the investigative and literary abilitiesthat every journalist should possess. On radio, the drafting anddelivery of news copy is not a simple matter. Like television’s,but unlike those of the newspapers, its words are constantly dis-solving or evanescent: but unlike television’s, they are whollyinvisible, as are the people who utter them. Consequently, itslisteners seldom give radio their undivided attention. Its newscopy needs to be written and presented with these factorsconstantly in mind – to adopt an easy and intelligible speech idiomeven as it strives to do justice to the often complex and detailedcharacter of events. Yet the case for the importance of radiojournalism rests on something
other than the fact that it is more demanding and skilful thanmight be sup- posed. Most of us accept that journalism – thereporting and analysis not simply of ‘the news’ but of currentaffairs in their broadest sense – is at the heart of the BBC’spublic service endeavour, and since television commands much largeraudiences than radio, this is often taken to be ‘television’ jour-nalism. However, we will suggest in this book that it is often onradio, with its ability to handle facts, issues and ideas withoutvisual distraction, that this endeavour is most effectivelyperformed.
The origins of journalism
A career in radio journalism is thus highly worthwhile, but to makethe case for its current and future importance we need to knowsomething of its past. Its origins lie in the natural human desireto know more about what is going on in the world that lies beyondthe compass of our horizons and our own experience. Even thatinformation, which the early travellers brought to a community,recounting what they had seen or been told by someone else, couldnot wholly satisfy this desire. So the development of the print-ing press by Johann Gutenburg around 1450, with its ability todisseminate news, information and comment on a mass scale, firstdemonstrated the potential of humankind to produce and consumesomething that would become recognisable as journalism. The printmedium firmly established itself as a conduit through which a
discourse could elaborate the results of journalistic activity. Onthe audi- ence’s behalf, someone could find, collate and digest aconsiderable amount of information and then synthesise from it anaccount which was presented in such a way as to satisfy theaudience’s natural curiosity, amuse, entertain it and even call itto action. Today, print still performs this important role, butbecause technological advance tends to be exponential, the lastcentury produced increasingly rapid developments in distributiontechnology. This resulted in new mass media that would provideother popular platforms for the practice of journalism. The cinemanewsreel, pioneered in 1910 by Pathé’s Animated Gazette, offeredaudiences new experiences in the form of moving images to accompanytext and eventually a spoken narrative. Yet because newspapers andnewsreels required both mechanical processing and distribution overland, even today print and film lack a compelling advantagepossessed by the news-bearing travellers of old: immediacy (Starkey2007: 115–16).
The development of radio
The invention of the first of the electronic media, the telegraph,provided that immediacy. It allowed point-to-point communicationover long dis- tances in real time, although a direct connection bywire was required, and rather than being a medium of masscommunication it, like the telephone a little later, offered onlyperson-to-person transmission. It was the develop- ment of radio(initially known as ‘the wireless’) that brought the benefits ofmass distribution which were previously confined to the printingpress. Radio broadcast over wide areas by sending electro-magneticwaves into the air. Its messages were available to anyone withinrange who had a suitable receiver, to large, real-time audienceswho could hear of events quite liter- ally within milliseconds oftheir occurrence.
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Among the early pioneers were Guglielmo Marconi, who first demon-strated transmission and reception but was slow to spot radio’spotential as a mass medium, and Reginald Fessenden, who in 1906broadcast the first programme of voice and music, but who failed tocapitalise on his idea, so is merely a footnote in the history ofbroadcasting. These early delays in the exploitation of the mediumtempt one to the conclusion that new media technologies areintroduced into society only in so far as their potential fordisrupting the status quo is limited (Winston 1998). Certainly, invarious hands radio could be a powerful force in a number ofdifferent ways, a point we shall return to later. However, it wasdestined to become as important a medium as print – durable, as itshundred-year history attests, and, as the popularity of podcastsdemonstrates, capable of exploitation through twenty-first-centurydistribution technologies. By today’s standards it took aremarkably long time for Fessenden’s pioneering broadcast to beimitated on any grand scale, but over the following two decadessporadic experimen- tal broadcasting gradually gave way to regularservices – in Britain under Marconi, in the United States underFessenden’s successors, and even in communist Russia, where in 1917revolutionaries had used wireless telegra- phy rather than speechtransmissions to proclaim their victory and try to foment aworldwide uprising. The power of radio as a means of entertainmentand propaganda was
swiftly demonstrated, yet it did not immediately produce radiojournalism. In compiling his first programme, Fessenden omitted allnews, even though the concept of news reporting was wellestablished in the press. He played recordings of music and read apassage from the Bible, but had he thought of it he could haveincluded the world’s first news bulletin and quite legit- imatelyled on the historic significance of his own actions.Alas, radio’sgreat potential as a platform for journalistic activity was yet tobe perceived: this great inventor of dozens of patented devicesmissed a golden opportunity, and as we shall see, it fell to othersto perceive and exploit radio’s potential to bring immediacy to thetask of reporting the world to mass audiences.
