Media: That's an awful lot of head bobbage

Regional radio depends on a relentless stream of interviewees. So is it really local?
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The Independent Culture
I've just been interviewed as secretary of the local branch of Liberty - the National Council for Civil Liberties - on BBC Radio Leeds' morning programme. Nearby, two BBC staff are talking about a possible current affairs project involving a lot of studio interviews. One of them looks doubtful and says he thinks it will mean "an awful lot of head bobbage".

Head bobbage. A reference to the interviewer seeing only part of a head across the console of hanging microphones and other wonders of technology separating him or her from the studio guests.

I have just finished being part of the head bobbage. Local radio depends on people like us bobbing in to keep their talk radio going. Sometimes it's guests on the line from London but they prefer someone local if they can get them.

In the 12 months to the end of April we did around 20 interviews for Radio Leeds, plus a few for Radio Humberside, Radio Eire and Radio York. The subjects included paedophiles in the community, ID cards, electronic tagging, DNA databases, CCTV surveillance, freedom of information, CS sprays for the police, curfews on young people and deaths in police custody.

The call can be for the breakfast or morning show or the drive-time evening show and is fitted around the news,the sport, the gardening advice and the phone-in-astrologer. On one side of you is the new device for opening champagne bottles without an explosion; on the other the national "B" celeb in town.

Local TV - the BBC and ITV - is less interested in Liberty. We were on standby once when a local 13-year-old was put on the sex offender register, but were dropped when the TV companies were forbidden to take any pictures of him.The same thing happened when the first man in West Yorkshire to be electronically tagged by the courts got cold feet. He had been scheduled to be the star of the piece.

So mostly we stick with radio, and they with us. Often the story has come down the line from a specialist journal by way of the Sunday broadsheets and then to local radio, where it ends up tucked away into someone's "show".

It can of course, go the other way. Say something local and it moves upwards to the nationals. We once had spin attached to our local statement that the police should not get involved with truancy because as such truancy is not a criminal offence. Within days the Daily Mail was screaming that we were encouraging children not to go to school. We complained in vain to the Press Complaints Commission.

Once you have had the call, the procedure is roughly the same each time. A researcher outlines the subject and asks if you can help. You are then given a timescale of between 48 hours and 48 minutes, with an evident pride being taken in winging it within the tightest possible time scale.

Despite the mammoth use of head bobbage, you still must question: how local is local radio?

The presenters themselves all talk a bland Nineties-style BBC English with rarely a trace of a local accent. Unless it's a character-presenter's accent - an accent so broad that you would hear it only at a dialect poetry reading at the Ilkley Literature Festival.

The interviewees also tend to the same middle-class, middle-England accents - hardly representative of the locality. Often they are the retired or those in jobs that allow them to disappear mid-morning for an interview - a privilege few of us have.

Solicitors and magistrates are favourites for civil liberty issues. The solicitors firm presumably benefits from publicity for such appearances - just as Liberty is able to show it is alive and kicking in the area.

University and college lecturers are another good source, especially if they can offer a vox-populi style of wisdom, or speak in sound bites. Some, I know, refuse to do this, seeing it as a watering-down of their work.Others are happy to pronounce on any subject. Psychologists and sociologists are often in demand.

Whether this all adds up to local radio being the modern equivalent of gossiping at the village pump is more questionable.

Will the supply of head bobbage ever dry up? It seems unlikely. People still fall over themselves to oblige the magic call from the BBC - or whoever - and local radio knows it can rely on this.

Even with no money on offer, the idea that someone wants to listen to you and is willing to put some wondrous technology at your disposal, is too powerful to resist. Like moths to a flame, the head bobbage will always be there.

The writer is secretary of the Leeds branch of Liberty, and is available for interview

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