Should presenters live near their station?
RadioToday’s Stuart Clarkson considers whether it really matters if you don’t live in the TSA you broadcast to.
“I genuinely wish David all the best.. and a safe drive in from St Albans of a morning.”
Miaow. You can see the point Howard Bentham was trying to make about his forthcoming show swap with David Prever at BBC Radio Oxford – but is it really that relevant in 2017?
David, like many broadcasters these days, gets about a bit and appears on stations all over the south. He’s worked all across the country too during his long and very successful career. But for all of us who’ve whored ourselves from station to station – whether jocks, journos, programmers, engineers or sales execs – I guess there comes a point when you simply can’t up-sticks and move your family again, especially when you’ve got school-aged kids.
I know of many local radio breakfast show presenters who drive an hour or more to get to the studio every morning. At least you beat the traffic going that early, eh?
There’s an argument that says you might take the main road into town (or to the industrial estate on the outskirts of town), sit in front of a mic for a few hours and then get back in the car and head straight back out of the patch to your next gig of the day – or just straight back home. How can you possibly know what the big local issues are that your audience care about?
Well, you could start by knowing who your audience are and having a relationship with them (not like that). The world’s gone social, and radio today is about connections rather than just opening a mic and ‘talking at’ anyone who’s tuned in. Sadly, too many local radio presenters still haven’t grasped this.
And then there’s money. A seasoned local radio presenter tells me: “For the freelancer, there’s been huge wage and show fee deflation over recent years. It’s no longer practical to move every time a new opportunity arises. If you don’t have commitments it’s easier to move around the country, but with a young family it’s just not practical to pack up and move on every year or so.”
This is a recurring theme with others I’ve been talking to as well. “In my career I’ve moved to pretty much every major city in the UK (and some shitty little ones) all for a radio gig to follow the dream,” writes another former colleague. “I immersed myself in those cities and then when the gig ended had to uproot my life again. With the state of radio now, why would I risk moving my life for something that won’t last?”
And what if you do a breakfast show in one county, drivetime in another and a weekend show in a third? Do you need a bedsit in each TSA? As one correspondent put it to me: “Stop at any motorway service station and you’ll see a line of radio folk queuing for a cheap sandwich deal before a snooze in a layby. We’re like travelling circus folk, pitching tents wherever they’ll have us.”
Steve Martin on Twitter suggests: “You don’t have to live locally but you do have to enter the same field of reference as the audience.” He’s spot on.
As is the BBC Local Radio broadcaster who told me: “You don’t have to live across the road from your listener to get inside their head, and reflect upon the problems they face; health, transport, education, bin collections etc. Local knowledge doesn’t have to mean living locally. One great story, delivered well, about something you’ve seen or overheard on the patch, can make up for the fact that you might go to sleep somewhere else each night.”
In commercial radio the focus over the last decade or so has switched from where your studio is to what comes out of the speakers. Ofcom’s ‘approved areas’ are still a thing (for now) but are set to disappear in the next wave of deregulation. A few years ago your studio had to be in the TSA. But back then you needed to be in the patch to see the local newspapers’ stories, get press releases in the post from the local constabulary and hear about traffic problems from jamline callers. Now we have social media, web-based SMS consoles and phone systems, even virtual playout systems. We can be anywhere, and we can know what’s going on by flicking through a few push alerts on the home screen of our smartphones. Radio also has to remember that most listeners will now get school closure information in a text message from the school, or find out about that big road crash not from the radio but from one of the many Facebook pages for their area. Don’t get me wrong – I believe local radio still has a vital role to play in our industry. But it’s not the same role it had for the first 20-30 years of ILR.
Remember when the floods in 2012 meant none of Radio Exe’s presenters could get to the studio on a Sunday? Heart Devon’s presentation that day was coming from London but the team at Leicester Square did as much coverage as a locally-based jock would have done – thanks to technology. Even a local independent or community station with the smallest of budgets can beat the bigger boys in times of emergency just by having its playout system set up to pull in audio created on location and synced via Dropbox. With further deregulation of local commercial radio on the horizon, using technology to its full potential will be essential if local radio is to survive.
For me, being a decent local radio presenter or reporter is less about living in the TSA and far more about making sure you have a good connection with it. Getting out and meeting real people; having a drink or Sunday lunch in local pubs; reading the letters page in the local paper (or its online version); being an active member in local Facebook groups; checking out local places on Google Maps and Street View; knowing how to pronounce place names correctly; interacting with relevant local organisations and individuals on Twitter; listening to your own station when you’re not on it.
Or you could even come clean with the audience like Matt Jamison: “I once made a feature of being the new boy to the area which engaged with the audience. I think honesty with a radio listener pays huge dividends if the format allows.”
What’s key in all of this is content. If you want to win at local radio, you need content (local or otherwise) that’s relevant to your listeners and their lives. It doesn’t matter where your studio is, where your newsreader is, or whether your mid-morning jock has ever even been within 50 miles of your TSA in the last year (Hello, Toby!). Nor does it make much difference where your breakfast presenter’s home is.