Caitlin Pike visits Real Radio Yorkshire to discover the secret to its hat trick of IRN awards
Real Radio, with stations in Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire, was set up by the Guardian Media Group in 2000 with the aim of building local and regional music stations with a major commitment to news.
Group programme director John Simons says the company invests millions of pounds a year on news gathering and believes Real’s news coverage stands apart from other commercial stations.
"News is incredibly important to us, which is our point of difference in the competitive market we work in.
Even Smooth FM [another GMG strand of stations], a very music-led format, has far more news in it than Ofcom requires.
"Some local commercial radio stations have pulled away from news and I think in some cases they have been damaged by that. They are starting to turn back to it now. News defines local radio for a community."
Commitment to news Real’s awards record backs up the group’s claim that it is among the best in the country in terms of commercial radio news output, and on visiting Real Radio Yorkshire you can see the commitment to news at work in the form of a dedicated group of reporters, led by dynamic head of news, James Rea.
Rea has been with Real since its conception and set up each of the news rooms in Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire. He says: "The main thrust of our news output comes from our journalists.
I’m pushing them all the time to bring in their own stories, and they’ve constantly got a hot list of 10 things they are working on. We are lucky in that we are a well-resourced operation.
We have more than £1m a year to spend on news – it’s a lot of money.
We’ve done news like this ever since the beginning and we wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working, you just need to look at the long listening hours and the awards nominations that the content is giving us. Commercially it works because we can sell the air time around those long listening hours."
Rea adds that he believes another key to Real’s success is the lack of constraints on news in the programme schedule. "At other commercial stations I have worked for, you reach two minutes or 90 seconds and the programme director says ‘that’s it, no more news’. Here, we give stories what they are worth. If it’s a quiet news day we stick to tight, bright bulletins. If there is a major story breaking then we’d clear the schedule for it."
In the newsroom, cub reporter Kate Bradbrook tells me how she pushed through the press pack to get an interview with murderer Paul Dyson, who killed his girlfriend, Joanne Nelson, just before Valentine’s day 2005. A week before he was arrested, he gave Bradbrook his last interview, securing Real its third IRN scoop of the year award. "Even though a reporter from The Sun had been turned away I knocked on the door of his house and explained to his mum that I was from Real Radio. She called up to him and then I was sitting next to him on the settee, our knees touching, while I recorded him tearfully pleading for Joanne to come home. I was totally convinced by him, but when I got back to the office they all said, ‘You’ve just interviewed a murderer’." she says.
Investment in people Bradbrook is a good example of Real’s investment in news from the grass roots up. She was awarded their "media school" bursary in 2004, which gave her £4,500 towards her postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism. On completing the course at Sheffield University, she got a job at the station and has been bringing in exclusives ever since.
The 2006 bursary has just been awarded to another up-and-coming broadcast journalist, Suzanne Chesterton, who will complete her postgraduate diploma this year. Real will pay Chesterton’s fees, but also provides her with an extended work placement and one-to-one mentoring sessions. A young mum from Barnsley, she will combine her studies with caring for her two-year-old son.
As well as the financial investment that Real places in news, it also puts great emphasis on retaining its journalists. Rea says the station’s resources mean they can give the reporters time and training to develop their skills.
"I’m able to say to them, work on what you want to work on. For example, one of the reporters is putting together a documentary on Sheffield United and its promotion prospects this season."
As radio is in the communications industry, we try to make sure we communicate well in the newsroom.
We offer continual support and training.
Our journalists stay with us, often because there isn’t anywhere better to go to in news in commercial radio."
The Real Yorkshire newsroom is unique among the group for producing documentaries, or news specials, alongside the 15-minute bulletins at one o’clock and five o’clock that all the Real stations produce.
Rea says the patch the station covers has proved incredibly rich for news in recent months. They have covered the discovery that the some of the 7/7 bombers were integrated members of the community in Leeds — only a mile or so down the road from the station — as well as the murder of police woman Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford on 18 November last year.
"We have time to sit down and look at what has happened and what stories are worth expanding on. We recently aired an hour-long special on the 30th anniversary of the Yorkshire Ripper killings. We received hundreds of emails after that went out at 9pm. It’s these programmes we get nominated for."
Real Radio Yorkshire is now hunting for the story that could see them winning the IRN scoop of the year for the fourth year in a row.
Award-winning news THE SCOOPS
IRN Scoop of the Year Award—exclusive interview with Paul Dyson, the Hull man who murdered his girlfriend, Joanne Nelson, on Valentine’s Day.
IRN Scoop of the Year Award —exclusive on Robbie Williams taking drugs.
IRN News Story Award —coverage of the trial of ex-US marine who murdered Leeds policeman Ian Broadhurst in a Boxing Day killing.
NTL Commercial Radio News Award Nomination for general news coverage.
Sony News Story Bronze Award Nomination — coverage of the deaths of eight people in a house fire in Huddersfield. (This news special was nominated alongside BBC stations, including Radio 4 and the winner, Five Live.)
IRN Scoop of the Year Award — exclusive on Leeds couple trying for a "designer baby".
NTL Commercial Radio News Award — general news coverage.
Real Radio audience figures Q4 2005
Real Radio Network (all three stations and digital listening): 1.43 million adult listeners a week. Average of 11.8 hours per listener consumed every week.
Real Radio Yorkshire: 383,000 listeners a week. Average of 9.2 hours per listener consumed every week.
Real Radio Wales: 346,000 listeners a week. Average of 10.8 hours per listener consumed every week.
Real Radio Scotland: 701,000 listeners a week. Average of 13.8 hours per listener consumed every week.