In praise of radio on TV

Dave Lee
Dave Lee
Dec 31, 2015 · 6 min read
Credit: BBC

I’m going to say this quietly: by and large, TV is rarely a great place to find journalism*.

There are stand-out examples, sure, but on the whole, of all the mediums available to us, TV is consistently the format the provides the least to its audience — you’ll find more scoops in one edition of a newspaper than you will in a month of TV bulletins.

But we carry on, of course, because it’s television that has the biggest reach, and (as studies show) the greatest impact. That has obvious value when it comes to accountability, democracy and all those things this industry is meant to serve.

(Although when it comes to the accountability of journalists themselves, it is the online world that has reporters waking up in a cold sweat. There should be a word to describe that feeling when you load Twitter up for the first time after one of your stories has been published overnight.)

TV is 80% logistics, 10% shouting, 9% journalism, 1% popping on a bit of make-up. The necessary evils of the least forgiving medium.

And of all the journalistic requirements where TV fails, it’s interviews that are frequently the most horrid.

But we can change that, very easily.

Credit: NPR

Have you ever been into a television studio?

They’re horrible places. Bright, hot lights which are, by design, right in your face. Monitors everywhere, showing you from all angles. A microphone, stuffed under your chin. A presenter, distracted by the jabbering in his or her ear.

And you’ve only got two minutes. Ok, maybe three. You need four? Tough luck mate — the sport’s coming up next. And nothing moves the sport.

It’s in this environment, the grim TV studio, where we choose to scrutinise the people who deserve to be held accountable.

Is it any wonder it’s normally a completely fruitless exercise? Embarrassing, even?

It’s a set-up that helps nobody. One that feeds the barking of Kay Burley and the shout-shout-shout of American cable news.

And for what? Did Kay Burley ever get any answers from that bloke from Alton Towers? Does American cable news ever achieve anything other than the gradual dumbing down of the US population?

Radio studios, on the other hand… now there’s a nice place to be. Temperature controlled to the guest’s comfort, not the equipment’s. Pleasantly lit. Cosy. Intimate. Quiet.

When you’re in a radio studio you’re both comfortable and cornered. It’s the ultimate cocktail for a great, insightful interview.

What’s even better is that when you add cameras to that mix, the dynamic doesn’t change one iota.

I could give you a heap of examples. And you know what, I will.

Barack Obama. The king of smooth talking, and a man very comfortable on camera. Relishes it, even. But on radio, some of that sometimes-sickly slickness is replaced with a sincerity. The two stand-out interviews of his second term — NPR this week, and that Marc Maron podcast — are notable due to their intimacy and honesty. Even better, the NPR interview was recorded in video, and it’s a great watch. You forgive all the radio gubbins when what the person is saying is that good. And it makes the audio sound great, too. Deep, crisp, inviting.

Credit: LBC

Another example— Nigel Farage. Slightly less smooth than Obama, you might say, but a good operator nonetheless. Has he ever been as effectively, and brutally, put under scrutiny than by James O’Brien on LBC?

Again, it was filmed, and it’s truly terrific to observe a man so used to rolling off soundbites being subjected to a relentless barrage of facts and contrasting opinions from an interviewer who has absolute faith in his own preparations.

In fact, LBC has done it a few times. Like Natalie Bennett, who was completely floored in a performance even she described as “excruciating”. She wasn’t hit by a cruel gotcha question, but by line after line of policy that she was unable to stand behind and explain. Time pressures wouldn’t have allowed this to happen on television. (And if it did, you’d probably have hid behind the sofa.)

And who could forget the radio interview that finished off an election campaign.

Would Gordon Brown’s reaction to hearing back his “bigot” quote been nearly as revealing on television?

He knew he was being filmed, and yet it’s his gestures that tell the whole story, gestures a TV studio would have surely stifled.

His sudden “oh shitting hell” stretch back in the chair. The hand-palming moment of deflation, a brief hint of that now-famous anger, and then the slow, unforgiving realisation of what was occurring, scribbling non-sensical notes. All captured on film (and uploaded to YouTube by everyone, it seems, apart from the BBC).

Less than a minute after Jeremy Vine said “someone’s just handed me the tape”, Brown’s campaign was all but over.

Credit: Absolute Radio

All of that said, radio shouldn’t be seen as a trap for naive interviewees.

Think about Ed Miliband, a man considered so out of touch with the common man that his inability to eat a bacon sandwich made headline news. Yet in an interview with Absolute Radio (Absolute Radio!), the apparently nerdy, stiff, square Ed Miliband made way for someone who seemed like a thoroughly decent bloke — one that wasn’t afraid to admit he knew nothing about music, but everything about cricket.

Compare that approach to his horrendous “tuff enuff” moment.

I mean neither approach did any good in the long run, but you get my point.

Even better, radio also gets the best out of the general public. Look at Jeremy Vine’s show, or the old Victoria Derbyshire radio programme — both industry-leading examples of how to get ordinary people talking to the nation as if every single listener was an old, trusted friend.

We have solid proof this type of journalism — emotional, personal stories — doesn’t work as well on TV. I don’t think it’s an unfair criticism to say that the Victoria Derbyshire TV programme — while doing great work — hasn’t been able to transfuse that same level of emotion from its radio beginnings.

Or an even simpler comparison — watch The Film Review on the News Channel and compare it to Kermode and Mayo in a radio studio. Mark Kermode is like a different person. Could you imagine this moment ever happening in a TV studio? Or this one?

Credit: BBC

Alright, alright, so the point I’m making about radio versus TV is as old as TV itself. Many things work better on radio simply due to the relative simplicity of a radio production. We all understand that.

But the bigger suggestion here is that radio on TV works really well. In my view, radio on TV often works better than, er, TV on TV — particularly when it comes to holding people to account, or getting guests to really open up.

So — an hour of Today programme highlights on the News Channel? Terrific idea. Same goes for 5Live Breakfast, Drive, and the other host of terrific programmes that pass many people by simply because they don’t listen to the radio.

And it’s not just the BBC, of course. NPR, LBC… even TalkSport could create some great television by transplanting what they do to the screen.

In a media industry looking at big cuts but demanding great programmes, I can’t think of an easier quick-win than making the most of these incredible radio moments.

(*The big exception to this entire statement is of course in long-form and investigative TV journalism. Panorama, Dispatches, and so on. But how many truly agenda-setting episodes of those programmes go out in a year?)

(Quick bio: I’m a BBC journalist based in San Francisco, but I write here very much in a personal capacity. I’ve worked for the BBC for six years across online, radio and, most recently, TV. I’m fortunate enough to work for a broadcaster that encourages and embraces open and public debate about how it operates.)

Tell me I’m an idiot on Twitter: @davelee

Dave Lee

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Dave Lee

The BBC’s Silicon Valley reporter. My work first appears at Tips to