Broadcasting Today

Professor’s Blog – Media in Transformation

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Kurt Barling is Professor of Professional Practice at Middlesex University London.  He is the BBC’s Special Correspondent for London.

In the fourth in the Series of Broadcasting talksProfessor Barling was joined by undergraduate Dler Jio in conversation with BBC 5 Live’s Dotun Adebayo

Dotun Adebayo was a child actor who used his passion for performance to build a career as a radio broadcaster. He took a long and circuitous route to get there.

After a brief period thinking he might be a star actor and engaging in a misspent summer exploring the delights of alcohol with Tennessee Williams whilst at the National Youth Theatre he decided a career in acting was too nerve-wracking. But in reality being a radio performer blends the arts of acting and journalism.

Studying in Sweden and then Essex University where he was cured of a career in politics after being ousted in a student coup as the student Union President.

Dotun has become the exemplar of the portfolio career creative. As well as publishing the work of up and coming minority novelists through X Press (a departure for which he received a distinction of the MBE) and continuing to write controversial books like “Can I have my balls back please”, he has also continued to work as a playwright.

He recently revived and performed in his own play ‘Skin Teeth’, an unsentimental look at the fall from grace of a stand-up comedian.    In it he draws on the experience of the African diaspora and the change in the way one generation to the next is less forgiving of telling jokes about being black to please a white audience.

He remains a regular columnist for the Voice newspaper and as he told the Middlesex audience, is responsible for nearly 10 per cent of the programming on BBC 5 live radio every week on his up all night programme.

When asked if phone-in radio was lazy journalism he responded by saying it was a format specific to radio that allowed the audience to participate in open discussion.

There is the exhilaration of being on air with a breaking story like the Asian Tsunami or the announcement of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, but also the challenge of getting things right at high speed. Not lazy journalism at all and certainly should not be modeled on what TV does.

Radio’s inventiveness has been at the heart of its revival. The fact that the new BBC DG has recaptured the word radio from the blandness of audio is probably a sign of its continued importance to the audience.

He is originally from Tottenham and of Nigerian heritage. But when asked by Dler Jio if being Black was a barrier to access when he started his career he suggested focusing on being the best he could was more of a priority. In fact he denied at the beginning of his career he even recognized that being Black was a barrier.

Dotun recognized early on though through his work in the music press that access to stories and different people was a very important asset in building a network of contacts and the having the right currency to sell stories.

It’s a point that can’t be returned to often enough.   Getting your first point of access in the media is often by bringing something fresh to the table.   In the case of a journalist from an ethnic minority, access and understanding of a particular community can be very important in opening doors.

The challenge then becomes not to get a reputation for those stories alone.   It is my experience that journalists are intellectual magpies and interested in all sorts of things but a student shouldn’t be shy of using privileged knowledge as a route in.

Dotun was quite sure that as a journalist you should not avoid your interests and heritage just because it might pigeonhole you as a journalist.   He is very proud of the contribution he can continue to make informed by his particular perspective.

Unlike Hugh Muir though he is less convinced that the Macpherson Report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence has helped transform the media landscape. He suggested that reporting of conflicts around race was still a taboo and only lip service was being paid to inclusive treatment of stories.

This may well be a function of an enduring poor representation amongst the journalist class of all walks of British life.

He is a convert to the idea that the fragmentation of the industry and the new digital platforms present greater opportunities for students to get their first point of access to a career in journalism.  Above all there are more platforms on which to practice the craft.

As a BBC journalist he is wedded to the notion of impartiality citing his weary conversations with his long time neighbour trying to extract information from him about his political allegiances. But acknowledged that as a radio presenter a certain familiarity with his audience allows him more latitude than for example, Martin Bell, as a former War Correspondent. In conflict zones accurate facts trump everything in his view.

He cited an exchange with a BBC manager after he voiced his disgust in the BBC in-house journal Ariel at violent rapper lyrics being aired on Radio 1. He was conflicted by his desire to comment on the impact he believed this was having across black communities. The BBC manager insisted the price he pays for being a BBC Presenter is sacrificing a public platform for his views in return for the status of arbiter in all disputes, in other words impartiality.

Above all though Dotun fiercely defended the right of journalists to set the editorial agenda and challenged students to think in the context of the UK what would be the front page lead if the monarch passed at the same time as 9/11 had happened. In his view 9/11 would categorically not make the lead story.

Dotun was challenging us to think about what the journalistic instinct is and what motivates a journalist to continue to hunt for stories week in week out for years. This is fundamentally the creative pathway you launch yourself on in the world where words are king.

Dotun had the simplest words of advice to give budding journalists. They should understand what a news story is. By doing this and being able to turn even unpromising material into news is part of the survival kit of a new starter and old hand alike.

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