Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A Question of Question Time


An invitation to attend a Referendum-flavoured BBC Question Time is simply too tempting a morsel to ignore.
Here was a chance for me to witness the interrogation of one side of this Century's great debate and, just as importantly for me at least, watch one of the great Dimbleby dynasty in their natural habitat. And, let’s be frank, this is a stolen radio format, thanks to ‘Any Questions’ dating back to 1948 on the wireless, and now hosted by his younger brother, so there were production lessons to be learned.
Participants are sought online at the outset. You're asked to divulge all but shoe-size, so the producers can legitimately select a panoply of folk and views. You're also asked to chew your pencil and dream up a couple of typical questions.
The phones of the lucky short-listers ring a few days later and a bright young thing checks that the audience recruits are still available and presumably that the chosen punters don't sound too odd. Again, you’re asked to volunteer two more questions.  That’s more difficult, when you’ve just woken up, you’re carrying a bag of washing to the kitchen, and you thought it was just another PPI call.
All in order, an email arrives inviting you to submit one more considered question, and advising that you’ll have a chance to devise a further one on the night. Twenty, maximum thirty words. That's a good technique for contributions: the ‘what else’ tactic to ensure that your question really is the best it can be, to probe beyond the bleeding obvious - and leave an opportunity for the last-minute topical angles.
Whereas queues to entertainment gigs typically comprise those of uniform age, dress and taste, the queues to these events are, by design an odd mash-up.  The spotty young lad sporting his dad’s twill suit jacket stands next to the crumpled bloke with the walking stick. Most scrolling up and down on their phones to avoid chatting to each other.
Security is tight. Both before the day and at all stages on the day, all the checks you’d expect - and a few more - are wisely and scrupulously discharged.
Once inside, the attendees, numbering 150 in this case, are thrown together in a room resembling a working men’s club, decked out with not quite sufficient tables and chairs, thus creating the sort of environment which prompts even Brits to talk to each other. ‘Room for a littl’un?’ Followed by that faux laughter.
Before you can say 'the lady in the striped jumper', everyone is talking, enthusiastically exchanging views and trading lives with people they'd readily ignore anywhere else. The energy in the room rises – by design. Fuelled by biscuits and lukewarm tea, here’s the hubbub of an audience intoxicated with the prospect of helping to put Britain back together again.
Le Dimbleby sweeps in to perform an unexpected cameo in this ante-chamber. Like a great headmaster, his presence and a single quiet word is sufficient to hush the crowd.
He guides his audience for their roles. ‘This is your show, you represent the public'. 'If you want to argue with a panelist, do. If you want to argue with each other, do. If you want to argue with the person next to you, even better'. The audience are briefed, in good humour, on the personality of the, in this case, single panelist, so they can get the best from him.
More instructions follow. ‘Don’t say 'thank you, good evening' when I come to you. Just get on with the question’ (he hates the superfluous ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as much as I do). 'When you're speaking, pull your hand down'. 'Don’t wait for the boom mic, it’ll come. Don’t look up waiting as it looks as if you are waiting for divine intervention'.  'Do clap. Do hiss'. 'About half of you are in, half out and a few ‘don’t knows'. But you’re all mixed up’. 'Please stay on the broad topic we're on, if you chip in'.
Eventually filing inside, the auditorium itself is dressed to look bigger and more crowded on camera than it really is.  Seats are taken almost at random, with a tad of direction, and you’re sat there for the duration – about two hours.
An hour of warm-up follows, discharged by an entertaining accomplice from the production company, Mentorn Scotland. He repeats David's instructions, and briefs the giggling throng on how to put up their left, then their right hands, do Mexican waves, and relax. Applause is rehearsed, both polite - and the vigorous version signifying angry British agreement. We are invited to 'get our selfies out the way'. We do. Before being told to turn phones OFF.
He then lobs a old chestnut topic into the crowd as a test, coaxing his audience to get used to putting their hands up and arguing with each other. After a cautious start, the sap rises. Three boom mics are deployed by lanky youths, with each allotted a section of the audience.
Dimbleby arrives in the main auditorium. His presence regal, his popularity of boy band stature.
Given this special QT was live, however, he had a further twenty minutes to fill.  An impromptu Dimble-bot question session ensued: ‘Do you find it difficult to remain impartial, David?’. ‘No.’ ‘Which way are you voting?’ ‘I don’t tell my wife, I’m not telling you’. His impish answers are perfect and delivered with comic timing.  I asked if he remembered his 1975 Referendum show.  Just like we radio presenters, of course he didn’t recall his own work. ‘What about your tattoo?’. ‘It’s got the wrong number of legs’, he confessed. ‘Do the politicians know the questions beforehand?’ ‘Never’.   No-one dared ask him if he really understood anything about all the social media channels he mentions every week.
What a remarkable man. This 77 year old veteran performer oozes star quality.  His face appears made for television with just a half-smile speaking volumes. This Referendum format also obliged him to stand for the whole event. And he’s another two of three of these marathons within ten days. He’s fit.
The questions have, by now, been selected from the hundreds submitted. I'm guessing they divided them into the key themes, then picked the best from within those, then checked that a satisfactory range of characters would be delivering them. 
The names of the lucky questioners are read out; and the offenders asked to stand up for their seat number to be noted for the cameras and mics.  They are then summoned backstage to be briefed; and reminded of their question by means of a slip of paper. One imagines that, at this stage, the producers can still quietly decide to place some chosen questioners at the, ahem, bottom of the list.  All return, likely wishing they were somewhere else. 

