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'.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Why Do We Still Bother With Hospital Radio?

The poor hospital radio station in Tunbridge Wells, which has enjoyed a rich history and spawned a few current radio presenters, is under threat of closure.  There's just not enough money.

Seizing that as the angle, BBC Radio Kent merrily invited me on-air to talk about the future for hospital radio.  They called me a 'radio historian', as they introduced a half-awake me.  I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or annoyed.

Like many, I’ve a very soft spot for my time at the hospital station in Nottingham, NHR. Lena Martell's 'One Day at a Time' was the most requested song.  I can even remember the catalogue number. Judging by the pic, I clearly spent more time remembering that than co-ordinating my clothes.
These were the nylon-shirted seventies though. Back then, patients in their gowns stared at magnolia ceilings or listened to their radio through what appeared to be a stethoscope. No-one had a smart phone - or even a thick phone - and CD players had yet to be invented. Yes, if you wanted to hear your own favourite songs, you had to bring in a couple of decks and an amp and park them on the shiny floor by your bed. Get your mate to wheel in your record collection on a big trolley, and you were sorted,

The grimy stethoscope radio carried all the usual radio channels. When I say the usual channels, let's remember there weren't very many. You could just about get Radio 1, 2 and 4  - and BBC local if your town had bothered launching one. The chap in charge of the official hospital tuner had clearly not yet discovered commercial radio - or found it too noisy.

A decently run hospital radio station was, accordingly, a welcome addition to the ‘dial’. What's more the presenter had even troubled to come to see you on your TCP-smelling ward a few hours before mispronouncing your name on the radio. A seemingly endless day in hospital became just a little cheerier.

Let's remember too that these were the days when, to get a request on a 'proper' station, you’d have to write in on Basildon Bond, with an envelope and stamp, and then devote every waking hour for the ensuing month to listening, lest you were mentioned. So, a surefire dedication - and an actual song request was actually quite a treat.

Now, you can smuggle in your own phone or MP3 player and play your favourite ballads 'til you cry.  You can also select from the many radio stations now on offer in your town, or stream one from Hungary if you wish. And, you may even have your own little TV in those hospitals which have those posh, expensive bedside ones fitted. 

Given such an array of entertainment, why on earth do we still need hospital radio?

Some of today's hospital radio presenters are rather good. Such folk annoyingly get jobs quickly at one of the hundreds of professional stations and likely forsake their volunteering with a dainty shoulder-shrug.

Some of the decent ones don’t even trouble to hop on the bus to volunteer in the first place, because they are merrily making programmes in their bedrooms on proprietary software which would have been the envy of any hospital station in the 70s. They don't need to suffer hospital radio politics to vent their creative spleen.

So, with a challenge for audience, and a paucity of the right staff, maybe they should just give up. In several cases, that's probably exactly the right thing to do. 

The other option is to try harder. Devise a strategy fit for this century and deliver it with professionalism and energy.

The quality of University Radio has rarely been higher. The SRA awards are a major event in the drunken radio calendar, and I rarely fail to pinch an idea from an entry whilst I'm judging. I believe those confident stations have stopped trying to sound like conventional ones. They break rules, invent and do their own thing.  They are programmed uniquely to their own specific audiences, rather than trotting out today's best mix. 

In short, they’ve stopped being 'me-too' stations on-air; and they are judged too by the contribution they make off-air on the campus. The best ones are part of the fabric of university life - and sometimes a reason the choose a particular uni.

If hospital radio is to survive it needs to take itself seriously.  It needs a new strategy.  

Is your station's brand essence really just about creating great radio, which everyone else does, or is your business really about making people's time in hospital better?

Once your strategy is clear, the delivery follows.  Do you just recruit hosts of wannabe disc jockeys - or do you recruit a varied range of volunteers who contribute in a host of ways. Do you have the sort of people who can give time to patient visiting?  Do you have people who can manage fundraising, and help polish the PR with local benefactors. Who cultivates hospital management relationships and political relationships? Most importantly, do you have a leader?

