Monday 1 April 2013

Words don't come easy

When a presenter says 'keep your texts coming in', I picture an elderly lady hunched over a large mobile phone frantically despatching repeated texts to the radio station, in dutiful response to the instruction.

In truth, the presenter really wants each listener to sends a single text.  As a broadcaster you want to motivate one listener to do one thing, once. 'Text me'. When that connection happens powerfully, scale results.

As Terry Wogan said to Andrew Neil on 'This Week', radio engages because you 'talk to an individual'.  Terry's words are correct. Whilst his Radio 2 transmitters beamed out to millions, he sounded as though he was just mumbling to you.  That great relationship between radio station and listener exists because every listener feels the presenter is addressing them alone.   That's why, when listeners do get in touch with you, they use the same language to you as they would to a friend.

Whilst this 'talk to a single listener' lesson is probably the first thing most broadcasters wisely learn when venturing into radio, it's surprising how many presenters appear to have had that page of the rules ripped out of their copy of the presenter bible. They'll announce that 'lots of you have been in touch'. Lots of Me? As I  look around my room, like so many radio listeners, I am alone. The presenter appears to be addressing a large  assembly somewhere else. 'Keep your calls coming in'. Goodness, I have not made one yet. You must be talking to someone else, not me.  

Winston Churchill would probably agree with me that words do make a difference. As would every sports captain giving a half-time pep talk. In fact, if we truly believe that a few words here and there make no difference then  we should agree there is no difference between the best and the worst broadcaster. Rudyard Kipling suggested that “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” 

It's easy to pick up bad habits.  That officious passive language, as befits railway announcements like 'passengers are reminded that', can creep into both presenter banter and the 'tickets can be obtained from' phrasing of on-air promos.

Then there are those lovely travel cliches, including the 'earlier accident'. As opposed to the one which is just about to happen, I guess.  Hopefully, though, the travel news has been ordered in a sensible way, telling me where the incident is first, before the detail. And the presenter has avoided the common 'over in X' error, and has acknowledged that the presenter and the listener are actually in the same place. You are on their radio in their car, in Scotland.

Don't you just Iove those lovely lengthy show menus: 'all that - and more - between now and 10.00'.  What a great idea it must appear to be  to highlight the time at which the show will end. The show menu is usually inordinately long too, forgetting that great 'round of drinks' analogy: when you're asked to go to fetch a round of drinks, there's only so much information you can store in your head. And of course, there are the presenters  who trumpet a vaguely familiar guest's name and hope that alone is sufficient to tempt me to listen, rather than telling me something interesting about what they might say.

Poor language gets in the way.  You're more likely to get a personal story from a listener when you say 'give me a call', than if you say 'call us here at the station'. The listener trusts you. They're more likely to share something with you than your 'team' 'through the glass'.  

When you're on air, stare your single listener in the eyes. Talk to them, and only them. Ask them questions. Give them time to nod, smile, or shake their head.

Mind you, we are such a polite bunch. If we are introduced by a colleague on-air, we say 'thanks, Shirley'. Why are we thanking her though? Just for mentioning our name? How bizarre. Sometimes it's even politer 'thank you very much indeed there, Shirley'. It's likely a reflex action, to afford the presenter sufficient time to compose themselves, in much the same way that so many news reporters say 'good morning' before beginning their live reports.  Even if those despatches are about a murder.  There's little good about mornings like that.  

TV reporters can be even jollier with the delicious 'a very good morning to you'. How often do we hear that phrase in the real world? Ever?

And, not largely relevant, but it gets it out my system. What about time checks?  Why do normal grown-ups start saying '18 before 2' when they get on the radio, even on BBC stations?  And when 'it's just coming round to 21 and a half minutes past 8', should we maybe be eternally grateful for that imprecise precision? It's just not what you would say.

Follow my #radiomoments daily on Twitter @davidlloydradio


  1. David,

    I agree that intimacy is important, especially so for talk radio, but I think we can get caught up in pedanticism. I'd rather a presenter broke all the rules, talked over music, had 2 thoughts in a link, used indirect language et al, if the end product is fun, engaging, funny and interesting. It's certainly easier to produce a great end product if you follow the rules, but it's not guaranteed that following the rules will produce a great or compelling listen.
    We also have to remember that modern spoken English (especially in Urban areas and among under 40s) is today an almost entirely different dialect to RP / Estuary English. I'm not sure that the grammatical structure that people use today is as intimate in general as the spoken language should be.
    Whilst Terry Wogan always used personable language, there was always a tongue-in-cheekness about it (pretending he only had one listener) when no one knew more than Terry just how many people were listening to him. Radio 1 has always sounded less personable that any of it's competitors but has always done well, as its content is generally outstanding.
    I think the best advice I've ever been given is 'you don't have to be funny, if what you are saying is interesting'. It's served me well!


  2. I do not disagree with any of your above either! I never referred to accents or dialects - I talked about the real language folk use in real life- whatever that is! And Radio1 has had some outstanding communicators over the years....

    Loving your comments, Sir

  3. "and listeners might like to know..."

  4. Yes! How could I forget. I must get my thinking caps on.


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