Last week the radio industry criticised FE colleges for the poor quality of their courses, while the former came under attack for its lack of consensus over training needs. Cathy Aitchison reports on the clash. Leading figures in the radio industry and further education colleges clashed over the standards of training on offer to new recruits at the annual conference of the Radio Academy last week.
Colleges were accused of offering training which was incomplete and of too low a standard, while the industry was criticised by college course leaders for failing to spell out its needs adequately.
Demand for radio jobs has grown dramatically in the past 20 years, with local stations becoming an alternative training route for journalists, particularly with the demise of many local newspapers.
For the first time this year the conference, which took place in Birmingham, included a half-day forum for students and people involved in training for radio.
Serious shortcomings in on-the-job training were revealed as it became clear that many commercial stations lacked the resources available to the BBC network. They were shown, however, to have considerable imagination and commitment.
Moray Firth Radio, an independent commercial station covering the north of Scotland, uses trainees on its information desk in a scheme funded by the European Social Fund and run in partnership witha consortium of local colleges. Trainees generally learn about the running of the station.
"The last two commercial producers I appointed came through that scheme, " said managing director Thomas Prag . But he has never appointed anyone to a permanent post direct from college.
Michael Betton, managing director of another independent station, Lincs FM, said: "Often the product produced by the course is not bad, but without work experience it's not enough.
"We would prefer fewer courses but to a higher standard." Sometimes college descriptions are misleading, he added. "The colleges present themselves as offering complete courses, but the people running them haven't been anywhere near a radio station."
Colleges accepted some of the criticism. Trevor Thewlis, media studies lecturer at Trinity and All Saint's College in Leeds, and media consultant to the industry, said regular contact with the industry was vital for teachers. "A lot of people like me have still got a foot in both camps, and that is what should happen."
He agreed that colleges had to be more precise in defining what they offered. "Too often students are going on courses which arouse their expectations, and false impressions are created on both sides."
But a criticism voiced repeatedly by the college conference delegates was that the radio industry could not decide what sort of training and skills it required.
This was now being addressed by Skillset, the all-industry body set up to establish the training needs for the industry, conference delegates agreed. However, progress is slow.
Simon Hughes, head of production at the independent production company Unique Broadcasting, is a member of the Skillset radio forum. National vocational qualification standards were now being used in TV and film, he says, but for radio the guidelines were still under discussion.
"We are trying to establish a consensus that doesn't exclude any area. " If radio were a profession like accountancy there would be ongoing training, he said. "There will be, but not yet."
The range of skills and qualities to be assessed ranged from computer literacy and personal confidence to the ability to generate ideas and to think laterally.
Andy Conroy, assistant editor at Radio WM, the BBC West Midlands' station, stressed the importance of trainees knowing the market, and warned that he has no place for applicants who send in DJ-style tapes to his mainly speech station. "I want someone who knows what Radio WM does," he said.
"What broadcasting needs is people with very fertile brains," said Caroline Millington, controller of production at BBC Network Radio. Training gave people the basic structure, but what was also needed was the ability to brainstorm and to come up with ideas. "The industry needs people with a mixture of experience, not just in broadcasting."