It was the most unlikely of scenarios. The former leader of the Labour Party was not only presenting a programme on Radio 2, not only interviewing the lead singer of Napalm Death, but was also having a go at ‘singing’ a bit of death metal himself (well, Grindcore to be precise). Here’s how it came to be.

Ed Miliband and Barney Greenway

Ed Miliband and Barney Greenway

The Press Release

I work on the Jeremy Vine Show. It’s a news and current affairs programme reaching 7.4m people a week. During the summer holidays of 2017 two prominent political party leaders, Ed Miliband and Iain Duncan Smith, took on presenting duties for a week each.

It was actually during the week before Ed was on, when Jeremy was presenting the programme as normal, that I’d first suggested the ‘metal’ item. I received a press release from Dan Tobin at Earache records to my personal email address. He was alerting me to the fact that for the first time ever the Glastonbury music festival would have its own extreme metal stage. His email read:

Wanted to make you aware of what is going on with Glastonbury at the end of the month, as Earache will have its own stage there

If you’re not aware of what Earache does; for many years we released most of the classic extreme metal and punk bands such as Napalm Death, Carcass, Morbid Angel and Godflesh

I get a LOT of press releases every day and it’s impossible to consider most of them. As for this one…why on earth would news of an extreme metal stage at Glastonbury be of any interest to ‘The Jeremy Vine Show’ on Radio 2?! I so so so nearly deleted it. But, I thought, we’d never actually covered the topic of extreme metal or explored for our audience why people love that particular genre.

The day I pitched this idea in our regular morning meeting it didn’t quite make it. Most of what we feature on the programme is decided in the morning based on the day’s news. However, occasionally, when we hit on a topic we’ve never covered before (eg. extreme metal) we scout around to see if it might be worth setting up for a future programme. That’s exactly what happened here, and it was the case that we were speculating on a date when Ed would be presenting the show.

The Guest

Full marks to Dan at Earache records. I phoned him to say that – oddly enough – we were really interested to feature the metal stage on Radio 2. And before I knew it he had rustled up a potential guest. It was not just any old guest. He was offering the lead singer of Napalm Death. Anyone involved in the metal scene will tell you how big Napalm Death are. Ed Miliband + Napalm Death = what’s not to love. We went with it.

The Interview

Barney from Napalm Death was completely brilliant. Genuine, sincere, articulate, grounded and willing to buy in to what we were trying to do.
What we were trying to do was two-fold:

  1. genuinely shed light on the extreme metal movement for our listeners
  2. get Ed Miliband to have a go at singing metal

It was part (2) that was more tricky because at no point did we want to trivialise in any way Barney’s profession or make light of an incredibly popular musical genre. Hopefully anyone who heard the full interview will agree that a long time was spent on serious and respectful discussion of the musical artistry and the purpose behind it.

Looking back, however, there’s no doubt that excellent-sport Ed ‘having a go’ was an exceptional, surreal, and brilliant moment of broadcasting. One that went, as they say, ‘viral’.

This Facebook video’s had 4.3m views at the time of writing.

And ‘in the moment’ this tweet captured the full ‘roar’ of Ed:

Ed and Barney were a centrefold pull-out poster in Kerrang Magazine.

It was in all the papers.

And streaming of Napalm Death on Spotify supposedly shot up by more than 200%.

Radio Producers – Let’s Recreate This!

No. Impossible. It’s a great example of how sometimes it takes a fairly random series of events to produce a moment like this. Sure – you have to seize the opportunity, be open to all-sorts and produce the on air item as best you can – but ultimately in this case it took a huge number of random circumstances to come together and join forces to produce a bizarre and brilliant moment of broadcasting.

Oh – and check out this outstanding remix:

BTW

Don’t get me started on the dog grooming item…

edanddog

In April I did a talk at the 2017 Student Radio Conference about why I love radio packages so much. Below, better late than never, is some of the advice I dared to share.

Tim Johns at the SRA conference 2017

What am I defining as a radio package?

You know what I mean! But:

  • Something pre-recorded, giving information on a particular subject.
  • It’s probably somewhere between one and seven minutes long. It’s more than a quick clip but less than a short documentary.
  • It’s crafted. It’s been edited and stitched together in some fashion. It’s not just a recording of something that happened in one-take.

Why I love a good package.

  • They are mini works of art. If you work with audio, you’re using all your tools and skills to paint your own Picasso.
  • Making packages forces you to learn your craft. You need to become good at editing, recording, scripting, using music, sound effects, interviewing and so on. Packages demand many of the skills you need in radio under one roof.
  • Therefore…once you can make a good package – it helps so so so much with longer-features, podcasts, documentaries; you name it.

