John Dryden (1631-1700), England’s first poet laureate said, “Truth is the foundation of all knowledge, and the cement of all societies.”
A search for the facts which govern our lives has always meant holding every kind of power to account, to pose awkward questions, to provide space for dissident voices and to uncover secrets whose publication is in the public interest.
And it is vital in these pandemic times of Covid-19 that rumours and false information are challenged at every turn. The objective for the BBC – just like all organisations driven by journalism – has always been to provide the facts; to offer the truth. The new Director General of the BBC in 2020, Tim Davie, has said he thinks the Corporation’s journalists should stick to the facts, not opinions. To quote the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan, “He thinks social media activism and column-writing don’t mix with working for the BBC.” That will be a challenge to watch as the weeks and months pass.
Meanwhile, the emotional strains of reporting in 2020 have been deep – and have not always been recognised or even talked about. That can be a bad thing for journalists who can face burn-out or emotional damage. Cait McMahon is a registered psychologist and says, “For many journalists, Covid-19 may be the biggest and perhaps most challenging news story they’ll ever cover. And reporting on the pandemic is risky and personal.” She works with The Dart Centre, a journalist research organisation that has long concerned itself with the effects of reporting other people’s misery. I reflected on this in a previous article – read it here. Seriously, look after yourself, and talk about your feelings with someone.
I’ve been interested in recent days in the range of news sources. In particular, the operators who serve English-language radio stations with news bulletins at the top of the hour. For BBC Local Radio, each station has journalists who compile news from their area and mix in the national and international stories provided by the BBC’s internal radio news service. For years this has been known as the General News Service (GNS) and has provided a Rip ‘n’ Read (so-called because you could rip it off the teleprinter and take it straight into the studio to read out on air. These days it arrives digitally in the news software being used by the bulletin reader). GNS was based in London until October 2020, after which it moved to Salford as part of a round of economies and restructuring, and was renamed the Central News Service.
Other stations take news from an external provider. The BBC World Service bulletins are taken by some stations around the world under a licence agreement. You can tell because there’s a miniscule gap at the beginning and end of the news so that automated stations can opt in and out.
For commercial, community, student, and hospital radio stations in Britain there are some alternatives. They’re reviewed here, on this webpage. The three services are: IRN/Sky, based in Osterley and the market leader; FSN (Feature Story News) which has offices in London and Washington; and Radio News Hub, set up in 2015 in Leeds by a team including a former colleague from commercial radio in Yorkshire.
And for listeners, there is a growing range of podcasts. One estimate reckons that this new ‘genre’ of radio is booming with almost 12,000 launched globally in the space of ten months during 2019. This article from the UK Press Gazette has no hyperlinks within it, so you’re going to have to spend time searching some of these podcasts out for yourself. As the nights draw in, it’s a good way to pass the time. In my grandad’s day he used to spend autumn evenings sitting in a chair by the fire looking through seed catalogues that he’d sent for in the post. How life changes. In these times you can Google for podcasts and stream them as you sit in front of your central heating radiator.
Podcasters are making radio in their spare rooms. What you might think of as the old-school professionals are doing the same. My weekly radio shows are recorded at home; Tony Blackburn puts his together at a desk by the window.
In fact, Tony mentioned it on his Twitter feed only last week (about his show, not mine):
For the techno-geek, the software Blackburn uses is the radio equivalent of Zoom and is called Cleanfeed. It does for radio presenters in their spare bedrooms what for the rest of us has been an opportunity to talk to granny over the internet. The company, based in England, says of itself, “Cleanfeed LLP is a small internet-based company, started in the UK by Mark Hills and Marc Bakos. Our background is in broadcast engineering and software development.” They’ve also been used by the fantastic weekly satirical BBC Radio 4 comedy show Dead Ringers during lockdown. The team has been putting its summer 2020 series together using remote recording, and it really works.
Elsewhere, amateur radio operators have been helping out during the spring and summer of 2020. It’s worth mentioning here that amateur radio has a long and noble history, and it not the sole province of ‘anoraks’ like Tony Hancock’s fictional version.
Indeed, the Radio Society of Great Britain, the governing body and lobby group for radio hams and amateur broadcasters, was formed in 1913 – nine years before the BBC was even thought of. Here’s an interesting piece from the BBC website about how ham radio helped during coronavirus.
I need to make it clear at this point that I am not a radio ham. But I did encounter a linguistic problem the other day. I bought this bit of kit recently. I wanted to be able to use one aerial to switch between two DAB receivers and a scanner (don’t worry about the sudden influx of jargon, it will all be clear soon). But the question I had was whether I was using this as an aerial or an antenna switch? The internet gave me some amusement. This from one website run by an electronics shop in New Jersey, USA:
An antenna is used for transmitting radio waves, whether used for radio, television, cell phones or other more sophisticated equipment. … Aerials are used for reception, not for transmission. The most common use which most people would be accustomed to is the aerial that is used for a car radio.
But then I found this – which really made my day.
When used as nouns, aerial means a rod, wire, or other structure for receiving or transmitting radio, television signals etc, whereas antenna means a feeler organ on the head of an insect, crab, or other animal.
Quite apart from the sentence construction, it posed the question of whether either a small arthropod or a crustacean could help me listen to – and broadcast on – the radio? Not sure about that. I researched the webpage ownership using https://who.is/. It informed me that the site was registered with an office and phone number in Panama, but a fax machine in Peru. Odd that. And whilst we’re thinking, as journalists do, about checking details, sources, and facts. I spotted this.
(Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-54010666). That’s when I noticed that the top artists of the summer of 2020 all had typos in their names. Apart from one: Harry Styles. Most of the rest, with some other exceptions, could be categorised either as having vowels irresponsibly removed or having them inserted unnecessarily.
I suddenly felt like an elderly curmudgeon when I discovered this. Then I recalled that radio stations no longer employed gram librarians – the sort of people who would fret over how to put S1MBA in any sort of alphabetical catalogue. (Would it, perhaps, be cross-indexed with DTG? Or even DejiTheGamer? Range Rovers? Where would it all end?) These days all our music on the radio comes from a computer algorithm so questions such as these are now pretty much redundant.
Let me know what upsets you, and your hopes and fears for the coming months – and how you’ve dealt with the spring and summer of 2020. Has it been a time you’d rather forget, or have you had a lightbulb moment of true emotional enlightenment? Drop me a line in the comment box below.