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Radio Control

Article from Making Music, July 1987

How to get you and your band interviewed on local radio — and how to make the most of the opportunity

There is a great network of local radio stations to promote your music to your audience. Guitarist and independent musician Adrian Legg has been there, and passes on to you the essential techniques for getting and controlling interviews on the air.

Musicians and (real) journalists have a fundamental thing in common; both are children on the rocks at low tide calling everyone to come and see the wonderful crab in the rock pool. For the musician, the crab is the feel and content of the music he or she generates. For the journalist, the crab may be the musician.

A good music radio presenter is a journalist working in an immediate medium, and as a journalist is going to be interested in new or interesting things happening in his or her sphere. In spite of the fact that most local radio stations dish out music all day, music journalism still tends to be a speciality, and it is the specialist operating outside the mainstream daytime output who is most likely to help musicians ditch their broadcasting virginity. Having said that, it's clear that many local stations have quite an impressive breadth of coverage, though specialist programmes may be under threat from programme planners and marketing experts who are trying to up the ratings and/or advertising revenue.

Listen to your local stations across a week or so, if you don't already, and see just what items are getting slotted into different general shows, and what sort of policy seems to apply to the specialist shows.

Roots-type musicians and bands will be able to identify target local shows quite easily; a country band around Nottingham, for example, will be looking to Reg Cooper for support, and Red Rose in Preston has given airtime to Liverpool players, as have Joe Butler and Kenny Johnson on City and Merseyside respectively. Bluesers and folkies have their local equivalents, but hi-techers may be looking for a more open programme format. When in doubt, get in touch with the local Head Of Music. Often a press kit and samples coupled with a phone call will open the door if your stuff is up to it, but you may need a specific local hook as well — say a charity or other gig in the area, or a record going into local shops.

A first interview may well be taped, but if you seem reasonably together, live is more economical on studio time. Treat taping as live, no one wants to spend an hour on the editing block after you've gone, and above all, enjoy it — radio is fun to do.

Most often the music specialist will be aware, sympathetic, and gently helpful, and possibly better qualified than you are, so no bluffing. But however much guidance you get in the studio, there are a few things you should try out beforehand.

Firstly, can you explain FM synthesis or piezo pickups to your granny? In two or three short sentences? If you need to communicate a technical point it must be reduced to the simplest and most accessible form possible, partly because the audience won't know what the hell you're on about, and mainly because if you get too technical, you can talk yourself into a corner that will take a very good interviewer to get you out of.

Practise by telling a friendly technical dunce what you mean over the phone and knock yourself off 10 points for every 'What?' or 'Pardon?'. No one can see your hands over the radio, so 'this big' means nothing. Concepts must be verbalised to be communicable. A good interviewer will lead you as far up the technical path as he or she feels the audience can take. Follow cautiously, avoiding jargon.

Can you describe your music without being arty-farty? Have you thought at all about why you chose particular textures/lyrics/instruments? The odds are you haven't, because music is an intuitive process, but a bit of analysis after the event may help you avoid convincing half of Leicestershire that you are a sub-normal gorilla. What really goes into a piece of music is almost impossible to describe — that's why music exists — but peripherals like chord structures and tonal atmospheres might possibly be simplified enough to discuss. Use established instruments like oboes or clarinets or brass to describe tone wherever possible — a quick look at the relevant bit of "The Psychology Of Music" will confirm that you could swap "a bit like an oboe" for the unintelligible "with a 1.8k peak".

Don't be a smart-arse, and try not to interrupt. If you get up your interviewer's nose, he or she can get just as good a radio piece by cutting you up as they could from building you up. Don't be risqué, don't swear, and don't tell jokes unless you do it professionally and eat well. Be light, not solemn — it doesn't matter very much if you don't get fine detail smack on, what matters is that your name and music have been aired — in fact it doesn't actually matter if, as I did once, you end up talking about Volvo lights and collapsing tents.

Be gentle with the apprentice, as the experienced broadcaster will (hopefully) be gentle with your inexperience. I had one who uncertainly but successfully set up the mike levels and got the tape rolling and then retired behind her list of fairly naive questions. She didn't look at me once throughout the interview, and didn't deviate from her script, and there was no point whatsoever in my doing anything other than giving simple and polite answers. As a conversation, it was a dead duck; as an interview, pretty unrevealing, but it got the new album played and put another notch in her biro. We both came out better off.

At the other extreme is the hardened pro. On one Dublin jaunt, I was slotted into Gay Byrne's live daytime radio programme on RTE. It's said that one in three people in Ireland hear it, and Gay is a pretty big deal there. The day before I went over, his producer phoned from Dublin and spent over an hour pre-grilling me for material. During this extraordinary marathon, which has not happened before or since with any other show, it was agreed that I would bring a semi-acoustic into the studio and demo a few tricks, but would not play a whole piece because there wouldn't be time to set up a proper sound.

I was hustled from the airport into the studio and after the preliminary niceties I realised the phone conversation had been taped. Gay asked: "Adrian, why did you hate playing with so-and-so?"

So-and-so was someone I'd worked for in a three-speed Irish showband, and the question was quite dangerously barbed. The answer "There are two aspects to music: a craft aspect where you do what you're told, and an art aspect where you do what you feel. It took me a long time to learn the difference and the one where I belonged."

"That's a good answer."

Humility never hurts, and it was a bloody lucky intuitive duck and parry, but it got rid of the script, eliminated the danger, and we settled down to a thoroughly enjoyable conversation until I walked into a final trap.

