Manx Radio News and other issues

The second rate treatment of Manx news by Manx Radio led to a meeting between Mec Vannin Chairman, Mark Kermode, and Station Manager, Stewart Watterson. The following is the resulting report.


MEETING BETWEEN MARK KERMODE (MEC VANNIN) AND STEWART WATTERSON (MANX RADIO) 24-03-95.

The meeting was a result of correspondence between the two parties concerning the current format of Manx Radio News. Currently, IRN news bulletins are broadcast live throughout the day, every day. Manx news headlines are pre-fixed to some of these (described as "Local News"). The I.R.N. news is described as "International News" although it is, of course, basically English news.

The Mec Vannin brief was as follows:

a) To have Manx news broadcast before any other news.
b) To have Manx news described preferably as National news or, at least, Manx news.
c) To have Manx news broadcast every hour of station transmission, whether recorded or read.
d) To improve Manx news coverage at week-ends.
e) To have I.R.N. bulletins described as such, rather than "International news".

SUMMARY OF MEETING IN MARK KERMODE'S WORDS.

I opened the meeting by re-iterating that which had been stated in the original letter to Mr. Watterson i.e. that the change in news format was a retrograde step and extremely damaging to the concept of a National, as opposed to local, radio station. Furthermore, I did not feel that there were any insurmountable problems associated with a reversion to the original format.

Mr. Watterson replied that whilst he agreed with the philosophy behind my argument, financial considerations had led to a redeployment of news staff following the departure of two journalists (Sheena MacKay and Charles Guard).

Consequently, the manpower was not available to perform the "time-shifting" of incoming I.R.N. bulletins to follow Manx news broadcasts. To try to have a single journalist perform the task, he believed, was to substantially increase the likelihood of on-air hang-ups.

I argued that, since Manx Radio was the national station of Mannin, and financially supported by the Manx People, I.R.N. news was very much a secondary service. It is not of the in-depth and on-going nature of, for instance, B.B.C. Radio Four news. From hour to hour, there is little change in news content and, in any case, could not be held to be of prime-importance to the people of Mannin. There is, therefore, no great loss to be incurred from broadcasting the I.R.N. news the hour after it is received. This also allows for the bulletin to be read by a Manx Radio broadcaster, using more appropriate terminology.

Mr. Watterson was not at all keen on this idea, fearing that an on-going story may be "stale" by the time of broadcast. The use of terminology brought the discussion on to the actual way news was introduced. He expressed surprise that Mec Vannin did not approve of the term "international" for the I.R.N. news broadcasts since, thinking of Mannin as a nation, anything from outside should be regarded as international.

I replied that if the I.R.N. service was genuinely international, then there would not be a problem. As it was, however, the I.R.N. bulletins are specifically U.K. news and, being more critical of their content, English Home County orientated. It was rather strange to hear "international news" using terms such as "the Prime-Minster", "regional authorities throughout the country" etc. It also re-inforced the objection to the use of the term "local" for Manx news: It is strange to jump from "local" to "international" news without any "national" news in between.

Mr. Watterson also revealed that, subsequent to receiving complaints about the news presentation, a telephone poll of 150 people was carried out. The result was an approximate 50% split, with those favouring the original format tending to be "older" Manx people, and those favouring the new format tending to be "younger" people of non-Manx origin.

I countered that the primary responsibility of Manx Radio should always be to the Manx people. It is natural that an incomer to a society will tend to favour any practice that is closer to there own cultural or social back-ground, especially when so many of the young new-comers to Mannin are here primarily because of a current employment trend, rather than any particular liking for Mannin itself.

This introduced the broadcasting capabilities of Manx Radio. I stated that there was a substantial audience off Mannin itself, and the station should be very concious of the impression it gives to such an audience. Furthermore, I felt that the utilisation of frequencies itself was not correct. Currently, the A.M. frequency, which has by far the best penetration off Mannin, is used for music based programming (when the frequencies are used separately). Here, it is competing with Atlantic 252, Radio Red Rose, Virgin FM, Radio One and a host of other "music only" stations.

Conversely, the F.M. frequencies (which have better sound quality capabilities) are used to carry the current affairs and "talk" programmes. These programmes (Mandate, Sunday Opinion, Mannin line etc.) generate considerable interest off Mannin because of their uniquely Manx content, but are very limited in transmission capabiltiy. At the same time, the stereophonic capability of F.M. broadcasts is wasted on speech based programmes. Its "line of sight" transmission nature also makes it less suitable for the hilly geography of the island itself. I expressed the opinion that the band utilisation should be reversed.

Mr. Watterson replied that he felt that since the talk based programmes were primarily for Manx consumption, they should benefit from the best quality broadcasting band, although he conceded that he was in conflict with the feelings of some of his technical staff on this issue.

