Confessions of a broadcaster: Live or not so live?

Radio commentator Paul Donovan wrote in the Sunday Times this week about a recent incident on Classic FM, when Bill Turnbull made a ‘mistake’ about a piece of music – twice – seemingly indicating that his lunchtime show was pre-recorded. Paul seemed surprised that Turnbull’s show could be recorded, before then saying it’s a common practice for commercial radio presenters to do this. So why the surprise? Is it not OK for a large station like Classic FM to do this but it’s fine for a Peak FM or such like?

Recording shows is not solely the domain of commercial radio either. After all, the country’s biggest radio station – Radio 2 – decided this year that it is fine to record the overnight programme and remove the live presenters as part of ‘cost cutting’. Paul’s article struck me as naive at best but hinted at double standards too. What may have happened on Classic is that a producer failed to check properly or the live Tech-op (if there is still one) missed the error. This type of mistake is less likely on the BBC, because they have greater resources to oversee pre-recorded shows.


In terms of the idea, I have never been a fan of recorded radio shows when listening figures may be higher unless they are specialist or documentary programmes. Radio needs to be live to create the magic. I have voice-tracked many shows over the years and despite my best efforts, they never have the same feel as live radio. I also think the listener does notice. There are exceptions. For example, Steve Wright has recorded much of his afternoon show for years, with most people not noticing. What has changed in the last few years though, is that stations have had to be more ‘honest’ about when a show is live or not. Lying or tricking the listener can land you in trouble if you are not careful.

When I first worked in radio attitudes were different. As computers were introduced, the ability to schedule and record links became easier. My first proper presenter role was at the UK’s first fully computerised station. It meant we could drop links into a running order and work out timings more accurately. Twenty five years ago though, there was not the pressure to be honest to your listeners and we often pretended to be live when we were not.


All this reminds me of an incident early in my career, when I was guilty of deceiving the listener. Back then it was quite common for a record company to send out an interview with high profile singers, that would allow you to add your own questions. You could edit it together to make it sound like you had interviewed Tina Turner or Sting yourself.

One Saturday morning I had plugged on my show an ‘interview’ I had done with Garth Brooks, the US country superstar. But I had forgotten to edit it properly and announced on air that the interview had been cancelled because “Garth has been unable to travel to the station”. This was an awful lie of course and it was about to get worse. Ten minutes later a colleague came into the studio to say Rolf Harris had contacted the station and offered to be a replacement for Garth. Because I had already filled the hour with something else I declined his offer; much to the amazement of everyone at the station. It seemed to make the lie even worse.

Back then, this kind of deception seemed innocent. I was just starting my career and those more experienced around me did not tell me otherwise. In a more accountable world, radio can longer play these tricks and games. A recorded show should be clearly identified as such. However, they are common practice everywhere and Paul’s surprise at this, is in itself surprising.

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