Radio News: Information or entertainment? All I know is, its getting worse says Saxon

Every year for the past dozen, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a class of radio students at AFTRS. And every year I’ve asked the class whether radio News is about information first and entertainment second, or the other way around. In most years the initial vote goes 2 to 1 in favour of information. To further the discussion I quote the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright who said, “Form follows function.” In other words, how something looks is secondary to how well it works.

That settles it then, since News is obviously all about information. Inevitably, someone pipes up and asks, “What about entertainment news?”

Well, that depends on how you define entertainment. I define it as any program in any media where the consumer has the easy choice to tune out, switch off or change stations without any consequences.

Yes, the purpose of news – entertainment or hard – is to provide information, but in the context of a broader entertainment package. Like every other program on radio, it is up to the News to hold the  attention of the listener, not the other way around. That’s why I categorise it as entertainment.

At AFTRS, luckily for me, students can’t simply walk out on a whim. Not without some serious questions asked by the administration. And they certainly can’t just flick a switch to another class on, say, film editing.

More over, the onus is on the student to pay attention to the teacher. Of course, like most teachers I strive to engage my pupils by making lessons as entertaining as possible. But the focus is on education. If I did nothing but entertain, the students would complain because they are there to learn, having signed up to a specific course.

I trust, gentle reader, that I have argued my case well, rooted in robust logic. Yet, I am vexed and saddened that my own argument can be used as an easy excuse to dumb down the News. PDs have told me, “We’re here to give the listener what they want, not what we think they should have.”

It’s a compelling argument. But I think some stations are selling their listeners short.

Flicking across the dial a few weeks ago (I won’t name the stations) on the hour, or there abouts, “Here is the news…” The first item was about The Voice and how people were being mean to Delta Goodrem. Item two was about a two car pile up followed by a knife attack. Then three more stories to do with celebrities, a minute of sport followed by weather. And back to music.

Apparently nothing newsworthy happened in Canberra that day, let alone Afghanistan or Syria. One gets the impression that unless Prince Harry is deployed there, nothing ever will on that particular station.

I’m not suggesting that Delta’s woes aren’t important to this station’s audience, but does it belong in the News? Or would it be better dealt with by the announcers?

Another FM station, targeting over 35’s, wasn’t much better. Not only that, the newsreader did a live read for a car brand in the middle of the bulletin. Does that not trouble you?

I’ve complained on radioinfo about the quality of FM News before. Back in 2006, I also mentioned AFTRS because they had done some research on the subject, “While conventional wisdom has it that older audiences require more substantial news, a survey conducted by AFTRS students suggests that young people care about what’s happening in the world around them almost as much.”

No doubt some of them listen to triple j which provides an excellent news service that is both informative and youthful in its delivery. As for the rest, my feeling is that the quality of news has deteriorated since I wrote that article in 2006.

Back to my original premise; I still maintain that Radio News is part of an entertainment platform. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be diluted to blend in with the rest of the programming. Even on Talk stations, the News sounds completely different to the opinion that is the basis for the entertainment presented for the rest of the hour.

I do believe that some stations may be underestimating the desire and the capacity of their audience to process some news items that have more gravitas than Tom Cruise doing the Scientology Rag.

What do you think?

Peter Saxon