Live radio?

LIVE! Radio.
In the late 1990s, during my early twenties, I spent a year or so doing an overnight radio show on a commercial music station. I'd work from midnight until six and, after I'd finished, walk home past an old corner shop. That it's not there nowadays adds to a feeling that, even though this was over a decade ago, the world I'm about to describe feels to me like a different era entirely.

"Live radio! How did the LIVE radio show go?" would be the shop keeper's greeting to me, every morning. He was an elderly man, a classic British eccentric, with an absurdly out of place cut-glass accent. He'd seen me buy sweets in that shop every morning since I'd been a school kid and obviously found it amusing I was now doing the highly respected job of "radio presenter".

I got the impression he was concerned about status because he'd often drop into conversation the fact that he knew doctors, councillors and "all sorts of people".

Theatrical by nature, and always upbeat in the morning, he had a routine to play out every time I saw him. With occasional minor variations, it went something like this:

"Aha! It's our 'live radio' broadcaster, how did the 'live radio' show go?"

"Yeh, it was a good one, did you hear it?"

"Afraid not, my radio won't pick it up, it's Radio 3 or 4 for me, I shall try again tonight!

But, tell me, this ... a 'live radio' show you do, is it 'live'? A live radio broadcast? All live?"

"Yeah, it's live alright, I've just been there doing it."

"Live radio, though? All live?"

"Yep, live radio."

He'd then sort of trail off, as if thinking about it. Maybe he'd turn and get a plastic jar of 'kola kubes' and start weighing them out into a paper bag for me. Then he'd come back to the topic:

"But, if it's live, all live, what would you do if something went wrong?"

"Erm, I don't know, depends what went wrong -"

"But what would YOU do though? Live radio?"

"Err, ah, I'm not sure. The show must go on I guess..."

"Yes, but LIVE radio though, how would you do it, if something went wrong?"

Now the look on his face would always turn into that of someone who'd kind of proved his point. It couldn't be live, not all of it, that'd be crazy! Back then, radio stations and the broadcast media didn't really have the reputation they do now. They didn't make mistakes or do things wrong.

Still relatively unchallenged by the internet the UK's broadcast media was significantly more powerful, and held in much higher regard, than it is today. The BBC's horrific Jimmy Savile scandal[1] was still a dirty secret being kept by employees within the organisation. The Brand/Sachs scandal had yet to happen. The admission that prizes and competitions were often fixed was yet to come. Even the fake guests scandal, that blighted TV talk shows for a while in the UK, was yet to break.

The fact things so rarely went wrong with the broadcast media seemed to be a form of proof to this guy that it couldn't therefore be "live". It must be, in some way, stage managed. Whenever I was in the shop he'd kind of shout, "live radio", as if there was a mystery to be solved, a point waiting to be dealt with.

Once, as he was enacting this routine while sorting stock, he popped his head up over the cornflakes and raised an eyebrow. After a slight pause he said, "the music's not live though is it?".

This was back in the days when we would still actually play CDs on the radio instead of most of it coming through a computer. Over the next five years that world vanished forever and was substituted by automated play out systems. The show I presented will in that time period have become non stop music with an occasional recorded voice chipping in. Still, he had a point, the music was recorded in advance by pop stars in London. I was stunned and a little confused, subconsciously it felt like he'd caught me out, I nodded and went, "no, the music's not live, no".

In a perfect world that would have been the end of the story and the bloke would've been making a profound point about the superficial nature of mass media. Look back at old news reports and footage of the media industry today and, if you were alive at the time, you'll know it often relates more to reality as we would have liked it to be.

However we don't live in a perfected world and the man in question was possibly just harmlessly insane. He kept up his shtick long after, in fact I never knew him not go into that routine, whenever he saw me. In other words, he is a real person and cannot be 'explained'.

Even so the fact our broadcast media was not "alive" rang true to me. Because it so rarely made mistakes, swore, shouted and broke down, it always appeared inauthentic to me. It had an occasional air of infallibility and authority which frankly was not earned by anything other than the weirdness of being able to send signals over long distances to many people at once.

The world we live in has always been noticeably different to the one the broadcaster's described. This is why it was so interesting when I first heard a proper Northern radio phone in show. Presenters such as Scottie McClue, James Stannage and Alan Beswick were all deliberately provocative and often absurdly theatrical but their callers returned fire with an authenticity I recognised. People who rang in and argued over the airwaves on those late night shows sounded like, and possibly were, my real life contemporaries. They stumbled over their words, occasionally swore and often didn't say "the right thing".

Again, the thrill of this requires context, back then seeing real live 'normal' people break through was an event in itself. Only people of a certain age can relate to the oddness of this. Nowadays "Reality TV" is almost ubiquitous but back then it was yet to be even seen as a genre in its own right. In my opinion phone in shows were its early predecessor. Furthermore I think the people who make television, who generally hate reality TV, have had their hands forced by the internet.

The net shows you stumbles, swears and people who say the wrong thing. Its picture of the world is closer to a reality I can relate to. Though still sometimes trying to depict a world as we would like it to be the internet is currently very much 'live' and few would doubt it.

That broadcasters populate our airwaves with performers who have a common sense of being involved in 'show business' perhaps accounts for some of the difficulties they're having these days. This tendency to recruit people from an overtly fake world of performance and story telling may be one of the key factors behind it's often poor attitude to truth and accountability in journalism.

This was dangerous, when some people took this vision of our world at face value and believed nothing other than pure facts were transmitted by the broadcast industry. However, the quantities of people who believed broadcasters unquestioningly has always been underestimated I think, mainly by the broadcasters themselves.

In a perfect world this eccentric man would have been teaching me these truths and his 'punch line' revelation that the music wasn't live would have been a comment upon them.


[1] More than half my readers are American. Not aware of Jimmy Savile? Google it. It's shocking.


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