Thursday 20 December 2012

Is there anyone any good out there?

I can recite a few tales of stunning individuals who arrive in our clan, with the old blood surging through their veins.  They give their all: their own time and expense in pursuit of a long-term career they were born to achieve.  They never question whether they are to be paid, or how much.  They give everything they have; and, hopefully, those who take them in through their doors honourably make sure they are not out-of-pocket.  Such people are bright, bright-eyed and identifiable within seconds.  They want to help.  They give before they ask to receive; and by that time, you’re already keen to lend a hand before they even have to ask – because you are desperate they should stay with your company for the rest of their lives.  They watch, they listen; and they soak up what they need to know effortlessly.  Because they are interested. To see their enthusiasm make me dewy-eyed. 

But am I alone in despairing, largely, of a generation? 

There are others  who write in to us, not really knowing my name.  They suggest they want a career in media, but are not entirely sure.  They talk of what their long-term aspirations are, forgetting that we all have rather a lot on our minds.  Some even forget who they’ve written to, and mention other radio stations in error along the way. They have ideas of their own talents way beyond their abilities; and demand we spend our time offering feedback.  I wish I had the courage of Cowell, and felt I could simply fire back an automated email suggesting that they’ll never make it – and they should really focus their energies on something else. Like singing, radio attracts so many who are convinced they can do it, but really cannot.  Great performers make it sound easy.
I recall one person we once took on for work experience who turned up at 1030 a.m.  When I gently suggested we turn up a little earlier , she explained she’d been out late so had only just got up.   I recall another journalist applicant who found it tough to suggest what key industry might exist in rural Lincolnshire, even when I asked her what she saw when she stared out the train window.

Syndicated emails sometimes plop into my Outlook from students asking me, effectively, to write their media exam answers for them.  I write back and ask them to formulate some genuine questions.  I rarely hear back.  And there are the eager mothers writing on behalf of their surly 17 year olds, asking for help in securing work experience or employment.  If I were a parent, I fear I’d stick my nose in and be just the same, but actually, the people we really want are the 17 year olds who have the initiative to get off their own backsides and quietly make their own overtures to us.

There are some great radio courses, run by people I respect deeply.  They are probably as frustrated as I am by the others in their field who appear out of touch.  Courses which specialise in talk radio, without a hint of education about the science of music radio, despite the fact that all but a handful of station amongst the UK’s many hundreds play, at least, some songs.  Instead, there are hours spent on coaching students how to build three-minute features on mice in windmills.  Even Radio 4 chooses only to play a ‘package’ on The Today Programme, when the line goes down and they get desperate.  Where is the coaching on how radio communicates; and how do you cajole a reluctant caller to going on-air and creating a truly astonishing piece of radio? Where is the coaching on language? Where is the coaching on business?  Are aspiring radio journalists coached sufficiently on how they sound? Do they step back to consider how much of their bulletin has been received – and remembered - by their audiences?  Judging by the robotic delivery we too frequently observe, maybe not.

I fear I may get political when I amplify my concerns that the UK spends billions on education, yet do we get a flood of quality applications when we advertise a job? Whether it be news, imaging, copy-writing/creative, social media, sales, manager, or software developer.  No.  Whilst we are often highly delighted with our eventual recruit who defies the trend, we do not always get the range of applicants we  expect  for such a truly great industry.  Why is it too that frighteningly intelligent people arrive, seemingly lacking the ability to write English to a decent standard.  I lacked the benefit of a university education, but whatever the nature of the Degree, should we not expect a vaguely acceptable standard of writing from one of the UK’s many graduates?  Not least because, increasingly and maybe perversely, radio demands that, with its ancillary online and social media channels.

The range of jobs in radio is often misunderstood.  Beyond ‘being a jock’ or ‘working in the newsroom’, the wealth of opportunity is ignored.  Which radio station would not bend over backwards to a bright personable, hard-working, persuasive individual, interested in radio, saying ‘I’d like a career in radio sales’?  Maybe it’s that old British thing which looks down on ‘sales’ as some dirty job.  That’s why this country invents great things and never quite extracts their value. ‘Sales’ is a dirty word at a dinner party.  We’ve all met bad salespeople in our general lives in all fields - and we’ve met truly great ones.  Is it just not 'British' to aspire to be UK radio’s best sales person?  Combine, also, sales with programming: devising and selling great promotions and sponsorship is a wonderful job; but where are the applicants in our email boxes for those positions from people with a self-evident flair? What of creative writers to write great persuasive and award-winning radio ads?  Where are they educating the next generation to tackle such skills?

