6 January 2010

"Fartown High School has just gone..."

It's the first time I've ever liked snow.

I'm not a child, and nor do I have any. Therefore I cannot think of a reason why a grown-up should enjoy snow. All it does is cause injury, delays, separation, isolation and hypothermia.

However, the timing of the snow in West Yorkshire couldn't have been better in one sense.

It got people tuning into the radio station where I now work.

Local radio is never more important than when there is a crisis in the area that actively threatens to spoil or change the day that people have planned. Regional and national radio can talk about the main roads - Bobbi Prior's travel bulletins on Radio 2 yesterday were so long the music bed ran out while she spoke - but only a very local station can get specifics, take correspondence from people stuck or suffering and use it, and then change its priorities so that helping people through their day becomes the absolute.

Especially when the schools close.

On yesterday's breakfast show at Pennine FM, only my second, we were bantering away about anything and nothing for the first hour when the snow started to fall. And the sky really was hurling this irritating white stuff down.

Within minutes, emails were arriving about schools that were being closed for the day. The list grew gradually but steadily until we were giving mention to more than 100 schools in Kirklees (that's Huddersfield, Dewsbury and surrounding smaller towns all west of Leeds) that were staying shut for the day.

All other features and formats went out of the window (which we obviously closed again quickly). Every link was offering an update or a recap. People are tuning in all the time, information is always being updated and the job of local radio in this situation is to serve its people as well as possible.

We understood from colleagues who were channel-hopping in the car that our rivals, who had bigger regions to cover, were only mentioning schools every 20 minutes or so. But when a parent wakes up and sees that weather, they need to know now, now, now. They may have childcare to arrange, or a day off work to force through. They might not be able to get through to the school if they ring it. So their next port of call is the local radio station. And they simply can't wait 20 minutes because you have some daft quiz to play.

By 9am yesterday (and today, in fact), I was drained. Not exhausted, but drained. The adrenaline and the spontaneity and the need to deliver concise and correct information constantly really wore into me. It is always live, but it really felt live. And the number of calls we got to our specially set-up Schools Line, and the amount of emails we were sent, and the number of hits we got to our website, where we had published a full, alphabetical list of shut schools, suggests that we got our priorities right. When you need local information right now, the place you should turn to is your local radio station.

And given that I'm on a breakfast show that needs to raise its profile, a potential crisis, live and happening, supplies the best possible and most urgent reason for making people come to you. I'm in no doubt that many of the listeners who tuned in to us over the last two days have not done so in weeks, or months, or possibly even ever before. They may have been Radio 1 types, happy to enjoy Chris Moyles and his articulate rambles because their journey to work and their nine year old's journey to school was not threatened. But on this occasion, they knew that Chris had to be sacrificed.

The forecast suggests we may be talking snow and schools and roads tomorrow and Friday too. That's fine by me. One hopes that we do a good enough job to prompt them all to stick around with us long after the snow has melted and sanity has returned.

Local radio is being much maligned right now. The group that owns all the Heart stations (many of which were rebranded as Heart when they were bought a couple of years ago, after years with a familiar local name) has talked openly of maybe being permitted one day to make its London breakfast programme the morning show on every Heart station, thereby removing the localness from everything each station does at breakfast time. How they could ever maintain their credibility on snowy days I would never know. What I do know is that whitened days like those most of us are having proves just how important, and special, and helpful, real local radio is.

So, while offering all my sympathy if this weather has ruined your week in some way, I rather like snow this week. It won't last, promise. Especially if I'm out in it rather than seated in a warm studio, reporting on it.


Anonymous said...

And its much appreciated! Mum of 2 from Hudds! Hx

David Easson said...

You're right that it's times like this when local (very local, not regionalised or 'hubbed') radio comes into its own. It takes some sort of out-of-the-ordinary event to show its relevance, which is wrong. I remember Sheffield was up to its necks in water when Hallam were jauntily heading into "In Demand" (live from a much drier - oddly - Manchester) while Sky News were taking calls from people genuinely in fear for their lives round the corner. They got on the case eventually, and covered the story brilliantly, but they weren't there from 7-10pm.

I wonder if this will resonate with radio company bosses? It might do now snow's hit London, but I doubt it.

And let's not forget the horrifically-stretched commercial radio journalists who fling themselves into action as well!

Glad you're proving useful in your first week!

Mark Pearson said...

Now you've made me yearn for the days when all the commercial stations were truly independent.

I used to listen avidly to Capital when I was 11/12 (we're talking mid-80s here. Listened for the first time in ages last week ... it's all non-descript could-be-coming-from-any-studio-in-the-UK guff.