People can be very sniffy about local news.
Rightly so, sometimes.
About a year after I qualified as a journalist I got a gig on local telly. I was so excited I bought a new suit. My first job was to wear it while standing in the middle of a field, doing my best concerned face while a donkey called Sadie mooched about in the background. It had been rather windy in the Fens that week and a pylon had fallen over, leaving her stranded her in her paddock.
That was ‘the news’…seriously…not even a dead donkey, just one that looked vaguely brassed off – as did I.
Fast-forward 15 years and I’ve just about got over the excitement and am now producing a show with a strong seam of local news running through it, but which people say doesn’t ‘sound local.’ My initial reaction is to take that as a compliment, and that’s a shame, because what I think they’re getting at is that they expect local radio to sound parochial.
Guess what? Not everything that’s local is news, and some news is too local for our show…now there’s a comment that could get me in trouble. What I mean is that we’re proud to be picky.
We only have three topics set up in advance. They’re always local, but we make sure they’re also universal.
We go for things that mean something to most people, regardless of whether they know the place or person involved. We apply the same principle as the national news outlets; choosing only the most important, interesting or funny material from our patch, so that someone who lives nowhere near the action will feel almost as connected to the subject matter as someone in the next street.
This means we also reserve the right to ditch the drab. So a man’s hat could blow off in Eaton Bray and you’d never hear about it on our show.
Unless it blew off with dynamite…
..then we’d consider it.
What I’m trying to say, and I’ve said this before, is that just because it’s happening in our patch doesn’t mean it gets into the show.
There are certain things we all care about, because it is happening or could easily happen to us or someone we know. Stories about health, education, crime and punishment generally push people’s buttons. Others need an extra ingredient to raise them from the realms of the parish newsletter.
Planning rows are one example. We could do a planning row every other day, but they’re seldom interesting to anyone other than people within a mile radius. We look out for the exceptions…like the stink kicked up when a wannabe Stringfellow opened a strip club slap bang in the middle of the otherwise quaint and traditional town of Ampthill. Probably the biggest scandal there since 1533.*
The listeners loved that one, because it’s the sort of tale that tickles the snob/ schoolboy** in all of us.
The same snot-nosed kid also loves to see the mighty fall – or at least make a wally of themselves – so a good grilling of anyone official will also float his boat. The listener may switch on half way through, they may not know what the hoo-ha’s about, but when they smell bullshine they all like to point and laugh at the perpetrator.
By the way officials, here’s a tip for taking the wind out of our sails:
Instead of trying to fudge your way out of a situation where you’ve clearly been caught out, just admit it and offer a solution. Honestly, the number of uncomfortable interviews that could have been avoided if the speaker had just said they’d ballsed up and they’d do X to make sure it didn’t happen again…
…actually I’ve just ballsed up by saying that, haven’t I? Ok guys, carry on fudging, it’s much more fun for us!
Anyway, back to Sadie the donkey, looking glum in her field. I guess the idea behind that is that the audience likes a furry, fun or ‘wacky’ story. I just think stuff like that’s a bit too knowing.
Would we do one? Possibly…but I can’t really think of recent example, so probably not…the closest we’ve got to a hilarious animal story was the time Fire and Rescue were called to save a dove from some netting at a supermarket, but that was less about the hapless bird and more about whether it was a waste of time and resources.
Admittedly, once that question had been put to the Area Commander we had some fun with it…
I guess what I’m trying to express is that local news doesn’t have to sound small. If you wouldn’t/ hear see it on the national news, maybe you should ask yourself whether it’s got a place where you are. How many people does it affect directly? How many more will it touch? And if you’re not bothered about it, be brave enough to admit it and give it a miss.
*The year Henry the Eighth sent his first wife Katherine of Aragon to be detained there while he shacked up with Ann Boleyn. You get the idea. It’s been a while.
**Yes I know I’m a woman, but I also have an inner schoolboy. His name’s Steve. I try to ignore him. He’s mostly an idiot.
OK, so I’m cheating again. While Katherine has been following the remit of actually writing about How To Do Radio, I am for the second time, digging into my unfinished book about how I got into radio. There aren’t really any suggestions on how to make radio better, but I hope it sets the scene slightly for how I ended up where I am now. I can’t stress enough how much I love local radio now and think it really is the breeding ground for new talent (also the graveyard for a few dinosaurs as well…) and also an incredibly powerful force.