The distinctiveness of radio journalism
What, though, is radio journalism, and how does it differ fromother types of journalism?What do they have in common, and what arethe reasons for the differences and similarities? How do thesedifferent traditions in pre- senting factual narratives coexist,and where radio journalism is distinct, why is it so? Just as printjournalism is more than the front and back pages and includesreviews, in-depth analyses and comment, which also solicit theattention of the reader, so radio journalism is much more than ‘thenews’. It is to be found in factual output of many kinds: inprogramming as much as
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in bulletins. It is also expensive to produce, requiring moreeffort to source and to evidence, to illustrate and to communicate,than does the playing of pre-recorded music or the relaying ofspontaneous conversation. The many forms in which radio journalismexists today could no more be invented overnight than Fessendencould conceive of a news bulletin for in his first broadcast. Theydeveloped slowly, often beginning as the spark of an idea, always aproduct of the institutional context from which they emerged, and,once established, mimicked and extended by rival radio stations.Some institutional contexts were more conducive to the developmentof
radio journalism than others, and in different countries radioindustries developed in different ways. The Marconi Company was aprivate business (Crisell 1994: 18), but in the United Kingdom theprivate ownership of radio stations was short-lived. This wasbecause the governmental Crawford Committee of Inquiry – the secondof many – recommended that broad- casting should be publicly owned(Crawford Committee 1926). In the United States, radio remainedlargely in the hands of commercial operators and these two sharplycontrasting models of institutional ownership influ- enced thedevelopment of radio journalism in different ways in differentcountries. This distinction between the public and private sectorsof the radio industry, one larger or smaller than the otherdepending on the coun- try one cares to examine, is an importantone. We consider it important enough to provide a framework for ouranalysis, and it is a theme that will run through this book.
Journalism, news and the development of the BBC
Today, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the UnitedKingdom’s oldest and, by common consent, pre-eminent broadcastinginstitution. Its role has always been to provide a comprehensive‘public service’ that tran- scends the mere market, and we are usedto the idea that news and current affairs are at the heart of thispublic service provision. As relatively recently as 1992, itpublished a policy document, Extending Choice, in which it posedthe question: ‘What, then, are the defining characteristics of theBBC’s pub- lic purpose?’ And it replied: ‘Firstly, the BBC shouldaim to provide the comprehensive, in-depth and impartial news andinformation coverage across a range of broadcasting outlets that isneeded to support a fair and informed national debate’ (Franklin2001: 103). This aim is nowhere more apparent than in radio. Overits networks and
stations as a whole, that which is not music is overwhelminglyjournalism: news and what we might term ‘contemporary information’– current affairs, sport, and other matters of perennial publicinterest, such as health, con- sumerist and lifestyle issues.Thereare exceptions, drama, light entertainment
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and phone-in conversation among them, but with the exception of thelatter they are also expensive to produce, which explains why theyare almost entirely the preserve of a public service broadcaster.But all the other genres fall within the province of journalism.Music is the main concern of Radios 1, 2 and 3 (although Radio 2’sflagship midday show, presented by Jeremy Vine, has a currentaffairs theme), but Five Live is wholly given over to news andsport, while news, sport, ‘factual’ and current affairs make upjust over two-thirds of the output of Radio 4 (BBC 2004: 143).Finally, the extensive provision of news and information is themeans by which BBC local radio seeks to distinguish itself from itscommercial rivals (Crisell and Starkey 2006: 18). There have beenperiods during which these provincial outposts of the corporationhave broadcast nothing but speech, but more recently they havefavoured a diet of speech punctuated by music. It may thereforecome as a surprise to learn that news and current affairs
were not always at the heart of the BBC’s public service endeavour.In the early years of broadcasting, they formed a marginal,derivative and rather meagre component of its programming. This waspartly due to factors outside its con- trol and partly a matter ofperceptions and values.A body that sawmore clearly than many intoradio’s potential as a rapid news medium was the NewspaperProprietors’ Association. Noting the threat that it would pose tothe press, the Association lobbied the government to place a newsembargo on the British Broadcasting Company. Launched in 1922, thecompany was prohibited from transmitting bulletins until theevening and obliged to take all its news from the press agencies.Moreover, the governments of the 1920s and 1930s feared that thenew medium could be used to win public opinion to seditious views.While in the United States and elsewhere radio was left tocommercial com- panies to develop (Starkey 2007: 23–4), theprevailing view in the United Kingdom was that it was too importantto be left to the private sector.When, on 1 January 1927, the BBCwas transformed from a private company into a public body, theBritish Broadcasting Corporation, its charter forbade it to edi-torialise and restricted the kinds of political content it couldcarry.Among gov- ernments, the fear that broadcasting can promotesedition, first articulated by Crawford (Crawford Committee 1926:14–15), persists to this day. Finally, John Reith, who was theManaging Director of the company and
then the first Director General of the Corporation, took littleinterest in news and politics (Boyle 1972: 173, 222) – and in this,he was not wholly untypical of his time. In the great scheme ofthings, news did not always rate highly. This was partly becausepeople were less bombarded by news and information than they aretoday. News provision, almost entirely in the hands of the press,was intermittent – daily rather than continuous – and thusrecognised as ‘old’ even as it was being consumed. In its infancy,the BBC sometimes broadcast no news on certain days because, in itsview, no news had occurred (Scannell 1996: 160).