Because we are such a fascinating, enjoyable industry, at least some applicants defy the above and shine through.  I wonder if that’s true of other industries.

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Saturday 15 December 2012

Hello patients everywhere

Isn't it strange seeing people you haven't seen for thirty years? Not least when, with some folk, you feel able just to pick up where you left off. 

Last weekend, on that misty Saturday night, a throng of us congregated in the splendid surroundings of Nottingham's Wollaton Hall.  We'd last met at hospital radio: for many of us, that was decades ago.  Since then, some of us had blagged our way into professional broadcasting; others had taken a more sensible course in life.

Routes into radio are as different as the people who work within it.  Some  drink up their experience from student radio, others simply apply for a transfer from being a showbiz name. In the mid '70s, commercial radio was fuelled by those from the biscuit factory radio, UBN.
A few individuals have been in radio so long they have forgotten quite how they got in; and others moan so much they really should look for the door marked exit.  
For many of my generation, hospital radio was the trunk road to a career in the medium.  Nottingham enjoyed a well-respected hospital radio station, launched in the 70s when even commercial radio had yet to begin in Robin's City.   

I was turned away from NHR's dusty, pre-fab building for being too young, but battled through, aged 16, to win my blue Dymo membership badge at last.  Nottingham Hospitals Radio was frighteningly well-managed, with a clear focus on its audience.  Like so many of that generation, it was in hospital radio that I learnt the rudiments.  Just maybe the number of professional stations across the UK is now so large that broadcasters can speed their way to huge FM transmitters without sufficient probationary benefit.

A Saturday afternoon NHR programme from 1982

As so many in radio, I began on-air with a very high voice.  Thankfully, my first ever show on
17th December 1977 is lost on some crumbling 1/4" tape somewhere, although I do recall 'Underneath The Arches' from a warped Flanagan and Allen LP was my first song, which tells a little of how well-targeted the station genuinely was.  Mark Woodhouse tech-opped, which stood him in good stead for his own technical future. Cheers, Mark. Goodbye  to see you again. Anyone born at our station  knew about preparation, pre-fading and PPM levels.

Rather too many hospital stations appear to target their disc jockeys rather than their audience, which must be a little annoying for those who donate monies to keep the stations alive. Yes, hospital radio can have been a great training ground, but that is not the reason for its existence.  Ours had mandatory ward visiting  with summary execution for those who missed it more than once.  Wisely so.  My 93 year old dad's just out of hospital and, on boring days there, he would have killed to have someone stop by his bedside for a natter. It means more than you'll ever know. 

In the late 70s, when commercial radio was being called upon to be more meaningful, 'hospital radio link ups' were hurriedly organised.  I was duly asked by Trent if I'd supply some ward interviews.  Desperate  for a professional break, I duly obliged; and dragged a heavy Uher round disinfected wards. A generation will recall the Uher tape recorder, possibly by the affliction of a lop-sided walk in adult life, given it weighed as much as a large Christmas turkey.  I was despatched to the maternity wards and, as an shy, innocent youth,  learnt more there about the female body than I had hitherto.

In the studio, our equipment was sufficient.  Sonifex cart machines with a loud click played out our stolen poorly-edited jingles, armed with black AA2 carts, which our younger members dutifully re-laced with lubricated tape.  A few battered Ferrograph tape machines with an editing block nailed near the heads were reserved for editing; and a swish new Revox played out the evening's recorded shows.  Sig tunes for each show, which were compulsory given this was the 70s, were kept on 5" spools. Yellow leader at the front red at the rear. Turntables were slow to start, so each had a felt slip mat which one gripped until the required moment. Release the fingers; and lo, the Dooleys.

Early lessons were learned about the importance of vocabulary.  'Listeners' were referred to as just that on-air, never 'patients'.  The hope was that our pirated jingles and spotty, adolescent presenters playing The Old Rugged Cross meant that they might forget the major surgery the following day. 
Radio Trent feature on NHR 1977

We received a crash course on how radio is a one-to-one medium; not least because, on lucky days, we did indeed amass that single listener. Alas, too many on-air professionally nowadays forget the power of the singular 'you' and suggest that 'any of you  out there' keep your 'texts coming in'. It's a basic rule of radio broken by too many, too often.

