12 lessons about live radio from Wendy Pilmer

Last week our Top Audio Storytelling class heard from Wendy Pilmer, a UK based radio expert, who I’ve had the good fortune to know for the past decade and a half.

She previously worked at a senior level in three of the BBC’s national radio stations: as Network Manager of BBC Radio 4, Head of Presentation at 5Live and Exec Producer, Specialist Music at BBC Radio One. Wendy is a Sony Award wining producer from both BBC Radios 1 & 4.

Alongside this, she has also been the Head of the BBC in the North East & Cumbria, where she led a team of 250 staff on 9 sites across TV, radio and online.

Now a freelance consultant, Wendy designs and delivers training in leadership skills and journalistic ethics, and manages change projects for major broadcasters. She also offers radio consultancy skills.

Her clients include Al Jazeera, BBC World Service, BBC College of Journalism, Channel 4 News, BBC Radio 4, BBC Scotland, Ofcom, BBC Media Action, the BBC Trust, Thomson Foundation, Arab States Broadcasting Union, BBC Local Radio and many broadcasters across the Middle East and North Africa.


Here are 12 key lessons from our in-class conversation:

Image via: http://factsanddetails.com/
  1. We need to get out of US and UK based echo chamber to understand the impact that radio continues to have with audiences around the world.
  2. Top Audio Storytelling comes in many forms; not just finely produced podcasts. Phone-ins and live broadcasting can also deliver great compelling stories.
  3. Live listening remains very powerful; creating great opportunities for dialogue — on social (which you can feature in your show) and off-line (which you can’t necessarily capture).
  4. It’s not just TV which has water-cooler moments. Listen to this BBC Radio 4 interview (below) with BBC supremo George Entwistle from 2012. Described by former ITN Chief Executive and Editor in Chief, Stewart Purvis, as “the most painful interview I have ever listened to with a Director General of the BBC.” The next day, Entwistle resigned.

As Entwistle desperately fought to defend himself over a botched Newsnight investigation, Humphrys sliced him up into tiny pieces; his forensic, sorrowful butchery was a masterclass in his art. (The Independent)

5. This interactivity, especially in developing communities, can have a huge value in supporting democracy.

6. The best broadcasters — be they on demand or live — build a relationship with their audience.

7. To do this, you must be real and authentic. If you’re not, you will not be able to relate to your audience, nor they to you.

8. You also need to understand where your audience is. For a youth orientated station like BBC Radio 1, this has included a share-discuss-find policy which puts visualization and video at it’s heart.

Radio 1 has been regularly producing visual content since 2008 in order to better reach and serve this audience. The Radio 1 iPlayer channel is the new official home of Radio 1’s visual content, building on the success of Radio 1’s YouTube channel, which now has 2.4 million subscribers, making Radio 1 the world’s biggest visual radio station.

(Source: BBC Commissioning)

9. Always go to the heart of the story. And get as close to it as you can.This principle should guide everything from who you approach for interview (eyewitnesses above external “experts”) and where you do it (on location/site if possible).

10. Use natural sound where possible. It’s one of the things that makes radio special and is part of the unique way you can use audio to tell stories.

11. Expect the unexpected. Especially in a live broadcasting scenario. Wendy highlighted the eyewitness reporting of Lee Rigby’s murder in London on 22nd May 2013, on LBC Radio.(Warning: this audio contains descriptions some people may find distressing.)

As LBC’s own website states: “Before the events made themselves clear [presenter] Iain Dale appealed for witnesses to contact him with more information about what was happening in Woolwich. James got in touch.”

In such situations, remember you have a duty of care to your sources.

12. Follow up stories over time. Great stories — and people — are worth revisiting, not least because the audience cares about many of the issues radio can engage with.

We heard how BBC 5 Live’s Victoria Derbyshire spoke four times to ‘Rachel’, a doctor, and an alcoholic in recovery, who sadly died aged 45 in 2014.

Writing about her death the presented noted:

Rachel first contacted our programme in February 2011- it was a frank and searing call. She explained that she was about to check into a rehabilitation clinic, that she spent “every waking hour thinking about drinking” and remembered that she’d been drinking heavily for about ten years.

“She sounded so fragile. While on air she quietly asked her partner to bring her a drink; we heard a can of Guinness fizz as it was opened before being slowly poured into a glass. It was a shocking illustration of the nature of addiction but it did so much to educate all of about alcoholism. Our education continued with every appearance Rachel made on our programme.”

Our thanks to Wendy (@wendypilmer) for her time and insights.

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