When a plane losing an engine doesn’t make the news.

Once, a long time ago, I was  complaining about the “dull and predictable” agenda of a certain Radio Scotland news programme. It was a programme that had secretly earned itself the slogan “we tell you the news like it’s your fault”. Naturally the then editor was having none of this and fired back with his oft-repeated questions.

“What stories did we miss? What was in the papers today that we didn’t cover in the programme?”

That, of course, was the basis of my complaint; the similarity of the news agenda across print, radio and TV. It seemed then as now, like editors operated some kind of cartel system, carefully agreeing the type and number of stories that can be released to the public. Often you see the same stories approached in the same way and, if you switch  TV channels, you see them running at the same time.

I’m not talking about the big events like natural disasters or acts of terrorism. Even anniversaries like the moon landing have their place. But it’s the other stuff: think-tank reports, surveys or even the way that bad weather events like snowfall get the same treatment: road chaos in Glasgow/Good news for skiers in the north.  It perplexed me how the BBC, with its many hundreds of reporters, broadcast so few original stories. That perplexity resurfaced this week during a Twitter exchange with a complete stranger. Said stranger suggested that BBC Local Radio “is dead” because station editors no longer have a passion for local news. Instead, he suggested, they prefer to pick up on talking points from the national agenda.

I have some sympathy for this view and in The Red Light Zone I observed that newsroom staff can work themselves to exhaustion doing stuff that would be best defined as information processing rather than journalism. By that I mean that much time is spent moving stories from their source in newspapers or social media and on to radio, television, online and then, ironically, back to social media.

I can recall many occasions when my natural curiosity has caused me to suggest an idea to the newsroom only to be told that they looked into it and “nothing came of it”. Fair enough until you see the same idea led to an exclusive in a local paper and at that point it is picked up by the same newsroom colleagues who previously swore there was nothing in it.

The scourge of press releases and official statements also hinders originality. Like that time I boarded an early morning flight from Inverness to London. A minute or so after wheels up it became clear the plane was not climbing as quickly as expected. At that point the captain announced we would be returning to Inverness because “we have lost an engine”. I still resent his use of “we” in such circumstances. Surely responsibility for the whereabouts of the engine lies with crew and airline and not the 200 odd passengers now regretting a life unlived as the plane circled the Moray Firth, dumping fuel to minimise the risk of a fireball return to Inverness.  In the end, we landed safely but with a fleet of fire trucks and ambulances chasing us along the tarmac.

Once back in the terminal building I called The BBC newsroom and spilled the details of our mid-flight scare. The reporter who took my call listened patiently then asked an unusual question.

  “But who’s saying this?”

   “It’s me. Jeff. I was on the flight.”

  “Yes but is there an official statement? “

  The conversation went back and forth like this until I gave up, hung up, found my car and drove home.  The story didn’t make the morning bulletins. It was aired at lunchtime by which time an official statement had come in.

  But here’s what I have learned over the years. Not everyone who works for BBC News is a good journalist and what’s more some of the best journalists in the BBC don’t work in News.  A programme like Radio 4’s You and Yours, for example, despite its twee title, regularly airs stories that you won’t hear anywhere else. And producers on Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams programme do likewise and often follow up small nuggets of information suggested by callers. Lunchtime presenter John Beattie carries a digital recorder  with him at all times and has secured many a brilliant interview on the hoof.

  And, you know, it’s not that difficult. Small radio stations could easily scoop the big BBC machine if reporters were encouraged to bash the phone, knock on doors and chase local leads… and editors had the courage and confidence to run stories that no one else has found.

  Then the fear of missing stories that others are running is replaced by the pride of running the stories that they aren’t.

“Where everybody was slashing everybody.”

Limmy book

“Where everybody was slashing everybody.”

