Daryl Ilbury

Archive for March, 2016|Monthly archive page

Let’s exorcise anonymity from social media

In Eish!, Fools, media on March 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm

freddy-krueger-vinyl-mask

‘CrispySkin69 has sent you a friend request’

It’s one of Shakespeare’s most enduring lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose”. Perhaps it’s time mainstream media did their best to exorcise unnecessary anonymity from social media.

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. I love the fact it’s encouraging change in the media landscape, but I hate that it’s driven by people generally unqualified to sit behind the wheel; especially mysterious people with unknown qualifications. In fact, I find that quite scary, because in the media a name is important.

This is especially so for a young journalist, because there’s no bigger thrill than when they first get their name in a byline – that part of an article that carries the name of the person by whom it was written.  It’s not a given for a journalist that every piece they write will automatically carry their name. That right has to be earned through an initiation of anonymity. 

They will have to bloody their notebooks, scribbling their way up through the ranks from, say, ‘staff reporter’ through being attached to a ‘beat’ such as ‘court reporter’, before finally cracking sufficient acknowledgement to be anointed with their own name in the byline.

It’s only at that stage that, it could be argued, they become recognised by their peers as qualified to carry the mantle ‘journalist’.

The name is important not only for the purposes of recognition, but also for accountability. For all the titles I wrote it was made clear that if my name was on the byline than I was accountable for what I wrote. It was the same when I was in radio – my name was on the show, so I was on my own. If someone took sufficient umbrage with what I said, legally the station would step back and let me take the fall.

Such is the responsibility for being a ‘name’ in the media.

But social media has changed all that. There seems to be the belief that anonymity goes hand in hand with ‘democratisation’, that not only is it permissible to opine without restraint, but that this should be done behind a curtain of secrecy. No names and clear head-and-shoulder shots on the byline taking full accountable credit for what was said; instead commentary should wear the scab of mysterious characters shielded by fictitious epithets and avatars.

And this is my beef: if you want to play the media game, you play by the rules; and one of those rules is the issue of accountability. If you want the credit for what you say, have the balls to attach your real name and image to it.

So what can the grown-ups of mainstream media do? Exorcise the anonymity. Don’t give credit where it’s not due. If you’re going to publish a comment or pull one off social media and put it on-air, online or in print, only choose those by people playing by the same rules as yourself. So you don’t quote ‘DragonMistress’ and ‘KnobHead69’; only real people. And you make this clear in your media guidelines. It should be carried above your comments section, on your website and mentioned on-air.

Anonymity has a place in social media: the damp and fetid dungeons of the dark web.

 

 

Advertisements

Another sad day for science journalism

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science, Uncategorized on March 30, 2016 at 11:47 am
GastrointestinalDisorders_900

Where the nasty little fekkers like to play

I was recently faced with two events that animated the science journalist in me, opportunities to write compelling stories for the South African media consumer; but instead I chose to walk away. Actually I used another phrase; but more about that later.

The first was when I recently caught an Uber to the airport. I always make a point of chatting with the driver, and on this occasion he was a final year software development student. Interestingly, he had just won a competition to secure an internship with Google at their Googleplex HQ in Mountain View, California. He had designed a piece of software for the iOS platform that could help identify when people using a certain dating site were lying (“I’m an astronaut, nearly 2m tall and built like a Greek god”). My head almost exploded as the story started to scribble away amongst my synapses. In the 15 minutes it took to get to the airport I pommeled him with a barrage of questions.

He was generous with his answers and seemed genuinely excited that a journalist was interested in his story. Importantly for me, he was humble about his achievements. I started making a mental note of people to contact to verify and develop the story, how the narrative could be framed, what emotive triggers I could use to help the reader connect with it, etc. All I had to do was get his number and start with a proper interview over a cup of coffee. But I didn’t ask him for his number; instead I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The second was more recent. After my family (including our two dogs) were rendered ‘man-down’ with a rather virulent bout of gastric nastiness I suspected something was amiss, and interrogated a local pharmacist. If this was a bigger issue, there would be a run (‘scuse the pun) on diarrhoea and antispasmodic medication. She confirmed that suspicions were about that a pathogen – possibly an algal toxin – had found its way through Cape Town’s water-supply filtration mechanisms, and was running amok within the gastric passageways of the city’s citizens.

My mind started running like a fishing rod reel feverishly releasing line to a hooked marlin (I do so love my analogies). This was a big story. The implications, if the suspicions were true, were vast. Thousands of people – especially the elderly and very young – were at serious risk: diarrhoea can be a killer. I knew I’d have to contact the local health authorities, speak to a couple of specialists I had in my contacts list, and…then I thought, “Nah, fuck it”.

