Mobile and social countering dip in Newsbeat radio listeners

is a social media specialist with the College of Journalism

About 18 months ago I got a call from Radio 1. They wanted to know what the future of news is, for their audience. No big deal then.

The Radio 1 newsroom produces hourly bulletins and daily Newsbeat programmes for Radio 1 and 1Xtra - tailored to its target 16- to 29-year-olds with core news topics around music, technology, entertainment, health and politics. The main Newsbeat editions pack a huge amount into their 15-minute timeslot, and sound like nothing else on the radio.  

The future of this service is a fascinating question and one that’s relevant to the entire BBC. The future of news for a 16-year-old turns into the future of news for the bulk of the working population about 25 years later.

Radio 1 has a specific direction from the BBC Trust to “experiment with new technologies”. For News in particular “listeners should be encouraged to… provide feedback, ideas and stories and be offered regular opportunities to engage in debate”.

Conversation was a key component of the next few months, both within the Radio 1 newsroom and with our audience. We wanted to make sure we were sufficiently plugged in and accessible.

Twenty-somethings don’t use email, and figures from audience research suggested that text messaging was on the decline as well. Newsbeat already had a page on Facebook, which was performing well. The stats suggested that nearly 40% of Facebook’s UK users were in Radio 1’s target age group, which meant potentially reaching millions more people. But we didn’t understand necessarily why we were there. We didn’t have a strategy yet.

I had two questions. How much better could we do if we put more effort into it? And, could we attract a different audience to the one already listening on radio?

It’s all in the tone of voice

Newsbeat reaches more than two million people a week, but the audience is falling each quarter and the FM radio audience is older than Radio 1 is meant to target.

One of the first things we looked at online was Newsbeat’s tone of voice. When the info you’re posting gets mixed together in a newsfeed of (normally) real friends, you need to fit in, lest you be unfriended/unliked. However, when some of the stuff you’re telling people may be important to their health (like a recent story on the side-effects of dermal filler injections), you want those stories to stand out.

Social media is image-driven and pictures are our highest-rating type of content for social media. But in surveys we conducted in 2012, the standout comment was that our audience wanted more opportunities to share their opinions.

Our aim was to keep the quality of that conversation high, but we didn’t have the resources to read and moderate everything, all the time. The BBC has its own ‘house rules’ for web boards, though these didn’t seem appropriate on Facebook - after all, it wasn’t an area the BBC controlled. So we slimmed them down. We’d hide a post from general viewing if it was abusive (Radio 1 has led campaigns on anti-bullying online), illegal or encouraging a crime, or off topic. The third type is the most prevalent.

The quality of the discourse noticeably took a jump up when we started to talk more to the audience. When the conversation looked like it was veering off-topic, we would try to steer it back on course. If someone had a question, we’d answer and ask questions back: question, clarify, it’s what reporters do.

Newsbeat’s style is informal, but the web can be more so. That doesn’t mean we relax our language further, but we don’t get distracted when our audience does. Teenagers vent and swear. But they’re doing this on Facebook and Twitter, not the BBC’s website. Their friends can see what they’re writing and if they’re OK with it we generally are too.

The effect this has had on listener engagement has been pronounced. We regularly mention on air where people can join in the conversations and our presenter Chris Smith has become adept at summarising several of those messages live as they come in. We’ll ring people back to record comments in their own voice. It’s a great way to prove that we actually use all this interaction and that there is a benefit to people taking the trouble to share what they know.

‘Second screen’ for live radio

As communication gets ever more mobile, the humble text message is being replaced by chat applications like WhatsApp, and by the top social media tool for us, Twitter.

Newsbeat’s gone from zero to more than 24,000 followers. Day to day, one of our reporters is on hand to talk to the audience on Twitter and, while the programme is on air, provides a live feed of additional background information. It’s ‘second screen’ for live radio.

We more than doubled our online reach last year, and engagement - people talking about Newsbeat stories on Facebook - tripled.

We’ve also been able to increase the number of stories we can cover. Newsbeat would normally rack up around 2,000 web stories in the course of a year. When we added in the social media platforms, we found the amount of content we published had increased by around 60%.

Social media views can amount to a 10% increase in our audience and the type of stories we’re able to cover has now changed. Recently we covered the number of rape claims cases against men which turn out to be false. We received several private Facebook messages from men who wanted us to know what such an accusation had been like for them. Had we not been a simple button push away I don’t think we would have received that input.

And we’ve been able to provide an active forum for the opinions of our target age group. The debate over 18- to 24-year-olds having to work to receive benefits achieved a record, with 800 people commenting on a single story.

We had a viral hit for this story about a fire in Chicago which turned the building into something like an ice sculpture. One in three who saw the pictures we posted shared them with someone else. That’s massive, not just for Newsbeat but for social media response as a whole.

In the past year we’ve succeeded in increasing the reach of our original journalism. We’re making up the difference in falling radio listeners online and are able to use sites like Facebook as an extension of our own publishing platform.

The audience is clearly drifting to mobile. Newsbeat, rather than being primarily news on the radio, will become a mobile news brand, inherently social, more visual, and with the ability to go live to any of our users, and with a much better way to listen to and interact with our audience.

Back to that question: for someone just starting to listen to Radio 1 now, aged 16, what will Newsbeat look like in five years? The issues may not change, but how we report and deliver those stories constantly has to.



Developing a social media strategy

Producer of Newsbeat

Small communities can have a big impact on your journalism