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08 November 2012

Radio Needs a Warm Reception

This is the time of year when I go around to visit my trainees on placement in newsrooms.

Going out to see them in the workplace is a useful way to see that our postgrads really are making a contribution to their host organisation; and, if I'm honest, I enjoy the opportunity for a coffee and a gossip with editors, many of them now former Leeds Trinity trainees, updating the grid of who's moving on where so as to get an idea where entry level roles could be coming free for my current lot.

Doing the rounds involves a lot of turning up and waiting around in reception areas, which has in turn prompted a few thoughts I'd like to share with you.

Reception is the public face of your radio station. 

My very first encounter with radio was in the reception of the original BBC Radio Leeds in the Merrion Shopping Centre. Behind the desk was a big 'on air' sign, which magically lit up each time a presenter spoke, and then went out whilst they played a tape or (in that immortal BBC phrase) 'resorted to disc' and played some music.

I could have watched that sign for hours. Correction. I did watch that sign for hours, and ever since them I've lobbied hard to repeat the (very simple) trick in just about every professional, community or education-based station I've been involved with.

Some stations, such as BBC Humberside, go for the goldfish tank design with presenters directly on show to the reception area through double-thickness glass.

At the BBC Bradford studio they've gone one step further and made the entire production office an exhibit in the National Media Museum, so anyone bashing out a cue can look up to see the 9th Laisterdyke cub scout pack sticking their noses to the glass.

As far as I know it's soundproof on the outside; but the designers failed to anticipate conversation leaking in from the public; I can remember shaking with barely-suppressed laughter as some giggly teenage girls discussed the relative 'fitness' or otherwise of a particular presenter getting ready for his show. I wouldn't dream of mentioning him by name (unless you buy me a pint ...).

I feel a great sadness in some commercial radio receptions originally designed to showcase the station to audiences and advertisers but now dusty and abandoned, slowly turning into a kind of millennium time capsule.

Great stations like Viking, Pennine and the purpose-designed Radio Aire have replaced receptionists with entryphones; getting in feels less like showbiz, more like approaching a secure hospital ward. [EDIT 20:17 Just today I hear Real and Smooth have gone the same way as they adjust to a future in the global economy].

The feeling is even more marked in the 'grand' former receptions at Hallam (glass staircase, with CD motifs in the balustrade) and Signal (I think .. or is it the Blackpool Wave?) with a CD sculpture suspended from the ceiling.

Now these places echo with the ghosts of the past; still fulfilling the role of postroom, with parcels and leaflets awaiting collection or dispatch, but otherwise as forgotten as the ten year old commercial production gongs (Is there any station, anywhere that doesn't have a New York Advertising Award?) and the blue plaque from Investors in People.

At the BBC it feels more corporate; BBC Yorkshire could equally be an outpost of Price Waterhouse Coopers or KPMG with efficient staff behind high desks dealing with security passes next to gleaming steel and glass turnstiles. But no big 'on air' sign. (I know, I know they've got a studio webcam linked to a sod-off-and-die fifty-inch plasma screen but it's just not the same).

I think the industry could learn a lot from the receptions at BBC Lancashire and BBC Humberside; busy spaces with lots going on, though in a somewhat severe Auntie-ish way; classes in getting online for OAPs, big stuffed Pudsey promoting Children in Need, that sort of thing. Visitors to the radio station feel welcome, more importantly they feel able to sit down without making the space look untidy; it feels like it belongs to them.

Ah yes, Children in Need.

As the Beeb killed OneWord with BBC Radio 7 (now 4 Extra) it was Wogan wot killed off the greatest warm-hearted achievement of commercial radio; the community fundraising campaigns of the 70s and 80s that these days we'd call 'hyperlocal'.

Pennine's Help A Child At Christmas, Help A Hallam Child .... receptions would be full to the ceiling with cuddly toys.

Over-excited office workers in swimsuits and goosebumps would giddily (and sometimes drunkenly) bring in the £33-47 they'd raised in their lunch hour and ask for a dedication.