‘When we come to you, do please ask the question you said you were going to ask’ reminds Dimbleby. ‘If we want to just chip in with something and it was a question we’ve already submitted but it wasn’t picked, can we?' ‘Do what you like' retorts Dimbleby, by now confident he can take the stabilisers off the audience’s bikes.
The floor manager uses a pre-arranged double hand signal to trigger the applause as the theme fades on the monitor and the suited guest arrives. The audience duly oblige.
Dimbleby begins his enviably brilliant performance. That gravity with a hint of mischief and stand-up which has endeared him, Day, Paxman, Ferrari and Humphrys to the nation.
What is less evident from a TV viewing is how well he orchestrates the chatter.
As the camera zooms in on the politician’s sweaty brow after a challenging audience missile, Dimbleby slyly winks gratefully at the questioner, as if to say ‘you scored’.
Whilst one of his eyes is fixed at the politician, his other, with laser precision, appears to glance at the next audience contributor and a furrowed forehead signifies ‘you’re next’. Meanwhile, his pen serves as a remote control to cue an earlier vocal audience member to bounce back after the politician’s squirming.
As a questioner ventures into a new territory, he flicks through his notes to make sure the next pre-arranged question sits in a complementary area. In spite of some evidently talented production resource in his ears, you can witness that David is doing his fair share on the hoof too.
Here’s a man who not only conducts the orchestra, he plays the cello and drums at the same time. 
And then - like every great interviewer - he listens. He challenges the accidental asides that slip out from even the best-rehearsed mouths. His questions are short, each with purpose.
Whilst relaxed throughout, the stakes on this live show are high. As we know all too well, an unwise editorial decision or errant words can spark another BBC annus horribilis.  
This programme, however, was a masterclass in bringing substance and style to air.  Balanced and slick. The right questions from a well-cast audience in the right frame of mind. Sufficiently well-organised and practised; with the framework for departures made clear.  The audience knew their parts.
In radio-land, with key programme strands, particularly involving listeners, do we sometimes leave just that little bit too much to chance?
And, marvelling at this chap's age, talent and experience, how many great older radio broadcasters  are now out of favour and tending their geraniums when they should be on the air?



My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now, published by Biteback.

Monday, 6 June 2016

In or Out - Referendum radio in 1975

As we edge closer to the day of the 2016 European Referendum result, let’s tune the dial back to check what an anxious Britain listened to 41 years ago, last time the big question was posed.

In 1975, BBC Radio 1 didn’t trouble to wake up until 7.00. Noel Edmonds, however, would have made stirring thoroughly worthwhile with his excellent breakfast show, playing 10cc, Wings and a dash of Mac & Katie Kissoon. One suspects he would have avoided  playing the Number 1 from Windsor Davies and Don Estelle. Such songs formed the soundtrack to what was to be the hottest Summer in living memory (the record then stolen the following year). Noel was always top class entertainment, not least for his regular characters like Flynn the milkman - and his messing around with the pips. 

Blackburn followed at 9.00, in his reluctant mid-morning slot, albeit he’d begun to settle down and the 0900 handovers with Noel had become a tad less frosty. Paul Burnett hosted lunchtimes; and parka wearing teenagers would smuggle their red transistor radios into school in the haversacks to catch an illicit slice of 247.  

Newsbeat at 1230 with Laurie Mayer would have, no doubt, reported that voting turnout was 'brisk'.

The lovely Diddy David Hamilton followed at 2.00 on 247m, squatting also on Radio 2's FM frequencies, before another Newsbeat and John Peel on Drive, produced by the legendary John Walters. Come 7.00, John would run his fingers through his long, dark hair, wham up the Radio 2 fader and leave BH; with his record box  tucked under his arm.

