Radio listeners are a very conservative bunch. They are fairly resistant to change. Whenever a programme director makes a change to a schedule he or she knows there will be howls of disapproval. I remember the furore that was caused when Jeni Barnett left LBC after her contract wasn’t renewed a couple of years ago. She had a very loyal band of listeners who were outraged at her removal from the afternoon show. Months later they were still making their feelings felt. There’s one certainty for radio presenters – nothing is forever. We all know that at some point the game will be up and our face will no longer fit. It can happen after a bad set of listening figures (RAJARS), or even a good set. Sometimes, to the outside world, or indeed the inside world, there can seem to be no rhyme nor reason.
Last Monday I took over LBC’s Drivetime show from the legendary James Whale. Yesterday I completed my first week in the chair, so I thought I’d write a bit about what the experience has been like. Taking over from a radio legend was never going to be easy. James has a very loyal fan base, and rightly so. He is a phenomenon – a wonderfully eloquent and forceful broadcaster. He’s been very kind to me since I have been at LBC and no one will ever hear me say a bad word about him. I regard him as a friend and I hope he feels the same way.
During the period between the announcement that James’s contract hadn’t been renewed and me taking over, suffice to say Twitter went wild with people bemoaning the change. I understand that. But I can’t say it was pleasant to read. Apparently I had stabbed James in the back by agreeing to take over the show. Total, utter rubbish.
Name me a presenter who wouldn’t say yes when offered a Drivetime show. If anyone ever did, they frankly didn’t deserve to be on the radio. I loved doing my evening show, and I miss it, but had I said no to Drivetime two things would have happened. I’d have spent the rest of my career wondering what would have happened if I had taken it, and as sure as night follows day, I’d never have been offered it again – or anything else, I imagine.
The thing is, whenever you take over a show, it means someone else has to make way. One day it will happen to me. I won’t like it. but that’s life. Last year, when I took over the Sunday morning show it meant the departure of two friends of mine – Andrew Pierce and Kevin Maguire. I didn’t look forward to making those phone calls, any more than I looked forward to phoning James Whale a fortnight ago. But I made those phone calls because I wanted them to hear that I was their replacement directly from me. There were no hard feelings on the part of any of them, because they all know that this happens in the industry we work in. I hope whoever takes over from me when I eventually get canned will do the same, and I have the same reaction!
So how has the last week been? Well, hugely challenging, hugely enjoyable and very, very different. For one thing, it’s now a four hour show, whereas my previous shows have all been three hours long. Most people think that presenting a radio show must be a piece of cake. After all, what can be so difficult about sitting in front of a microphone for a few hours, listening and talking? I can see why people think that, but if only it were that simple. A Drivetime show is far more pacey and bitty than a leisurely evening show. You have to hit news/travel junctions on time. People expect it. They want their travel at quarter past, not 17 minutes past. There are far more adverts, so you sometimes only have 8 or 9 minutes a quarter, so interviews and phone calls have to be much, much tighter.
All in all, you have to concentrate much more and that makes it incredibly tiring, At least this didn’t come as a total shock, as I have stood in for Nick Ferrari on his breakfast show a few times, and the same disciplines apply. On Monday, when I got home at 9.15pm, I sat down to watch TV but immediately fell asleep and didn’t wake for a couple of hours.
Monday’s show turned out to be rather different from the norm as it was dominated by the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce sentencing. I love shows with breaking news as the adrenaline really flows. It really tests you as a broadcaster as you’re flying by the seat of your pants. OK, on this, I knew the story inside out, but on other occasions I have had to handle stories about which I knew next to nothing, Emerging from that knowing you did well, is one of the best feelings you can have in broadcasting. Because of the Breaking News we had to delay our broadcast of a 12 minute interview with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, which was a pity, but it still made some headlines the next day, over his comments on bankers’ bonuses. It also made headlines for other reasons, which you can read about HERE! Monday went well, but I knew I hadn’t quite found my voice yet.
