Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

It is time for commercial radio to embrace the web

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 19, 2009

Newspapers, television and radio – the rule is simple: embrace the internet or die.

Newspapers were the first to feel the cold breeze of death standing nearby. Now papers from the Guardian right down to local titles run regularly updated websites, often complemented with video coverage.

The BBC has embraced it with much gusto across both TV and radio. From the groundbreaking (and bandwith-breaking) iPlayer to the Editors Blogs to Scott Mill’s daily podcast.

But commercial radio – not for the first time – is standing on edge of the swimming pool, tentatively dipping its toes in, while the others are doing underwater cartwheels. Visit any local commercial radio website and it is distinctively web 1.0. The focus is “what comes out of the speakers.”

But new communities are forming. People don’t just make connections with the box in the corner of the kitchen anymore.

As a whole, and as individual groups and stations, radio needs to act. Now.

What can it do? Well the wonderful world of web 2.0 offers a whole host of options and ideas for the digital prospector; here are a few. For as many as possible I have tried to include real examples.

Local news

This is the first and the most obvious web option. But news editors across the land please don’t just copy and paste 3 line cues onto the web. It doesn’t make the viewers journey there worthwhile, and you don’t write online text like you write radio cues. If this isn’t an option, at least take the time to remove radio-isms like spelled out numbers, typos, pronunciation guides and the word “sez”. Here’s an example of how Real Radio do it in Wales.

Presenter blogs

A well maintained and updated blog can create a new channel for presenters to connect with their listeners. It can reveal the ‘off air’ side to their life, and make listeners feel a closer connection. Features and competitions can be plugged too.

Newsroom blogstwitterscreenshot

The same thing goes for a newsroom blog. A chance to show what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ of the daily newsroom operation. Appeals for stories and interviewees could turn it into a goldmine. Similarly it must be regularly updated, and must use platforms like WordPress to ensure a Google ranking, tags, meta data and comments.  Mercia FM in Coventry were an early adopter. Sadly the blog looks abandoned since October, and it didn’t contain any RSS feed.

Presenter twitter

Tweeting during shows gives followers the inside scoop on what’s going on in the studio. Most of all it gives listeners a free way to respond to on air elements. Text revenue might take a hit, but interaction will boost. It works particularly well on ‘getting-the-listener-to-suggest-ideas’ features. According to the Media UK twitter table, Radio 2 DJ Jonthan Ross has 106,000 followers and Chris Moyles has 66,000. There are more than 164 radio presenters registered.

Playlist twitter

An automated system can tell music fans what your station is playing now and next. Imagine if you just saw your favourite song was about to be played on XYZ FM. Wouldn’t you click on a link to listen online? Q-Radio based in London have their own playlist twitter-feed.

Podcasts!

The only reason these haven’t become a stable of commercial radio, like they have with BBC radio, is resources. In honesty though, making podcasts is so much fun, it’s hard to see why programmers aren’t gagging to put in an extra hours work once a week.

webspecialscreenshotOnline specials and archive

Big events and news stories should be given their own specific pages, with background information, extra facts, audio downloads and advice on where to go next. Key 103 in Manchester has developed an excellent page on cervical cancer in response to Jade Goody’s terminal diagnosis.

Audio slideshows

I believe this is a massive growth area for radio news. Practically it’s not possible to send a reporter out with both a microphone and a video camera and hold them both. But a small digital camera plus some cheap Slide Show technology can give your station the edge when a big story rolls round, and create something memorable.

Online video

For the reasons mentioned above this will likely remain a rareity. But it shouldn’t be disregarded altogether. Radio Aire in Leeds produced a report on the Karen Matthews case as the verdict was announced.

Traffic mashups

trafficscreenshot

Connect your traffic and travel data with google maps and show your listeners where the snarl ups are. The CN Group started this in 2008 and it looks great.

Web chats

A big issue affecting your listeners? Get an expert in to answer questions, during a live webchat. As well as giving presenters something to talk about it gives your station an authority over a particular issue.  At Viking FM we got a local financial expert to answer questions from listeners on the credit crunch. Lots of on air plugs and we got a good response.

