BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat – How to stay relevant
For completeness – here’s the full version of the piece I wrote for the BBC’s College of Journalism website.
It’s since been republished in full by the EBU on their Eurovision Journalism Now site,
On a side note, Newsbeat won Gold for Best News and Current Affairs programme at this year’s Sony Radio Awards. We’re all very proud.
As always, comments are invited, read and appreciated.
About 18 months ago, I was asked by the BBC’s College of Journalism to go to a meeting in Radio 1’s newsroom. The instructions were vague: “Not sure what they need, but they’ve asked for a social media specialist.”
While I’d listened to their main programme, Newsbeat, I’d never actually been to Radio 1 before. It’s different from the rest of the BBC, even geographically. For decades it’s been in a separate building and even now, in the rebuilt Broadcasting House, it’s on its own floor, it has a different entrance, and you need a special access pass to get in.
The newsroom produces hourly bulletins and daily programmes for Radio 1 and 1Xtra. These are tailored to the target audience, 16-29 year olds and the core news topics reflect that: music, technology, entertainment, health, politics.
The main Newsbeat editions pack a huge amount into their 15 minute timeslot, and sound like nothing else on the radio. Have a listen to a recent edition.
So what did Newsbeat want?
“We need to know what the future of news is, for our audience”, said one of the Assistant Editors.
(So, nothing too big then!)
This turned out to be a fascinating question, and one that’s relevant to the entire organisation. What the future of news is for a 16 year old, turns into the future of news for the bulk of the working population about 25 years later.
Mandate for innovation and debate
Radio 1 has a very specific direction from the BBC Trust in its service licence, to “experiment with new technologies”. For News in particular “listeners should be encouraged to … provide feedback, ideas and stories and offered regular opportunities to engage in debate.”
Debate and conversation would be a key component of the next few months, both within the newsroom and with our audience. We wanted to be sufficiently plugged in and accessible, and extend the methods we used previously – email (already choked with press releases) and phone text message.
The shakedown of early social media sites was over, both MySpace and Bebo, had slid into irrelevance. Twenty-whatever-year-olds don’t use email, and figures from audience research suggested that text messaging was on the decline as well.
Newsbeat already had a page on Facebook, it was performing well. The statistics suggested that nearly 40% of Facebook’s UK users were in Radio 1’s target age group of 16-29 which meant us potentially reaching millions more people. But we didn’t understand necessarily why we were there. We didn’t have a strategy yet.
I had two questions: How much better could we do if we put more effort into it? And, can we increase online engagement, try to attract a different audience to the one already listening on the radio?
Let me point out, that the existing audience isn’t bad, radio industry listening figures from early 2013 put Newsbeat’s reach at over 2 million people a week, but, this audience is falling quarter-by-quarter and the FM radio audience is older than Radio 1 has been told to aim for by the BBC Trust.
In surveys we’ve conducted in 2012 the standout comment was that our audience wanted more opportunities to share their opinions.
We know those opinions are worth listening to, and our aim is to keep the quality of that conversation high, but we didn’t have the resources to read and moderate everything all the time. The BBC has long had its ‘house rules’ for web boards. These didn’t seem appropriate on Facebook, after all, it wasn’t an area the BBC controlled. So we slimmed them down. We’d hide a post from general viewing if it was:
a) abusive (Radio 1 has led campaigns on anti-bullying online)
b) illegal or encouraged a crime
c) off topic
The quality of the discourse really took a jump up when started to talk more with our audience. When the conversation looked like it was getting off-topic, we would try to steer it back on course. If someone had a question, we’d answer. We asked questions back. Question, clarify, it’s what reporters do.
Newsbeat’s style is informal, but the web can be more so. That doesn’t mean we relax our language further, but we don’t get distracted when our audience does. Teenagers vent and swear, but they’re doing this on Facebook and Twitter (usually using their real name) not the BBC’s website. Their friends can see what they writing and if they’re ok with it, we generally are too.
The effect it’s had on listener engagement has been pronounced. We regularly mention on-air where people can join in the conversations and our presenter, Chris Smith, has become adept at summarising several of those messages live as they come in. We’ll often ring people back to record comments in their own voice. It’s a great way to prove that we actually use all this interaction and that there is a benefit to people taking the trouble to share what they know.
