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Smaller technology for bigger radio news stories

Radio news, like any type of journalism, is all about getting the story before any one else. While the medium can move faster than TV, it has still been slowed down by cumbersome equipment and technology. But that is changing now. Kevin Hilton looks at how the mobile phone app era is offering radio reporters new freedom.

Radio news, like any type of journalism, is all about getting the story before any one else. While the medium can move faster than TV, it has still been slowed down by cumbersome equipment and technology. But that is changing now.

Technology has played a major role in bringing immediacy to radio and TV newsgathering but it is only now that journalists are beginning to enjoy the benefits of new media formats that allow them to break free of bulky, heavy, expensive equipment and really get in amongst the action.

Today’s radio listeners now expect news reports to have either an account by a journalist on the scene or comments from someone involved in the story. Back in the early days of the medium there was none of that kind of immediacy. The BBC, for example, took its news from the main agencies, including Reuters and the Press Association, which were catering primarily for newspapers at the time.

The result was reports that were authoritative, impartial but dull. In 1936 this situation prompted a 22-year old print journalist called Richard Dimbleby to write to the BBC’s chief news editor outlining that BBC radio news should have its own correspondents putting together reports featuring comment from people involved in the story. “In this way… news could be presented in a gripping manner and… remain authentic,” he wrote.

The BBC responded by offering Dimbleby a job and two months later he got the chance to put his theories into practice. When the Crystal Palace in south London caught fire. Dimbleby and another like-minded journalist, David Howarth, rushed to the scene, followed by one of the BBC’s mobile recording units, which were massive and full of disk cutting equipment. This couldn’t get through the crowds watching the blaze so engineers connected the broadcast amps to a telephone line. Dimbleby reported with the noise of fire and crashing glass behind him, to the amazement of listeners. Howarth later wrote, “The quality of the line displeased the BBC engineering division… but the event proved his [Dimbleby’s] point that if we got the story it didn’t matter how.”

That ethos continues today and new technology is helping reporters get closer to their stories than before. Among the proponents of mobile phone-based reporting is BBC Radio 5 Live journalist Nick Garnett, who covers the North of England for the station. He says he started looking into new types of live transmission and recording equipment because he was “tired of carrying heavy kit around”.

In the last five years developers have looked at combining broadcast equipment with telecoms to produce a full radio studio on a mobile phone. Among these are the Tieline Report-IT Live and LUCI LIVE apps. Garnett had a version of LUCI LIVE when he covered the election of Ed Miliband as UK Labour Party leader in September 2010. “I had the app on my iPhone and decided to go for it,” he explains. “No one in the studio knew I was using it – it just came up as a feed.”

A more dramatic example of how a system like LUCI LIVE can get a reporter to the heart of the action is when Garnett covered the riot in Salford, Greater Manchester during the summer of urban disturbances in England last year. With his radio car burned out Garnett got close to the rioters because of the app: “Reporters using TV cameras and conventional radio broadcasting equipment were quickly identified and targeted. But I was able to stand there and talk away on my iPhone with no one realising who I was. At one point I was between a group of kids and the police and broadcast the two sides shouting at each other live on air.”

Garnett says in situations like that getting on air is more important than the purest sound quality. “It’s still better than a straight mobile connection or landline,” he adds, “I use it in mono, which is fine because most people still listen to 5 Live on medium wave or laptops.”

After 25 years in radio reporting Garnett keeps trying to change the game and keep invigorated. New technology helps in this, he comments, and now he estimates he uses LUCI LIVE for 90 percent of what he does. “Broadcasters are now ahead of consumer electronics users and the media colleges because of systems like this. It’s been a complete game changer.”