May 2001
What makes "high quality commercial radio"

Quality Radio!

What makes for "Quality Radio" ?

We make no apologies this month for lifting wholesale from a regulator. In this instance we include below thoughts from a UK Radio Authority speech. This suggests the following criteria, which we list as they put it out - of a " high quality" commercial radio service. We think it applies to non-commercial ones as well!

* Serves its community with commitment, being alive and responsive to events and audience for local radio stations, localness is important
*Engages listeners, providing enjoyment, pleasure, challenge and choice
* Demonstrates professionalism, in both function and output
* Has good technical standards, for example engineering
* Is compliant with its agreed format and with industry codes of conduct
* Meets the expected standards of its listeners
* Displays creativity and innovation
* Displays honesty and transparency
Has a consistent "voice"

Our reaction

Overall the above list seems a good starting point to think about commercial radio in general; it deals with the question of the audience first - and this after all is the basis for any station's existence -- but it does so in a wider mental frame than just numbers. In particular it recognises that different stations serve different audiences
Secondly it considers the way that audience reacts to the station and lower down it speaks of meeting the expected standards of listeners, a point we'd have put higher than professionalism, maintaining technical standards and complying with regulations since we feel all these three ought to be implicit in meeting the listeners' expectations.
It also comments on creativity and innovation which we would feel essential for the long-term success of a station as also is having consistency.
Finally, although low on the list, we would consider "honesty and transparency" very important; thinking of its absence we're talking about dishonesty and covering up" It's important in all kinds of radio but is especially significant, we would argue, in terms of news and current affairs cover.

What of news coverage?

If we take it as read that in the wider context of a properly-functioning democracy needing an informed electorate, we think this is of particular importance and broadcasters, as a mainstream source of information, have a particular obligation in terms of their access to the public airwaves.
They differ from newspapers because of the limits to the spectrum but a quotation from the London Times (Courtesy of a speech from Australian Broadcasting Authority chairman, Professor David Flint ) is still apposite.
In an editorial replying to Lord Palmerston, The Times asserted:"The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation." That definition seems to us quite a reasonable one for broadcasters but broadcasters also have some specific advantages over newspapers and indeed, in some ways, radio has them over all media!

Radio's specific advantages.

As always both the details and the whole are needed to make a fair assessment. We would suggest that radio has, in the field of news and current affairs, some very specific advantages over other media.

* Its immediacy combined with its reach mean that it can reach parts other media cannot. If there is a phone, radio can be there"live" --and there are a lot more telephones than TV cameras.
* It can be a much more democratic medium --the phone-in allows access to a public platform in a much simpler and more direct way than either print or television.
Its cost base means that, if there is the will (maybe in part enforced by a regulator as a quid-pro-quo for the access to the airwaves) radio can at a reasonable cost engage with subjects which would be too expensive for television.

Those advantages bring with them perils as well as benefits and in the context of quality we think the right balance is important.
That balance we think should:

* Rate accuracy along with immediacy and ensure due warnings are given about the source of information when it might be suspect and that important stories are not left hanging with no conclusion or turned into instant opinion only with no factual basis.
*Due correction made when necessary, as for example when a caller has facts clearly incorrect. This does not detract from the value of the phone-in but does place it in a responsible context (and would have the beneficial side-effect to us of placing the biased comments of some hosts in a context beneficial to the listener).
* If engaging with little known subjects, understand that the listener needs background information to understand it in context. This does not mean neglecting the value of covering a complicated but important topic in "lay" language, but it certainly means much more hard work for the presenter in avoiding inaccuracy and keeping a listener's interest.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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