TERRY PRONE: Getting the (text) message across: radio ga-ga is bad news for listeners

THE JNLR figures are heart- stoppingly important to a tiny minority of the people of Ireland.

The hearts that get stopped are those of producers and broadcasters who live in hope/dread of the quarterly results.

A drop in their figures means advertisers are less willing to flog their wares or use their programmes. Nor is that the end of it. A substantial drop of the wrong kind, and potential sponsors lose their lust to offer a programme freebies.

This time around, some of the most seasoned and successful broadcasters found themselves looking at sizeable drops in listener numbers. Sean O’Rourke, Pat Kenny and Matt Cooper found themselves in unsought lock-step, each having dropped 9,000 listeners.

It would be unwise to assume that they’ve all dropped the same kind of listeners for the same kind of reasons. Some may have lost older listeners, some younger. To the advertisers who now indirectly dictate the life of each programme, losing the former is a pity, while losing the latter is a serious problem.

That said, unless all three have suddenly changed their style of presentation (which they haven’t) or their programme format (and they haven’t done that either) the drop, whether in younger or older listeners, cannot be blamed on any of the three presenters.

The reality is that virtually all current affairs programmes have lost listeners, which in turn argues that something caused tens of thousands of former current affairs aficionados to switch to music programmes or to the songs stored on their IPods. It’s pretty obvious that what could be called the switch-off factor relates to the times we’re in and the way current affairs programming has handled those times.

Bad news doesn’t cause listener switch- off, any more than it causes readers of newspapers to decide against picking up a paper on a given day. The reverse is the case. Many newspapers sold thousands of extra copies during the days surrounding Gerry Ryan’s funeral, reinforcing the policy of the American celeb magazine People, which has found that a cover story concerning a dead celebrity hugely outsells editions with covers about the weddings, births and divorces of the famous.

It’s not bad news, per se, that has caused people to unplug their radios from current affairs programming. It’s the treatment of bad news. The people abandoning such programming feel beaten down by a constant stream of anger, blame, mistrust and hopelessness. That hopelessness is predicated, in part, by the indiscriminate condemnation of politicians, as if no minister, TD or senator can be assumed to be authentic, idealistic, competent or hardworking.

In the last few months, the entire political system has been attacked in a way which reminds one of Dickens’ Mrs Gummidge: “Wot’s the good of anyfink? Why, nuffink.” It suggests that nobody is in charge, right now. That nobody is waiting in the wings to take charge. That, even if a change of Government were to happen, “the system” has failed so much that a new administration wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.

If we applied the same thinking to the ash cloud, we’d have decided a) Fianna Fáil should be shot for failing to predict it and plan for it, b) Fine Gael should get a swift root in the posterior for bleating on about the economy when they should’ve been warning us about unpronounceable volcanoes, c) Michael O’Leary codded us up to the eyeballs same as Seanie FitzPatrick, except in aviation terms, d) we now have to throw out everything we ever believed about the air travel business, because it clearly doesn’t cope well with unforeseen ash clouds, and e) somebody better end up in jail, fast, in order to make us feel better.

This is not to suggest we should introduce a happy-clappy focus on good news. Good news, according to the old axiom, is no news. We all love bad news. What we don’t love is repetitive, fear-engendering, never-ending blame and cynicism.

Listening to some programmes over the past year has been akin to being stuck in a car on a long journey with someone who cannot get over being dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend. The first time they tell it, the story is fascinating. The second time, it’s mildly interesting. The third time, it’s boring. The fourth time, the driver wants to say “Gotcha. Now – where do we go from here?”

Of course, broadcast media will say that they get a big reaction to items excoriating Brian Cowen, dissing Enda Kenny, rubbishing the regulators (past tense), snarling at the banker lads, attacking politicians who won’t give up their pensions or getting punitive over anybody who isn’t currently – and provably and through no fault of their own – broke.

That’s because of the Big Misleaders. The big misleaders in broadcasting are the texts.

Texts are the legal highs of the broadcaster. They’re addictive to the producers and presenters who tend to regard the text response to items as an instant and infallible gauge of how good the item was. If it evoked hundreds of texts, it was good. If it evoked none, it was a lemon. Listen out for that relieved giveaway phrase “We’ve had a huge response to our item on…”

Texts are instant but far from infallible. Using them as a measure of item-success ignores the fact that some broadcast items make people think, rather than text.

Some topics, well-explored, are discrete, self-contained and deeply satisfying. They do not lend themselves to instantaneous “I agree with that last guy” or “I think that last guy is a moron” input.

TEXTERS are a distinct sub-set of the population anyway, as are Twitterers and bloggers. They have their value, as demonstrated by those producers sophisticated in their use of the speedy incoming responses from mobile phone users, turning them into unpaid script-writers. Texts don’t get on to those programmes unless they’re witty and fit the style of the programme.

But for the most part, texts are (wrongly) used as a public confirmation that the team were right and that people are listening. Which misses the point that a rake of incoming texts from the permanently angry, verbally volatile section of the audience does not mean that the item did not cheese off those listeners who tire of journalists talking to journalists and who prefer analysis to reaction and ideas to comment.

If they were to turn over the stone of text response, programmers might find a set of speedy crawlers who represent a much bigger unseen and unregistered response, in the form of listeners going “Oh, hell, not more of that crap” and switching to music.

The measure of good radio current affairs programming is when listeners can remember and quote something said on a programme a week later. When they apply some new information delivered by the show to their own lives. When they change their attitude or behaviour as a result of something they have heard. Text response is the fast food of radio. Tasty.

Tasty.

Very, very tasty.

But nutritious?

Forget it.



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