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23 February 2013

Radio People

Jeremy Paxman's wound me up this week.

I know that's what he's paid to do, and to be fair he did a good job in his prime of cutting through the arrogance and moral certitude of TINA-era Thatcherite politicians, those whose stock reply to every challenge was 'there is no alternative'. In recent years he appears to have become a caricature of himself.

We must be careful not to confuse the man and his screen persona. However, one would assume off-screen evidence given to the Pollard inquiry (the investigation into why a report on alleged paedophile Jimmy Savile's activities by Newsnight was dropped shortly before it was due to be transmitted) would be free of any of the posturing and stagecraft required by television.
It got to me when he went on about 'radio people'. And it got me thinking about them too.

According to Paxo, BBC news had been "taken over by radio ... Helen Boaden, a radio person. Steve Mitchell, a radio person. Peter Rippon was a radio person. These people belong to a different kind of culture." A culture that doesn't libel an innocent peer by failing to do some basic journalism, maybe.

Paxman, who's 63 in May, went on to add that "In television it tends to be a younger person's game. There are - with fewer older people in it and fewer people - I would say, preoccupied with their pensions". This, presumably speaking of Boaden (56) and Rippon (47) although Mitchell is, admittedly, a few months Jeremy's senior.

So it got me thinking, in a wider sense, how we could more legitimately categorise 'radio people'.

The first word that comes to mind is realistic. It's Only Radio  is not only the title of John Myers' autobiography but also an attitude. Radio people do their best, but if it all falls over nobody died.

Next up - resourceful. There's no money at all in local radio and precious little in network. So radio people get used to doing more with less as a way of life. At Leeds Trinity we had a Very Important TV Guy turn up once to give a talk. He'd forgotten a DVD. His first reaction was to call the studio and have the missing disc put in a taxi and driven over. I rest my case.

Thirdly - seldom conceited. There are many radio presenters with massive egos on the air but comparatively few (OK, OK I do know they exist) who carry that ego into the office after the show. You just can't keep it up. Add to that the fact that promotion in wireless means a move to the breakfast show,  and the possibilities for posing at 4.30 am are vanishingly small.

Which leads me on to a somewhat ... delicate ... point.

Radio People are, by and large, unglamorous. That doesn't mean that there aren't ravishingly beautiful women and superbly chiseled chaps who can turn heads on a night out in town. But honestly, have you ever looked around the room at a radio conference? A Martian who turned up at a typical industry do would quickly grasp the idiom 'a great face for radio'.

It doesn't mean they're not articulate. Far from it.

We've all experienced 'four radio people at a party'. They're discussing children .. or cars .. or holidays. We reach 'the silence'; the point at which no-one in the group has anything further to say. At a radio party, all four people immediately begin speaking at once, so as to fill the silence. As nature abhors a vacuum, wireless types abhor a silent pause.

Radio's lack of superficial glamour might well be related to this next, more serious point; I'll leave it for you to decide which way round is cause and effect.

In my experience a LOT of radio people are introverts who have over-compensated. I know I am. The types who maybe were not first in the gang, first up to dance, first to be picked for sports, first to stick a hand in the air - but who maybe spent more time alone. Maybe reading, maybe gaming, maybe enjoying music, maybe fiddling with technology .. but in the course of things they discovered the magic of radio.

It's then a small step for these solitary types to realise that radio could be, potentially, accessible. They belt off a letter .. or an email .. or a tweet and after a bit of effort (see 'resourceful' above) they get a foot in the door answering phones and making coffee. Those with the necessary skills will develop from there.

So there can be a culture clash when 'radio people' reach the top of their game and have to manage those like Paxman who have come from the school of the conspicuously clever, the theatrical and the brashly self confident.

I think I know which tribe I would prefer to call my own.


  1. What an intuitive man you are Richard....

    I was the world's biggest introvert ('solitary type') as a youngster and even now am surprised at my bravado at becoming a 'dj' ..

    I hated discos (could see their faces) but loved radio, though a tell-tale sign here was that I hated phone-ins as they were 'real people' I had to talk to.

    I had to 'force feed' my phone skills by sitting through James Whales (first) phone-ins on Metro Radio in 74 and 75, which was strange as I was there until 2am, then on the morning show at 9am !

