Capital Punishment?

Over the past week a small but significant transformation has happened in one of the biggest commercial radio stations in the UK. The music hasn’t changed and there’ve been no big name presenter arrivals or departures. In fact, the chances are that unless you work in radio you probably won’t have noticed the change at all.

Capital FM has more than doubled the amount of daytime minutes it gives over to local and regional news. For a music-based station you might think this a brave move. And in some ways it is. Though you might equally think that 70 seconds per hour is hardly enough time to tell you the time and the newsreader’s name, let alone what’s happening in the world. But you’d be wrong.

I’ve long argued on this blog that music radio should and could be doing more to promote local news. So when Capital rolled out its national brand to local stations earlier this year, many were concerned about the loss of local content. So called “enhanced daytime news” (a trade off with OFCOM to do fewer local hours of broadcasting) consisted on 25 second bulletins, with a rigid “LOCAL/NATIONAL/SHOWBIZ/WEATHER” format; impossibly short bulletins which left listeners with more questions than answers.

It also left some listeners – and the National Union of Journalists – with a real concern that commercial radio news was being eroded to the point that it was so insignificant, big groups might well make efforts to ditch it altogether. OFCOM received a number of complaints which led to it issuing a new set of Localness Guidelines. And it’s entirely possible that Capital’s owners – Global Radio – might have been in danger of breaching those guidelines with its 25 second news.

Radio 1's Newsbeat - Targeted bulletins for a youth audience

Even John Myers – a former radio boss who famously questioned why BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat employs 52 staff – seems to agree that news is an integral part of output. Put quite simply he concludes:

“Any manager who takes no interest in news should be fired for not caring about a key part of their output”

Interestingly, he goes on to (quite rightly) point out that the running order for a radio station’s news bulletins should reflect what the audience are thinking, rather than what journalists think. The “talkability” of a story is, indeed, an important consideration.

So when Capital was frequently giving equal billing to Rhianna’s new hairdo alongside a serious court case, you could see their dilemma. How on earth do you cover the world of the Capital listener in just 25 seconds. Could the radio provide an equivalent of the Metro newspaper?

Well the reality was – in 25 seconds – no you can’t. But will 70 seconds really make all that much of a difference?

I deliberately made a reference to Newsbeat just then – because for my money, it’s one of the best bits of targeted speech radio anywhere in the world. If you’re studying journalism, listen to Newsbeat as well as Radio 4. Get a feel for how its writing style instantly connects with the audience. And it’s all done in 90 seconds. In that time, you can fit in two good, short clips to illustrate a story. You can give me the bottom line as well as the top line; provide a bit of context. And – when you transfer that logic to Capital – you can give more prominence to local news over showbiz.

It’s early days yet – but the signs are promising. On air, Capital’s daytime bulletins have more authority, more local content and, well, sound like the news rather than an inconvenience.

And it could also save Capital the inconvenience of having the regulator knocking at the door.

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