Thursday, 24 January 2013

On the Mic - Surrey Life - January 2013

A slightly re-written version of my Jan 2013 Surrey Life column. How the black majesty of winter’s bleakest month became just another cog in the never-ending retail cycle.

I’m not going to pretend I like January. It’s horrible.

The feasting and bonhomie of Christmas and New Year has gone. The weather is grim and wet, and the county’s poor, huddled commuters gather once more to board virus-filled trains, silent and miserable in the morning darkness.

You don’t enjoy January. You get through it. Or at least, you used to.

In recent years it's changed. Instead of retreating into the warmth of our homes, venturing out only to work and buy necessities, we are being encouraged to treat the entire month as a giant weight-loss opportunity.

The fitness DVD adverts start on Boxing Day. The newspapers start using the d-words - detox and diet - in the run up to New Year.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Why massively over-indulge through the Christmas period and then pretend we’re going to live like ascetic monks from the first Monday of the New Year? 

Because we’re told to, by people who stand to make lots of money from it. Fatten up, little piggies, now join a gym and get on the treadmill.

Last year my producer Emma ran away from the BBC to work as a PR for the charity Alcohol Concern. Emma is brilliant and surpassed even herself when she told me during her interview she asked if the staff ever went for a drink. That could have gone badly for her, but she got the job.

Emma’s big project for 2013 is a campaign aimed at encouraging us to dry out for the whole of January. The idea being you try not to drink any booze for a month, whilst people essentially bet you do, by way of sponsorship. Any money raised goes towards helping people with alcohol problems.

I’m not going to do it. 

It’s taken me a long time to realise moderation is a laudable aim. In the run up to Christmas that means giving mince pies a hard stare, rather than a cheeky, conspiratorial wink. In January, it hopefully means I don’t have to join the temporary teetotallers, forever boiling strange lumps of vegetable matter in the office microwave whilst pretending to enjoy their herbal tea. I’ve been there, and I never want to do it again.

My New Year’s wish for the readers of Surrey Life is that together we stop doing what we’re told to and remember the true meaning of January - headaches, mild depression and whisky. 



February's edition of Surrey Life is on sale now for £3.25

Previous columns:

December 2012 - on doing more stand up comedy
November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill

Friday, 11 January 2013

Nick Clegg on LBC

Nick Clegg's phone in on LBC was was a masterclass in making the most of an excellent opportunity.

Securing the Deputy Prime Minister's time for a weekly phone-in was a coup in itself, and the station rightly went to town when it was announced on Monday. No other serving cabinet minister has signed up to present a weekly phone-in radio show before. LBC described this as "historic". It is.

I am a big fan of what LBC does, and did a number of production shifts for them before and after Christmas. As a result I'm listening to as much as I can (whilst also staying loyal to BBC Surrey, of course, where I present a weekly show).

Throughout this week on LBC, every presenter I heard flagged up the deputy PM's debut, and the schedule was liberally sprinkled with pre-recorded trails so regular listeners knew to tune in on Thursday at 9am.

On the morning of the broadcast the entire station was geared towards turning "Call Clegg" into Event Radio. The news bulletins and the breakfast show presenter Nick Ferrari primed us, as did tweets from the main LBC account and the staff working in the building. The live video feed started rolling, the live blog kicked in ("8:45: Nick Clegg is almost ready.") and the deputy PM's name began trending, as did the hashtag #callclegg.

The broadcast itself passed off smoothly. The listeners were polite and respectful, even the one who told Nick Clegg he'd ripped up his Lib Dem membership card because the party had betrayed everything it said it stood for. That confrontation gave the bulletin and print journalists eg (Mirror, Daily Mail) their news line.

Nick Ferrari did a faultless job in pushing the DPM when his answers avoided the question, yet still backed off and gave the listeners space to make their points and have their say.

You got a sense, as the broadcast was progressing, that LBC's audience felt this was their opportunity to hold a powerful politician to account.

For me, the real masterstroke was the debrief. Rather than just leave it to the bulletins desk to pull out the strongest audio, and trail ahead to next week's appearance, in the final half hour of the breakfast show, Nick Ferrari got the station's political correspondent Tom Cheal in to talk us through the "historic" broadcast.

Tom gave some relaxed and authoritative analysis on the serious side of what the DPM and the listeners had said, mentioned that #callclegg was trending worldwide ("above Justin Timberlake at one stage") and rightly pointed out Nick had a scoop when a listener prompted Nick Clegg to reveal he owned a onesie. This, said Tom, was something that was very likely to inspire the next day's newspaper cartoonists. It did.

Onesiegate is a political sketchwriter's dream. The BBCGuardian, Telegraph and Spectator all used it to to get into their pieces and even The Independent's fashion blogger got on the case. Each article was suffused with a tone of grudging respect for LBC, which is about the highest praise you're going to get from competitors.

Back at the ranch, James O'Brien devoted the first hour of his mid-morning show to a debate on whether the listeners were prepared to see Nick Clegg in a new light as a result of his decision to do a regular phone-in on LBC.

I didn't hear all of it as I had to do something for Radio 2, but there were the beginnings of a fascinating discussion on the deputy PM's poll ratings and the direction he'd taken his party.