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The impact of radio on the character of the news
Yet radio itself would soon transform the character of the news andthus help to change the perception of it. This began with theGeneral Strike in 1926, a major confrontation between millions ofworkers and their employ- ers. The government had armed troops atits disposal in case any physical outbreak of class war were tothreaten the nation’s security. Because much of the press was shutdown by striking print workers, the news embargo on the BBC waslifted for the duration of the strike, and its five daily bulletinsprovided information of a topicality that could not be matched evenby those newspapers that were still appearing. To the now rapidlygrowing body of listeners, it must have seemed as if a travellerhad, indeed, come calling, with stories to tell of what washappening elsewhere. Families would gather round the wireless,enthralled by what they heard. This was the con- sumer electronicsrevolution of its time – and the first in history. The sensation ofimmediacy prompted a new habit of tuning in to the
radio to find out what was going on in the world, and the 1930swere marked by improvements in the production of radio news.Bulletins were drafted in language that was less ‘literary’ andrather more suited to the ear. Magnetic – hence instant – recordingtechnology arrived, and the BBC grad- ually freed itself from someof the restrictions that the government and newspaper industry hadimposed. Certain major stories broke that radio could cover morecontemporaneously and more vividly than the press. Among these werethe great fire at the iconic Crystal Palace in London, the lastillness of George V in 1936 and the Munich crisis of 1938, whichseemed to pull Europe back from the brink of all-out war.Eye-witness accounts were not just factual in content, like thoseof the press, but emo- tively coloured by the voices in which theywere heard. During the SecondWorld War (1939–1945), radiojournalism achieved a
certain level of maturity. In times of war the public hunger fornews is insa- tiable, and for the first time in history atechnology existed to feed it. The BBC’s war reporters were giventhe same battle training as the troops, equipped with portable discrecorders and despatched to the front line, whence they were ableto send back detailed descriptions combined with a modest amount ofactuality. The volume of material they produced was such that, forthe first time, extended news programmes could be broadcast. RadioNewsreel, which began in 1940, and War Report, launched in 1944,contained not merely a bald recitation of events, but eye-witnessaccounts of them and recordings of the sounds they made. The veryword ‘newsreel’, which was borrowed from the cinema, affirms theBBC’s confidence that radio could now match some of the iconism offilm (Crisell 2002: 61). Finally, in 1944, the BBC acknowledged theenhanced status that broadcast- ing had helped to confer on thenews by ceasing to rely on second-hand and
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often print-focused accounts of foreign affairs and appointing itsown over- seas correspondents. For ten years or so after the war,radio news enjoyed relatively plain sail-
ing: though the march of communication technology was quickening,the fledgling television service posed no threat since it, too, wasa BBC monop- oly, and all broadcast news was in the hands of asingle controller (Briggs 1995c: 63). Moreover, such is humanconservatism, that just as radio news had initially been thought ofin terms of the press, so now television news was being thought ofin terms of radio. Apart from a 10-minute newsreel which was shownon five evenings a week and aped that of the cinema, tele- visionnews between 1946 and 1954 consisted only of re-broadcast radiobulletins accompanied by a still photograph of Big Ben. Even after1954, when a slightly more pictorial bulletin was introduced, thenewsreaders remained invisible, declaring themselves only as‘voice-overs’ behind pho- tographs, film clips and caption cards.Hence, in the United Kingdom radio journalism developed at a pacethat
today would be considered rather leisurely. Since the absence ofreal com- petition encouraged complacency rather than innovationand influences from overseas were slight, the institutional contextprovided little impetus for change until the mid-1950s. Reith’s BBChad been short on fun and long on moralising, serious in itsmusical programming rather than popular in its outlook (Crisell1994: 22), so the attempts made during the 1930s to break the BBC’smonopoly had focused on entertainment rather than factual con-tent. They had been mounted by privately-owned broadcasters such asRadio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy and Radio Eiffel Tower, which usedtransmitters on the continent to beam signals across the EnglishChannel.
The impact of television on radio news
Hence, if the Corporation was being challenged by rivals in thosepre-war years, it was not in respect of its news coverage. Whatchanged everything was the launch of Independent Television (ITV)in 1955, and particularly of ITV’s networked news provider,Independent Television News (ITN). Both BBC television and BBCradio were hit hard – radio irreversibly so – but competition hadthe unforeseen, longer-term effect of moving the provision of newsand current affairs nearer to the heart of the BBC’s public servicephilosophy. Indeed, it is arguable that the Corporation comesclosest to per- forming a public service in the radio provision ofthese things. To demon- strate this, we need to look atbroadcasting developments over the last half-century. Unblinkeredby a radiogenic past, ITN brought a new and televisual per-
spective to news reportage and in so doing, took large numbers ofviewers
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away from the BBC. But by the end of the 1950s, the latter hademulated its rival and lured many of them back.What television didin general was to devastate the audience for radio, and it has beensuggested that the fast- moving Cuban missile crisis of 1962, withits images of weapons on the decks of freighters, was the storythat would establish television’s lasting dominance as a newsmedium not only over radio but also the press (Hood and O’Leary1990: 35–6). Suddenly it seemed as if radio – with journalism nowat its core – had
been sidelined. Unrelenting technological advance had created amonster that would bring about radio’s destruction. Just as thediscovery of electro- magnetic radio waves had created a platformfor a new and immediate jour- nalism of sound that was able totrump both print and film, an even newer technology, offeringimmediate images as well as sounds, now threatened to kill offradio. From the middle of the 1950s there was therefore an urgentneed to rediscover radio’s core strengths.With the fortuitousarrival of tran- sistor technology, which enhanced the mobility andportability of receivers, music above all, but also news andinformation, emerged as forms of con- tent that audiences wereeager to consume as a background to their other activities. Thefirst radio sets had been bulky objects that took up a consid-erable amount of space in the living room and required power fromlarge rechargeable batteries. These were replaced by mains-poweredreceivers which of course remained in a fixed location where theycould be plugged into a socket in the wall. Then, in the 1950s anattractive range of transistor radios appeared: compact bycomparison to the old valve wireless set, they could run offbatteries similar in size to those used today and, most impor-tant, they were portable. Now listeners could experience radio indifferent rooms, they could buy multiple sets, take the radio withthem on holiday, even enjoy listening on the beach.The ‘tranny’quickly became a 1960s icon and even, in London’s fashionableCarnaby Street, a style accessory.