Across on Radio 2, then beaming across the UK and into much of Europe on the powerful 1500 LW, Simon Bates pressed the cart machines out of the 6.00 news, providing a warm up hour for Terry Wogan, then in his first stretch of breakfast. Pete Murray followed at 9.00, more concerned about breaking for Waggoners Walk at 1030 than for any great flurry of news action from Brussels. 

Nectar-voiced Jean Challis helped us across lunchtime, before the Hamilton Radio 1 job share, save for a few afternoon opt-outs for sport, with commentary from Epsom provided by the excellent Peter Bromley. 

After 'another trip down - Waggoners Walk' at 5, Sam Costa entertained; with 'The 78 Show', 'The Organist Entertains' and folk music paving the way for 'Edmundo Ros and his Orchestra in Radio 2 Ballroom', introduced by the the lovely Tom Edwards.  The Trust really should demand that ballroom be re-opened, if only as that Board's mischievous farewell gesture.

The deep tones of Don Durbridge came on-air on Radio 2 as polls closed, taking us through to closedown at just after half past midnight. Overall, a fascinating line-up with arguably more musical variety than now, but a little less speech substance than Auntie would perhaps tolerate nowadays.

The thread of consistency between Radio 4 of old and now appears strongest. The dawn bulletin there was followed by 'Farming Today' and the 'Today' programme with a great John Timpson and Barry Norman partnership - including regional news opt-outs. With the usual restrictions on what one can say on-air on polling day itself, the duo were probably pleased that 'Today' ended at 8.45, putting aside European matters in favour of a short story. 

'These you have Loved' followed at 9.00 with 'FOOC', 'the Daily Service' and 'Morning Story'. ‘If You Think You’ve Got Problems’ then made way for  Sir Geoffrey Jackson 'In Search of El Dorado'. If you're interested.

An edition of the earnest 'You and Yours' programme swiftly followed, replete with theme tune back then, and no doubt carefully avoiding European consumer issues.

A dose of 'My Music' provided light relief before the legendary Bill Hardcastle boomed out the news in 'The World At One', which then lasted just half an hour, presumably because less used to  happen back then.

'The Archers' returned at 1.30, likely more concerned about jam making than attempted murders in those days, just before 'Woman's Hour', then in its afternoon slot and caressed by the immaculate Sue MacGregor. That day's edition actually featured a sprightly Delia Smith too. 

At 2.45, the Nation's primary school children sat cross-legged on the parquet flooring  to enjoy 'Listen With Mother', before the latest news at 3.00 and 'Afternoon Theatre'

The idiosyncratic Jack de Manio made an afternoon appearance before 'Story Time' and ‘PM Reports’. Like Cheryl, Dusty and Dale, the latter programme is now sufficiently famous to be known by its first name alone. On Referendum Day, William Hardcastle was in the chair, conducting 'the PM reporting team’. 

The evening then continued with 'Dad's Army', 'The Archers'  and other familiar programmes including 'Analysis'  and 'Any Answers'. The dreary 'Kaleidoscope' preceded 'The World Tonight' hosted by its founding presenter Douglas Stuart; 'Book at Bedtime'; and the 'Financial World Tonight'.  Like its BBC friends, the network closed down by midnight, so  politicians and listeners could grab some much-needed sleep. Maybe we all went to bed earlier back then.

The twenty BBC local radio stations were in action. Commercial radio coverage, however, was geographically scant, given the initial network was only half-complete. Just Capital, LBC, Clyde, BRMB, Piccadilly, Metro, Swansea Sound, Hallam, City, Forth and Plymouth Sound were alive to tell the story.  Each of those, however, had their output tightly controlled by an enthusiastic regulator and were thus dispensing lengthy bulletins and features from their large unionized newsrooms, each equipped with purring teleprinters, portable UHER tape machines and likely a radio car with a wobbly aerial poised for its next trip. 

The updates from London, provided by IRN, arrived at each commercial station down a poor quality landline, with the crucial audio cuts of Heath, Benn and Jenkins captured remotely on large reel to reel tape spools.

And, maybe fitting for this thoroughly European occasion, by nightfall as the polls closed, huge swathes of younger listeners would be forsaking their often pedestrian British radio stations in favour of Radio Luxembourg, beaming in the latest hits from the Grand Duchy on 208.

Whilst the Radio 4 schedule appears a touch more frothy than today's Radio 4, it is remarkable how many of the current affairs and magazine programmes survive to this day - maybe a nod to the wisdom of the programme changes implemented under 'Broadcasting in the 70s' which injected such clear and lasting definition to the service. 

We know too, having heard the recent weeks of debate that not only are the Radio 4 programme titles the same as in 1975, their content likely is currently similar too, as the internecine debate rears its head again 41 years on. 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.