The unfortunate truth is that I have lost the promethean spark of science journalism that used to burn in my brain. The gradual evisceration of science coverage in the South African printed media*, which I have touched on previously, and which reached a nadir in September last year, has effectively extinguished any interest I have for contributing to the intellectual evolution of the South African media consumer. It seems the lifestyle choices of mindless celebrities and the self-serving machinations of political half-wits are their preferred fodder.

I know this is part of a bigger picture – the evisceration of highly skilled and experienced journalists from mainstream media; but where pseudoscience and misrepresentation of science is spreading like a virus through social media, there’s an urgent need for qualified science journalists to calm things down and provide evidential insight. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So, if such stories as the two I have mentioned here pop onto my radar in the near future, begging to be written and shared, unless there’s a sign mainstream media have changed their minds about science, I know what I’ll say to myself.

[*Before I left my position as Media Coordinator for SAASTA, I facilitated a meeting with Combined Artists (the producers of Carte Blanche), which is one of the reasons for the increased coverage of science on the programme. Most credit must go to them for grabbing the ball and running with it.]

Could a return to freeform radio be the answer?

In Eish!, Free-thinking, media on March 24, 2016 at 12:14 pm
maxresdefault

Legendary radio DJ Meg Griffin, from the documentary ‘I Am What I Play’

As radio stations battle an ever-crowded media space to remain relevant to an increasingly ‘connected’ media consumer, could an answer to their predicament lie in the return to an early concept of radio entertainment now considered ‘radical’?

It’s called ‘freeform radio’, and it’s a style of radio that recognises the host* as a music authority and therefore qualified to dictate the music content of the show. Importantly the music played is interlaced with speech that, together, provides the show with a narrative. This is critical, because without a narrative the show is simply a random collection of songs. The added advantage of a narrative is that it holds the attention of the listener, as any good story (and radio show) should.

Freeform radio was the foundation of today’s commercial radio. It started in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the late 1950s and early 60s, and typically featured radio DJs (as they were called then) playing singles and album tracks of their choice, and adopting the role of music authority. Importantly, they helped expand the music experience of their audiences.

Unfortunately many of these DJ’s became vulnerable to the approaches of record companies and their packed wallets. The resultant payola scandal in the U.S. devastated freeform radio in that country. Programming measures were put into place to wrest control of the music from the DJs. However, freeform radio did continue at certain stations, and their key hosts became ‘legends’ of the medium, mainly because they ‘bucked the system’. There’s a film out at the moment (but on limited release), titled ‘I Am What I Play‘, which salutes four of these legends and the importance of freeform radio.

The very idea of freeform radio is anathema to today’s radio industry, packed to the rafters as it is with hyper-formatted music stations, where presenters stray from the music scheduling at the risk of immediate suspension. However, this strict programming is now running the risk of becoming redundant. The core content – music – is now available and easily accessible elsewhere beyond competing terrestrial radio stations – think online radio stations, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, iPods and MP3 players, smartphones, etc. These can all provide expanded selections of music, mostly without advertising.

It’s a foolish programme director that thinks listeners still believe traditional radio presenters choose the music they play. Listeners are now shopping around, looking to have an experience with the music they consume, and the best way to do that is for them to believe there is a purpose behind every piece of music a radio host plays on his or her show.

I believe there’s an opportunity for the reintroduction of freeform radio. The question though is, do we have the radio talent with the discipline and authority to champion it?

*Although terms are often used interchangeably, generally a ‘host’ is normally someone who ‘anchors’ a ‘show’ (which has a defined structure); a ‘presenter’ is someone who provides links and content between scheduled songs on-air; and the term DJ is now more commonly used to refer to someone who plays (recorded) music in clubs.

The newsroom as an ER

In Eish!, media, Science on March 8, 2016 at 11:50 am
ER-TV-Series-Season-1---1-007

“Give it to me straight doc, where’s my final edit?”

To understand why the evisceration of newsrooms is dangerous for public health, it helps to think of a newsroom as a hospital’s ER.

Like an ER, a newsroom is staffed by specialists, it never sleeps, and its main function is the provision of critical, specialised services to the community it serves. This is as true for a small town newspaper as it is for a global brand such as The Financial Times. A newsroom’s role is to quickly analyse what comes in – information – assess its condition and then process it; in effect provide the information version of triage. Occasionally a dedicated team works together on a story that requires deeper investigation, because it is considered significant. This is the hospital equivalent of being bumped up to intensive care.