Jeremy Vine likes packages too. Working on his programme I make them frequently.

ps. If you watched the above and don’t know about the ‘rollercoaster’ thing you’ll need to go and read this once you’re done here.

Examples

If you’re still in any doubt what I’m on about, here are a couple of things I’ve made recently that you can listen to while you read the below should you wish. The first, about toilets (DREAM REPORTER GIG) is more of an ‘in-situ’ report.

The second is a ‘didn’t-leave-the-office’ production. If you do click listen – read on otherwise you might get bored.

Top Tips (finally!)

Rather than an all-round comprehensive guide, I tried to boil it down to a few thoughts that you might not hear everywhere else.

1. Be careful how you use sound effects

Don’t use sound effects like a bull in a china shop; a bull which has just learned to use Audacity. Every time you say the word “horse” you don’t necessarily need a neigh. Don’t always use a ‘car horn’ sound effect every time you say the word ‘car’ or ‘traffic’ in a package. Do what feels right but be purposeful about how you use sound effects – use them for a reason. Don’t be lazy with them. If you’re out and about always remember ‘wild track’ – recording the sound of where you are and what you’re doing. Weave it in during the edit. But try not to be clunky with it.

2. Scripting can be crucial

IF (and only if) you’re scripting something, script it again and again until it’s super concise. You can never spend too long getting the scripting right. Every sentence should have a fact. Every sentence should have an impact. Don’t waste time with a sentence that isn’t ‘just right’. If you have the time to read over the script again and improve it, do so.

3. If you’re making a piece about someone else’s life experience, one thing is THE most important

Sorry, that’s a vague header. But if you’re trying to extract the best from someone you’re interviewing for a package, there’s something you shouldn’t underestimate. The more personal, involved, emotional the story is, the more important this becomes:

Time.

Yes, you need good questions, decent recording equipment and all the rest of it. But often, to get the best from people who have something remarkable to say, the most important thing you need is time. Time to bond with them. Time for them to trust you. Time for you to have an open and honest conversation with them until they say the most important part of their story in the most honest and captivating manner.

This one extends way beyond radio packages!

4. Build a package around great audio. Don’t try and find great audio to fit your narrative.

If you’re making a package because of a topic, a guest or a news story – let the topic, the guest or the news story lead you. Don’t write a narrative and then try to find stuff to fit into it. Listen to the most compelling audio you’ve gathered and then script your package around it. Your words in any package should be there to explain and highlight incredible audio where possible, rather than the audio being there to support your script.

5. If you go out to record a package, edit it ASAP

If you’ve gone out and recorded a piece it’s all fresh in your memory when you get home. Edit it straight away – even if you only do a very rough edit. Be really picky. Ruthless. Chop out the best chunks and ditch the rest. It’s make the final edit SO much easier.

6. Don’t default to music with ‘appropriate lyrics’

Basically – if you do a voxpop about banking, don’t use Abba and ‘money money money’ in the background. Be a bit more subtle and creative.

7. Don’t ever use a record-scratch sound effect

This one’s personal. I’m on a war against this sound effect. Just don’t.

(For a different point of view see here.)

8. STOP. Think again.

I think this is my favourite tip. When you’re on the cusp of having everything done – be it during scripting or recording – STOP. Just think again. Don’t go through the motions. Give yourself 60 seconds to think “what haven’t I thought of yet?”. Now’s your chance to take the brilliant thing you’re about to create and make it even better. I always try to take 60 seconds to dream up one thing (and it can be the tiniest of tweaks) to improve and change what I’ve already got. It might just be adding a joke or altering a sentence slightly. But It could be changing your entire approach. Just shake things up.

9. Ignore all of the above

Some of the best radio ignores the ‘radio rules’. Same with packages. It’s all guidance. Take everything you’re ever taught about radio with a pinch of salt and trust yourself. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt you can do your own thing when appropriate.

10. There is no 10.

Lists with 10 items are boring.

*END*

pps. thanks to everyone who came to the talk I did and pretended to have fun:

Ultimate Fun.

 

 

Every day on Facebook and Twitter I see people posting links to the iPlayer saying things like “listen to this – the bit you want is 1hr and 37mins in”. I’m not sure many people in the history of the world have bothered clicking the link and then scrolling through a three-hour show to find the right moment.

But you can easily amend an iPlayer link so that when someone clicks on it, they will be taken straight to the right bit.

