Friday, 21 January 2011

Amy and Abi's diaries

In 2009 I started watching Strictly Come Dancing with my then 4 year old daughter Amy.

Then as now, on a Monday, we had a feature called "The Shots in 60 seconds". Here the relevant commentary highlights of Aldershot Town's Saturday match, plus the comments of the manager, would be condensed into 60 seconds and set to music.

It didn't take me long to realise I could do something like that with Strictly Come Dancing, and so was born "Strictly in 60".

Every Sunday in the Autumn of 2009 I would record my daughter's thoughts about the show - who left and why, who did well etc - cut them down to 60s and play them out straight after The Shots in 60.

I liked it because it was a piece of audio, in quality, which broke up the tone of the show - you don't often get to hear a 4 year old speak for a minute on any subject, let alone on the radio, so it provided us with something very different to the usual ebb and flow of the morning.

When Strictly was over I thought about what I could do next, and the idea of Amy's diary presented itself to me. A once a week insight into Surrey life from a 4 year old's perspective.

So in January 2010 we started broadcasting Amy's journal, 60s to 90s worth of audio, every Monday morning. The need to keep it short was essential - there is nothing more boring than other people's children. But if you keep it tight, and the narrative bumps along, you do get that momentary jolt of seeing into a young person's world via the subjects they choose to talk about and the sometimes wonderful turn of phrase they have when articulating it.

Every Sunday evening I would sit down with Amy and we'd record the raw audio. Before recording we'd discuss two or three big moments that happened for her in the week and what we were going to say about them. The diary always starts with "Hello my name is Amy, I'm xxxx years old and this is my diary" and it would always end with "Thank you for listening to Amy's diary". In between we'd record Amy's narrative, using the days as chapter markers. "On TUESday...." or "On SATURday...."

If she lost track of things or used names or words that needed explaining, she went too far off topic, or needed a sentence to signify the end of a section, I'd prompt her. If she rambled on on topic I'd let her go, because that's when you get something that was purely her, and I could isolate it and chop out the stumbles and irrelevant stuff in the edit.

Then I'd upload the raw audio into my PC and cut it at home on Audacity, the free editing software, before emailing it to my producer for him to pick up and chuck into the BBC playout system on Monday morning.

I didn't quite realise how it would take off. There are a lot of people listening to the show who have grown up children themselves. They just love hearing a child's voice, and being reminded of the obssessions that children that age have.

When, after a year in the job on 1 Sep 2010, I asked, on air, for an end of year report from the listeners, I was taken aback by the universal praise we got for Amy's diary.

I went to a New Year's Day drinks party at my in-laws this year and that was the conversation starter for many guests (most of whom were in their sixties). "Oh I do love Amy's diary" they would say, "is it coming back in the New Year?"

My brother-in-law told me he was talking about radio with a friend of his and mentioned I worked in radio. The friend didn't know my name, didn't know the correct name for the station, but once he'd worked out Dave was talking about the local BBC radio station for Surrey he said "Oh yes of course! Amy's diary!"

That's when I realised we had a brand on our hands. Well, that and the number of Christmas cards Amy got from listeners.

This year we have formalised the time slot to 8.50am on a Monday (in the early days it would move around the running order) and introduced our secret weapon - Abi.

Abi is Amy's sister, she's just turned three and through watching Amy do her thing every Sunday, has picked up a very good understanding of what's required. Now when Amy finishes her diary, she adds "Now it's Abi's turn" and the listeners get 20s of Abi. "Hello my name is Abi, I am three and this is my diary..."

Abi is very talkative and quite headstrong, but also something of a performer. Yet she still has that ridiculously raw, unformed little voice that small toddlers have. In terms of pure sound it's just not something you hear every day in that environment.

I'm aware talking about my daughters is much more interesting to me than anyone else, by a factor of, ooh, a million, so I always play it straight when trailing the item.

My feeling is making a big deal about it is twee and dull - if you don't like it, it's around 75 seconds long, it'll be all over before you know it and hopefully there is nothing too irritating, and enough in there to stop you turning off.

Amy and Abi love it, of course. It would be interesting to see how long we can keep this going. Amy has grown over the past year, and I can hear the changes in her voice from her early diaries. I also get the sense that a lot of listeners are enjoying sharing in these tiny glimpses of her childhood. Now Abi is on board, it'll be fun to see if they develop an on air dynamic together.

For me it justifies itself as a bit of audio contrast, in the way that Thought For The Day is a deliberate pause to the rhythm of the Today programme. The moment Amy, Abi, the listeners or my bosses get bored with it, it will go.

If you want to have a listen to the latest diaries, scroll forward 1hr 50m in the most recent Saturday breakfast show on the BBC Surrey page of the iplayer.