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Why radio visualisation is rubbish - and why we need it

Examples of radio visualisation from across the world show the benefits, and pitfalls, of adding pictures to live radio

Talk to broadcasters, and many agree that radio visualisation is a good thing. It is clear that radio is consumed on many different devices these days, with many different opportunities for adding some kind of visual cues.

The issue for visualising live radio, as amply demonstrated by this clip of Kyle and Jackie O's first few minutes on Sydney station KIIS 1065, is that much of live music radio is not visually exciting. Powerful and excellently pre-produced audio might be playing, but we're treated with the rather more dull sight of watching presenters shuffle papers and sip from their cups of tea. This is very dull television.

Turning live radio into good telly is pretty hard work. This experiment from BBC Radio Scotland in December 1980 shows presenters awkwardly talking to camera (while still reading scripts); reports having to be read live, rather than on tape; clips of interviews being accompanied by still photographs or a photograph of a reel of tape going round; and a complex amount of captions and slides to jazz-up rather dull television. The output of the station was probably compromised by the picture element: and that's a shame.

Sky One simulcast a portion of the Chris Evans Breakfast Show from Virgin Radio in the late 1990s. This also showed some of the drawbacks - but from a regulatory point of view. 'Virgin' couldn't actually be named, and nor could, of course, any radio advertising or promotions be mentioned on the TV either. Music tracks were played off video: which sounded poor on the radio, too. What probably seemed like a good idea at the time didn't survive: bad for the radio station, and bad for TV, too. The programme changed to being a highlights show, and then limped off the air in mid 1999.

And, watching live radio-as-television in Indonesia in 2009, I was interested to see the radio presenter, on camera, start talking to a caller on the phone: and then walk away from the desk, leaving an empty room as his voice continued on. The interview was a pre-record; yet the presenter had clearly forgotten about the camera altogether, giving a very confusing picture! The amount of times we use pre-recorded elements in programmes as-live causes real difficulty for video accompaniment.

There are some radio stations that we can learn from - who have mastered the art of turning live radio into great television. Italy's RTL 102.5 (which isn't part of the Luxembourg RTL group) is one of those. Presenters are in a photogenic studio; news programmes are accompanied by captions and photographs of the interviewer; jingles are in video form as well as audio; and music videos accompany all the songs. The station also has an inventive way of 'making' a music video for tracks that don't have any, using montages of artist images. Well worth a listen: you're looking for "radiovisione" on the RTL 102.5 website. The station goes out on Sky television in Italy.

ESPN Radio takes their Mike and Mike breakfast show on their television channel too: in an impressive TV studio, using none of the language of radio except for some huge microphones and some ever-constant promotions for ESPN Radio stations in the captions in the left-hand side.

DZMMTeleRadyo in the Philipines also broadcasts on a TV channel with video and additional information; it is quite impressive, but once more doesn't look quite as impressive as a TV show.

One of the best 'radio on tv' programmes is the BBC's World Have Your Say, broadcast both on BBC World News tv and BBC World Service radio. Except, you'll spot from this clip that you'd never know that it's a radio programme: it comes from a TV studio, is broadcast on TV, and the audio is also, live, on the radio as well. This is where the definition of 'radio' becomes very loose indeed. (This episode has the presenter asking for "those of you who are watching" to get in touch, so I wonder whether it's actually on the radio at all.)

"Radio on television" is, sometimes, faked: Fever 104 in India's Picture Pandey has a TV programme on Sony MIX: but it's a programme that mainly uses the language of radio to make an interesting television programme. 'Picture' plays an audio clip during this programme, but ends up having to visually react to the clip to make it half-way good television; and it is heavily edited. Much of what goes on in the Fever studios is obviously not actually on the radio.

In 1989, Yorkshire TV's James Whale Radio Show was pioneering for its time. Yet, as you can see from this clip, while it was filmed in Radio Aire's studios in Leeds, it wasn't done with big radio microphones and large headphones. This was a 'radio show' in name only; the Radio Aire bosses quickly realised that a television show doesn't make great radio: and it's telling that half of the clip I've linked to actually comes from Radio Aire's reception area, rather than the smaller - if more atmospheric - studio.

And, then of course, there's the BBC's 'The Bottom Line' - highly post-produced for television, and really only existing in a radio studio to separate this interview programme from other interview programmes. It sounds very different on BBC Radio 4.

What appears to work better for radio is highlights - to constantly run some video cameras, and then share the best bits on social media. UK station LBC does this exceptionally well: clips of the London Mayor at his bumbling best, taken and shared on services like YouTube. Run high enough quality video, and you can also give it to television networks, too. TV channels are very unlikely to rerun simple pieces of audio, but supply video as well, and you can get considerable coverage. LBC's output is heavily branded, and nicely put together.

The 'record everything just in case' trick works for BBC Radio 5 Live, as well: particularly when, as in this clip, there are unexpected guests. The cameras are switched automatically; and the resulting video is worth a watch.

