How to complain.

Probably second only to our desire for a queue- we like to complain. Something, however small, is not to our liking and we need to let the provider know.

Being in the programmer’s chair at a radio station often means the complaints come to you. Even if someone else deals with replies, or some form of triage of the inbox, the rationale for the response probably come to your desk.

There is a a skill and delicacy in response which often requires a certain finesse. No two complaints, even if about the same thing, are the same.

The late John Myers used to say that no-one has a right NOT to be offended, and he is right. The veracity of complaints and the speed has also changed dramatically over the decades, exacerbated by technology. When I started my career if someone wanted to complain they would either lift the phone (landline only) and ring the radio station switchboard or get a piece of paper and write or type a letter which they would then have to take to a post box. The barrier to complaining was quite high- it required effort. In reality it probably meant that only those who were actually offended, or insulted or otherwise put out, would rise above the cost of entry.

Email made things easier and quicker. Mobile phones increased the volume and ease, and SMS even more still. Sending a simple “Why oh why” complaint text reduced the barrier to entry. Hear something, and vent your anger or disgust fairly easily and quickly. The timeframe between hearing and venting is shorter, and so the intensity of the initial reaction is maintained. Often I found that getting the presenter (as long as they were on board), to ring back a text complaint disarmed the initial issue. Appreciation of the response, and from the on air person, helped give some understanding, discussion and solved a lot of issues and was very calming. Again dependent on the presenter and their willingness to do it- it takes some guts and levelheadedness and in the wrong hands can make it a lot worse!

Social media poured petrol onto the fire and added a level of anonymity into the conversation too. With that came even more outrage of course.

I have changed breakfast shows before now and had fairly thinly veiled death threats- and those were via the post! Now, something fairly innocuous can get an out of kilter and unexpected reaction.

With all of the speed and ease of response, what are the best ways to complain? I’m no expert but some insight perhaps on a few trip wires from a life on the receiving end. I was listening to one of my podcasts of choice, PIVOT when one of the hosts read out an email complaint and responded to it- favourably and in complete agreement with the complainant. Then they made the point that the email was polite respectful and made their point without judging or poking the host in the eye. It educated the host in the use of terminology (an ill advised use of a word). The end result being that the host accepted that their usage should be changed. Defences were not lifted, because there was no attack. The complaint was singular in its point and gave reasoning and context for the personal rationale behind the offensive nature of the terminology.

It struck me that the example was fairly rare (in my experience). It was very effective though and I thought back to the few conversations I have had with complainants which were similar. It has happened from time to time and is both welcome and surprising when it does. A polite discussion about the facts, the nature and the reaction in comparison to others which might be more scattergun in their protest, outrageous in their claims and loud and aggressive in their tone. Then the defences do tend to kick in, rather than actually tackling the core issue which might well be valid.

If you have the skill, then there is one more way to get very effective complaints to land- but it takes a very skilled approach. Humour. A very good friend of mine, Lloydie James Lloyd once executed a perfect example when complaining about a phone contract. He is a gifted and amusing writer and so crafted a very tongue in cheek and humorous email to the head of the company. The response from the company was also humorous but critically addressed the issue handsomely and so had the desired effect.

Apart from the ill advised topics, or words used, most complaints tend to be about a change that has taken place. People don’t like change when its something they are used to and mush prefer the status quo. Its also an uneducated response generally- merely because the listener or viewer is naturally not aware of the real situation which resulted in a change. Many is the time you hear, “if its not broken, don’t fix it” as a reason to complain when things change- without actually realising that it IS actually broken and they just didn’t know. The flip of this is that it demonstrates the passion with which things can evoke, the relationship that presenters, programmes and stations can have with the audience.

One final thought about complaints. Whilst its a little odd that one person from a large audience could complain, and with no other complaints, could result in some form of regulatory action- I used to also think about this: something someone heard- a thin sliver of sound delivered live and probably in a background listening environment stirred a response from someone that propelled them to get in touch and tell you their thoughts and how it made them feel. Irrespective of the validity of their complaint, the nature and detail of the issues at hand, its a fabulous endorsement of the power of radio and media.

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Published by Dick Stone

Radio...its always been radio.

2 thoughts on “How to complain.

  1. Interesting perspective. I’ve always felt there should be a minimum threshold before Ofcom have to act. The reason being it’s very easy for one person to cause a drama, especially if they’re a bitter ex-employee or have some sort of grudge to bear. We’ve seen this in Community Radio in particular which is very over-regulated compared to Commercial.

    One case in point is when Robin Galloway got an Ofcom for some swearing when his studio accidentally got put to TX during network hours. Only one person, a particularly backward-thinking member of the Media UK forums (RIP) who had a chip on his shoulder at the loss of Real Radio/Scot FM made a complaint, and if I remember rightly, he didn’t hear it go out himself. But Ofcom still had to investigate. Is that right?

    Same with Sachsgate on Radio 2 – how many actually complained upon hearing the content TXed live, and how many did so after the Daily Mail went to town on the story?


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