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Being on the radio: Some comments

Last week, I was invited along to talk about pet names and terms of endearment on the Fred Macaulay show, and given that it was my third or fourth time on the radio, I felt that I was a bit better able to reflect on the whole process, rather than skating by the seat of my pants with no idea about what to expect. This was also the first time that I was actually invited into the studio instead of doing it over the phone, so that was a new experience (even though the mic and headset were broken and I ended up having to do it over the phone anyway), and I thought it might be useful to go over some of the things that I’ve learned now that I’m an old hand at media work (/joke).

1. Do your preparation

The first thing that you want to make sure about is that you know what you’re talking about and that you have a few ‘quick facts’ that you can drop into the conversation in case you run out of things to say. Hosts are generally quite sensitive to a guest running out of chat and have a list of questions ready to prompt you (dead air is something radio stations avoid like the plague), so if you do tail off, you can expect that the host will swoop in and save you with an open-ended question, but the more you can make your contribution stand alone, the better. It helps if you have a list of bulleted points that you expect might come up over the course of the segment, but have them spread out in front of you so you don’t make a rustle noise as you flick through your notepad. This was relatively easy for me because I was in the studio by myself, so I didn’t have to worry about messing up someone else’s desk.

2. You don’t need to do as much preparation as you expect

I spent about two hours or so for last week’s programme reading up on etymologies, historical attestations, geographical distributions, politeness strategies and all sorts of issues related to pet name usages. Unfortunately, most of it was stuff I ended up not using at all. But thankfully, the preparation wasn’t wasted since it was there if I needed it. I realised, though, that radio shows are often more about reactive talking than proactive talking. You can have a plan about what to say, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll end up actually sticking slavishly to that script.

3. Be prepared to deviate from the script and improvise

I had no idea what kinds of issues we would be discussing beyond ‘terms of endearment’ and the recent story in Brighton, so when they played me some clips of pet names being used in professional contexts (mortgage application being turned down, dentist’s surgery, and a cold-call for double-glazing), I had to think quick about what they might want me to talk about. This wasn’t something I had anticipated, so I had to think quickly and offer some sort of ‘analysis’ of what I was hearing without getting bogged down in detail.

4. Accessibility

You’re likely going to be talking to a wide audience who are not specialised in your field, so you need to make sure that you can talk about your material/topic in an easily accessible kind of way. You don’t want to bamboozle the audience with ‘academic-ese’, and thinking carefully about your use of terminology and specialised terms means that you’re less likely to lose your listeners. One thing that might help with this is to ask the producer (who you’ll likely speak with before the show actually airs) what kind of ‘tone’ the show is going for. In my case, the aim of the Macaulay show was to have people talking about the segment later on in the pub, so factoids and unusual tidbits of information were the order of the day. If it had been a more serious discussion about gender relations, for example, I would have adopted a different kind of stance towards the discussion and covered different kinds of topics.

5. Have fun!

Radio shows are a great way to get experience of how the media works and you get a great opportunity to talk about things that interest you to a wider audience. Cracking a few jokes, having a bit of a laugh with the host and generally enjoying yourself will come across to the audience in a positive way, and that’s never a bad thing.

I have to say that it’s the first radio appearance that I’ve done that I’ve genuinely enjoyed, and I think that that’s something that comes with experience, but you can do a lot to help you settle your nerves and figure out the important things, before you even set foot in the studio. There are loads of links out there that are helpful, so I’ve added a few of them below.

The Social Linguist

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