And the benefit of sharing highlights is that you can post-produce them to make them look great. Stick a camera at both ends of a radio OB, and edit the visuals on afterwards, and you can make a great radio interview look like great video, as this example from Absolute Radio clearly shows. You don't even need to use proper cameras: a few smartphones could have done the trick here.

Radio visualisation is a catch-all name for adding pictures to radio; and I believe it's unhelpful. Doing live visualisation is difficult to do, and in many cases can harm the output of the radio programme: presenters find the cameras irresistable, and the radio listener is forgotten (yet is considerably in the majority). Just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should.

Yet, well-produced clips after the event can considerably help the shareability of radio; and also its permanence. Radio is ephemeral: broadcast and, largely, forgotten. To capture the best bits of radio, and place these on services like YouTube or Vimeo, makes it easy to share fantastic pieces of radio: and doesn't change the station sound. There is, after all, a reason why we're called radio and not 'audio television'.

I run workshops and discussions for your teams on radio visualisation, and speak about visualisation techniques in conferences and retreat days. Do get in touch.


Wow, lots of useful feedback.

Brett Spencer reminds me of CBC's Q programme, which is post-produced and the resulting excellent programme is shown on CBC Television. He also points out Kermode and Mayo, the BBC's first piece of regular visualisation (and wildly successful).

Brett also points to this clip - where the dejected and desperate visual language of Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister, underlines why it's important to run cameras in studios at all times, just in case.

Ilika Copeland reminds me of visualisation work that happened at the BBC in 2009-2010: programmes involved included Today, BBC Radio 4's science programme, and other flagship programmes on 5 Live and others. Her work, including audience research, was submitted to the BBC Trust in 2010. In my opinion, this is another example of why the BBC's research should be opened up to the public after a certain period: it would be really interesting to read the full report! Commenting on LinkedIn, Ilika links to this blog post from Mark Friend ("The whole UK radio industry needs to understand the implications of visualisation better and we're happy to help spread the knowledge we acquire during the trial."); and this techie detail on how they did it.

And Orion Media's Phil Riley mentions Howard Stern's television work: again, post-produced, but containing some of Howard's "best bits". From this link that I found, Howard seems mostly hidden behind television screens; and there appears to be a bit too much playing to camera to the detriment of the radio listener. But, then, I'm no real fan of Stern, so I'll shut up.

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
Tim Regan
Tim Regan posted

I agree, but there are other ways that visual content may be usefully associated with radio. One is to turn the sentence round, how can radio be usefully associated with live pictures? Putting it this way reminds me of when I were a lad and it was commonplace for people to watch cricket on TV while listening to the commentary on the radio purely because the radio commentary was better. So out-classing TV is one way to go. Another way to look at it is to not think of the pictures as something live alongside the radio but something visited afterwards. The wealth of information we find now on BBC programme websites (or sites associated with series like Car Talk) are examples of this. I think the pinnacle of this content-after-radio was Ferne & Coates ‘Annotatable Audio’ project though this never became real

Recommendations: 0
Art Grainger

Wow. I remember Radio Scotland doing that. It was a wee bit before Breakfast TV ever came into being (TV channels didn’t start before 9.25 Am – or you had Ceefax).It was compelling viewing and a major talking point at the time, even in the school playground. Am I right in thinking that this was the first broadcast of it’s kind in the UK?

Hamburg’s N-Joy Radio (their equivalent to Radio 1) also had a breakfast TV segment that looked like fun, complete with a dancing producer and disco lights ….. between 5 and 9AM. All presenters looking to camera when they talk, to include the TV audience (and even give their viewers a name-check).

N-Joy Radio

And was that a digestive biscuit hanging from the microphone? The digestive biscuit, especially the chocolate variety, is probably the greatest Scottish invention after the engine, TV, telephone, motion pictures, colour photography, colour printing, tyres, tarmac, postage stamps, cashpoint machines, fridges, pedal bicycles (and piano pedals as a sideline), anesthetics, decimals, banks, thermos flasks, bovril, fax machines, microwave ovens, electric clocks, fountain pens, toilet flushes, steel tubes, paraffin (could yo go on a foreign holiday without it these days?), pound notes, finger-printing, Encyclopedia Britannica, waterproof raincoats, chloroform, the Boys Brigade, weather mapping, electricity generation, lighthouses, MRI bodyscanners, seismometers (you might need them when fracking takes hold), golf, whiskey, marmalade, antiseptics, matches, penicillin, logarithms, syringes (maybe not a great invention), the US navy, wind turbines for electricity generation, the Australian national anthem, paraffin lamps (long before Eddison invented the electric light bulb), aircraft carriers, electromagnetic waves, reflecting telescopes, radar, insulin, kaleidoscopes, speedometers, ultrasound, lawnmowers, malaria cures, car insurance, etc etc etc etc etc.

