It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter 31: When People Say Presenting a Radio Show is a Piece of P***...
1 Aug 2015 at 20:12
I’ve lost count of the times people say to me: “God, I wish I had a job as easy as yours. I mean, you just sit there and talk, which is what you love doing anyway.” Oh if only they knew. Yes of course, if you’re a talk radio host you like talking and hearing the sound of your own voice, but there is so much more to it than that. You don’t just have to know how to talk, you have to know how to listen too, and be able to hold an intelligent conversation, often about a subject you are by no means an expert on. Or sometimes know nothing about at all, or have no real interest in. Oh yes, it’s soooooo easy! Let me explain.
Presenting a talk radio show is a bit like being a swan. To the listener you need to appear completely calm and in control of everything. But although you might (or sometimes might not) be successful in doing that, under the water your feet are paddling ten to the dozen. Because for the whole of the three hours you’re in air (or four in my case – although that’s changing in September)* you’re effectively the personification of the word ‘multi-tasking’.
At any point in the show these are the things you’re doing or thinking…
* listening to an instruction/suggestion in your ear from the producer
* listening to an interviewee/caller
* thinking of the next question to ask
* looking at the clock
* wondering if you can fit another caller in before the news/travel junction
* monitoring texts or tweets and deciding which are good enough to read out
* thinking ahead to the next subject and how to tease it before a junction
* thinking ahead to the next hour, mulling over your talkup at one minute to the hour
* remembering to give the timecheck every so often – very important at Drive and Breakfast
And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head! It’s a real act of concentration, and it’s constant. Yes, there are news and ad breaks for you to get your thoughts together, have a chat with your producers in the gallery or pop to the loo, but make no mistake, there isn’t much time when your brain is working at its maximum capacity. I’ve never known anything as intense as this.
And of course you’re aware that anything you say, with just one word out of place, could spell the end of your radio career. You’re also aware that something an interviewee or caller might say might also take you off the air or lead to an Ofcom complaint. In some senses you know that for three hours you’re walking a tightrope. Some people walk it with ease, others fall off, and a few should never have been allowed on it in the first place.
I came into radio presenting comparatively late in life and have no formal training. But even seasoned broadcasters who’ve been doing it for years will tell you of the mental strain presenting a three hour talk radio/news show can bring. Drivetime and Breakfast shows are even more tiring than others because you have far more guest interviewees on subjects you know very little about. They’re much faster paced shows than a morning or afternoon show, which generally are more caller based rather than news based. For instance, this is how the first hour of the LBC Breakfast Show looks…
6.59 Talk up lasting 45 seconds telling the listener why they should stay tuned
7.05 Opener giving a taster of what you’re going to do in the next hour
7.06 Opening monologue introducing first news topic and punt for calls
7.07 Interview relevant guest
7.10 Interview guest with opposing viewpoint
7.13 Possible third interview or call
7.15 Throw to news and travel
7.20 Reintroduce phonein topic
7.21 News hit on new topic
7.24 Go through the front pages of the newspapers
7.25 Introduce paper reviewer and go through first story
7.28 Take call
7.30 Tease what’s coming up in next half an hour & introduce news
7.34 Reintroduce phonein subject & then go to business news
7.36 Second newspaper story with paper reviewer
7.39 Take two calls
7.45 Go to news
7.49 News hit
7.56 Final paper review story
7.59 Talk-up to 8pm news introducing what’s coming up in the next hour
At Drive we don’t have a paper reviewer or a 20 past news hit, but we often do one after 5.30, so it’s just as frenetic. Breakfast is in some ways easier because a lot of it has been set up overnight. But on Drive the news hits are often inserted into the show while we are on air. We get a lot of breaking news happen between 4 and 8, again, often on subjects I as a presenter will know nothing about. I’m totally reliant on my production team putting info on my screen while I try to trawl through Twitter or various news sites to get the latest. All this while doing an interview or taking a call. It certainly gets the adrenaline flowing, especially on days when there is a huge breaking news story like the Woolwich murder of Flight MH370 dropping out of the sky. That’s when you’re really found out as a news broadcaster. You either sink or swim. I well remember the day when the Malaysian Airliner was shot down over Ukraine shortly before we went on air. It was something where I instinctively knew we’d go into breaking news mode, which means we concentrate on that one story almost to the exclusion of everything else. It really is broadcasting by the seat of your pants, especially when there isn’t much that you know, little has been confirmed and you’re aware that wild speculation is not only often highly inappropriate, it can be very dangerous as well, not to say with a high probability of making you look very foolish if your speculation is way off beam.
Sometimes you read comments on internet forums where people complain that a presenter didn’t seem very knowledgeable about a particular subject and why hadn’t they prepared better? An understandable complaint sometimes maybe, but on a breaking news programme you have to rely on your general knowledge a lot. That’s why it pays to have a few grey hairs – a bit of life experience. I usually get into LBC three hours before my show starts, but if I present Breakfast I’ll only have an hour to prepare. On Breakfast you get a lot of overnight briefing papers from the set-up producer. On Drive you don’t have that luxury. At 1pm I have no clue what we’re going to be doing at 4pm. I sit down with my producers and we go through the news of the day and try to set up a four hour show bringing something new to whatever stories we decide to cover. I try not to repeat subjects which have been covered already unless we can think of a new angle on them, but our rule of thumb is that on the 5pm hour we cover whatever the biggest news story of the day is, even if it has been done before by James O’Brien or Shelagh Fogarty. It’s very rare we can’t think of an original question to ask. The challenge is to make compelling radio on a very light news day. When I was doing the evening show it was easier to do slightly more esoteric or lighter subjects, but on Drive and Breakfast people expect to be told what’s going on in the world, why it’s important and why they should phone in and give their views.
Nowadays, of course, in our new multimedia, multicamera studio we often either livestream a programme, or programme segment on our website, or record it to put out on social media. This means that as well as conducting a radio show, you’re also effectively conducting a TV show. No stripy shirts. No T shirts. No wanker signs to your producer. No facial signs if you think a caller is barking mad. No pressure!
So all this is a roundabout way of saying that when 8pm comes round I am dog tired. Good for nothing. I might as well have run a 10k. I go home, have something to eat. Then intend to watch some TV, but I rarely get past 20 minutes without falling asleep. And then an hour later wake up and slink off to bed. And then the next day I get up and do it again.
I absolutely love what I do and wouldn’t change it for anything. But I do smile when I hear people that that what I do is a piece of p***.
John Stapleton, who is one of the nicest people i have met in broadcasting, and has been around the block a bit told me once that he doesn’t know how I do four hours a day five days a week. Someone else who is a highly experienced broadcaster reckons presenting my type of show is the most difficult thing to do in live broadcasting. I’ll take their word for it as I haven’t got a lot to compare it with.
One thing I do know is that it’s certainly not a piece of p***!
If you’d like to read the other articles in the ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Radio Presenter’ series click HERE
*UPDATE: I mentioned above that I will be moving from 4-8pm, which I have been doing since March 2013. I will in future be hosting Drive from 4-7, which moves me in line with the length of all the other shows on LBC. And it will mean I can actually go out in the evenings and have a social life again! And be less tired :)