"Why do you like playing in Ireland?"

"Because people take music as it comes here, you don't have to just dish out the flash licks, you can play a tune and have people appreciate it for what it is."

Which I believe to be true of Dublin audiences, but as I'd started the sentence, I'd seen the next bit coming.

"Show us what you mean, play us a tune."

There was no graceful way out, so I did, picking very quietly so I might get a halfway decent tone, leaving the engineer to up the mike level. It was only later that I timed that particular quite-new piece and discovered why there was such a scramble into the news at the end of it. It was 5 minutes 20 seconds, nearly double an average music slot. I'd be tempted to call that quits, except that Gay's professional courtesy in not interrupting the piece or fading it was wholly admirable and a lesson in broadcasting. From that point of view, he'd guided the whole interview into a perfectly natural conclusion, albeit tonally dubious, unagreed and an unpaid performance. It was 'good radio', and that's what counted for him and his listeners.

"Daytime radio can be more liberal than you might expect, though if your host asks how you got that guitar sound, an answer detailing the precise EQ and delay settings... is likely to be inappropriate."

Between the tyro and the demigod are many variations. Toward the end of one interview that had been very slightly stilted came the question: "Adrian, what would you do if you had the proverbial blank cheque?"

A run of work and the M1 had taken their toll; the brain-damaged answer was: "Breed guinea pigs."

Short silence, then question: "What, for showing?"

Oh God, he's taking it seriously. Answer: "No, I just like them, and think the world would be a better place if more people had them. Actually, I'd probably go fishing more as well."

I should have played the game, and offered to record the Ring Of The Nibelung in digital ambisonic on Ben Nevis with three hundred Marshall stacks, massed vocoders and vibra-slap. Sorry, I just cracked.

Daytime radio can be more liberal than you might expect, though still, if your host asks how you got that guitar sound, an answer detailing the precise EQ and delay settings on the Lexicon PCM70 'Gymnasium' program and the following butterfly stereo split is likely to be inappropriate.

Have an idea for a competition handy; the DJ may like your record so much he can't wait to give it away. I used: "Tell us the original title of the theme from 'The Deerhunter'" a few years ago, and it got a pretty respectable telephone response. Composer and first-recording-artist are handy for tiebreakers unless the prog accepts the first correct call in. Stick to simple poppy stuff.

Don't be surprised if you walk into one of these and the DJ hasn't a clue about you. He or she is stuck in a cockpit, pushing jingle, station ident and ad cartridges in and out of slots, cueing grams, slopping coffee, talking, and generally having a whale of a time. There may not have been an opportunity to read the brief, even if the record company remembered to send it. Jot down clearly on a piece of paper the things you both need to know and want to talk about. There will be a few minutes during the news or a record when your host can check out just what the hell you're doing there. If you're plugging a gig, write down the name and address of the venue, the times and the prices for yourself, so you don't fumble or forget because of nerves. Don't be put off if this character seems to be ignoring you while you talk — other stuff has to be cued up as you go. Keep it simple and short, you may only have a couple of minutes airtime, but that's enough.

If you're doing a clutch of locals on a tour, double-check you've got your host's name right and know which station you're actually in, and don't mention competing stations on air, it could get your host a carpeting. If you're a band, delegate one person to do the talking unless you want to sound like Prime Minister's Question Time: the rest keep out of the way unless the producer wants you all in — most local transmission studios simply don't have the room for more than one or two interviewees.

It doesn't happen often, but you may get interviewed at home over the phone. A time will be set in advance, enabling you to switch off the Hoover, douse the toast, and suppress smaller and more exuberant close relatives. Listen very carefully to questions: you have no eye contact and no clues, so keep it simple and courteous.

Don't play live and talk unless you've absolutely got to. The two types of concentration are different, and switching can be difficult if you are at all stressed. Apart from anything else, you'll probably get a crappy sound. There are exceptions; I did a "Saturday Live" in Broadcasting House with amp and FX in a studio that barely had room for the desk, let alone my gear, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Another one was a late night Stuart Hall show in Manchester with an exceptionally good sound engineer and coffee that induced instant Parkinson's disease; the anarchic approach to preparation and running order kept it fresh and fun.

So, get it clear what you're going to do — a gig or an interview. It's always been easy to work for free, and on rare occasions beneficial. Most times though, it's just the old, old story. Check with your MU branch sec if there is an agreement with your local station about gigs.

Your biggest problem in fact is likely to be parking. It's possible to bluff your way into a staff car park at BBC Leeds, and the old Wiltshire Radio had a drive you could obstruct long enough to do a tape. Trent is surrounded by a sea of double yellow, but a considerate garage operator next door to BBC Nottingham may not hassle you off the forecourt if you fill up there and ask nicely. Radio Aire had masses of space, but Capital offers double-yellow-no-loading or a bolshie Euston Centre jobsworth. Humberside, Hallam and Pennine are awkward, though Pennine has a multi quite near. Oxford is difficult unless you don't mind a walk from the two or three hour limits of the back streets. 210 in Reading had a bluffable (just) car park.

I could moan on, but if you are doing a local station en route to a gig then you need local advice on where you might safely leave a car/van-load of gear for an hour or so. Personally, it's the three grand's worth of guitars alone in a Metro in a public car park that scares me to death, not the radio.

But if it got nicked, I suppose you might get a news item out of it.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jul 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

Previous article in this issue:

> Marlin Bass

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> That Was Then

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