Online polls

Thankfully this obvious way of generating original news content is being used all over the shop. In my previous life, working at Touch Radio, I used to run a daily news poll on the big issue of the day and run the results as an add-on to the story in the 5pm news.

A design overhaul

As I mentioned radio websites are “sooo web 1.0” and aren’t designed to be platforms for large amounts of media and meta data. They need to be far more accessible and designed to operate in Mozilla and Google Chrome, not just Internet Explorer. A look at just some of the free WordPress templates floating around shows just how much there is to improve.

Turn listener communities into virtual communities

Imagine if listeners could register on your station website and set up their own profile? They could build their own community of fans of a particular show, swap pictures, get heads up on competitions and all that.

Facebook bonuses

The next best thing for this is to create an effective, regular and well run Facebook community. Thinking outside the box reaps rewards too. After launching a Facebook campaign to save a presenter from suspension, Viking FM then gave everyone who’d joined the group free entry to a local nightclub. Even before the nightclub announcement more than 3,000 people had joined.

Just a taste of the sheer numbers of people out there – if stations would just reach out and touch.

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The Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 16, 2009

They almost always catch you unawares, put your and your newsroom under pressure…but as James Cridland blogged recently, emergency situations are when local radio comes into its own.

In July 2007, drying myself off from the floods, I remember telling myself to put together a guide to how to cope. But I never got round to it, and the next thing the city I was working in was evacuated after a major bomb scare; then there was a plane crash…and in the last few weeks Britain has seen the harshest winter in 18 years.

So how should radio news teams respond? Here’s some tips; journos – feel free to add your own.

floods-generic

Radio Emergency Survival Guide

Have emergency numbers close at hand

Don’t waste valuable time looking up the fire services press officer’s mobile number online. Have it in a book or on a sheet – with all the other emergency numbers you’ll need – for every district of your patch.

Make sure you have numbers for other reporters, presenters etc.

Rope in office staff

During the 2007 floods I couldn’t get out of the office to do my job for hours because so many listeners were calling in with, or asking for, information. If you’re drowning in calls, ask a senior office person to direct sales, admin and programming staff to take all the calls.

It helps if at some point during the year they’re briefed on what details to get from the public.

Use the “drive line”

The other busy phone line, especially in weather emergencies, is the drive-line or traffic line. Ask the on air presenter to save any calls they record. Cut these into a montage to lead your bulletins. It sounds real, edgy and gets listeners on the air (click here for a recent example).

Be prepared for school closures

You’ll also get lots of calls from schools telling you they’re closed or closing imminently. It’s one of local radio’s big jobs to pass on this information,  so make sure you keep an accurate list and pass it on to presenters. Each school should give you a unique DFES number to avoid hoaxers and, in some counties, a password.

Get a good information system going

In large scale weather emergencies/natural disasters it’s easy to drown in the sea of information coming in. So make sure you’re prepared to have a good system to record it all. Keep school closures on a board. Use a map to plot what areas are worst affected.

Use new media

At the very least someone should be putting school and road closures on the website, and any other important info. Have you thought about using Twitter to do it too? What about Google maps?

If possible, don’t network

When the shit hits the fan, now’s not the time to switch to networked programming from another city. Keep a presenter and journalist local to regularly insert information. Your listeners will thank you for it.

Book hotel

If transport is going to be a problem – such with flooding – someone should be booking hotel rooms for key staff. That’s usually the breakfast presenters, producers and newsreaders.

Use your resources

Small news teams, and hubbed news teams, covering a big, unprecedented event, is a stretch. It’s tempting to send reporters out into the patch, but be sensible. You need more people at base, making phone calls, check information and getting interviews to air quickly. While it’s important to get quality and colour audio on air, this really only massages ego in the battle with the competition. Bring in any local work experience people-now could be their time to shine.

Remember safety

If you’re out in a difficult situation remember your safety. Apparently the BBC advises reporters to keep away from flood water. Don’t cross police lines unless you have permission.

Get names and numbers

Anyone you interview while you’re out – get their name, get their phone number. You’ll want to go back to them in a week, a month, a year to follow their story.

Think big

Although resources are stretched and you’re all under pressure, now’s the time to think big. I’m talking two-ways, extended bulletins, ambitious packages, music montages – anything to show you’re listener this is a unique event and you’re pulling out all the stops. In the 2007 floods, Touch Radio ran extended programmes at 1 and 6. With just an hours notice I was asked to record a 2-way and cut a package from the waters edge. It was a race, but it sounded great.

Work as a team

Share information with presenters and visa versa. You’re all in it together.

Give 110%

In March 2008, an unexploded WW2 bomb was found right in the centre of Coventry. It was very close to our studios, which was initially great- I was the first radio reporter on the scene. But within minutes, police had set up a corden, and when it widened, our studios were closed.

The station – 96.2 Touch Radio – was put to network and special programming came from our sister station in Stratford. However it closed the region’s newshub – and news bulletins for all 6 stations in the group had to go on hold.

It left 4 journalists with not much to do. We could have all gone home; but we stayed, conducted interviews, filed live phone reports to the network. Late in the evening it appeared the cordon would remain overnight, and could even mean we wouldn’t be allowed back into the building in time to produce breakfast news bulletins.

We crashed at the closest home to the city centre, finally getting to sleep at about 1am. At 4am we got up and checked with the police – the cordon was finally being lifted. 2 of us headed back and joined 2 breakfast readers who’d just gotten in.  And somehow, with just 90 minutes and no preparation, we produced news bulletins for 6 radio stations, including a special report for the Coventry station.

For 3 of us, it worked out as a 30 hour day. There’s no room for slackers on days like these.

Have I missed anything? Covered a story like this yourself? The comments box is right down here…

When bi-media newsrooms go too far

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 11, 2009

There’s always been praise for bi-media newsrooms. Multiskilled journalists supplying for TV, radio and online.

And I agree, it’s a valid cost cutting measure.

What isn’t acceptable though – in my opinion – is the taking of this concept to the extreme and playing TV packages out on radio.

I’ve heard it done a couple of times on BBC local radio,  and you can tell because the report you hear in the news at 1, is the same as you see in the news at 1.30.

Why isn’t it acceptable? Because TV and Radio are their own seperate arts. TV requires tight scripting to pictures. Radio requires good writing to explain complex stories.

And you end up hearing lines like “as you can see behind me” or “this is the moment two robbers were caught on CCTV.” Not to mention gaps of natural sound which are used to punctuate TV reports.

Simply: get a journalist to produce 1 piece for 2 separate mediums…and both mediums suffer.

Journalists: make the most of your network

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2009

Just wanted to share a cool story treatment we tried out at Viking FM last week – which shows the power of using your wider network.

Viking is part of the UK wide ‘Big City Network‘  with stations from Manchester to Liverpool to Sheffield. It gives us a formidable pool of excellent content when big stories break.

Last week it was our turn to share, as a small walkout in North-East Lincolnshire (in the southern half of our patch) became a national workers’ strike. I spent Thursday morning at the picket line between the police and the protesters.

I’ve covered many protests, but this one had a real anger to it. It was like something out of the “Winter of Discontent”.

The next day, as the strikes turned national, we were able to call on sister stations in Teeside and Edinburgh where construction workers were walking out.

The result was this ‘tour of the UK’ style package at 1 o’clock which took our listeners to different picket lines in just over a minute.

Click here to have a listen.

It was sent and broadcast to other stations across the UK too, and really shows the importance of a well used network.

Of course the internet these days provides journalists with an almost unlimited network of people to link up with.

Local radio: out come the knives

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on January 29, 2009

If you don’t follow the ins and outs of commercial radio in the UK (why would you?!) you probably won’t be familiar with one of the big trends which has upset the industry…

…merging and networking.

Where years ago there were dozens of radio companies running the 70+ local radio stations, now there are about five.

More radio is produced off-site and piped in. News is more increasingly being produced and read outside the local station, a system known as hubbing.

The most controversial bit of networking’s come from the company Global, who recently bought up dozens of local stations and, to save some cash, changed all their names to Heart.

Each station has a locally produced breakfast show, but the rest…well, you might as well be in London.

And that’s played into the hands of their rivals, who are keen to capitalise on the loss of local content.

Here’s a promo running on the alternative station Jack FM in Oxfordshire. It’s local rival Fox FM has recently joined the Global Network, with much content coming in from London (although it’s name hasn’t changed yet).

And they’re certainly cutting close to the bone – click here to listen.

On the flip side, according to this week’s listening figures, Fox FM have a 10% share of the audience. Jack FM have a 3.8% share.

A quick disclaimer: a couple of years ago I did a bit of freelancing at Jack FM’s sister station Oxford’s FM107.9 – they are a very talented group of people who serve their audience particularly well, and probably deserve to be a bit smug.

Local radio doing video content

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on December 9, 2008

Following on from – and in fact contrary to – my post a few weeks ago about online content on local radio websites.

I wrote local radio is lagging behind in terms of the quality of web content.

Here’s a good example of stations making it work – Bauer Radio’s Radio Aire (Leeds) produced a video report for the verdict in the Karen Matthews trial in the UK.

Journalists at the station – and others in the Big City Network – were able to throw listeners to it to enhance their coverage of the sensational trial.

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BBC local TV plans stopped (or maybe just paused)

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 21, 2008

BBC Local TV paused? Or Stopped?

BBC Local TV paused? Or Stopped?

So after speculation earlier this week, the BBC Trust confirmed today plans to launch 65 new local websites have been scrapped.

From a practicing broadcast journalist (and fan of video journalism) point of view, I think it’s disappointing. The potential for hundreds of new jobs in the market’s been lost.

I also agree with Roy Greenslade’s aside, that the BBC has made a mistake in not realising broadband is the future.

The local competition (newspapers and radio) are hailing it as a great victory – they claimed it would threaten their services.

This one is tricky though.

I get edgy when commercial outfits complain the BBC is a threat because of the size of its wallet. If you’ve got the ideas, and the talent (you don’t neccessarily have to pay through the nose for that) then money doesn’t matter. Papers particularly have the enviable contacts.

But their VJ offerings aren’t great. Getting written hacks to create decent VJ pieces hasn’t yet provided any gems.

Most of all, the the chance for diversification has been lost.

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Can local radio succeed online?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 13, 2008

Well, ask Andrew Harrison at the Radio Centre in this week’s Radio Magazine, not really.

He claims commercial radio is another victim of the BBC’s local TV plans, along with the online aspirations of local newspapers.

Well certainly in the 100m online contest, local commercial radio is at the back of the pack. Many sites have old clunky websites which haven’t embraced web 2.0.  Content is rarely updated, I’ve often found the code is full of holes. Most of all, they don’t give their listeners a reason to go there.

Compare that to their BBC radio rivals, and now their newspaper cohorts and it’s a tadge shameful.

But maybe that doesn’t have to be the way.

Over at Viking FM this week, we trialled the station’s first live webcast. We arranged for a local financial expert to come into the station and answer questions from listeners about the credit crunch and what it means for them.

You can see the results by clicking here.

It was a lot more popular than we’d imagined, thanks chiefly to heavy plugging over the airwaves. But it shows, I think, people do have an appetite for this sort of content.

There just needs to be more dedication to doing it.

Broadcast Journalism: a bibliography

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 1, 2008

Here’s a post which has been sitting in my draft folder for more than a year! No Idea why I never published it at the time…but here it is. Other journos: feel free to add your own suggestions or reviews of the below!

(more…)

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Covering a local fire tragedy

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 17, 2008

The stereotype of a local news reporter (you know, church fetes, angry nimbys, that sort of thing) hasn’t really come true in my 9 months at CN Radio in Warwickshire. Some of the biggest stories of the year landed close by, including the warehouse fire which killed four firefighters back in November.

Here’s a reflective piece I wrote for the Touch Radio website about how we covered that particular story:

When hundreds of people came to Coventry Cathedral in January for a memorial service, it marked a closing chapter in one of the darkest times for fire fighters everywhere, especially in Warwickshire.