On-air, you need to be as focused as the best FM radio station. They are your competition. What sort of people stay in your hospitals? How old are they? Do they want music or company?  What sort of music?  

Have you got the right sort of mature communicators on-air, even if rough around the radio edges? Imagine who your typical listener would rather have a coffee with.  Would it be 60 year old Beryl, with a fund of stories who's seen heartache and happiness, or spotty 17 year old David Lloyd? 

Only do what you can do best.

On our old station, we used to have an organ music show because we had a lovely bald bloke volunteering who liked organ music. Sound formatic considerations should govern your on-air policy, regardless of the age of your eager volunteers, or their music preference.

In general terms, it's a fact that perfect radio would be one station per listener.  Imagine a radio station which only and always did what you wanted when you wanted it.  Statistically, hospital radio is probably closer to that than any other form of radio.  

Your station - and the overall experience it delivers - can be almost perfect for the worried woman on Nightingale 2 ward whose husband works away and visits rarely. Make sure it is.  Or close down.

NOTE: The Hospital Broadcasting Association commissioned an independent piece of research into the impact of hospital broadcasting on health outcomes for patients. A UK wide study was completed involving over 250 individuals including patients, staff  and hospital radio volunteers. 

I'm touched by so many kind comments about my book 'How to Make Great Radio'. Thank you.

Monday 9 January 2017

What About the Old Folk?

My dad often moans about the others in his nursing home. Those old folk.  He also worries about how well he’s going to cope with things in the future. Not now, he says, but when he gets old.

He’s nearly 96.

It's not him in the pic, and my dad plays the harmonica and not the accordion, I should say, for the sake of Ofcom accuracy.

So I'm puzzled that BBC local radio news bulletins on some stations refer to ‘the elderly’ in various stories.

Here are stations aimed at people aged over 50.  Their typical loyal listeners are much older.

As each presenter or journalist opens their mouth on-air, they are walking into the kitchens, bedrooms and front rooms of these very people. These individuals do not define themselves as part of this mad collective called ‘the elderly’.  They are simply themselves.

Any reference to 'the elderly' will be taken as a reference to people other than - and older than - the listener themselves.

If your goal is to use language which connects, you have failed.  Why would you talk about your listeners rather than to them?

And if the listener does take ‘the elderly’ as including them, they’ll find it inaccurate and patronising. It's arguably a pejorative term.

Capital talks to its audience with skill. It has identified it and pursues it with vigour. Everything on-air assumes the listener is of a certain age and living, or aspiring to live, a certain sort of life. There is little need to define the audience to itself.

Referring on air to 'the elderly' - on a radio station targeted, inter alia, at those in their 60s, 70s and 80s - is a mad as wandering into a room full of people with disabilities, staring into their eyes and reading out an announcement about ‘the disabled’. You'd just say 'you'.

You are talking largely to folk over 50 - you don’t have to define them. At any given moment, the over-50 audience exceeds the under-50 audience by a significant margin. They are your listeners. You certainly don’t need to refer to a collective term which they feel excludes them anyway.

I ranted about this on Twitter the other day, attracting a welcome flurry of support.

The term ‘pensioner’ is another example of much the same thing. When a bulletin calls upon the epithet 'pensioner'  for a 68 year old woman who’s achieved something brilliant, it's downright insulting. If the age is relevant, put it in.

I appreciate the challenges of drafting news copy on particular stories when 'pensioners' or ‘the elderly’ is an easy option. But surely you are better at your job than that.

I bring to mind too those folk who are getting increasingly and rightly annoyed that a stock pic of a gnarled hand on a stick appears alongside just about every article online which refers to folk over 60. Not only is that not how they see themselves, it is often inaccurate.

At a time when we are ever more conscious about ‘labels’, is it not time for those radio stations aimed at those of us over fifty to take more care with their language.  Not for the sake of political correctness, but because great radio stations talk to their audience like a friend.

Thanks for the feedback on my book 'How to Make Great Radio'

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