‘Officer Karen’ on bananas, tea towels and Glenda Jackson

She’s probably best known as the long-suffering Officer Karen in BBC Scotland’s Scot Squad comedy.  But Karen Bartke  (pronounced like Barky, with a silent ‘t’)  owes much of her success to radio drama and comedy.  I spoke to her this week while recording interviews for the forthcoming Red Light Zone podcast. She’s a producer’s dream – just point a microphone at her and she tells one funny story after another.  She’s shares a few secrets too. Did you know, for instance, that actors required to eat in a radio play are, more often than not, given bananas to munch on? Apparently that’s one of the few foodstuffs that actually sound like real eating.  Biting into toast, on the other hand, sounds like someone walking on breaking twigs.

Ahead of the podcast launch – which will focus on people now working in different spheres of the radio business – I thought I’d give you this sneaky clip of Karen talking about her time in the  BBC’s radio drama company.


Walking and talking on the radio

The morning programme was discussing at the changing fortunes of the High Street  and so the brief from the BBC producer was simple: just walk along Inverness High Street and tell us what you see. Well, that sounded easy. I’m sure I had recorded similar pieces hundreds of times in my broadcasting career.  Of course, it’s been a while since I did that kind of thing and, ok,  I was a bit rusty,  I had no problem with walking down a street and talking to myself. I was easily able to ignore the odd stares from passers-by.  And I had no trouble coming up with something to say. I’m a veteran when it comes to verbal rambling. Ask anyone.  No, it was the wind noise that threw me.  Just a slight breeze that afternoon in Inverness, but it was sending the needle on my digital recorder rocking into the red danger area.  After three tries and as many sojourns along the precinct, I finally found a quiet alcove near the (now closed) Castle Restaurant.  And so…let the babbling commence.


Wives with knives and spoons and tunes and mermaids.

Choosing a name for a new business is, I’ve discovered, even trickier than deciding on the name of a radio programme. What they both have in common though – or should have – is the goal of coming up with something that meets the criteria of doing “exactly what it says on the tin”. To that end, you can’t be too clever, nor too enigmatic. My first ever BBC radio series was about famous hoaxes and it was called ‘Waiting for Mermaids’ but you had to be halfway through the first episode before you heard the story of the Hong Kong fishermen who sparked a huge frenzy when they told people they had captured an actual mermaid out in the South China Sea. The title didn’t really fit the rest of the series, which went on to talk about the Hitler Diaries and the sinister caller who wasted years of police time by claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper.
In the appendix to my book I listed fifty programmes with which I was proud to be associated in my career and I concluded by giving an honourable mention to a programme which ended up with one of the most bizarre and convoluted titles I ever came up with. It was a Saturday afternoon conversation format featuring the wives of famous sports people, but, ahem, they would also be talking about cooking. So the original title was ‘Wives with Knives’. I liked the poetry of that, but a colleague expressed alarm that the show was airing during a period when knife crime in Glasgow was making headlines. Panicking, we changed it to ‘Wives with Knives and Spoons’, but then another colleague noted that the title didn’t make it clear that the show would also include music, and so… ‘Wives with Knives and Spoons and Tunes’ was what we eventually put in the Radio Times.
Anyway, let’s get down to business, or rather my new business. An intensive Business Gateway course in Inverness gave me the push I needed to get things going. In the past 12 months people have been kind enough to employ me either as a writer or lecturer or have asked me to offer advice on podcasting and publicity. Combining all this into one operation seemed like a way forward and, as I began to fill in various forms for those lovely people at HMRC, I realised I would have to come up with a name for what, I’m certain, will eventually be a huge multinational conglomerate swallowing up every other media business on the face of the planet. Of course, in this online world, you need to come up with a domain name too and it’s frustrating when you realise that all your best ideas have already been registered. But then I went back to basics. What is it that I do, and what should it say on the tin? Well, I write…and, er, I speak. So Writes and Speaks it is.
Actually, writesandspeaks.com

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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.