Get it right or not get it wrong?

I had a blog post lined up to publish today, about listening like a listener. It will publish at a later date and I postponed it on Friday of last week, following the news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday. On Friday it didn’t feel like it would feel right for it to post and drop into social accounts. Sitting here this morning, when the post would have published, it might have actually been ok. Plans and reality do that!

I’ve heard many broadcasters over the last few days talk about the planning and the rehearsals for events such as a royal death. Indeed from the very first time I went into a radio studio in Nottingham at the start of my career, I was introduced to the “Death & Emergency Box”- a lever arch box file with instruction of what to do in the event of a royal death. The contents changed over the years, probably fewer CDs of national anthems and appropriate music with the advent of computer playout systems, but the general function, the overall plan is largely unchanged. The box expanded into other Major News Plans, but the constant has always been there- what happens when a senior royal dies.

Despite the plans, the rehearsal, the time considering what it would feel like- when the moment happens it changes. What seemed like the right thing to do in the cold light of day in a planning meeting before anything happened, now seems out of step and not quite hitting the mark. That doesn’t mean the plan was a waste, its absolutely required and gives you a safety net to fall back on.

Trying to predict what the mood will be like ahead of time is hard- its the job of the people in those senior positions to make their best attempt at it of course and ultimately one ends up erring on the side of caution. It is easier to ramp up than cause offence and pull back.

Since the day I first saw a “Death and Emergency Box”, media has changed dramatically. Then, Radio Trent had a classical show, a rock show, and oldies show amongst others. Now of course there are complete radio stations catering for those interests- the days of “all things for all people” services are largely behind a majority media outlets, save for a few exceptions. The original and often used obit plan model was first devised and created for the “all things to all people’ services.

I remember when Prince Phillip died – the last time the plan was tested in earnest. I was at Jack Media Group, we did exactly what you would predict we would do- and largely the planned set of actions from the original obit model: Fold all services into one, take IRN for updates and programming for a short time and then one log of, at first, classical music. It was at that point it felt out of step. For a national “Best of British” station (and largely rock centred), and a pure rock station and a dance station it really didn’t fit. We quickly changed to more station centred appropriate non- strident set of music. The first plan wouldn’t have caused any issues (“not getting it wrong”), but the refined plan worked so much better for the stations it sat upon. Evolving the plan in real time.

I listened around a bit on Thursday and Friday when the news of the Queen’s passing broke. I think everyone handled the moment very, very well. It is a very stressful moment and well done to everyone in front and behind the various microphones. The one observation I have really is just how far the planning has evolved into matching the audience expectation for the station the programming sits upon. It was also quite different from the plan when Prince Phillip passed away last year on all the services. The BBC, being the national broadcaster is always going to be in the biggest of spotlights and probably more cautious as a result, but after the initial news had broken- Radio 1 sounded like a sombre and respectful version of itself, as did Radio 2, Radio 4 etc. Keeping them all together for longer, with a single output would have been easier and a case of “not getting it wrong”, but instead they got it right.

Similarly for commercial operators. The Hits Radio stations once the initial news moment had happened, sounded like a sombre version of itself, as with GHR etc. Over at my former stomping ground at Global, where with LBC and Classic in the arsenal it would have been easy to switch everything to that. LBC took the news lead initially, but then individual stations sounded like respectful versions of themselves.

There were no doubt some moments which didn’t go as planned, or perhaps given their time again, those involved would do differently. It is quickly forgotten and the overall telling of the news, comforting the listener and taking them on the journey is what remains and persists. Radio builds a relationship with its listener, in good times and in bad times. When those busy with the on air get a moment to reflect, it should be on a job well done.

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Published by Dick Stone

Radio...its always been radio.

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