How to do it

When you visit the episode page of the programme in question, the URL will look a bit like this.

url

 

 

That’s the link people usually share. All you have to do is add the below to the end of the URL, but change the zeroes to the appropriate hours, minutes and seconds:

#playt=00h00m00s

So if you wanted to link to something which was 32 minutes and 20 seconds into the episode the URL would look like this:

url2

 

 

Simple! And if you stuck that above link on Facebook or Twitter it will embed and preview exactly the same, but when clicked it’ll take you straight to the right place in the audio.

Keep this code handy. Replace the zeroes with the right timings.

#playt=00h00m00s

Here’s an example. Click to hear a random fact about the link between CARP and LOVE: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jys1r#playt=00h07m16s

 

I’d like to share something with you.

Someone asked me about my job this week. They were relatively new to the radio industry, keen to move on, and frustrated because they’d just applied for a job and hadn’t been selected for an interview.

When they learned that I’d moved to Radio 2 following a job application and interview they seemed deflated that the same hadn’t happened for them on this occasion. I made the point that they should create a greater number of ‘occasions’, then perhaps they’d have more luck.

I tend to find that people who land a radio job and get ACTUAL PAID WORK ON A REGULAR BASIS often then wait around for their next dream job to come along, apply, don’t get it, and are then a bit crushed by the defeat. It’s always disappointing, of course. But in such a competitive industry you need to expect the majority of job applications to end in failure. It’s just the law of averages.

Some people will buck the trend and get every job they go for. Others will never move on and eventually give up. But everyone in-between can increase their chances of progressing by simply applying for a greater number of jobs. That’s what I did.

Here’s what I’d like to share. It’s a screenshot of my old BBC careers page showing all the times I applied for a job between 2007 – 2012.

jobs-applied-for-2007-2012

I count 38 submitted applications. One every month or two for five years. Plenty of these applications were ‘I’ll never get it but why not give it a go’ type-things. Others were ‘I’m not totally sure I want this job but I’m interested enough to try and get an interview’. And some of them I got. But loads of them I didn’t get close to. Or I got an interview and failed. I hope the photo gives comfort to some people who feel as though they’re constantly being knocked back.

The thing is, the whole time I was very happy in my current role and I was always doing a job I really enjoyed. I already had my foot in the door and was lucky in my career. I spent several years doing different roles in BBC local radio and absolutely loved every minute of it. I just knew that eventually I would want to move on and that to do so would require serious levels of prospecting.

This week isn’t the first time I’ve spoken to someone who has put all their eggs in one basket (having waited ages for a particular job) and it hasn’t worked out. In fact I speak to people all the time who are keen to move on but only seem to apply for one job a year, if that. I hate the phrase but ‘in it to win it’ couldn’t apply more. If in doubt just sling an application in.

“Getting the job you want is a campaign”

This is a wonderful piece of advice my current boss Phil once mentioned in passing. You don’t wait to see your dream job advertised and then apply for it out of the blue. If it’s something you REALLY want you mount a campaign over time.

In reality I didn’t simply apply for my current job and get it on the first attempt. I’d applied for another job on the same show two years earlier. In the meantime I’d sat in on the show, wangled a week working there, stayed in touch and then finally applied for the job I got. But of course it’s still not that simple – between then and now I had to reapply and interview for my own job several times because I was always working on fixed-term contracts.

The Radio Academy used to run ‘Foot in the Door’ events. It can be hard enough to get a foot in the door – but if you do – remember that the real challenge is to get at least your entire leg (and preferably your torso) through that very narrow opening.

Prince has died at the age of 57. Yesterday it was Victoria Wood. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett…the list of cultural giants who have passed away this year doesn’t end there.

For a few years now I’ve been boring friends and colleagues with my theory that the rate of ‘celebrity-deaths’ (please pardon the crude phrase) is only going to rise over time. It’s almost too easy to point to 2016 as evidence of this – but I do think it provides food for thought. It also provides a reason for me to write the following: we need to start the discussion about how the media covers celebrity deaths in the future. Why? Because I worry that these deaths will become so frequent that the way we currently do it is not sustainable.

“We’re entering an era of mass celebrity death”

Not sustainable?

When these famous people lost their lives this year, the coverage has been, arguably, suffocating. If you’re a Twitter user there’s no point in looking at your feed for hours after the news breaks unless you want to read the same tributes a thousand times over. And unless C-listers who-sort-of-vaguely-knew-the-celebrity-in-question relaying tenuous anecdotes at length is your thing, you must avoid any radio/tv/online outlet which deals with breaking news. World leaders pay tribute. And so on it goes.

