How to get your charity on television and radio

From getting on producers' contact lists to joining radio phone-ins, Steve Palmer offers his advice on securing some valuable airtime for your cause

Steve Palmer runs a Down's Syndrome support group and is a Charity Comms trustee

"We shouldn't have bothered. It's on medium wave". These were the words of a guest in the late 1990s, overheard in the studios of LBC Radio in London.  At the time, the chatty bit of LBC was 1152 MW and its sister station, News Direct 97.3, was on FM. The medium wave station was very popular, especially with its dedicated phone-in audience. But, for this guest, a minor celebrity, I imagine what was alien was that she equated MW with listening to Radio 1 on a tinny signal in the 1970's. She perhaps hadn’t realised that she was reaching a real audience, even though she didn’t personally listen to MW radio.

Third Sector have kindly asked me to give advice on how to get your small charity or cause some much-needed airtime. This follows on from the article I wrote about how to do a similar thing in the written media. But this isn't about how to perform on radio and TV (I’m saving that nugget for a future column). No - here I'm sharing advice on how to get your message out there in the first place, because it can be a bit of a challenge.

Think about the start of some national news bulletins on the BBC, when they show the massive newsroom floor. All those desks - but who do you approach to get someone interested in your cause? Similarly, if you want to offer a story to a local or national radio station, you may find that the only number you can get is for reception, and it’s hard to get through to anyone working in the inner sanctum of the newsroom. That person used to be me when I worked as a broadcast journalist – I had programmes to put together, so I didn’t want to be bothered by hundreds of calls from PR people. Now, I am one of those PR people; so here is my advice.

Naturally it’s great to be contacted out of the blue by broadcast media, but in the long term it’s best to build up a name for yourself so that those producers turn to you on future occasions. When I worked at LBC, there was a former police boss who started phoning in in the middle of the night. Before long, he turned from being a phone-in regular to being an expert guest, and he has since gone on to raise his media profile significantly. There is a certain attitude of "let’s have them back on", which can mean that the same guests are often on air. But if they’re reliable this saves producers time, so you can see the attraction. You, as a charity specialist, have a new and important thing to say; so get yourself on that list of preferred contributors.

So, listen to phone-ins. Just getting on air and raising your point will contribute a new angle to a programme and will give you good practice at speaking on the radio. However, I disagree considerably with some people I’ve worked with, who ask if they can do their radio interview "down the line". Phone-ins sound good, but guests sound much better in the studio. Go in and meet the presenter. You might only be on for three minutes, but it’s well worth it for getting your cause across and building your profile. Listeners are also more likely to engage, because a phone line is more difficult to concentrate on. I did this recently when I was interviewed on BBC London 94.9 about testing for Down’s Syndrome in my capacity as chair of a Down’s Syndrome support group, and I got longer on air than I would have if I’d been on the phone.

The other thing you can do is react to breaking news. Let’s say there’s a story in the news and you can offer a new angle that’s not being reported. Listen to your local radio station; listen to the 9am phone-in on BBC Five Live; and offer yourself to the BBC News Channel. (NB: It’s not been called News 24 for years. Always know the name of the outlet you’re pitching to). The latter, along with Sky News, is a rich source as they will be covering the story many times throughout the day. At 10am you can offer yourself for their 5pm slot, giving you time to get to central London, Isleworth or a remote studio anywhere in Britain. The beauty is that they’re likely to use clips in later radio and TV bulletins, giving you more coverage and reaching more people.

And have a thick skin. You might get "biffed". Translation? Turned down because another story has come along and they've run out of time. A little while ago, I was due to appear on ITV News to talk about Down's Syndrome and halfway through the morning it was clear that other stories were taking precedence. So, I told the producer that I fully understood and that I'd be available any time they'd like to speak to me again. Producers are in charge, so the emphasis is on their agenda. Don’t take it personally, ever. Just be available; another opportunity is often around the corner.

LBC was one of the democratic pioneers in the early 1970s, along with BBC local radio. Suddenly, council officials were on air, up against angry residents who hadn’t had their bins collected. We take phone-ins and confrontational interviews for granted now, but it all started about 40 years ago. In 2014, you can still get your cause’s messages on TV and radio and it’s well worth it. Next time: how to perform. Now that’s going to be fun. 

Steve Palmer is chair of Down’s Syndrome support group PODS, a trustee at Charity Comms and press manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence

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