Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Taking the Mic

When you turn your radio on, what do you do it for? I do it for information and entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. When those speakers kick into life and those voices waft out, I'm after news, weather, good music, fun and - perhaps - a hint of enlightenment. I like it when it's so sleek that you don't even notice the professionalism.

As Coyote and I spend a lot of time driving around Wales, we often have the radio on in the car. (Between you and me - there's only so many 70s and 80s cheese albums a Roadrunner can take!) Of course, traffic and travel updates along with weather forecasts are extremely useful to us - but so too are good tunes and fun chat.

It's not a difficult request to fill. So why is it, then, that radio stations are becoming increasingly debate-based? It seems to be phone-in after phone-in, with less and less time set aside in the schedules for things that people actually want. Of course we all like a good debate - but isn't that what friends and family are for? Wouldn't you rather throw forth your points of view on the day's hot news with people you can actually see - as opposed to listening to a few people in a studio/on phone lines all talking over each other?

As with all media today, radio can only survive if it appeals to everyone. That’s why I understand that it has to feature things that I may not enjoy. It’s like a buffet – you choose what you want and ignore the rest - which is exactly what I do. I’ll tune in for certain programmes and turn off for the ones I don’t. It’s the way it works. However; recently I’ve noticed that I’m turning off more often. I’m listening to fewer hours of radio per week than I ever have done – and that’s sad.

I grew up in a radio-loving family. My dad always listened to The Archers, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Just a Minute. My Nan enjoyed magazine programmes like Woman’s Hour and never missed an episode Desert Island Discs. Then there were wonderfully written productions like Bleak Expectations – that was just brilliant!

Sir Philip: We resolved to escape from St. Bastard's or die in the attempt!
Sourquill: And what happened?
Sir Philip: We died in the attempt.
Sourquill: Oh, how awful!
Sir Philip: Of course not, you blundering idiot! How would I be talking to you now?

Pure class! Now...where was I?

Oh yes. I suppose I should mention sport at some point. Sport doesn’t appeal to me at all; so when a station broadcasts a live match I turn off. That’s my choice and it’s one I’m happy with. But when a station (one that isn’t dedicated to sport) churns out so much sport that even the sport bulletins overrun, it gets a bit frustrating. But I won’t dwell on this too much. I will, in fact, be a good sport about it. See what I did there?! No, you’re right. It was crap.

Which, in an almost seamless link, brings me to ‘celebrity guest presenters.’ I will never understand what drives the decision-makers to plonk a comedian, musician or singer behind a presenter’s mic and give them free reign. Just because these folks can warble a tune or tell a joke does not mean that they can engage an audience in a radio show. Frequently I hear a ‘name’ burbling into a microphone about how he/she is so honoured to have been asked to host the airwaves, and then immediately adding that they don’t actually know what they’re doing. It’s not endearing. It’s annoying. If I wanted to hear someone giggling hysterically because they don't know the name of the newsreader, I’d gatecrash a Channel 5 Christmas party.

It gets even more baffling when you realise that there are people out there with presenting skills that would save radio stations a few bob. In many cases, these people are already in the broadcasting industry and pottering quietly right under the decision makers’ snouts. They’re people who have the gift of the gab and can self-op; meaning there would be no need for an audio supervisor and they could, perhaps, bring down the amount of phone-answerers and broadcast assistants. This would save cash, and that cash could be put towards interesting outside broadcasts or, maybe, promotional merchandise a little more exciting than badges and car stickers. But no. The Powerful Ones (who may or may not drive BOFmobiles. But probably do) prefer to hire an expensive name in the hope that it brings celebrity-worshipping ears to their station. I’m not denying it works...but there’s no longevity. Listeners can’t warm to a temporary voice; no matter how many awards that voice has perched on its mantelpiece.

I’ve spoken to many people in my quest for opinions. Some bemoaned the lack of live comedy shows; others wondered why there were so many ‘shouty’ people on air these days. One person even told me that he’d started listening to a commercial radio station because the adverts were more entertaining than the output of the regional station he used to listen to. The one thing that really struck me was how many people said, in one way or another, that they don’t feel radio is as ‘friendly’ as it used to be. Some of the older people said that they almost regarded those familiar voices as friends – people they would invite into their homes by flicking the ‘on’ switch; but now they feel those once-friendly voices are more like lecturers than friends.

