Friday, 25 May 2012

On the mic - Surrey Life - May 2012

Here is my column for the May edition of Surrey Life. Regular readers will note this is not the first time I have used the angry imp metaphor. It doesn't improve with age.

Links to previous Surrey Life columns are at the bottom of this post. If you want to subscribe to Surrey Life and read my latest column, I'm sure that would make my editor very, very happy.

Radio is about stories. Whether you are listening to the narrative development of a song, or the heartbreaking personal testimony of a parent who has lost a child, radio excels at enriching the world we live in with the lives of others.
At its best, the medium can be so compelling we find ourselves reaching into somebody else’s world, connecting with their stories, and intertwining them with our own emotions and experiences.
Every radio professional should be working tirelessly to create those moments of connection with the listener. A facility with the written and spoken word, accuracy, ideas, empathy and a sense of theatre are all important, but nothing beats individual, human stories. 
Finding those stories and the people to tell them takes no little skill. On a breakfast show, those tales need to fit in around all the things you would expect from breakfast radio - news bulletins, weather reports, travel updates - the complete delivery of all the information you need about the world around you.
The secret is in what we call the “clock hour”. Every minute of every hour in the breakfast show has a designated purpose. A radio programme should sound like nothing more technical than a series of smooth, easy, purposeful conversations, but the reality is very different.
Each guest, each story, each information segment should appear at a specific time and serve a specific need. Not just because we have a lot to fit in, and not just because every breakfast show needs light and shade, but because people set their morning routines by what they hear on their kitchen wireless.
If you switch on your radio at eight o’clock in the morning, you expect to hear the news. If you know you need to be in the shower by the time I get to the paper review, how infuriating would it be if an interview overran, and you found you were late for work? 
Plotting the clock hour starts a day in advance - there is a set amount of “furniture” we have to negotiate - the travel, the sport, the weather, the news. Then there are the minutes allotted to stories - different sorts of stories for different parts of the clock hour. If you are listening at 7.10am, you will hear a different sort of story to one you hear at 7.25am, and again at 7.50am. The idea is to create a rhythm to the programme that you can subconsciously use to inform your morning routine.
Of course, this all goes out live, which means it does so in an atmosphere of controlled unpredictability. I have a hopeless recipe-based metaphor about this which I will inflict on you now:
Get an angry imp, some good ingredients, ten talented chefs and a boiling cooking pot on a portable stove. 
Ask your talented chefs to stand in a circle at least 20 yards from the portable stove and chuck some prepared ingredients towards the boiling cooking pot, whilst the imp (has to be an imp, or a hobbit), pushes the stove around the room, swearing loudly at everyone.
To make a live radio show work, you need the quality ingredients, you need the talented chefs, and then you need to accept that whatever you're trying to make may be completely different from what you set out to make, or rather wonderful in spite of the circumstances.

To read April's column click here. To read my first column, in March 2012, click here.


On the Mic - Surrey Life - April 2012

This column first appeared in the April edition of Surrey Life. I have tinkered with it since and posted it below. To read all my columns as they were published, click here (£). To read my first column for Surrey Life for free in my blog, click here. To read my latest column. Go buy the magazine or subscribe to the digital version. It's great, particularly if you are rich.


