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#RADFEST10: Who’d work in radio?

October 20, 2010

It’s been a difficult day at the Radio Festival today. There have been some difficult lessons learnt. By the time I left the Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays at 7.15pm this evening I was exhausted. Let me explain why.

The radio industry is – as one might expect to hear at a festival dedicated to the medium – rather concerned about some things. At the top of the day digital radio and it’s spread across the UK was one of them.

There isn’t enough take up of the new technology amongst the consumer base. Apparently, people seem relunctant to embrace DAB .. still. Culture chappy Ed Vaizey is saying that he’s looking for a 50% take up before committing to digital switchover and it seems we’re only at 24.6%. As Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine put it in a video interview with the good-humoured Vaizey, “you’re not even half-way to getting half-way”. Who’s going to pay for it? How do we sell the benefits of digital radio to radio listeners who understandably would like to see greater and more reliable coverage across the UK than at present? My eyes started to glaze over.

Ford Ennals from Digital Radio UK

What I found hard-going was the focus on the challenges faced by the radio industry where distribution is concerned. I understood Mr Vaizey’s point that he was looking for 50% take up amongst consumers. I even followed the facts, figures and aspirations Digital Radio UK head Ford Ennals’ presented in the “Action Plan for Digital Switchover”.

The truth was, however, that I wasn’t that interested in it. Possibly because I’ve never really been interested in the business end of anything. I’m no good at it. I’d far rather devolve to people who can manage spreadsheets and can navigate their way around Microsoft Project (or whatever the open source equivalent is).

No, what I’m more interested in is the content. The creativity. The making stuff for radio. Which is weird really, considering that the last stuff I made for radio proper was when I was on work experience with LBC five years ago.

Shortly before I (sort of) started working at the BBC, I worked on Sandi Toksvig’s Lunchtime Show. It was everything I’d hoped radio production would be like without me having any idea what it might be like. I’d listened a lot to her show, laughed with my significant other when we listened together, bitten the bullet and sent her and her producer a letter. I wrote it on yellow paper, sure that would be the way of getting their attention. It worked. I was stunned.

When I went in, LBC – “in the shadow of the White City estate” – was every bit the exciting nerve centre Radio Festival reminiscers Timmy Mallet and Chris Evans described their early radio experiences to be. There was no money. There was precious little time too. But there was passion and enthusiasm. There was openness. Everyone contributed ideas two hours before the show went out. A running was agreed an hour before. And if your idea was accepted you ran with it for that segment. That’s exciting production. You see things happen in front of you. And – at the end of the live two hour show – an overwhelming sense of adrenaline fuelled relief descended when all of us realised we had pulled off entertaining speech radio.

Timmy Mallett & Colin Walters

If I’m completely honest, I’ve no idea whether the audience themselves found it entertaining necessarily. From my point of view I felt the acid test was whether or not it made people in the studio and the control room laugh. Did we feel good at the end of it? I think we did. I certainly look back with a huge amount of fondness on those few short months. I often wonder too whether in my eagerness to take up full time employment at the BBC whether I made the wrong decision. I’ve not seen anything like it since, although listening to Danny Baker’s show on BBC London I’d wager that his show has the same fundamental approach underpinning it.

This – despite what you might be thinking as you read this post – is not a post about me. More, that the sessions at the Radio Festival touched on those experiences in ways I hadn’t expected. Evans and Mallett spoke with warmth about their vital years at Piccadilly Radio, describing how their then programme controller Colin Walters who had been dragged back from France for his first radio industry appearance in 21 years, had adopted a hands-off nurturing stance when he worked with them. It was this which had in their opinion been crucial in giving them the freedom to take editorial risks with what they were doing. Experimentation was important.

Mallett reportedly did a lot of shouting at his production team (of whom the young Evans was one), demanding material for the links in their live output. Perhaps it was overkill to have enough material for seven possible alternative links, but the ends justified the means in their opinion. It was difficult not to agree with them. That level of stress must have contributed to the end product. The clips we heard at the beginning of the session certainly sounded like the entire thing bristled.

Their presence at the Radio Festival was greeted by warmth from the audience. They were affable. Endearing. They oozed radio. Clearly, the audience – the industry – recognised their talent and their love for the medium. I was sold. If either of them had called out for a present days Evans-like production team member today, I’d have stuck my hand up. Sometimes the inner kid could do with being kept under control more, I suspect.

It wasn’t a day for celebrity though, in case you’re wondering. I wasn’t starstruck. I saw a few famous faces – the same as at the BBC – but it wasn’t their relative celebrity which fuelled my enthusiasm. It was the acknowledgment that at various points during the day I understood the language some of the Radio Festival speakers were uttering.

Others talked about the sanitisation of radio. How DJs were personalities instead of being experts in their chosen field. How creativity needed to be nurtured, not stifled and didn’t depend on money. How preparation was vital. In an earlier session Mark Rock from AudioBoo was concise in his assessment: “Radio is full of passionate people. But they’re people who seem to have lost their focus. You’re too bogged down in the technology.”

Radio 4 Commissioning Editor Jane Ellison described how History of the World in 100 Objects had been such a massive affair for the BBC, taking a simple radio proposition (a series of 15 minute programmes about ‘things’) and working with a variety of different partners to deliver something which stimulated audiences in a variety of different ways on and in multiple platforms and spaces.

It sounds easy when it’s written down or when someone is reporting it back to a room full of eager delegates. But the use of the phrase ‘devolving creativity to partners’ by Jane Ellison however underlines the challenge faced when having to offer up an initial idea and see it developed by a great many people, insodoing turning it into something massive. 10 million podcast downloads can’t be bad. A testament to that devolving of creativity. It must have been a leap of faith. How did she sleep at night? And now it’s over (ish) and she’s presumably very pleased with it, how does she now sleep at night?

These were the main messages for me on the second day of the Radio Festival. Things which ring around my head now.

Distribution of radio is important. Giving audiences a quality signal is obviously. Nobody wants to offer up a shoddy piece of work. But that also extends to the people and the things that are on the radio themselves. The content is more important than how we hear it (unless of course its a live classical music concert – I draw the line there). And for good content to survive presenters and producers need to be given some room to breath. Radio is an art form, like painting or drawing or composing. Artists need to experiment. For that they need to take risks, marginally smaller than the risks some of those commissioning editors may feel they need to take to give the talent their space.

Who’d work in radio?

One Comment
  1. the dotterel permalink

    Colin Walters? Really? He’s the spit of Jimmy Saville!

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