I listened to an interview recently with the late Gerry Ryan played as part of a tribute to him after he died in 2010. In this interview he referred to the time he was plucked from the relative obscurity of night time small local pirate radio in Dublin to a brand new national radio station, 2FM. He insisted that the main reason he was given the job was because of his presentation skills meticulously honed over time.
Those skills were conscientiously built up over the previous nine years and fundamental to his success as a broadcaster. He was very forceful when expressing the idea that you can’t simply walk into a radio station of any size without any skill or training and start presenting. He continued by saying that such a policy was, in his words “an outrageous and dangerous thought”.
That statement struck a chord with me and also made me fearful of what is happening in community radio across the UK now. The idea that you can go on air without any training or broadcast skills is dangerous indeed. Of course, there is a school of thought that community radio is the sector of the industry that now provides the training ground for the new generation of broadcasters coming through. These young broadcasters will go on to become the mainstay of radio both national and local over the coming years... or, at least that’s the plan. This perception grows from the fact that community radio generally has a brief to provide training. Community radio is very accessible to this potential new talent and provides the training at little or no cost to the individual. The question that needs to be asked is how good are the trainers in community radio? Not very good in my view.
I fear for the future of these people who depend on these so called trainers in community radio and certainly hope that the training they provide tells the real story about the prospects of developing a career in radio today. Surely if you undertake a training process you must be clear too on what the benefits of that training will be to the person you train and what career prospects may arise from it. If you are not then you are doing that person a disservice.
I do have another concern too. It has to be said that the quality of broadcasting on some community radio stations is ordinary at best and absolutely atrocious at worst. Yes it is fair to say too, that there are some great broadcasters on community radio and some very good, well managed community stations that are now up and running across the country. It is my perception that these particular stations are vastly outnumbered. This begs the question that if the broadcast quality on the community station is poor then what does that say about the quality of training that these stations provide?
I believe that the prospect of having a good radio career is practically impossible now unless you are extremely talented and resourceful enough to get your talent recognised. The radio landscape has changed dramatically over that last fifteen years both nationally and locally and the amount of broadcasting jobs has declined to the extent that they have almost disappeared altogether. At a national level there is a move to hiring celebrities to present radio shows, Paul O Grady, Alan Titchmarsh and Alan Carr to mention just a few. Local commercial radio seems to have gone down that road too with minor celebrities getting jobs presenting network shows. This combined with the fact that very few shows are actually presented from local studios means that the opportunities once available to aspiring broadcasters no longer exist. Even some smaller stations are moving to formats where the broadcasters are no longer needed and everything is done by a computer. There is a glimmer of hope still in BBC local radio, so it might be worth getting to know the managing editor of your local BBC station.
Train your presenters
The training aspect undertaken by community stations and enshrined in key commitment documents has not been thought through properly either by OFCOM or by individual community stations. Every good programmer knows that a core function of the programmer managing the output of the station is the training and coaching of the broadcast team on an ongoing basis. The training of broadcasters involved in these stations should be an ongoing process without such a process being included in the requirement of getting a licence in the first place.
I believe that those who set up community radio stations have little or no experience or knowledge of how to provide proper training in the first place. Not only that, the ongoing training and development of the existing broadcast team is appears not to be a priority either.
Furthermore, the danger of undertaking training is that those trained may perceive the training given as a pathway to a radio career elsewhere in industry where there are few, if any jobs at all. It’s a fact that the provision of proper media training requires human resources and equipment. Both of which are simply too expensive for stations that are run on a ‘not for profit’ basis.
So what is the solution to all of this? I believe that the OFCOM requirement for community radio stations to train people is unclear and should be dropped and replaced by a commitment to a training policy that significantly improves the overall quality of the output of the station that provides the training. This would have a direct impact on improving the quality of broadcasting on that station on a day to day basis.
It is my firm view that it is the existing broadcasters on these stations are the ones that need the training more than most. Most are poor communicators, cheesy jocks who know no better and the ‘show and go’ presenters who’s entire skill is based on the ‘that was, this is’ type of link.
I would also suggest a training policy that provides some skills to those who use the station to promote their cause. They don’t want to be presenters. These are the people who are likely to use the station for purposes of communication with the audience in the community and generally include local politicians, religious leaders, charity groups, event organisers, local business leaders and social development groups. Very few of these people get involved in radio on a day-to-day basis. They may be keen to get more involved do so once they've had some training. It is also a great way to get these influential people involved in the station from time to time and training aimed at them that is properly formulated and delivered will do a great deal for the station in the long term.
Every community radio station has a commitment to training. You’ve either made that commitment because you believe that it is right or you made that commitment only so you could get a licence to broadcast. If you believe it was right to commit to training then it is right to train the people you put on air regularly... and that includes your presenters.