Features

What really happens in a radio news room?

Radio delivers the news to consumers in short, sharp bursts, even when most people are still sleeping. Mumbrella's Zoe Samios sits in on a morning on the SCA news desk to understand how the media company compiles and delivers its news, the value of local specialists in breakfast radio and why the news cycle can't stop - not even for muesli.

I hate my alarm clock, especially when it goes off before 6am. But today at least, it’s slightly easier to get up.

Why? In a slight tweak to my usual morning routine, I’m heading to Southern Cross Austereo’s Sydney offices, for a look into how the newsroom works.

Undoubtedly, advertisers, journalists and even universities are cynical and critical of journalism’s future. To be fair, the rhetoric – and the news about the news – hasn’t been positive.

Last year saw mass job cuts at Fairfax Media, a number at News Corp, the axing of several Bauer Media publications and even cuts from the Nova Entertainment news team. But while it has previously made cuts, SCA says it is now investing in its news team. Which brings me to my visit, and my ride in on the bus.

I’d been told to meet Natasha Jobson, national news director at SCA by 7am. She is finishing her muesli as I arrive.

Natasha isn’t based in here, but she’s down for the day from Brisbane, visiting one of her many news rooms. She’s bright and bubbly for so early in the morning, but that’s understandable given she’s got to project that energy into the news teams across Australia at this ungodly hour.

The team’s office in Sydney

On the news desk, Joel Brown is finishing his night shift. He’s one of the team members of PrepAir, a news preparation system used by SCA and affiliate stations. I’m still exhausted at this point, but he seems fairly chipper despite just having worked the night shift.

PrepAir is unique to SCA, and allows the breakfast news journalists and radio hosts to be across what’s happened overnight from as soon as they walk in.

Natasha says she loves the fact the team works through the night: “Guys are keeping tabs on everything that’s going on in the media internationally, nationally. They keep an eye on stories that are breaking overnight, they keep an eye on TV and entertainment style stories that obviously get everyone talking the next day as well,” she tells me.

“They’re really good at being scanners of everything that’s going on and curating the best bits for both news teams and breakfast shows.”

Meanwhile, sports journalist Jeff Tyler and Triple M newsreader Hugh Finnane are prepping for their next deadline.

That’s right, their next deadline. The news briefing finishes up between 5:20am and 5:30am (AEDST) for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, so things are up and running by the time I’m in. Perth gets a sleep in. Lucky ducks.

For Triple M and Hit Network’s 2Day FM, each deadline is on the half hour. If the hosts are running late, the deadlines don’t change.

Around the corner from me in the 2Day FM studio, Celeste Barber is filling in for Em Rusciano. She’s away for the next couple of days for personal reasons. Meanwhile, Harley Breen is on Skype down in Melbourne. The show runs smoothly between the two of them despite the distance. Better still, they are running on time today.

An example of the PrepAir feed

If they aren’t, it means the journalist must find content and tweak news wraps in a shorter period of time. It’s all about adapting to the unpredictable nature of breakfast radio.

The focus for 2DayFM newsreader Amy Goggins this morning is on research from Genea about women freezing eggs and the news Georgie Gardner would become the new Today Show host. Her breakfast wraps last 90 seconds.

But Triple M’s focus is a little different – the news wraps will run a little longer, given the sports focus. Today however, a man fell seven storeys from a balcony and is alive – which will probably run across both stations.

Understanding audiences is key here, as it is with any other publication. But while preparing for their deadlines, journalists will also use their news preparation service, keep across the news and what’s on television, and run social media as well as complete pre-records within this 30-minute deadline.

“Localism is key to what we know our listeners and our audience on air and online are interested in. The proximity factor, ‘what’s going on in my world?’ and ‘how will it affect me?’ is at the centre of everything we do and we try to make our news relevant from a local perspective,” Natasha explains.

But her team, which is made up for 30 full-time journalists in the metro cities and another 50 to 60 in regional areas, must not only decide what is news, but how that sits within its two networks, Triple M and Hit.

