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.