Returning to news broadcasting, I enquired as to whether the news gathering / propogation potential of the "Information Super Highway" is being investigated. Increasing numbers of news agencies are making bulletins available on the various networks, and these could be used to form genuine international news bulletins at low cost.

Mr. Watterson felt that, at this point in time, the I.R.N. bulletins offered the best value for money off-island news deal, since no money changed hands: The bulletins are received in return for advertising airtime. A permanent link into the "super-highway" would be more expensive. There is also the question of copy-right to be considered.

I pointed out that at this stage, news propogation is not a priority, simply gathering. A "dial-up" facility would, therefore, be adequate. The question of copy-right is entirely dependent upon the individual service accessed: news agencies exist specifically for the purpose of re-selling news and some other services are "public domain".

Moving on to the use of "new" technologies, Mr. Watterson outlined some lines of progress currently under investigation by the station. For commercial reasons, however, he asked me to treat the specific details in confidence. The result, if these investigations are progressed to realisation, will be the potential to re-format the news presentation.

I then moved on to the matter of weekend and evening time news broadcasting. After five-thirty on week-day evenings, there is no Manx news until the late-show (after 10.00pm). This is read by the presenter, Bernie Quayle. I asked why this could not be read every hour by whichever presenter is working, or a recorded copy of the last updated news bulletin be broadcast.

Similarly, at weekends, the news is extremely scarce, and I suggested a similar format. Mr. Watterson was very much opposed to this on the basis that an on-going matter could be reported in an out-dated form. I suggested that the number of items where this could be the case was very small indeed. Furthermore, there was no problem with dating the news with such phrases as, "The last report at 9.00 a.m. was..."

The situation at the moment is that there is no news available at all and so the many people who have probably missed the rare bulletins available will not tune in when no Manx news is available. In any case, the majority of weekend news stories are ones that have been held over from the week, and so are out of date in that respect in any case.

In spite of this, Mr. Watterson stated that he was extremely reluctant to broadcast news when there is not a journalist present at the station.

I then moved to the what seemed to be the major stumbling block; funding of news bulletins. One of the primary objectives of Mec Vannin's campaign of opposition to the current B.B.C. licence fee is the lack of return of service. We agreed that all indications are that Mannin is currently paying in the region of œ2million per annum to the U.K. in T.V. licence fees. In the U.K., the B.B.C. is required by statute to re-invest 12% of such revenue into to regional and local programming. This includes B.B.C. local radio. I stated that it would be better, therefore, to argue for B.B.C. World Service news to be provided gratis to Manx Radio as part of the "pay-back" that we due from the U.K.

Mr. Watterson agreed that this would be a beneficial arrangement, but was doubtful of our success, based on his own experience as a Civil Servant in the Department of Home Affairs.

Although not a primary objective of the meeting, it was natural that, given Mec Vannin's stance on the Manx language, I raise the subject of broadcasting in the language. The Gaelic Broadcasting Commission now has some œ8,000 at its disposal, and so "up-front" payment for air-time is a reality.

Mr. Watterson is willing to accept any advice from the Commission in this respect, whilst weighing it against "commercial considerations". By this, he meant that any broadcasting that would have the net effect of reducing the audience at a given time would be considered counter-productive. He perceived Claare ny Gael as having an audience of a "handful of enthusiasts".

I argued that anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. Another area of potential is, with the directional broadcasting capabilities of the station, link-ups could be estabished with Irish and Scottish language stations. This would expand the potential audience from hundreds to thousands.
Again, Mr. Watterson stated he was open to advice from the Commission.

This brought me finally to the matter of pronunciation. Whilst accepting that it is difficult to get everything right all the time, various people and bodies have often criticised Manx Radio for what have been considered to be blatant errors of pronunciation. I asked if any progress had been made with Dr. George Broderick's pronunciation guide.

Mr. Watterson confirmed that audio casette tapes of place-name pronunciation had been in the station's possession for some time, although their actual use was difficult because of their very nature: Spooling through a tape to find one name for possibly just one story was tedious and time-consuming. He felt a book would have been better.

I agreed that on the face of things, a book was better, but that to actually achieve its objective, it would have to use the international phonetic alphabet and it was unlikely that anyone in the station was conversant with this. Nonetheless, I said that I would ask various people of the practicality of creating a phonetic dictionary that would be useable by station staff. Development of multi-media computer technology also made instant retrieval of audio recordings a reality, and could be investigated.

This aside, I stated that I felt that there were certain areas of pronunciation where Manx Radio could perform a lot better. Most mis-pronunciation arises from the fact that most people encounter the written form of the word before they hear the spoken form. This, coupled with an apparent tendency for the Manx not simply to accept, but adopt corruptions of their names and place-names, has led to a rapid deterioration of pronunciation over the last three decades. Manx Radio is in the best position of any-one to counter this practice and, indeed, reverse it.

