I first heard of World Have Your Say towards the end of 2006 when an application to the BBC’s work experience web site was answered with an e-Mail asking if I’d be interested in doing a couple of weeks on WHYS. I was pretty pleased with that. Leaving an IT career for a journalism degree in your thirties usually means you’re going to get pigeon-holed in the box marked geek. I was approaching the end of my journo course and was starting to think about jobs and I was being realistic about my prospects: reviewing gadgets for Stuff mag would be fun but probably not very fulfilling, documenting the UK IT world for Computing sounded crushingly dull but was probably the best I could hope for. In quieter moments I thought maybe, just maybe I’d get a gig on the tech page of one of the broadsheets or a business weekly but broadcasting, for some reason, never really registered in my job hunt despite the fact that I’ve been listening to R4 since I was knee high and 5Live and LBC for many, many years too. I was firmly in the print / online mind-set until that e-Mail popped into my inbox.
(Word of advice to anyone else who finds themselves in this position. Listen to the show mentioned in the e-Mail before you call back. I went home and tuned in at 6pm and heard something about floods in Pakistan –so far all very World Service but what was different was that the voices were raw, unedited and live. I even caught an early attempt to get callers in the same area talking to each other — something that WHYS would try again over the years. I think it was Anu Anand behind the mic.)
So I headed over to the World Service for an interview and a few weeks later found myself in very uncharted territory. If you’ve come from the world of corporate America then the rough and tumble of a BBC editorial discussion can leave you reeling not to mention the ramshackle, maze-like corridors of Bush House. The language of radio for a newbie is pretty confusing too as I noted some months later once I’d recovered from the initial shock.
It took a while but I eventually got what WHYS and its innovative editor Mark Sandell were trying to do: let listeners have their say on the topics they wanted to talk about. This even extended in the early days to letting listeners dial in to the editorial meetings (didn’t last long!). The only real criteria for putting a topic on air was that people had to be talking about it somewhere in the world. There were of course frustrations: Africans love to talk and air their views but sadly the continent is beset with the worst phone lines imaginable. On a given night we’d be able to put on air 1 out of 30 African callers. I started to learn by heart the country codes for places like Zambia (260) and Zimbabwe (263).
Over time this call-in aspect of WHYS faded away. The US partner stations didn’t like it — the word “ranting” was bandied about by people in media organisations who really should know better. Just because someone isn’t as eloquent as you doesn’t mean they should be denied their say. Other news organisations were no less snooty — the Economist called WHYS a “dumbed down horror”. Understandably there was a move to more pre-recorded, produced segments but personally I thought losing the call-ins deprived the programme of a little bit of its edgy USP and unpredictability.
But WHYS gave me a chance and I owe it bigly, so on this day when over a decade of programming has come to an end I’d like to thank Mark Sandell, Ros Atkins, Richard Bowen, Priya Shah, David Mazower, Rabiya Limbada, Fiona Crack, uber listener/contributor Lubna and all the others who helped make my introduction to radio so memorable. Here’s my top 5 WHYS moments:
5. Being asked what a uterus was. Lin was on work experience and was from China. She had poor English and sidled over one day while moderating some comments and asked this startling question. I heard giggles behind me and turned round expecting some support from the female members of the team but none was forthcoming and in fact one or two exited stage left very sharpish! Fortunately Lin was pretty perceptive and as I shaped my hands into something (don’t ask!) she twigged and spared me from going any further.
4. Risk taking. Mark Sandell was an editorial risk taker. The more audacious the scheme the more it seemed to appeal and I can tell you there were considerably more hits than misses. Top of the list was choosing to air messages of support for Alan Johnston not long after he was kidnapped in March 2007. We had no idea how long Alan would be gone and therefore no idea how long we could keep up the airing of messages from the likes of Tom Stoppard, Brian Keenan and Freddy Forsyth (recorded by myself in one smooth take btw) but the gamble paid off. When Alan was finally released we learned that he’d been listening. Other risks included seriously provocative debates — such as was Africa better off under colonial rule? Letting Ugandans speak freely about homosexuals in their country and discussing why Britney had shaved off all her hair (well done to Rachael Harvey for presenting and enduring that particular night!). Innovative and daring radio.
3. Co-pressing WHYS. Perhaps Mark Sandell’s biggest risk came one day when WHYS’s presenter Ros Atkins had dropped off grid somewhere in Africa. It was 30 minutes to air and Mark asked me — a few weeks into my time there, fresh faced and still unsure of a studio’s basic layout– if I fancied presenting the programme? I nearly had a heart attack and declined but thankfully Ros eventually appeared. Did I miss my chance? Maybe but I got many chances to co-pres WHYS over the next few years (including one night with the one and only G Money) and it was always a pleasure. Thank you to Ros, Rachael, Peter Dobbie and all the other occasional presenters who put up with my ridiculous and puerile puns.
2. Broadcasting from Issa’s place. WHYS realised early on that it was engendering the kind of listener attention and feedback that to date had been a rarity in the World Service. It was decided to reward some of that loyalty by broadcasting from a listener’s location. Issa in Uganda was chosen and Ros Atkins and a couple of others headed over to somewhere in the Ugandan bush and broadcast live from his back yard. I live-blogged the show — sadly it’s no longer available on the web site but it was memorable for the fact that all through the prog you could hear fires crackling, the low murmur of insects chirping and people generally chilling with beer and food (if memory serves a goat was being roasted in a wheelbarrow) while talking on air. It showed to BBC bosses just how nimble WHYS could be but more importantly this was atmospheric radio at its best which set the bar for the years of outside broadcasts to come.
