Thursday, August 11, 2011

It's a scab eat dog world

Not entirely unexpectedly, there has been a wee bit of reaction from within the BBC at Norwich to my musings on BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Nick Conrad. One colleague of Conrad's, whom I know a little and like a lot, dropped me a note to say "I wouldn't say we were close friends, but I have always got on very well with him and I think he's an excellent presenter". We agreed to disagree on the final point. However, another colleague was less warm, describing Conrad as a "walking disaster area", and noting that the blog post had "caused some smiles".

Conrad achieved a degree of national notoriety in February, when he had as a guest on his show a man who claimed to be the son of the rightful owner of the cat adopted as a pet by the Camerons. The whole thing was a hoax intended to highlight churnalism, and, while Conrad sounded sceptical throughout the interview, the fact was that by the time the piece went out, it had already been revealed as a hoax. That "really troubled some of us here," Conrad's colleague explained, "It wasn't only because he and others were taken in by an experiment in churnalism. They picked the story up from the Daily Mail which is their habit and then, had they simply checked on Google News, they would have found the originators 'fessing up to it. But that one simple check wasn't done."

Another broadcast that caused alarm to some of Conrad's colleagues was his show of 27 July 2011, which was billed as a look at the Olympics and Norfolk's part in the whole beano. It transpires that it doesn't have one. Once again, the programme opened with a repetitive, breathless three-minute introduction that said all that needed to be said in the first minute.

Nick Conrad 27-07-11 intro by Louis Barfe

Mmmm, pie. Any more pie? How many times did he refer to pie? I truly can't be arsed to count. The real problem with Nick's Olympic spectacular had little to do with catering arrangements or duff metaphors, though, and everything to do with the unprofessional way he addressed the unavailability of Keith Nicholls, head of the University of East Anglia's Sportspark, whom he, in the words of his dismayed colleague, "berated". "In Conrad World nobody has anything in their day which could be more important than answering his summons," his fellow broadcaster observed, "And it is in direct contradiction of BBC Producer guidelines where a clear 'empty chair' policy is set out. And we are simply not allowed to make a judgement on people who choose not to come on a programme."

Nick Conrad 27-07-11 by Louis Barfe

Note the moment where he suggests the council chap should spend more time in the Radio Norfolk studio, so that Conrad can keep him informed on his own business. That's the sound of someone who believes their own publicity a wee bit too much. It's the sound of massive self-importance, and it's completely at odds with the laid-back, gently-mocking tone of Radio Norfolk's best presenters and output.

The following day, Mr Nicholls made time to visit The Forum and make an appearance on Conrad's show. Why was Mr Nicholls denying Norfolk its slice of Olympic pie (presumably made in a tin in the shape of five linked rings)? Mr Nicholls explained calmly the logistics of Olympic training, and how it would not be in the interests of the Sportspark users to deny them use of the venue for a month so that it could be given over to training.

Nick Conrad Keith Nicholls 28-07-11 1 by Louis Barfe

Mr Nicholls is not some bland suit or a risible Mr Brittas-style timeserver. He's a former English volleyball international, and he was instrumental in setting up and designing the self-funding Sportspark over a decade ago. In summary, he knows what he's talking about, and in his professional judgment, the interests of the UEA Sportspark and its customers would not be best served by chasing reflected Olympic glory. Later in the interview, he states that he's open to discussion with teams who want to use the Sportspark, but clear that it would be on the Sportspark's terms. Fair enough. Except it isn't. Conrad ploughs on, suggesting that Nicholls and the council have lied or been guilty of some kind of cover-up, when clearly a sound and reasonable business decision has been reached. Listen to a Conrad show (if you have the stomach for it) and the phrase "I put it to you..." will be much in evidence, suggesting more an over-familiarity with the Network DVDs of Crown Court than any sound journalistic nous.

Towards the end of the interview, the subject changed to Mr Nicholls' non-appearance on the previous day's show. If you can't be bothered to listen to the whole of the following clip, go to 2 minutes 27 seconds, listen to Nicholls, then listen to Conrad's reply, and do please let me know in the comments below whose side you're on.

Nick Conrad Keith Nicholls 28-07-11 2 by Louis Barfe

"Forgive me, " Conrad practically hisses, "but I know my audience far better than you do." What a horrendously high-handed thing to say, even if true, and what an unpleasant way to say it. Conrad's despairing workmate puts it this way: "Since then 'I know my audience' has become another tongue in cheek quote plied around the production office here. But what happens next time we want to talk to the UEA Sportspark? I think it's the lack of a sense of a proportion which I find so shocking. He thinks he's Paxman."

How well does Conrad know his audience, though? As I said earlier, his tone jars hideously with the well-established personality of the station, and it's a station that has routinely beat BBC Radio 2 in the ratings on its own patch. I'd be very interested to know how Conrad's figures compare to the rest of the day's output, and with historical figures for that same slot. Maybe it's getting to the point where Conrad could reach the same number of people each morning by doing house calls on foot. When I first moved to the area, the bit between breakfast and afternoon was the largely the province of a broadcaster called John Mills, who specialised in solving problems for listeners and tackling the authorities on their behalf. Sadly no longer with us, he was a softly-spoken man whose words nonetheless carried a lot of weight, but who knew when to ease off and keep it light and polite. In contrast, Conrad seems to be under the misapprehension that you have to be a cynical, aggressive hard-arse about everything.

On the 27 July show, Conrad says that sometimes people in authority have to hold their hands up and say they got it wrong. Maybe they'd be more inclined to do so if there were a bit more give and take from his end of the studio. Conrad's personal response to criticism is illuminating. My correspondent at The Forum sent me another email this week, informing me that the ENPS database on which the station's contact details for contributors are stored has been amended to read "in big red letters" the following: "WARNING - has written offensive material online. Avoid." The entry was modified on 3 August 2011 and last modified by Nick Conrad. I have to confess that this news made me burst out laughing. Over the years, I have written plenty of offensive material, both online and in print, but I don't think my previous piece on this fascinating specimen of bad radio qualifies as offensive in the slightest. I've been in and out of The Forum semi-regularly for the last six years or so, blethering unpaid about music and archive TV, and judging talent competitions, simply because I like the station and I like the people I've been on air with. Graham Barnard, Chris Goreham and Stephen Bumfrey are among the very best presenters that radio (local or national) can offer, and I loved working with dear old Roy Waller. The production staff too: Amy Barratt, David Webster, Kirsteen Thorne, Kevin Newman, Thordis Fridriksson. All really good radio people. I said what I said about Conrad because I felt he was letting their side down, and if I'm now not welcome at The Forum for saying it, well, that's a price I'm happy to pay.

Meanwhile, he continues, stinking up the Norfolk airwaves for 2 hours a morning. Has Conrad's show really got the whole county talking? If so, what are they saying? I suspect that more than a few will be saying "Oh Christ, not him again. Turn it off".