What's it like to attend a recording of BBC Question Time

My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now, published by Biteback

Monday, 30 May 2016

Is there a point in a positioning statement?

My favourite ever Radio 2 positioning statement was ‘Different – Every Time You Listen’.  

We knew what they were getting at, but the claim flew in the face of every piece of established radio wisdom. Having said that, Radio 2 enjoys bucking trends with some considerable success.  Do listeners really want 'different'?  Whatever listeners think they want, the evidence suggests they actually seem to plump for fairly well-known songs and get irate when a presenter even dares to go on holiday for a week in Cleethorpes.

The matter of branding statements was raised in a Tweet today from the annoyingly clever James Cridland, which linked to a pithy blog from Kevin Robinson. Despite the fact Kevin has his own branding statement ‘Programming – Branding - Mentoring since 1985’, his remarks suggested that great brands don’t trouble with them. "Disney – no slogan. Netflix -  Amazon – no slogan". He went on to assert: "Think you need a position or slogan? Get rid of it today. See if the customer misses it".

In radio-land, we know many music radio listeners seem to like this ‘Variety’/’Mix’ thing.  Every time I’ve ever researched station positions, many listeners enthuse about stations which play "a bit of this and a bit of that".  Respondents in focus groups even trouble to use their hands  outstretched to demonstrate the two extremes. The challenge is to define your variety vs someone else’s.

The extremes of the range of variety enjoyed are tightly contained within the walls of the listeners' general appetites. They mean a variety of  material they like, not genuine variety. In quantitative research, I recall that whenever the proposition was A plus B, where the two are actually a little different (e.g. 'Today's Best Music and your Favourite Oldies'), the appeal scores fell and the hate scores grew, as listeners disliked one of the options.

I’d agree with Kevin that listeners may not heed positioning statements.  In an exhaustive series of focus groups a couple of years ago, we gave each dutiful respondent (music radio listeners aged 25-44) a set of cards, each bearing the positioning statement for all the market's stations: ‘More Music Variety’, ‘Your Relaxing Music Mix’, ‘Number One Hit Music Station’ and our own bright ideas (present and proposed).  Without exception, the results suggested that even when we all jollily mention our statements in just about every link and commission TV advertising to bolster that reputation, bloody listeners still get the answers 'wrong'. They attribute the statement they find most appealing with the station they find most appealing.

One thing's for sure, if you’re going to trouble with a positioning statement, it needs to be sufficiently different from everyone else's to do be of more use than one of Marconi's balloon aerials.

Smooth was attributed correctly to its own claim better than most, simply because of the word ’relaxing’.  You have to own a word before the statement becomes anywhere close to being safely yours. (22 Immutable Rules of Marketing, Ries & Trout).  Remember, however, that the meaning that listeners infer from a phrase may not be what you intended.  You may not think your station is ‘Easy Listening’, but listeners may define it as exactly that,


Listeners will describe your station in their own words. Just ask those stations which have experimented with updating their name: deploying such clever tricks as shunting the frequency to the beginning or end; or adding or taking away 'FM' or 'Radio' at will.  Save yourself the trouble. Stand at a bus stop and eavesdrop. They'll tell you what your station's called.

And, in radio, you are only as good as people think you are. Listeners will choose their own words to describe you - and it's good to take a listen to establish what those are. Work backwards. Imagine what you’d like listeners to say about you when asked, and seek to make sure you deliver on that promise every time they listen. If you’re delivering it well enough, you may not need to explain what it is.  

Check my book 'How to Make Great Radio', available now from Amazon. Techniques and tips for today's radio broadcasters and producers

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

No Stars in My Car

Another chapter begins and I start to sort out my life. Away from the luxury of corporate cushioning, I remind myself I really should buy and insure my own car.

The matter of insurance would be a simple one, I'd imagined. After all, I'm not a spotty 17 year old (I was going to write '17 year old glue sniffer', but I don't think the kids bother with that habit now). And I'm pretty clean, with just two doses of three points ever in my whole driving career. Admittedly, one of those was annoyingly recent when a happy chappy erected what appeared to be a personal speed trap just for me, given how quiet the road was on that annoying Sunday. Yes, I'd been offered 'the course', but anyone who knows my inability to sit in any meeting longer than an hour, will quite understand why I grasped the fine and points without as much as a 'by your leave', as they'd say in Corrie.

I alighted on the Swift Insurance website, remembering I divorced them amicably seven years ago ago, as the Orion Media adventure began. Having agonised over pages of questions with due honesty and dreamed up canny new passwords, I clicked the 'get me a bloody quote' button. Only to be treated to a miserable emoticon telling me that 'computer says no'.

