Jumping through hoops | Patrick Humphries

30 January 2018 Jumping

Writing for radio can be enormously satisfying... provided you can jump through all the right hoops - broadcaster Patrick Humphries writes.

Writers of biography, history and non-fiction are frequently approached by BBC and independent radio staff. The conversation usually begins with them asking if we have 'a moment' and we'd mind having our brains picked? Half an hour later, with your brain picked, and no suggestion of any payment for your time, they are gone with the wind…

If you think the book you have written would be suitable for a radio documentary there are a number of ways of going about getting it made.

First step, look at the website: bbc.co.uk/commissioning/radio. In my experience, BBC Radio 4 rarely commissions from individuals.

But look at the Radio Times, see which programmes are in the same territory as yours, see the name of the producer, and on the off chance, try an email to ‘forename.surname@bbc.co.uk’. It might well reach them. They are busy people and would only seriously consider an idea pitched if it was one paragraph.

But the hoops as an individual you have to jump through are many and varied: you have to be on an Approved Providers List - Technical Delivery requirements; Health & Safety requirements; BBC Terms of Trade, and that doesn't include the expertise needed to record, edit and deliver a programme of broadcast quality.

Realistically, include names they might expect to hear. There is no point saying, "And we will hear from Cara Delavigne, Bob Dylan and Rio Ferdinand" because you think they would be suitable. You need to have at least a provisional agreement from 'The Talent' before you include their name in your pitch.

It used to be that the BBC would commission an idea. Nowadays, that idea has to have a celebrity name attached. Of course, they don't say that, but if you are lucky enough to get over the first hurdle, you will be asked "and what voices will we expect to hear…?" Which of course means “which celebrity will be presenting and contributing?” My Radio 4 programme about the Battle of the Alamo only got commissioned because Phil Collins is the world's leading collector of Alamo memorabilia.

The Radio 4 programme I made about the Hollywood Cricket Club had been - ho, ho – batted back innumerable times, until cricket fan and Mr Carson off TVs Downton Abbey, Jim Carter, agreed to present it.

Just look at the Radio Times and see which programmes are being broadcast, and just how many have a 'name' attached – be it an alternative comedian, BBC staffer or incongruous name. They love the idea that the drummer from Genesis was willing to talk about a battle which took place in Texas in 1836.

Anniversaries are a poisoned chalice: you need to be thinking a long way ahead; by now, the BBC will have everything ready for the Centenary of the Armistice... Plans for the 50th anniversary of the last-ever Beatles gig in January 1969; the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 or Castro's 1959 revolution will be well underway.

As well as guaranteed celebrity involvement, what they like is a sentence along the lines of "This programme will include never-before-broadcast interviews" and "for the first time, we will gain access to such-and-such archive". And the word "exclusive' really does carry some weight.

Local radio is always worth considering but be warned: they have no money! A couple of years ago I pitched a documentary on David Bowie's London to BBC Radio London. After saying no, sorry, but David Bowie himself would not be contributing, I was offered £50 to write, produce and present the programme.

Independent radio production companies are a good way in. The BBC is obligated to commission a percentage of programmes from outside sources.

The trade body is radioindies.org, but you have to be a member.

I Googled 'Radio Production Companies London' and came up with a pretty full list. If you have the time, go through each and see if they are making the sort of programmes you are writing about.

Ideas are their currency. Whistledown, for example, hold regular informal meetings where anyone is welcome to pitch ideas for the BBC.

You then have to write up a realistic pitch, which they will submit on your behalf. If that is shortlisted, a further longer pitch is required, like the sort of listing you'd see in Radio Times. If that is commissioned you're on the way... But do make sure that your fee is agreed and that your involvement is clearly understood: will you be contributing? Will your voice be heard? Do they just want to use your book on, say, flintlock muskets, as a source?

Remember, you will not get a credit. The usual thing you hear is "Flintlock Muskets was presented by Grayson Perry and produced by Jim Smith. It was a Best Heard production for BBC Radio 4". However, it is worth pursuing getting a credit on any press release prior to broadcast, and details of you and your book on the production company's website.

I would like to end on a positive note: for all the hoops you have to jump through, radio is an enormously satisfying and creative medium if you get the green light. You are likely to be working with an enthusiastic team, and – such is still the power of the BBC brand – could well end up working alongside a talent you have long admired. My memory of sitting in a studio listening to Frederick Forsyth reminisce about writing The Day of The Jackal or Alan Whicker stumbling over the pronunciation of Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' still make me smile...

The demands of television are far more demanding. Film clips are prohibitively expensive, whereas music and audio archives are relatively cheap and can really enhance a radio programme.

You would be surprised how many people actually hear a programme you have been involved with, and it looks good on your CV if you are willing to persevere. Mind you, with the derisory advances publishers now pay, what else are you going to do with your time...?

Patrick Humphries is a writer and broadcaster. He is currently working on a book about four authors (P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, Dennis Wheatley, C.S. Forester) who all attended Dulwich College, which will be published prior to the school’s 400th anniversary in 2019.