OK, my turn.
This is a bit random. What I’m about to post is the introduction to a book started in 2011. Tentatively titled ‘Lying For A Living’, it was my account of how and indeed why I started working in radio. I wrote an intro and a couple of chapters and that was it. I managed to speak to some people I worked with in the past – Trevor from Horizon 103.3 and also my first real producer, Byron at XFM. It was great to connect with them but I just didn’t have the dedication or the confidence to sit down and write a whole book.
So, as incomplete and unrevised pieces go, I’d be keen to get your thoughts. Hopefully it will go some way to explain my attitude to radio. So, here goes…
I never wanted to be on the radio.
When I was young, I hardly ever listened to it. Sure, I dipped in every now and then, finding a little gem hidden away in the airwaves (including a wonderfully over the top Christian radio station near Niagara Falls that I kept writing to hoping to get a ‘shout out’ despite being fiercly agnostic) But it was never meant to be my career.
I always wanted to be on the telly. TV was where magic happened and where my destiny lay. And for a while, it worked out. I went from signing on and being hideously in debt to presenting a fairly high profile and incredibly well paid television show at the age of 25. Sorted. I was in.
But the magic box didn’t really work out as I planned. I did quite a few shows that didn’t get broadcast, a whole series of my own chat show that never saw the light of day, and about 629 pilots of things I was promised would be ‘the next big thing’. They weren’t. Each time I allowed my hopes to rise thinking that this was it, this was the show that would make me as big as Jonathan Ross or even Bobby Davro. But these pilots never took off.
I felt like Orson Welles. Not fat, bearded and wearing a cloak, but I was reminded of what one critic said about his life. I’m paraphrasing here, so I shan’t bother with quotation marks, but it was something about how Orson had lived his career in reverse. He’d started with his biggest and best thing, his masterpiece, and everything after that got smaller and less significant.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the 11 O’Clock Show to Citizen Kane. We never had a sled(ge) in that programme. But it’s probably the best and most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved in. And look at the careers it launched – Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen, Hal Cruttenden – all towering giants in the world of British comedy. But after that, my career sort of started to slow down. The projects got smaller, the audiences dwindled and I soon stopped getting offered TV work.
There are reasons for this. I may have been tricky to work with back then. I was 25 and hosting what I perceived to be my own show. Maybe I didn’t handle it too well. It’s hard to keep your feet on the ground when you suffer from low self-esteem and suddenly people are telling you how great you are. I remember being out one night, shortly after the 11 O’ Clock Show had started, and a really hot girl came up to me and said ‘are you the guy from the telly?’
‘Yeah’ I replied.
‘Cool. Is Ali G with you? I really fancy him,’ she said, looking expectantly over my shoulder.
‘No, sorry,’ I mumbled apologetically, although I hadn’t done anything wrong. ‘We don’t hang out’.
‘Oh well, you’ll do. Buy me a drink?’ she suggested as coolly as if she were working in McDonalds and was offering me a large coke to go with my meal.
I was going out with someone at the time, and anyway, this girls forwardness was kind of a turn off so I spluttered something like ‘I’m OK thanks.’
“You TV types are all the same,’ she shouted, getting unexpectedly angry. ‘Selfish wankers.’
I also made some terrible decisions that wouldn’t have helped my TV career. The worst one was turning down the chance to host Have I Got News For You. Just sit with that thought a second. Have I Got News For You asked me to host it. I SAID NO.
My excuse was I was presenting a breakfast show on Channel 4 and would be too tired. The reality was I was terrified of doing it and worried I’d get found out for being a fraud.
For almost a year after Rise, the ill-fated Big Breakfast replacement that I hosted, I couldn’t get a job. Had I been blackballed for straying from a pre scripted interview with Daniel Beddingfield where I asked him if he was a ‘gaylord’? Was it because I’d had an argument live on air with the someone from Liberty X because I’d said her boyfriend, Jason Scott Lee, was a cheat for going on a high profile talent show when the public had already voted by not buying the records from his woefully poor pop group 3SL? Did it have something to do with me allowing Snoop Dogg to say ‘bag of wank’ 16 times at 7.35 in the morning?
Possibly. Or maybe I’d over estimated my talents and I was, as my favourite magazine Time Out once described me, a ‘talentless cunt’.
Whatever the reason, 2004 was a desperate year and desperate measures were taken. By September, I was very seriously skint. I’d sold my car, had taken a lodger and was looking at exactly what declaring oneself bankrupt actually meant. Things got so bad that when I was asked if I’d like to be a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, I jumped at the chance to have a meeting with the producers.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I quite enjoy watching has beens and also rans humiliate themselves on TV in a desperate attempt to resuscitate their long dead careers. But I did NOT want to go and stay in that house. I’d rather have eaten my own fingers. But when you’re broke and there is talk of £25,000 simply for putting your hand up and admitting your career is over, it had to be considered.
