Saturday, 24 April 2010

Not quite going Radio Ga-Ga

Shame on me. It’s so long since I blogged, you must have thought I’d packed it in for good.

The truth is, I’ve been too tired. What I thought would be the cushiest job I’ve ever had – presenting a mere two hours a day of local radio – has done me in.

I used to broadcast four hours a night, four times a week, on London’s phone-in station, LBC 97.3  I started at 1am and somehow kept my brain in gear and the phone lines buzzing until signing off at 5. These hours are called the graveyard shift, and rightly so because they are an absolute killer. The only chances I got to refocus my mind or empty my bladder were brief new bulletins and ad breaks.

If the computer system crashed or there was some other technical fault, there were no engineers around to consult. The only other person at the station was a phone-answerer, and most of them had far less technical knowledge than I did. Theoretically, I could have phoned an engineer and woken them up. Curiously, on the very rare occasions when this proved unavoidable, they weren’t too pleased. I couldn’t even slam on a CD whilst I investigated the fault; on a speech station, no music is allowed. Playing an entire song, unless it illustrates a feature, breaches your licence, and means a fine for the station and quite possibly the dole queue for the presenter.

Attempting to diagnose a technical fault whilst listening to and challenging the possibly libellous and usually wildly inaccurate opinions of an inebriated caller is not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done and, please God, the hardest job I ever will do.

So, playing a few songs and doing a few lightweight interviews for a mere two hours a day on BBC Radio Leicester, and at lunchtime when the mind and body aren’t begging to be allowed to shut down, sounded like a breeze. I’d be in at 10 and out by 3 without breaking into a sweat. Being away from home from Monday to Friday, I’d be unable to tackle all those niggling domestic jobs that always want doing (hoorah!), and would end up blogging away at a furious rate, as much to pass the time as for any other reason.

Not a bit of it. If the learning curve had been any steeper, I’d have ended up with vertigo. I’ve had to master the BBC’s arcane information system to find scripts, sound clips, jingles and trails. I’ve battled with new-fangled equipment when pre-recording, learnt how to transfer the results to my PC, worked out how to edit them, and attempted to store the finished product in the correct file before transferring it to the appropriate day’s running order. It’s been hard!

I’ve had to interrupt colleagues, all of whom always have too much to do – believe me, there is no slack in BBC local radio these days – time and again. They’ve been unfailingly helpful and patient but I’ve felt so guilty. And stupid. And old. And defeated.

Then there was the terror of setting up the studio ready for my live shows. When I started in BBC local radio, there were cartridges to play (like the old eight-track you had in your Ford Capri), reel-to-reel tape recorders, turntables for records, new-fangled CD players, and that was about it. Today, I have to monitor no fewer than six computer screens and know how all kinds of bits of kit work. And there’s no technician the other side of the glass to appeal to when you get stuck anymore – you’re flying solo.

The scariest bit is what we call ‘taking control’. The previous presenter works from an adjacent studio. Towards the end of his programme, you have to select an inordinate number of symbols on touch screens until his programme is actually going out via your studio. Get it even minutely wrong and you haven’t taken control at all, even though you may think you have. The first you know of your mistake is when you realise not a word of what you’re saying is being broadcast. You have reduced the station to silence, and that’s rarely good on radio.

Take control wrongly in a different way and you instantly cut off your predecessor before you’re ready to fill the void. Again, silence reigns. It’s hard to know who will be less amused, the colleague the end of whose show you've just destroyed or your boss.

And then there were the more mundane tensions that everyone experiences in a new workplace, like forgetting where the loos are, not being able to absorb colleagues’ names, and not being able to find the kitchen.

The last problem (which I detailed in a previous blog) wouldn’t normally be of crucial importance unless you were literally dying of thirst or hunger but, believe me, when you are due there to interview a chef live as he rustles up a dish and you have only the duration of one record to make the journey from the studio, you don’t half panic when you can’t find it. Eventually, I ran into the engineers’ room and screamed: “Help! Tell me where the kitchen is! I need to be there in seconds!” “It’s there,” they replied in a baffled and slightly nervous tone, pointing at a door all of six feet away from which the unmistakable aroma of cooking was emanating.

How is it that an old trooper like me had so much to learn? It’s partly because I’ve been broadcasting in the commercial sector for the past few years where all the equipment is different. But I also hadn’t realised how cosseted I’d been prior to that during my last stint at a BBC local station. There, because I had another job to dash to each day, I was what’s known as show-and-go. It sounds a bit like taking only one bottle of shampoo into the shower but it means your colleagues assemble everything for you, you swan in, glance through your scripts, glide onto the air, do the show, and head off to your next gig leaving others to clear up all your mess, from logging the music details to washing up the tea mugs.

There are no handmaidens to ease my burden at BBC Leicester: I have half a broadcast assistant. Her hands are more than full finding and booking guests to fill my show and the other one she works on. That leaves me to do everything else.

Of course, it’s getting easier. Some of the procedures that originally had me sobbing with frustration are already second nature. Others are still difficult but can be confidently tackled by following the idiot-proof, step-by-step instructions which I’ve written for myself. When I do get stuck, I remind myself that it now happens far less often, so well done, me! (It doesn’t work, of course – I still feel old and slow and stupid.)

Why, you might ask, have I persevered if it’s all been so tear-inducing and time-consuming?

Two reasons: I hate not working. I’ve worked all my life. The word that invariably cropped up on my school reports was ‘conscientious’. My essays were always handed in on time. I just can’t loll about. Hobbies are fine but only as a counterpoint to hard work. As you might have read in previous blogs, I’ve been somewhat under-employed since leaving LBC last autumn, so the opportunity to flex my radio muscles again daily was one I grabbed with both hands.

The second, even more important reason is that I just love being on the radio. Even on Day One at Leicester when working the desk felt like driving a car on an icy road very fast after only half a driving lesson, the actual broadcasting bit was simultaneously exhilarating and comfortable. Getting the best out of a caller, landing a killer question on a prevaricating official, being funny or creative off the cuff, even introducing a song just right – these are the things which, quite frankly, I live for.

That might sound terribly sad, I realise: shouldn’t I live for the love of my partner, friends and family? For the beauty of Nature? For making the world a better place? Well, yeah, those things are fine up to a point but they’re not being on the radio, are they?

I’m afraid if I had to choose either a romantic dinner and night of passion with Thierry Henry (the world’s most attractive man, as you’ve possibly noticed) or presenting a radio show flawlessly, there’d be no contest.

It would be the fabulous food and ‘afters’ with M. Henry, obviously. Good grief, you didn’t really think I was that sad, did you?

But I still really, really love being on the radio…..