Sunday, March 15, 2009
Life and Death in Local Radio
The other day I was the guest pundit on the breakfast show of a local BBC radio station. The format required me to pontificate about anything and everything, interjected by phone calls from listeners.
The morning’s hot topic was a suggestion from some planet-saving organisation that people shouldn’t have more than two children. As a producer I know that what any good programme needs is a bit of a spat so, as both the only guest and someone who’s just become the proud father of his fifth child, I surmised that it was down to me to supply it.
The trouble was, worn down by lack of sleep caused by said Child Number Five, my brain no longer functions in the morning. For some reason the only thoughts that came into my addled mind sounded staggeringly right wing: Britain’s native population is actually decreasing, it’s the immigrant population which is going through the roof, etc. I think I ended up well right of Norman Tebbit. It was slightly scary that most listeners who phoned in wholeheartedly supported me. The radio station seemed to enjoy it too: I’ve been asked back.
I’m pleased because I do love BBC local radio, and have done so ever since I was first sent to work at a similar far-flung outpost as a young trainee journalist. For a rookie full of misplaced superiority and confidence, the experience was a baptism of fire.
The news editor was a bull of a man whose every sentence was laced with swear words, although his authority was somewhat undermined by the fluffy slippers he wore in the newsroom. He was waging a personal war against a madman in the town who ran his own extreme right wing party and who would send us lengthy press releases furiously typed on a very old typewriter (there were little holes in the paper instead of the letter O). When we refused to read them out in our bulletins, he would throw bricks through the newsroom window.
Every Friday lunchtime the entire station would retreat to the local pub, where the journalists spent the afternoon betting their wages in games of high stakes poker. Being the youngest, poorest and therefore least drunk member of the team, I was sent back to write and read the 3pm bulletin. One day I pressed the wrong button and switched the whole station onto Radio Four. Nobody appeared to notice.
The highlight of my stint in local radio was our special extended coverage of the formal opening of a long-awaited road bypass. When I say “special”, it was actually just me in the back of the radio car, a converted estate car with blacked out windows. It looked like a hearse with an aerial on the roof. In fact, local legend claims that it was once used as a hearse. Apparently the sports editor was enjoying an extra-marital relationship with the radio station’s receptionist when one evening he suffered a heart attack and died in her bed. The distraught mistress rang the newsroom and the lads brought round the radio car to pick up the corpse and transport it to the station’s surgery so that they could keep the affair from the chap’s wife.
I tried not to think of this story as I set the radio car on a bridge overlooking the gleaming new bypass and waited for the mayor to arrive for the ceremony. Suddenly a thick fog enveloped the road; I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. So I did what any self-respecting producer would do: I made up the whole thing. I described in detail the police escort, the mayoral car, the cutting of a non-existent ribbon, the first drive along the smooth new tarmac. It was a commentary worthy of a state occasion. It wasn't until I got back to the radio station that I found out the ceremony had been cancelled because of the fog.
Thank goodness the BBC wouldn’t do that sort of thing today.