I was depressed. I was beaten. I was fucked. But the day after that meeting where I was sure my fate as a failure had been sealed, 9 months since I’d last worked, something amazing happened.
I was offered a job.
On the radio.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. I’ll get to that job offer that stopped me entering the Big Brother house later. That one job totally turned my career around and has so far given me 9 years of virtually unbroken work. But it wasn’t my first radio gig. My first job on the wireless came almost a year to the day before I got my big break on television.
I should point out that his book isn’t about the history of radio. It isn’t about the movers and shakers in this fine industry. In fact, any dates and facts are probably totally inaccurate. Do NOT use this as a reference book. It’s simply the story of my accidental career on the airwaves. What started out begrudgingly has turned into a real love and indeed passion for a medium that for a while many perceived as being dead. It isn’t dead, although at the very moment I type this, it is going through another weird period of blandness.
Anyway, I’ll stop waffling and start the story. I’m afraid that to do that though, I have to take you to Milton Keynes. Sorry.
I never wanted to be a producer. And it would seem I’m not alone. There’s a real reticence from journalists working in BBC local radio to take the plunge into what can be a thankless job, with lots of hassle and very little glory…to be honest, it can be that, but it doesn’t have to be.
For years, producers have been expendable. Long-established presenters got used to a steady stream of smartarse kids coming in, trying to change an act that had served them well for umpteen years (or so they and their loyal band of listeners thought), getting fed up, and moving on. Sometimes that move would be the producer’s choice, often it would be the result of a quiet word in the boss’s ear, occasionally the words would be loud, Anglo-Saxon and hurled across the Newsroom.
So who wants this job, then?
Turns out, I do.
Because things are changing. The time is coming where the presenter is no longer the boss’s mate from the golf club – I’m going to shock you now, our boss is…a woman! I’m not sure she even likes golf. I know! Radical stuff!
So where does this leave the producer? Well, in my case, on a level pegging with the presenter. We’re a partnership. It’s us against the world, and it’s bloody brilliant.
It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been a presenter myself…although it used to.
In the past I’ve had to sit on this side of the glass listening to someone pretty much muffing the whole thing up. You feel like marching in, and saying “Right, budge up. This is how you do it.” But that would make me an arse, and that’s something I try very hard not to be (with varying levels of success).
Anyway, the experience of being the one in front of the microphone, learning to think out loud and trying to engage an audience which had got very passive, has given me a different approach to producing. I was also lucky to work alongside the brilliant Talk Sport and BBC Local Radio talent, Ronnie Barbour. He was the first to show me that doing things differently didn’t mean doing it wrong. When a story came up, we’d ask ourselves how everyone else would approach it and then do the opposite. It’s terrifying at first, but ultimately hugely liberating.
When Ronnie left, I wondered how I’d go back to making ‘ordinary’ radio. For a while I sunk into a deep fug. Post-Sachsgate, it seemed there was no appetite for something new. ‘Edgy’ and ‘risky’ became dirty words overnight. At one point I was offered the chance to present an afternoon show. Trouble was they wanted something conventional and I knew I couldn’t go back there, so I said no. The look on the station manager’s face was a picture. He thought I was joking when I said I’d rather read the news. I wasn’t.
Which is where Iain comes in.
The idea was to blur the traditional boundaries between the news bulletin and the programme. Rather than being the disembodied voice of authority breaking up each half hour of the show, my bulletins would feed and be fed by the interviews and calls in the programme. So, no more national news at the top of my headlines. The local leads were to be strong enough to kick off the news bulletins too. Nine times out of ten it worked. I was actually quite surprised.
There’d be no banter, Iain told me, and I was fine with that. News/ presenter banter deserves its own section in this blog – it’s usually forced and, well, crap – but within a few weeks, we’d both had a change of heart and found that we seemed to spark off each quite successfully. There was no ‘OK, I’m going to say this, so you play dumb so I can get to this punch line’ we just got on…and that’s how it is now.
Long (and slightly dull) story short, the fact Iain and were on the same wavelength and he didn’t hate my guts caught management’s ears and they suggested I might become his producer. I didn’t want the hassle or the responsibility at first, but as time went by I came around to the idea that those two rather beige aspects of the job would be outweighed by the fun of making the sort of radio I’d always wanted to with someone who totally gets ‘it’.
My aim is to use this blog is to explain, as best I can, what ‘it’ is.
I’ll try not to bang on…although I can’t promise.