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.

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 t’wireless met Twitter

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2009

It seems there’s no abating it’s popularity at the moment. Twitter is having it’s ‘moment’ in the UK, forcing its way into the public consciousness.

Here in Britain each week has at least one ‘twitter-gate’ incident, from Stephen Fry’s Liftgate to Phillip Schofield’s Thats-my-hedge!-gate.

This week we’ve become more aware of radio realising the potential of the micro-blogging service. In the last 2 weeks there’ve we’ve seen stations and presenters dip their toes into the Twitter-pool:

So what potential does Twitter hold for radio in the UK? Well, I think programmers have two choices. Do they have a ‘station’ twitter which updates listeners on station news, competitions and is used by everyone from presenters to journalists?

Or should each presenter create their own twitter profile and develop their own community around themselves?

Either way, Twitter offers some awesome opportunities to connect with listeners, and crucially interact with them. Presenters can reveal a little of their personality off-air (but they must be sure to respond to as many messages as possible), to build up the relationship.

During weather-events, as they like to be called, they offer a quicker way to update listeners on school closures than the website. They could even be used for traffic and travel updates and news headlines.

Unsurprisingly commercial radio is a step behind it’s BBC rivals, who seem to have realised the potential a little quicker. But the twitt-ability of the audience shouldn’t be underestimated.

The argument’s already been made “but how many of our listeners use twitter?” Well maybe not many right now. But the numbers are growing.

And you never lose points for getting in ahead of the curve.

It’s never dull in Hull

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on December 18, 2008

Another year in radio news comes and goes. And that can only mean it’s time for another review of the year!

My three part special for Touch Radio in 2007 went down a treat; this year it’s one 10 minute long extravaganza, featuring Bob Geldof, David Davis, Alphabeat and Leon Jackson!

If you wanna know what we get up to in Hull, check it out.

Click here to listen.

It’ll be available for download on Viking FM next week.

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The Floods: One Year On

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, News and that by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2008

Last year I reported extensively on the widespread flooding which affected parts of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

It was the first big story I ever covered and in the year since I’ve reported on the slow clear up and the impact it has had on local peoples’ lives.

To mark the first anniversary this month I was asked to produce a 30 minute documentary for 102 Touch Radio looking back at the events and asking if anything has changed.

I’ve uploaded the programme in two 10 minute chunks for anyone who wants a listen…enjoy and any comments always helpful!

Click here to listen to Part One (10’00”)

Click here to listen to Part Two (10’30”)

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.