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Radio: New presenters = Potential new best friends

December 22, 2010

My blog about Katie Derham the other day has been met with the online equivalent of a look of utter confusion, or at least that’s how it seemed when I read this tweet …

It was a tweet which sent me into a bit of a spin – like a lot of electronic communications I’m finding just recently – because I momentarily felt as though I’d stepped out of line. It’s a special relationship us BBCers have with our employer. We’re allowed to blog. We’re allowed to talk about the organisation we love, but if we ‘push it’ are we upsetting people? It’s a delicate balance. And that isn’t a criticism either. Or an attack on anyone – least of all the lovely Reetu. It’s a reflection of me.

I’ve illustrated the point.

But it goes further than just an illustration of what its like to blog in pursuit of transparency. It also highlights the beginning of a story, one which illustrates the challenges any radio station faces when introducing a new voice. It’s a risk. You’re introducing a new person into the neighbourhood. What will everyone else on the ‘road’ think about the person who’s recently moved in? Will they welcome the newcomer or will he or she be shunned? As I write, I can’t quite get the image of Bree and the other Desperate Housewives out of my head.

But what is that story I mentioned? It begins with the undeniable jarring sensation a new voice can have on the listener. In true middle England style, a gut reaction spews out uncontrollably. ‘What are you doing?’ one *might* scream, ‘I liked it the way it was before. Why change now?’ Such a view is redolent of any situation where change is proposed or indeed being implemented.

And the reality is that there are – deep down – childlike reactions to that kind of change. Stuff like radio or TV programmes are hotwired into our psyche. The output makes connections with us without us even realising. Anything which brings us joy does that. In the case of the radio and anything emanating from it, that connection on a friendship. In some cases – like mine – an obsessive one. It’s not the music which does it. It’s the stuff said in between the music. We form relationships with every single presenter. And the more we listen, the more familiar the schedule feels. And the more familiar the schedule feels, the more one feels like that radio station we’ve tuned into is ours. We own it. It’s ours. Don’t go near the dial please. It’s mine.

Which is why change is so very difficult as a listener. Just as my partner persuading me that toning down the green on the kitchen walls was interpreted as unwelcome change only a few months ago.

I was resistent. I’ve been cooking in that kitchen for ten years now. It feels like my room. Don’t come in here and start saying how you’d prefer things to be different. I quite like it. Needless to say, now the walls have been toned down I can see exactly what he means and I’m glad he insisted. Mind you, I’ve not bowed down on the wall colour in the hallway. That’s staying for the time being. I’m not signing off a revolution at home, you know. Oh no.

And so it brings me back to thinking about new presenters and radio networks. And, more specifically about Katie Derham and Radio 3.

Yesterday afternoon I go to and from Bluewater with the last of my Christmas shopping. It was a long afternoon. There was a lot of traffic. I heard Katie D introduce Afternoon on 3 on the way there. And I heard her back-announce after the last movement of the symphony on the way back. And what I noticed as I sat trapped behind the steering wheel is that I could see how the new kid on the block could soon occupy a special place in my heart. I just needed to stick with it. I had to become accustomed with her style of presentation. Just like a new teacher at school, I just had to become accustomed. I had to go some way to accommodate her. And that actually, I wanted her to feel part of my Radio 3. And so because I wanted that, I’d have to listen more.

I know what you’re thinking. What on earth were you thinking before you thought of all of this Jon? Say like at the Proms Out and About event when you recorded this short piece.

Well, the truth was that I felt uneasy. Uneasy because something I cherished was changing. Only this time I masked it with a spot of self-deprecation. (After all, if one can laugh at one’s own pomposity then isn’t that a way of dealing with stuff you don’t like?). But looking back on it now and my previous post and my car journey home, I find myself thinking about what happened the last time I experienced enforced change in my radio listening.

The last time it happened was when I was a teenager and things went a bit weird on BBC Radio 1. I loved the regularity of the schedule. Loved Mike Smith in the mornings – later Simon Mayo. Warmed to the reliability of Simon Bates. I even had a soft spot for Gary Davies too. Bruno Brookes was alright. And there was something reassuringly old-school about hearing Dave Lee Travis on a Sunday morning. The alchemy worked. I felt at home there. I loved the idea of it. Clearly, I was a lonely boy.

And then things changed. The music went totally weird. DJs left. Other DJs screamed down the microphone. It was all way too shouty and modern for me. The charts seem to change too. I was only 19 or so. Radio 1 had abandoned me. I had – quite literally – nowhere to go. I didn’t like what I heard. I wanted to have fun listening to music. Everything sounded like a chore, presented by people I had no relationship with at all. I can still recall that empty feeling listening to a radio network I had previously loved but now didn’t seem to welcome me. I know. I’m being melodramatic. Bite me.

You get the point. And you get the other point considerably more important point I’m making here too I hope. That by listening to the radio in a dedicated fashion listeners form relationships. Those relationships are sometimes changed. Some others just go off the boil. That’s just what happens. How we manage that change both from a listener or a production point of view is vital. A lot of the time – as with me – I’d argue that there has to be more an effort on the part of the listener to give these things a try.

But if like me you want to produce stuff for the radio (or maybe you do already?) you might as well remind yourself of that basic human tendency. Because without that simple lesson, you’re lost.

And for those desperate to write every single day, having a source of inspiration also provides perfect inspiration for documenting the emotional response to my listening habits. There’s a story there. We all love a story. An arc. Development. Redemption. Everyone’s a winner.

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4 Comments
  1. Yes, there are people who are resistant to changes on the radio – there’s also a massive number of people who don’t listen closely enough to even notice there’s been a change. The minority will always be more vocal.

    It’s absolutely fine to not like something, or be uncertain about whether you will grow to like it.

    However, I think there’s always a danger in believing that what I think = what everyone else thinks. See Five Live blog comments.

    • I hear what you’re saying Matt. Although, on a personal level I’ve never seen blog comments in the way you suggest. For me they’re always an interesting and ultimately valid snapshot of people’s thoughts in response to what they’ve just read. Revealing, in a way.

      Your comment about those who don’t listen closely enough to even notice there’s been a change makes me think about the rule writers have drilled into them to think about their audience before they start with the pen, quill or keyboard.

      If “one’s” majority audience doesn’t pay close enough attention then it makes the creative process a bit of a redundant one, doesn’t it?

      Say it ain’t so sir, say it ain’t so. ;0)

  2. Blog comments are a snapshot of views, just not necessarily representative ones…

    People ‘have the radio on’ for lots of reasons – often affecting their station choice – but truly active listening is probably rarer than those of us who produce radio, would like.

    I think looking at the many different ways people consume ‘some radio’ makes the creative process much more fun. It’s a lovely trick to provide the perfect output for someone who wants background noise as well as delivering something that touches someone who may, at that moment, be playing close attention.

    • I wonder whether my niche view reflects my relatively niche interest itself consisting of a largely ‘traditional’ concert going experience.

      Take this afternoon. I’m sat wrapping the presents listening to Mahler 9 with my partner (who’s not normally a big Mahler fan). It’s a massive work. Uncompromising in some respects. It’s scale is overwhelming in places.

      Shortly before the end of the symphony there’s a sequence featuring strings playing really high notes. The effect is electrifying. In that moment we’re both staring out of the window looking into the foreground. We had ‘a moment’. It was terribly special moment.

      I just wonder how it is that you can transform what is in effect a work of art (ie an entire symphony) and re-package it into something which works as background noise.

      Or indeed, whether it’s the case that all types of radio necessarily needs to work on a variety of different levels at the same time?

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