Of course – for fans of the person who has just died – this coverage will always be appropriate. I’m not saying any outlet got their coverage wrong this year. I just wonder if we need to think more about how it’s done in the future because I believe it will happen more and more. And what do we do when two massive ‘names’ pass away on the same day as a massively important news event (eg. EU Referendum day)? The news world could implode.

The rate of ‘celebrity deaths’ will increase

In the age of The Beatles there simply weren’t enough media outlets to facilitate many big celebrities. Since then…radio blossomed, TV became commonplace in every UK household, the numbers of channels increased, magazine publishing went into overdrive, the internet arrived, smartphones and tablets came on the scene, and blogs and vlogs have recalibrated how easily and quickly people could become significant celebrities and role models for an entire generation. There are LOADS of celebrities these days.

I know, I know…the likes of Bowie and Prince truly are unique due to their position in history. When there were fewer world-famous artists each one had a deeper meaning (arguably) to a greater number of people. But in the same way that humans are capable of having anywhere between two and 200 friends they know and care about, I believe we are all capable of liking and caring about a huge number of celebrities. And there are simply more celebrities now.

We’re entering an era of mass-celebrity-death

The only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

Sorry, I don’t mean to sound crass. But if the ‘media revolution’ happened in the 50s and 60s – then the increased number of people we nationally love and care about are becoming more and more at risk of their lives coming to an end. Five, ten, twenty years from now that trend will increase massively. So if a daily ‘celebrity death’ becomes the norm – how should the media deal with it? Should there be rolling news coverage of each one? Should regular TV and radio programming be replaced by tribute programmes every time? Should big news stories be pushed aside for obituaries?

Of course – the answer will depend each time on who it is. Personally, I think the way forward is less blanket-coverage.

Immediate tributes – yes. Well-crafted and thoughtful obits on the evening news – yes. Hours/days of rolling coverage? No. A few years from now, if ‘celebrity death rates’ increase, I just don’t think that will be possible. Otherwise, the only news that ever gets reported will be about death. We’ve had a taste of that this year – and it ain’t right.

ps.

I’ve just listened back to last Friday’s episode of ‘More of Less’ (Radio 4, 15th April 2016).
They looked at whether more celebrities have died in 2016 than in other years, and discovered how many ‘official’ BBC obituaries have been run in the first quarter of this year compared to the years since 2012.

obits

I was pleased to hear the BBC’s Obituaries Editor, Nick Serpell, sort-of agree with part of my argument. Here’s what he said on the programme:

Before television arrived in the early 1950s, the only really famous people that people came across all the time were movie stars – because they went to the cinema.

In the 50s we had television, that brought more famous people into people’s rooms. Music in particular; we had the growth of rock and roll. Remember The Who sang about ‘my generation’, hoping that they’d die before they got old. But whilst some of them did, the majority of them didn’t. And all these people, in the ‘rise and the growth of celebrity’, if you like, are now reaching that period in their 70s and 80s where they’re going to start to die, and I think that’s causing this.

I did a talk on this subject at this year’s Student Radio Conference in Cardiff.

Clearly everyone had the time of their lives at this talk

Clearly everyone had the time of their life at this talk

Yes, some of it is blindingly obvious, but I thought it needed saying because I see people come in for radio placements/internships/shadowing at Radio 2 a lot. And so often, people get the little things wrong.

Don’t be useless at making phone calls

If you’re asked to pick up the phone and book a guest, take a deep breath and go for it. You need to be charming and persuasive. It can be slightly daunting making this first phone call in an open-plan office but if you come across badly and the guest says “no” that’s not great.

The more 'student-friendly' title of the talk

The more ‘student-friendly’ title of the talk (Pic: Jen Thomas)

Be nice

Take this one with you for life. It goes a long way. No-one in radio likes the person with the massive ego. Or the one who’s unfriendly or bossy. Just…be nice.

Sitting in on a show? Turn your phone off

Well, ok, you can keep it on but put it in your pocket and leave it there. Sure – take a photo. Send a tweet. If the programme needs some urgent fact-finding done get on the Google. But as much as you can, put it away and give your absolute undivided attention to the programme you’re there to watch. I asked Jeremy Vine for a hard-line view on this:

Offer to help

If you’ve been sitting around in the office for a while wondering what to do, ask people if you can help. If they’re clearly right up against it, maybe wait a while. But be pro-active. And if they say “not just now, thanks”, then don’t worry about it. At least you asked.

