Radio Days

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I did a podcast last week, and it reminded me how technology has changed the world.

Radio has always been a box of delights, an aural junkshop promising (and often delivering) unexpected treasures amid the popsongs and puff-pieces. Being interviewed on radio could be a chore, or an event, or an unexpected pleasure – but it used to be predictable.

Once upon a time, if my particular kind of talking head was required, a call or an email would come enquiring about availability; not so much “when is it convenient?” as “We’re taping in Cardiff in twenty minutes, can you be at x studio in fifteen?” If you were lucky, or the producer was desperate, there’d be the promise of a fee. If you were really lucky, they’d send a car. The BBC were especially good at this. A discreet black sedan would draw up outside the house at the appointed hour. I always used to pray that it wouldn’t be too wet to wear sunglasses, so I could slink into the back of the vehicle like a movie star or a spy, hoping the neighbours were watching. Sadly, or perhaps not, nobody else would see my impression of a Bond girl, because on radio no-one can see you gurning for the audience.

In the studio, there would be an array of absurdly large microphones wrapped in fluff, like sex toys in fleece jackets, and a matching array of serious young techies. Collars and ties meant you were at the BBC, slogan tees meant independent radio. Fleeces (or sweaters at the BBC) were also de rigueur for the staff from around the end of August to mid-June: studios, it seems, must be kept at a temperature only slightly above that at which blood freezes.

Give radio its due, there wasn’t usually much hanging about. It was common to be outside, in the car, or more often schlepping back to the Tube, within an hour. Live shows were best. True, there was nobody to save me from my own faux pas, but at least the serious bits wouldn’t end up edited out, leaving forty seconds of me apparently agreeing that all anime and manga was utterly depraved and an attack on Western culture. And of course the listeners had nothing but the interviewer’s word for that, plus as many of mine as were allowed to survive the edit: radio is a wonderful medium in every regard except the visual.

The payoff for all the buildup could be a little anti-climactic. Well, not the actual payoff: getting money for your art is always a thrill. (I know an apparently sensible, hard-headed Scot who still has the first cheque he ever received from the BBC for punditry, uncashed and framed.) But the interview itself may be dropped, or rescheduled to the wee hours, or only broadcast on Sark. And they usually didn’t tell you until after the event, which led to family and friends asking why they were all set to record your words of wisdom and got the Test Match instead.

Podcasting is a somewhat friendlier beast, though at first that might not be apparent. The same preliminaries apply. You get an email asking about availability and agree dates and times. But after that, things are different.

At the appointed hour, you sit at your computer and Skype takes over. You can be decked in red heart-print jammies and fluffy slippers, with bed-hair that would do any Dragonball character credit, noshing chocolate Hobnobs with absinthe. Your desk and the room behind it can look like a bombsite. It doesn’t matter, because even though there may be visuals (I’ll come to that) they are carefully selected and controlled.

When the interview’s finished, the interviewer or editor (often one and the same) emails the edited file for approval, and you have a chance to tweak things. A link when the podcast goes live enables you to broadcast your brilliance to the world, or at least as much of it as subscribes to your Twitter feed. People can access it anytime.

If the editor is anything like the brilliant Martin Houlind, you also get visuals. The podcast I did for the Danish Cartoon Podcast Tegnefilmpodcasten (yes, it’s Danish: no, I didn’t need a translator, and nor will you, because almost everyone in Denmark speaks embarrassingly flawless English) comes with its own page on the Tegnefilmpodcasten blog. We talked about the later works of Studio Ghibli, with particular reference to Howl’s Moving Castle and the Disney influence. The page is loaded with fabulous stills, annotated to tie them into the conversation, plus trailer. There are also covers for the DVDs mentioned, and some of my books, to make ordering irresistibly easy. The pictures really do make a difference: listen to the podcast while looking at the page and you’ll see what I mean.

There’s even a picture of me, looking rather more soignee and serious than reality normally permits – and certainly better than I looked at eight in the morning, in pyjamas, talking to my Mac. (Just for the record, I don’t usually wear amber earrings at breakfast, at least not unless I haven’t been to bed.)

At last, radio you can see, with no need for me to leave the house. And podcasting is changing the way traditional radio operates. I miss those lovely BBC sedans, and of course I miss the occasional cheques, but otherwise podcasting has everything going for it, including the potential to add visuals. Maybe video killed the radio star, but podcasting gives radio a new face. Tune in and turn on!

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