The revival of radio – and of radio news
Radio’s technological renaissance was fuelled by social change. Inthe late 1950s and early 1960s, a whole generation of ‘teenagers’(the word dates from about this time) began to assert themselvesculturally, economically and politically. What they craved fromtheir radios was American ‘rock ’n’ roll’ music, to be played roundthe clock and not just in the miserly doses supplied by the BBC’sLight Programme.A burgeoning music scene, a desire to accessAmerican hit records and a real sense that the BBC was ignoringyouthful tastes led to an invasion of the airwaves by ‘pirate’broadcasters, such as Radio Caroline, Radio London and SwingingRadio England. This new challenge to the monopoly of radio that theBBC still enjoyed also
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came from across the sea. But this time the commercial operators,as keen as their predecessors to make money from paid-foradvertising, were broad- casting from converted ships and disusedmilitary forts situated just outside British territorial waters.These were primarily music stations, whose commitment tojournalism
extended no further than relaying the news they had lifted from theBBC networks, but they demonstrated the demand for a kind ofprogramming within which news would play a vital role. Theimpression that the pirate presenters were marooned on the highseas and divorced from the lives of their onshore listeners couldbe mitigated by the inclusion of almost up-to- date news. Thelisteners, who were mostly unaware of its source, felt that thesestations had their finger on the pulse of the nation: that theywere musically more advanced than the BBC, but also just as capableof satisfy- ing that universal human need for news and information.With radio rescued from extinction by a new generation oflisteners
whose tastes and interests would grow and change with age, new useswere found for the medium.While television steadily colonisedpeople’s evening leisure time, radio was able to find largeaudiences during the day, when people were less free to abandonother activities in order to indulge their sense of sight.Breakfast time soon became radio’s peak period and it stillcommands a larger share of the audience until early afternoon(Radio Advertising Bureau 2007). Among the first to see that therewas still a place on radio for a substan-
tial treatment of news and current affairs was Robin Day, one ofthe origi- nal ITN newsreaders and later a formidable politicalinterviewer. In 1955 and while still employed by the BBC, Dayproposed a daily ‘Morning Review’ that would eventually take shapeas the Today programme. His rationale was a shrewd one:
… there is a steadily increasing audience to car radios. Thiselement must be particu- larly large first thing in the morningwhen people are motoring to work. These people cannot read whiledriving. Why should we not offer them comment and description thatthe rail or ’bus traveller can read in his newspaper?
(quoted in Donovan 1997: 3)
The Today programme launched in 1957, at first carrying mainlyapoliti- cal features but soon becoming ‘harder’ and newsier(Donovan 1997). Indeed, as part of its plans to reorganise soundbroadcasting in 1970, the BBC thought of turning Radio 4 into anall-news network, while news and current affairs were also seen asthe key strength of its local radio stations, which had begun toopen in 1967. Moreover, with programmes like Analysis from 1970 andFile on Four from 1977 (both Radio 4), the notion
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of radio journalism broadened to cover all forms of current affairsthat could be effectively presented through speech and sounds – notjust breaking stories but ongoing and background issues, and notmerely through straight reportage but in interviews, actuality,debate and commentary. The importance of Analysis and File on Fourcannot be overstated, and
we will return to them later. In essence, they are extended speechpro- grammes which focus on single issues and explore them insufficient depth to allow a range of views to be considered andanalysed, reinforced by expert comment and even summed up by thedrawing of appropriate con- clusions. This approach contrasts withthe magazine format typified by such programmes as Today and RadioNewsreel, which cover a range of top- ical items within a singleedition. Indeed, topicality is not a prerequisite for Analysis andFile on Four, since their in-depth reporting requires an extendedperiod of investigation and post-production before they can bebroadcast.
See it happen: the ascendancy of television news
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that by 1970 the major mediumfor ‘news’ in its primary, minimal sense of important events thathave only just occurred was television. It permitted visualtreatment and was moderated by backgrounding, analysis orcommentary. Radio and newspapers could only tell what had happened,between them offering a limited actuality of sounds and fixedimages: television could show it, and the number of things it couldshow was growing all the time. From 1963, satellite feeds broughtto its bulletins images of what was occurring half a world away,and during the 1980s the replacement of film by magnetic tape and ageneral miniatur- isation of components enabled cameras to becomeportable and thus cap- ture things that had once been beyond them.Now, instead of merely telling about other lands, unusual eventsand remarkable experiences, the visiting traveller could displaythem. Over the last 25 years the number of television outlets hasalso multi-
plied: two more terrestrials have launched – Channel 4 in 1982 andChannel 5 in 1997; the first cable and satellite stations appearedin 1983; and since 1996, digital television has triggered a furtherhuge expansion on all three platforms. Television is now soabundant that a miscellany of con- tent on any one channel isbeginning to seem old-fashioned: enough chan- nels exist to permit‘themed’ or specialised content, and the prime candidate fortheming is news.The sheer quantity of, and demand for, news; thereduction – often to zero – of the gap between the point at whichit occurs and the point at which it can be shown; the improvementsin picture quality and the growing sophistication of on-screengraphics all prompted
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the growth of ‘rolling news’ channels like Sky News (1989), BBCWorld Service Television News (1991), CNN (1992) and BBC News 24(1997).