    I preferred to 'spin a fantasy musical and jingle web' for my listeners: just GREAT music (I had free-choice at Metro!), jolly (PAMS) jingles, and ALWAYS voice-over music for any long links ~ faded UP for 'thinking time'.

    Your Blog made me realise that most of the people I took on at Trent GEM.AM were ALSO introverted,'solitary'. Plus I had a 'rule' that 'less good looking' presenters ( diplomatic!) were FAR more likely to stay with our station/ cling-on than the (vainer) good-looking ones, who aspired to telly or Radio 1. One of our younger aspirational dj's once said, '6 months at BRMB and then straight on to Radio 1 !' (he didn't...)

    Amongst my 'introverts' (no names obviously!) were:

    * one who forgot to ask for a pay rise for THREE years (we forgot to offer as well) who is now a station manager
    * one who sometimes fled in tears from the studio after doing BRILLIANT shows (who is now a 'radio guru')
    * one who claimed he was late as TWO tyres had burst on his car at the same time
    * one who spent 55 of the 60 minutes of his weekly show review telling me his medical problems
    * and one who (sadly) never 'settled', left us, and a few year later committed suicide.

    Not all 70s ans 80s ILR was fun....

    All these people were male; I think your theory does not really fit many 'ILR' female presenters? Dare I say the more thoughtful, 'loner', 'university type' (less attractive) females are more likely to end up on BBC locals doing 'parish pomp'? There I've said it !

    Lastly, your line:

    "At a radio party, all four people immediately begin speaking at once, so as to fill the silence"

    Is spot-on...

    Keep on Blogging!


    1. Cheers Len. Your guys from GEM.AM ring true ....

  2. The irony of this musing is that it strives to perpetuate the old school stereotypes of 'radio' person & 'tv' person. It winds me up.

    Look around you Richard; modern newsrooms are full of journalists criss-crossing the room from radio to tv to online and back again. The old barriers have gone, including the barriers to entry into our profession. A profession, which like people themselves, is complicated.

    What Paxman's submissions to Pollard really revealed was the 'silo' mentality of Newsnight. It was a sealed production unit, not just out of touch with radio, but out of touch with the entirety of the BBC.

    So let's drop this Radio Person/TV Person nonsense. It's dated and ends up breeding stereotypes. If we're in the business of enthusing the next generation about journalism (of all kinds) then let's send them into it with open minds not old ideas. Enough of the 'jumpers for goalposts' crap. Stop looking backwards.

    1. Hi Anon, and thanks for a thought-provoking response.

      You're right that Paxman exposes the 'silo' mentality of Newsnight, and that was my starting point for what was meant to be a wry look at what makes 'radio people' tick. Twitter reaction to the post indicates it's struck a chord with many, relative newcomers to the industry as well as the old guard.

      I like to think of it as a gentle ribbing of the stereotypes rather than a 'breeding ground' for new animosities.

      I'm well aware of the multimedia future. That's what my open-minded trainees are preparing for, and indeed only this week I compiled my first package assembled and uploaded entirely from the field using an iPhone. So no 'backward looking' here.

      That said I'm sure you are as aware as I am of invisible white lines across newsrooms. TV correspondents who are 'too busy' to file for radio an hour before a live inject. Multimedia working can still be code for 'TV first, then web, then wireless'.

      And if you think 'the barriers to entry in our profession have gone' I'd refer you to my earlier post 'Left Behind By Diversity'. The barriers remain very real for many.

  3. Anonymous:

    To look at your post in reverse, 'Stop looking backwards.' The ONLY way to learn if ANYTHING has improved or deteriorated IS to look back, be it the weather, house prices or beefburgers...

    'Let's drop this Radio Person/TV Person nonsense. It's dated and ends up breeding stereotypes.'

    But it's true: people who want to BE on radio have (in my long experience) an aversion to being 'in vision'. I know of several classic examples of famous tv continuity voices who never appeared 'in vision' , and would not have done the job if they had to - several were also radio presenters, this very much backs-up Richard's theory.