Tuesday’s show got off to a dodgy start when I was interviewing Ann Widdecombe in Rome about the Papal Election. She had a very dodgy mobile signal, and it all went downhill from there. The rest of the show was fine, but being me I beat myself up about the first hour, which was definitely not up to scratch. Even though the other three hours were fine, I started to wonder if I was ever going to enjoy this as much as my evening show. All presenters, I suspect, have moments of self doubt, and this was mine. But I soon got over it. I looked back to the hour we did on Dementia Care. Actor Keith Allen came in for the last 15 minutes, ostensibly to talk about his new film VINYL, but he ended up talking incredibly movingly about caring for his father, who suffers from Dementia.
Wednesday was Pope day, and again all our plans went out the window as we reverted to breaking news mode. And I think we did brilliant job, even if i say so myself. I think we made it all very accessible, fun and had some great people commentating on what was going on. Former Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay had been on my evening show a few weeks before and he described himself as an ‘Amateur Pope Watcher’. Well, he turned out to be a revelation. And then somehow we managed to combine the subjects of the election of a new Pope and Minimum Alcohol Pricing in our last hour. Somehow it seemed to work.
So far so good. But it was interesting to note that people were still coming out with the view that my somewhat laid back style of presenting couldn’t possibly work in a Drivetime show and that it was bound to be a disaster, Two words. Eddie Mair. Just because a presenter doesn’t shout at interviewees or callers, or interrupt all the time, doesn’t mean they can’t present a Drivetime show. I certainly agree you have to make it more pacey, but I like to presume I have been asked to do this show because of my style rather than despite it.
On Thursday I felt I was getting used to it all and that everything started to feel much more smooth. We had full switchboards of callers for every hour of the programme, even though we spent an hour on Leveson and press regulation – a subject which usually sends tumbleweed across a phone-in switchboard. The last hour was exactly what I want the 7pm hour to be like. We had former Intelligence Officer Charles Shoebridge and a cousin on President Assad in the studio talking about whether we and the French should arm Syrian rebels. We were flooded with calls and I genuinely believe we did something other stations would struggle to do. In the previous hour we had former Dragon’s Den star James Caan taking calls from small business owners. I reckon it was cracking radio.
Friday came and I was really keen to finish the week on a high note. We really don’t want to make the show all about heavy politics. Human interest stories have to be at the core of any phone-in programme and ours is now different. But this is especially true on a Friday. No one wants heavy politics at 6 or 7 o’clock on a Friday night. In the first two hours we covered the School Places story and HS2, and also had a quick chat with actress Niamh Cusack about the new play she is in, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. But at 6 we turned to the Eric Joyce story and I made the slightly tongue in cheek proposal that we should all have Alcohol licences, without which we wouldn’t be allowed to purchase alcohol. It went down a storm with the audience.
In the middle of the hour we got David Starkey on to talk about the Black Death pit unearthed by the Crossrail project. I also asked him about the fact that he have always had a problem with alcohol in this country. “Yes,” he said. “We have always been a nation of pissheads”. He’s a radio broadcaster’s dream interviewee.[Listen to the interview HERE] Then at 7 we played bits of politicians trying to speak foreign languages, sparked off by Boris’s heroics speaking French that lunchtime. The reaction was massive with people calling in keen to display their own linguistic prowess. And then at 730 we had half an hour with John Barrowman and his sister Carole, talking about their new book BONE QUILL.
I will admit, on Friday I did something different. When I used to write my Telegraph column, I started off by writing it how I thought a column ought to be written. But I was never happy with what I had written. Only when I let myself be me was I happy with the resulting copy. And on Friday I let myself be myself. I did my silly little asides and all the rest. I stopped presenting in a style I thought befitted a Drivetime presenter. In short, I feel I found my voice.
As I said above, change is never easy, especially for a radio audience. Callers will always be at the heart of what we do at Drivetime. We are a phone-in station, after all. But we also want to reflect the priorities of Londoners. We’ve introduced two business and markets slots at 5.30 and 6.30. We’ve introduced regular arts/culture slots. Our 7 o’clock hours will invariably have a studio guest who will take calls from listeners. There will be other innovations too over the coming months.
I know not everyone will like change. Inevitably there will be some who will never be reconciled to it, but I have to say I am heartened by those who have been in touch to say they have enjoyed the first week. Let’s hope the second week goes even better.
And if you haven’t managed to listen this week, give us a try next week!