News and the concept of public service broadcasting
Yet at about the same time an extraordinary paradox was emerging.The BBC’s public service endeavour depends, and has alwaysdepended, on its ability to provide what the market cannot. Why,then, should the BBC speak increasingly of news being at the heartof its public service provision at the very moment when news wasavailable on a wider range of broadcast- ing outlets than everbefore? Part of the reason was historical and political. In theprimordial days of
broadcasting scarcity, news was not high on the BBC’s agenda, andby today’s standards it was relatively uncritical of thegovernment’s conduct during both the General Strike and the SecondWorld War (Thompson 1990: 258; Starkey 2007: 128–30). Yet becauseit never acted merely as the government’s mouth-piece, theCorporation acquired a reputation for the balance and integrity ofits reportage during both. In recent years it has come to seem onlyreasonable that a body which is publicly funded and seeks to servethe nation as a whole should stake its reputation on an abil- ityto tell the truth about the world in as impartial and authoritativea way as possible. It has generally sought to do so by offeringmore perspective – more context and analysis – than its televisualrivals, who are primarily preoccupied with news actuality, with thesight and sound of events. This is the ‘mission to explain’ thatwas formulated by John Birt, who coordinated the BBC’s news andcurrent affairs departments from 1987. He ‘emphasised the need togive news stories a methodically researched analytical context inorder to provide more journalistic depth and superiorunderstanding’ (Born 2005: 57). Because of the attacks on the BBCby the Conservative government
during the 1980s, this is sometimes characterised as a retreat intoself- justification and a timorousness about interpreting politicalevents as news. Moreover, Birt’s centralisation of news and currentaffairs was seen as mak- ing the BBC more, not less vulnerable(McNair 2003: 105–10). Particularly after he became DirectorGeneral in 1993, Birt acquired numerous critics, and his successor,Greg Dyke, found he had inherited ‘a deeply unhappy organisation’(Dyke 2004: 139). One of the most frequent charges against Birt wasthat in the form of a new internal accounting system called ‘pro-ducer choice’, he hugely increased bureaucracy at the expense ofpro- gramme making. Dyke managed to reduce some of the bureaucracyand left office in 2004, riding a wave of support from the staff.Without doubt, though, the most influential Director General of allhas been the BBC’s first
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and longest-serving, John Reith, whose job was to establish anarm’s length relationship between the Corporation and successivegovernments, a feat he managed through 11 turbulent years until1938.
A combustible relationship: the BBC, the government and reportageof the news
Crucial to this relationship is a need to be independent ofgovernment yet avoid antagonising it so much that the next licencefee is set at a punitively low level. It is arguable that in 1926,the year before incorporation, Reith was too supportive of thegovernment, siding with them against the strikers (Thompson 1990:258). He asserted that since both the government and the BBC were‘for the people’ the BBC should be ‘for’ the government too. TheSecond World War presented the BBC with few qualms about the ethicsof supporting the war effort, and Prime Minister WinstonChurchill’s radio broadcasts were important motivators for a publicunder siege from Hitler’s Germany – particularly at the time of theevacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in occupied France. Manyhistorians consider them to have been crucial in influencing theUnited States to enter the war as our ally. (We will consider thedevelopment of international radio journalism in a later chapter,but it is worth noting here that once war was declared a number ofAmerican correspondents in Europe, among them Egbert (Ed) RoscoeMurrow, vividly described the build-up of the German war machineand the aerial bombard- ments of London. Their reports for theAmerican networks also helped con- vince a reticent American publicthat they should abandon their neutrality and join in the fightagainst the Nazis (Crook 1998: 91–2).) It was through the BBC thatthe future French President, General Charles
de Gaulle was able to broadcast rallying calls to his occupiedcompatriots (Kuhn 1995: 86–9). However, institutional contexts andpeople’s expecta- tions change over time, and nearly 40 years laterMargaret Thatcher com- plained that the BBC’s coverage of theFalklands War was insufficiently ‘patriotic’ (MacGregor 1997: 134).The path between patriotism and neu- trality is a difficult one totread, as Greg Dyke found out in 2003, yet most broadcastjournalists identify the ability to be impartial as essential totheir survival – and their credibility (Sheridan Burns 2002:11–12). The path is as difficult to tread in radio as intelevision, but there are some fundamental differences between thetwo.
How radio’s news coverage is better than television’s
One problem for television is that it is not the most efficient oreffective medium for practising journalism, and it was inevitablethat it should have
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developed in different ways over its own, briefer history. Because,like radio, it operates in time, it is able to communicate muchless information, and of a rather less complex nature, thannewspapers and books, which operate in space. A newspaper iscapable of carrying many more words than can be uttered in aconventional radio or television bulletin. But television’s pic-tures create a further difficulty. Contextualisation – the attemptto explain and analyse – is a verbal process that deals largely inabstractions, and the pictures it accompanies, even if of littlemore than the newsreader or reporter, have a tendency to distractthe viewer. Moreover, if it qualifies or conflicts with thepictures, the viewer is tempted to ignore it and credit thepictures: we tend to trust what we can see rather more than what wehear (Crisell 2006: 60–4). Yet not only must contextualisationsupport the pic- tures: it must be slowed down in order to give usthe opportunity to view them, thus further reducing the amount ofdetail and degree of complexity it can carry. The limitations oftelevision news can be circumvented in one of two
ways. The first is to run extended bulletins, a solution favouredby Channel 4. These allow individual items to be more fullyexplained and analysed, even if not to the extent that is possiblein a newspaper. But such bulletins demand a considerable commitmentfrom the viewer. There are, of course, specialist channels which intheory allow the viewer to watch news round the clock, but theircontent consists of repeated and only slowly evolving bulletins –the ‘rolling news’ that presupposes the brief, often intermittentviewing that is much more typical of our time. The secondpossibility is to minimise the distracting and protractingeffect
of the pictures by, in a sense, carrying fewer of them. Televisionmust always show pictures, of course, but bulletins could carrymuch less footage of the news events themselves and instead show‘talking heads’ – those who report, analyse and discuss them. Thiswould, in effect, make what is seen subordi- nate to what is said,and in the old days of unwieldy cameras and relative broadcastingscarcity, this is what television often did. But at a time whenscores of channels are competing for the fragile attention of theviewer, this is no longer a realistic option. Television mustincreasingly fall back on what sales folk would describe as its‘unique selling proposition’: the provision of interesting – ifpossible exciting – pictures (Crisell 2006: 166–9). Even though theBBC is obliged to provide material that the market will not pro-vide, and so to that extent is relieved of the need to compete, itsdiscursive news and current affairs programmes, such as Newsnightand Panorama, have been pushed to the edges of the schedule.Moreover, Panorama, once the flagship of BBC’s television currentaffairs output, has in recent years become much more pictorial andrather less discursive and analytical. We therefore arrive at aremarkable fact. If an in-depth coverage of news
and current affairs is at the heart of the BBC’s public serviceendeavour – if
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the contextualisation, discussion and analysis that arecollectively described as its ‘mission to explain’ are whatdistinguishes it from other broadcasters – then this endeavour isperformed not so much by television as by the less popular mediumof radio. It is perhaps no accident that for the radio provi- sionof such things, the BBC has no serious rival. Why should wordsalone be able to do more justice to news and current
affairs than words combined with pictures? Words can describe boththe physical, visible events that pictures show (indeed they oftenhave to describe what the pictures refer to, since pictures are notalways self- explanatory) and the context and significance of theseevents. But in their latter function, words benefit from theabsence of pictures, since pictures introduce an irrelevant anddistracting concreteness into what is in essence an abstractdiscourse. It is, of course, true that we are mostly seeing some-thing while we are listening to the radio: we do not necessarilylisten with our eyes closed. But the unrelatedness of what we areseeing to what we are hearing makes it much easier for us to focuson abstractions and concepts when they are aired on the radio thanwhen we encounter them on televi- sion (Crisell 2004b: 7–10).