Make tea

Look – I thought about leaving this one out. It’s such a whopping cliché. BUT British broadcasting is fuelled by tea and coffee. It is VITAL. If it makes you feel better, I may be a Producer and reporter for Radio 2 but during our programme every day it is my job to make the tea! I somewhat enjoy it.

Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell backs me up:

 

You’re never too senior to make the tea, people are always grateful to be asked, and you can’t go wrong by asking. So do it.

Ask good questions at the right time

Every bit of this sentence is important. Ask good questions. It’s the easiest way to show you’re keen, engaged and interested. BUT – never ask a question for the sake of it. You need to be genuinely interested and inquisitive. If you are, your question will probably be good. You also need to ask them at the right time. Some people are unable to sense when everyone around them is chaotically busy and continue asking questions regardless. Hold fire until there’s a good moment.

Know the basics about the station you’re visiting

Basic basics, right? But people genuinely get this wrong. Here’s some advice from BBC 5Live:

 

This isn’t like work experience you did at school when you were 16: ‘just to have a look’. If you want to work in a competitive industry then this is now about having a look but also making a great impression. Treat any placement like a mini job interview. It’s often the thing that leads to an actual job interview. And you’d never turn up at a 5Live job interview not knowing who the station presenters were. (Right? Please – never do that!).

Here’s a crucial thing…

Suppose you shadow on a programme you probably never want to work on. Perhaps you got an offer to come and visit; maybe you just love the industry and want to have a look at different radio stations. You still need to take it seriously. Do your research. Know about the station.

Why? Because the radio industry is surprisingly small. The assistant producer who thinks you look a bit bored when you shadow at Radio 3 could be the person who turns you down for your dream job five years later at Kerrang.

Be…good

I don’t mean be well behaved. I mean be good at what you do. Be good at making and understanding radio – following advice like the above isn’t enough. ‘Asking good questions’ won’t get you a job on its own. Putting your best link at the start of your demo won’t get you a presenting gig if your best link is a bit rubbish. Always keep practicing and improving. Find out what you’re good at. Follow that.

Good luck! And finally, listen to Jacob from Radio 1 because he’s very wise and would like to apologise on behalf of us all for why part of your work experience might be a teeny bit rubbish:

 

*UPDATE: YOUR WORK EXPERIENCE STORIES*

Since posting this I’ve had some delightful responses from other radio-folk about how people have messed up their work experience. Here are just a few real-life stories:

“One person from the local university FELL ASLEEP in the studio!”

“I remember a guy who refused to make tea when the producer asked. He said it was ‘beneath him’. I explained that if he wanted to get on – it’s part of the deal! The producer was livid. In contrast, someone else on placement made tea every ten minutes. I preferred them.”

“My favourite was sitting next to someone on work experience who was on the phone to a guest. I heard him say: “the frequency?”. Then he turned to me and said “what’s a frequency?”.”

“Sometimes they don’t turn up on day two of work experience, and say ‘I don’t think this is really stretching me’.”

“Answering calls on the phone-in with the wrong station name was a personal highlight of mine for one work-experience person recently.”

“I like the ones that call me for work experience. I say “email me”, they then ask for my name, email and the name of my company! Come on people!! We now only go for people who present ideas when they approach us.”

“Someone on work experience once missed me off a tea round. Never forgiven him.”

“Well…there was someone in for work experience at Radio Lincolnshire who thought they were at Lincs FM…”

“As a press officer I set up an interview for a reporter who was on radio work experience. Her questions were ok but she didn’t ask for the interviewee’s name and title until two hours later.”

“I had someone ‘keen’ to shadow a show. I know it was a breakfast show but she came late, left early and never said thank you.”

“Not listening to the breakfast show on the day you arrive…not dressing for work…not knowing the name of any of the presenters…”

Here’s a fantastic bit of advice for anyone on radio work experience:
“Have a headphone splitter in your pocket – watching people edit is v useful; hearing it is even better!”

And here are some words from my former boss:
“There was the girl who didn’t know that the water had to be boiling to make tea…and the one whose mum came with her…and the lad who spent most of his time picking bogies out of his nose and eating them. We have some lovely ones though! And we’ve employed a lot of them. You are right to point out that it IS an extended job interview and those who prepare even a tiny bit will benefit. I’m amazed that some people don’t bother.”