Saying that, I wasn’t that keen when I started in it in the late 90’s.
With that in mind, here is half of Chapter 1 of a book I’ll never finish (unless someone is interested…?) Notice it finishes halfway through a sentence.
CHAPTER 1 :
Something on the Horizon
Milton Keynes is a new town that came into being in early 1967. London was overflowing, so in an attempt to get people out of the swinging capital, a load of these new towns were created. I think. I’m not actually sure if this is right as I am literally nicking this stuff from Wikipedia, the home of the made up fact. I never trust anything I read on that site, mainly because for several years I was listed as being a gay cowboy on there. I can assure you, I have NEVER ridden a horse in my life.
When I tried to change the lie about being a gay cowboy and the rumour that I was Christopher Lee’s grandson (a pretty good rumour, that I actually started myself) I got blocked from updating the page. My own page. A page about me. Cheeky sods.
Anyway, Milton Keynes is a strange place. Some people love it, many hate it. They see it as cold and impersonal as it has an image of being all concrete cows and roundabouts. There are a lot of roundabouts, that is true, and there are some concrete cows, I have no idea why. But there are some nice parts of MK as it’s often and annoyingly abbreviated. There is a peace park that is very, er, peaceful. And there’s definitely lots of greenery scattered around.
I’ve spent far too much of my time in Milton Keynes as my nan lived there towards the end of her life, so I have a vague notion of the grid system (based on New York, although nowhere near as glamorous) and how to get around. Sort of.
Importantly for this story, Milton Keynes is where my radio career started.
My then ‘agent’, let’s call him Steve, got me an interview for the job. I should stress that if I were telling this to your face, I would humorously be doing speech marks around the word agent with my fingers. This would be to indicate that he wasn’t actually my agent, although he did occasionally get me work. Every time I asked him to be my agent, he always said he wasn’t interested in representing me. That was until I got offered The 11 O’Clock Show. Then he shoved a five year contract in my face. I promptly told him to get stuffed and signed with one of the biggest management agencies in the UK. Steve promptly sued my ass.
Milton Keynes was miles away from me, but I dutifully got the train from London and wondered exactly what I was being seen for. It was a local radio gig. I was a young and trendy comedian, starting to make my name on the comedy circuit (I wasn’t. I was actually pretty rubbish) and getting ready for my big television break that was surely going to happen at any moment (strangely, it wasn’t far off, and this job would prove crucial in me getting it). The point is, everyone knew that local radio was a joke and I wanted nothing to do with it.
Even the station sounded naff to my young, pretentious ears. Horizon 103.3. Sweet Christ, this was not what I was put on this earth for. I could see my future stretching out in a never ending line of talking complete bollocks to utter idiots. How prophetic.
That was in 1997. It’s now 2011 and I haven’t been back to either the studios or Milton Keynes since then. I got in touch with Trevor Marshall, the breakfast show host when I got my job there, and asked him to meet me at the old building for a chitty chat about radio and stuff. He was happy to oblige and met me there one sunny afternoon.
I always liked Trevor. He’s a short chap with a huge personality. Perfect breakfast host material. Talkative, funny, a little bit corny sometimes but a nice bloke. He had made me feel very welcome when I was forced onto his breakfast show by the programme controller Paul ‘Kenny’ Kenton. I never knew if Trevor wanted me there or not, but he always had time for me.
Going back to Horizon felt odd. Not having been to MK for years, I of course got completely lost. Even my trusty sat nav couldn’t quite find its way through the maze of roundabouts and weird little estates. But soon I was on a familiar road and even remembered the roundabout where I’d done a complete circular skid in the ice one year, in my crappy Ford Fiesta that my mum bought for me just for this job. That car was complete and utter shite. I should have known there were problems when, after my mum had paid for it, I went to collect it and it wouldn’t even start. That’s not good for a car, is it? Starting is quite an important factor when it comes to motion of said vehicle. But being stupid and eager to please, I took the salesman’s bullshine with a smile and waited while they put a new battery in. The very next day, on my first drive to Milton Keynes, at 5.30 in the morning, going up in the fast lane of M1, the car died. All power went. I bricked myself and had to do everything I could to get it onto the hard shoulder. Its 14 years since I bought that car, and it still annoys me today. I scrapped it in a fit of rage a couple of years later when I had a mental stalker who slashed the tyres. I’m surprised I kept it that long to be honest.
