What I learned from 1,890 hours of live radio.
Ben Birchall, Director of Brand Voice
My job title is ‘Director of Brand Voice’. Typically, that involves helping brands define and capture their tone of voice, and help direct their content and messaging. But some of the things I bring to it are tied very literally to voice. Or more specifically, my time talking into a microphone for three hours every morning.
From the end of 2009 to the end of 2012 I was a breakfast radio host. I was one of three hosts of a show called ‘Breakfasters’ on Melbourne community radio station 3RRR FM. It’s the heart and soul of Melbourne’s artistic, counter-cultural, inner-city scene. It sounds like a share house breakfast table, where a few mates make conversation and play some records and every now and again get to interview an Oscar winner or a Monty Python or something. The show has been running since 1984 and has a long pedigree of interesting hosts. People like Kate Langbroek (Nova FM, KIIS FM etc), Sam Pang (Nova FM, The Front Bar), John Saffran (JJJ, various TV shows) and Santo Cilauro (The Late Show, Working Dog).
I sought a lot of advice in my first few months of Breakfasters. Some of it was just about how to actually handle those hours. Tim Ross, of Merrick and Rosso fame, told me “Exercise rather than nap, when you’re tired you crave carbs which is shit… Get up as late as you possibly can is my tip.” (That’s his Facebook message, verbatim. Thanks Tim.) Some of the advice was about the actual business of the show. My predecessor Michael Williams told me in my first few weeks, “Write down your questions so you know them, and then turn the page over when you’re interviewing the person. That way it feels more like a conversation.” I say this with the utmost respect Michael, but f*ck off. I needed those questions in front of me, even if I knew them. It was only by knowing they were there that I could relax and listen.
Because relaxing isn’t and wasn’t my strong point. I continued to prepare and over-prepare. Which helped with interviews. My first really strong one happened pretty early that year with a US author and journalist named David Finkel, who had been embedded with the US military in Iraq and written a powerful book called The Good Soldiers. Maybe it’s because he’s a Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post journalist, but I went into preparation overdrive for that one. I still have my notes – two pages scrawled with question after question. I can count at least 20 in amongst the scribble. And this is for a 5-7 minute interview that I’m sharing with two other co-hosts. I might have got to three of those questions. Off-air, it was hard to keep up that intensity. But on-air, it was working. The interview was powerful, David could tell we had read his book and were prepared and he was generous and articulate.
But where preparing and over-preparing was working for interviews and news, it wasn’t helping in the ‘talk breaks’. They’re the gaps where the hosts basically just talk about stuff. Usually funny stuff. I had written a pre-recorded segment called ‘Tales From The Deep South’, mocking Melbourne’s north/south divide and the fact that RRR, being in the north, had no idea what happened in the south. I even had my hero Tim Rogers narrate each 30 second piece, and had them sound designed and crafted within an inch of their life. Plaintive banjo played. An announcer introduced Professor Tim Rogers, who over the sound of a crackling campfire, and with much camp in his delivery, delivered lines like:
“Governor Charles La Trobe named the principality of St Kilda after a ship that had been marooned there. The ship, our lady of St Kilda had been a spice ship delivering nutmeg, mace and paprika…to the Acland Street Safeway.”
I had thought and over-thought them, and produced and over-produced them. And they just weren’t very funny. Looking back over my show notebook, I was pedalling hard to fill talk breaks with call-ins like ‘Look up, Melbourne’, where I asked people to look up above street level to change their view of the city, and to describe what they saw. Nobody called.
I was flailing and trying too hard to make my mark on the show. To be the next Sam Pang or John Safran. And I was failing miserably. Which is when the bees happened.
In June and July 2010, there was a lot of news about bees. A LOT. I thought it must have been a slow news week, and that the lazy media was reaching for anything ANYTHING to write about. Bees. Please. So I did the story in a light-hearted tone. Remember, I was trying to find my thing. Maybe hilarious bees was it. The next day, I did it again. The next day, another. I was on a roll. A hilarious roll. The listeners must have been loving my witty view of the world. My droll take on the media making a mountain out of a beehive.