How radio became central to the BBC’s public service mission
At the very time that TV channels began to multiply, it wasrecognised within the BBC that news and current affairs are atleast as much a matter of issues, ideas and significances as ofvisible occurrences, and that radio is better equipped to deal withthem than television. From the 1980s the Corporation renewed itsattempts to convert Radio 4 into an all-news net- work, and duringthe 1991 Gulf War provided a continuous if temporary news serviceon the station’s FM frequencies (Starkey 2004a: 26). Then in 1994it launched the populist news and sport network, Radio 5 Live. Evenas a mixed programming station, Radio 4’s daily output includes theToday programme from 0600 to 0900, The World at One from 1300 to1330, PM from 1700 to 1800, an extended news bulletin from 1800 to1830 and The World Tonight from 2200 to 2245. Moreover, its weeklyoutput embraces a range of specialised current affairs in suchprogrammes as Farming Today, Money Box, File on Four,Analysis, FromOur Own Correspondent, In Business and Law in Action. There isnothing like this quantity of news and current affairs in themainstream television networks, and even in the all-news chan-nels, nothing like the amount of commentary, explanation anddiscussion that these programmes afford. It is precisely becausethey would make dull viewing that they are so effective on radio.Moreover, they help to ensure that the BBC enjoys the continuingprotection of those arbiters of the licence fee, the politicians.It gives them considerable publicity, whether by
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reporting them or allowing them frequent opportunities to be heard,and although in the late afternoon and evening radio commands muchsmaller audiences than television, it is popular with theprofessional middle classes whom politicians need to reach becausethey are the nation’s opinion formers.
Some historical erosions of the public service ideal
This was as important in past decades as it is today, for if theBBC is to sur- vive, it must have a critical mass of support behindit. Reith firmly established public service broadcasting as alooffrom commercial pressures and, thanks largely to its position as amonopoly, untroubled by audience ratings. By at first notchallenging the press over the provision of news, he bought sometime during which the BBC was able to become better established.However, in the 1930s the popularity of the continental stations,particularly on Sundays, was unsettling for the BBC since itprompted some criticism from the press but not enough to cause achange in direction. Perhaps it was at this time that Reith formedthe opinion that commercial broadcasting is akin to ‘dog racing,smallpox and the bubonic plague’ (Crisell 2002: 86). He was largelyright in perceiving it as popular, downmarket, potentiallylucrative and ‘infectious’ among audiences. Yet even withoutcommercial radio, the BBC would have to change and with Reith’sdeparture, the process began. The SecondWorldWar killed off thecontinental commercial stations, but
among the tens of thousands of young soldiers stationed away fromhome it also created a craving for entertainment, and the launch ofthe Forces Programme in 1940 at the government’s request was anearly post-Reithian concession to populism. It was not to be theonly one. Successive Director Generals had their own views onaudience ratings, and in answer to the challenge of the 1960soffshore pirates, the Light Programme that had replaced the ForcesProgramme was renamed Radio 2 in 1967 and was joined by a new popmusic service for youth, Radio 1. There also followed a period ofconsiderable ratings success for BBC
television, which seemed to suggest that audience figures hadassumed greater importance in the Corporation’s thinking. In 1985,press attacks on the BBC, led by withering editorials in The Times,resulted in the setting up of an inquiry into the Corporation’sfunding by the Peacock Committee. Its definition of public servicebroadcasting (PSB) identified eight key principles:
• availability to the whole population • relevance to all tastesand interests • provision for minorities, especially those who aredisadvantaged • a special relationship to the national identity •distance from vested interests
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• licence fee funding • aiming for quality rather than largeaudiences • a set of guidelines within which to work (Harrison2006: 227–8).
Despite the definitive terms in which the Peacock Committeereported to government (Peacock Committe 1986), its legacy lastedonly a short while. During his period as Director General, itallowed John Birt to be rel- atively resistant to populism and hisdiversion of funds into news and cur- rent affairs bolstered thepractice of journalism within the Corporation. However, Greg Dyke’sinstincts were rather different, and he was criticised for takingsome of the BBC’s television output downmarket. So the debatereignited early in the new millennium. Even during the recentperiod in which the BBC Charter was being reviewed (before beingextended for another ten years from 2007), there were loud callsfor Radio 1 to be priva- tised, funded from advertising and even tobe run by the state-owned tele- vision broadcaster Channel 4. Radio1, it was claimed, was one service that the market certainly couldprovide. Meanwhile, what had ‘the market’ – that is, the commercialsector – been doing?
