Friday, 22 April 2016

What can DJs learn from Poets? Two separate worlds, right?

If you're going to talk, talk to me, not at me. And make it good. 

Guests David Calcutt with Helen Leavesley
Every month, a bunch of poets gather at Brum Radio and make a programme, obviously on poetry. The show, Brum Radio Poets, went out on Sunday 25th April, and will is also now up on MixCloud. I normally oversee the recording. I wouldn't go so far as to call it producing; others might. 'Studio Engineer' might cover it. Except that Brum radio only actually has one proper studio; we use a spare room. It's all very lo-fi and improvised. 

I really like working this way, miles away from the grandiose fuss of a full-on facility. You have to concentrate on the core: ideas, passion, communication. A stripped-down approach can go a long way with the right content. And if you think all this has nothing to do with DJs and music radio, you couldn't be more wrong. 

You may love studio kit, but you don't always need it. 

Please don't misunderstand me: I adore pompous flashy studios bristling with kit, but cool kit doesn't guarantee creativity. Perhaps a music equivalent of last week might be a house concert, or something unplugged, where there's nothing between performer and listener. 

Show host Helen Calcutt with the great Jacqui Rowe
I found the whole process enthralling. I recorded on my ancient trusty Zoom 4, propped up on a lump of sponge and placed to capture all four voices in a broad stereo image. 

I'm not remotely equipped to make a critical evaluation of the show content: my goal was to extract the best possible audio quality from an unpromising environment on a zero budget. The presenter brought a throw to place on the table, soaking up echo. Colleagues kindly kept quiet as they walked past. I was quite prepared to take the building's robot vacuum cleaner hostage. Needs must.


I've done quite a bit of Poetry work and even some radio drama of late. I enjoy it. I've read a bit – not very well – and talked to and worked with local poets. A friend cast me as a witless radio presenter for her radio play :-) 

But this just scratches the surface. The huge advantage in recording spoken word is that, if you're lucky, you get people who think long and hard about language, timing and delivery. These people sweat blood to clarify their ideas. 

Guest Sarah Leavesley
They're wordsmiths. They think about language, sound, pacing, rhythm and delivery. It means they dive comfortably into their own work when it comes to a live read, and hold their own in a themed discussion. While there is ego - of course there's ego, we're talking about performance, after all - wordsmiths are great to work with. 

So it was a pleasure to listen to three elegantly articulate wordsmiths banter and wrangle with the show host. There was mutual respect and clarity, and to my ears it sounded great. Rich voices worked and clashed with pace and character, pleasingly coming in from right and left. 

Once we were done, tidying up was a doddle. I added a couple of presenter ident links to the show, polished the sound a tiny bit and sent it off. As I said above, I'm not about to go into the show content; that's not my field of expertise. But I will say I got a buzz from recording all of it.  

Presenters take note

The lesson to be drawn? Everyone came prepared. The host had worked on her show structure and the ideas to discuss; the guests came ready, willing, and ever so able. 

I've always loved people who really use language, be they Djs, rappers or speech merchants. This is where structure, confidence and quality comes in. Very few people seem to realise how much all this helps, especially, I'm sorry to say, music DJs. Live dithering and cliched slogans on a DJ show are hardly a thrill for the listener. We've all heard far too much of that, thanks. 

The old mantra of 'Engage Brain, then Open Mouth' holds as true as ever. It's partly why Radio DJs are only rarely held in high esteem. The commercial radio approach to dealing with this, implemented decades ago, was simply to remove any chances for improvisation, swiftly followed by the removal of any jocks who liked to improvise. Some of those jocks took an awful lot of loyalty with them.

But what does this have to do with Radio DJs? Quite a lot. 

Now that Radio is so ubiquitous on so many platforms, and now that music fans really don't need radio for their music fix, the emphasis has shifted firmly back on to presenter skills, especially in podcasting and listen-again. Now, more than ever, we need people who can charm and engage, who can tell stories and talk to their audience. 

Talking about this whole area with an old friend who has been doing radio as long as me – we started out together at student radio nearly half a century ago – I was struck by how he identified specific presenters for exactly that reason. And then he sought out their work on podcasts and iPlayer. 

Which brings me to a last point: if you commit your work to listen again, a key part of today's radio landscape, you need to think about your work. It's going to be in a produced format of some sort. Consider that it will be there for some time. You'd better be ready to make yourself as clear and as approachable as possible. 

Because if you don't, you won't get that second visit from a curious listener.

Beum Radio Poets goes out at 11am on the last Sunday of each month on Brum Radio. It's also available on Mixcloud. 

See more radio and broadcasting posts on Radio To Go


Tue 26th, 4pm: Big Wheels: Swingamajig's Tom Hyland
Wed 27th, 11pm: Live and Local: Ben Drummond at the Jam House
Repeated Sat 23rd, 11am. 

Fri 22nd, 3 pm: Muso Takeover: John Caswell

After airing, these can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

All Radio To Go shows are listed here


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