You can mess it up…but go on to great things…

Many people survive a disaster and live to tell the tale! Radio supremo boss-man Matt Deegan says this:
“As a work experience at 2CR when I was aged 14 I recorded over Classic Gold’s pre-recorded news with me practicing. It went out for a few hours. Eeek. When asked if I did it, I denied it. I wasn’t sure what I was denying at that point.”

Here’s some more from the very successful Steve Martin:
“During my BBC traineeship I played out entirely the wrong Schoenberg piece on Radio 3. Nobody noticed.”

There’s this too:
“I know someone who played a Christmas carol service out with wrong side of the tape hitting the head.”

And this:
“When I did a placement year at Virgin, I somehow deleted the WHOLE website… Still got hired after uni. :D.
The colour of my face that day is one unknown to the usual human skin palette. I WAS MORTIFIED.”

 

Got more stories? Let me know and I’ll add them.

I’ve worked as a Producer on the Jeremy Vine Show for more than three years now, and I love it. Great team, great presenter and great network. But…it’s a big network. Radio 2 is a beast. And our programme reaches more than seven million people a week. I love pulling together stories and booking guests for it, I love reporting for it, but I’ve never aspired to present it. So what happened last week was…something else.

Reluctant

Reluctant

Because…what happened last week never usually happens. And so I was asked to write an account of it for the BBC-staff magazine-thing. I reproduce it below:

 

Jeremy arrived at work and had lost his voice somewhat. It wasn’t too bad, but weakened shortly before the programme went to air and it was too late to arrange cover. His first links were croaky but fine – his enormous energy kept things going. It got worse though – he’d really lost his voice.

The Editor (my boss) Phil Jones’s phone was going off constantly. I knew he was consulting with management and Jeremy about continuing the programme but, with nearly an hour gone and no replacement on the scene, I presumed Jeremy would carry on.

I was getting on with my usual job for this time of day, filtering listener comments through to Phil, and lining up guests and callers on the phone to go on air.

Aside from my occasional reporting duties, the last time I’d been behind a mic on air was more than three years ago, when I’d occasionally cover-present a thing or two at BBC Radio Lincolnshire. So what happened next was something of a surprise.

The Jeremy Vine point of view

The Jeremy Vine point of view

At 12:57, I asked Jeremy if he wanted another cup of hot water to go with his honey, lemon and Lemsip so I was just about to nip out to the coffee machine. (NB. You’re NEVER too senior to make the drinks).

At 13:00, Radio 2’s Head of Programmes turned up at the studio door and Phil nipped out for a quick chat.

At 13:01 they were in the studio, in conversation with Jeremy.

At 13:03 Phil popped his head round the studio door and said: “Tim – can you come in here?”. Sure, great, perhaps Jeremy wanted another cup of hot water after all. Phil continued: “You’re doing the next hour.” Oh. Right.

Unusually, I had not been in the morning meeting that day nor read any of the scripts or briefings. And I hadn’t even produced an item because I’d been working on a programme for the festive period. The Jeremy Vine Show gets 7.1m listeners a week. So I took a very, very, deep breath and grabbed my bottle of water.

Jeremy pointed me to the presenter’s chair and showed me the main faders I’d need (fortunately our superb studio manager Gareth took care of the music and jingles so I didn’t need to fully learn to drive this desk in less than one minute).

At 13:05 Jeremy pressed play on a song out of the news and left the studio. He was gone. That moment was like being strapped into a rollercoaster – and I don’t like rollercoasters – with no way of stopping it. The music track was counting down to the time at which I had to open the microphone and say something live on Radio 2.

Phil and Gareth keep me on track

Phil and Gareth keep me on track

The hour was surreal. It flew by. The first item involved speaking to listeners who had recently been bereaved and how they would get through Christmas. So not exactly…simple. Thankfully, I had a wonderful guest in the studio, Barbara Want, who did most of the talking to callers. Then there was a fairly ‘straightforward’ story about the UK’s butterfly population; I guess I had a relatively easy ride. As ever, Phil was superb at keeping me straight and producing it every step of the way.

By the end of the hour I’d relaxed and was able to fully enjoy introducing the news jingle: “This is BBC Radio 2”. As a radio geek: WOW.

 

I got out of the studio, instantly exhausted, to find my phone and Twitter feed had pretty much exploded. My colleagues were very nice about it all. I guess the only thing you don’t want to do on your Radio 2 mainstream presenting debut is to cock it up. Which I think I avoided.

If you work on a programme that has a daily debrief, you’d probably be delighted to get rid of that tedious after-show meeting where you pick apart what you just did. And most people involved agree (I’m sure of it), so why do most of us still do it? I was absolutely delighted when I first joined the Jeremy Vine Show team to find they don’t bother.

