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.

The Start of Sound Women

The morning after the last Sony Radio Academy Awards I rashly declared the need for a ‘women in radio’ group.  The response was amazing, with women from all over the UK and Ireland wanting to join on the spot and swop stories…  It’s taken a while to get here, but yesterday a group women working in audio – BBC, commercial and online – went into the first ‘Women in Radio’ meeting at BBC Broadcasting House, and emerged two hours later as ‘Sound Women’.

Sound Women L-R: Sue Ahern (Creative People), Rebecca Maxted (Wise Buddah), Heather Davies (Young Women in Media), Sue Carter (JackFM), Lorna Clarke (BBC Radio 2), Natasha Maw (BBC Academy), Kate O'Connor (Skillset), Francesca Panetta (The Guardian), Fi Glover, Karen Stacey (Bauer), Miranda Sawyer, Maria Williams, and Nicky Birch (taking the photo!)

Skillset figures show that more women currently come into radio than men, and they are better qualified (4 in 5 women have degrees compared to 3 in 5 men).   But they’ll be paid  on average £5,579 less than their male colleagues every year of their working lives.  And by the time they’re 35, many will have abandoned the industry.

So what can Sound Women do?  Well we’re starting by creating a network of 300 inspirational women, who’ll appear on panels at the Radio Festival, put themselves forward as Sony or Arqiva Awards judges, and start being the visible face of women in audio.  If you’d like to nominate someone – or yourself – to be on this list contact me.  We’re collecting names until July 8th, and these women will be the first Sound Women members.

We’re also going to make it easier for other women to see who’s out there using social media.  We’ll set up mentoring schemes, run training sessions, hold events, and find family friendly ways to network across the whole industry.  Ultimately we’d like a glitzy awards ceremony, celebrating the work of female programme-makers and presenters, and recognising the unsung heroines who hold this industry together.

Sound Women will take a while to fully hit its stride, but has the potential to make the whole industry a fairer, more representative, more exciting place for everyone to work.  About time too.  I’ll keep you posted.

Desperately Seeking Women in Radio

Jenni Murray accepts her Gold Award

An interesting night last night at the Sonys…

Huge congratulations to legendary Jenni Murray on her Gold Award, long overdue – and to Annie Nightingale for her Special Award, recognising 40 amazing years in radio.  Two standout exceptions as The Guardian noted, on a very male night…

There’s no doubting the genius of Danny Baker and Frank Skinner, who both vied for best speech of the night, and there were worthy Sony winners in Simon Mayo, Zane Lowe, Nicky Campbell, Jeremy Vine and many more.  But each year I sit over my coffee, and wonder why more women aren’t up there collecting Gold.

Annie Nightingale with her Special Award

Recent figures from Skillset have shown that women are leaving the creative industries.  Independent TV, animation and interactive content have seen the biggest exodus, but radio is not exempt.  Women over 35 and those with children are most likely to leave, meaning that radio is losing many amazing women far too early.  For every Jenni, Annie, and Gold winner Victoria Derbyshire, there are a host of other women who took their talents – not to mention their contacts books, listener insight and years of training – elsewhere.

We need to find out what the barriers to success are.  A radio insider was bemoaning  recently how hard it is to get women on platforms at public events.  Is it a lack of confidence?  Dearth of role models?  Or are women just too busy?  Either way, we’re becoming invisible.

So enough of the sitting and wondering over my coffee as the Sony credits roll.  In response to popular demand, I’m setting up a new Women in Radio group.  Not one where tired women sit about grumbling about childcare and chauvinism – tempting though that might be – but a really dynamic one, which motivates and inspires women to go for that big job, take risks creatively, push to be given opportunities, and to take charge of their own careers and the industry.   Then maybe in 10 years time the esteemed Sony judges won’t have enough Gold Awards for us all.

If anyone’s interested in getting involved, please get in touch.

How to win Sony Gold

Ah the Gold Sony Radio Academy Award.  The Oscars of the Radio world.  They glitter.  They matter.  And anyone who says they don’t is two live guests short of a sports report…



This year I was invited to be on the Sony Radio Academy Awards Judging Committee, so I’ve had an inside view of the whole process.  I’d love to tell you everything that goes on.  But then I’d have to kill you.  So I’ll cut to the chase and say there is no quick fix.  Bribery won’t wash.  To win a Sony you really do have to have produced some awe-inspiring audio.

But there are a few things that might help turn this year’s Silver into Gold.  For starters, read the small print.  Yes I know it’s boring, and you’re busy getting that night’s programme together, and anyway your show is so brilliant it doesn’t need any explanation.  But you know what, if you’re asked to submit at least 4 clips, and you only submit 3, then your entry won’t – can’t – count.  However good it is.

Put some great audio at the top.  Most judges will be extremely conscientious and listen to everything in full.  But there might just be a rogue one who’s in a hurry, and if they’re in your category, you need to grab them within the first five minutes, or their ears might be caught by another, flirtier entry.  Don’t judge the judges.  Just give them what they want.  Quickly.

And there is one other thing.  It’s blindingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many entries ignore it.  And us an industry of storytellers too…   It’s this.  Whisper it.  A narrative.  If your presenter has recently come back from public humiliation/serious injury/being sacked by another network – say so.   If your radio station has faced closure/been run on sellotape and string – mention it.  One year, in the category I was judging, one entry seemed to assume that everyone knew the background to their story.  So they barely alluded to it.  Their entry was much weaker than it should have been, and I had to physically stop myself from phoning to berate them.

All the hardships we as programme-makers overcome make our shows, documentaries, and radio stations, stories in their own right.  And if the judges can see what production teams or presenters have taken on and beaten to get where they are now, that’s what – along with the amazing audio and RAJARS – might just get you that Sony Gold.

In praise of Fi Glover

This Saturday will be Fi Glover’s last ever Saturday Live.  I can’t claim to be a disinterested party in this, given that I was part of the team that launched Saturday Live back in September 2006.  And the experience is hard to forget.  We took over the 0900 Saturday slot from the mighty John Peel and Home Truths.  And to say the audience was unreceptive is putting it mildly.  We pretty much got hate mail – by text, email, letter.  If twitter had been big back in 2007 we’ve have got hate tweets too.  They criticised Fi’s pronunciation, the theme music, the fact we had once looked at them in a funny way…  But we ploughed on, and then the audience grew to like us a bit more, and Fi took the show from being good, to very good, to Gold Sony Award-winning good.

Fi Glover

Fi Glover

Fi Glover is a rare thing among presenters.  Not just someone who will take a script or interview and make it better (you’d be surprised how many presenters can’t even do that).  But someone who will also surprise you.  Week after week.  With a quip, or a wicked aside, or a killer question.  She’s arch, intelligent, funny, warm and genuine, and BBC Radio 4 won’t be the same without her.  In announcing Fi’s departure R4 Controller Gwyneth Williams said she’ll be back on the network very soon.  I hope so…  In the meantime tune in to the last Saturday Live with Fi Glover at the helm on 2nd April on BBC Radio 4.  BBC – BBC Radio 4 Programmes – Saturday Live.