A War of Words

This is a Training Zone post. For the main blog click here

For the past few years, the commercial radio sector has frequently hit out at various parts of the BBC – mainly Radios 1 and 2 – for what it said was too much duplication of what commercial stations were already providing. Radio 2, it was claimed, played too much pop music similar to that heard on the likes of Heart and Smooth, whilst Radio 1 was tapping into the key market for stations like Capital.

Towards the end of last year, things seemed to flip a little – with both Smooth and Capital announcing that they were to roll out their brands as network stations. In the case of Capital, it was claimed the station would be the “first real rival” to Radio 1.

TalkSport - upping the ante against Auntie?

But now the arguments have focused on the BBC’s speech output, with the BBC Trust rejecting a complaint by UTV Radio – the owners of TalkSport – about the amount of news content on 5 Live. The complaint stretches back to May last year, when UTV Radio submitted a second by second analysis of Five Live’s output. The war of words continued for much of last year, with the BBC providing UTV with a definition of exactly what constitutes news output.

And it’s an interesting question for anyone working in journalism. For instance, is an intimate interview with the survivor of the London Bombings news, or talk? Should news be defined by the three minutes or so at the top of the hour which we call bulletins? When does talk become news, and news become talk?

Having recently visited the United States, the contrast in the talk radio market there and her is quite striking. Most big cities have separate rolling news stations, phone in stations and sports stations. And in the smaller places, talk is still big business – though many stations rely on networked names like Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh to pull in the numbers.

It’s a fascinating listen too – though one that’s unashamedly Republican with a capital R. The “Rush Effect” was said to have significantly dented Obama’s chances during the Presidential election – with many voters as likely to believe people like Rush more than they did, say, Sarah Palin.

And there’s a big clue as to why talk radio seems to be more successful in the US than the UK. There are significantly fewer laws requiring balance. Stations are allowed to take whatever line they want – often the more extreme the better.

The BBC Trust, while rejecting UTV’s complaint, says that it does raise “significant and valid questions” about what constitutes news on 5 Live. Of course, much of this would come down to one’s own personal definition. News, just like music, is a subjective thing.

Nevertheless, Five Live is about to be subjected to the Trust’s Service Licence review, which thankfully gives everyone a chance to air their views – and not just those with the biggest mouths.

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