I’m mainly talking about news programmes. My experience is mainly within the BBC. And usually it’s the ‘bigger shows’ that have a daily debrief. From the local radio breakfast show in the counties of x y and z, to PM on Radio 4 (and everything in-between) – a gathering after the programme to look back at what worked and what didn’t is common.

Thing is, they’re boring, time-wasting, negative, and rarely result in big changes to the way things are done. Rather than improving and shaping the programme over time, they drain motivation, waste resources and have the capacity to make people feel crap.

meeting

#meetingfeet Photo thanks to @theemmabritton (not necessarily during a debrief)

If you’re learning your trade (eg. on a journalism course or in student radio) then great, why not? You need to be self-critical and spot your weaknesses. But once you’re getting paid to produce a daily news programme you should know what sounds good and what doesn’t; what worked on air and what didn’t quite fire. You’ll know it the second you hear it. Presenters and producers only need to glance at each other to share the enjoyment of something incredible on air, or to appreciate when they know something hasn’t quite worked. If there’s a bigger problem, you can have a separate chat about it. Ongoing issues will come out in normal conversation a bit later on.

But if you set aside a specific time for a ‘debrief’, certain things will happen:

  • you will have one extra meeting in your day to attend, and no-one likes meetings, because they’re mostly a waste of time.
  • there will be some obligatory back-slapping. “That was great!”, people will say. Some members of staff will feel buoyed by this. However…
  • at meetings everyone feels pressure to contribute at least something. And the point of a debrief is to be self-critical to improve. So everyone will have something slightly negative to say.
  • you probably just did a great programme which was mostly as good as it could be, but people will say negative things about it.
  • the programme is the culmination of a huge amount of work and on-air pressure. You’re all buzzing. So it’s the worst possible time to pick over the negatives.
  • everyone will feel deflated.
  • everyone will feel tired.
  • very little will come of it.

Across the radio industry budgets only shrink. People complain of ever-diminishing resources. Yet a handful of staff on your station spending 30-minutes every day on a debrief adds up to hours of productivity which could be put to use elsewhere.

The ‘debrief’ should be continuous. In real-time. As a team you can share what you think has been brilliant with the right people as it happens. If something’s good tell them there and there. If they’re not in the same room send them a one-line email or tweet them. If there’s someone who did something wrong, tell them personally, later on. You know when something’s gone badly – you don’t need a tedious daily meeting to hammer that out.

If you ask people privately whether they think a daily debrief works really well, the vast majority say no. So why do we persist?

Henry Ferster, Auschwitz survivor, gives his first live broadcast interview aged 92

At the time of writing, a former Auschwitz guard/bookkeeper (Oskar Groening) is standing trial in Germany for his part in the Holocaust.

In covering this somewhat controversial trial for The Jeremy Vine Show, on BBC Radio 2, one of our guests was Henry Ferster. He is 92-years-old. He was a prisoner in Auschwitz all those years ago. And he’d never been interviewed about it live on radio or television.

Henry Ferster talks to Jeremy Vine. Photo: Angela Epstien

Henry Ferster talks to Jeremy Vine. Photo: Angela Epstien

On the programme we have spoken to a great number of holocaust survivors. But Henry’s account was somewhat different. I want to document his interview online, because his story has been captured less that other survivors who have chosen to speak about their experience. And it’s so important that we, collectively, have access to these remarkable and painful testimonies of unimaginable horrors.

This interview passed many people by. But it was exceptional (above and beyond Henry’s powerful words), and here’s why:

      • Again: Henry had never done a live broadcast interview. Think about that for a moment. He’s spoken in schools, he’s spoken to students with microphones, but he’s never told his story on a major programme. And he’s 92-years-old.
      • The vast majority of recorded interviews with survivors of the Holocaust are ‘measured’. Often those directly involved have taken perhaps fifty years to even begin to be able to tell their story. And so difficult is the story, it seems that they are only able to recount the events in a manner which doesn’t involve too much emotion. Involve emotion, and the story becomes impossible to tell, so overwhelming is the tragedy. But Henry – we really heard his feelings. Which is so important in telling his story. So many years on, we can hear how raw and vivid those memories are.
      • There are very, very few interviews on this subject which are ‘live’. It’s not the easiest of subjects for someone who has lived through it to condense into just a few minutes. This interview was live, and more powerful for it. And importantly so – students today are taught about the Holocaust, but without people like Henry it’s difficult to relate fully to the inhumane mass-genocide which occurred so very recently.

