Time to redeploy the ‘secret’ weapon every local newspaper has access to?

Did it snow?

Did it snow?

The Birmingham Post last week reported on disappointment at BBC Radio WM following the most recent listener figures which showed that 190,000 a week now tune into the radio station, compared with over 400,000 a week in 2004.

The quotes of the station controller, Keith Beech, got me thinking. A memo leaked to the Post included the following quotes from Beech:

We are judged on the quality of our programming around big stories and events and we showed with 19 hours of live coverage on the Pope’s visit, our ambition around the General Election and coverage of the Tory party conference that we take ownership of the big events and bring unrivalled coverage of these to the people of the West Midlands.

Over the last 12 months we’ve generated more original stories for the BBC than anyone else in English regions and in recent weeks we’ve had Chris Blakemore’s Sandwell schools scoop, Adrian Goldberg’s exclusive on the spy cameras, and Steve Dyson’s scoop last week with the Monetary Policy Committee.

The reference to generating ‘more original stories for the BBC than anyone else in the English regions’ is particularly interesting.  On one level, it probably actually says more about the other BBC regions than it does about WM. Newspaper newsrooms up and the down the country have long moaned about how stories which begin with them regularly find their way straight onto local radio news, while in some parts of the country newspapers can quite legitimatley argue they effectively set the regional TV news agenda too, such is the likelihood of the evening local TV news following the splash on the newspaper.

But what Beech’s statement appears to be saying is that WM is coming up with these great stories – but that they aren’t being rewarded in terms of listeners. That should certainly strike a chord with people working in print newsrooms around the country. How often have you encountered the disappointment of not seeing a sales spike despite a superb paper?

And perhaps the promise of good stories a lot of the time isn’t enough to keep people’s loyalty these days. Regardless of medium, we have to keep reminding people why they should stick with us, be that in print, on the radion, via a website on on’t telly.

So – what’s the solution? I’m not a radio person, so I don’t have one. But in thinking about this I came to the conclusion that trying to entice listeners to a radio station with the promise of big stories is probably a much harder task that it is for newspapers.

For newspapers have a weapon which, in some cases, has been under-valued in recent years – and if deployed properly has the ability to drag people into buying a newspaper much more than almost anything else: The newspaper A-board.

Newspaper A-boards still are everywhere. Admittedly, the one I’ve got a picture of above isn’t the best example in the world, but there it is, on the main road through Bowburn in Country Durham, just waiting to grab the attention of passers-by.

Get the A-board right and surely at least some casual sales will follow. That A-board doesn’t necessarily need to be news led, it could just as easily be for an offer or, perhaps most relevantly given the excitement around it at the moment – data. Rather than ‘GCSE league tables out today’, how about: GCSE results: How good is your child’s high school?’

Unlike the a search engine optimised headline on a web story, which seeks to ensure that the a story gets in front of the person who knows what they’re searching for, the newspaper A-board is that crucial link to the people who may not think they they need or want the newspaper.

Ok, so there will be people reading this thinking ‘so what, you’ve only just picked up on this?’ and the answer is that no, I haven’t. But the problems facing Radio WM are very similar to some of the challenges faced by newspapers – other than the fact that WM’s income is guaranteed.

And as this Flickr group shows – it’s a skill of varying quality depending on where you are.

Unlike WM, or any other radio station, newspapers still have the ability to get under the nose of people by chance. Perhaps a new year’s resolution for 2011 could be to put some of the energy that goes into designing that brilliant front page or perfecting that killer intro into making the sure the newspaper A-board that promotes that story really, really sings too.

And perhaps hope you never, ever, find yourself writing this one.

3 comments

  1. You make some interesting points there David but for me the reason the radio medium is losing listeners is simply because radio in the this country is absolutely atrocious. Turn on WM, Heart, Beacon, Wolf or any other local stations and I would challenge you to spot the difference. The DJs all sound the same, the music is pretty much the same and the dialogue, the bit that’s supposed to be the personality of the DJ is almost always the same. There is no character in radio. You only have to listen to shows which are the exceptions that prove the rule. Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, Brian Matthews Sound of the Sixties or anything done by Mark Lamarr. These are shows which play a good mix of music (even when stuck in a genre), are entertaining and more importantly the DJs are allowed to let their character come through.

    Radio stations don’t need A-Boards. They need to employ DJs with character and let that character shine.

  2. Hi David, enjoyed this piece on the power of the A board, especially as I’ve just fallen foul of the ‘street furniture police’ again. Many councils, including a lot in our patches, simply refuse to let you put one up and threaten prosecution if you do. Now I’m taking to wearing one…

  3. It’s interesting, how when writing Twitter/Facebook updates to entice people to our web stories it’s the same issue the A-boards have. Not many characters available, and trying to make people want to read more. Are there any similarities between what we Tweet and what goes on the A-board?

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