Anyway, I got to the old studios which are now owned by Heart, even though they don’t broadcast from there. Trevor turned up in a nice family motor. A far cry from the sporty little number he used to drive back in the day, I remember it because a – it was a nice car, but more importantly because b – it was branded with HIS NAME ON IT! I had never seen anything like it before. It said something like ‘Milton Keynes Motors Are Proud To Support Trevor Marshall’. I swear to God this is true. It was amazing! I was so impressed but would have been mortified to have had anything like that myself. I asked him if looking back, he felt embarrassed about driving that car.
‘It was a free car. I was 25 and it was a massive ego boost.’
‘So it didn’t embarrass you in the slightest?’
Pause. ‘A little bit. But it was a free car.’
The breakfast show was presented by Trevor and Helen Legh. They were The Morning Crew, a term that 99% of all local radio stations used to make their breakfast team sound more personable. It didn’t matter that if you drove 20 miles in any direction you would come across another Morning Crew with the similar set up of a nice bloke hosting and his friendly female side kick.
I really have to stress at this point, that this snobbishness and arrogance when it comes to local radio was how I felt THEN. Now, I think local radio is a great resource for the community and it upsets me how everything has become homogenised, as nearly all the real local stations have been bought by Globo-Tech and turned into one huge station, the only ‘local’ bit being the travel or the ads for Carpet Rite. Yes, a lot of local radio is still terrible. Smarmy types you want to smash in the mouth pretending they are your best mate, and irritating girls who can’t speak properly, all playing an overabundance of Robbie Williams and telling you just how great the weather is in your beautiful town, a town which you know is actually a dump, because you live there. But, it was a real breeding ground for new talent and general oddness. You don’t hear of Radio 1 or Capital leaving a 24 year old with only 15 minutes of studio training on their own to present a 4 hour show on Christmas Day, as happened to me at Horizon! No legal prep for me. No compliance or OFCOM exams to sit. Just a ‘this fader is for the news and this one is for the songs. See ya.’
I wasn’t even that pleased to be given the Christmas show. Most young bucks would have been over the moon to have had that opportunity. But I really resented it. Balls. I’d never worked on Christmas Day before. It was Christmas Day. No one worked then. That was unheard of. But I did it because I had no choice, and I had a bloody good crack at it. Instead of just playing whatever the hits of the day were and doing ‘shout out’s’, I tried something a bit more adventurous. It sounds naff now, and was a complete rip-off of something I’d heard Chris Morris do on GLR, but I attempted a prank phone call. Prank calls were a staple diet of radio presenters in the 70’s and 80’s, popularised by Noel Edmonds. He would phone up pretending to be from the local council and needed to commandeer the living room of the person he was ringing to stage a party for the queen. Or something. I can’t really remember. What I do recall though is that his calls were hilarious at the time, they would actually make a small drop of wee come out. When you listen to them now, it’s incredible to think they even produced a titter. They are so slow and meandering and, well, not funny. I guess that perhaps we have all got a bit too media savvy and that particular brand of comedy doesn’t date too well.
The prank had gone out of favour but was seeing something of a resurgence when comedy genius Chris Morris reinvented them with a darker edge. Ringing British Airways to ask if their aeroplanes were ‘sniffing the building’ when they parked up, was utterly absurd and wonderful. A lot of my comedy in TV and radio was based/borrowed/completely nicked from Mr.Morris and I’ve never hidden that at all. I was for a while called the poor man’s Chris Morris and for some reason I have never been able to shake that. Oh well, I could be called worse. In fact, I have been called worse (I refer you again to the quote I mentioned earlier from Time Out. They actually printed the complete word without an asterisk to hide the vowels! I didn’t know that was allowed).
My phone call on this reluctant Christmas special was nowhere near as clever or as dark as Morris’, but for me it was a minor triumph. Partly because I actually got the recording equipment to work (I hadn’t been taught this, I worked it out myself) but mainly because I felt I was subverting the genre. With this small step, I would bring all local radio crashing down around my ears and be lifted from the rubble on to the shoulders of the cool kids who would all hail me a creative genius.
