It Shouldn't Happen to a Radio Presenter 53: The Producer King Is Dead, Long Live the Producer Queen
17 Dec 2016 at 17:15
If you’ve never worked in radio, you will think I am going completely over the top when I say that the key relationship on any radio show is the relationship between the show’s producer and the presenter. If there’s a good relationship, magical radio can be the result. It there isn’t, it’s usually the listener that suffers. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my six years at LBC in the long term producers I have had. I broadcast my first show on the station in September 2009, when my producer was Matt Harris. Yesterday Matt produced his last show with me, after ten years on LBC. He’s spreading his broadcasting wings and joins Newsnight in the new year.
If I am honest I feel as if I am going through a sort of grieving process. Matt produced my evening show for my first nine months, and when I took over Drive in March 2013 we renewed our on air partnership. We’ve been together ever since. Laura Marshall was the third member of our team for the first year (I wrote about her HERE) but when she left to return to the North East, the excellent Jagruti Dave joined us. Over the last two and a half years I think the three of us have formed one of the closest-knit teams on the station. And it really is a team effort. We’ve won several awards and our audience has doubled.
Matt is at the top of his game, which makes his departure all the more painful. He totally understands what it makes to make a daily show interesting, relevant and compelling. He has a great contacts book, and as a studio producer is unsurpassed. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: he makes me a far better presenter than I really am, and I have continued to learn from him. He knows when to stop me going off on a particular tangent, he knows when he needs to curb my sense of mischief and he knows when I am thinking of doing something which might not quite work. Those are all a little negative, but totally necessary in a good studio producer. Far too many producers repeatedly let their presenters get away with blue murder, often because the producer is often afraid of the consequences of telling the presenter something in their ear they don’t want to hear. This is not something which afflicts Matt! He can do it because he’s got the experience to stand his ground when he needs to.
On a positive note, if you hear me skewer a politician in an interview, it’s often because Matt has spotted a weakness in the politician and suggested a line of questioning to me in my ear which I might not have thought of. And if we don’t get an answer from the politician he presses me to ask the question again. And again. And again, to the point where sometimes I can be embarrassed to do it. But almost always it ends up with us getting a newsline, and that’s where he excels – spotting an opportunity for a newsline which we can then pump out to our media colleagues. LBC’s higher profile in recent years owes a lot to this talent. All this means he has helped me become a much better, and on occasion tougher, interviewer than I was at the start of my career.
Matt is also great on big occasions. As anyone in radio knows, it’s on the big occasion, especially outside broadcasts, when a presenter feels exposed. When you’re out of your comfort zone anything can happen, and often does. We’ve done seven hour election night marathons, two referendum nights, the US election and many others. It really is flying by the seat of your pants radio at times, but you must never let the audience know that, as a presenter, you’re often in full panic mode while maintaining a facade of calmness and control. You cant be fazed by anything. What people don’t understand about LBC is that we never have a script. It’s all off the cuff. And that is where the role of the studio producer becomes far more important than it might be on Five Live or Radio 4. The producer has to know when to speak and when not to. He/She needs to know how much info to pass to the presenter and how and when best to do it. It’s a real skill, often underestimated by people who’ve never been in a radio gallery. And Matt has it in spades. I hope Matt will be able to utilise this skill on Newsnight. If I were running Newsnight, he’d be the person I’d want in the presenter’s ear throughout the whole programme.
The relationship between a presenter and producer is a unique one – It’s one of trust, respect and total, utter disrespect from time to time. I say this because I’ve probably made our relationship sounds like a perfect marriage. But in most marriages there are moments of tension, and from time to time we’ll have a bit of a blow up. I actually think that’s healthy. A live studio environment is highly pressurised and at times tempers can fray. It doesn’t happen often, but when you have strong personalities (and by definition a talk radio presenter isn’t shy in coming forward!) there will be times when things are said. I remember one time when we were calling (Ok, screaming) each other terrible things through the glass, when one of us had totally misunderstood something the other had said. The key is to get back on an even keel as quickly as possible so that no one outside the studio can tell that anything has happened.