Yes; radio is floundering. The airwaves do still offer some good quality output and people can find something they like if they look hard enough, but the former is getting scarcer and the latter is becoming more difficult. What I don’t understand is why this has happened. Surely there are enough listener panels and audience councils out there; diligently firing ideas at the ones who ask for them? I even applied to be on a panel myself once. As it was, I filled out a questionnaire and never heard anything back. I wasn’t one of the chosen ones.

Perhaps it’s just as well. I don’t think I would’ve given them what they wanted to hear...which, when you think about it, is worthy of a wry smile. Do they actually listen to and act upon the opinions and ideas given to them by their panels? Or do they set these groups up as a mandatory courtesy - almost like asking someone how they are in the street, knowing full-well that the person is highly unlikely to give you a true and accurate reply?

This post isn't an argument; it's an opinion. It's not the rant of a disgruntled radio listener, but the tentative words of someone who's wondering what's happened to something she cares about: British radio. Of course, there's nothing I - a small voice in a cacophony - can do to make anything better; but at least I can say I've said my piece. Things don't change unless change is instigated; and I hope that this post might just inspire people to speak up and make themselves heard if they can.

So - ideally, what would I change? Hmm...

1. More Improvisation

Radio gold often comes from mining the Improv. Quarry. Scripts are all well and good, but these days they don't allow for genuine fun. Presenters are increasingly reliant on bits of paper and this creates a rather starchy, unfriendly air. Think of those priceless times when a listener has called in with a tale and made everyone laugh. Do they have a script in front of them? No. How about loosening the restraints a little? Colouring over the margins? Of course you have to be careful not to wander off the page - for there be dragons...and possibly litigation - but a good presenter will know the boundaries and be more than capable of working within them and getting the most out of their input. Which brings me neatly to...

2. Fewer Celebrity Guest Presenters
The odd one can be fun. I can even think of a couple who have done so well that they've been given full-time presenting gigs - but they're as rare as rocking horse poo. More often than not, station editors collar arty types who wouldn't know a fader if they sat on it and probably think that RadioMan is a very pretty version of Microsoft Excel. That means they have to have an army of knob-twiddlers behind a pane of glass, ferreting away to make sure the show doesn't fall flat on its face. Many also seem to struggle with listener interaction; not knowing what to say to callers or how to respond to emails and texts. When this happens, empathic embarrassment has us reaching for the off switch.

3. Well-Scheduled Debates and Phone-Ins

I'd be lying if I said I didn't like to hear people having a good argument now and then...but there's a time and a place. It appears that editors seem to think that a great time to have people yelling at each other is first thing in the morning. It isn't. When I'm pouring the first coffee of the day, still yearning for the warmth of the bed I've just dragged myself out of, I really don't want to turn the radio on and hear people at each others' throats over the best place to situate their wheelie bins. Give us some time to wake up. Feed us the news gently, give us some nice music...and when we can walk and talk at the same time, then unleash the fury of the masses. Besides, I for one am in no capable state to ponder the intricacies of wheelie bin location until I've had at least three coffees. And a bacon sandwich.

4. More Eclectic Playlists

Yes - I know this is a minefield; what with royalties, rights and suchlike...but if I hear Robbie Williams wailing on about candy one more time, I swear I'm going to cry.

Well; I think I’m done here. I’m off to watch TV. There’s not much on; but at least if you throw a shoe at a screen you’ve got a visible target.


  1. Your views echo mine. Radio 4 still has some great output. I would argue Kirsty Young is the best ever presenter of DIDs, going against another of your arguments, and their dramas are still fantastic. But on the whole I am starting to listen less and less to regular radio and more and more to selected podcasts. My other 'favourite' station is BBC 6music, which is a digital only station, so I suppose my radio listening habits have changed with the times. Maybe you should look into podcasts to find what you seek. Quality is out there you may just have to try harder to find it, unfortunately.

    1. You're right. As I said in the post, "The airwaves do still offer some good quality output and people can find something they like if they look hard enough, but the former is getting scarcer and the latter is becoming more difficult." Podcasts are a great idea, but sadly they spawn from the original radio output. Thank you for reading and commenting. Much appreciated!