Comedians on the radio – no laughing matter?

It seems hard to recall now, but it was once a novel idea to put comedians on the radio as presenters. It must have seemed a win-win: the radio station believed they were buying into guaranteed laughs – and with them, they hoped, audiences – while the comedian got guaranteed work, often daily, at least until the end of their contract. Both parties should be laughing all the way to the bank.

I can’t blame a comic for wanting to swap a punishing life on the road (or an equally punishing wait for the phone to ring) for an air-conditioned studio. Add to that the liberation from sweaty (or non-existent) dressing rooms, and from the reliance on a ‘good door’ or anxieties about a hostile house. Forget heckling – the worst you’re likely to get is a dead bat from the travel reporter.

Likewise, you can’t gainsay a station manager for thinking they’ve bought into a master (or mistress) ad-libber who can fly by the seat of their pants and turn the trivial into comedy gold. Plus, a lot of comedians come with a built-in fanbase, and concomitant public profile. Why wouldn’t it work?

Except that often, it seems to me, it doesn’t.

As with many things, there’s greater complexity than first appears to be the case, but if it can be reduced it to one main reason, I believe it’s that the template in the performer’s head is wrong. Comics are hard-wired to play to a crowd in the room and to go for every laugh, but laughs are rarer when listening alone. The stage isn’t a loudspeaker. And a merry group (or boozy rabble) isn’t the same as a solitary listener, or even a small ensemble listening in a car.

Successful standup Phill Jupitus is very insightful and refreshingly unegotistical about why he isn’t still a radio presenter in his book Good Morning Nantwich. He swapped living out of a suitcase for being live on BBC Radio 6 Music each weekday morn. In his book Jupitus makes a passing mention of having someone else in the studio and playing to them because, to paraphrase, ‘that’s what you do’. I’m not sure he realises the significance of this; it’s the mike, and by extension the listener you really need to address. Listeners are jealous creatures and demand attention. Heaven help the perfidious presenter!

There’s nothing that says a comedian must make a great radio presenter. But there’s nothing that says they can’t either. For me the difference is a respect for the medium of radio as radio, and not as a supposed soft career option. Remember that and you’re laughing.

Mike Smith RIP

I was very sorry to hear of former TV and radio presenter Mike Smith’s passing recently. (You may have heard he died from complications during heart surgery at the age of 59.) Our paths had briefly crossed on two occasions a few years apart, both times during my years sound engineering at BBC Television Centre in west London.

COOL DJ

The first encounter was slightly cool, to be honest. We had some downtime during rehearsals for the weekly chart music TV show Top of the Pops, and I was trying to make small talk with him. (I blame the radio nut/inner autograph hunter/idol worshipper part of me.) The smoke gun – designed to diffuse the lights in a late-night club kind of way – was working overtime, and I remarked that ‘You don’t get this in radio, do you?’ Instantly I thought an exception might be with overheating equipment but, being the quick wit he was, he got in first with, ‘Only when something goes wrong.’ Quick-wittedness was his day job, after all.

He didn’t make eye contact and seemed to be a little ‘elsewhere’, and, as a sometime listener of his, I was a little hurt that he didn’t engage more. In relating this to a friend immediately after Mike’s untimely demise, I could at last acknowledge that, as well as being possibly something to do with Smith’s ego, it could equally have been something to do with mine. Or perhaps I was just too needy!

BOOM ARM

When we happened to be in the same studio again a few years later, I was up on a boom (that device with a microphone on a long telescopic arm) and I was aware of him leaning on the platform, chatting to someone else. I then got absorbed in capturing the sound of whatever action was taking place in front of the cameras. As I swung the arm to the right to follow whoever was speaking, I accidentally trod on Mike’s arm. I went to apologise immediately, but before I could do so, Mike Smith apologised to me. That lightning tongue again.

Might sound trivial, and I could be wrong, but I think it could illustrate how we’d both moved on. I didn’t feel I might be the insignificant ‘techie’ to him any more, and he seemed genuinely warm, with no highfalutin sense of himself. Not easy when you’ve enjoyed the kind of profile he had.

A REAL RADIO ONE

It’s sad that anyone should die at that age, of course. But I feel an extra sadness with Mike in that his early death has robbed us of someone who had become something of an elder statesman of radio, an intelligent commentator on the medium who, by virtue of having been one of its popular practitioners at the highest level, had earned the right to have a view. (See a typically forthright example regarding Chris Moyles here, and find his blog here.) His idea that BBC Radio should pursue genres rather than age groups was at least worthy of further thought.

My thoughts are with Sarah Greene, his widow.

The eyes don’t have it

Earlier this year I had the privilege of working on BBC Radio 4’s long-running series for visually impaired people, In Touch. Apart from a bit of ocular drift (necessitating specs), I have pretty good eyesight. So it was something of a culture shock to be working with not one but two blind colleagues – the presenter, Peter White, and producer, Lee Kumatat.

(Lee commissioned my feature idea of exploring visualisation in radio – that is, the proliferation of studio webcams, and visual accompaniments to radio shows on the web and in apps and so on. My piece is about 6½ minutes into this edition: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03w0j4n)

On one occasion during my time on the show I was struggling with a cable tie holding together a coiled headphone extension. There are two types of tie: the sort which let you release the tension on the cable and which are therefore reusable, and the single-use ties which don’t and aren’t.

Lee was with me and heard my struggle. She said kindly, ‘Are you seeing too much, Adrian? Let me have a go.’

I relinquished the plastic tie, and she very quickly established it was the single-use type. 1-0 to blind perspicacity.

Another time I was trying to find a flash disk extension which let me download a digital audio recording onto a PC. I’d be given special privileges by studio managers (BBC Radio’s trusty sound engineers-plus) to take this device away from their area because I had a track record of returning gear they lent me. So it was embarrassing to discover I’d mislaid it in the In Touch office at London’s Old Broadcasting House.

After doing the rounds of the desks for other shows in this shared space (Saturday Live? No. The Media Show? Nope…), I came back to Peter’s desk, tail between legs. I hadn’t wanted to bother him with my worries and thought (patronisingly?) he might not be best placed to help in any case.

When I told him what I was looking for he said, ‘Oh, that thing? I think it’s here’, and, feeling under a couple of his Braille script print-outs, produced the little electronic box with its cable. He clearly had a mental map of his desk that I with my supposed light perception lacked. 2-0.

I was reminded of that biblical quote from Mark’s gospel (chapter 8, verse 18), ‘Do you have eyes but fail to see?’

I mean no disrespect to my former colleagues – quite the reverse – when I say working with them was a real eye-opener.