Comment and insight on journalism issues from Press Gazette's guest writers

Richard Horsman: Why UK commercial radio news has become a vampire industry

Richard Horsman is a radio consultant and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University College

Don't get me wrong, I love commercial radio. I worked in it for 22 years, plus a further two as a consultant, and during that time I took great delight getting one up on the BBC and our other media rivals whenever I could.

I've also been a strong, often isolated, defender of the commercial sector in the academic world where the default position tends towards 'public service good - profit bad'.

But I've reached a position where I think it has to be said that UK commercial radio news has become a vampire industry, sucking in talent whilst putting next to nothing back.

There will be those reading this who will decide that Dickie's finally gone native. The self-styled 'least likely academic' has opted for a comfy armchair and forgotten how tough life is in the real world.

After all, getting a job in commercial radio news has always involved effort and sacrifice.

For many years the conventional route into an IR newsroom has been through higher education; either an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate qualification accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (or increasingly the National Council for the Training of Journalists, but that's a topic for another day).

The trainee takes all the risk, paying for their own training with no employer support long before they're in a position to even bid for a job.

The employer benefits from a Darwinian struggle in which the brightest, the fittest or in many cases just those with the richest parents come hammering at the door looking for placements.

Editors and corporate suits tend to romanticise this bit. They call years of poverty and sacrifice 'determination', recalling their own days of breaking into radio.

Yes, my generation gave up a lot of time and energy to earn our chance, cleaning carts for free instead of flipping burgers for money. My youth and enthusiasm was expended in a Bradford basement.

But my university education was paid for, and I was even able to claim the dole during the long holidays. Support became less generous over time but the model worked, more or less, until the advent of tuition fees.

Kids graduating under Labour's 'three grand' model ended up with an average of 14 thousand pounds of debt at graduation, allowing for living costs. Those starting now under the Coalition's full cost scheme (thanks, Clegg, that includes my son) will accumulate debt of between £30-£40K over three years of study; money they'll still be paying back when they're my age.

Today's talent can't afford to take on all that and give up the same time and effort.

The first candidates to be deterred by debt are those from the diverse backgrounds employers claim to be seeking so diligently. As I've witten before, diversity matters, but even for the relatively affluent the model is broken.

So what is the radio industry doing about it? Next to nothing is the answer.

In terms of bursaries, I was able to launch a Real Radio bursary, shared between Leeds Trinity and Sheffield University, in 2004. This scheme was absorbed within the Scott Trust and expanded to cover the whole country with two broadcast training bursaries in (if I recall correctly) 2009. What will happen now GMG's being merged into Global is still unclear. I think Global themselves pay for a student at LCC under some legacy deal. If there are any other bursaries I'm unaware of them - please let me know.

The consequence of neglect of training will be a falloff in the number of suitable applicants for news roles.

Of course there will always be plenty of wannabes, but those with the right skills - voice, legal knowledge, appreciation of what popular news is about - will diminish. Those who do have the skills will be lured, increasingly, by the BBC. Commercial radio news could become trapped in a downward spiral.

So I would urge all commercial radio employers to consider their position.

Decide what you can do to invest in maintaining local and regional news services that often form such a large part of successful franchise bids as a fast, sharp, bright, popular alternative to the BBC; not (OK, I'm mixing my undead metaphors) a zombie service of rip 'n' read and newsline calls.

I'm delighted to have taken the first steps on this route last week, signing a partnership deal with Bauer Radio in Yorkshire to help recruit applicants for my course. There's no bursary on offer but it's a start, and it's always easier to negotiate when an ideal candidate is standing in front of you. Other groups, from the very largest to the smallest, should see what they can do to match or exceed this commitment.

Otherwise the suits should remember what happens to vampires at the end of the movie. They usually crumble to dust.

This blog was first published on Richard Horsman’s blog.

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