In the wee hours, as usual, I have been awake and listening to the BBC’s round-the-clock Radio Five Live. Live radio and television – or, more accurately ‘live’ broadcasting mixed with recorded items – tends to proceed as planned, and as its viewers/listeners expect, unless and until some important news occurs.
As it did last night. At about 10.30pm yesterday, a police helicopter fell from the sky onto the roof of the crowded Clutha Vaults bar, beside the River Clyde in Glasgow.
This is what a 24 hour station lives for. As news of a disaster – or potential disaster – comes in, the schedule and decks are cleared and the presenter on duty [Dotun Addebayo in the case of Radio Five Live today] has to meet the challenge of a major story developing by the minute – or perhaps, more accurately, by the half hour.
The results are intriguing, not least because we as listeners are ‘living the moment’ just as much as those at the station who are scrabbling both to gather information and locate and engage with witnesses, survivors and the rescuing authorities involved.
Accordingly, there is an interview mix ranging from stunningly emotive testimony to bland, uninformative and frankly worthless ramblings – and, as each begins, neither presenter nor listener has the slightest idea as to which it is going to be.
Sometimes presenters and hastily-summoned ‘experts’ fall over themselves to keep on the right side of factual information from official sources and avoid riffs of random speculation.
Minutes later, all this is forgotten as a former RAF ground crew member confidently asserts a suggested cause and schedule of events as the helicopter came down, based simply upon three on-air interviews with first-hand witnesses conducted within the past sixty minutes.
At the end of the day, 24 hour television and radio stations are simply filling the airwaves.
Most often this is with programming that is 90% pre-organised. On the quarter hour, the news and sports headlines are repeated. Nothing is happening, so the presenters fill the air by creating their own segments – chatting with specialists on music, sport, science, medicine gardening and the sanctity of the English language. And so it proceeds for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.
Today has been an instance of ‘something happened’.
For a ‘news’ station, it is meat and drink. More and more people are going to tune in when they hear of the incident, in order to find out what has happened and the latest information upon it. To an extent – as with this morning – in a tangential manner, the broadcasters are actually ‘creating’ the news. Some of their interviews may bear repeating on other programmes coming later in the schedule.
However, at other times during the developing crisis – inevitably – the presenters will be just filling up the airwaves. They talk slowly, mindful of the importance of what they say. They extend what could have been a five minute interview into a twenty minute one, just because they can, and probably because – with nothing else immediately available to replace it – they might as well. This removes the pressure to a degree and also allows more time for something else new and worthwhile to come in on the subject at hand.
As it happens, I felt Addebayo and the Radio Five Live team did okay this morning. Not as well as they might have, but equally – given the circumstances – not as badly as might easily have been the case.
That’s how it is when, not necessarily out of choice, you are riding the crest of a wave and you have no idea how it will pan out.