How does radio sports reporting survive in the age of a very social media?

Pete McCarthy explores how radio giant BBC Radio 5live Sport fits in, and how it future-proofs itself, in the changing media.


Saturday afternoon, at precisely 3pm, is a literal time of the week that is still — despite TV/football rights — etched deeply and permanently in every football fans heart, young and old. Reporters up and down the country, through rain, hail, snow and even sometimes sunshine, trek and trudge from Aggborough to Anfield, The Den to Deepdale, Oakwell to Old Trafford, with nothing but a microphone in hand and a purpose to tell you the score.

Now, however, in the age where consumers won’t read, hear or see anything unless it’s 20 centimetres away from their face on a touch screen phone or tablet, radio is suffering. The popularity for the live sports reporting is still there, but it’s fading. Or at least on the radio it is.

Live texts, minute-by-minute Twitter accounts, six second clips of goals and dodgy, illegal, online streams have all contributed to this decline, and it only threatens to get bigger. So how does one of Britain’s favourites — BBC Radio 5live and their sports team survive in this ever-changing digital landscape?

Just taking a short look around the BBC Sport studios, in MediaCityUK, Salford, you get a little glimpse of the actual size of the operation at hand. Hundreds of editors, interns, reporters, social media experts and technical support under one roof, ultimately pulling together and gearing towards the same goal of getting more listeners, viewers and readers to BBC Sport. The end goal, in that respect, has always been the same but there is now thousands of ways to achieve it.

“Now, you have to think like a journalist with everything you do”

Speaking to the editor of 5live sport, Mike Carr, he says there isn't much room anymore for people to work across just one platform: “You have to be absolutely tech savvy. Totally. Unless you’re an absolutely A-grade broadcaster, you’re going to have to be able to cut across all media. You’ll need to be able to write, be totally social media savvy, be able to film, record, edit, all those sorts of things. You need to be able to offer the whole package. You’ll need to have your own digital footprint somewhere so people can see what work you’re doing, but also be careful with that as once it’s up there [it’s there for everyone to see]. Now, you have to think like a journalist with everything you do and write to build a portfolio to differentiate yourself from the others.

“It’s only now we’re seeing that multi-skilled person coming through rather than someone saying ‘I want to work on radio, TV or website’ because actually, I want everything. However, if you haven’t got the desire to be a journalist, create contacts, and be creative — you still need to be able to provide that as well as the skills as well.”

A recent addition to 5live sport is the introduction of Football Social, which debuted during last summer’s coverage of the World Cup in Brazil. Rather than the general football phone-in show, 606, Football Social brings together the voice of the audience to the last 30–40 minutes of 5live sport from all platforms. Fans’ moans and groans from Twitter, Facebook, texts and on the odd occasion there will be, still, a heavily passionate phone-rant on how Arsène Wenger should be sacked. Social media comments and phone-in reactions end the show, essentially meaning the fans’ voices take a huge part in shaping the content and discussion of the broadcast, giving the opportunity for fans to have a reason to interact on social media whilst tuning into the radio at the same time.


So is social media a threat, tool or both?

“Depends how you look at it. It’s definitely a tool for journalists to gather stories and also a great tool to actually gather information through DM’s [direct messages] so for us as a 3-hour programme we’ll use Twitter to have conversations will people to see whether we can get more information and also about whether we can get them on air to talk about it so it’s a great way to make contacts as well to develop a story after the initial thing has broken.” Says Mike Carr.

“So is it a threat? It’s a threat specifically in radio in terms of how people consume the media because people — especially younger people — consume scores & information via Twitter or Facebook and won’t necessarily turn the radio on and we’re noticing that on a Saturday where people just want the scores, most follow their own clubs on Twitter and BBC Sport, whereas 5 or 10 years ago they’d have turned the radio on for scores.”

Let’s take Manchester United as an example. They currently have 3.95 million followers (as of 11/12/2014) on Twitter. That’s almost 4 million people, if they wanted to, that could follow a Manchester United game via Twitter.

Team news often breaks first from football club’s own Twitter accounts.

The Twitter account, during games, offers team news, pre-match interviews, minute-by-minute account of the game (or whenever there is relevant action), goal-scorers and description of the goal, full time result and post-match reaction from players and managers alike. More so, the Twitter and Facebook accounts allow fans to reply to any tweet, and start a discussion with other fans on the game or action that is taking place.

In essence, Twitter offers everything on a match day that radio does. Well, almost everything that is. Hell, club Twitter accounts do try with Vines of the players’ pre-match warm-up and pictures of the fans but they just don’t quite capture the atmosphere.

Minute-by-minute account from Southampton v Manchester United.

“We are in a time where this [social media] is all still finding its feet and radio is suffering but, it might be wishful thinking, but I still think there is a dimension there that radio offers which is unique” says BBC football commentator, John Murray. “You do not get that unique voice-to-ear dimension from social media and I’d like to think people will go ‘you know I've missed that’ and also radio listening in the UK is still bloody strong.”

Atmosphere is the biggest selling point for sports radio. It’s more than just looking at a screen. Twitter can undoubtedly be great company for football but the roar of the crowd and an over-excitable commentator it will be no match for.

BBC and Manchester City journalists talk sport & social media. — BBC Journalism

Citizen journalism — are you a sports journalist?

