Comment

Asking radio reporters to become TV presenters will only cement mediocrity at the BBC

TV talks down to its audience, but a skilled radio reporter lifts listeners into the heart of the story

Over the weekend it was reported that the BBC plans to sack its national radio reporters and invite them to apply for a limited number of jobs which include television reporting. Good for the BBC’s balance sheet perhaps, but it represents a much worse deal for its already ill-regarded radio listeners.

Among the names for the chop is Hugh Sykes, a giant amongst radio journalists. Reporting from the Middle East, Sykes's extraordinary powers of description have taken listeners into the heart of human conflict as no television telephoto lens ever could. The intimacy of the medium creates a personal relationship that television simply does not permit. 

During the 1970s, I worked as a radio reporter alongside Sykes on Radio 4's Today programme. He stuck with it, while I was lured into TV. This may have been the better choice, until now. Television is a breathless game. Assuming viewers have the attention span of a fly, editors ask their reporters to be crisp, concise, speedy, and the more words with fewer than a couple of syllables, the better. 

While television inclines towards talking down to audiences, the skilled radio reporter lifts their listener into the heart of the story. The radio reporter has at their disposal all the potent facilities of language and expression that the print journalist enjoys; and so does the TV reporter, if they are ever allowed to us them. But the radio reporter has more; the added strength given to a word by the use of a well-timed pause, or subtle emphasis - I can always tell when a radio reporter is raising an eyebrow; television wouldn’t allow that.

Television can’t bear silence, however brief.  It assumes viewers will dive for the next channel if their senses aren’t constantly being tickled. The radio reporter knows the power of even the most transient pause, to allow the listener to reflect on, or even hear what is happening in the background. Rather than being spoon-fed images, we are invited to exercise our imaginations and come to our own conclusions. The radio reporter has to work harder, and the listener has to put in some effort too of course, but from that comes satisfaction. 

Listen to the archive recordings of Richard Dimbleby giving his first impressions of the horrors of Belsen, and don’t tell me there isn’t every bit as much horror and revulsion in his voice as was ever portrayed by subsequent pictures.

The BBC tried this trick some years ago, forcing radio and television reporters into the same mould, creating what they described as ‘bi-media’. As the late Peter Donaldson, doyen of Radio 4 newsreaders, remarked: "Bi-media! More like bi-mediocrity!"