When National Radio Comes to Town

Yesterday BBC Five Live ran a series of reports over the course of Thursday 9th December from Leicester, about the impact of the cost of living increases, and cuts to welfare support. A segment of the reporting came from St Peter’s Church in Highfields, where Leicester Community Radio is based, and where many community support services are delivered to people who live in the area.

The full 5 Live Drive programme is available to stream from BBC Sounds.

It was good to hear direct and first-hand stories that focussed on people giving their experience of living with financial insecurity, reduced mobility and the need for local support services that are easily accessible. Reporter Chris Warburton talked about his connection to Leicester, having been a student in the city, and was therefore familiar the diversity of Leicester.

There are a couple of observations that I’d like to make about this kind of reporting and the role that national media plays in developing stories of this kind. It’s a critical examination because we need to be able to learn from this and improve how we develop discussion and civic deliberation around topics of this kind.

My main complaint about 5 Live Drive is that it lacks seriousness and is delivered in an overtly blokey tone. I stopped listening when Tony Livesey took over from Peter Allen, and the focus of the presenters shifted unnecessarily to themselves, their experiences, and their reactions to issues and topics that were being reported. Informality and a relaxed interplay between presenters, reporters and guests is fine, but the danger is that 5 Live Drive has a tone of the ‘pub bore’ who won’t shut up about themselves.

So the context of the wider 5 Live station remit and appeal frames this kind of programming. Yes, 5 Live Drive is a magazine programme, and covers topics of national, international and local interests, with a focus on sport and entertainment, but the ability to switch from trivial to heartfelt topics can be undermined by too much focus on the trivial. There’s always been ‘filler’ stories on programmes like this, but the equality of time and importance that is given to those filler stories means there is less time to explore more serous news topics.

Furthermore, it’s questionable that a national station news team dropping into Leicester for a couple of days, and then heading back to Manchester as soon as possible, smacks of ‘poverty tourism,’ rather than prolonged and committed investigation and discussion.

I suppose 5 Live Drive works in headlines and short segments, and other stations are better able to produce longer-form investigations. These reports, however, didn’t point towards any reference material, longer-form reports, or links with partner organisations to explore the issues and topics in greater depth. I was left asking, ‘what next?’ I got no follow on.

The programme webpage doesn’t have any links to follow-up material or advice? Where was the voice of civic society organisations in these reports? If someone wants to find out more about getting help, where should they go? Who might they talk with? These reports didn’t offer any practical support.

Rather than giving time to the process of engaging with people to tell their own stories, media reporters will often rush into meeting deadlines because they are squeezed for time, and that they have to balance one story against other breaking stories. On this day it was Covid Plan B, and Downing Street Parties. One participant in the reports told me that the reporter “talked more than he should have,” and that he was “coached” on what to say. The broadcast journalist method seems to be to do a forty-five-minute interview, and ask the same question in different ways, so they can get a five-second clip of someone saying just what they want.

Instead, what we got was banter from the anchor presenters about going for kebabs, which devalued the discussion that had just been taking place. It might have been a light-hearted way to link to the follow-up segment, which took place in the Evington neighbourhood at a Kebab Shop, but it came across as self-serving and inane. It was time that could have been spent giving out practical advice, rather than engaging in self-regarding banter.

I was pleased that Leicester Community Radio got a mention, and that the work of Reverend Jonathan Surridge, the Rector of St Peters, and the essential relationship between the church as the radio station in supporting community connections. As brief as this was, it was good to hear some voices in favour of alternative community media platforms, and the impact that volunteering has on people.

On a positive note it’s incredibly important that these issues and topics are covered in our national media, my main concern however, is that the light-weight tone, and the drop-in-then-drop-out nature of the reporting, undermines any credibility that the reporters try to achieve, and as a result they take people they engage with largely as uninformed or unable to deal with their own problems.

Someone who shares their story is the expert in that story, which is why community media is so significant. We get to decide what the priorities of a story should be, and how they are explained and reported, without the direction and shaping of ‘professional’ reporters who are more concerned with their popularity or their carer progression.



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