By some measures, radio news — and radio news employment — are holding their own in an increasingly web-dominated world.
The Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University Survey into radio newsroom staffing levels found that in 2016, about 75 percent stayed the same from the year before, while about 15 percent had an increase in staff size, said RTDNA Executive Director Dan Shelley. For 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, about 77 percent were planning to keep staff size the same and 12 percent were planning to increase it.
Meantime, news or news/talk leaders like WTOP, WBBM, WCBS and KFI regularly appear among the list of top-earning stations in the country according to annual revenue estimates from BIA/Kelsey.
Industry biggie iHeartMedia considers news important, with “more local news people in more places than any other news organization in the country,” said Chris Berry, its SVP of News Talk and Sports. “We have more reporters than the Associated Press or any newspaper, television or radio group.”
That said, U.S. radio operations are the definition of mean and lean. The average number of full-time staff across all radio newsrooms, according to the RTDNA survey, were two staff members per station, while the part-time average was 1.5 people. (For the record, the full-time average at major stations were 4.2 radio newspeople; 2.8 at large stations, 1.5 at medium and 1.3 at small outlets. The part-time averages were 1.7 part-timers at major stations; 1.5 at large; 1.4 at medium, and 1.5 at small.)
Steadiness of employment reflects the fact that “radio and radio news in particular has never been stronger, because people in the U.S. are consuming more audio news than they ever have,” said Harvey Nagler, former VP of radio at CBS News and now an independent consultant working with radio news operations.
He cited a Radio Advertising Bureau study which said that “Radio continues to be the most trusted source for news, that news consumption increased by 16 percent in 2016, and that 93 percent of Americans still listen to the radio every week; despite the fact that millennials and others have other sources of information.”
U.S. listeners are not alone in considering radio as their most trusted news source. Surveys in Australia (GfK Radio Insights) and the UK (the Radioceontre commercial radio industry group) have produced similar results, namely that listeners in those countries respect radio news most.
At the British Broadcasting Corporation, the public’s trust in radio news recently motivated management to cancel $13.3 million of planned cuts to local radio.
“For many years the BBC has been reducing its investment in local radio” as listeners moved to digital platforms, said BBC Director General Tony Hall. “But the rise of digital technology has also seen the rise of fake news, not just on a global level but on a local one as well. That’s why the role of BBC local radio is actually becoming more important — not less.”
Clearly, the public trusts radio news in an age of web-based information and “fake news.” But with great power comes with great responsibility. (Winston Churchill said this in 1906 long before Uncle Ben did in Stan Lee’s “Spiderman.”) Hence it is more important than ever for radio news to be factually and ethically reliable.
This responsibility is not lost on Steve Jones, VP and GM of ABC News Radio. It serves a total of 1,650 U.S. radio stations of varying formats, with everything from news bulletins to long-form programming during breaking news events.
How does ABC News Radio retain listeners’ trust in the digital age? “The fundamentals haven’t changed: Accuracy is still paramount,” Jones said. “While we very much prize being first to report the news, it’s never at the expense of being right.”
Berry of iHeartMedia agrees. “As radio journalists we all must be wary of ‘fake news,’ especially those viral stories that come from unreliable sources,” he said. “While most ‘fake news’ stories are obvious, it is critical that we verify any questionable stories before they are broadcast or posted to our station websites.”
CHANGE OR PERISH
The fact that radio listeners in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia trust radio news doesn’t necessarily guarantee its future, Nagler warned. The reason is that there is an increasing number of options for listeners to choose for their news, including popular podcasts that employ in-depth, long-form storytelling.
Not everything on the web is fake, and news consumers know it.
For this reason radio news departments need to assess how they are reporting the news and make ongoing changes to keep their listeners engaged.
“It’s all about creating compelling content and doing great storytelling,” Nagler said. “That clearly is essential to our survival.”
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the web is an always-on medium. No longer can stations hold stories for the next hourly newscast. They have to break the news to the public as soon as possible, which may mean via websites and social media.
A further aspect of radio news change involves mining the web for ideas and news leads, while employing proper fact-checking before going to air/posting stories.
For instance, “we scour social media for individuals who were witnesses or participants when news breaks,” said Jones. “We chat to them and we try to get them to join our live coverage.” This is where the audio-only power of radio shines through for ABC: Eyewitnesses and participants “don’t have to be somewhere where there’s a camera,” Jones said. “We just need you to be on your phone.”
“The internet has so many capabilities that make our job easier,” said Berry. “High-quality audio can now be provided from any location by a reporter carrying only a cellphone and the right software. We no longer have to order telephone lines or set up ISDN lines. The cell phone has become a travelling radio studio.”
Still, adopting these changes won’t matter if a radio news operation ceases being relevant to its audience, said Nagler. Being relevant doesn’t just mean being local, but also telling stories that are locally relevant to listeners.
“If you focus on local school board news and your listeners don’t care, you will lose them,” he said. Conversely, many ostensibly national stories have local hooks, “if they are what your listeners are talking about locally.”
The bottom line: Radio news retains an important place in our medium.
“I and the RTDNA remain very bullish about the future for radio news,” said Shelley. “Even in the internet era, people are turning to radio for accurate, timely information.”
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