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In defence of trails

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 13:55, Friday, 6 August 2010

Radio 4 Today studio control booth view 600

Editor's note: this week's item from Feedback, Radio 4's weekly accountability programme, concerns the highly contentious issue of trails. Putting his head in the lion's mouth to defend them is network manager, Denis Nowlan. Brave man - SB

What is it about trails that so excites or rather inflames the Feedback listener? This week as I entered the office I could feel the heat radiating off the incandescent emails.

The immediate cause was an interview I did last week with the deputy Editor of the Today programme, Jon Zilkha. A few days before, a BBC weather forecaster had had to cut his pre-8 a.m. bulletin from its standard 90 seconds length to a truncated 20 seconds. The reason was that a live discussion about the BBC itself had overrun, in listeners' view an increasingly common occurrence.

Of course another option would have been to drop the trail instead. Mr Zilkha defended the decision to cut the forecast and went on to suggest that for many listeners trails are just as important as the weather. Many of our correspondents were incredulous about that assertion.

"If he can actually find a listener who would rather listen to a trailer then hear a weather forecast, I"ll buy him a drink" wrote Colin Williams.

Deborah Bull told us "You are a public service and a decent weather forecast is part of that. There is no justification for preferring to run trails instead".

Peter Simpkin said "I hope you will follow up with a direct question to the Controller R4... is the 5-to-8 trailer more important than the weather by higher command?"

Well the Controller was not available but the official defender of trails was. He is the Network Manager of Radio 4, Denis Nowlan. Listen to his defence of trails and tell us what you think in a comment:

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By the way the latest RAJAR figures show that Radio 4 has just had its best listening figures ever, and that those for Radio 3 have gone down a little. I think there must have been a General Election.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    The defence of trails was almost unbelievably arrogant and complacent; another example of rearch which asks questioons onlt to assure the desired answer

  • Comment number 2.

    Trails can get annoying when you constantly hear the same ones over and over again.

    But, since I started using iPlayer as my main source of TV and Radio, I've found that I really miss the trails. They're great at letting you know what to watch out for and better at giving you a flavour of a show than any listings or review can.

    As for the weather forecast - who actually pays attention to that? ;)

  • Comment number 3.

    Sadly, that management response was typical of how institutionalised the BBC is. It exists to defend its existence. On "trails", I stopped listening to R4 for several weeks, when they constantly played that mournful music trailer for "The History of the World in 100 Objects". A good programme idea, incidentally, but its execution - and "trail" - were as exciting as yesterday's rice pudding.
    I always listen for the weather forecast. It matters to me.

  • Comment number 4.

    I have no objection to announcements about forthcoming programmes: it is the dumbed-down trailers which are so irritating.

    The basic problem is that Radio 4, and the BBC in general, is no longer run by people who are more intelligent and better educated than most of their audience. They have been replaced by the kind of people who think Nathan Barley is a role model - and that constantly repeating long and silly trailers is a jolly good idea.

  • Comment number 5.

    Thanks for your comments. Interesting mix of opinions on the topic over on the Facebook page too, in case you fancy dropping by.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 6.

    Sometimes a trail is useful. However we get *far* too many of the *same ones*. The weather is really important - A short weather forecast is fine, but if in doubt *skip the trail* - The way you work it we will get the same trail again in five minutes anyway. The "interactive trails" with Melvyn Bragg/ Libby Purves bantering with the today presenters are much more fun anyway. But my biggest grouse at the moment is that you trail too much on the radio, but have done away with the simple and extremely helpful line in the website for, for eg, Radio 4, which used to tell us the basic, interesting fact of what is on *next*. I am not interested in endless recommendations to listen to that which I have probably heard already; if I look at the web site 5 mins before the end of the current prog, I just want to know what to expect next. I love Radio 4, but you don't help!

  • Comment number 7.

    Has anyone ever tried to get a point of view over to BBC Management without an arrogant, patronising e-mail in response? Our latest complaint about the amount of American voices and subjects on Woman's Hour was met with the snottiest reply from the Editor about editorial judgement and content.
    Trails are played interminably months before a programme is aired and the old problem of music overriding narration has been ignored completely. The BBC is a law unto itself and maybe the new government should be looking at privatisation so we in the market can have the ultimate voice of showing our displeasure at their arrogance, by turning it off

  • Comment number 8.

    MissClimpson, I'm happy to be able to help with at least your web site grouse. Near the top right of every page on the Radio 4 web site is a little green plus-sign labelled 'More'. Click it and you'll get an extra panel of information, including details of what's on next. And the button will remember that you clicked it, so you won't need to do so each time you visit. Very handy.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 9.

    As an avid American listener of BBC radio, I heartily appreciate the kindly trails; I often discover new and interesting programming exclusively from this source.

    You Brits should count your blessings that you aren't forced to suffer through the various "sponsorship acknowledgements" (and their thinly veiled commercial adverts) that we in the USA regularly endure on our "public", state- and donation-sponsored radio station (NPR).

  • Comment number 10.

    Clearly an American listener will prefer trails over weather. But locals have other needs.

