The World Service – First Impressions

Posted on 02/10/2009 by


Arriving before dawn, Bush House is eerily beautiful. The white marble columns are lit by blue lights, and the city is calm and quiet. It’s 5:45am.

The art-deco building is like a temple to radio. It has it’s rituals, it’s portals, which after only a few days working in the building, I am already learning.

Whatever pace you enter the building, with whatever sense of urgency, the security guard always strolls languidly to the glass doors to let you in. You are reminded that he’s been here all night – that the building never sleeps.

The elevators are time-machines – their buttons glow orange with age, and heavy ornate brass fittings on the ceiling have darkened to mahogony. At first, I take the stairs, till the early morning starts convince me to conserve my energy for the day / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’m always tend minutes early into the office, and there is always someone there before me – Robyn or Damien or Paul. It’s a calm time, the producers sipping coffee, searching for stories, and listening to the radio simultaneously, whilst brain and body warm up for action.

The show goes out at 10:00 GMT Monday to Friday. That’s four hours to put together an hour long program. By 8:00 we’ve had an editorial meeting, pitching our stories into the ring. Update is a hard news program, but there’s room for the lighter side too – so my suggestions to interview Entomo the Insect man, a self branded super-heroe based in Naples, is surprisingly selected. I’m pleased at first, but half an hour later feel foolish as others around me make frantic calls to survivors of the earthquake in Sumatra.

By now the presenter, Dan Damon, has arrived. He commutes all the way from Monmouth in Wales every day, making my bus rides seem puny. Dan is one of those  unflappable presenters who would barely flinch if a grenade went off in the studio. With such a short amount of time to find stories and guests, parts of the show are often put together at the last minute, or even after the broadcast has begun – so that quality is invaluable.

In fact, I was struck by how calm and collected everyone was. In such a high pressure environment, I’d expected big egos, frantic activity, shouting and tempers. None of it. Junaid, the editor, was the calmest presence in the room. “Maybe we’ll do it tomorrow” he would say if I was struggling to get someone for interview.

There’s a lot to learn – and not necesarily the things I thought would be important. Yes, there’s some technical things, like the computer system (ENPS) used by the BBC. But it’s the more subtle skills – knowing which angles to take on a story, who might speak well on a subject, where to look for leads, always thinking about time zones and studio availability and the art of the possible, with the clock ticking, and not forgetting to write the brief and cue even though you are still frantically making calls. And doing it all calmly, with a clear head…

Yes, it’s like a temple, with strange rules and regulations, and no mugs, and not enough desk space, and the smell of coffee like incense. And every day the intitiated arrive to make the best radio in the World from small, dimly lit rooms. There’s magic here.

Posted in: Journalism