Sunday 29 January 2017

Being You

When Neil Fox opened up on-air on the mighty Capital about the death of his father, colleagues were amazed how this familiar, powerful voice appeared suddenly so ‘honest’. 

Similarly, he shared his delight on-air following the birth of each of his children.

Putting to one side ‘the bullshit and the fun', as he called it, 'when people relate - it is to the other stuff'

'Being you' on-air, amidst the other stuff, is a key part of being a great presenter.  It's harder than it seems - and doing it well sets a broadcaster apart.

The day to day 'relatables' chime with audiences, as we know, and sharing the bigger matters deepens the relationship further. Each listener's life is not all champagne and roses - and the life of their friend, the presenter, cannot be either.  When you've a problem, do you confess to someone with a seemingly idyllic life, or a close friend who's been through the mill too?

I recall Xfm Manchester,  with Tim Cocker and Jim, when Jim told on the breakfast show of being a dad for the first time.  On-air, as he told his story, one heard him change generations in the course of a single link from a laddy lad into a quivering, delighted, tired, emotional, grown-up dad. The East Midlands Trains ticket collector wondered what the hell I was listening to as I sat in carriage E in tears, with the tale unfolding in my earphones.

James Whale is known for his plain-speaking.  When he was  diagnosed with kidney cancer in February 2000, he opened up on air. Not in a schmaltzy way, but typical brutal honesty. Just as he invited in his surgeon to discuss the operation in colourful detail.  He played it his way.  Did his audience think less of this irascible debater for showing a chink of vulnerability?

To this day, every day’s a happy day on the Tony Blackburn Show. So, imagine how his Radio 1 audience felt in the 1970s, as they tuned in to hear him open his heart following his split with his wife, actress Tessa Wyatt.  As he played  R and J Stone's ‘ Thrown it All Away’, he confessed: "This is the story of my life at the moment".

He later said: "I don’t know anybody who goes through a divorce who’s happy about it. I had to live it whilst I was doing my radio shows. To be honest, I was boring the nation stupid with my marriage breakup. Somebody should’ve told me to shut up. I wasn’t getting any guidance."

Maybe Tony is wrong with his self-effacing critique, on this rare occasion. Even decades later, that outpouring is vividly recalled by its generation, despite the lamentable lack of any surviving recordings.  It deepened his relationship with his audience. Similarly, after his recent challenging spell, 'Good Lord, I'm back' over the piano intro of 'I Will Survive, was just enough. 

When we hear Tony now, we are cheered by the energy and smiles, but we feel we have a relationship with him. Like us, we know he’s had his ups and downs as he has lived his life in parallel to ours on this real-time medium. And he's sounding better than ever.

In time, in the words of Mark Goodier, you 'find your own voice', and become a better communicator. When he had the duty of following the Radio 2 news bulletin bearing the tragic Wogan news, he was himself, not Mark the disc jockey. That day, he was a guy who had lost someone he knew and respected deeply  - and the tone was spot on.  As Mark readily concedes, that ability to just 'be you' is one which grows with age. 

Last week, we witnessed Andy Potter on-air on Radio Derby, telling the awful news of his cancer. "We're breaking the news to the listeners at 8.15am on Radio Derby,", he said to a friend. He knew his listeners would want to know. It was right he should tell them. And I imagine they will be a huge comfort to him in the months ahead. 

What other media almost demands this honesty from its contributors?  When the Media Show's Steve Hewlett opens up about his cancer, as he does to Eddie Mair on BBC Radio 4, it is this normality of the conversation which really cuts through. No faux sympathetic TV furrowed brows - just honesty and black humour.  Radio is the most intimate story-telling medium, and the listener attaches their own personal pictures, fears and experiences to the story. 

In 2013, when Kidd Kraddick, the nationally syndicated US radio host, collapsed and died, aged 53, at a golf tournament, his team were faced with hosting the show he'd led with one empty chair. They responded from the heart. The result was a piece of radio that teaches a hundred lessons - and Kidd would have been proud. As they half- conceded.

When Tony Prince brought Luxembourg listeners the news of the death of his beloved Elvis, he joined their grief . You could hear it in his voice. He let it show. Listeners knew they were eavesdropping on an important moment in someone's life.

Its not easy to do it well.  Being natural, as Neil Fox also said, is one of the hardest things in radio: 'you learn as you grow older...and things have happened'. It’s not about over-egging something, it's about talking about it well. When you feel the time is right. And if you can’t do that, just play another song instead – or get another job. 

Whether it's a high or a low point in your life, if you can share it, when the opportunity arises, you really should. There are good broadcasters who've been on-air years who could become great were they to open the door. 

Stephanie Hirst chose to break the news of her gender dysphoria on radio, via BBC 5live. It was compelling.  To say it may have saved a life or two is probably true. I do suspect, though, that she really wishes she'd been allowed to tell her listeners live on her own Capital show.  Just like friendships, the listener relationship needs to grow before you can really start to open your heart. 

Sean Goldsmith at Bauer (Bauer City 2 breakfast) opened up both about being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome; and confessing he'd never told his dad he loved him. Just before he did just that.  Paul Robey's listeners to BBC Radio Nottingham know he lost his mother; and how much some of the songs he plays on his nostalgia programme mean to her and him.  They know that he understands how they feel about their own losses. 

People struggle to define radio, but one thing it delivers incomparably, in capable hands, is a human connection in the most incredible way.   

Authenticity in voice and content is key in this generation of radio. Of course, there's a place in radio for hot jocks on formats which wisely demand tightness; and there are current affairs formats where detached objectivity is necessary. But, if you seek to be a broadcaster with whom a listener will want to spend today, tomorrow and all of next week - and be missed when you're gone - just from time to time, they probably need to know who's inside.

In Foxy's words, 'it's this stuff that makes you good'.


  1. Thank you for this. I'm just about to cover two weeks on my old show Afternoons on BBC Jersey (I left to go to UK to be with my new man) so it's very timely. I've always worried that I share too much but there's nothing nicer than meeting a listener in the street and they ask after your son/daughter/dog/rash! So here's hoping they're going be pleased to hear about me again. Sara Palmer freelance BBC presenter and producer

  2. If I understand rightly, Park hoisted Hirst off the air pretty quickly - deciding the subject matter wasn't on-brand for Capital Breakfast. Was his instinct right? Can being 'memorable' hurt as much as it helps?

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