    Gordon Graham is spot on about the defence on Feedback. What a pompous, er, [profanity filter avoided].

    Of course you can present evidence showing that people "like" them. But the wriggling by the spokesperson convinced me that this was indeed, research designed to deliver the required result.

    Maybe Feedback can ask for the raw data, the questions and the context, and slap it up on its website. Then we will know if the speaker was providing an honest defence.

    If this isn't forthcoming, what about an FoI request by someone with time on their hands?

  • Comment number 11.

    I work outside and need to know what the weather is going to be to plan work. It is annoying when the weather forcast is cut or does not provide enough information. I used to use the video weather forecast on news multiscreen on freeview (the reason I got freeview) but that was removed and now half the time the radio 4 / radio Scotland (they always give the weather for the north, south, east and west of Scotland but only very rarely for central scotland ie Stirlingshire, Clackmannanshire etc.) forecast is of no use either. I have to put the bbc news channel on and sit and wait for a weather forecast, when I could be doing something more important. Not evreyone works in an office and a detailed weather forecast with wind speeds, temperatures as well as rain is important.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for all your comments so far. Certainly not a scientific survey, but adding together responses here and on Facebook it's roughly a tie (11 in favour of trails, 10 against and 26 neutral or off-topic). Those who like the trails mostly point to the fact that they'd have missed programmes all together if they hadn't heard a trail. Those who dislike them point to repetition, 'dumbing down' and management arrogance. A couple of people would like to see the research referred to in the interview.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 13.

    More data for my utterly unscientific survey - adding in responses to a second Facebook update, the numbers are: 16 in favour of trails, 12 against and 30 neutral or off-topic.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 14.

    I am in favour of weather reports and in favour of trails. I do not take in the Radio 4 weather reports and prefer to look out my window or read on the website the most recent weather report for my area, but I accept that for many people weather reports are important. As someone who listens a great deal to Radio 4 I do sometimes hear the same trail several times, but many of the trails I hear are for programmes that I did not know were on and which interest me.

    Denis Nowlan referred to the weather versus trails debate as an "unresolvable dilemma". This is nonsense. If presenters keep to time there will be no significant problems for listeners. Of course, people who are easily irritated by trails will continue to be irritated, but some people are simply easily irritated.

    I was deeply concerned by Mr Nowlan's reliance on unpublished research findings to support his arguments. This is yet one more manifestation of the culture of secrecy that surrounds the BBC. How many people were surveyed and what questions were they asked asked? Listeners to Feedback and licence-fee payers have a right to know.

  • Comment number 15.

    I listen to R4 a lot and find the trails repetitive and annoying. In a current affairs show like Today, a presenter ought to be able to run over 'time' if something emerges from the interview that should be heard. I that case the trail should always be the first thing to go.

    At least Today, has not succumbed to the trend in some BBC TV programmes such as Breakfast where a weather forecaster comes on to tell you that a weather forecast will coming up in 15 minutes, rather than telling you the weather.

    The advent of smartphones like the iPhone with its MetOffice App will probably spell the end of the traditional weather forecast.

    Fewer trails would improve the listening experience. Launch some smartphone apps for trails and then those who love them, or just dip into R4 occasionally can have them 24/7 ;-)

  • Comment number 16.

    Surely the answer is to schedule the weather forecast to begin earlier.
    Then, if Today overruns, the forecast needn't be rushed through at breakneck speed and, if it doesn't, there will be all the more time for the precious trailers.

  • Comment number 17.

    A so-called "trail" (properly called a trailer, being an abreviation of TRAIL blazER)is a piece of self-promotion or self-advertisement. What supreme self-serving arrogance to suggest that telling us about yourself could somehow be more important than telling us about our weather! I just can't believe. I suggest that, next time, the weatherman just keeps going for the full allocated 90 seconds regardless, and leaves the trail to fend for itself in whatever reduced time is left.

    Oh, and one more thing, it is beyond the ability of the BBC not to crash the pips so often? Possibly - I hardly dare ask this - even not at all??

  • Comment number 18.

    I was listening to that part of Feedback yesterday. I could not believe how self-knowing that guy was. 'We have research that agrees with our views, and you can't see it, or its methodology'. Well judging from this board, we have research that's more publicly available, that suggests you're wrong!

    To think more people will take trailers as 'vital' to their existence than the weather.. If so, why have soooo many folks presenting it, and spending all that money on the tv graphics..

    Just like PoV, the News24 Newswatch, it shows that sometimes BBC folks are so set in their arrogance, that nothing will ever sway them. Regardless of postbags to these shows, research known only to them, always supports their views..

  • Comment number 19.

    Weather should always take precedence over trails, as for many of us, our safety depends on the weather. However, while weather forecasting seems to be reliable in the built up areas in the east of the UK, it is relatively unreliable further west. As the BBC does no weather recording itself, it cannot do much about the accuracy of data, but it could do more to explain possible variations from the main forecast in areas where a higher proportion of people work outdoors and forecasts are less precise. This suggests, perhaps, allowing more time for the bulletins.
    Trails are sometimes useful, but are often too long. There is an increasing trend to using pop music, and even if relevant to the programme usually ensures that I turn off for the trail AS WELL AS the advertised programme. (I chose to listen R4 rather then R1 or R2) What's wrong with a simple single sentence announcement?