I can’t remember the exact details, but I seem to remember calling a shop somewhere and pretending I thought the person I was talking to was James Bond actor Roger Moore. It took a few calls to get someone who was either stupid enough or bored enough to play along. I asked him what he got for Christmas and he reeled off some things, I then asked him what his favourite Bond film had been and I think he said ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. I then probably ended it by saying something rude and slamming the phone down. Brilliant! In your face convention. No one can deny that I am a total comedy god with that superbly executed stunt.
Actually, typed out like that, it’s hard to see where the funny bit is. I’m a little disappointed that this one gag that I have always imagined as being the cornerstone of my comedy, is pretty poor. As no tapes of this exist (all of my Horizon stuff went missing when I sent it to Trevor and Helen for a compilation they were putting together) I have to assume that there was a brilliant gag in there that I’m forgetting. There must be. It can’t have been as rubbish as that.
Of course, I wouldn’t be allowed to do that now. Nowadays, there are bloody rules. There may have been bloody rules then, but as no-one had told me of them, I was blissfully unaware. Anyways, the bloody rules now state that you have to tell someone if you are recording them. And if you intend to broadcast the recording, you have to tell them that as well! That’s ridiculous. As soon as you’ve made someone look a tit, and then say ‘by the way, I’m recording this to be played out on the radio where everybody is going to think you’re a nob, is it OK if we use this recording?’ all you’re going to get in return is a torrent of abuse and a threat that if any of this ever gets broadcast, you will get your balls sued off. We once had a similar threat from a gentleman after we had revealed to him that he had been secretly filmed for the 11 O’Clock Show. My director at the time, a young James Bobin who recently directed a Muppet movie, took the decision that as we had been filming in Paris and this gentleman was actually from New Zealand, the odds of him ever finding out were nil. So his clip got used. And he saw it. And we got sued and there was a huge payout and all of the other stuff we had filmed on the continent was pulled.
The Christmas special was a one off. I don’t think I was allowed to do any other shows on my own. I worried it was because of the prank phone call or maybe it was to do with me missing the news every hour. But I’m not even sure that anyone at the radio station even heard it. I was there literally because no one else would fill that 4 hour slot.
No, most of my work at the station was being the sidekick to Trevor and Helen. I was ‘Iain in Black Thunder’. This was a title that I genuinely thought sounded quite cool until I mentioned it to one of my London mates. His response was ‘that is the gayest thing I have EVER heard.’ I didn’t mention it to anyone else after that.
Black Thunder was a black jeep that was covered in Horizon logos and had transmitting equipment in the back. It was an idea nicked from Australia, and had proven very popular over there. I’m not so sure it ever really took off in the UK, although there were dozens of Black Thunders all over the country. Each morning, maybe 3 or 4 times, Trevor would say ‘I wonder what Iain in Black Thunder is up to right now?’ I would then come on live from the middle of some shitty council estate or outside Next in the shopping centre doing something ker-azy!
It’s a struggle to remember what I did. Trevor couldn’t really remember either, that’s how captivating it must have been. The only stunt I can recall with any clarity is one where I had to climb around a table without touching the floor. You would sit on the top and then sort of swing your way underneath it holding on and then crawl under the table top but…oh I don’t know. I know it bloody hurt. I then had to try and encourage the people that had bothered to turn up to take part. That was the really hard bit. As surprising as it may seem, I am genuinely rather shy and hate going up to people in the street. But at least 5 days a week, that’s exactly what I had to do – approach strangers to see if they would like to take part in a ridiculous stunt.
‘What do I get?’ they would ask.
‘The chance to go on the radio and say hi to all your mates’ would be my nervous, unconvincing response. Then, as they inevitably turned away, I would shout out ‘You can have some car stickers.’
Surprisingly, car stickers would usually do the trick and see them scuttling back to have a go.
It was an odd experience, me being someone who didn’t really care about the people I was approaching, and the people I was approaching not really caring about doing what I was asking them to do. It must have sounded a right barrel of laughs on the wireless. To make matters worse, you would always get a group of feral kids turn up just so they could shout ‘Piss off’ on the airwaves. There was nothing I could do. Even though they were only about 12 years old, they could totally have kicked the crap out of me.
