Last October, an angry email from a listener, Rick Costello,landed in the inbox of BBC Radio Five Live. The email told how he had been diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and of his fury that the Government was refusing to pay for his winter fuel allowance while he was undergoing treatment.
The team on Five Live’s breakfast show picked up on the email. He is one of thousands of listeners who contribute to the programme through email, the breakfast blog and text messages.
After lengthy discussions with audience editor Louise Birt, Costello appeared on the station’s breakfast show with Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty in January. Within days, he had met Department of Work and Pensions minister Anne McGuire and Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, who had recovered from the same type of cancer, non-Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma.
The breakfast team followed Costello’s progress – his real name was changed to protect his identity – for the length of his campaign. He died last week.
On a later item about how the story came about, Campbell said: ‘He’s taken on a one-man campaign to change the situation of others, which is always inspiring, especially when it is someone so honest about their own situation.
Fogarty added: ‘Listeners always responded to radio, but more and more with text and emails, we are responding back to them. It’s easy for a politician to pay attention to a letter or complaint they hear, but if you bring the complainant to them, literally, it has much more force.”
Costello’s story is cited by the Five Live team as an example of how a focus on user-generated stories and opinion is improving the station’s news content. From Peter Allen reading out text messages on drivetime to Matthew Bannister’s mid-morning phone-in, Five Live has sought to develop a relationship with its audience, but now, with new technology, listeners are being encouraged to contribute ideas – and content – for news stories.
Five Live controller Bob Shennan describes this as ‘news that evolves from our close, democratic and informal relationship with our audience”.
But the emphasis on using listeners’ news and comments has its critics. Tim Luckhurst, who was assistant editor at the station’s launch, wrote in the Independent on Sunday earlier this year that he was ‘alarmed’at a lack of serious news. ‘Much of what is categorised as news is really gossip. Accessible journalism has ceded ground to condescending populism,’he wrote.
‘No longer content to tell its audience what to think, Five Live has chosen to listen instead. The approach raises profound questions about what public-service news provision now means, and although Five Live is boldly crawling towards a definition, there are obvious pitfalls.”
Five Live drivetime news editor John Zilkha counters that listeners’ contributions are important, but not the guiding influence on news. ‘First and foremost, we are still a breaking news organisation that is committed to breaking news from the point of view of the listener,’he says. ‘What is happening is an understanding that often the audience can help with that as well and can give us an insight into things and an understanding that we wouldn’t be able to access through conventional media sources.
‘People have said for a long time that Five Live has a very special relationship with its audience – what we’re doing now is trying to find new tools to be ahead of the game in terms of that.”
Zilkha says that what informs the editorial approach is questioning what the story means to the listener. ‘That’s the starting point of everything we do,’he says. ‘From there, it’s not a huge leap to ask:?’Can the listener help create understanding for other listeners?'”
The station’s interactive team, headed by Brett Spencer, has the job of thinking of new ways of involving the station’s audience with its content, via three blogs, a weekly email, video content and podcasts. Spencer and his team have been pioneering different interactive events, such as the Be The Editor slot on Matthew Bannister’s Friday show.
A programme to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 11 September terror attacks was entirely driven by listeners’ stories and blog posts.
One of Five Live’s mainstays, the phone-in show, has always been reliant on listeners, and Louise Cotton, editor of Bannister’s programme, insists user-generated content is not ‘the new big thing’but an extension of the relationship that already exists.
Far from being news on the cheap, ‘this audience stuff’also requires a great deal of production effort, says Cotton.
‘The BBC, like a lot of news organisations, has problems with engaging with the audience. People want to hear good radio programmes – but they want to hear real people.
‘There is nothing wrong with opinion from the audience, but we are not just about opinion – we are about stories. It is journalism – it’s not ringing a press office. It’s listening and trying to ask:?’Is there a story in this?’