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Investigative journalism on radio: not yet extinct

Sunday, 06 November 2011 19:06 In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for

The oft-heard lament of news editors – especially in radio where newsrooms tend to be small and the demands of hourly news bulletins are a killer – go like this: “I can’t release reporters from the daily news diary to do investigations because I just don’t have enough people”.

But underlying this cry is the idea that the daily churn is more important than longer-form journalism – when, in fact, it’s the investigative work that gives you unique content and distinguishes you in the marketplace in these times of commoditised news. In South Africa, Eyewitness News is showing that what it takes is a shift in mindset, to placing equal value on covering the events of the day and setting the agenda with own investigations.

From the Brett Kebble murder to dodgy SABC Mercs, Eyewitness News consistently produces exclusive stories and stands head and shoulders above other radio news teams in the country.

“It’s very important to take people off diary and say: ‘This week you get to work on that story’, says the highly respected Katy Katopodis, group editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News that serves the Primedia stations, Talk Radio 702 and 94.7 Highveld Stereo in Johannesburg plus 567 Cape Talk and 94.5 KFM in Cape Town. Katopodis’s team of just under 20 news journalists, including seven seniors, also produces news for its own website.

“Sometimes you need to negotiate with the reporters and say: ‘I’ll let you do your investigative work next week if, today, I can have you work on something else,” Katopodis says. “It’s extremely important to have the investigative mentality going on in the newsroom, which is something we didn’t have for a long time… But slowly, we’ve really been bringing it back in. So we’ll sit down and say: ‘What’s our big Monday story going to be?’ on the Monday before. Then we say: ‘Great. Now what have we got for Tuesday and Wednesday and the rest of the week’.”

Katopodis says that ongoing training for staff – including senior people – is key, as is emphasising the need for staff to work smart and to prioritise correctly. This is something all the senior staff have mastered, she says, but with which the juniors do struggle.

Prof Franz Krüger, the director of the Wits Radio Academy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that by in large most commercial and community radio stations in SA have few staff and are, therefore, “focused on churning out hourly bulletins (often in several languages) as cheaply as possible: it’s a sausage machine and all that can be done is turn wire copy into bulletin reports, if you’re lucky with a bit of audio.

“The SABC is the organisation that has the resources and people that could be used for this kind of work but the never-ending management, financial and political crisis there militates against real initiative.  The SABC is dominated by protocol news at the moment: the minister says this and that.  Also investigative work generally needs longer-form formats: you can’t  easily squeeze a complex story into 40 seconds.  The SABC has those kind of programmes but commercial radio does not.  Community radio tries but with limited success. There, resource issues come into play.  702 gets around it by using a combination of short bulletin reports, backed up by more in-depth interviews between reporter and anchor in various shows.”

Katopodis says she would love to be able to produce longer BBC-style four- or five-minute reports but the stations her team serve prefer the interview-between-reporter-and-anchor format, which provides the listener with a unique insight into the story, with reports included.

Eyewitness News reporter Mandy Wiener, who did excellent investigative work on the Brett Kebble murder (and then later turned this into a very successful book) says she believes that investigations often suits the radio format better than print because the audio translate so well.

“And I think our listenership appreciates it as well,” says Wiener. “You can see when we do an investigative story or an own story that’s exclusive, it really resonates. We get a much better response to it and I think that’s where the magic lies with EyeWitness News… that we take the initiative and… look at what’s really happening in our city.”

Krüger suggests that radio news teams who want to do more investigative work start with building longer-format programming, possibly de-emphasising the hourly bulletins and then devoting available resources to making those news shows work.  “Then one needs to develop and honour those with an interest and ability to do this kind of work. But this is only really going to happen if station managers see the value – to audiences – of this kind of work. It is hard and costly.”

Alex Eliseev, who joined Eyewitness News about two years ago from newspapers, says he thinks making time for investigative work is the most important part of the working week. “I think this is really Journalism 1.01. You have to do it. You can’t just sit at your desk and rewrite press releases. You have to get out there and be with your contacts… I have built up a lot of relationships with station-level policemen, for example, and a lot of the big stories I’ve done come from contacts such as these.”

Both Eliseev and Wiener say that although it really tests one’s time-management skills to balance the covering of breaking news with the investigative work, they really appreciate being given time off diary to follow up leads and look deeper into stories.

“Eyewitness News has got a lot of energy. There’s none of this sitting around and waiting for things to happen,” says Eliseev, adding that its reputation for doing serious investigative work is important to him.

“We’re moving ahead. It’s a lovely brand. It’s got a really nice credibility to it and, for me, as a journalist, I value the credibility of the organisation I work for. You want to be able to – as they say – go into a pub and fight for your reputation. You want to believe in the product.”



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