7 – Drop The Damn Donkey by Katherine Boyle

7 – Drop The Damn Donkey by Katherine Boyle

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.

They shouldn’t.

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.


5 – You’re Having A Laugh

5 – You’re Having A Laugh

Don’t underestimate the power of laughter. Real laughter.

Get it right and you can talk about anything, the listener will forgive your trespasses and they’ll talk about you with their friends. You’ll become their friends.

One of the reasons Iain gets the calls he does is that he spends weeks, months, years, tickling them…not literally…it’s a strictly non-contact sport these days.

Let me put it another way…

…when you meet someone new, best not to initiate the relationship with “Have you ever been raped?” or “What do you think about Islamic State?” You’ve got to build up to questions like that.

Making the listeners laugh is not only a huge buzz for the presenter, it keeps them coming back for more. You’ll get them to stick around long enough to work out that there’s more to the host than being ruddy hilarious. They’ll learn to trust him/ her. They might even call.

A slightly older Katherine Boyle has a posh laugh.

Katherine Boyle has a posh laugh.

I can’t tell you how to brew funny, but I think it lies somewhere around being unguarded and honest. The presenter needs to relax, let go and allow themselves to open up. That doesn’t mean being a stand-up. Just be friendly, open and not too hung up about sounding ‘official’. The element of fun is something you can’t force, train or plan – in fact excessive planning can squeeze it out of a show – but give the right presenter the right team and space to breathe and you can guarantee a decent giggle rate.

So if you have a funny presenter, please give them a chance to show it.

I know, this is supposed to be work and it could be that you have a show crammed full of serious topics, but believe me, make time for a laugh and you’ll notice a real difference in the quality and quantity of listener interaction.

These kids are Loving BBC 3 Counties Radio.

These kids are digging BBC 3 Counties Radio.

One example of this is Iain’s relationship with one of our callers, Matt. When Matt started ringing up, it was always for a moan. Nothing we said made sense, the music was crap, he was going to go back to Chris Evans. Then Iain made him laugh…I think by offering him a fight in the car park.

Over the weeks that followed Matt rang up for a playful row every few days. He started out grumpy and left us laughing. Hearing that relationship develop was great and the messages we got suggested the audience enjoyed his calls as much as we did. Anyway, one day there was a story about dementia that made Matt forget his Chris Evans threats and tell us more about his life. Turns out he’d been caring for his wife Margaret for years and, recently she’d taken a turn for the worse. She was now in a nursing home and he was desperately worried and feeling really lonely without her.

The calls and offers of punches in the face continued, but so did the insights into Matt’s life. Iain would ask after Margaret, make sure Matt was looking after himself and then the ribbing would resume. One day Matt told us he’d been entertaining his wife and the other care home residents by singing Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers songs; “Jeez Matt, haven’t the poor souls suffered enough?”

Sadly Margaret’s condition got worse. When she died this time last year we were genuinely sad, and so were a great many listeners. Matt called to tell us the morning after, because in his words, ‘we’d become friends.’ Five minutes later, his daughter called to say that her dad’s calls to the station had been the only way she’d been able to hear how he’d been feeling. He’s an old-fashioned bloke, you see, doesn’t talk about emotions.

My God! That family had been genuinely touched by four divvies on a local radio station!

So what can you take from this?

If anything, it’s remembering that your listeners are only with you for a short time, then they go back to their lives. And while we’d all like to believe we’re keeping happy people company while they walk their waggy-tailed dog, or dish up delicious meals for two point four apple-cheeked cherubs who’ll no doubt grow up to be rocket scientists who make time in between launches to call their dear old mum, chances are they’re dealing with the same crap, if not worse crap, that we are.

Iain, Katherine and political reporter Paul Scoins record another breakfast show.

Iain, Katherine and political reporter Paul Scoins record another breakfast show.

They don’t tune in to be reminded of it. They want to be taken out of themselves, just for a few minutes, and you have the power to do that. Not with pun-based phone-ins or knock-knock jokes (although I’d never rule those out), but with real warmth and humour from a team that surprises itself as well as the listener.

That’s the power that comes with this job. You’re reaching out to people every single day and you may never know who you’re helping, but you are helping.

So have a go. Make yourself laugh, make the listener laugh, make a real connection.

It works.