There are so many memories of our time together. One of the most traumatic and moving came on the afternoon of 22 May 2013, when Lee Rigby was murdered in Woolwich. As details started to come in I tweeted out asking for witnesses to phone our newsroom – frankly it was more in hope than expectation, but at around a quarter to four I noticed Matt was deep in conversation with someone on the phone. As the clock edged toward 4pm I wondered what on earth he could be talking about seeing as we needed to head down to the studio and I frankly hadn’t got a clue what I was going to say.
I gestured to Matt to get off the phone so we could discuss how I would open the programme. He signalled that it would all be OK and it became clear he was talking to someone who knew something abut what had happened. He put the phone down and told me we have an eye-witness, James, who was literally feet away from the incident and had seen everything. “Do a short intro telling people what we know – then get into the call quickly. James was there. He can tell us everything.” And he did. That was the day I felt I came of age as a radio presenter. I heard months later the BBC held an internal inquiry as to why our coverage of Woolwich was so much better than theirs. The conclusion of their inquiry ought to have been that it was because Matt Harris and Laura Marshall were producing it. LBC is never better than when covering breaking news stories, and this was a prime example. As you can see from the picture, we won a Sony award for it.
I also think of the night of the Scottish Independence Referendum where I was anchoring our coverage from the count in Edinburgh, with Duncan Barkes in the studio in London. We turned up to the count, which was held in some sort of cattle barn on the outskirts of Edinburgh. We reached our allotted broadcast point to find that all we had was a table, chair and a microphone. I was less than impressed and had a good moan. Matt is always very good at reading my moods (and believe it or not, I do have them!) and did what was necessary to calm me down and make me focus on the job in hand.
That day in Brighton when I er, had a little fracas on the seafront, will also long remain in both of our memories. Matt had my back all day and was brilliant in trying to cope with a situation where the police were wanting to ‘have a word’ while I was live on air! I well remember the commercial break when he walked over and said “Now I’ve sorted it, but the Police were here, and now they’re not.” And at that moment the red light went on. “You’re listening to LBC…,” I said. It’s those moments that I’ll look back on when I’m in my dotage and dribbling.
I could go on for a long time about Matt’s talents, but some of you will no doubt already be feeling queasy. In short, I have been privileged to have him behind the glass for so long. I knew it would end at some point, as all good things do. When he told me he was going to Newsnight I didn’t try to persuade him to stay. You might think that odd, but it’s absolutely the right move for him at this point in his career. To have begged him to stay would have been selfish on my part and an act of pure self-indulgence. I’d love to think that at some point we will work together in future. You never know.
So the Producer King (he will hate that) is dead, but long live the Producer Queen. As I mentioned above, the third member of our team is Jagruti Dave, who joined us when Laura left in the Spring of 2014. She is the best guest-getter in the business and is an absolute delight to work with. I’m so pleased that she is taking over from Matt, as the two of us have developed a similar relationship.
She has learned a huge amount from Matt over the last two and a half years, as she is happy to admit. She’s developed excellent relationships with people across the political spectrum and the reason we have such a consistent lineup of top quality guests is often down to her. Like Matt, she often knows me better than I know myself. We often disagree on which subjects we should cover, but I have to admit (and I hope she’s not reading this) that more often than not she’s right and I’m wrong. “That won’t get a single phone call,” I’ll often say, when she suggests covering the plight of the lesser spotted Yak in Uzbekistan. “Ah, but you’ll do it brilliantly,” she will reply. And within five minutes we’ve got a full switchboard. “OK, OK,” I’ll say at the end of the show, “you were right again.” Cue a rather self satisfied grin on her face!
In my thirty years in the workplace I can honestly say that Matt Harris is one of the top ten people I have worked with. Wherever I end up in the rest of my working life, he’s someone I wouldn’t hesitate to employ or work with again. I hope he has become a friend for life. And I haven’t got many of those.
I hope the BBC realises what a gem it has recruited.