As I was driving the girls back from their swimming lesson yesterday evening, I tuned to LBC, heard Nick Clegg's voice and assumed I was listening to the 7pm news bulletin. No, they had taken a chunk out of Iain Dale's programme to repeat the entire half hour phone-in from 7pm. Iain (who I like a lot) has written a good blog post on Clegg's performance and what it means for the station.

In summary, the activity around a simple piece of phone-in radio was a lesson for all of us in ambition, execution and promotion. LBC is going places. Nick Clegg will be back next week.

I have not asked for permission to use the images in this post, although I have used a credit and/or linked back. If you are the copyright owner and want your image removed please let me know and I'll take it down immediately.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Harris and Hoole and Me

I seem to have become something of an expert on the Harris and Hoole story.

Harris and Hoole, Walton-on-Thames exterior 10 Jan 2013

I first came across them when shop-fitters boards went up outside the old Clinton Cards on our High Street. It announced that Harris and Hoole was coming soon, but didn't say much else beyond a series of hieroglyphic clues. I deciphered one as Pan+Knee+Knee and realised we were looking at the arrival of yet another coffee shop. 

I assumed it was a chain, as no independent would have gone for a teaser marketing campaign like that. Turns out they are, and they're 49% owned by Tesco.

This is a problem for some, who don't like buying fake authenticity because it makes them feel like stooges. Others don't like it because they think it's putting independent coffee shops out of business. The Guardian newspaper has written extensively about this. The CEO of Tesco has blogged about it.

I suggested it as a subject when I was producing Andrew Gilligan's show on LBC last week and the phones lit up. We had café owners who claimed to have been put out of business by corporates muscling in on their trade, and plenty more who felt they'd been sold a pup by Harris and Hoole, but would still be going back.

Two days ago I wrote about the coffee shop invasion for Surrey Life magazine, whilst sitting in Harris and Hoole. Today I was there again, adding some colour to a debate with the brand's owner on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2.

A Harris and Hoole Long Black coffee with hot milk on the side
Not a cup of coffee, or an Americano. In Harris and Hoole, it's a Long Black.
People who use coffee houses tend to be an articulate, middle-class bunch, and I quickly gathered a range of opinions from people exiting the shop. Some were surprised and felt a little cheated when I told them about Tesco's stake.

Others knew and weren't happy about it (but still liked the product). Two business people I spoke to had just found out about Tesco's investment and decided to boycott Harris and Hoole, telling me they had made a decision to hold future meetings in Walton's remaining independent cafés.

Harris and Hoole will live without them. In fact, they will thrive. The Walton H+H has some of the most helpful and willing staff I've met in any retail outlet ever, it has free (and very easy to get into) wifi, and the USP is the sheer amount of space. 

Take a buggy into the Costa in Walton and you spend your entire time apologising and re-arranging the furniture as you fight to get to your seat. H+H could've doubled the number of tables in the space they have available, but they choose not to. Even those enormous side-by-side buggies can get to any table with ease. In a town like Walton, this matters.

It's a shame the coffee tastes so grim. Other far more sophisticated palates disagree, but having had quite a few Harris and Hoole "Long Blacks" now, I just can't get on with it. Too sweet. 

My favourite brew in Walton is made by Le Petit Café, a more cheap and cheerful independent set-up which was here long before the Neros and Costas of this world. The fella in there knows what he's doing, and he's friendly too. 

But if I have a buggy, or I am going to be using my laptop, or I want to sink into an armchair for a bit, H+H will get my custom. Next time I'll just order a nice cup of tea.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

On the Mic - Surrey Life - December 2012

Surrey Life column Dec 2012:

"I have a problem. Last year my boss at BBC Surrey asked if I would like to learn, and then perform, a short stand-up routine for Comic Relief. Listeners would be asked to "sponsor" me, and the set would be recorded and broadcast by the BBC.
We raised hundreds of pounds, and I ended up on stage in front of two hundred people in Brighton, having the time of my life. With lots of professional performance coaching and assistance, I succeeded in making the audience laugh.
"You've got the bug now, haven't you?" said one of my fellow turns that night, backstage. "Are you ready to spend your days travelling the country, eating service station pasties at two in the morning?"
I wasn't, and I'm not, but he was right. I have got the bug. That's my problem.
A few months after the Brighton gig, I contacted a stand up I know called Sajeela Kershi. As well as being terrifyingly funny, Sajeela hosts a monthly comedy night called The Comedy Cottage in her home town of Redhill.
Earlier that year Sajeela risked catastrophe by allowing me to do a warm-up for my Brighton gig at a Cottage night. It went okay.
So I went back to Sajeela, and wondered, coyly, if she might be prepared to consider allowing me have another go.
Sajeela graciously booked me in. This time it didn't go okay.
The reason? Simples. My Comic Relief performances had been mentored and honed by another Redhill (what is it about that town?) stand up comedian of some genius, Nathaniel Tapley. Natt helped me with my script, performance skills and confidence. He was basically the architect of everything that was good about what the audience saw in Redhill and Brighton.
On my return to the Cottage, I was stupid enough to think I'd be okay if I went it alone. I was wrong. I bombed. And after that, I walked away.
But I've still got the bug.
So I've written a script. I've learned my set. I've tried it out on a couple of people who know what they're talkiing about. And I'm getting ready to do this all over again in front of a paying audience.
I'm as nervous as hell.
I'll let you know how it goes."

I've already done the gig - read about it here.


January's edition of Surrey Life is on sale now for £3.15

You can find some of my previous columns below:

November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill