Thursday 16 January 2020

How we judge the ARIAs

Well, it’s awards season once again - and actually for the first time in my memory we have a set of radio awards that are roughly in sync with those of TV and film.

I’ve been chairman of judges for the ARIAs for four years now, and given the controversy we’ve seen with the BAFTA and Oscars nominations, I thought it might be useful to explain how we judge the ARIAs and endeavour to achieve balance between the sectors in our industry.

There are two areas we focus on. The first is the pool of judges. We aim to have around 100 judges in total across the 20 odd categories. Four judges for most, with more for the bigger categories where we have to have multiple rounds of judging. It’s obviously impossible to maintain complete gender, age and ethnicity balance in every set of four judges, but we try to ensure a balance in each group across most of those characteristics. Certainly across the 100 or so judges in total there is pretty much a complete balance to ensure genuine diversity across everything we deem important. We also ensure that head judges for each award are always either fellows or academy trustees, there is always someone from both a BBC and independent/commercial background, and one of our recent “30 under 30” winners is included in each set to ensure age diversity.

Each set of judges runs entirely independently - so there shouldn’t be any “groupthink” going on, and they initially score every entry according to set criteria to deliver a list of nominees, and then review those nominees qualitatively in a group discussion setting to decide Gold, Silver and Bronze.

Because each decision is made in isolation, it has been possible in the past for one piece of audio to be entered into multiple categories and end up winning multiple awards. There’s a school of thought that this is fine, but our view has been that with only a small number of awards to distribute, across a very disparate range of categories, and with a big variance in the resources available to entrants, we ought to limit multiple entries in adjacent categories so as to broaden the winner base. We’ve done this by pairing a number of categories - effectively saying for example you can’t enter both the “best music breakfast” and “funniest show” categories with the same show - you have to put two completely different entries in. This seems to have worked pretty well in focussing nearly everyone on giving one category their best shot.

Much has been made in the press about the parity in nominees between BBC and commercial/community/independents - but that is quite deliberate. We have a unique audio industry in the UK - not comparable to TV or film in its structure. Two roughly equal dominant sectors (BBC and commercial), funded in entirely different ways, but achieving pretty much parity in terms of audience delivery, alongside a significant number of independent production companies who in the main focus on supplying the BBC, newer community operators growing alongside commercial, and now a growing pool of podcasters. It would be entirely possible for any one of those sectors to get swamped in any judging/nominations process, ultimately not reflecting the diversity of the sector as a whole. In order for that not to happen, we have taken the following approach. 

In the background, without bothering the judges, we split the entries into two pools, BBC (including indie productions for the BBC) and commercial/community/indie podcasts etc. We then give the judges, after they’ve scored all the entries as a whole, the best three from each pool as finalist nominees. Only in a couple of categories (Drama or Commercial Promotion for example) do we relax this rule and allow for a preponderance of BBC or commercial nominees. We want the best from across the industry to be represented at the nominee stage - and we want judges to qualitatively debate the relative merits of, say, a local commercial show vs Greg James on R1 for best music breakfast at that final awards allocation meeting, or an indie podcast to be compared to and debated against File on 4 for a best factual gong. It may well be that in the end, the best three entries in a particular award category are all from the BBC, or all three are from commercial/community etc, and that’s fine - no deserving entry will have been denied a gong by our process, but this approach means the very best audio from across the industry will have had a chance to be judged against its peers.

The one award which falls outside this system is our new “moment of the year”, where the entire industry was asked to nominate individual stand-out pieces of audio. A special committee of trustees then filtered that down to just 10 nominee “moments”, and we are going to let the Great British Public decide which of those 10 is the most worthy, via a public vote backed by the Radio Times. I think this is a really exciting new development and look forward to seeing how the votes go - it’ll be fascinating given the quality of the nominees.

Finally, it’s obviously disappointing that not every company participates in the ARIAs. All I can say is that the Academy is trying it’s hardest to make the awards as open, inclusive and welcoming as possible, and will keep up its efforts to persuade everyone within the business to join in our annual celebration of the best radio and audio across the UK.

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