James Cridland

Fantasists, and lazy journalists

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.

However, users of a radio discussion area, Media UK (which I run), were suspicious. “Some pretty big claims”, posted one user from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Another posts, “something doesn’t add up”. Petty jealousy is a staple diet of many internet chatrooms and forums, but Media UK doesn’t normally show this. Impressed with Dunlop’s claims, some people did what the journalists should have done - research the story: sharing their industry knowledge of the station’s likely costs of HitzRadioUK, based on the figures the company’s quoting.

There are three main costs to any radio station: transmission (in this case bandwidth); music costs, and staffing costs.

  • In terms of staffing costs, the Sunday Times article was clear: all (40?) staff were volunteers.
  • The transmission cost can be estimated by contacting Spacial Audio. One member did, and works out that the total streaming costs per month, according to Spacial Audio’s ratecard, would be £24,960.
  • The music costs were jointly worked out, too. For the drivetime show alone (”an average of 80,000 listeners”), the cost would be £28,800 per month for PPL, and a further percentage of revenue, estimated at £2,800, for PRS/MCPS.

So, total outgoings for the station must be at least £55,000 per month. On the face of it, that’s quite low. So, other users examined the business for revenue opportunities; to discover that, at the time, the only advertising on the website was an ad for Expedia through Commission Junction. The link to Ticketmaster isn’t one that earns revenue, either. And the station’s very light on audio advertising, too.

The inescapable conclusion - Ryan Dunlop is a fantasist; making up figures to look good, and egged-on by the flattering media attention. But let’s be fair: it took a number of internet and radio specialists to come to this conclusion. The real question is: was there anything that a journalist without any radio experience would have been able to discover about this story? A journalist just armed with a web browser?

Simply surfing the website, surely it would look slightly odd that a radio station with “250,000 listeners” has a website forum which has only attracted 25 registered users since November 2006?

But a journalist armed with Google would have found out so much more suspicious activity:

So, the investigation has moved on. We’re no longer wondering whether what Ryan says is true - he’s a fantasist, a child who is flattered by media attention and bolstering his own lies with more lies; even hiding the facts from his own parents. He deserves to be pitied, not pilloried. He can, and will, learn from his mistakes.

The real question is: 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.

And if it’s happening here - about something this community knows and understands - then how may other stories from journalists are printed with no fact-checking and absolutely no resemblance to the truth?

How rotten is the state of journalism today?

(I have made an official complaint to the BBC about the content of Steven Nolan’s interview; and will report back).