Marie Celeste FM

A baptism of fire on local radio…

I’d done a quick, pre-recorded interview about being a local author just setting out, for my local radio station in the summer of 1998 which had been an entirely unexceptional experience; an experienced and friendly broadcaster who knew exactly how to calm my nerves and asked interesting, intelligent questions. With that in mind, I was totally unprepared for the situation I found myself in when invited onto a regional evening show, the day after The Thief’s Gamble was published.

I arrived early, as instructed, to find the radio station entirely deserted from all outward appearance, hence the alias Marie Celeste FM. I wandered round the building for a while and eventually found a lit doorway with an intercom. I buzzed and was asked what I wanted. I explained I was here to do an interview, over a link to another studio. A lass who looked to me to be in her late teens appeared and asked me who I was and who was I supposed to be meeting. Now, all I’d been told was that everything would be set up and ready for me. This was news to the teenager, who sat me at a random desk in the newsroom and disappeared; I was hardly expecting to be feted with champagne but surely a cup of coffee should have been possible? After ten minutes or so, a harassed looking journalist appeared to ask what had I booked, was it an ISDN link or a phone line and which producer was I dealing with? I explained I hadn’t booked anything and gave her the names I had. This got me taken into an extremely small room – table, chairs, microphone, headphones, lots of wires and jacks etc with a liberal adornment of gaffer tape but no broom in the corner, which was something of a surprise.

There was then much confusion as to how to connect with the other studio and by this stage it had gone 8.00 when we supposed to be on air. That certainly got the adrenaline going. My headphones were plugged in and I found myself listening to a couple of people having an intense row off-air, I think in the newsroom. It was quite an entertaining row; I nearly started taking notes for plot purposes. At which point someone in the other studio presumably found the right switches and we were on air. Now this programme had been explained to me as a chat show with 3 or so guests and every time I’d said I’d never done live radio and could do with some guidance, I’d just been fobbed off with vague reassurances. No, it was just me and the interviewer down the wires, with no warm up or introduction and the first question he asked was how does a publisher decide how many copies of a first novel to print – cue deafening silence from me, until I managed to say something along the lines of ‘don’t ask me, I just write them!’ I think this made some impression so things got a bit easier as the questions focused rather more on the writing angle. This was all interspersed with traffic reports and the records I’d chosen off the play list earlier in the week. That had been a bit of a challenge, mainly choosing records I felt I could be associated with in public without totally losing all credibility. Now I found I was expected explain their special significance to me personally. Some advance warning of that might have been nice – though it had vaguely occurred to me that this might be the kind of thing they’d ask, so I’d been jotting down some notes while sat at the random desk while the techie went off to find out where I was supposed to be. Don’t ask me what I said; I have no recollection of any of it.

By 8.30, I was sitting in my cupboard, brain in overdrive, just keeping talking and trying to sound vaguely intelligent, when everything went dead. As far as I am concerned, we had dropped off the planet. I hadn’t touched anything! There was no sign of any techies at my end, so I looked for any obviously loose wires and shoved a few jacks harder into their sockets; I don’t know if this did anything but I found myself listening to mumbled panic in the other studio which at least cheered me up. Once we’d re-established communications, a rather tense voice said they’d redial me on a fresh ISDN line during the next traffic check. Feel free, I thought. My main problem by this stage was a mouth as dry as an old boot, since there was no water, no sign of any techies and no way of summoning any. It was more than a little ironic since the scenario was we were in a ‘virtual pub’, having a quiet drink (I’d picked this up from what I heard over the speakers while I was sitting at the random desk) That’s all very well but a virtual gin and tonic was not a lot of use. Anyway we got to the end of the hour – I must have been talking for a good 40 minutes out of it – some unknown voice says ‘thanks, that’s it’ over another traffic report and everything goes silent again.

Two techies now turned up, putting their coats on and saying, ‘can we show you out now, it’s the end of our shift?’. So nice to feel appreciated! I followed them out, got into my car and sat and shook for 10 minutes before managing to get the key in the ignition and feeling able to drive home in a manner which wouldn’t get the blue lights appearing in my rear view mirror and a friendly copper offering me a bag to blow into. ‘Have you had anything to drink tonight madam?’ – ‘a virtual gin and tonic, officer’. That would have gone down well, I don’t think.

I told myself to look on the positive side – I’ll have a better idea what not to expect next time at very least. I’ve no idea how many people listen to local radio, but I suppose a few might take pity on me and buy the book to see if the strange woman off the radio can write better than she can talk. The book got plenty of mentions; I managed to get in the fact that I’d written a second as well so who knows? Anyway, once I was home, I got myself an emphatically non-virtual gin and tonic and then another one!

So why am I changing the names to protect the guilty here? Because there was an interesting sequel to this. I went to a seminar on media interviews and listened with interest to how these things should work, in an ideal world. When it was time for questions, I stuck my hand up immediately to ask how to cope when things are going very differently and mentioned a few of the highlights of my evening. The trainer blanched, gave some useful advice and later came to find me and ask for my card, since she had just been retained to do some consultancy for this very radio station! I emailed her with the full, unexpurgated version and subsequently got phone calls of apology from the heads of both studios involved. Everyone seemed desperate to assure me this was all highly untypical and wouldn’t happen again, to anyone! Let’s hope so.

Afterword

Since this article was first written, I have been back to do a day time show for this radio station and am pleased to say, there were sensible questions, plenty of people on hand to supply coffee and friendly faces and the whole thing was much less stressful!

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