I have a theory about radio. Ninety per cent of it is turning up. This probably holds true of many jobs, but if you can nail reliability in radio, you are well on the way to making a decent career.
Almost all radio is made by small teams of people with specialist skills at very odd times of the day, every day, and usually live. If you are a creative person who can turn up ready to work at 6am every Sunday morning, eschewing parties, weddings and weekends away without complaint, you will get on.
Which is why being ill is not a good thing. Especially if you present a breakfast show. If tens of thousands of listeners are going to let you innervate their waking thoughts on a daily basis, you need to turn up on a daily basis, and sound happy about it.
You may have a favourite radio presenter. If, one day, they aren’t there, you feel disappointed. If you are let down regularly, there’s a good chance you won’t come back. Why should you bother, if they’re not going to?
So if you work in radio, try not to have a complicated private life that makes you prone to emotional and overwrought states of mind. Try not to have a drink or drugs habit. Try to make sure you have at least two alarms. And try not to be ill.
I was ill recently. Not the sort of ill which would stop me from writing an email or minding the kids for a bit, but ill in a way which found me running a temperature, feeling dazed and producing a startling amount of liquid from my nose.
I went home early after my first show of the week and emailed my boss at 2.30pm saying I felt a little grim. “A little grim” isn’t ill enough not to present a breakfast show, but I wanted to flag up my less-than-bushy-tailed condition. My boss was understandably keen for me to indicate whether or not this meant I was going to make it the next day, as the number of people who are a) able to do my job and b) available to do my job is somewhat limited at the best of times.
So I emailed again at 4.30pm saying I felt better (I did. I’d just mainlined a maximum-strength lemsip) and promised to be present and correct for my show at 6am the next morning. 
Bad mistake. I woke up at 3.45am sweating and delirious. I got dressed and staggered to my car. I was hallucinating as I drove down the A3 towards our Guildford studios and arrived a dripping, incoherent mess. The three hours I completed on air were not my finest.
My boss, bless her, came in the moment the show finished and sent me home with instructions not to return until I was better. I took two days to stop coughing, sneezing, and … leaking. Apart from the dreadful broadcast (which I’m told at least had some comedy value) I felt very stupid for making the wrong call.
I wasn’t trying to be a martyr - I’m as lazy as the next person. If I had the remotest inkling I was going to be anywhere near as ill as I was I would have cried off the day beforehand. It’s just… I have this theory that ninety per cent of radio is turning up. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

Lord's, the unusual home of chips and gravy

Matt, a friend of mine, tweeted me at 9.45am yesterday:

"Don't suppose you can get to lords for this afternoon? Just got a couple of extra tickets?????"

Hell yes. I requested a slightly earlier departure than usual from the office and set about trying to get hold of my wife.

Permission granted, favours owed. By way of car, cab, train and tube, I made it to the Grace gate at Lord's just in time for lunch. How terribly civilised, my dear old thing.

Our seats in the Allen stand gave us the view you can see in the photo above. Matt is a member at Lord's and had brought a works party along, two of whom had to drop out at the last moment, hence the spare tickets.

I have been to Lord's two or three times before, but only in the cheap seats on the fifth day of a test match. This was slightly different.

The members and friends areas (of which the Allen stand is one) positively vibrate with respectful bonhomie, and the people-watching provides as much fun as the cricket.

Lord's takes a relaxed view of spectators importing reasonable quantities of food and drink into the ground, so many bring a day's supply of nibbles (grapes and olives are very popular) and booze.

We were impressed by the gentleman sitting in the front row of our stand with a wine box perched in front of him on a piece of brickwork.

"I think he's been here before." said one of Matt's colleagues.

The atmosphere was almost tangibly courteous. Everyone was being as polite as possible to everyone around them. The stewards seemed to know the members by name.  The bar staff were chatty, service was swift and the beer was cheaper than a pint in my local in Walton on Thames. And the dress code, thank goodness, was relaxed - there were plenty of suits, but just as many jeans and fleeces.

The overall impression (and I don't want this to sound remotely perjorative) was that of a genteel private members club, which just happened to have an international sporting event ticking along on the lawn.

Why not? It was the first day of a five day game, the pace of play was steady ("old-fashioned" according to TMS) and for many of the people around me, this was not a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. If you're a member at Lord's you can pop in to watch any game you want, any day, for free.

We watched Stuart Broad take six wickets, Matt explained to me the genius behind Chanderpaul's batting action and I spent five hours in the company of a dear friend I rarely get to see.

The first day of the first test of the summer at Lord's isn't just about what happens in the middle. It's an opportunity to greet old friends, make new ones and quietly celebrate the passing of the years, getting older and having fun.

Oh, and it's the first place in London I've found that does chips and gravy. So there.