Yesterday evening on LBC I achieved two firsts. I spoke to one caller for a whole half hour, and fifteen minutes later I wept. Live on radio. Really.
Like Alastair Campbell, I have always been a little lachrymose. I have even been known to shed a tear watching Emmerdale. Perhaps it was the after effects of a rather emotional conversation with a work colleague earlier in the day, I don’t know. But yes, I really did break down. And then felt rather embarrassed about what had happened. But as I write this some hours later, I no longer do. Because I was only reflecting what much of the audience must have been feeling.
If I tell you it was Caroline Flint’s fault, you’ll probably think I am making a political point. But you’d be wrong. Caroline gave an interview to the Evening Standard yesterday, in which she spoke movingly of her upbringing. Her mother was an alcoholic. Reading it, and thinking back to my own rather idyllic and perfect childhood, I wondered what on earth it must be like to live with an alcoholic. And of such thoughts are radio phone ins born.
It didn’t get off to a good start. The guest we had booked didn’t pick up the phone. Bugger. So I went straight to a caller called Sue in Twickenham. It wasn’t her real name. Sue had had an alcoholic stepmother. She had run away from home at the age of 15. This was back in 1975. And so started a call that was to last around 25 minutes. Sue’s story was graphic, moving, and also inspirational. We got to 8.15. ’I’ve got to hear more from her,’ I thought to myself. Almost at the same time my producer Rebekka said in my ear ‘take her past the travel’, so I did just that. It’s not really the done thing, but she clearly had a lot more to say and wanted to say it. And so we went on. And on. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to take her beyond 8.30, but when it came to it, I decided that we had to let others on. Sue had provoked quite a reaction. I reluctantly let her go. She had told me some very personal stories, but she had a message which needed to be heard. As soon as I handed over to the newsreader I ran into the gallery and grabbed the phone receiver off the Assisant Producer, Will, and quickly thanked Sue personally for contributing so wonderfully to the programme in a way none of us could have anticipated. Needless to say the emails, texts and tweets were flooding in from people who had been affected by Sue’s words. Little did I realise what was to come.
Next up was Darren in Walthamstow, a 29 year old, who confessed to drinking a bottle of brandy a night. Both his parents had been alcoholics. His girlfriend wouldn’t move in with him because of his drinking, yet they were to be married next year. They had been together 12 years. ‘What does that tell you, Darren?’ I asked. ‘What does that tell you?’ I asked in an almost Nolan-esque manner. ‘That she loves me,’ he replied. I love this job at times like this.
The texts were piling up, and the 8.45 travel was beckoning. I read out a couple, and then came another one. I rarely read texts before I read them out loud. I’m assuming my production team have vetted them for suitability. This was the next text.
Today, I came home and saw on our fridge. “Please don’t drink anymore, I’m really worried about your health” written by my seven year old daughter. I figured she wouldn’t ever find out, so I opened the fridge. But I found another note on a can that said: “So you’re going to drink anyway?”
I can’t explain it, but as I read the text I could feel the tears welling in my eyes and my voice cracked. I had to stop after the word ‘daughter’ to collect myself. I ploughed on, but could feel myself going again. I stopped again. I was now worried about breaking down completely. Not good. This had happened once before during a phone call about dementia, but I had someone else in the studio to keep it going while I gathered myself. This was different. But it was a text for God’s sake! So I went slightly early to the travel. When we came back I reintroduced the subject again and merely commented that I hadn’t expected to be quite so affected. After all, I know nothing about alcoholism and don’t know any alcoholics. I don’t even drink.
In retrospect I think it was Sue’s phone call that did it. As a presenter when you take a call like that you can feel emotionally drained by the end of it and you know that in radio terms, you’re slightly living on the edge.
At the time, I felt a bit embarrassed by my reaction, but as I type this at 2am I no longer am. All I did was reflect what much of my audience were feeling. It’s not weak to weep. It’s not an unmanly thing to show emotion. And if it happens again, I won’t go to the travel early! Rebekka was very keen to reassure me I shouldn’t feel I had reacted overemotionally. ‘Cracking bit of radio,’ she said. I’ll take her word for it.
I had joked to Rebekka before the programme that we should retitle our 8 o’clock hour, the Misery Hour. Because so far this week we have covered shoplifting, miscarriages, hospital food, and today living with alcoholics. Quite what we’ll do on Friday night, I dread to think! But I suspect many of those who tuned in tonight will be making an appointment to tune in to find out. At least, I hope so.
Anyway, you can listen to Sue’s phone call on our new Bitesize Podcast feature. At the end (about 25 minutes in) there’s also the bit of me reading out the text.