1. Alan Johnston’s release. This was an epic day. The BBC’s correspondent kidnapped by a Palestinian gang was free and joined World Have Your Say live down the line from Jerusalem (I think). I was co-pressing with Ros Atkins and in the studio with us was was the BBC’s then head of journalism Mark Byford. Alan revealed that he’d been able to listen to WHYS during his captivity and had gained some strength from the messages of support. I’d persuaded Mark Sandell to let me take a bottle of champagne into the studio for some end of the prog larks but the cork popped early and champagne spurted out nearly covering Byford who seemed to take it all with good grace. A wonderful end to a great day.
Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
The Rolling Stones, The Harlem Shuffle
Manic Street Preachers, A Design for Life
WRITTEN BEFORE THE EU REFERENDUM ON June 23rd 2016
My last attempt at predicting a vote was a dismal failure. But this time I’ve been out and about and speaking to people a bit more than in 2015. Having just spent 4 days in Edinburgh with the indefatigable World Service UK correspondent Rob Watson (@) I think I’m on reasonably firm ground saying Scotland will vote for remain but with a higher vote for Brexit than people are generally predicting. In other words, no matter what happens in rUK (rest of the UK), the vote for Brexit in Scotland will be too high for anyone in Scotland to claim a mandate for a second independence referendum. Why? Let me explain . . .
Last week in Edinburgh I encountered some strong feeling from the SNP that I hadn’t expected. Basically, many in the nationalist camp feel that in 2014 the EU hung them out to dry by plainly backing Westminister’s Better Together campaign.
Nobody holds a grudge like the nationalists: on a cold, dark night in Clarks Bar you’ll still find certain types of indy voter with grievances to air about the Duke of Cumberland (show offs), the malt tax (brainy) and the poll tax (bolshy). At just 21 months ago September 2014 is a fresh, bleeding wound for many. So despite Nicola Sturgeon’s order for SNPers to vote remain I feel that many, once they get into the ballot box, will defy the party line and vote Brexit just to stick one in the eye for the EU.
Some of course have suggested that indy voters would do this anyway, as a means of causing a Brexit which would then trigger IndyRef#2 — on the whole I don’t think the nationalists are that cynical and not all buy the Alex Salmond line that if rUK goes Bexit then Scotland would automatically get IndyRef#2. A prime indicator being just how much more circumspect Nicola has been on this than Alex and the more vocal SNPers. Consider also the fact that the pro-indy percentage of the population hasn’t really changed since 2014 (around 44% which means winning IndyRef#2 is not a done deal); add in the desensitising effects of the ‘neverendums’ and it all points to IndyRef#2 being far, far off. Unless there are hundreds of thousands marching in the streets of Glasgow and Edina on June 24th demanding it, there will be no #Indyref#2. I would say any Scottish Brexit vote of over 40% means Indyref#2 is a dim possibility.
Cards on the table: Scotland in the EU referendum
And what of the UK as a whole — will Brexit nip it as the polls have shown in these final days? I think Brexit might, but it will be ultra tight and there will be no end of squabbling over the result. Lawsuits will fly.
Cards on the table: UK wide in the EU referendum
A final thought. . .
Many have commented that if the UK votes Brexit then Cameron and his pals are finished. Boris is waiting in the wings to pounce etc etc. That may be true but there is a certain class of politician whose bum will be squeaking way more than those in Westminster on the night of June 23rd. I’m referring of course to those EU powerbrokers: Merkel, Tusk, Juncker et al. Cameron came to them earlier in the year to negotiate his ‘better deal’. Only the most die-hard Conservative would concede he got anything significant. What he in fact got was piecemeal at best. If the EU had really wanted Britain to stay in the EU they should have said “Dave, old pal, what can we do for you?” and welcomed him with open arms. The niggardly shreds of soon-to-expire restrictions on this, and various opt-outs on that were a bit of an affront. Cameron of course could hardly have returned to the UK saying Hey, I’ve negotiated nothing — let’s vote to stay! He swallowed the gruel and soldiered on. Brave yes. Foolish? We will see but if Brexit happens Tusk and his pals will face incredible pressure to account for their role in nudging Britain to the exit and a resignation or two at the top of the EU could well presage a wider EU crumbling . . . interesting times!
ELO — Livin’ Thing
RIP Dennis Farina, as usual these days I’m way late on my entertainment news and it was a shock to see he’d died. Farina was a pleasurable sight on screen and one of those actors who give you that safe feeling where you know what you’re going to get and invariably it was entertaining. He came late to acting so there’s hope for all wannabe starlets out there who are exiting their thirties.
The LA Times has a nice gallery dedicated to some of Dennis Farina’s movie roles but in my view they’ve missed some of the obvious greats. First off the movie I’ll always associate him with: Midnight Run. In this rare example of a De Niro comedy that really works, Farina played gangster Jimmy Serrano. This film could easily have had 3 leads: De Niro is superb and well-matched by Charles Grodin with his hang-dog expression and wry asides but Farina as the dirt-talking boss was brilliant too, especially when verbally abusing his two hapless goons. He could be real nasty too — when he gets Grodin in the car towards the end and tells him what he’s going to do to his family, it gives me the chills. And not forgetting Snatch: Farina is superb as cousin Avi the wisecracking diamond dealer in this heist caper — the best Guy Ritchie film yet and way way better than Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Snatch is one of thoise films with lines and scenes that have stayed lodged in the memory long after watching, including Farina’s quips . . relive them here.
Sad news folks, the Drive Thru surf films are over. No more to come. I got this from Sybil at Poor Specimen just today:
Hi Paul,They are officially finished! Thank you for your blog post!
Such a shame they never managed a UK Drive Thru.