That top line sounds like something from the theme tune of a 1980’s Glasgow sit-com. Perhaps one set in a neighbourhood bar called ‘Chibs” The kind of pub where everybody not only knows your name but also where you live and how much you still owe to the loan sharks. In fact, though, it’s a line from the opening of a very funny memoir written by the TV and online comedy star Limmy who describes his childhood in Carnwadrick, a council estate on the south side of Glasgow.
“in terms of how it felt living there, it didn’t feel as rough as some other places I’d heard of like Govan or Easterhouse, these places where it sounded like everybody was slashing everybody.”
As an Easterhouse boy myself, I’m well used to people bench-marking their own social status against my own home turf. Sure, there are parts of Dundee and Edinburgh which have rough reputations, but tell those east-coast tough guys that you are from Easterhouse and you can see them clearing the top step for you on the poverty podium. Offer the same information to people from Bearsden or Carnoustie and you can see them going for gold in the hundred metre sprint.
I’ve always been able to laugh at those who mock Easterhouse, mainly because I knew they were wrong. I remember the columnist and radio presenter Frank Skerritt writing an article published in a summer festival brochure. In it he included a joke about “how do you know a letter has come from Easterhouse? Look at the stamp on the envelope and you’ll see the Queen is holding her nose.” Ah, the old ones are the best.
Often the topic of my upbringing has been raised when I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper feature. I always go to great pains to confound expectations by describing my childhood as “idyllic” and, for the large part that’s true. I have memories of sunny days, wide open spaces, street games and laughter. It’s even been suggested I could write a book about those days, but others have beaten me to it. A few years ago, Rikki Brown wrote about his experiences growing up in the area and he, with great humour, was able to describe witnessing actual gang fights that did, indeed include some knife slashing and other assorted violence (some involving the use of a golf club). Rikki’s book, ‘Frankie Vaughan ate my hamster” also describes the highly publicised attempt by the showbiz star Vaughan to broker peace between rival gangs. There was also a weapons amnesty which lasted for just as long as the press photographers were there to capture scores of young boys (some of whom might even have been gang members) depositing sticks and bricks into a large metal bin.
Such incidents are far removed from my own memory of Saturday morning bike rides to Drumpellier Loch and ice cream sundaes at Shandwick Square shopping mall. Or the tree swing across the Monklands canal. Or fossil hunting in the peat-fields near Commonhead. Or snowball fights in the square at Corsehill Street. I could go on and my current connection with the Platform arts group in Easterhouse would give me a brand-new list of good things to say about the place.
And yet…I realise I have chosen to blanket some bad memories. Like the time Danny Pryce and I wandered down to watch the new electric trains at Easterhouse station, not realising we had trapped ourselves in no man’s land between two warring gangs: The Skinheads and the Toi . As the battle raged either side of us, we beseeched an elderly pedestrian to give us sanctuary and he escorted us back into safer ground. Or the time Danny and I were walking to school and a bloke pulled a gun on us. It turned out to be an air pistol, but the thwack thwack of pellets hitting a nearby tree made it no less fearsome.
So, yeah, one gang fight and some gunfire. Balanced against all the good memories, it’s not really enough to fill a book.
Or is it?

Coming soon. Red Light Zone Radio

jeff mural

There was a time when most quality newspapers published a weekly review of radio programmes.  These days, not only are such columns a rarity, but many of the newspaper titles which carried them are long gone too.  A pity, because those of us who made or make radio programmes yearn for someone to notice their existence and offer some kind of critique, preferably the positive kind.  Admittedly, when I think back to the glory days of radio reviewers, most of them focussed on BBC shows. One notable exception was Ken Garner whose weekly column ranged across the dial to include commercial radio and even temporary student stations.

In the olden days, of course, a station’s potential audience was neatly contained within the reach of its transmitter.  When yon new-fangled internet came to be a thing you could hear programmes from all over the world.  I remember how that led to an surge of optimism among Scottish radio presenters and producers who entertained fantasies of their listenership being swollen by people tuning in from Belfast to Bangkok. The occasional email from overseas always created a frisson of excitement and probably still does.

