Is Radio News Just A Commodity?

Co-Founder and Insights Director

News is often in the news. Whether it's the massive downsizing of print media, the potential merging of metro and regional media companies, or the mistakes in identifying the Boston fugitives, there's constant analysis of journalism and its future in a touch&swipe world.

Radio has traditionally held the high ground for fast delivery of breaking news about world-changing events to the largest possible number of people.

And news credibility has long been the cornerstone of many powerhouse radio stations, especially full service and talk radio.

But has news become no more than an undifferentiated commodity, not only compared to other radio brands, but also other news media?

Perhaps reinforced by a recent survey finding that over half of 16-30 year olds get their news from social media, instead of traditional outlets – see here.

Also suggesting that because of information overload at their fingertips, young people are only skimming the surface of news, rather than drilling down any further for details and analysis. And in the process holding less passionate views about topical issues.

This raises big questions for radio, such as does "news on the hour" have any relevance, when available 24/7 on your smartphone, or how can radio truly be "live&local" 24/7 when newsrooms are empty overnight and on weekends?

The standard research question "which radio station do you rely on most for news" is only useful if the perception is a much higher figure than your Station Most or P(reference)1 score. Indicating that people beyond your core, come to you primarily for news.

Otherwise all the news score does is reflect the fact that (logically) your listeners happen to get their news from their favourite station, chosen for other reasons such as the breakfast show and/or music offering.

News is therefore a utility expected as part of the mix. Missed if not there, especially at breakfast and drive times, but not the primary reason for being that person's P1.

News/talk stations usually claim they're differentiating on the quality of their news coverage, but again I'd be concerned about smartphone news-skimming by adults. Who no longer wait until the top-of-the-hour for a cuckoo-clock bulletin when, to continue the ornithological theme, tweets are always on tap (so to speak). Just as they no longer need to see petroleum-ink printed on pulped timber before giving a news story credence.

The article also mentions a trend towards people following respected journos/commentators on Twitter rather than actually listening to or viewing/reading them. Which raises the question of course, of how they became respected in the first place? Plus a growing number of "credible" journos, emerging from digital news outlets or the blogosphere.

Practical Solutions for Radio

Given all of that, how does radio resist commoditisation of news and issues?

Firstly it's important to distinguish between news headlines/stories, which are 99% non-exclusive vs. "real" journalism, such as investigative reporting, analysis and opinion.

There's still a fundamental human need for a listener  to understand how a news story will affect them and their circle in a complex, stressful world. Even the tedious machinations of government, have a direct impact on our lives, lurking beneath the bureaucratese and spin.

And sharing opinions on hot issues is not only a chance to vent, but also gather information to form or modify our own opinions. Campfire story-telling, still in our psyche from caveperson days.

It's all about making sense of the world. But how to do it in a time-poor, short-attention-span environment. When people of all ages "skim" entertainment as well as information.

The Project on Ten does a terrific job of delivering "hard" news and issues in an entertainment context. And I've always liked the approach of  ABC-TV's Behind The News, which would appeal to many adults, not just the target high-schoolers. For example their creative singing-dancing explanation of the recent Cabinet reshuffle – see here. And there's a video tutorial on the Home page on how to build your own news story on a mobile.

Smart talk stations regenerate and take risks (what a concept!) with new talent, who can make sense of the world, share opinions and tell campfire stories in a concise, entertaining manner for new generations of talk listeners. That doesn't involve dog-whistling half-baked bigotry at the grey-topped starters of email chains about the imminent (minority du jour) invasion.

Music stations of course have their high-profile personality breakfast and drive shows to feed topicality, but should try pushing the boundaries on their listeners' capacity for hard-hitting opinion and context on relevant issues, as The Project does.

Media-tart politicians are certainly latching on to entertainment shows beyond talk radio, as Kevin did in 07, and how John Key across the Tasman is more ubiquitous on FM than Secret Sound.

And while daytime music is tightly formatted, there's room for a creative crowbar to insert topical content/opinion, "behind the news" spots,  or "news-tweets" through the hour. Mike Lee summed it up in this Radio Today article here.

Last word on the new world of broadcast news goes to this Cannes-Lion Award winning ad for the Guardian on how the Three Little Pigs story would be handled across traditional and digital news platforms.



Eriks Celmins is Managing Director of Third Wave Media, Adelaide-based consultant for media research, strategy and content.


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