In 1998, as part of his A-level English coursework, then-budding broadcast journalist Stuart Clarkson recorded and analysed news bulletins from 8 different radio stations.
As the 15th anniversary of his recordings approached, he dug them out for Radio Today and has recorded the same stations again, 15 years to the minute later….
It’s approaching 5pm on Friday 28th August 1998 and in every room of the house where I grew up there’s a radio-cassette machine on “record-pause”, ready to spring into life. Jump forward exactly 15 years and I’m sat in the lounge watching CBeebies with my kids, fingers crossed that 2013’s technology will do the hard work for me. This time I won’t be sprinting round the house un-pausing the tape recorders, nor will I have to spent the next few hours dubbing 8 separate tapes recordings onto a single master!
The kit we use may have moved on considerably in 15 years, but this week’s exercise has shown me that many radio stations’ news output hasn’t actually changed that much.
Back in ’98, about to start the final year of my A-level courses, I was already doing the evening show on my local radio station in Skipton, Yorkshire Dales Radio, and had decided I wanted to go on to university to train as a Broadcast Journalist. So when, as part of my English Language studies, I needed to pick a case study on the targeted use of language for different audiences, radio news bulletins seemed the obvious choice. I was perhaps a little over-ambitious thinking I could compare bulletins from 8 different stations and keep within the 4,500 word limit. In the end, I analysed two significantly different news summaries – from BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2. Fortunately I didn’t wipe the other six recordings and kept them for posterity, as well as giving them passing mention in the coursework. For the write-up, I looked at the style, language, structure and story selection of the two bulletins, with a focus on how well each met the needs of its target audience.
Click here if you’d like to read my A-level coursework project, and/or read on below for the 2013 update!
At some point, I’d transfered the cassette recording of the 28-08-98 bulletins to minidisc and it was only when I was then ripping all my old minidiscs to mp3 last year when I came across the MD with them on. 2013 would be 15 years on and I had the idea to record the same stations again at 5pm, creating a snapshot of news not dissimilar to the way the 7 Up TV series looks at a set of individuals and how their lives have changed over a period of time.
And so that’s the back story to the audio that follows. Thanks to the excellent RadioRecorder.co.uk I was able to get the internet to do the hard work for me, leaving me to just listen and compare. In 1998 I was more focussed on the news bulletin itself but some of the recordings do include a link/ident before and after – for the 2013 recordings I’ve included the furniture around the news.
While the original project compared bulletins across the different stations, here I’m comparing 1998 with 2013 so it’s less about the story selection and language – more about how the duration, local story count, reading style and format have changed (or not!)….
BBC Radio 1
Clive Warren introduces Jane Bolger. It’s a very quick read; mainly copy reads with a couple of snappy bits of audio that need no in-lines. Production values are high – lots of FX and bed changes. Sports reader Frances Collings. Trails for The Net and Newsbeat at 5.45pm.
Greg James introduces Nomia Iqbal. The read feels much slower than 1998. Copy stories are longer than they were 15 years ago. The whole bulletin is more like a trail for what’s coming up in the 15-minute Newsbeat programme at 5.45pm than a news summary. No separate sports reader in 2013’s 5pm update.
BBC Radio 2
Ed Stewart is the DJ reading a top-of-hour script you’ll recognise, and that news jingle sounds very familiar – it’s not been gone long! Tim Gudgin off of the football results reading the bulletin. It’s a very traditional BBC read – slow, clear and full of voice pieces, which make it drag somewhat. Actuality clips have long-winded in-lines. The bulletin matches the Radio 2 of the time – quite a bit less youthful than it is now. And we finish with another familiar jingle (that new sonic logo hasn’t made us forget the old ones just yet!) into John Dunn at the start of drivetime.
Patrick Kielty is sitting in for Wrighty on The Big Show. It’s a similar jock read into the news jingle – some things never change! Instantly you recognise the Voice of the Balls, Radio 2 stalwart Alan Dedicoat – one of the great news announcers of all time in my opinion. There’s warmth in the voice and scripts are brought to life with a human tone and a pace that adapts to fit each story. Yet it still maintains the trusted BBC sound and is as clear and easy to understand as the news could ever be. We’ve still got the three short headlines as in 1998, which appear in Radio 2’s longer news summaries at breakfast and drive. And we’ve still got two voice pieces – including on the showbiz ‘and finally’ story where a copy story would probably have sufficed. A familiar pay-off from Deadly and we’re into a production-heavy opener for Simon Mayo’s drive show – making clear the difference between what we’re about to hear and what you would have got in ’98.
BBC Radio 4
We start with the pips and the openers for PM, presented by Chris Lowe and Claire English. Nice present tense openers with good audio. Then into the news bulletin with the legendary Brian Perkins, which is only 90 seconds in duration and a copy-only summary. Most of the wording is similar to the Radio 2 bulletin (GNS), although a few of the sentences have been turned round to make the copy read in a more snappy way. It sounds less ‘Radio 4’ than the Radio 2 news!