Mr. Watterson replied that he was mindful of this, but felt that a move towards more "traditional" pronunciation could actually encounter resistance from Manx people themselves. For instance, the accepted pronunciation of the surname Quinney is now "Kwinnee", but its traditional pronunciation is currently preserved in BallaQuinney Bridge ("Ballakunnya"). He felt that if people called Quinney were to here themselves referred to by the more traditional pronunciation, they would object.

I accepted that there is a tendency for people to regard anything that was done when their own recollections begin as being "right" or "traditional" and that I was not necessarily advocating that surnames be actively reverted to older forms, but that Manx Radio should be extremely concious of the powerful position it enjoys with respect to the propogation of the spoken word. Consequently, it should take care not to perpetuate or, indeed, initiate any new corruptions. This applies not only to pronunciation but terminology.

I cited Meary Veg as an outstanding example. Although appended by a Gaelic adjective (Veg), this is a Norse name. Indeed, the traditional Manx pronunciation preserves the original Norse pronunciation, "Mairee". This pronunciation has survived in tact for at least a thousand years, because it is off the "beaten track" and usage of the name was, for the greater part, confined to those who had direct contact with it and heard it said correctly.

This changed when it bacame the subject of National interest as the intended site for the I.R.I.S. plant. Manx Radio staff have consistently referred to the site as "Meeree Veg", thus implanting a mis-pronunciation in the minds of many people, and one that will now probably become established.

Mr. Watterson conceded that this is one that has "got past" him.

I informed Mr. Watterson that Mec Vannin regarded Manx Radio as having potential to be something to be very proud of as a "flag-ship" national radio station. I am satisfied that, having been subject to various enquiries and audits, the current Government subvention to the station is used properly.
When the cost to the tax-payer of maintaining the station (around œ100,000 per annum) with its potential to preserve and promote the living Manx culture, is compared to the œmillions to be spent on "dead" heritage via Manx National Heritage, there can be no substantial objection to some increase in funding if this will result in a more nationally orientated service.
Having exhausted the brief, and gone further, I concluded the meeting by asking for some assurances regarding the future policies towards the subjects discussed.

1) News format: Would he keep the situation under constant review?

Mr. Watterson replied that, as stated earlier, his philosophy in this respect matches Mec Vannin's; it is cost considerations that have led to the current situation.

2) Evening and weekend coverage: Would he consider having presenters read / play recorded Manx news bulletins?

Mr. Watterson would not consider this.

3) Terminology: Would he discuss with news staff the use of "National" or "Manx" to describe our own news, rather than "local", there being no cost or effort required in this?

Mr. Watterson replied that he was not actually aware that presenters were consistently using this phrase, but could talk to the staff.

CONCLUSIONS

Although Mr. Watterson expressed sympathies and positive attitudes towards Mec Vannin's stance in this matter, it is practical results that count.

There is clearly an insurmountable difference of opinion over priorities concerning current news coverage: Manx news priority can be introduced immediately by using I.R.N. bulletins the hour after receipt. These can be edited and read to make them relevant to the Manx situation without the need for extra staffing, but Mr. Watterson is unwilling to consider this.

Similarly, evening and weekend coverage can be introduced immediately, with a probable net saving of money. There could very well be an increase in listenership if people could tune in knowing that Manx news would be available. The excuse used in this case, and Mr. Watterson was quite immovable on the matter, was that on ongoing situation could change before the next update. I cannot accept this as a valid excuse. A great deal of weekend news on Manx Radio has been held over from the week and can be up to three days old when broadcast.

People are not necessarily interested in "up to the minute" news, they simply want news at times that are convenient to them. Most news broadcast by any station is old by the time it has been gathered, edited and made ready in any case.

On the subject of terminology, there is no cost or problems whatsoever involved in using more appropriate terminology, and I requested that Mr. Watterson discuss the matter with his news staff. Over a week after the meeting, however, there has been absolutely no change. This brings into question the real willingness of the station to address any other problems raised.

With reference to Manx Language broadcasting I perceive that, despite of the positive attitude expressed by Mr. Watterson, there will be resistance encountered to genuine Manx language broadcasting based on a mis-conception about audience receptiveness.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1) Mec Vannin should attempt to initiate public opposition to the news format.
2) Mec Vannin should, as part of its on-going campaign against the B.B.C. licence fee, argue through the appropriate channels for gratis B.B.C. news.

3) That Manx Radio be formally asked to investigate its own international news gathering service via the "internet" etc. Costs incurred would be redeemed by freeing up valuable commercial air-time currently taken up by the I.R.N. deal.
4) Funding being the apparent problem, and bearing in mind the comments concerning M.N.H., Government be approached to fund an additional member of news staff in order to provide a proper Manx news service.

END



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