Note the light switch (mic live light!)
An early duty for me was the programme for the long-stay geriatric hospitals. One popular feature within was the 'birthday list': "Hello Agnes, happy 93rd birthday. Here's George Formby - and the one entitled...". We'd run down the shiny tiled corridors to conduct a last minute check that all was well with dear Agnes's health just minutes before the show; on the pretext of delivering a branded Christmas card.

The Nottingham  station, run by the towering Barrie 'James' Pierpoint, was strong on PR.  Upon its birthday, a team of typists would compose neat letters on the Golf-ball typewriter to professional stations, requesting 'anniversary greetings'.  May I now concede that it was actually a ruse to get stereo copies of their jingles.  Now, though, those messages have become a lucky piece of radio history.
Friends, it was good to see you again. Including those who should have gone into radio but sadly didn't.  

More hospital radio memories - and other fond recollections - in my book 'Radio Moments'

More hospital radio discussion on blog post:  'Why Do We Bother With Hospital Radio?'

Saturday 1 December 2012

And now - the Chemists' Rota

In cold and snowy times, kids everywhere turn on their radios in the hope of hearing the news that their school is closed for the day.  They needn't really, of course.  Most schools now have other ways of getting information to hundreds of parents efficiently.  Educational establishments and their parent local authorities have bulk SMS systems; and some have colourful websites or social media.  If these are serviced well (and some are not), then it might be argued radio need no longer play the role for which many of us fondly remember it, from our duffel coat and mitten days.
Mind you, that takes half the fun away.  Hearing one's school mentioned has became a ritual.  And radio stations quite enjoyed hearing  adolescents assuming deep voices as they pretended to be the Headmaster.
As the flooding of late 2012 hit, some stations responded in the time-honoured way.  Others did not.  Just maybe that's absolutely right.  Some stations are carving out a highly popular reputation as being purveyors of excellent music and entertainment; and they feel that dull lists of miserable information do  not merit a place on their format.   After all, just like with school closures, there are many other ways for listeners to get information; and even if radio is a useful solution for those on the move, there are usually other radio stations who have carved out their reputation, partially or wholly,  as being a local information portal.  I suspect it would take something of a major national catastrophe to prevent the Cartoon Channel from showing cartoons on TV. It's not what it does.

But, if you are going to broadcast a service for those battling with the snow, wind or rain, the World has moved on.  Yes, accurate information has a place, gilded usefully by  the station's online and social presences. But radio should be more than that.  Its real place now is not to serve as a shopping list; it is to be a friend, putting its arm round its tribe and helping each of them through.  Reassurance, sympathy and a few comforting words. A sense of 'we're all in this together'.  And the canniest of stations seize the opportunity to make dramatic listening from what is happening around them.  When inclement weather causes upset, stories follow; and that's what radio does best. 

Canny stations like that also realise that it's important to be on-air locally, even late at night.  Yes, the audiences are small and you need to keep your powder dry for the peak audiences next day, but for the stations which attach value to this reputation, even a single, local, friendly voice speaks volumes.  If I ran a BBC local station, I'd be disappointed if we could not manage it.  If I ran a successful often-networked CHR music-intensive station, I might just stay in bed.
Of course, in the days before the World-wide web, radio was usefully just about first with everything.  Before television; certainly before press; and marginally after the town-crier.  Even if significant detail were required, radio was still called upon, despite the medium not necessarily being the most suitable.  Hence, such popular features as the chemists' rota were aired.  After all, in the days when so few shops of any kind were open after 5.30, it was crucial to know exactly which pharmacy might be able to hand over an aspirin.  Broadcasts like this 1977 example were accordingly commonplace.

 The chemists' rota

Now the long lists of lost dogs and cats have largely gone walkies, just the Shipping Forecast and the Classified Pools Check live on as a memorial to this genre of broadcasting. Had the chemists' rota remained, that too might have been intoned in a similarly beautiful poetic rhythm.

Still in 2012, radio stations are relied upon.  We all know that.  Stations receive enquiries about the most bizarre of subjects. Listeners expect us to know the answers; and are grumpy if we do not.  From the opening times of a shop, to where a film can be seen; from the answer to a pub quiz to whether we know anything about a Grenadier Guards' reunion.  Every station will have stories of 'things our listeners have asked', and feel free to add a few below.  They trust us, and that's yet another symbol of the strength of our great medium.  So, in times of crisis, let's make sure that, at least, some radio stations respond in a way which makes most use of radio's strength as a friend.

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