No! What's wrong with me? They deem me 
uninsurable! Is it because they have decided that people in red cars with red seats are not to be trusted?  Or was it because my partner and I dare to work in the media? Harrumphing with radio friends later, I'm reminded that presenters and journalists alike suggest the quotes from most insurance companies appear to leap up when it's discovered we have a vaguely interesting job.

The reason appears to be, and this my be apocryphal, that insurers fear we might be transporting Lady Gaga to an interview or something. Who assembled this bizarre risk assessment for radio drivers? Had they been drinking?

Should any insurers be reading my blog, may I assure you that transport of Gaga or anyone else of note is highly unlikely. If we were to compile a list of star journeys in private cars since radio began, it wouldn't be a very long one.
'Thanks for interviewing me. Loved it. Now could you give me a lift to Waitrose?'. It doesn't happen and it won't happen. Lord Reith likely transported no one anywhere in his Austin 7. So give us a break. 

By the way, I'm sorted now, having explained my plight personally to a lovely young man in the Northern call centre of an alternate company. He was so excited to talk to someone in radio, he wasn't going to turn me down. 

Since publishing this post initially, @beardedian has pointed out that Swift have had a 'no entertainers' policy which backfired when Iggy Pop appeared in a TV campaign boasting the virtues of a company which, in practice, would not have insured him.


Check my book 'How to Make Great Radio', available now from Amazon. Techniques and tips for today's radio broadcasters and producers

Monday, 25 April 2016

How Are Listeners Choosing to Listen?

Listeners don't really care how they listen, provided it is convenient and they enjoy the content.

Rajar published its latest MIDAS study last week. That's where they grab hold of some of the Rajar respondents who completed the online diaries (as opposed to the good old-fashioned colouring books), and prod them with a stick for more insight about how their listening was delivered.

MIDAS, by the way, stands for 'Measurement of Internet Delivered Audio Services'. I'm guessing they made the words fit the acronym. Just like we do in radio-land. Title first, worry about the rest later. Sorry, I'm off on a tangent here.

The heading is 'audio' time. In other words, the study usefully examines how we consume audio generally. A 1978 study would have had 'record players', 'cassette players' and '8 track carts' on the list. Let's remember there has always been competition for the ear since the strolling mummers.

Folk spend 26 hours per week with audio entertainment, with live radio making up almost three quarters of that time. Get out the bunting. That's good news.  As we know, live radio reaches 90% of the population across the week. Although the volume of listening to catch-up radio and podcasts is relatively low, 8% of adults use catch-up and 7% podcast at least once a week. Podcasts are hugely speech-oriented.

Of the live radio proportion, how are listeners listening? 46.6% is to FM and AM. In other words, more listening is now to things other than an old-fashioned radio, but analogue broadcast remains the largest party in a minority government. However, to sustain the metaphor carelessly, DAB is the Lib Dems, supplying another 35% of listening, meaning that 'the radio set' remains in power.  It is the most important device overall by some margin (around 82% of all listening).

It's worth reminding programme teams who may listen atypically, being funky media chicks, that their audience is still more likely to be using a radio for the majority of their consumption.

Given Rajar have been busy with these surveys for the last three years now, we can establish how quickly things are changing. The MIDAS study in Spring 2014 (which I took to be broadly similar, although fewer respondents)  gave 53% of live radio listening to AM/FM (now 46.6%) and 32% to DAB (now 35%).

The reach of 'other platforms' for live radio consumption is now very high.  Just over two-thirds of us ever listen to radio online in any way, for whatever duration.

Who's streaming music? Blokes more than women.  In an average week 7.6m access an on-demand  music service, (compared to 48.2m listening to live radio).  On-demand music services account for 6% of all audio hours, which is 1.4 hours per week, tripling to 4.5 hours for 15-24s – 16% of all their audio.

By device, PCs and laptops are ours - with live radio producing the most audio consumed, closely followed by streaming services. Tablets are music streaming-led (30%) with radio at 17.6%. Add in catch up radio to that figure, though, and 'radio' leads. Smartphones have 'digital tracks' (downloaded music) leading, albeit with live radio closely following.

Brum brum. Live radio accounts for 84% of all in-car listening, compared to 1.2% for the on-demand music services. There's no slice on the pie chart denoting ear-time devoted to screaming kids in the back.

As always with research, I try to put it into a context.  As this sample is of those who have chosen to complete the on-line Rajar diary rather than the paper one, I imagine that the respondents are a touch more likely to be at the cutting edge of technology (although I note that provision has been made in the calculations to allow for those who are not on broadband etc). And I'd also caution that sometimes, as radio sets receive more than one platform and even flip from platform to platform automatically, and as people listen on ever more devices, the ability of any individual to know or recollect which device was used for which slice of listening  is open to question. 