I’m incredibly grateful to Henry for sharing his story. Please have a listen below, if you have five minutes.

Thanks also to Angela Epstien, who made this whole thing possible.

 

Anyone studying or starting out in broadcast journalism or radio production will probably be familiar with a certain set of ‘rules’ and best practice. A lot of that is great guidance. A lot of it is nonsense and depends entirely on the situation, the story, your audience and the programme and station you’re working on.

rules

Here are five radio rules the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 often breaks:

Write short snappy scripts/cues

The ‘rules’ tell us to write around three precise sentences to introduce an item. They must be straight to the point, with the first sentence being something like a ‘headline’.

This is a great default. If you have a good guest lined up, keep it short and snappy, and let the guest do the talking.

But sometimes, if you have time to craft just a few extra words, you can use the cue to give excellent context to the discussion and to give it a sharp editorial angle. The cue sets the scene for the many minutes which might follow. For complex topics or ones which you want to put your own spin on, the introduction is vital. It shapes the conversation.

So often a short cue is good. And concise is always better than waffley. But in some instances a slightly longer, well-crafted cue can be much better. You do, however, need a good presenter to do justice to a longer cue.

Keep interviews/reports short

The ‘rules’ state that professional news radio interviews should usually be no more than a few minutes long. A reporter going out to record something will be told “you have no longer than two minutes” by an editor or a producer who, obviously, hasn’t yet heard how good what’s about to be recorded will be! It’s usual for a particular ‘slot’ in a programme to be a certain length, and the interview must fit into it. But that’s not the right way to do radio. If the audio is interesting, captivating, fascinating, exciting…let it run longer. Change the ‘slot’.

Again, the ‘rule’ isn’t a terrible one. Keeping things short and snappy is generally an excellent idea. And you need structure. But don’t let that rule steamroller an incredibly special bit of radio to an early ending.

Avoid obviously boring topics

Whatever you do avoid booking a train spotter! Or a stamp collector. Yawn. And please avoid the girl who collects exhaust pipes.

No! The more niche and ‘boring’ the topic, the more interesting a guest you might discover. If you book someone who has spent 20 years collecting washing machine manuals, they’ll be an expert, passionate, unusual, and even if they sound a little…dull…they may well do so in a captivating way. Never write-off a niche topic you’re not interested in just because you think the guests for it might be boring. Predictable popstars talking about their latest album are boring. But a long-term washing machine manual collector could be the best person you’ve ever booked. Honestly.

Book guests with radio experience

Reporters, correspondents, commentators and regular guests are a radio staple. And they will continue to be. But don’t be afraid to book people who have NEVER done a moment’s radio in their life, if they sound good to you on the phone. They are more likely to deliver their argument in an unexpected, unscripted and off-the-cuff way. And it is that which can make for exciting, anything-could-happen radio. Also – if someone really knows their subject inside out and are just a naturally great ‘talker’, they are often GREAT on air even if they’ve never been on the radio in their life.

Use vox pops to set out the arguments

I used to hate collecting vox pops (asking the public what they think about a given topic). Radio wisdom has it that they’re a great addition to any debate. Collect the ‘views of the people’ and away you go. I was absolutely delighted when I joined the Jeremy Vine Show team and realised that the Editor – Phil –  couldn’t care less about vox pops. I agree.

They absolutely do have their place. They really can be a quick way to set out clear and differing arguments on a given topic. They’re a way to get the audience on air. And with a great editorial idea, they can enhance any news report if done in the right way.

However – I would suggest that most of the time vox pops are undertaken in a lazy editorial manner, and are utterly boring and banal.

So goes the editorial meeting: “Let’s do topic x. Let’s do a vox. Then we’ll book a guest”. And that’s that. TV news does it too.

Often ‘members of the public’ do have brilliant insights, but more often than not what I hear is generic ‘filler’ in an attempt to make an item more varied. If you go shopping for a new bath sponge and someone thrusts a microphone in your face and asks what you think about the closure of six posts in the local police force you might not give an answer which helps to inform and educate the people who will hear your answer when it’s broadcast. In those instances – especially for radio – I’d rather the reporter’s hour spent collecting and editing the vox pop was instead used finding a great contributor who actually cares about the subject and who can bring an informed discussion to life.

ps. If you do go hunting for voxes – here are my top tips on how to! (Not hypocritical whatsoever).

pps. This is titled the ‘worst’ vox pop ever but that’s not true because it’s thoroughly entertaining…