6 Minutes on the Fly in Radioland

I finally realised I was old when the balance of my radio listening involved more people talking and less people playing music. I haven’t descended into talkback territory but I do listen to current affairs. And quizzes. I’m listening in no small part because there seems to be space to explore a wider range of stories told with a bit more warmth than TV allows.

Recently I had the chance to appear fleetingly on a small segment that is a regular part of Radio National Drive on a Friday night. It’s a pretty simple set-up – person who has a social media account shares stuff from that social media account that got them interested over the week. Obviously I agreed for all sorts of reasons, not least being the chance to gain some experience in a completely different area. Along the way I got to see many clever things happening in the squeezing crush of live radio and fell victim to a big storm and a VIP.

A step or two back first though.


This started because I knew a person. Dr Mel Thomson, former alumni of the Twitterati segment had passed my name on and soon enough an e-mail popped up testing my interest. Now I had actually been on radio twice as a before and after set of interviews when heading out to undertake a medical student stint in the remote community of Warburton. That had been on a Central Australian station which trumpeted its massive geographical reach. In an area with less people per square kilometre than just about anywhere on earth.

Looks bigger and has more cool stuff by the looks of the link this came from [see below]

Warburton looks bigger now and has more cool stuff by the looks of the link this came from

5 stories in 10 minutes all up of chat was the brief. Easy. Actually 10 minutes of stories took this novice way more in preparation. I tried to cover my inexperience by taking a few preparation steps, which I think I’d now apply to any other chances to do media (but I’d be glad to hear different takes on how to go about this stuff).

1. Know the Show

I had actually heard the segment before but there was a whole archive available via their website. Listening back gave me a sense of how I might slot in. It also emphasised that a range of story styles would be worthwhile, as much as I’d generally be keen to talk about the research or stuff from work at either CareFlight or the kids’ hospital. That would have been mostly about stuff for me, not the listener.

2. Crowdsource

Maybe social media would be good at pointing me to good social media, I thought. I wasn’t wrong and one of the stories we covered came directly from a general shout out for help. It was definitely one I would have missed. My hope was that it also might just mean a couple of people were more engaged with the radio bit because they had a hand in it.

3. Use the  Pros

The people who produce a radio show all the time probably know more about radio and their show than I do. Once I’d settled on my suggested stories, I prepared a briefing sheet with the links, where they came from and why I’d chosen them (plus some links around the topic). I suggested the ones I was most keen on, but gave some extra links so they could make some editorial decisions and pick their favourites. The producer Mark was then kind enough to send through the running plan, and make adjustments when I fired through a late option. A key point in using the pros of course, was to actually use them and not just pretend. There were some stories I was really keen on but the same as editing a bit of writing or a journal paper, you can’t get too attached to anything.

4. Prep the Stories

For each chosen story (plus my research project, places I work and bio) I drew out a plan for stuff I’d like to say. It was actually just a few key numbers and words squeezing amongst a tangle of arrows, but it made me distil my thoughts on all the stories into a couple of key points. And I could talk about the PhD project long enough that a listening bat would grab an adjacent electrical wire just to make it stop.

Once I’d put something on paper I also said some stuff out loud a few times. Each time I cut down how long I spoke, while still trying to hit the key points. I have a tendency to prattle on and it responds only to brutal handling.

The Actual Amble

It came to the evening and I had actually got there on time (no small feat). On my arrival it took quite a while to get up to the right level and through various locked doors thanks to kind wandering souls. It turned out that I’d pitched up just as a series of phone calls with the Queensland Premier had fallen through while they were covering the big storm with the underwhelming name, Tropical Cyclone Ita. This unfortunate confluence of chances truly sucked for them and was truly excellent for me. Safely tucked away at the back of the producer’s booth I got to watch live radio being replotted on the fly.

A pretty image, a gentle name but a serious storm. [via 28storms.com]

A pretty image, a gentle name but a serious storm. [via 28storms.com]

I’m sure they must have been a little frustrated that the interview was effectively suspended somewhere in the 4G network. From my perspective right there in the moment it’s all business as bits are slotted in, promos aired, new guests interviewed on the fly and pre-recorded bits repackaged. It is all digital but as snippets are cut I can see discarded bits of audio tape wriggling on the floor.

Once things are back on track, the tension eases a little and I’m lining up to chat on time. Then the lost call re-emerges. Good for them, but a bit less so for me. It’s all business again as the VIP slots back in.

Listening through the headphones while Premier Campbell Newman is being interviewed on serious matters of a storm, I watch “my” minutes tick away. I have become one of the wriggling worms of audio tape. Unsurprisingly for someone who names Jerry Seinfeld as a research mentor, I utter a few quiet oaths formerly employed on a postal worker (“Newman!”). And now I’m inappropriately picturing the Premier wearing a postal worker’s uniform. This helps. A lot.

Finally he is done and while I’m absorbing the factoid that host Rebecca Huntley actually crosses her fingers in the air when she says “fingers crossed” in the unseen world of a studio we’re into it. The next 6 minutes is a bit of a blur of stories about sloths, princes and chest bound immune glands being brought back to life. 2 stories are dropped on the fly due to time and the order therefore jumps a little but I’m handled by a pro and honestly, it’s not that hard to chat.

Then it’s done, I’m shuffling out, others are shuffling in and I’m out into the rain.

Now here somewhere beyond the immediacy of the moment it still feels like good fun.  It was a little frantic. I’ve learnt a bunch about curating a story and editing on the run. There’s only one downside – I’ve unfairly tarnished postal workers in my mind.


The Links:

If you have any interest, here’s the spot to find the audio.

Here are the stories:

Slothageddon via @meganchapman

The Little Prince via @brainpickings

The Regenerated Thymus via @upulie

@BuzzHootRoar on Critters that Light Up (as an account to follow is excellent but this spot featured the work of @jameshutson)

Here’s the ones that bit the dust:

Rwandan Reconciliation – amazing photojournalism on stories of reconciliation 20 years after the Rwandan genocides (I originally saw this via @rosepowell).

The Rwandan genocides need some broader perspective, so here’s a bit of general coverage, a bit about those left with scars, an amazing set of resources from MSF and, most importantly, coverage of the emerging crisis in the Central African Republic, which is a pretty stark reminder that these stories aren’t just about history.

The Joy of Dance – Jamie Smith (also of the XX) has a new bit of music. He asked a director to come up with a video prompted by a note he received from a deaf lady – ‘Watching you dance to the music in your earphones, I felt like I experienced the music’. They got the help of people from the Manchester Deaf Centre, who danced with the director.


3 thoughts on “6 Minutes on the Fly in Radioland

    • Thanks so much for getting in touch. Glad you found something in that piece. It was easier to write than read back actually. Only 2 mins break at work right now so I look forward to giving Lucy’s story the time it warrants a little later.

    • Thanks for sharing this Michael. A few differences from our story obviously but a lot of similarities. Totally understood the ashes bit. It was also good to hear how great SIDS and Kids were (they’ve not traditionally been quite so involved with stillbirth but are doing a bit more in that area these days). We lucked out with an excellent social worker at the hospital and a really good local set-up run we had the fortune of being told about. I think there’s a bit more support these days.

      Thought I should check first – are you happy with me sharing your link?

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