Six Quick Steps to Creativity

Everyone wants their shows to be as creative as possible.  The Radio Production Awards even have a ‘Best Creative’ category this year:

to recognise something different, innovative, ground-breaking, risky – it’s hard to describe but the judges will recognise it when they hear it.”

So how do you make your show stand out?  Without it blowing your station budget?  Obviously getting the right team in place is crucial.  It’s hard to do anything truly innovative if your Presenter refuses to take a risk, and your Producer books her weekend break every Thursday while the show’s on air.  But here are a few ideas to get you started…

1.  You don’t always need money

In a world of constant cutbacks, creativity is one of the few areas that is not forever about the cha-ching cha-ching.  It’s all about the IDEAS.  So get your brains to work a bit harder.  Don’t settle for the obvious competition idea.  Push it a bit further.  Have team brainstorms.  Push each other further.  As BBC Radio 1’s Andy Parfitt used to say when the creative force was with him “let’s build!”.

2.  You do need to DO something

The least inventive radio is often the most static.  It’s all very well listening to a straight interview, but unless it’s a heart-stopping story listeners are unlikely to be gripped.  Creating MOVEMENT within the story – a bit of action – can work really well.  At BBC Kent, when discussing the Gillian McKeith ‘I’m a Celebrity’ fainting story, an actor came into the studio to teach presenter Julia George to faint convincingly, which she promptly did with a crash and a wallop and probably twenty BBC risk assessments.  It added a bit extra to the story…  And sometimes it’s less about creating the action than being alert enough to spot it.  This is what 5 Live’s Victoria Derbyshire did in her Sony-nominated interview with an alcoholic doctor.  She hears a quiet noise in the background, interrupts to ask what it is, and is staggered to find that at around 11 in the morning, our interviewee has just asked her friend to get her another drink.  It’s vivid.  You can actually SEE it.  Remember how the best pictures are on radio?

3.  Get out of the studio

Often the best way to get action IN, is to get the team OUT.  In a Radio 1 documentary about dogging, Colin Murray sat in a white van, parked in a lonely rural car park, eating crisps, with only his producer Alice and a security guard for company. The resulting, silent and suspense-filled crisp-eating commentary – followed by Colin’s screams as someone tapped on the window – were unmissable.  And at BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, presenter Annie Othen recorded a location piece about a car alarm that had been going off locally for 3 DAYS, driving everyone living near it to distraction.  Someone had written a “Dear Saab owner, I hate you…” letter and stuck it onto the windscreen.  Annie read it out, talked to residents, and all against the background of a screeching car alarm.  Unbelievably, you couldn’t stop listening.

4.  Feel the texture

Texture gives audio content more depth.  It makes a show sound loved and wanted.  And it comes in many different forms…  So it could be finding exactly the right piece of interesting (not predictable) music.  Or tracking down the perfect archive clip.  Or using different voices…  With the use of a few creaking door FX, echo on his voice, and some pre-recorded clips of his gurgling toddler son, Danny Wallace created a hilarious mini-drama on XFM – calling his son into his wood-panelled study for a stern chat about appearing to favour a rival station.  And BBC Radio Stoke had a joyous little Christmas phone in where listeners played musical Christmas decorations down the phone.  Simple.

5.  Make the audience work for you

Some of our listeners should be on stage.  So think of how they can work for you.  Ewan and Cat on Real Radio Scotland had a great branded competition called Home to Roost where (courtesy of Bartlett Rooster potatoes) they had three families competing to bring a loved one home for Christmas.  Moving.  Poignant.  Tears over breakfast.  Oh, and they all got to come home.  Hurrah!

6.  The Big Idea

Finally, whether it’s BBC London doing a massive post-riots OB – bringing together police, rioters, shop-owners, and the family of Mark Duggan – or Absolute Radio’s Christian O’Connell launching the Mobility Scooter Grand Prix….  Sometimes it pays to think BIG, and work out the logistics later.

There are many other ruses to get creativity into shows, and the trick is to find out what works for you, your team, and your audience.  And to listen to presenters who break all the rules and are still the best in the business.

Take Danny Baker on BBC Radio 5 Live.  On paper his Sausage Sandwich game isn’t a million miles away from Monkey Tennis.  But it’s brilliant.  He’s brilliant.  A masterclass in creating creativity with nothing more than a studio, some listeners, some ideas scribbled on the back of an envelope on the way in, and one of the best radio brains in the business.  Watch and learn fellow radio professionals, watch and learn.