It was such a happy time to be in ILR, with everyone from the MD to the latest work ex kid gladly putting in the hours to make it a success.

But the BBC can on occasion be a jealous and ruthless beast, and the revamping of a charity from the 1930s with massive promotion on BBC Local Radio and what was it, that other little outlet - oh yes, BBC One - swamped the market for doing good. When we started getting cheques to the 'BBC HACAC Appeal' or 'Pennine Radio Children in Need' it was time to throw in the towel. Pudsey conquered all.

Anyway, I digress.

It was the radio reception's open door that made the station feel part of the city it served. For those who made the effort to come in and ask it was astonishingly easy to get on air.

News stories also walked in off the street, from the baglady wanting to tell what it was like to be cold and homeless (and get a free cup of tea) to the retired police inspector who wanted to tell the newsroom his daughter had been murdered at an illegal drugs party in Saudi Arabia. The Helen Smith story began in reception.

Let's not forget as well the remarkable, smart, savvy, tactful and knowing receptionists who ran what was the intelligence centre of the whole building. The two Lesleys ... Cath ... Anne ... Melanie ... Kay ... the names stay with me as these remarkable women dealt with all kinds of nutters, shielded me from bosses and listeners when we were under pressure and often found the gold in the dross on days when we badly needed some prospects for stories.

There were of course moments of humour.

'Richard .. I've got Sharon Lamb for you".
"Who the hell's Sharon Lamb?"
"Dunno, sorry ... said they know you"
"OK put 'em through ..... hello, Richard Horsman, how can I help?"
"Richard, hello - it's Sher Azam here"

Who was, at the time, President of the Bradford Council for Mosques.

And then of course, there was the time Melanie plugged two heavy-breather pervert callers together so the gentlemen concerned could enjoy each other's company. Nothing like radio for helping communities come together.

The message in all this for the new digital age of radio is that a station without a soul is a zombie operation. 

As is currently being discussed on MediaUK, the limits have been reached on automated wireless, and speech could be the way to put personality back.

If the soul of a station resides in any physical place it has to be reception.

Perhaps now is the time to bring back the friendly face at the front desk; where better to base the social media specialist who can be posting to Twitter and Facebook between calls; grabbing the video clip with the X-Factor sensation as they pass through; providing a focus and zeitgiest-meter for on-air staff who may otherwise never interact with a human being between car and mic?


2 comments:

  1. Like you I've visited a good many radio stations over the years but I still think the best-ever reception area was the Capital foyer at Euston Tower.

    There was plenty of space - with not only a large reception desk but also a 'shop' counter selling a wide range of station-branded goods and even a mini Jobcentre desk.

    It could also be used for special 'community awareness' weeks - I remember on one occasion the foyer had been turned into a temporary blood donor clinic, where listeners were encouraged to come in to give "very nearly an armful" during their lunch break etc. One day while that was taking place I was showing some people around from a South African commercial station and when I went downstairs to meet them at reception they were wondering just what was going on - they thought there had been a disaster and the foyer had been commandeered as a first-aid post!

    The foyer's highlight, though was the great curving 'Busby Berkley' staircase leading up to the 1st floor and the heart of the station. That was definitely 'showbiz' and, I have to admit, in the three years I worked at Capital, it always gave me a thrill to walk up it!

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  2. A memory of how radio REALLY was, as opposed to the rose-tinted glasses view.

    Picture the day Metro Radio launched in July 1974, from a dusty former industrial building next to a coal-washing plant in the mining town of Swalwell. The fifties interior had not been modernised, and a secondary school type open tread staircase led down to a rather drab cold reception area where the only 'glow' was from the 2 (Geordie) lady receptionists.

    As we came to the end of our first day, staff going down the stairs looked up to see a 'well done' message. But, its purpose was rather defeated as it was scrawled onto the reverse of half a roll of old wallpaper that the author had hung in the stairwell.

    I remember feeling deflated, as I realised (the newly born) ILR had a long way to go if it was ever to catch up with the lavishly publicly funded BBC...

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