  • Comment number 20.

    I was boggled by Dennis Nowlan's stance too. It's just incomprehensible. However,if they absolutely must have trails (and it seems they must, sadly) do they have to be played just before 8am? Can they not be played on the half hour at 7.30 or 8.30? They are effectively (in house) adverts so why not treat them as such?

  • Comment number 21.

    I would like to complain about the volume level of trailers on early morning 5 live. I like to listen to Up All Night with Rhod Sharp who chats to BBC and non-BBC correspondents around the world and other people in the news.
    Without warning he will finish an interview and play a trailer with some imbecile shouting over music or crowd noise advertising a sports programme or play a jingle reminding me I am listening to 5 live, why?
    Volume levels are very important, late at night and early morning for people listening at home, to avoid disturbing others. If the BBC must advertise, please think about doing it more quietly in the early morning shows. On commercial radio it is unlikely the same advert would be used on Classic FM and Planet Rock or a pop station.

  • Comment number 22.

    This debate appears to have turned into a competition between the weather and trailers. It started because a news item ran over time (happens from time to time) and a decision was made to cut the weather rather than the following trailer.

    The reality is that trailers are useful, if sometimes annoying for those of us who listen to Radio 4 all day, and the weather is important and expected by the audience at the same time everyday. Many will often tune in, specifically to obtain the news and/or the weather. The trailer is an optional extra to promote the BBC - even if it is important to the BBC to increase market share to justify it's budget.

    This is not a debate about canning trailers all together, it's about making the decision to cut one (of very many trailers) when the news over-runs so the weather can be heard. Miss one trailer for a program out of several and the impact is small, miss one weather forcast for some and the impact can be significant.

    What is more interesting about this debate is the number of listeners, who like me, have commented on the BBC management's inability to take on board feedback without getting defensive and providing condescending self justifying answers.

  • Comment number 23.

    Denis Nowlan seemed to regard the necessity of having a detailed weather forecast as some quaint little obsession by a few eccentric listeners. I don't know how he gets to work or how much the weather forecast matters in his daily life. Yes I know that when there is a big weather story the news follows it up (my local town is Cockermouth), but it doesn't help in a tourist area like the Lake District if people can't find out what the weather is going to do. I just couldn't believe his arrogance and his dismissal of people's concerns. I still would like to see concrete evidence of his "poll", and how scientific it was. He should be required to produce his evidence.

  • Comment number 24.

    Are you familiar with the phrase "spitting feathers"? It barely begins to describe my reaction to that - well, if I used the words I want to, you would not be able to publish my comments. I have actively chosen NOT to listen to programmes which, at first whisper, sounded interesting, because I was so fed up with hearing the blasted trail. May that spokesman's toenails grow fungus and itch constantly! Then, maybe, he will begin to understand how his audience feels about those endless, tedious trails.

  • Comment number 25.

    Not only do I find most trails annoying, but my pet hate (on TV) is the 'next week's episode' trailer that appears so often at the end of a serial episode. This has all of us in our house scrabbling for the remote and shouting "I DON'T WANT TO KNOW" at the screen.

    Presumably this is a product of the same mindset as the blockheads who think that weather forecasts should give way to ephemera...

  • Comment number 26.

    I don't object to the presence of the trails per se, but I definitely agree that, when some item in the Today programme has overrun and the weather bulletin has to be reduced by more than a predetermined amount, the trail should be cut. I can't imagine there are many people who tune in specially to hear the trails, while lot of people tune in specially for the weather - I know I did when I had to get out to work in the morning - and it's infuriating when the weather report has to be given in a few vague comments to then hear the time taken up by a preview of something on later, regardless of how interesting. The vast majority of listeners seem to agree with this perspective and I think the management has a duty to take note and act accordingly.

  • Comment number 27.

    Any programme editor who had to put up with my husband's mutterings and complaints and dangerous washing up of breakfast things after the weather's been cut in favour of a trail would think twice before making their decision ...

  • Comment number 28.

    For God's sake, the word is TRAILERS not TRAILS! Trails are what you take when you fancy a stroll. Which is what I thought this blog was about, until I realised that the BBC are too lazy to add two little letters at the end of a word to ensure that its meaning is clear.

  • Comment number 29.

    Personally, I have two uses for trailers. Judging whether to watch the programme after and judging how good the programme being advertised is. I assume that the marketing department are competent and advertise programmes I may be interested in. So, if the trailer is for some obviously populist, lowbrow rubbish I assume that the following programme is the same and change channel. Equally, if the programme is being advertised every 5 minutes I assume it is rubbish and can only get viewers/listeners by being massively hyped. In the latter case, I avoid the programme being advertised.

  • Comment number 30.

    Here's a thought if you cut out all the advertising, and don't kid yourselves it ain't, you can stop cutting off contributors during interviews whose comments and responses we really want to hear, ta!


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