In the States, the recent Edison/Triton Digital Survey suggests that 93% of U.S. adults listen to radio weekly. 57% of adults (12+) had listened to online radio in the past month.  The number of people who own a radio at home was 96% in 2008; it's now 79%.

Back to Blighty,  the whole MIDAS survey looks sensible and makes for interesting reading. It is another creditable and useful piece of intelligence by the fine folk at Rajar.

What does it tell us?  That most of what we radio stations make is still consumed live, and that which is not is often distinctive speech. It tells us that we need to be aware that listeners listen to us in all sorts of ways, and we simply must ensure that we are always where the listeners expect us to be, and easily found there, however expensive that increasingly becomes.  The radio in the corner or the car remains, however, hugely important, and it's much too early to presume that our typical listener is not listening to one for much of the time. But - we need to be across this whole area, it's changing quickly - and the pattern for younger demos ever quicker still.

It also reminds us that a new battleground is looming, with cunning new adversaries. We need to be alert to them, continuing to do what radio does best, and to miss no trick in distinctive content generation; powerful marketing for the medium and its content; and in influencing gadget design. It's an unprecedented battle, potentially more bloody than the one posed by television, and we shall have but one chance of winning.


My book 'How to Make Great Radio' is out now, and available on Amazon













Sunday, 17 April 2016

Irate Listeners Sometimes Don't Listen

I handled an email a few weeks ago from an irate listener who was APPALLED at something they'd heard. 

Actually, the presenter had simply not said what the listener had suggested. The listener had clearly misheard. We wrote back politely; and heard no more. I suspect they felt a little humble, or. more likely, felt we were making up our response.

Another of our presenters was chastised a few years ago for being thoroughly homophobic on-air. The correspondent deduced that we, as station management, must all be too. I was not of the view the remark was homophobic at all and had been completely misconstrued.  I rather suspect the complainant did not appreciate the irony of the general presumptions and assertions about the particular presenter and management - not least in the context of the jolly array of sexualities alive and kicking with pride in the entertainment industry.

Programmer, Jane Hill, reminds me of the complainant who called  with deep concern about the song 'Eff Off'. Not least because the chorus just chanted the remark incessantly.  I'm not sure the Motors imagined their vocals were likely to be thus misinterpreted when they recorded 'Airport;' in 1978. You'll never be able to hear that song in the same light ever again.


On the jet plane way down the runaway.
And I can't believe that she really wants to leave me - and it's
getting me so,
It's getting me so.
Eff off -
Eff off, you've got a smiling face....
Eff off 
Eff off, you've got a smiling face...

I live in hope that listeners might just give their chosen stations the benefit of the doubt, before leaping into angry exchanges. We usually try our best to stay on the right side of things; and where we err, a polite nudge would be appreciated. Don't presume the worst of us, not least because we fully appreciate that you have a life to lead and your ears are not always Sellotaped to the radio.

The BBC 1928 handbook suggests:  "Hardly ever does a critic admit in so many words that he is expressing his own views only". How true. 

And for those music programmers getting furious with listeners convinced that a particular song has been played THREE TIMES in the LAST HOUR, rest assured it's not a new problem:

"There is, again, the impression that anything particularly disliked invariably predominates. To those to whom dance music is anathema it appears to be broadcast in every programme. A listener who does not care for talks cannot switch on without finding one in progress, and another who longs for variety entertainment is utterly bewildered at the interminable transmissions of symphony concert". (BBC Handbook 1928)

The BBC began to despair about listener behaviour. As smartly-dressed programme makers expended ever more effort polishing their performance, they got the view that some listeners just weren't bloody well listening properly.  

The 1930 BBC Year Book dutifully, therefore, issued this wonderful Good Listening charter (pictured), which suggested "you can't get the best out of a programme if your mind is wandering".  

It concludes famously:

"If you only listen with half an ear you haven't a quarter of a right to criticise".  

I shall attach the jpeg to my next reply to unwarranted criticism.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Accidents and Incidents

Not one of my carefully-crafted Tweets has ever attracted quite so much comment as my peremptory intolerance last weekend about an otherwise decent travel bulletin I heard, but which also assured me there were 'no accidents or incidents' to report.

Putting to one side whether it's sensible to retain a 12 inch travel news service when there's so little news around, that the long-suffering presenters struggle to find sufficient to say before they hit the first post in the travel bed, I'm more concerned about this 'accident or incident' business.