Continuity announcer introduces PM with Eddie Mair and then into the pips. Very snappy start to the opener with just 5 words then into a clip. Lots of ‘we’, ‘you’, and ‘I’ – I almost need to check whether this is actually a commercial radio station I’m listening to! Even a sound effect to bring something to life a bit more! Howard Philpott has the news, and it’s quite different to 15 years ago. Just over 4 minutes in length. Six stories – three of them with correspondent voice pieces. It’s a well-read bulletin but that that time of day it would be good to increase the story count rather than pad items out with long reporter explainers.
BBC Radio Leeds
Pips, then an ident for the programme – “BBC Radio Leeds Newswatch, with Ian Timms” – in a donut bed. Note the voice over on the ident – it’s Alan Dedicoat (who in my 2013 recordings is the Radio 2 news announcer!). Ian’s openers are concise and well-read. Into the news bulletin and it’s Radio Leeds stalwart Clive Settle. We start with the same Andrew Harding voice piece used by Radio 2, albeit with a changed cue. There’s then a further six reporter/correspondent pieces, making seven in total in an 8 minute bulletin. And just one piece of actuality – a national clip on the adoption story. Eleven stories in all, five of them local to West Yorkshire. I can’t help thinking the story about changes to Bradford’s school system, with 76 closures, should have been a bit higher. These days it’s a great lead for a BBC local radio station, but in 1998 it’s way down the running order in 9th – after national items and local crime. After the news there’s two and a half minutes of sport (including a live report from the cricket), then we’re into a station promo which ends with a different (newer) jingle to the one at the start of the hour.
Skip forward 15 years and the big news is… Clive Settle is again reading the news! The drive programme tonight is presented by Johnny I’Anson (covering for Andrew Edwards). The openers for the hour have happened in the run up to 5pm (we hear the tail end of them in this recording), and after the England-wide BBC Local imaging, we get the pips and an introduction of the newsreader. Clive sounds as competent and clear as he did in 1998 and if anything comes across as more chatty/warm/friendly. The change to the bulletin structure and style from 15 years ago is very noticeable though. Just 3min20sec instead of 8 minutes. Seven stories in total (one double-clipped). But only two of the stories are local (Rothwell murder and Leeds Festival death – although there’s also a ‘local’ add on clip on Syria). Only one reporter piece this time, and three actuality clips- much improved from 1998 in that respect. Clive doesn’t do the sport in 2013 – there’s a separate sports news reader (Adam Pope) to do that. Only 1min20sex of sport and, like 1998, there’s a live cricket report. After sport there’s weather – a pre-recorded bit with Paul Hudson – followed by the presenter saying Paul will be ‘live in the studio’ shortly with a full forecast, making clear the short update wasn’t live! Then we get the menu of what’s coming up and, after some more production, into the programme’s top story.
Virgin 1215/Absolute Radio
The ident tells us it’s ‘From Sky’. It sounds very much like an IRN bulletin you might expect these days, read dry. The news is 2 minutes in duration, then the same newsreader (David Nicholl) does a minute of sport and the weather, both with beds underneath. A quick ident and then we’re back to the music after less than 3 and a half minutes away.
The top of hour into the news is built into a promo for the next show (Geoff Lloyd). Greg Burke is the newsreader this time round and the bulletin is read over a bed. Just one actuality clip and the other stories are all copy only. It’s a 90 second news bulletin, followed by 30 seconds of sport (2 pieces of copy) then the weather. There’s an opener for Geoff Lloyd’s Hometime show then again we’re back to the music within 3 and a half minutes since the start of the news.
Galaxy 105/Capital Yorkshire
Short and snappy as you’d expect from Galaxy – all done within 90 seconds. No namecheck for the newsreader. There are seven copy stories, two of them regional (both Sheffield). Three court stories seems a bit odd in the format and the way they’re written could have been more concise “A teenager who put the lives of motorists and coach passengers in peril by hurling missiles on them from a bridge was ordered to be detained for three years at the Old Bailey today” sounds like something out of a regional TV news programme not a trendy dance station for young people. I’d have gone with “A 16 year old who threw bricks at traffic from a bridge has been locked up for three years.” We finish with a sport and an entertainment story, as you’d expect.
Skip forward 15 years and it’s still a 90 second update, with Lisa Allison. There’s now a headline to open with an ident before the full bulletin starts – just like Radio 1 does in its normal short Newsbeat updates. The story count is down from seven to five – but we’ve now got three regional items instead of two (Leeds Festival death, Bridlington driving death, arrest over Thorpe death). Again we end with entertainment news (Miley Cyrus/Kanye West collaboration). The writing style is fresher and better than the Galaxy bulletin from 1998 – and fits better with the Capital brand. After the news and weather, there’s a punchy Capital ident and top of hour link from presenter Tom Green before we’re back to the music.