The development of commercial radio in Britain
Despite the success of commercial radio in the United States andelsewhere, it was not until 1973 that ‘independent’ radio, as itwas called, launched in the United Kingdom, and even then only as alocal operation. This was the culmination of a long-fought campaignby those on the political right and a small number of entrepreneurskeen to profit from sound advertising on a relatively modestinvestment. Since 1927, the latter had been denied the chance tomake money out of radio, even though the medium proved to be bigbusiness in the United States. They were constantly reminded of theopportunity they were missing by the 7,000 or so commercialstations which were thriving on the far side of theAtlantic.Today’s talk of ‘spectrum pricing’, which means that everyfrequency on the broadcast radio bands has a value that someonecould realise, contrasts sharply with the twentieth- century notionof those frequencies as a scarce public resource. The conti- nentalstations of the 1930s and some of the offshore pirates of the 1960shad made considerable amounts of money out of radio. The logisticaldiffi- culties of broadcasting from foreign countries or the highseas had limited their profitability, but legal transmissions fromBritish soil seemed to promise easier profits, perhaps evenmatching those that had been made by the companies that hadlaunched ‘independent’ television. Some of the 1960s pirates hadcampaigned against the 1967 Marine
Broadcasting (Offences)Act,which was introduced to starve them ofadvertising,
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make it illegal to supply them from the mainland and preventBritish citizens from working for them, but they failed to mobiliseenough public support to defeat the legislation and most of thestations closed down just before the Act came into force. However,in 1970 a new Swiss-owned station, Radio Northsea International,ran a vigorous on-air campaign against the Labour government of thetime. Broadcasting during a closely- fought general election underthe name Radio Caroline International, it is thought to have swungsome key marginal constituencies in southeast England to theConservatives because it was the first time that under 21s had avote (Street 2002: 112). The Conservative Party’s manifestoincluded a clear commitment to introduce legal commercial radio (upto 60 stations), and its accession to power was a key moment in thehistory of radio in the United Kingdom – a victory for ideologuesand entrepreneurs alike.
‘Public service’ and news in the commercial context
Under the Sound Broadcasting Act 1972, Independent Local Radio(ILR) was given a public service duty analogous to that of the BBCto provide ‘material of range and balance’, including adequate news(Barnard 1989: 74–5). The first two stations, Capital Radio and theLondon Broadcasting Company (LBC), opened in London, but while theformer followed the prescription of the Act, the latter, whose fulltitle was LBC News Radio, was exceptionally required to supply themetropolis with an all-news and information service. For the otherlocal stations that would follow, LBC also operated a networkednews service, Independent Radio News (IRN), which was conceivedalong the lines of Independent Television News and which thestations were required to fund through an annual subsidy. The firstcommer- cial radio regulator, the Independent BroadcastingAuthority (IBA), would allow only the best resourced of the localstations to produce their own news: the others were obliged tobroadcast a live three-minute bulletin from IRN, followed by theirown local bulletins (Crisell and Starkey 2006: 19). The publicservice duty that was imposed on commercial radio soon
proved insupportable. Local stations lacked the money to provide‘material of range and balance’ that was of adequate quality.Moreover, such a duty was archaically premised on an era in whichradio, and not television, was the primary supplier of the public’sinformational and cultural needs. By forcing the stations to offera range of material, the IBA also reduced their income because theycould not deliver audiences that advertisers could clearlyidentify. There were other reasons why those great expectations ofinstant profits failed to materialise: national brands were slow toperceive the potential of advertising on a purely local medium. Itscoverage was at first limited to the larger conurbations – London,Birmingham, Manchester,
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Glasgow and Liverpool – and a handful of smaller cities and towns,such as Sheffield, Portsmouth and Swansea. In another ideologicaltussle, the Conservatives ceded power to Labour in 1974. Theincoming government, though disinclined to close down those ILRstations that had begun broad- casting and proved popular in theirown areas, prevented the fledgling net- work from expanding beyond19 stations and thus delayed by several years the development ofnational coverage.
Farewell to public service: the dawn of deregulation
The one thing that the stations could profitably broadcast was popmusic, and for the next ten years or more this was the element thatwas used to package all the other prescribed material – ‘meaningfulspeech’, news, reli- gious output and items of community interest.Merely to enable the stations to survive, the IBA was graduallyobliged to relax its grip. Against increasing competition frompirate operators, it allowed them to stream more of their outputand take programme sponsorship. Then at the end of the 1980s theywere encouraged to yield identifiable audiences to prospectiveadvertisers by splitting their frequencies, transmitting chartmusic on FM and, in most cases, golden oldies on AM.This was areaction to the IBA’s ‘use it or lose it’ decree, a hasty attemptto ensure that their previously simulcast services becamealternatives to each other. Only one, Liverpool’s Radio City, choseto assign its AM frequency to speech. As well as authorising thelaunch of stations at national and regional level,
the Broadcasting Act of 1990 at last relieved independent radio ofits resid- ual public service duty and allowed it to ‘chase themarket’: local stations were no longer obliged even to carry localnews (Radio Authority 1995: 13). Yet in practice many of thestations continued to broadcast news or some form of currentaffairs and still do. Between 1973 and 1991 Independent Radio Newsremained in the hands of LBC, but during the 1990s their con-nection was severed and IRN incurred competition from Network Newsand Reuters Radio News, whose clients included its own Londonstations and the national Virgin Radio. IRN’s current competitor isSky News Radio, later taken not only by Virgin but, ironically, byLBC on both its frequencies.
