Learning when to shut up.

I’ve always had a love affair with Radio.  From the days I ‘borrowed’ my Dad’s Russian made transistor to listen to radio 1 in the late 60’s, through to a massive FM radio for the beginnings of Swansea sound in the 70’s, right down to today where I tend to listen via my mobile phone.

I did my first radio interview when I was 13 years old. I became a researcher and radio producer as soon as I left university and in 1987 I became a full time radio presenter.  I think it’s fair for me to believe I understand how the medium works.

This week I’ve been learning how to make radio all over again.

Due to a strange set of circumstances I am presenting 2 very different types of radio programme at the moment, Classic Songs and the Chris Needs Show.

Last summer I had put together a 3 hour programme called Classic Songs to fill the sport less summer Friday evenings on BBC Radio Wales. It’s a pretty simple formula.  I choose lots of songs that I love and talk about them.  I then ask the listeners to choose 3 songs and tell me why those songs mean so much to them.  There are no boundaries and no limits on genre.  We go from the Beatles to Frank Sinatra, from Abba to Pavarotti. When sport returned I put all my CDs back in the boxes hoping that maybe one day we would get a second series.

When the full extent of the serious nature of the coronavirus finally hit it soon became clear that radio production would need to adapt.  All of a sudden there was no sport.  No matter how good the pundits might be in analysing past games or predicting the outcome of future matches when there is absolutely no sport and no prospect of any sport in the foreseeable future it soon became clear that there would be some gaps in the schedule.  Classic Songs was back in the schedules.

I know how lucky I am to be able to play wonderful music and talk about those songs to my heart’s content, but it does take quite a lot of time to prepare. You need variety; male, female, band, instrumental, old, new, fast, slow and all must be contained in 3 hour long sections that each last 55 minutes and 45 seconds approximately.  Every hour’s segment has to be shorter than an hour to allow for the news, weather and travel.

What I have learnt to do over my years as a broadcaster is to talk.  It might be absolute nonsense but if my producer askes me to talk for 1 minute and 17 seconds to make sure that we hit the news at the correct time, I can do it.

Now with a programme like classic songs I work on the principle of guilt by association or in my terms greatness by association.  Having been in the music business since I was 13 and because I have now reached this great age I have a lot of stories.  I will quite often drop names of some of the most successful artistes in the world, tell the audience how I worked with them, sang with them, interviewed them, bumped into them on the bus…anything to give a bit of colour before I play one of the records. I call it clinging to celebrity by my fingernails. 

But that’s the thing, if you are a radio presenter you have to talk because there is one thing that radio abhors and that’s silence. Silence during a radio programme leads to panic on both sides of the studio glass.  This is especially true at the moment with so many presenters broadcasting from a spare bedroom, the attic or garden shed. Have they stopped talking or has the internet connection gone down?

After all these years of talking, this week I have learnt the benefit of silence, the art of shutting up.  Having spent all those years filing in the gaps it is hard not to talk, but when it comes to the Chris Needs show, I have found that silence can be Golden.

It’s hard to believe that its 2 weeks since BBC Radio Wales lost one of its most loved presenters. For over 20 years Chris had presented his late night show and created such a community that they had their own name, badges, mugs and social gatherings.  Chris Needs’ Friendly Garden had over 50,000 members and as well as joining Chris every night the members of the garden soon became friends off air as well.  They would meet up to go shopping or out for tea together or just to ring around every so often to offer love and support to other Garden Members.

I was asked to look after the ‘Friendly Garden’ and the first week was filled with emails and texts all paying tribute to how much Chris had meant to them all.

This week has been slightly different.  Whilst trying our best to remember the heritage of the Garden we wanted to try to start the healing process and move forward.  As I said on Monday’s show I was sure Chris would want us to start smiling again.

And then we opened the phone lines. At first my broadcasting training kicked in. Ask questions, keep the conversation going.  Then I realised, the best thing I could do was nothing. People had called in for a bit of a chat, but they had stories to tell, people they wanted to mention and songs they would like to hear.

On radio you are so used to hearing experts giving opinions or analysis that quite often you don’t just hear people talk about, well, nothing in particular and its brilliant.

Like the father and daughter who had harvested their courgettes and were making a curry.  The lad who was looking forward to his birthday this weekend back home with his family in Barry but was worried about leaving his cat Charles with a friend in the Rhondda.  He used to have 2 cats Charles and Camilla, but Camilla turned out to be a bit evil apparently, so she had to be moved on.

Then there was Muriel from Neyland who had been listening to Chris for over 17 years.  She had met him quite a few times at the Torch Theatre or the Pembrokeshire Show. She had even spent an evening watching Chris present his show at the BBC studios in 2007 after winning a competition on Radio Wales.  She told me about her garden, her visit to the hairdressers, how she missed Chris, how she would chat to other members of the garden.  Some local members of the ‘Friendly Garden’ she had met, some from other parts of the world she knew she would never meet but they were her friends, her family.

I didn’t need to say much, just let her talk and it was wonderful.  I did ask one question.  Although rude to ask a ladies age I did because I had been told before the start of the conversation and I couldn’t quite believe it.  Muriel is 92.  I asked her to make a promise, if I was still presenting the programme in a few weeks time would she promise to ring in for another chat.

You can be sure that with the callers on the late night show on BBC Radio Wales there will be few moments of silence especially if the presenter doesn’t say a word.

1 thought on “Learning when to shut up.”

  1. Hi Mal, loved your blog on taking over Chris Needs – BBC Wales Friendly Garden that we have often listened to late at night. It was more of a social service broadcast that Chris nurtured for all people in need & who valued the opportunity to link with someone famous in the media on their own level, who gave them time, empathy & a friendly interaction. We also loved that fact that anyone ringing in who verbally stepped out of line, was rapidly closed down rapidly with Chris indicating why. This in the broadcasting world is a unique ingredient to The Garden & Chris. The music was always good varied and the chat caring & considered, so am very glad that someone of your calibre & ability is able to step in to this important slot. Well done looking forward to meeting via the radio very soon.

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