It seems to me to amount to a rather long-winded way of saying that there is, actually, nothing to say. 

'Incident', in this context, is an umbrella word which covers everything from ducks wandering into the path of your Vauxhall Astra to a multiple pile-up on the M1.  An 'accident' is a sort of 'incident'.  You surely don't need to say both, yet the tautology is spreading across UK travel bulletins like a fever. 

Mr Oxford English Dictionary insists: "An accident is an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury".

To be frank, if you are simply saying politely that you've nothing more to add, maybe you don't even need to tell me. We don't do that when a news bulletin ends. 'Why talk at all if there is nothing to talk about?' chips in @andymay.

I gather the Constables prefer the phrase 'incident' to 'accident' as they do not wish to intimate that anything was unintentional or done without negligence, whilst Morse is still scratching his head wondering who the villain is. The word is sometimes used in news bulletins too when things are unclear. Steve @SMartin describes 'incident' as a 'weasel word', used to 'vague up something that could be far more talkable if better described'.   Therein lies both its value and its uselessness.

@LouMitchell77 volunteered that accidents are bigger than incidents. I'm not sure that's true, given there have been many significant 'incidents' in history. People have died in 'incidents'.  It's arguably a very English way of talking about something bloody huge.

Some people argue there is no such thing as an accident. The brilliant @Danofftheradio disagrees. And I agree with him.

Gareth, @LookoutWales2, suggested we should always avoid 'incidents' - he prefers 'problems'. It’s likely what our listeners might say, which is always a decent start.

Presenters appear to be rather taken by its rhythm - and, yes, Paul Simon liked it too:

All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

My ramblings triggered a torrent of other pet-hates. 

@StrubCrouch reminded me of 'sheer weight of traffic'. Yes - the roads are busy because there are lots of cars on them. Arguably that 'sheer weight' business does tell me that there was no accident, but frankly, all I care about is when I'm going to get home.

@Suekcraft moaned about 'the roads are moving slowly'.  

@JuliecarJulie remarked that 'down here, one traffic reporter always adds 'for you' on the end. 'No incidents for you' or 'looking busy for you'.  Whilst I adore the power of the word 'you', let's agree that's over-egging a little.

As I've mentioned many times, don't trouble me with the 'earlier accident'? As opposed to that one just about to happen, one presumes.

And don't mention 'usual hotspots' to @MartP132. He hates them, not least when he's new to an area and cannot differentiate between where is hot and where is lukewarm. But, again, if you're not going to tell me detail of a hotspot, because you think I know it already, why bother telling me that you're not going to tell me.

Whilst we are busy with our lexicological Spring cleaning, can we ban this 'traffic and travel' nonsense for the same reason? Not least because the phrase actually denotes news/information about traffic and travel - rather than traffic and traffic per se.  But, as with 'accidents or incidents', 'travel news' may not always be 'traffic news', but 'traffic news' is surely 'travel news'. In commercial stations, sales execs rush around gleefully selling 'T & T sponsorship'. Let's just call it 'travel news'. It's shorter than 'traffic and travel'; it's more accurate; and 'travel' has more pleasurable connotations than 'traffic'. Sorted.

@TweeterStewart reminded me of my aversion to that one. He explains both offences thus: "One rhymes, the other is alliterative. So they sound 'good' without people thinking what they mean #DJcliche"

He's right. Let's think about the words we use on-air - rather than reach for the cliches on which your naive predecessors have alighted. In radio, words are all we have.

+ + + + +

Since publishing this, I've been reminded of these corkers:

"Fog is affecting both carriageways" (@blokeonradio)

"If you're heading southbound". 'No you're heading South, or you're Southbound'.(@stuartclarkson)

"If it's safe and legal to do so" (Andy Mitchell)". (David: Who thought that was worth saying? It's like saying: 'here's something worth watching on TV tonight, but don't steal a telly'.)

"My pet hate is when the preceding news bulletin focuses extensively on a major fire, only for the travel bulletin to reveal a road is closed "because of a police incident". It's not a police incident - it's a bloody fire..." (Steve Beech).

"I've always wondered why every road becomes TREACHEROUS when it snows. I've never heard a snowy weather traffic bulletin not use the word. Mind you, the time to be worried is when roads are "a bit treacherous". You never know where you are with those sort of roads..." (Andy Roche)

"Busy but moving". "That's to be expected for the time of day" (@blokeonradio)



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Sunday, 10 April 2016

Sam & Amy - Ten Years On


It's said the average length of an American marriage is eight years, so ten years is a major landmark for a couple having to stare into each other's eyes at dawn each day on a breakfast show.

Sam & Amy break through that boundary in April - and enter their second decade of earlies, waking up the East Midlands.