Which is when we received this email:
From: Gordon email@example.com;
Date: Fri, Jul 9, 2010 at 5:55 PM
Subject: The Honeybee
Although I’m fast asleep when this happens, I have been told that you are
discussing the plight of the honeybee without giving it the appropriate level of
I can’t tell you how to run your show, but I think you should do some research
before mocking this issue.
Thanks. Otherwise love your show.
I scoffed at the email. “Mocking,” Gordon? Please. I was making light of the lazy media. Lighten up Gordon. Lighten up. Before I sent him a faintly condescending reply, I thought I might actually…you know…do some research.
So I looked it up. And it turns out it was an issue. It also turns out it was really news.
The first big story was Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD is exactly what it sounds like – when whole colonies simply die. In the northern winter of 2007/2008, 36% of hives in the US simply disappeared. And it’s not just the US. In 2002/2003, 38% of Sweden’s, 36% of France’s and 20% of Germany’s bees disappeared. In November 2007, the UK’s farming minister told parliament that the entire British bee population could be gone in 10 years.
So what did it matter if bees disappear? No honey? No biggie. How about no avocadoes? How about no carrots? Or nuts? Or peaches? Or apples? Or basically anything except for wheat and rice? Because bees pollinate one in three of every mouthful of food we eat. It’s an industry that’s worth $60 billion a year globally. And with global food security looking shakier than ever, our future might very well rely on bees.
So now I knew a lot about bees.
But mostly, I knew that I had found my thing. I had, by listening to a listener, discovered something that I could bring to the show that was me. It wasn’t uproariously funny – in fact, it was dead serious. It wasn’t a pre-prepared, over-produced segment. It was a few lines at the end of the news bulletin every few days. And it was incredibly nerdy. Just like me. At the end of the year, the Breakfasters do a live outside broadcast (an O.B. as we call it in the biz), usually at the Corner Hotel – a music venue in Richmond. At the end of 2010, I donned a bee suit and sang a song. Was it funny? Well, it was funnier than that Acland Street Safeway shit.
So this is what I learnt. Preparing can only help so much. You have to think about your audience, and what they want. Did they want sound-designed pre-recorded segments that weren’t particularly funny? Hell no. Did they want forced call-ins that left dead air? No. Did they want their newsreader doing no research and mocking impending ecological disaster? No.
I hadn’t been thinking of them, and I hadn’t really been listening to them. I had been obsessed with making the show mine, rather than finding ways to fit myself into the show. After all, it had been going since 1984 and it’s still going today. It wasn’t about me or for me. It turns out, it was about the bees.
Here are a few lessons:
Listen. Just listen.
This goes for radio, business, creativity, life. Listen to people you’re interviewing, you’re collaborating with, who are asking for help, who are offering advice. Listening is a simple mark of showing respect. When you’re interviewing someone (on radio, for an article, for a job), they are probably nervous, or you are, or you both are.
Because listening isn’t always easy. This might partly be because we talk a lot slower than we speak. We typically speak at 125 words per minute while our 13 billion brain cells race around at a much faster rate. So with all that extra time and capacity our brains are rushing ahead, filling the gaps, running down dead ends and looking at squirrels rather than taking in the words. Actually listening is so hard that they teach a course in it at the University of Minnesota.
Leave a little in your pocket
It might be that last joke, or that one-liner or that clever question that shows what you know. Leave it there. The space that creates might let someone else make the joke, or let the interview subject make their own point that shows how smart they are.
Brands can do the same. Leave some space for your audience or consumers to respond or react. And play it back to them.
Preparing can only help so much
This is true for a radio interview or a job interview or a content strategy. Preparing is good, but every now and then you need to check the feedback loop. Is your plan still right? Listen to your audience.
Check your social analytics. Run a survey. Read the room. Sometimes you need to tear your plan up and just be yourself.
Do what delights you
As I learned before becoming a bee expert, don’t spend your time trying to second guess what the audience wants, or over-engineering everything. What I needed to remind myself was that I was chosen for that job for a reason. And if I found something interesting, intriguing and delightful, that would come through in the program.
It’s also how we choose the projects we work on at SouthSouthWest. If it aligns with our purpose, intersects with the cultures we champion or ignites our curiosity, we create more meaningful work for our clients. I’m still waiting for that bee-related brand project though.