Matt Cain introduces Richard Purvis with a 2 minute bulletin. Seven stories, two of them with audio. Three are local – including the lead on the Bradford schools changes that Radio Leeds had way down the running order. The read is clear and strong, perfect speed for the format. Copy stories are short and snappy with only the detail needed. After the news there’s travel with Metro Networks’ Darren Townsend then a jingle and straight back to the music.
Billed in the jingle as 90-second news. If we’re being picky it’s 8 seconds over! Erica Barker is the newsreader. Just five stories in the news, two of them local. One piece of phono audio (a local councillor). Neither of the two local stories feature in Radio Leeds’ 2013 bulletin. Serious car crashes don’t tend to make radio news bulletins these days and the councillor story seems very one-sided from a (presumably opposition) councillor. The newsreader isn’t the most natural reader and sounds like she’s reading everything word for word not telling me the story. Presenter Jacqui Blay does the weather then a quick jingle and we’re back to the music.
Yorkshire Dales Radio (IRN+Local)/Stray FM
Here’s where we get the most significant change in format. Yorkshire Dales Radio (later Fresh) is now part of Harrogate-based Stray FM. In 1998 the station ran IRN with a local news add-on. In 2013, Stray does a combined national/local bulletin – although it’s only fair to point out that for the last 10 years or so of its life, Fresh did combined bulletins too!
Jane Dancer is the IRN newsreader with a 3 minute bulletin. After the Russia story, IRN goes second with Ruud Gullit’s first appearance as Newcastle United manager – strangely high up in the running order. Good reader – authoritative and easy to understand. Then it’s the Yorkshire Dales Radio local news – Nick Morris is the newsreader. His intonation isn’t great, although the voice is clear. The copy and cues are very long – only four stories in 3 mins 25secs! Two of them have 20s phono clips, which could have been edited better. After the news, the weather from presenter Becky Hall (including jingles and sponsor credits) takes up another 45 seconds so it’s gone 5.07pm before we’re back to the music.
After the news jingle, presenter James Stanley introduces newsreader Sophie Metcalfe who opens with a tease for a story coming up later. News is just under 3 minutes and has seven stories – three of them local ones (Knaresborough teenager arrest, Leeds-Bradford airport new routes and improvements to Skipton crematorium). There are two national clips on the top story and one other national clip, plus one local clip. Sport is read by the newsreader and 1 minute in duration (with a clip). The presenter does the weather then goes into an hour opener promoting a competition coming up, before a sung jock ID. Sophie is a clear newsreader, easy to understand and follow. She just stumbles over her words at the end of the sport – but that happens to us all!
To get a bulletin similar to the Yorkshire Dales Radio 1998 one, I recorded Drystone Radio – a community radio station covering parts of the North/West Yorkshire border. The station takes IRN and does a local add-on so I figured it may be more comparable with the ’98 Yorkshire Dales Radio bulletins….
2013 IRN + Local on Drystone Radio (community):
First thing to notice is that the start of the bulletin is cut off (Should say “From the Sky News Centre at 5..”). The IRN bulletin is well-read by Andy Hayes, and packed with a mix of copy and audio stories. It’s now just a 2 minute bulletin, rather than the 3 minutes it used to be in 1998. The final entertainment story sees a change in the reading style as the newsreader “talks” the story rather than reads it – he almost sounds like a presenter rather than a newsreader. (Maybe he was distracted looking at the clock to make sure he ended on time?). And then the local Drystone Radio news – Chris Bell is the newsreader and it’s not great I’m afraid. The stressed words and pauses are in the wrong places. The whole bulletin is a copy ready with no audio. Stories quote direct speech – they’re written like newspaper reports rather than a radio news stories. Copy is long – just three stories in the 2mins 15secs. The first is about a public meeting in six days time, while the third is about an event over two weeks away. The middle story may well breach Ofcom rules as it mentions a business (Eclipse health club) twice (even encouraging people to call in to buy a copy of the book mentioned) as well as plugging another website and amazon.co.uk. The book is raising money for charity, but it still sounds more like an advert than a news piece.
It was an interesting exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the 15 year old bulletins and their modern day equivalents. Some things change, some things don’t. The perceived reduction in local content in local radio news isn’t necessarily a reality – in Capital Yorkshire’s case these snapshots show an increase in local content rather than the reverse. Even with the same excellent newsreader, BBC Radio Leeds sounds a lot more modern today than 15 years ago – mainly down to the imaging, a snappier writing style and less of a reliance on voice pieces. Radio 1 doesn’t sound as pacy, and while Radio 2’s content hasn’t changed much it sounds fresher and younger because of the imaging and newsreading style.
Predictions welcome for how these stations’ news will sound in the year 2028!!
Stuart Clarkson is freelance journalist and broadcaster and has worked for stations including BBC Radio 5 live, Smooth Radio, Real Radio, Hereward FM, 2BR, Yorkshire Dales Radio/Fresh and Stray FM. He is a Radio Academy Awards judge and a former Editor of Radio Today. Follow him on Twitter at @stuartclarkson