    'modern newsrooms are full of journalists criss-crossing the room from radio to tv to online and back again'

    This is a 'chicken or egg' situation. The new 'modern newsroom'/ 'digital age journalism' attracts very DIFFERENT people to those who worked IN their local region, with Uher tape machines, IRN feeds and a pile of carts each with a different story on (often played in the wrong order! )

    I fear the more sensitive 'solitary types' Richard writes of are less likely to get work/ want to work, in the digital newsroom (or dj studio). It's too fast, competitive for the more sensitive individual who excels instead at working alone, intuitively rather than following a corporate 'branding' doctrine of a large quasi-national radio group.

    My conclusion is that the 'end result' of all this is that today's radio and tv favours soul-less individuals who have competitively risen to the top, treading over the more 'sensitive' ones on their way up. The media is more 'efficient' digitally, and leaner in staffing, but lacks compassion, soul and the ability to 'pause' themselves. The ability to sit back, absorb, and THEN go ahead with the way they want to report a story, or present a show.

    The age of the juvenile 'breakfast crews' on local/ quasi-national commercial radio was the spearhead of this, and few in the radio industry now know what makes a GOOD breakfast show. But they 'succeed' because BBC locals only serve up a tepid dish of speech radio at breakfast, presented by under 40 - over confident, university types for an audience of over 60s...

    1. Hi again Len. Would require a short dissertation to reply to all your points, but thanks for the support.

  4. Backwards? Forwards? Snapshot of right now? Doesn't matter to me. Richard still struck a chord with me.

    I started off as a print reporter and never really got on with being "out there". I moved into subbing and felt very comfortable for the first time in my career.

    Then I moved into radio, which on the face of it seems very "out there" and not the sort of thing an introvert like me would turn to. But I love it.

    I also now teach, after my print career saw me back at uni to get the qualification I needed, after savage cutbacks at my newspaper.

    Having taught on a multimedia media degree I'm all too familiar with the needs of a modern newsroom but that doesn't mean people aren't more comfortable in one area even if they're required to work across other media.

    Comfort zones might be a place few of us have the luxury of spending much time, but that doesn't stop me hankering for the decades I spent designing pages and writing headlines, or looking forward to the bit of the day I now spend alone in a radio studio talking to people I can't see and will mostly never meet.

    Being in front of a class for the rest of the day is very stressful for someone like me but I had a great print career and I'm having a fantastic time starting out in radio. So if I can help a few people enjoy what I've enjoyed, and am enjoying, then that's the price an introvert like me has to pay!

    1. Hi Anon (I'm assuming it's a different 'Anon') ..

      Agree about comfort zones. Every newsroom needs a mix of personalities. I loved front-line reporting but hated bulletin reading, especially earlies. I loved presenting phone-ins but ran a mile from 'that was .. this is' music jocking (tho' not as fast as listeners ran from me).

      In the multimedia age some journos - probably the majority - can become hypnotised by the tyranny of pictures.

      Get the photo, get the video, bung up some words.

      But there will always (I hope) be those who love the intimacy and simplicity of audio.

      I'm very gratified to see my class of 2013 taking on board the capabilities of audio. We'll see over the coming week how they apply that to Leeds Trinity's Journalism Week.

      All the info for that is at http://www.journalismweek.co.uk

  5. Loved the early starts on newspapers. Forty-five minutes to get out three pages on my own: now that's pressure!

    Having a ball on breakfast radio too. Prep now (6pm to 7pm) then again at 4.30am, on air at 6am. Love it! It's afternoons I have a problem with! Maybe that's why I went for education as my "day job": Four o'clock in the afternoon and I'm ready for bed.

    I seem to perform better when it's just me, so there's a common thread from reporting, subbing, radio and teaching! Maybe we introverts have issues with working with others. There's a silent "i" in team as far as I'm concerned!

  6. Richard: 'Multimedia working can still be code for 'TV first, then web, then wireless'.

    You are kidding right?

    I'm a broadcast Correspondent. It's twitter first, then radio and only then does TV get its pound of flesh.

    It's all about speed, Im afraid.

    I too am puzzled by this radio/tv/print personality stereotyping. Perhaps something that used to exist. Don't see it in the industry now. But I know you're just gently ribbing.