The way we came up with these stunts was to look through the papers for the quirky news story of the day and then work something out around that. We probably got people to try and break the world record for eating dry crackers, everyone on the radio must have done that.
For some strange reason, I wasn’t allowed to use my name, Iain Lee. I should add here that at the time, my real name was Iain Rougvie. But no one could spell it or pronounce it. Go on, try and say it. Nope. Totally wrong. It’s pronounced like rugby but with a v. It’s stupid, and at the time I wasn’t really getting on with my dad, so changing it seemed the obvious thing to do. Coming up with a new surname, is well hard. You have to keep in mind that if you become famous, then this is how everyone is going to know you. I was never really keen on Iain, too many vowels and no hard letters, but I didn’t really fancy messing around with that. So I focused on the surname. Steve, the chap who was under no circumstances my manager, sent over a list of about 30 names once. They were all shit. He was putting pressure on me to pick one quickly, so I very nearly became Iain Cargo, the best of the dross he suggested. But I held out and eventually settled on Lee, mainly because it was my middle name anyway and wouldn’t feel like such a huge change to me.
I didn’t officially change the name until 2008. I decided I did not want to carry on the Rougvie name at all (I really wasn’t getting on with my dad at this point) so one, Sunday morning, I looked online to see about changing my name by deed poll. I thought I’d just have a look as such a monumental thing must be incredibly difficult and expensive. 12 minutes later, I was officially Iain Lee. Turns out it was well easy. All you do is type I what your name was, then type what you want it to be and then give them your debit card details so they can take £36 off you. It is the most empowering thing in the world. I got a huge rush of excitement from it, and I thoroughly recommend you all go and do it. If you don’t like it, you can always change it back.
Although the change wasn’t official until 2008, I had been using it for about 11 years before that for my stand up and was definitely Lee when I went to Horizon. However, there was a problem. Helen’s name was Legh. Which is pronounced Lee. People would get confused. What was going on? Were we married? Brothers and sisters? No, no, no, this would never do. Although Helen and I saw no problem with it, station controller Paul Kenton did. And my Lee had to go.
The four of us, Paul, Helen, Trevor and myself, spent a strange afternoon in Paul’s office trying to come up with a new name for me, not long after I’d spent quite a lot of time prior to this coming up with and choosing a new name for me. I knew from experience that this was going to be hard work and the end result would be a slightly disappointing compromise that would leave me feeling rather empty. We chucked around so many suggestions and none of them seemed to fit. Eventually, Paul got restless and asked ‘what’s your favourite group?’
‘The Beatles’, I quickly replied, trying to look cool. I did like them, but my favourite group has always been and will always be The Monkees. I even beat a Nolan and the bloke that wrote Cracker on Celebrity Mastermind with my specialist subject of the The Monkees. Seriously, I know more about them than anybody else. But The Beatles was my default answer when I wanted to look aloof, worldly and hip.
‘Ok’, said Paul, a plan forming in his evil mind (he wasn’t really evil, he was lovely, I’m just trying to make this more dramatic). ‘Pick your favourite Beatle, and have his surname as yours. That will work.’
It was obvious, but it was also genius. I grinned. My future was going to be set I was going to be Iain Starr.
‘Anyone except Ringo’, Paul said, almost as if he were reading my thoughts.
‘Er, OK. How about Harrison. I like George a lot. Iain Harrison could work?’
Kenton thought about it for a second then said ‘no, it doesn’t sound quite right. Pick another.’
Shit. They were genuinely my two fave mop-tops. ‘Lennon’ I squeaked, getting nervous now. Iain Lennon sounded rubbish to me, but certainly better than the remaining alternative.
Then, and I swear to God Paul said this, ‘No. That’s not right either. How about McCartney?’
Balls. I had totally been railroaded into being named after my least favourite Beatle. Don’t get me wrong, Macca is a genius, but he was certainly not who I wanted to be named after. But I was trapped. I’d been in that office for ages and I wanted to get out and go to bed (I used to sleep a lot). I feigned excitement and nodded. In the eyes of Milton Keynes, I was now Iain McCartney
However, I did see this as my get out clause. If this job was rubbish and I, as I suspected, was terrible at it, then no one would ever know it was me. It would be this new surnamed