They now rule their commercial market at breakfast-time on Gem, despite some powerfully-programmed local competition; and their mantelpieces are groaning with awards. They beat Norton & Evans to the Radio Academy 'Best Personality' award in 2014, were awarded.

A little like Terry & June or Jack & Vera, you could be forgiven for thinking they actually are husband and wife. Their chemistry is that of the bickering pair who are mutually forgiven for their seemingly intolerable behaviour because it is underpinned by an unspoken depth of affection which listeners know and understand. It's the same on and off-air.   Meet them together, and you see the chemistry is genuine.  See them making an appearance and you witness star quality, glamour and style.

They are, of course, not husband and wife, and their long-suffering other halves thankfully all get on well. Sam & Amy cringe and confess that they kissed once, a very long time ago. That admission is clear evidence of the authenticity which underpins this show. It's real, but it's also sexy. 

Criticism is often leveled at hastily-assembled traditional 'boy-girl' shows, not least when the 'girl' appears to be cast as a giggling sidekick. Amy is a woman, and she's not to be messed with. Through Sam's bluster and bravado, Amy's non-nonsense character is frequently in charge - and the value of this relationship is thoroughly 50:50.

In the words of annoyingly talented programme consultant, Francis Currie.

"Their loyal listeners have heard them go through different stages of their lives - all of them shared with the audience with the same combination of honesty, fun and self-deprecation that makes them such a joy to listen to."

They are entertaining individuals first, and radio people second. I think MC Pinkham would concede that he wouldn't win awards for his mixing skills. The vivid colour of Sam's story-telling means that his tales can be recalled months later. His delivery is sticky. He holds a room with his stories; and is able to do that on the air too, with enviable skill.

Good production sits at the heart of any great breakfast show, and I know they'd agree that they accept Paul Iliffe's authority, not quite with cheery alacrity, but with certain professionalism. As I said in my book, Paul suggested to me once that great producers are a little like shepherds. He gets them organised, brings ideas to reality, and helps them stay engaged. On natural shows like this, it is the absence of great production which would be most noticeable. And, in unsavoury dark dawn hours, it does take quiet brilliance to direct a pair who've had a taste of BBC Radio 2.

Mention should be made too of the third person in the relationship, the character of 'Dangerous Dave', played by the lovely David Tanner.  Little preppy Dave has now grown from boy to man and indeed to dad in the custody of this show, and this intelligent guy chips in with lines of top quality. A natural musician, his hastily assembled and brilliantly-performed birthday songs amuse the audience, delight the subject, and provide rich material for Sam & Amy's ribbing, which never, ever sounds like bullying - and the audience are on his side.

Corporate circumstances have been more than a tad complex. Sam & Amy bounded through the door on the show in 2006 on what was a relatively new Heart, then freshly acquired by Chrysalis from GCap and, indeed, the first 'Heart- conversion', having previously been Century. The station then became part of the foundation for Global Radio, before being sold to Orion in 2009. Sam & Amy were also in situ when the brand changed overnight to Gem in the early days of 2011.

I gather it was Gareth Roberts, now with the BBC,  who played match-maker when he put the two together in 2002/2003. Amy had been hosting Drive travel, and Sam was part of the then breakfast team. The pair then served their broadcast-courtship on the Drive show.

It's no accident that a number of programmers have seen merit in the show. Francis Currie heard them together on Drive in 2005. and full marks to him for having moved the show up the schedule. 

He says:  "Even then there was such a natural easy chemistry between them that they were the obvious choice for Breakfast when the opportunity came up.  Their skill and appeal on air more than made up for their (then) youth!  They have now worked together for (almost) ten years and the chemistry is even stronger".

There's a peculiar pride in giving birth to a breakfast show and then watching it continue to succeed from afar.

"More than anything it is their easy, natural charm that makes them such a killer combination".

Owing to the fact that they certainly don't have faces for radio, the show is now in vision too, thank to a bright idea from James Brindle at Notts TV, the well-run local TV station. From 6-9 each day, you can see them live on screen in the region on Freeview, Sky and the likes.

I have to declare an interest, given I am part of the parent company of Gem, but I give all credit to Sam & Amy, Dave, Paul, their programmers past and present, Mike Newman and James Brownlow; and today's supporting cast including the news-team, the interns, and hard-working Matt Smith, who help weave the brand tapestry on which they've made themselves comfortable.  Gem now enjoys all time high audiences.

I could write effusive volumes about a number of Orion presenters of whom I am hugely proud - and I shall do in due course - but it would be remiss of me now not to shout from the rooftops about this particular class act as they hit their decade.



Pics from Kris Askey/Orion

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