The difference between these two and other stations, such as Nova FM, Kiis FM, Smooth FM and Gold FM, is it’s skewed based on things beyond age, such as themes like sport for Triple M, or a predominantly young female audience for Hit.

“We are really mindful of making our news match the divides of our audience as well. You will hear more sport on the Triple M network than Hit Network. You will hear some slightly more female skewed stories on the Hit network, but we don’t ever want to exclude anyone from our news as well, so we aren’t going to get so niche that you have to be particular style of person before you can listen and get something out of our news,” Natasha says.

Natasha Jobson, SCA’s national news director

“There are other issues-based stories which pop up as part of the media agenda and we look at those stories and say ‘Well what’s Triple M’s take on this?’ It might be the latest political saga and we look at it, assess it and say ‘Is our Triple M audience going to be interested in this?’”

News that comes in during the afternoon probably won’t make it by morning – the team prefers any big news coming in first thing.

Oh, and there’s something else the news team is focused on in the morning – their digital news reads, which they make for the DAB+ stations and smart speaker news on Google Home – which is launching the day I’m visiting the news room.  

Natasha explains to me SCA is up-skilling its news staff – providing them with the ability to present, run social and write online content, if need be.

“I am keen to see us change the job description as a radio journalist to an audio journalist because more and more that’s what we are doing. We are gathering news for an audio platform. That platform may be FM radio, it might be DAB+ radio, it might be for our Google devices and now our Alexa devices.

The team also creates content for voice-activated devices Google Home and Alexa

“It might also be put into an online story for people to listen to a witness’ report or the full press conference on a big story of the day. We are getting a lot of bang for our buck in terms of the audio that we gather. It’s a case of massaging that content to make sure it fits for each platform.”

Nationally, the news team works together every morning. As news breaks, journalists will create tasks which people will assign to themselves through an application to ensure no crossover.

There’s also no room for error – as unlike digital publications, things can’t be altered later.

I turn to Amy, who is fast approaching her next deadline. Natasha gives me permission to sit in on her news bite. We go into the news box; there’s a lot of controls but Amy says it’s not as complex as it looks.

I take a glance at her script as we sit waiting for the radio sound that will lead her in.

Amy has been doing this shift since the Jules, Merrick and Sophie show. Every morning, she’s in by 3:45am and leaves around 11am, depending on digital news bulletin duties.

It’s time to go to air and her voice completely changes.

Her script is written, unless of course something breaks, in which case she’ll get a team member to add in a line for her.

Natasha tells me breakfast radio news is a “temperature check for the city”. 

“Good news updates will reflect issues that the breakfast show may be really passionate about that are making news. But also keep an eye on and keep tabs on that the breakfast shows may not be getting around to talking to.”

It’s also an opportunity to boost the show’s content, particularly if there’s a “compelling” or “controversial” interview.

“We just want to be keeping tabs on the city so that anyone hopping in the car at the top or the bottom of the hour can be assured that we have the biggest and most relevant stories for them.

“The teams in each market, they know the pronunciation of the trickiest suburb names, they know the news-making identities to that city, they know those hot-button issues that are really going to get people riled up when they start to prop up again. They are a good checkpoint and the breakfast shows do really use the local news teams to bounce ideas off as well. It’s a two-way relationship.”

Naturally, I start to think about the challenges of the job and while figuring out what buttons to press would be a big enough challenge for me, Natasha tells me the biggest struggle is actually the same as for any other journalist – knowing you can always do more.

“It’s one of those things where you can always chase another interview or do another update. Given the nature of our news cycle these days, it’s so relentless, the challenge for the team is saying ‘Okay, we’ve done our absolute best today, time to go home and do it all again tomorrow’.

“Obviously it’s a really tiring shift. It’s a busy shift, a satisfying shift but at the same time you can keep going and going and going, such is the nature of the news cycle.”

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