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27 February 2012

Radio Needs Apprentices

Work experience trainees are in the news for all the wrong reasons this week as various high profile retailers stand accused of using 'slave labour' to stack shelves and clean floors; the accuracy or otherwise of the various claims and counter-claims don't concern us here, but maybe it's time to take a long, hard look at the place of work experience - or maybe more formal apprenticeships - in radio.

Workies are ingrained deep of the ecology of the industry, and always have been; at least, ever since the development of local stations offered more and less forbidding front doors to knock on than the one in Portland Place guarded by Ariel. I'd never have wormed my way into wireless without doing my share, and when any job is perceived as glamorous and exciting there will always be someone wanting to give it a go, usually for free.

Many - perhaps most - work experience candidates are useless. We've all seen the gormless teenager sit and watch a phone ring when all hell's breaking loose in the newsroom, or endured the self-obsessed career changer who witters incessantly about the one subject they find fascinating; themselves. Yet others are pure gold. The day they set foot in a radio station they know it's where they belong.

Take the one station I know intimately from having spent over 20 years in a basement in Bradford. Pennine Radio, and its later persona as The Pulse, has been a nursery to amazing talents.

The BBC's Olympics supremo Roger Mosey, Radio Humberside's Man Ed Simon Pattern, Radio Clyde's PD John Dash and Radio Futurologist James Cridland (to name but a very few) all know the little station in Forster Square very well; I pick them out for mention as they all sat at the next desk to me before moving on to bigger and better things. And they all started as unpaid work experience candidates.

But the station they joined had a newsroom of seven journos; a commercial production team of three, the same number of engineers, a features department of two and (most importantly of all) live programmes if not round the clock then at least for 20 hours a day, with the remaining four presented by Tone.

We all learned by sitting with inspiring individuals, copying what they did until we could do it unaided and maybe add something distinctive of our own. In the days when Pennine House was a wool warehouse they called the process 'learning by Nellie'. The system worked, as any roll call of Nellie's alumni will prove.

Today that's no longer possible. Not only are the teams smaller, but much of the creative work is done against ever-tighter deadlines and probably alone on a PC. Nellie doesn't have time. Programmes are networked and voicetracked, and the basement is dark from early evening onwards.

The employers have outsourced training to institutions such as mine, and I'm proud of the record we have at Leeds Trinity; if we've trained the editors of Radio Aire, Capital Yorkshire, Radio Derby, Hallam - and, yes, The Pulse we must be doing something right. But it's not the same.

This post was inspired by a Tweet from radio grandee John Myers, who was impressed when his plumber turned up with a proper apprentice and showed the lad what to do whilst he was working. It made me think.

Now's the time for some proper radio apprenticeships.

There are some hopeful signs; I know of one station in the north where the editor has taken a candidate under her wing and is teaching her the craft of news whilst the lass saves for a place on my course next year. She might even bypass Uni altogether; a bit of me thinks that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Another BBC Managing Editor was creative enough with the budget to develop a weekend receptionist to the point where, after a spell at Leeds Trinity, the person concerned has gone on to star in a College of Journalism training video. But that's news.

The area that's really crying out for modern apprenticeships is presentation. So here's a practical proposal.

Why can't every station in the land offer a graveyard slot to an aspiring presenter?

No-one listening from (say) 3am-6am  matters to the corporate beancounters, nor those tuned in after seven at night in some places, or they wouldn't run automated at that time of day. The kid can't ruin the brand with a 3 month contract.

Pay the trainee a minimum wage and get the government to subsidise that. If necessary, send the kid to College (just for the early part of the waking day, natch) to collect some relevant qualifications. Provide regular snoopy sessions and feedback. Nurture some new talent.

And I know it will work. 

Because in that roll call of the successful who passed through that Pennine basement I missed out some other names; Chris Moyles, Jon Culshaw, Lucio and Simon Hirst again just a small (but better known) selection of the radio talent who honed their skills offpeak in just the way I've described.

Their successors don't have the same opportunities to stretch their wings. Learn to fly on air as a pilot learns to fly in the air, not in a simulator. The radio world is crying out for new talent.

So - something for the industry to think about; something high profile, which could win favour with the government and earn Brownie points if that same radio industry was hoping, just for instance, to win permission to roll out big brands across the UK against local grumblings.

Costs the company next to nowt, especially if you coach the big star ready to compete for Britain's number one breakfast show of 2020.

1 comment:

  1. A sound suggestion Richard in many ways.

    The 3-6am person could also give early warning (by montitoring overnight deaths) to save the station gettng 'caught out' by sudden demises. Whitney Houston's passing caught out many services and with all the BIG stars being 55-70 now, plus royalty and Simon Cowell :-), this is a good 'safety valve' and gets rid of some of the AWFUL voice-tracking.

    I wrote a Blog about that recently, but this Blog:


    Argues your point in another way.

    Best wishes