BBC local radio is about to sound better.

INRIX, a private American company that provides traffic information, won’t be contributing off-site presenter-read travel bulletins for 39 BBC local stations from June. Instead, INRIX will produce travel information scripts which will be read by local presenters at each radio station.

It’s sad that jobs will be lost at INRIX, their presenters that BBC local radio stations cross to for travel, are excellent broadcasters. The problem is WHEN they do it and what it does to the sound of the radio stations.

Currently, each INRIX presenter reads travel news on multiple stations so each radio station is given “windows” in each hour when they can cross to the INRIX studios, to get their local bulletin. This window can be up to two minutes either side of your slot. If you’re working on a station who’s two INRIX slots are 15 minutes into the hour and 45 minutes into the hour, you could be going to travel anywhere between 13 and 17 minutes in and 43 and 47 minutes in. Now that might not sound like a big deal, but it can have a negative effect on the sound of the programme, let me explain.

Radio links or talk breaks, each have a natural length and that natural length is different for every link. Radio sounds bad when a bit that only needs 30 seconds is dragged out by the presenter to 45 or 60 seconds. Presenters regularly do that so they can hit benchmarks on time. With INRIX you have to wait till you know their reporter is connected. The same is true when a link that needs a bit more air to breath, say two minutes, is condensed down or rushed to fit into 40 seconds. On an all speech show with no music and no commercials like the Breakfast Show I presented on Swindon’s BBC Wiltshire, I found myself having to extend or condense the natural length of bits to make sure I hit the travel windows when the INRIX reporter was ready.

There’s always going to be benchmarks, news windows have to be hit precisely. We need to reduce the amount of times when this has to happen or the show just becomes a series of filler segments in-between touchstones, instead of a collection of great content pieces that connect deeply with the listener.

News and travel aren’t the only windows you’re dealing with on a live show. I remember having a cabinet minister on the line from Westminster. They had a hard-out time that I had to be finished with them by but because they had dialed-in late, I was left with a five minute window for an interview about an important local issue. I’d already been padding for a while and now his slot had clashed with the travel window. Instead of ditching the travel, the producer decided we had to cross to the travel first and then talk to the minister. That meant that the travel reporter in a location at least thirty miles away and completely unaware of what was happening on the programme, spent more than two minutes of airtime explaining that on that morning, the local roads, trains and busses were as busy as they usually are in the usual places at that time every weekday morning. When we eventually got to the cabinet minister, I only had three minutes left to cover what was a major issue in the local area. With my padding beforehand and the travel, the listener could have been waiting five minutes for me to get to what was the main interview of that day’s show and it ended up being rushed.

People’s attention spans are shorter than ever and they’ve never had so many opportunities to be distracted, so every second on the air counts. It has to be all killer, no filler!

If INRIX were just providing the script it could have been read by me or a producer after I’d grilled the cabinet minister properly or been used to fill the gap while we were waiting for the minister to connect. If the travel information was irrelevant, an editorial decision could have been made to drop it all together in that slot.

The decision to drop INRIX off-site travel reporters is a cost saving one. Chris Burns, Head of Audio & Digital, BBC England said that the change will “ensure that we are providing our licence fee payers with the best value for money” but the result will be that BBC local radio will sound better.

So it’s curtains for windows, well, at least two of them an hour anyway.

Craic on!

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