Now, with the advent of the Radio Player and BBC Sounds, programmes are being torn from their station moorings and offered to listeners based on their interest in particular topics or genres. It means that comedy shows from, say BBC Radio Wales, sit side-by-side with those originally broadcast on Radio 4 or Radio Scotland.  Which makes you wonder why those remaining radio reviewers don’t spend more time sampling output that doesn’t come from Broadcasting House in London. Hey, why not let your readers know what else is easily available on their smart speaker, phone or internet radio?

In an effort to do my bit, therefore, I’ll soon be launching the Red Light Zone podcast and offering a regular review of radio shows together with exclusive interviews with the people who make and present the shows and others connected with the industry. I’ve started recording material and Drew Carson at Radio Haver (a man who knows the world of podcasting better than me) is offering some good advice.

So, watch this space for the launch date announcement and get in touch if you want to tell me what’s happening in your radio world or shout about some great programmes that shouldn’t be missed. Or even, bad programmes that should be missed.

Happy either way.

 

Shelve this author discrimination

Bookshelf

Take a look at this photograph I snapped off a few weeks ago in a branch of Waterstones. Tell me if you notice anything odd about the positioning of my book – apart, that is, from the fact that I, like so many needy authors, turned it to face outwards. Notice anything else? Well, unusually, the books on this shelf are not arranged alphabetically by author’s name. Yep, us ‘Z’ people tend to find our books on the bottom shelf of shops and libraries, with the consequent risk of back injury for potential buyers. I mean, all good books have a strong spine, but some books require readers to have one too.
To be honest, I’m not a stranger to this kind of alphabetical discrimination. I first encountered it in the early years of school. On ‘medical day’ when all the pupils were lined up to see the nurse for the ‘head lice and hygiene’ check, Carol Armstrong and John Anderson were at the top of the queue. After the nurse had a quick peek at their scalp and pants, both were free to hit the playground for fun and games. Meanwhile Anne Marie Young and I inched slowly forward from the back of the line and, by the time the bad-tempered nurse called us she was already snapping elasticated waistbands in anger, playtime was over and we had missed the first fifteen minutes of an arithmetic lesson. This might have seemed like a bonus at the time, but perhaps explains why I still struggle with long division. Happily smart phones have proved teachers’ prophecies were wrong and we do, indeed, have calculators with us all the time.
Then there was the Glasgow telephone directory. We were the last name in the book and found ourselves the target of pranksters and ill-informed bigots. Not understanding that our name had a Polish origin, I was mystified by the semi-regular calls from morons suggesting that we should “go back to Pakistan where you belong.” Oh yes.
Between school and college, I had a brief period of “signing on” for unemployment benefit. It’s not something I tend to boast about and I didn’t back then. So imagine my embarrassment when lining up at the local dole office to discover the counters had been delineated, not just alphabetically, but by the use of surname. As I waited patiently in the ‘MACDONALD to ZYCINSKI’ queue, as indicated by the huge makeshift poster above the front desk, I doubted that anyone seeing the name MacDonald would automatically connect it with a particular individual (except maybe Ronald) but the Zycinski clue tended to narrow the field.
Names beginning with Z are fairly uncommon in Scotland, so much so that in the days of paper address books, people regularly used that page for noting shopping lists or for doodling. This must surely explain why no one called me much or invited me to parties. Even now, when checking into a hotel, receptionists assume that the first ‘Z’ they spot on their computer terminal is likely to be me. That’s why, last Thursday, I found myself checked in to Mister Zarwan’s room at the Holiday Inn in Glasgow. Luckily he had secured a much cheaper rate than I had and, when the mistake was spotted, the hotel kindly allowed me to keep that lower tariff. What happened to poor Mister Zarwan, I never found out.
But back to books and my advice to any would-be authors out there. Do consider an alphabetically advantageous nom de plume. Put it this way, Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie are still being talked about, but J.K. Rowling? Ah, maybe that’s where my theory falls down. So, I’ll stick to my spot on the bottom shelf. I’ll just tell everyone that people have bent over backwards to get my book. Or forwards. Whatever.

