15 September 2009

On learning from listening (to the weather forecast)

Listeners to the BBC Radio 4 news programme "PM" have been complaining that no matter how hard they concentrate, they can't remember the content of sound-only weather forecasts. This has led to an interesting exchange on the programme blog, and the programme item itself is available to listen to at the linked page.

Why mention it? Partly because the weather forecast has probably been a feature of radio since the BBC started in 1922, 87 years ago. And they still have not got it right? Has no-one ever asked listeners or done a proper evaluation before now?

Or have listeners changed? Are they (we) less familiar now with taking in information solely by ear? Practically all information is presented by multiple channels nowadays, with interactivity wherever possible. Most students attending university today have never before sat through an hour's verbal exposition of a topic (even if "enlivened" by PowerPoint(tm) slides. They don't listen to sermons any more. Few items on the radio last for more than two or three minutes, even on serious programmes like "Today" (or PM). (Anyone mentioning "learning styles" at this point will be summarily ejected!)

Some listeners have suggested that a pattern be adopted similar to that of the Shipping Forecast--namely announce the region first in a standard form e.g. "North-West England" and then a brief statement of the weather in a similarly standardised form, "showers at first, clearing later from West". The listener could then use the announcement of the region as a cue to pay attention because the bit which interests them would be coming up. Less information, but more useful. And even more boring for the poor people from the Met. Office who have to deliver it, (they are proper meteorologists and not announcers) and who like to "tell the story" of the weather.

It's a question of short-term memory, of course, but also a microcosmic version of the problem of conveying information and ideas through lecturing.

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