The survival of news and current affairs on commercial radio
If the general supply of broadcast news is more than equal todemand, and if the 1990 Broadcasting Act imposed no specificobligation on the indepen- dent stations to do so, why do most ofthem continue to carry news and current affairs in one form oranother? One answer is that since the staple
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diet of these stations is recorded music and recorded adverts, newsand cur- rent affairs provide, along with the presenters’ voices, asalutary reminder that radio is fundamentally a live medium – thatit differs from CDs and similar media in its potential forspontaneity, novelty and unpredictability. Moreover, not only isthe music broadcast by these stations not live, it is not local.Hence news and current affairs are also a means of affirming thelocal- ness – and at network level even the ‘nationalness’ – ofstations that other- wise carry little other than music of aderacinated, international character. The challenge for independentradio is how to distinguish such output from
the strong and traditional news and current affairs agenda of theBBC – and, indeed, how to make it as entertaining as the music forwhich most of its lis- teners have tuned in.The tendency of itsnews coverage has been to give more prominence to ‘human interest’stories and to expand into the associated areas of show businessand leisure. Classic FM, for instance, whose main aim is to adaptclassical music to the norms of popular culture (Crisell 1994:76–9), focuses on news of what is happening in the world of thearts and entertain- ment, while the news bulletins of Virgin Radio(which was rebranded in 2008) contain a large admixture of musicand sports items. In independent radio’s coverage of currentaffairs two trends are dis-
cernible. One is a shift from ‘political’ to softer issues. Theother is move away from the ‘broadcasterly’ modes of reportage anddocumentary to more audience-focused discussions. One of the firstof the national licences that were permitted by the 1990Broadcasting Act was for an all-speech station, perhaps on theassumption that the speech would consist of informed nar- rativeand debate about political and cultural matters. In the event, thelicence was awarded to Talk Radio UK, which launched in February1995. After an early and unsuccessful experiment with ‘shockjocks’, it later became Talk Radio and, from January 2000,talkSPORT. But talkSPORT and stations that mix music with arelatively high speech content, such as the regional chain brandedas ‘Century FM’, tend to offer demotic argument and gossip aboutcurrent issues rather than informed commentary and explanation.Studio guests who have a measure of knowledge or expertise aresometimes present, but while requiring research into the issuesthat might be discussed and those controversial aspects that willmove the dis- cussion along, the journalism needed for such contentdoes not involve much straight reportage, analysis or actuality.Century FM in northeast England, for instance, offers what it terms‘the Century Issue’, which is described on its website as:
An in-depth news feature focusing on topical issues facing peopleacross the North East. Tune in three times a day for a full roundup of listener reaction, opinions, texts and calls as the CenturyFM News Team takes you through all the day’s headlines.
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The primary focus here is on listeners – on what preoccupies them –rather than on the informers, who, it is promised, merely ‘take youthrough the headlines’ rather than descend into dry and detailedbackgrounding. And the listeners have a double stake in the contentbecause they can not only hear others like themselves expressingthe enthusiasms, anxieties and aversions that they share, but alsohave a multi-media opportunity to make their own contribution tothe discussion. Hence for independent radio, news is packaged notso much as a ‘mission to explain’ but as another form ofgratification that will capture and hold audiences, and thusadvertisers.
Other ways to skin the cat: radio, news and propaganda
The differences between the BBC and the independent sector areimpor- tant, but fortunately not matters of life and death. Theideological battle fought on British soil over what institutionalform radio should take con- trasts sharply with the way the mediumwas treated in a number of other countries. Since the firsttelegraphic messages of the Russian communists, radio’s potentialas a propaganda tool has been widely perceived. De Gaulle’sbroadcasts across the English Channel to France were countered bymisinformation transmitted back to Britain by the Nazis. Thisfeatured the voice of William Joyce, who became popularlycharacterised as ‘Lord Haw Haw’. But examples abound even inpeacetime. During the ‘Cold War’, which lasted from 1945 to 1990and followed the division of Europe into two armed camps, onesupported by the USA and the other by the Soviet Union, radio wasused as a propaganda tool on both sides of the divide (Starkey2007: 119–20). Propaganda is the antithesis of good journalism: itmasquerades as disinterested fact but is intended to serve aparticular ideo- logical purpose and we shall consider later underwhat circumstances, if any, it might be acceptable.
Radio journalism under the British broadcasting divide
We have seen that radio journalism has exploited technologicaladvance in order to fulfil a human need. Yet despite the ubiquityof print journalism at the beginning of the last century, itsdevelopment has been relatively slow. A combination of newspaperinterests and establishment conservatism delayed the integration ofjournalism with the newmedium of radio, but once ‘radio journalism’became established it proved more than capable of responding to ourneed for news and information about the world that lies beyond ourown experience.We have also noted how institutional factors andcompeting ideologies have ensured that contemporary radiobroadcasting is
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underpinned by two philosophies that are not simply different butfunda- mentally incompatible (Crisell 2006: 42). The first is the‘public service’ philosophy, which regards broadcasting as a commoncultural resource that should be as widely accessible as possibleand paid for by a tax on all own- ers of broadcast receivers (inthe United Kingdom, of television sets not radios). This philosophyis embodied in the BBC and its aim is to provide the broadest rangeof content, even that which might not be economically justified interms of the numbers who want it or could not otherwise afford it.The second philosophy, that of independent radio (and television),is that broadcasting is primarily a market whose products arebought and sold – sold by broadcasters and bought either byaudiences or advertisers. As we explore in greater depth the natureand practice of radio journalism, this philosophical divide willunderpin our discussion.
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