A book for the beach

Radio User Review

Just in time for summer, comes this cracking little review from Radio User magazine. When it comes to singling out lines of praise, it’s hard to beat the following: “This is a very well written book, which gives an excellent insight into the life of a BBC producer and station controller. It deserves to be successful and should be read by everyone working in or contemplating a career in the media.

Well, that covers quite a lot of people, so be sure to pack your copy alongside your sun cream and shades.  And I really don’t mind if you get blobs of ice cream on the pages. It’s a fun read, after all.

 

Jeff with ice cream

Seeing tomorrow’s stars and invisible BBC bosses

Gareth Waugh

I’m worried that my BBC de-toxification process hasn’t worked because every time I see a newspaper headline screaming abuse at my former employer, I have an instinctive urge to leap to the defence of my old chums and colleagues. In recent weeks there have been stories about massive hikes in executive pay, plans to strip pensioners of free tv licences and reports that the new BBC Scotland channel isn’t attracting enough viewers. The executive pay story is the hardest to defend, so I wont even try. The BBC’s rationale for boosting the already large salaries of its top bosses runs something like this: “we’ve cut the number of managers so those who remain are asked to take on additional duties so are being rewarded accordingly. But don’t worry, we aren’t giving them double the money…just a wee twelve percent bung here and there…so, you see, ha ha, we are actually saving money…ha ha. Calm down, everyone.”
The trouble with this strategy is that those remaining managers don’t actually have more time in their day to do twice the work. Not unless those savings are being invested in the kind of time-changers last seen in Harry Potter books that allow people to be in two places at once. This means that staff who complain that their bosses are rarely visible might have to accept they might now dissolve in to a puff of smoke. I know some staff who would welcome that.
Then there’s the free licence fee for the over-75s. This was a social benefit that was being funded directly by the Government, but now the buck (or lack of bucks) has been passed to the BBC who claim that they’ll have to cut programmes and services to pay for it. A clever move by the Government and the BBC’s attempt to explain the situation is not really helped by the aforementioned hike in executive pay.
And so to the new BBC Scotland TV channel. I watch it on and off, as I do with most TV channels, but the fact that I’m tempted to stop as I thumb the remote control through the Freeview listings tells me that there is, most days, something worth watching. More than that though, I’m impressed with the range of new faces and performers I see on screen and the way that Scotland is being portrayed as more than just hills, glens, bagpipes and crime lords. I’m seeing genuine stars of tomorrow make their debut in formats such as Comedy Underground where this week’s host, Gareth Waugh, turns out to have the facial expressions that make for comedy gold on the small screen. The end-credits of programmes are interesting too, because they offer evidence that a range of small Scottish  companies are gaining a foothold in the competitive world of TV production and, so long as the BBC Scotland channel continues to thrive, they will gain in confidence and expertise and will power a new creative industry in Scotland.
Of course there’s stuff I’m not so keen on. I don’t watch The Nine – not because its isn’t a well- produced and respectable news programme -but because by the time nine o’clock comes around I’ve usually seen enough news and there aren’t enough exclusive stories to tempt me to stay with the programme for an hour.
And, yes, sure, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool radio guy, so I would also like to see BBC Scotland invest in a new music station for Scotland and improve the quality of the local news opts on Radio Scotland.
But the great thing about no longer working for the BBC is that I can say these things out loud, in public, online and maybe even in the newspapers. But you know how they twist these things. Look out for the headline “Ex Radio Boss Slams Pay Hike for ‘Invisible’ Beeb Bosses’.

At least it’s not a puff piece.  Apart from that Harry Potter reference, of course.