Why radio current affairs has a long, bright future
“News on the Radio”, said the American consultant breezily, “can never be more than a headline service”.
The speaker was billed as a radio ‘guru’ – a description which reminded me of the writer Francis Wheen’s definition of ‘guru’: a useful short word for people who can’t spell ‘charlatan’.
This guru had introduced herself to the seminar room by saying that she really appreciated the editions of AM, The World Today and PM that she had listened to.
But could she have listened to them at all?
For four decades the ABC’s Radio Current Affairs department has been giving people – even before it became the ABC’s News motto –“More Than The Headlines”.
PM had been on air in time for the first moon landing. It had charted the downfall of Prime Minister, the defeat of Billy McMahon, the rollercoaster ride of the Whitlam Government from 1972 -75, the Fraser years, the Hawke Ascendancy, the Hawke-Keating shootout (in a memorable three hour live broadcast), and the long struggle of John Howard to become and remain Prime Minister. It had done it in detail and it had done it with extended and often unforgettable interviews.
And here we were, being told that it could only ever be a headline service.
The advice the consultant offered was also about ‘personalising’ the news: for reporters and presenters to ‘relate’ each story to incidents in their own lives; not to be shy about their own opinions; to engage and involve the listener with their own opinions and personal experiences.
We were given this advice a few years ago; still the dawning, really, of the new media era.
And it seems to me in retrospect that our response – to reject most of what was recommended— was pretty crucial to the survival of PM to its fortieth year and may well stand us in good stead for a few more years to come.
Why? Because of one word: ‘authority’.
Broadcasting in the sixties, when PM started, was nothing if not authoritative.
Actors and announcers read the news in plummy tones – the emphasis was on a version of truth which almost seemed handed down from on high.
PM made a big dent in that perception, with journalists, people of genuine on-the-ground experience, reading their own scripts and doing their own interviews.
But its authority still came to a large degree from its monopoly position.
That’s because it was the only source you could turn to at 6 in the evening to tell you, not just what had happened, where, when and to whom, but also why.
PM had the telexes bringing in world news, and the ABC’s network of bureaux interstate and overseas.
You either listened to it – and watched TDT on the television – or you just waited for the next day’s paper.
None of that’s true any more, as we all know.
You can find out all about Michael Jackson’s death within minutes of the official announcement – or be getting descriptions of demonstrations in Tehran on Twitter even as they happen.
So we have to give people reasons to listen to us, not just to go searching on the internet.
And I argue that there are still two really strong reasons for listening to PM – whether you do so on a wireless, a digital radio, streaming on the net or as a podcast.
They are, first, that the web is a huge and chaotic place, even for news, and you may well want someone to guide you through it with a convenient package of material from an Australian perspective at the end of the day: and second, that when you do go looking for that package you will only trust it to come into your car or your living room or your earphones on a regular basis if it is trustworthy.
So that brings us back to the Authority word.
We no longer have authority automatically, by right of being the only game in town.
We have to earn it, and oddly enough the way to do that turns out in my view to be the old-fashioned way – rejecting the personalising and opinion-pushing version of news, and sticking to the facts, combined with solid story-telling.
It means understanding the difference between comment and analysis, and leaving the comment to the people we interview, while our reporters and presenters try to bring their experience to bear on the analysis.
I could see this lesson in operation when I was in hospital recently with too little to do and I joined Twitter.
I didn’t have many followers, as they’re called, until I started posting about Iran. I was there myself 29 years ago, and I’ve maintained an interest. Mostly I posted links to stories elsewhere in the media, while adding notes about their significance.
Over the subsequent weeks, hundreds of people started following me.
People were putting up messages suggesting I was worth following because I was insightful and well-informed.
After the first few days, the usefulness of the twitter posts from Iran had dropped because Government agents were using the same platform to put out black propaganda.
Suddenly, people wanted help knowing who to trust
My audience had boomed – because apparently I had credibility, from my twitter posts, and from writing blog posts like the one you’re reading now.
But the lesson I learned was that credibility has to be earned rather than just conferred.
So I don’t believe the doomsayers who doubt that current affairs radio has a future.
Even in the blogosphere, people need original reporting to blog about.
We have that reporting
We also have the experience, and we have the technology.
It’s never good to be complacent – but I think PM can continue to earn its credibility in the changing marketplace – and may now be able to look hopefully towards its fiftieth.
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