Making front page news by accident

The National Front Page

Boris Johnson was making noises about the BBC licence fee and a reporter for the National contacted me via Twitter and asked me to comment.  We had arranged to speak by phone the next morning so I went to my keyboard and began noting some thoughts about the way the BBC is funded and how the licence fee money makes its way to Scotland.  That was when I realised I had quite a lot to say, although I’ve said most of it and more in The Red Light Zone. The phone call didn’t happen, but I sent the reporter – Andrew Learmonth – my notes.  He contacted me a few hours later and suggested we run my notes as a column.  Then this morning I woke up to find I was front page news and my phone started buzzing with tweets and retweets. Then my book started to sell out on   A funny old day.

Here’s a link to my accidental column.

And you can still get my book at Waterstones.

The astronaut who wouldn’t talk about the moon.

Radio interviews can be tricky, especially when the guest you have booked doesn’t talk about the one thing you want to discuss. In The Red Light Zone, I tell how we once booked astronaut John Young for a live appearance on BBC Radio Scotland. The producer had spent months negotiating with NASA to secure the interview. All sorts of security arrangements had to be put in place including a chauffer-driven car to bring him to the studio.  It all seemed worth it. This was one of the few men who had actually walked on the moon. He was still active in NASA and involved in the Space Shuttle missions.

What happened next is something I described to Pete Gavin for his excellent Final Word programme on North Highland Radio. That airs tonight (27th November) but here’s a sneak preview.


Sorry about last Christmas

Last Christmas I disappointed so many people (well four) by telling them that they couldnt get a copy of my book until its official launch inJanuary. Well, as it tends to do, Christmas has come round again and so you now have plenty of time to snap up a copy for th radio enthiusiast in your life. Besides, last year, I didnt have all these nice reviews to include in my promo video.  But I do now.

I had the right to remain silent

I was on my way to be interviewed for North Highland Radio yesterday when I was arrested. I assumed it was something to do with the way I had parked my car.  I had pulled into a residential side-street in Inverness but as I walked away from the car, I noticed I was a bit close to the junction, so I got back behind the wheel and moved it a few yards further forward.  Then I saw my interviewer, former BBC colleague Pete Gavin, waiting for me on the street with microphone in hand.  I barely had time to say hello when a car screeched in behind us and a cop in plain clothes emerged and asked me to face the wall, telling me I was under arrest and asking me if I had any sharp objects in my pocket. I told him I had a plastic comb. I warned him it had teeth

“So have I,” said the cop in a way that did nothing to slow my racing heart.  He then asked me if I had any identification on me.

“Don’t tell him your name, “ said Pete who, I noticed, was still recording the whole thing.  By this time, I was completely baffled, and my mind kept returning to the way I had parked my car. In fact, the cop started asking questions about my car, he recited my registration number and asked me to tell him if I had any items of equipment in the boot.

“Just some of my books”,  I said, feebly, forgeting to add the price and name of the publisher  (£8.99, Lunicorn Press – ideal Christmas gift) and still wondering if this whole thing was a joke. And, of course, it was.  Pete had arranged for a retired police officer pal to surprise me with this elaborate and far too convincing start to the interview which then continued inside Pete’s home studio complex as, under interrogation,  I was asked to identify an old Sony Walkman Cassette Recorder, a damp shirt and a Black and Decker garden strimmer.  All are items which, if you have read The Red Light Zone,  pertain to particular anecdotes I tell in the book. I daresay I had the right to remain silent, but not sure that would have made for good radio so I spilled the beans. I blabbed. I ‘fessed up.

It was , in any case, the most interesting start to any media appearance I’ve done this year and I’m not sure whether to congratulate Pete on his creativity or sue his pal for wrongful arrest.

I’ll let you know when the interview airs.


This should be a scream

I do enjoy my new career as a traveling author- probably a little too much. What started out as simple speaking engagements with a few readings, has gradually morphed into the bare bones of a one man show. It started with a few videos, then some props and, latterly some costume changes, a comedy routine and a musical finale. Now I plan to add a little bit of true-life horror.

My excuse, if I needed it, was that my booking in Linlithgow happens to fall on the 30th of October. Well, that’s as close to Halloween as I can get, so I plan to finish my usual sequence of radio stories with a bit of a gear change and a personal anecdote from my childhood.  This is something I remembered while doing research for a bigger project I’ll be able to tell you about next year.

This story involves a mystery – as yet unresolved – about a strange occurence that happened one night while my sister and I were asleep in our bunk beds. It also involves a strange door my older brother had in his bedroom and, for good measure, a midnight trip to a tomb in Clackmananshire.

If you want to hear the whole story (and all the usual tales about the BBC), you’ll have to book tickets via the Far From the Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow.  I’ll post the link below.  But  watch the video to hear how the story begins.

Is the BBC killing radio?

