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.
I don’t know exactly when NHK World came to the UK. I suspect it was in 2011 shortly after the tsunami hit Fukushima. I first noticed it on the Freesat service around August 2011 and I’ve been tuning in more and more frequently for the quirky delivery, refreshing bluntness of its reports, strict almost religious devotion to educating the world about Japanese ways and the surprising lack of ads . . . This goes out to NHK World (with apologies to John Cooper Clarke):
I’ve seen all sorts of gadgets, tiny new-fangled
I’ve seen Swiss banks reported — from a Japanese angle
Earthquakes, tsunamis, a vision of nuclear hell
The news somehow sweetened when your R is an L
I’ve been regaled with great tales by the great Konishiki
The Sumo leviathan formerly fat now just freaky
The news as it should be — delivered straight; matter of fact
No bells, no whistles, an occasional lack of tact
Verbally vivacious syllables they struggle to supply
You’ll never hear the world loquacious but I’d like to see ’em try
When it’s daytime in London, it’s half three in Yokohama
The presenters don’t mind, it’s good for the karma
Battling on bravely, eyelids drooping
They look like drugged up clubbers queuing in Tooting
There’s even a cookery show called Itadakimasu
That U is redundant but the food it’s top class
Bickering presenters having a blast
But where the hell in London do you get Okinawan sea grass?
In the cess-pit of state-sponsored TV, propaganda and lies
Hail to one of the good guys — they don’t even advertise!
Joy of joys. Tamworth’s finest metallers — Wolfsbane — are back together after God knows how long an absence. They have a new album which came out a couple of weeks ago: “Wolfsbane Saves the World”, check out great new track “Smoke and Red Light”. Wolfsbane aren’t yet on Spotify so for the first time in years I bought an actual CD . . . my copy is on its way as I write.
I must declare an interest. Back in 1986 or 1987 I was working at Moor Hall Hotel as a gardener . . . basically a skivvy with secaturs. Wolfsbane lead singer Blaze Bayley worked at the hotel too as a porter. I remember Blaze coming downstairs in the morning bleary-eyed into the kitchen for a coffee or two sporting the gear he’d performed in the night before: a long scarlet velvet cape and thick swathes of eye shadow. Like Nosferatu ordering a latte in Costa he would scowl at anyone who interrupted this morning ritual but once the fug cleared Blaze was a top bloke and gave me loads of tapes and was responsible for introducing me to Dio — I actually still have the Holy Diver home-taped cassette he gave me.
Wolfsbane were just taking off then — their first album was just round the corner (recorded in LA and Rick Rubin produced) and I also have their first ever demo single (Clutching at Straws
Tears from a Fool A side with 5 a.m. on the B side) which is one of only 500 pressed if I recall correctly.
But even more treasured than that piece of vinyl is this poster a mate ripped from the wall of a filthy Smallbrook alley. It’s a piece of memorabilia I treasure not just because of the connection but also because it was my first ever paying gig. How many others can claim they have the poster for their first concert? I don’t recall who else was on the bill at Goldwyn’s (is this club still there?) but me, Skippy and Paula from the hotel trooped down into darkest Brum for a very sweaty night. I caught Wolfsbane again in 1990 supporting Iron Maiden in Torbay (yes, Torbay. Is that the furtherest west Maiden have ever gone?) and Blaze was on fire then too.
I’ve put up a hi-res version of my poster in case any Howlin’ Mad S**theads want to use it as a screensaver — go ahead be my guest. As you can see from the fashions Wolfsbane in the late eighties were just the right side of sleazy. In those days glam metal was still clinging on by the skin of its teeth but thanks to bands like Wolfsbane the spandex lot (Crue, Poison et al) weren’t long for this earth and were finally dispatched when Guns n’ Roses came along stomped on their muscial windpipes and choked em into silence.
Blaze, do you still have that red/green checked leather jacket?
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A review of the WS’ most fun programme, World Have Your Say:
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It’s days like these that make quitting the world of Linux and non-pre-emptive NOS’ for the world of media so much fun . . .
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