You may smile, but the analogy of an ER is realistic for two reasons:

  1. A newsroom performs a watchdog function; i.e. it protects the interests of the community it serves by investigating and exposing ill-practices by government and organisations that could harm the community; and,
  2. The people who do this are specially qualified, disciplined and experienced.

It’s the last point that’s so important, because without it the first point is moot. Without properly qualified, disciplined and experienced journalists in newsrooms, the result is the same as equipping an ER with people who only know how to apply plasters to paper cuts.

And yet that’s where we are. Social media – the so-called democratised media – has flooded the media space with people who are not qualified, disciplined or experienced enough to do the job of trained journalists. People with cellphones are opting themselves into an unaccountable corps of so-called ‘citizen journalists’. It’s like calling a chef a surgeon because she can hold a knife.

Creating and disseminating content may empower the former media consumer, but, power without responsibility and accountability invites either chaos or control, neither of which is in the best interests of communities. Journalists are schooled in the discipline of responsibility, around issues such as libel, the difference between reportage and opinion, and the inviolate status of sources.

As newsrooms bleed experienced journalists, they expose the communities they serve to all manner of hazards, too many and too serious for a layperson with a cellphone and a box of plasters.

There’s a new radio station in town, and it’s going to fail

In Eish!, media on March 4, 2016 at 8:36 am

radiomFirstly, forgive the hiatus in posting. I have been immersed in writing my next book, which is now finished and due out in July.

Now let’s talk radio. I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade no other industry in the world has been as disrupted as traditional media. For that you can thank two things: technology and social media. Technology has provided the tools to disintermediate traditional media organisations from their role of providing media content to consumers, and social media has further empowered those consumers, making them fellow media content creators and effectively competitors to traditional media organisations. Whereas printed newspapers are the most obvious victims, the vulture are circling over terrestrial radio.

So, it takes someone either very brave or very foolish to dip their toe into the traditional media space, especially radio.

This is why I was excited when I read back in 2014 that a new radio licence had been awarded in Cape Town, where I live. I immediately wanted to know who had the won the licence and what format they had proposed. The name Tony Sanderson popped up together with Cape Media and Sekunjalo Investments (part owners of Independent Media). I also noticed they had been awarded an AM licence, and the station was to be called ‘Magic’. But it was the format that surprised me: “mainly music”. Further digging around uncovered plans for a classic hits format. My heart sank. I had an idea what was coming.

Tony Sanderson is a highly experienced radio man and was a big name in the 1980s and 90s. But that was an unfortunate time for radio. Music programmers were taking centre stage in content creation, and on-air talent were being sidelined.  The key programming phrase was ‘more music, less talk’. Radio stations became beige wallpaper. When, as I predicted, the iPod revolutionised music content consumption, music radio stations found themselves lacking the creative on-air talent to engage with a listener who had all their favourite songs – without any ads – nestled in their pockets.

The arrival of social media empowered the listener further, and I saw how it was going to affect radio. In 2012 I told Omar Essack, then head of broadcasting for Kagiso Media, that radio stations would need to become social media hubs, recognising their listeners as fellow content creators, incorporating their presence and aggregating their content into programming. He agreed. He’s an industry visionary, so I wasn’t surprised.

Back in Cape Town, Magic 828 decided on a quiet launch in September 2015. I only found out early in 2016 they were on-air. I tuned in – I occasionally still to do, and almost immediately tune out again. It is a snapshot of 1980s/90s formatting of familiar songs delivered according to a strict ‘more music, less talk’ mantra. The station’s website – which should champion its programming and promotions – is almost sterile of active content (check out their photo galleries). The on-air talent, mainly seasoned radio people are delivering station-dictated content, with no little or no attempt to connect with, let alone include, the listener; and they believe playing Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ and then telling me it’s Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ is not insulting my intelligence. All this on a muffled AM signal. Opposition stations, including Smile 90.4 and Heart 104.9 are playing similar content but in ‘crystal clear’ FM stereo. If Magic is to differentiate it needs to be creative, adaptive and entrepreneurial. In their defence, they can be picked up on the TuneIn radio app.

According to industry news Sanderson is banking on DRM technology to produce a better quality signal; but that would require listeners forking out for DRM receivers. And they’re not cheap. My belief is that by the time that comes about, if it comes about, the station will be bleeding money. Let’s hope its owners* have deep pockets.

*This has been edited to reflect that Sekunjalo Investments is part of the Western Cape Black Media Consortium, which, together with Cape Media, owns Magic 828AM.