Being active on a platform you don’t control felt liberating for me. I once helped run BBC News’ first web comment forum, ‘Talking Point’, which later became a successful World Service Radio programme and a couple of name changes later is called ‘World Have Your Say’.
‘Talking Point’ was exclusively email based and worked by a journalist painstakingly cutting and pasting comments back into a webpage. Here’s an example of the early days.
Technologically and socially, it feels like we’re light years away from that now.
Fit in – stand out
One of the first things we looked at online was Newsbeat’s tone-of-voice. When the info you’re posting gets mixed together in a newsfeed of (normally) real friends, you need to fit in, lest you be unfriended/unliked.
However, when some of the stuff you’re telling people may be important to their health (a recent story looked at side-effects of dermal filler injections) you want those stories to stand out.
Social media is image driven, photos get attention. Apart from anything else, they take up more space on newsfeeds and stand out a little more. Photosharing apps get heavy use; No wonder Facebook bought market-leader Instagram.
Pictures are our highest rating type of content for social media, they can explain with a single glance. Any modern phone creates them fast and shares them faster.
While communication gets ever more mobile, the humble SMS text message seems to being replaced by chat applications like WhatsApp, and by 2012’s top social media tool for us, Twitter.
Newsbeat’s gone from zero to over 21,000 Twitter followers in 2012. When we started, we knew that there were 6 million people in Britain using it, the majority in the 18-34 age range, a significant part of Newsbeat’s audience.
Part of the increase is down to increased smartphone use. About halfway through the year we reached the tipping point where the stats showed that more people we accessing us on their phone, than on a desktop computer.
Day-to-day, one of our reporters is on hand to talk to the audience on Twitter, and while the programme is on-air, provides a live feed of additional background information. It’s “second screen” for live radio.
How effective has it been?
We more than doubled our online reach in 2012, and the engagement – people talking about Newsbeat stories on Facebook – tripled.
We’ve also been able to increase the number of stories we can cover. Newsbeat would normally rack up around 2,000 web stories in the course of a year. When we added in the social media platforms, we found the amount of content we published had increased around 60%.
Social media views can amount to a 10% increase in our audience overall, important at a time when traditional radio listening is falling.
The type of stories we’re able to cover has changed, some that we’d have huge difficulty in getting otherwise. Recently we covered the unusual cases of rape claims against men which turn out to be false.
We received several private Facebook messages from men who were affected and wanted us to know what the accusation was like for them. Had we not been a simple button push away, I don’t think we would have received these.
We’ve been able to provide an active forum for the opinions of our target age group that we can represent every day. The debate over 18-24 year olds having to work to receive a benefit payment achieved a record, with 800 people commenting on a single story.
We had a viral hit for this photostory about a fire in Chicago which turned the building into something like an ice sculpture.
One in three who saw this the pictures we posted, shared them with someone else. That’s massive, not just for Newsbeat, but for social media response as a whole.
I’ve also learned that a lot of things are completely outside your control. You can’t implement a set of procedures and then sit back anymore. The environment is changing too quickly. New tools constantly appear, the use of familiar ones shifts little by little meaning the way you handle them has to alter as well. Sometimes you’ll wake up and find a site has been completely redesigned, with functions you used daily, suddenly no longer there.
Relevant news and information is a core part of Radio 1’s offering but staying accessible is getting harder. Fewer people in our target age group listen to the radio and those that do are listening less.
In the last year we’ve succeeded in increasing the reach of our original journalism. We’re making up the difference in falling radio listeners online and are able to use sites like Facebook as an extension of our own publishing platform.
It’s clear we need to continue to position Newsbeat’s tailored news service in front of the people it’s designed for, and the stats show 15-24 year-olds continue to desert live radio. Why would you carry on listening when online music and TV services, and social networks fulfil your needs?
Bar the relatively new Newsbeat website, the last time Radio 1 made a big shift towards where to audience was drifting to, was in 1988 when the station transferred to FM.
With Tony Hall, the new Director-General placing emphasis on future strategy, the time is arguably right for change. The audience is clearly drifting mobile now. Newsbeat, rather than being primarily news on the radio, will become a mobile news brand, inherently social, more visual, and with the ability to go live to any of our users, and with a much better way to listen and interact with our audience.
The key question for us now is: For someone just starting to listen to Radio 1 now, aged 16. What does Newsbeat look like in 5 years?
The issues haven’t changed, but how we report and deliver those stories must.