In My Opinion: John Collins: Names are important, not least ‘radio’

I GOT it wrong!

A few years ago, we were putting together an awards event for a student media festival I’m involved with and the three areas were really clearly delineated: TV, radio and digital art.

And here’s where I made the big mistake.

In the search for a way to reflect the multi-platform world, we changed the easy names that everybody uses. I certainly wasn’t the first to do this. I was maybe even following a trend. We (I) decided to call the awards, in the radio category, ‘audio’ awards, thinking that this was inclusive of podcasts and other online programming.

It struck us at the time that this was a forward-looking and wise thing to do. It was clear that we weren’t just about ‘old school’ radio programmes produced in fusty studios. We supported the trend towards distribution of audio content on other platforms.

The stupid thing was separating the notion of ‘radio’ from ‘programmes’ in an attempt to appear platform agnostic. In some ways, this is one of the biggest threats to the medium and it’s folk like me that continue to make it as we try to make radio ‘sexy’.

It already is sexy!

The large audiences for radio programmes are a given and most listeners don’t care that they’re listening on AM, FM or any of the digital platforms. Within minutes, they’re listening to it and engaging with it – not thinking about the platform it’s arriving on.

Sure, there are significant gains to our medium around additional content being delivered on complimentary platforms. In the commercial world, these potential gains provide significant opportunities to raise additional income.

But platforms are just delivery systems, not content. Calling TV ‘video’ to fit the multi-platform world, TV programme-makers ‘open the door’ to everybody that makes a moving image to claim expertise. We stop defining the things we toil over properly at our peril.

In calling radio ‘audio’ we’ve made the terrible mistake of allowing non-radio content creators to drift into our space. In some sectors of education, the skills of radio programme-making are confused with the computer skills required to make audio – particularly in the gaming arena. By renouncing the specialism in ‘radio’ there’s a real chance that we give away the very thing that has made the medium special for over a century, the storytelling and communication skills that have continued the one-to-one relationship radio broadcasters have with their listeners.

Sure, ‘content is king’. But my plea to radio people is that we don’t ditch the brand. Radio isn’t TV sound, film sound, pop music or even gaming. Yes, there are things in common, but radio is something different. To me, that’s something special.

So I shouldn’t have called it ‘audio’ all those years. And the TV guys should avoid video.

Radio programmes are radio programmes. Sometimes they have additional content, but they’re radio programmes.

That’s what I wish I hadn’t got wrong.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up occasionally on the radio at Clyde 2, or anybody else that’ll have him. Pic: Michele Dillon.