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Review: BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat, in vision

Visualised for the first time today - BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat programme: but what does radio news look like on the telly?

Newsbeat is a highly-regarded news show that airs on the BBC's young hit music station BBC Radio 1. For some reason today they ended up broadcasting it in video as well as audio, through the BBC Radio 1 website.

I'm not keen on "visualising radio". Partly, it's because I see it as fulfilling a seemingly unstoppable desire for BBC Radio staff to stop working in radio but instead, to work on a cheap-looking television channel. Radio is a multitasking medium: something that you listen to, not watch: and I'm resistant to efforts to put cameras in radio studios: rooms designed for audio, not video.

Once more, we were treated to poorly-framed shots in a radio studio of people ignoring us and staring at pieces of paper, shuffling embarrassedly during jingles. In terms of the hosts, angle-poise microphone stands and computer screens filled most of the screen; the sports reporter (above) didn't even have a close-up camera aimed at him, so mostly during his bit we saw the main host's back.

Having said that, what happened out of the studio was an impressive, brave piece of work. The in-depth reports from Newsbeat were decent pieces of television: cleverly crafted with silent library pictures and interviewees in vision. In the headlines, clips from Parliament or from Manchester United were in video. This was a nice use of the BBC's resources.

The reports particularly deserve closer examination. A listener would have heard nothing particularly amiss; but the extra pictures put things certainly in focus. A report on teeth whitening was interesting to watch: not reliant on the images, but they certainly added something when you looked at the screen. Given that we're spending more time looking at other screens, perhaps this is something proper television can learn from: focusing more on the audio, not on the video. Could - and should - television be considering producing programmes that don't rely on the full video to communicate what's going on?

But possibly the main reason I don't like "visualising radio" is the distraction it causes to the hosts, and how the live video inevitably distracts and weakens the radio experience, as hosts play up to the cameras and we get items that only work on the television, sounding rubbish on the radio.

On a Thursday, Newsbeat gets 874,200 listeners on Radio 1. If they got an average of 8,000 viewers on the website, that would have been a significant number, and they could be well-pleased. That means, however, that over 99% of people were listening to the radio: so it would be a mistake to give us items that require us to watch the screen. But, sadly, that's what we got.

"I hope you're watching online. You may need to see this to believe it", host Chris Smith said: and then proceeded to go into an item about a music video style, the "Harlem Shake", on YouTube. This was a purely visual piece (watch it), and the point of it entirely lost if you were just listening on the radio. Yes, it's very funny watching the generously-staffed Newsbeat office doing the Harlem Shake, as they did earlier in the bulletin, but it doesn't make great radio, so it shouldn't be on the radio.

After this piece, we had a jingle accompanied by a webcam of Chris looking at the mixing gallery, and then we're dumped into a Radio 1 logo via some colour-bars, and a song started. This didn't feel like radio: but neither did it feel like well-produced television, either.

Elsewhere, they're getting it right. Watch a bit of RTL 102.5's "Radiovisione" - on 24 hours a day on their website - and you'll see slick-looking radio studios, jingles that do things in vision as well as in audio: and the recognition that occasionally you do need to opt-out of the radio simulcast when 'proper' television is the better way of doing things. It's worth a watch; not least because you'll not see ugly bright orange studio hessian at any point.

Radio 1's Newsbeat programme could have worked just as well on the radio if the hosts were talking to autocue in a proper, well-lit studio; if jingles were accompanied by on-screen graphics - in short, if this was made into a decent TV programme and broadcast on TV, but with the interesting production techniques we saw in the reports themselves that was so successful. Losing the orange hessian and fixed webcams by taking the presenters out of the radio studio could have significantly benefited this programme.

Caution. Crap TV is not rich radio: it's just crap TV. However, visual accompaniment to radio (what the BBC once called 'glanceability') is a good, important thing - and vital for where the medium will go. This experiment was an interesting watch. Congratulations to the BBC for trying something new.

James Cridland is the Managing Director of Media UK, and a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business.
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Recommendations: 0
Twitter posted
Recommendations: 0
James Cridland

An email from the BBC:

Just for info, the reason for the visualisation of Newsbeat today was to fit in with Radio 1’s Access All Areas month of programme, which aims to give people a behind the scenes look at various aspects of life around the station. You might like this too!

This does explain the decision to use studio webcams, naturally. (But not for the Radio 1 Chart Show, which is similarly visualised…)

Recommendations: 0
Callum May

A news producer (disclosure: for BBC News) writes:

This was radio news-turned-visual brilliantly, I thought. It lost none of the grammar of radio news, with clips from news conferences/parliament/their own video journalists edited with the listener in mind, and pictures to complement. It could been awkward: TV sound is not always as crisp as sound recorded for radio; and clips often contain internal edits which look disastrous on telly. But today’s Newsbeat had none of this. And yes, you saw inside a radio studio — a good visual cue to the “viewer” that it’s a radio programme at heart, surely?

Recommendations: 0
Lester Forbes

Clearly Radio 1 have FAR TOO much budget if they are making more TV shows now. RADIO is RADIO. TV is TV. what part of that does the beeb not get ?

Recommendations: 0
Stuart Pinfold

Lester Forbes – This won’t have cost Radio 1 any extra apart from the time spent patching together slideshows of images. The newsbeat studios – as EVERY radio studio in New Broadcasting House, including World Service languages – have webcams built in which vision-mix automatically based on which mic is being used or source is playing through the sound desk (similar to FiveLive’s visualisation). They’re using webcams which exist, a vision mixer which exists, a website which exists and streaming servers which already exist. No extra money would have been spent.

Recommendations: 0
Christopher Woods

I thought there was additional vision mixing being done during Newsbeat, it was too tight for a fully automated setup. As this was a one-off I assumed the video assets for the story segments were being played out directly off a software switcher, with audio piped through to TX – none of the usual playout software triggering stories. This would then require a person to manually fire off segments and switch accordingly, at least for Newsbeat.

I was amused when I took the Google studio tour and saw that the webcams are just little Handycams, presumably connected with S-Video… And just deftly placed on the corner of one of the PMCs! No wonder the video oscillates with bass ;-)

I was impressed by the news show on the whole. The fluff around it, not so much. The 6 Music equivalent of this experiment (earlier this week) involved one jock with a radio mic standing in the corner of Maida Vale, talking over the BBC orchestra, whilst Lauren Laverne mashed buttons in the studio. It fell a bit flat with me. It’s progress at least.

We should really have had in-studio live streams for the past few years… There’s a couple of Canadian FM stations doing professional livestreams and LOADS of other stations doing varying degrees of good jobs, many using Ustream for video distribution. And hey, if it works…

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Credits: Photo BBC, captured by James Cridland