Ian Reid, John Averis, Ashley Stevens and Darren Yates-Badley were all killed fighting a blaze at a vegetable packing plant in Atherstone-on-Stour in November.

It was also a huge challenge for the Touch Radio news team – trying to cover the ever-changing situation, while remembering that friends, neighbours and even family of the four men could be listening.

Media Mount

The warehouse on a rural industrial estate became the centre of national media attention for the few days while the fires raged back in November.

Most of the camera crews were camped on top of a huge mound of earth in front of the site, which became known as “Media Mount”.

Getting there wasn’t easy either – you had to drive up a long country track lined with gigantic fire hoses. Security guards insisted on seeing press ID before letting you close to the scene. Once there you had to navigate past dozens of TV satellite news trucks and dozens more fire engines.

At the height of the search and rescue operation 100 fire fighters were working on the scene.

Walking past the ones just finishing a shift you could see tiredness and frustration etched across their dirty faces, after another day searching for their fallen colleague.

Messages of support

By the second day it became clear the real story was in Alcester and Stratford where the four men came from.

Those days were difficult for local newspapers and radio stations: we knew the names of the four men (they had been published in a Sunday newspaper) but without confirmation from the fire service we didn’t want to name them – that would only be more upsetting for the family.

I spent a lot of that first Sunday in Alcester, talking to the mayor and the local vicar, as well as standing outside the small fire station, watching dozens of people stop by with flowers, teddies and messages.

One read “Rest in peace boys, you are true heroes now”.

Tributes

By the following Wednesday the worst news had been confirmed and the bodies of 3 of the men were carried out in a procession in the early hours of the morning.

The next weeks would be filled with tributes to the men, covering their funerals and the big questions that have to be asked about what caused the fire and why the men were sent into the building.

2007 in 9 minutes

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on December 24, 2007

Hello!

Yes I’m back, after an absence so long it puts Noel Edmunds to shame.

In case you’re wondering what the hell I’ve been up to since May…well I’ve been working and 2007 ended up being far busier than I imagined.

Thanks to the wonder of radio it’s now been succinctly summarised in a podcast special on the 102 Touch FM website – introduced by yours truly.

Click here to go see (you’ll need to scroll down to “Exclusive: news review of 2007”)

Merry Christmas readers; I’ll be back in 2008 – I promise…!

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Some wise words

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on August 5, 2007

This articles six weeks old but I think it’s good enough to share around some more.

BBC training guru Vin Ray writes about how he re-discovered an old email from Alan Johnston the then virtually unheard of Middle East correspondent, and now one of the most recognisable faces of BBC News.

In it Alan gives some advice on what makes a good radio reporter. As someone just a few months into their first radio journo job I think it’s brilliant advice:

I normally never tell war stories “… when I was in Jalalabad with the mortars coming down … blah, blah, blah.” But, on this one occasion, there is something I can remember from Grozny that illustrates the point. I was with a journalist, not a BBC bloke, who very much liked being in a war zone, and during the battle for the city, we were in an abandoned block of flats. We went into an apartment where a shell had come through the living-room wall. And I remember hearing this guy immediately start talking about whether it had been a bazooka shell or a rocket-propelled grenade that had done the damage, and where the soldier who fired it must have been standing on the street outside.

But if you looked around the room for a minute, you could see the life that used to go on in it. You could see the books that the family used to read, and the sort of pictures that they liked to hang on the walls, and, from photographs, you could see that they had three kids and that the oldest girl had graduated from university. Of course, their story, what had happened to them – what they were, and what they had lost – was what the war was all about. It did not really matter whether it was a bazooka or a rocket that had turned their world upside down.

So much of the job is about trying to find the imagination within yourself to try to see, to really see, the world through the eyes of the people in the story. Not just through the eyes of the Palestinian who has just had his home smashed. But also through the eyes of the three young Israelis in a tank who smashed it. Why did they see that as a reasonable thing to do? What was going through their minds as their tank went through the house? If you can come close to answering questions like that, then you’ll be giving the whole picture, which is what the BBC must do.

Click here to read the full article by Vin Ray.

And Vin has written one of the best books for aspiring journos there is:  The Television News Handbook.

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