Fantasists and lazy journalists

Here’s a fascinating — and (for anyone interested in journalism) salutary — tale from James Cridland’s blog.

It all started – on the internet, at least – with an interesting story in the Daily Record, on 26 February 2007 – 5 million listeners – and radio boss Ryan is only 15. A heartwarming story, penned by Rod Mills, of a young boy making it big in the radio business, and teaching the big boys a thing or two. After two years, Ryan is employing 40 people and running an internet radio station; and the headline, while confusing ‘hits’ with ‘listeners’, is a great good-news story.

And it was quickly picked up by other media: keen to bring some good news to their readers, listeners, or viewers. After a few fluffy appearances on BBC Scotland and Scottish television company STV, national newspapers were next: Teen tycoon hits paydirt with shed radio station appeared in The Sunday Times on the 4th March 2007.

The Sunday Times article contains a lot of information about this station’s success: all the more remarkable since it broadcasts from this grey-roofed shed in a well-to-do suburb of Ayr. We learn that his employees are actually volunteers, paid in gig tickets. We learn…

A 15-YEAR-OLD schoolboy has grown an internet radio station run from his father’s garden shed into a company that claims 250,000 listeners and has 40 people working for it. […] The peak slot is drive-time between 4pm and 7pm, which Dunlop says averages 80,000 listeners. He is projecting turnover of more than £1m in his first year of trading, most of which will be profit.

These are serious numbers, so many congratulations should go to this young chap. who we discover from a later interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, thinks his station has the potential of bringing in £25m a year. All in all, this is a great story. Ryan is clearly a businessman with great talent….

The only problem: it was all hooey. James asks:

why did journalists swallow this false story? Two minutes of Google searching produced a substantial and inescapable realisation that the story was false; just one call to any radio expert would have blown the whistle. Why didn’t they check their facts? The people who should be ashamed in this episode are the journalists in the newspapers and the television, who went to air with a false story.

He’s right.