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.




‘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.

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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.