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Drew Carson’s new Radio Haver magazine features an article which poses the question: Is Radio Dead?  That’s a question I was asked dozens of times in my radio career and one that I and other radio folk try to answer again in Drew’s fine new publication.  In the 25 years that I worked for the BBC, I heard countless strategists (usually slumming it from TV) predict the demise of radio. They always got it wrong, just as they got it wrong when they predicted the death of network television and hard-copy books.  In each case, the analysts always seemed to be in thrall to the possibilities of digital technology and overlooked key factors in the popularity of the old stuff.

I love my  Amazon Kindle, but I dont take it into the bath and it doesnt look good on my bookshelf.  Sure, we’ve seen cassette tapes replaced by CD’s and CD’s replaced by online music dowloading and streaming services. That evolution happened because the new technology wasn’t just better or more convenient that the one before, but because it offered a direct replacement for it.  Just as on-demand movie services like Netflix offered a direct replacement for video rental shops like Blockbuster, but only a partial replacement for broadcast television.  Millions might binge-watch the next series of The Crown on Netflix, but millions will also enjoy the shared Saturday-night experience of watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC 1.

Streaming music services don’t offer a direct replacement for the convenience and companionship offered by live radio services and neither do podcasts.  In the U.K. commercial radio owners like Global and Bauer are investing heavily in creating more linear radio stations (funded, sadly, by reducing spend on local content). The BBC, meanwhile, is gambling licence-payers money on the creation and continued promotion of BBC Sounds and the Director of Radio, James Purnell, clearly thinks that radio is heading for the same on-demand future as television.  Yet, when you ask people which BBC podcasts they actually listen to, most people point to those connected to existing radio programmes, the kind of programmes they used to find easily on the BBC’s radio iPlayer. Those arent real podcasts, they’re just time-shifted radio shows.

That’s not taking anything away from the work that BBC producers are putting into genuine, specially produced stand-alone podcasts, but the audiences for those are tiny compared to the BBC’s live radio output.  Many BBC podcasts are superb, but they are not a replacement for live radio. If anything, they’re filling a gap left by long-form print journalism. The independently produced podcasts you hear curated on Radio Haver offer the kind of specialised music and cultural content that isnt available on linear radio.  So again, not a replacement but an alternative.

I’m sure James Purnell’s strategy is being informed by the the kind of detailed and expensive analysts’ reports that I saw time and again in my BBC years.  He wont be making this stuff up as he goes along or woking from a hunch.  His previous career in politics offers no clue to any hitherto hidden expertise in broadcasting, so he must, surely,  be relying on the expertise of others.

In that case, commercial radio owners investing their company coffers in the future of live radio must be wrong…and the BBC is right.  The alternative explanation is more worrying; that radio isn’t dead, but the BBC is trying to kill it.

Meanwhile, here’s the link to the Radio Haver magazine.



The return of Johnny Sellotape… and Santa.


Johnny in Aberfeldy

It started with a coconut and then I added a banana.  I laid these out on the table while I explained to the audience that these were my aide-memoirs.  Each one of these props would remind me to tell a paritcular story and if, by the end of my alloted hour, there were some unexplained items on the table, it would mean I had forgotten to tell them something.

“Some people tie string to their fingers to remind them of things, ” I said, “But I never go anywhere without bits of fruit.”

The cocounut and banana related to the use of sound effects in radio drama, but also on the table were three hats and a roll of sticky tape.  That last item was my prompt for a story about my short-lived stint as a stand-up comedian and my alter ego, Johnny Sellotape.  Johnny, I explained, also had a poor memory, so he taped emergency jokes to his jacket and deployed these when things got a bit, well, sticky.  The audience at Aberfeldy library seemed keen to see Johnny in action, so I donned one of the aformentioned hats and then a suitably corny showbiz jacket and reeled off some of the the most groan-inducing jokes you’ll ever find on those ‘worst jokes in the world’ websites.  Such as:

“What goes up but never comes down?  A Yo.”


“Did you hear about the robbers who got caught breaking into a calendar factory? They each got six months.”

I kept up this barrage of nonsense until I could see that some members of the audience were becoming quite ill…then I changed hats to tell the story of the song I tried to ban from Radio Scotland.  It was ‘Santa’s a Scotsman’ of course – written and produced by my friend Richard Melvin. The two of us concoted a plan for me to ban the song on the grounds that lyrics such as “too many pies, not enough exercise, of course he’s one of us” represented a negative stereotyope of Scottish people.   When the Edinburgh Evening News came calling for a quote, I staged an immediatate climbdown and explained that ” as someone who last had fun in 1978, I have trouble recognising it in others.”

The song is now a festive favourite of Ken Bruce on Radio 2  .

The good people of Aberfeldy, including the wonderfully helpful librarian Karen MacKay (pictured above)  having suffered through the Sellotape routine, deserved a treat. So, not only did I play them a bit of the song, but I gave away free CD copies with every signed copy of the Red Light Zone.   And if you would like one, just head over to my Writes and Speaks website, (click here)  After all, Christmas isnt far away.