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Sound bites at the cherry

I only escaped by the skin of my teeth from holding the record for the world's worst education broadcast. It was in the early Eighties and I was one of the hosts of a 20-minute spot on a recently-opened local commercial radio station.

On the dreaded day, I cut things rather fine, especially as it was to be my first effort at a live phone-in. This was aggravated by extensive road works on the 11-mile stretch to the studio. I listened with a sinking feeling to a confident voice urging listeners in north Wiltshire to phone into my programme. I comforted myself that it was not going to be me but a woman from the Workers Educational Association who would field the questions; I would just add a jovial gloss. On arrival at the studio I was greeted by a worried producer and the news that there was no woman from the WEA.

This was a classic example of how not to do it. However informal it sounds, preparation is essential. Always give yourself plenty of time: there's nothing worse than arriving at a studio breathless.

The woman from the WEA eventually arrived 90 seconds before going on air. I can still recall my relief, as I clutched a copy of the Beach Boys' Greatest Hits LP, which was to get extended air time.

Two factors have made it essential for any educational establishment to use radio as a means of publicising its activities. First, thanks to the growth of local community radio, BBC and commercial, there is virtually no place in Britain which does not have access to radio and, in many places, this will mean several stations. Secondly, the growth of the commercial and marketing ethic in education has made the emphasis on publicity even more important.

The recent recession has almost certainly made the local paper smaller, due to a fall in advertising, and it is often more difficult to get a press release printed, unless it is really interesting. I convinced my former principal that we should make an all-out effort on the local station by showing him the amount of radio stickers there were in the college's car park.

If you are asked to speak on radio, it is essential to understand that it is an intimate medium, usually listened to by people doing something else. It is vital to be personal, informal and chatty. Imagine that you are speaking directly to a friend, colleague or student. Effective radio is best summarised by the legendary communication motto "KISS" (keep it simple, stupid).

I use what I call the envelope test; I put down a few points on an envelope (paper rustles and gets picked up by the microphone). Whatever the questions, I try to get those points across. Use everyday language and ban all mentions of modules, GNVQs, clusters and the rest.

Radio largely operates around answers that are 30 seconds. Longer than this and it sounds like a speech, any shorter and it sounds like a shopping list. Use limited amounts of anecdotes (non-rambling) and comparisons, and make it lively. If you make a mistake on air say so, correct yourself and then go on. If you are being recorded, do it again. Above all else, humanise yourself: it is likely anyway that you will come somewhere between Dire Straits and the traffic report.

If an educational establishment is to gain regular and useful access to radio, it must rethink its publicity. Stations often complain that they get photographs sent to them labelled "press release" in what has obviously been a blanket distribution. Radio deals in information in terms of seconds, hours and, just occasionally, days so must you. Have a few speakers who can use radio to maximum advantage. Initiate a strategy for dealing with critical reports. Why not negotiate with stations for a regular spot they have a lot of air time to fill?

I wish you luck and hope that you will never have to resort to prayer, while clutching a Beach Boys' LP.

John Kirkaldy is the media officer at Salisbury College in Wiltshire.

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