“New yesterday’s news”
That was the picture on my mind when I was a little boy in the seventies.
Today, after 25 years that I’ve been working at the radio myself, I obviously know it better: Nobody wears a suit at the studio and certainly not a tie. It’s not so stuffy and tiresome at radio studios. And it’s also not reverent: behind the scenes it’s actually quite casual. My colleagues at the news desk are anything but stuffy – most of them are pretty cool, some are a little bit weird, others are very funny and few are great story tellers you can drink one or another beer with after work.
But when we turn on the radio, none of these fellas we get to hear. We are still listening to the same newsreaders from the seventies when the virtual men in suits announced to the people what’s important and what we should be interested in.
Okay, some radio stations happen to be a bit more modern nowadays. That may be true, but news are anything but everyday language. No, I am not joking. It happens not uncommonly that I am attentively listening to a newscast and do not understand what it’s about. Sometimes the matter does not simply open up. Too bad!
Another time I get what it’s about but it’s just not interesting. Bother! Or I get confused because the reports are crammed with needless synonyms. What? Who? Never mind, it’s over in a moment anyway.
With spoken everyday language it has less or nothing to do. Some blathering from press releases is taken and is knocked up into an aloof and incomprehensible text that should give the impression as if it were relevant to someone, but that’s it! Only to switch off to.
Another time it’s just copied from a text of a PR agency without correcting the time references beforehand. More than once I heard news editors saying: “The agency summed it up perfectly.” Yes, the agencies are summing up the information well indeed. For an editor, perhaps for someone that reads the newspaper, but not for someone who listens to the radio.
The texts of PR agencies are a solid working basis for colleagues all around Germany. But we should not expect from our agencies to deliver stories that can be broadcasted straight away. This also applies to PR reports that are intended for radio broadcasting.
There’s a lack of personal contribution, especially with the texts. When you read it, it seems dead serious, maybe a little bit aloof. But, that was it already! After lots of editorial work, the texts are read aloud in the studio. Excuse me, they’re not read aloud, we are “presenting” them. However we want to call it. Most of the time it simply does not sound good. But how is it supposed to do? How can a written-language text of a press release be presented properly? Yes, a talker by training can make it sound fine. But it does not become more comprehensible.
Nowadays we are still expecting people to listen to empty words that we just made to sound arrogant enough. But we cannot allow this anymore because we are able to look up texts of PR agencies with our smartphones whenever we want. There’s also a deflection in another direction. Some program directors have recognized that the news are not contemporary anymore. And then the going got tough. Here are some demands in some editorial offices:
“We only send positive news (except for terror)!”, because the listeners don’t want to get their day ruined. When it’s a report about terror though, we are making it “really big” to spread as much panic as possible.
“Every report is set to background noise” to make the listeners think we were on-scene.
“Reports have to be in the present to make the news sound more current!” – The listener will think he is involved.
“Many direct quotes should be inserted, otherwise it’s too monotonous.” – The listener should not get bored.
“Local reports should only be positive” – The listener only wants to hear about the good sides.
What’s the reason that radio news have not evolved in the recent years? Why do some stations only tell nice, friendly stories instead of actual news reports? Us news editors, news chiefs and news trainers are responsible for it.
For decades we’ve only discussed technical issues. How many words must a lead sentence have? Where do we quote the sources? Which requirements does an information need to report on it? Which tenses are appropriate?
Well, I wasn’t an exception. During my first years as a news director and trainer I believed that strict guidelines resulted in better texts. Some guidelines I detested from the start, especially because it seemed no one could tell me why they were useful. Others I believed in out of conviction and I still do sometimes. But the only question that matters is whether those technical theories have increased the news. And the answer is no, surely not.
- We forgot how we have to tell a story in the real world!
- We ignored the fact that guidelines led us to discrepancies.
- We didn’t let the personalities of our speakers play a role.
- We just accepted the fact that our news didn’t reach a variety of listeners.
Let’s change that! Let’s forge out a plan we really get ahead with. Clear simple intentions should apply so that we are no longer considered as simple readers of texts anymore.
But have we seriously thought about letting our news editors tell their stories on air? How about throwing all these technical issues overboard? We could set up regulations that are actually useful.
Be reliable but not tedious. Be authentic but not drawling! Be the presenter of the show but don’t be the center. It’s completely okay to sound different! It would be appreciated! Try to get me close to the story! Right now! We could start telling actual stories!
Why should the listeners listen to us? What makes us different? Where are the personalities to get us up to date in the radio?