I hope you enjoyed that wee lesson because I learned all that years ago and have been doing it from the top of my head ever-since, probably from the time I was put under hypnosis (eek – another Scottish invention). It might be a reason why Westminster has never been keen on giving Scotland its independence. Tee hee!

Bcck on topic.

Sunshine 855 in Ludlow were probably the first UK station to have a live cam in the studio, long before the BBC (who used to have snapshots of studio scenes updated on their website every few minutes), The cam used at Sunshine was also controlled by the listeners, who could turn the cam around to nosey around the studio. The presenters would perform to camera, holding up wee notes, sometimes dancing to camera, waving to listeners etc, whilst also interacting via the camera’s own chatroom facility, in-between doing their links on air.

Nowadays we have Radio 1 doing live Top 40’s for which the “radio” presenter is not in the radio studio but talking with a microphone directly to camera, whilst a TO is doing the work behind the scenes and videos are being shown whilst songs are playing.

Recommendations: 0
James Martin

The televising of various Chris Moyles breakfast shows was interesting, the final one particularly.

Recommendations: 0
Ash Elford

I’m surprised there’s no mention of talkSPORT TV, which was set up by The Wireless Group in 2004. It survived until UTV took over the following year.

I don’t actually remember it being that bad either.

Recommendations: 0
Martin Phillp

The televising of various Chris Moyles breakfast shows was interesting, the final one particularly.

You may remember the Comic Relief marathon show which was aired in it’s entirety on the BBC Red Button which was good viewing. However what made it stand out for non-anoraks which it wasn’t all based in the studio. There were segments in in other parts of the building and a local cafe across the road.

However even the final show transferred well to television thanks to the characters on his breakfast show which says something about Chris Moyles and the team.

I wouldn’t expect the majority of breakfast shows to be television friendly as it’d require investment in features which are away from the radio studio. It’s obviously cheaper to send someone like Richie Firth on Absolute Radio’s breakfast show armed with a mobile phone for a feature on Christian O’Connell’s breakfast show than to hire an OB truck and a camera crew.

The power of using your imagination with radio when listening makes it more powerful than seeing it with your eyes on tv or with a video posted after the show.

Recommendations: 0
Gary Terzza

We tried a similar experiment at Channel 4 presentation back in the 1990s – a CCTV style camera was positioned eaves dropping on the continuity announcer through an oblique shot.

It received a mixed reaction with some viewers reporting it as a ‘mistake’ ...... “Does your announcer know the camera has been left on?”.

In many ways it was a forerunner to the webcam.

We stopped after about a year, although it was an interesting experiment to be part of, not least because ‘voice over only’ had suddenly moved into this brave new world of visualisation.

Recommendations: 0
Art Grainger

“We stopped after about a year, although it was an interesting experiment to be part of, not least because ‘voice over only’ had suddenly moved into this brave new world of visualisation.”

Not really. The ITV regions had continuity announcers on screen until the late 1980’s, with some bastions still doing it into the 90’s. In Scotland. the most famous armchair continuity host, sitting beside a waxed plant, was Steve Hamilton (later used as the prize voice-over on Wheel Of Fortune). I miss the tweed jacketed, rolling R’d accents and frightfully tartan and shortbread style that STV once had.

I’m not sure that the webcam or studio cam enhances my listening experience, except during some programming segments on Vicky Derbyshire’s show.

To me, “visualisation” of radio should be more like the rolling images that radioDNS/radioVIS can offer on newer DAB/Wi-fi radios. You’re still listening to the radio – but the occasional glance at the radio’s screen provides another dimension and sometimes some really useful information. I can imagine that during ad breaks on commercial stations, the company logo and contact/website details of the advertiser could be useful. I always thought that LBC’s rolling headlines, travel and London Underground news was a great use of the feature.

Recommendations: 0
Gary Terzza

Interesting stuff Art.

I was one of those in-vision announcers myself on Central during the period you mention. Channel 4’s on camera experiment was very different (a decade later) in that we were told not to look at the camera and be seen to be doing our voice overs, reading from a script. The shot was not lit to studio standards & was left deliberately grainy.

At the time only UTV were using on-camera announcers (and still do I believe).

Recommendations: 0
James Cridland

Here’s Border TV from 1986 in case you wanted to see it. In-vision continuity adds absolutely nothing to this clip, to be honest.

And, here’s one from Grampian TV in 1985 – dinky doo, it’s Scottie McClue!

Recommendations: 1
Paul Fairburn

As I mentioned on Twitter, a good live radio prog with visualisation is Final Score on BBC1. You can ignore the screeen, and it’s radio. As James pointed out there are many programmes on TV that are just radio with Pictures, like Question Time, but the reason I mention Final Score (and the Sky original that the BBC copied) is that these show what radio visualisation should provide – a radio programme that works fine just in audio, but is enhanced by visual data.

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