Listening to the experts…

This article was written on Tuesday 26 May 2020. The COVID-19 lockdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic started in Britain on 23 March. The country had, at the time of writing this, been sheltering in place (more or less, give or take a few individuals) for ten weeks. Stay Alert

During this period your correspondent had put himself on a strict calorie-controlled diet – prompted by the spare time that was now available around the dining table at home to get a calculator out and work out how many calories were in every plateful and portion of food during the day. I hope you will join me and my household in celebrating the fact that the lbs/kgs have been successfully falling off. In the times of a pandemic sometimes it’s the little things that take on a new significance. Although, I have read of many taking the road more often travelled and ordering in deliveries of cream teas.

Daily walks into the surrounding alleyways, roads, urban woods, and fields within an hour’s reach of where I sit writing have also delivered a new perspective on this little part of God’s own county (also known as Yorkshire, England). Since the 23rd of March 2020 we have watched the wheat grow from tiny seedlings into knee-high plants with emerging seed-heads that sway gracefully in the wind. This was almost bare earth, freshly tilled, when we started in March:

Wheat CC May 2020 (2)
A field, Yorkshire, May 2020

During these weeks and months British radio has changed in subtle ways. I therefore want to consider three things: listening, talking, and doing. Firstly, this is about listening to experts and media commentators talking about what radio audiences are doing; secondly, about talking to journalists who are trying to do their jobs in the time of pandemic and attempting to speak truth to power; and thirdly, reflecting that each one of us has turned from an audience member to doing the very thing modern technology has gracefully allowed us to do: have fun together in public from home. This article considers the first of these, listening. Subsequent writing on the other two issues can be found here, and here.

A vital thing to understand is that every era brings forth its own acronyms. These times in the spring and early summer of 2020 have produced two very special ones which I shall treasure: YOLO and FOGO.

On Tuesday 19 May 2020, speaking to radio professionals during an online seminar and conference organised by the Radio Centre – which is a British commercial radio industry lobby group – Geoff de Burca, at the time with MediaCom an advertising agency, identified these two social groups: YOLO and FOGO. The first is You Only Live Once, people who are desperate to get out whatever the cost; and the second is what he called Fear of Going Out. The latter – like me – are the ones scared and apprehensive about leaving home. The result is that, since so many of us are at home, the opportunity to listen to the radio is much more present.

The consequence is that the radio listening habit is changing. It’s now later in the morning. It used to peak at 0745hrs at breakfast and after 1700hrs for drivetime. The big audiences are now at 1100 and 1600, and as a result mid-morning and afternoon presenters have new audiences. And conversation on the radio, because so many presenters are now broadcasting from home, is much more domestically orientated. That’s according to Ronan Keating (Boyzone) and Harriet Scott (formerly of BBC Radio Humberside and Viking FM in Yorkshire) who co-present the breakfast show on Magic Radio from Monday to Fridays, 6 am till 10 am. A new thing is that we’re coming to relate more to one another – and to the lives of big personalities – because we can see them in their living rooms, kitchens, and spare bedrooms at last. We’re sharing stories about our own conditions, and allowing our radio presenters to transport us, as listeners, somewhere else away from our daily lockdown lives and circumstances of anxiety, boredom, and worry – and into their own homes.

The daily news cycle has changed too. We’re no longer in the realm of 24-hour news: always breaking and always changing. As a result, the daily news cycle has slowed down during the lockdown. There is now only one main story, and the top story tends to remain the same across a 24 hour cycle, changing at 1700BST when the UK government briefing takes place, and during the early hours as news emerges from the US government as part of their briefings.

The way we access news and information has been altering in subtle ways too. The pattern of consumption of radio, TV and online has been changing, as revealed in surveys carried out on behalf of Ofcom, the British government’s media regulator, which has been carrying out some very useful continuing research and data crunching. This photo gives a snapshot up to mid-May 2020. OFCOM Survey wk 1-7

Do have a look at the details of the numbers, and the latest insights. Up to the end of week seven, it was pleasing to see that false news was being shared less and less. It was also interesting that we seem to be avoiding non-stop news about the pandemic. That probably reflects an understanding by the audiences that the news cycle, as mentioned already, has slowed significantly and now has recognisable viewing and listening points during the day. For the rest of the time it’s good for our own mental wellbeing to avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety by watching too much news.

Having said that, I did hear that one BBC page on its news website had, by the end of the second week in May, had over 100-million hits. That’s a record-breaker. It was what’s called ‘an explainer’ page, giving background about the virus and the regional number of cases around the country. It seems there are some things that we are thirsty to know about.

However, a piece of research by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford found views of journalists’ reporting of the crisis equally split three ways between those who thought we hadn’t been critical enough, those who thought we’d given the government and the scientists a hard time, and the third group who thought we’d got it right. (That was based on surveys carried out between 24 and 28 April 2020). Which – even though it would be nice to be in a profession that was admired and revered – probably goes to show that you can’t please all the people a third of the time.

However, journalism also has a humorous side. That’s something we need right now, just as it was welcomed between 1939 and 1945. Indeed, the writer JB Morton was given a CBE for his efforts in raising morale during World War Two. He did it through his column in the Daily Express called Beachcomber [The Daily Express has – of course – changed a lot in style, outlook and focus since then]. Morton ran a column full of bizarre humour from 1924 to 1974 [again, the churn rate in the industry has changed a lot…]. He excelled in that dry, off-beat, satirical humour which is so quintessentially English.

This one is from an edited collection of his columns [which is worth tracking down and buying for the book title alone], J.B. Morton Cram Me With Eels! (ed. Mike Barfield), 1994, Methuen: London, p.160.

Feed Your Gnats on Fish Scales

PRODNOSE: Are you paid by the word? If so, I can understand this drivelling.
MYSELF: Indeed, yes. And let me tell you I am paid extra for commas,,, and often use three where one would satisfy an inferior stylist.

And I’ll have another quote from Morton in my next article. Stay safe – and set an example to others: do what the Government and the health experts tell you to do.
Let me know your radio listening experiences, and about your creative activities during these days. Fill out the details in the comment box below.

4 thoughts on “Listening to the experts…

  1. Thanks Martin. I always enjoy the historical stuff especially. Intriguing insights. I’ve heard two radio 4 programmes lately that I felt were justifiably critical(/damning) of government response – handling of care homes, and allowing the Cheltenham festival and Liverpool/Madrid game to go ahead within a fortnight of lockdown beginning. Sobering stuff. File on 4 was the latter, last night actually.

    Liked by 1 person

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