In this digital media era anyone can tell a story and broadcast it to a wider audience. Just like this report now. Whether it be by Twitter feeds, blogs or podcasts, the internet and social media has unlocked the door for story-telling and reporting from anybody who want to showcase their talents with any content, and any style, as they please.

However, you may be a host of your own Rugby League podcast, or be the founder of a cutting-edge Spanish Segunda División blog but are you a sports journalist? Editor of 5live sport, Mr. Carr thinks so: “If you’re writing about sport, you’re kind of a sports journalist anyway.” and claims: “It all comes down to content, if it’s informative and entertaining then it’s going to get noticed”.

Mr. Carr also embraces podcasts rather than sees them as a threat: “Most of our audience comes in for live sport, that’s where our large audience is so that won’t be affected from say the Guardian podcast or whatever. I don’t see them as a threat, I listen to them, and sometimes I’ll say ‘they’re a good contributor I’ll use those’ so actually I don’t think they’re a threat at all, I don’t think the figures that they get are really that big anyway it’s more the live stuff around social media and live texts that are more of a threat to us.”


Content & shareability

With reportedly over three quarters of all adults in the UK that regularly use the internet each day, the internet and social media is now an integral part of advertising and displaying media output.

Whilst some media outlets are constantly desperate for that picture, video or funny story that will go viral to get endless shares, retweets and clicks on the site, others are continually searching for a new audience for their content.

I caught up with BBC Radio 5live’s Interactive Editor, Will Cooper and asked whether the shareability of a story is now its biggest factor: “It depends what you want to get from that or what’s your objectives. Do you just want to create a buzz or have something funny that you want as many people to see it as possible? But as the BBC, is one million likes or watches a good thing if the next thing to pop out is two thousand?

The successful video made by the 5live team.

A lot of brands are now trying to create a viral, but you cannot just create a viral because half the time, the stuff that you think is going to do well, doesn't do well, and the stuff you don’t think will do well is the stuff that goes amazingly. Last week we had a video of Lewis Hamilton surprising a 9 year old lad, we thought it was going to get millions, it is going to be one of the biggest things we've ever had but it hasn't hit the numbers that we thought it was going to do.

It’s about understanding what the objectives are, do want people to recognise your brand? Are you measured simply on engagements? Do you want people to subscribe? Do want people to listen to you? You've got to work out what the objectives are and then focus on how you’re delivering content based on that.”

An example of a tweet from @bbc5live

Will explained to me briefly how a good interactivity rate between an account and its followers is around 2% (for an account with a large following), this includes expanding the tweet, retweets, favourites, replies and link clicks. When asked how he thinks this has changed journalism online, he replied: “It’s changed quite significantly because you’ll just see lots of lists — click-bait basically. It’s meant for people that can pick up and share with others and they’ll sensationalise it with the headline but often the content isn't quite what you think its going to be. If you’re going to have that massive headline, you need to deliver on that promise.

Brands such as Coke [Coca-Cola] and Nike spend 100,000's of pounds on big brand campaigns, a big social thing, drive lots of people there and the content just wasn't very good when they arrived.

“For me, it’s get the content right first, then the rest should follow on from that.”

The BBC’s interesting because we've got lots of great content but we actually partly don’t know what to do with it, though it’s a nice problem to have. Lots are desperate for people to get to their stuff and they spend so much time trying to get people to their site that they forget about the actual quality of their content. For me, it’s get the content right first, then the rest should follow on from that.”

Prompting the same questions back to Mike Carr, he answered: “Now, to me it’s about getting our stuff out to an extra audience, so I always used to think it was about promoting our content to get people to listen live, but actually it’s not, it’s about getting our content out to a new audience and if they want to consume a 2 minute clip 400,000 times, that’s great. Now that audience won’t even necessarily come back to listen live but it’s a new audience for us consuming our content differently and the obsession that we had about a year ago was to get the audience back to listen live and I don’t think that works, it’s just about creating a new audience for us.

Whenever we tweeted something out, we used to have to put a link that said ‘and you can listen live’ and we were told to do that all the time and after a conversation with someone I said ‘how many people link back?’ and he said ‘none’ so we stopped doing it, so it’s all about that bite-size content now.”

5live’s answer to this? ‘In Short’. In Short serves that bite-size content with highlights from their recent news, sport and popular shows that can be easily shared and quickly listened to via social media sites.

BBC 5live’s ‘In Short’ — providing highlights from their latest shows.

It’s the clips that can be played over and again and shared with friends which are ever-growing in popularity and these 1–3 minute clips give 5live the opportunity to perform on social media.


In summary

The need for live sports reporting will always be present, but how we consume it is constantly shifting. There’s the fear of that being replaced by Twitter and live text, in particular and longer form reporting being replaced by social media debates and citizen journalism. Sports reporting as we know it is all part of the beauty of sport. Radio is safe for now but here’s to hoping it will never be obsolete.

“Radio will be at a death soon. I hope not but podcasts are more important, bite-size clips are more important. Think about how you watch TV now, how often do you watch it live? You hardly do, now radio is more live but it’s only going one way and we've got to think ‘how do we future-proof ourselves?’ and that’s through podcasts, bite-size stuff and just making the most out of our live stuff as well.” — Mike Carr, Editor 5live Sport.

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