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Feedback: Disappearing Interviewees

Friday 26 July 2013, 15:05

Roger Bolton Roger Bolton

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Roger Bolton - presenter of Feedback Roger Bolton - presenter of Feedback

Some presenters rather like breakdowns on air. I mean the technical sort of course. Even the most hard-bitten, cynical journalist doesn't want to reduce the interviewee to tears. (I hope I am not being naïve.)

No, I mean when a line goes down or doesn't come up.

I remember working on BBC1's Nationwide programme with Frank Bough, probably the greatest live presenter I have ever known.

You could feed four different sound sources into his ear and he would listen to them all without a flicker, while continuing to talk to an interviewee. Frank had earned his spurs on Grandstand where he had to move between lots of different outside broadcast sources without a script or a fumble.

As a result, most other programmes, even the live, multi-itemed Nationwide were pretty much plain sailing for him. I don't say he was bored, just not extended.

However, if something went down and he had to fill, while editors like myself were running around the studio gallery in a panic trying to work out what to do, he really came alive. Only he could save the show, and of course he did. Every time.

When I presented Radio 4's live Sunday programme for 11 years there were occasions where I too hoped for some dramatic breakdown so I could save the day.

Mind you in my - perhaps rose-tinted – memory, things did not go wrong as often as they seem to be doing on Radio 4 at the moment, and on the Today programme in particular. Lots of listeners have written to us concerning about interviewees who disappear or never appear at all.

In this week's Feedback I talked to Andy Bocking, the technology controller for BBC Journalism and put to him the concerns of a number of listeners, including Geoff Petty who wrote us about a particularly bad case of disappearing interviewees on the Today programme.

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Andy Bocking, the BBC's Technology Controller for Journalism, on why live lines drop out.

By the way we will shortly be talking to the Director of the Proms, Roger Wright, who of course is also the Controller of Radio 3, about how he puts together 75 proms running over 2 months, and about whatever else you want to ask him. So please call, email or write to us with your questions.

Roger Bolton


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I prefer the other kind of breakdown.

    One of my favourites was when John Humphries introduced the sometimes-dour head of the BMA, Hamish Meldrum, as "Victor Meldrew".

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    @1: I prefer the other kind of breakdown.

    It was a shame that the press vilified Frank Bough back in 1988 over cocaine and a bit of BDSM.

    I found myself watching the Breakfast Time titles from 1986 a few days ago - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6dnpxXzEyo - and fondly remember informed, educated and entertainly BBC TV mornings.

    Funny that the breakdown here didn't turn out to be Frank, or the camp astrologer, but the Sports reporter ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Icke ) who had the massiah complex.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Dominic Hughes turned into a Dalek at 06:13 on this morning's Today programme. John Humphrys exterminated him within seconds. He was "unacceptable". With all this licence-fee payers' money being spent on huge severance payments to senior BBC managers my concern is that there is penny-pinching in areas where there shouldn't be.

    I'm in agreement with all the contributors to Feedback who are fed-up with all the coverage of the Royal baby on the BBC. It is unfortunate, however, that no one from BBC News was available to come on to the programme to answer the criticisms. If those at the top in News can so greatly misjudge the mood of the public on this matter are they really up to the job? Offering statements to Feedback listeners is unacceptable. Whoever messed up here should be compelled to appear on Feedback and answer for their failure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I am afraid that Mr Bocking has a very short memory. The reliability of BBC programmes dropped significantly with the introduction of digital technology and the cuts in staff that accompanied that.

    The "increase in sound quality" that new technology has brought to some listeners depends very much on the quality of their receiver, the distance from the transmitter and and local radio reception conditions. Not many listeners will have noticed any improvement resulting from the recent change of address of the studio. For most of us breaks in the programme are far more significant.

    Usually interviewees are lost because the BBC is using a radio link (either a radio/satellite car or some form of mobile phone). But unless you live in the SE you will be used to mobile phone blackspots, the fact that mobiles cut out if you turn round or walk past a large metal object. IN fact many of us still use Long Wave because, although it may sound funny sometimes, it is almost the only reliable form of radio transmission. So why do the BBC programme makers insist on using mobile phones or "radio/satellite"cars? Surely, with a little bit of planning their interviewees could use a land line?

    With a little bit of planning they could rehearse the interview while the phone was working and the presenter could summarise the points that the interviewee was going to make - or aren't there enough staff?

    It seems that the missing interviewee problem is due to lack of planning, the use of the wrong technology, and is possibly exacerbated by lack of staff. The fact that programmes are live is no excuse for a drop in standards. Imagine the emergency services using that excuse!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It has to be remembered that a remote interview is a two-way process. If the guest cannot hear the cue feed, then he/she will not reply when spoken to.

    Quite often they do, but then the loop delay is such as to convince presenter, sound mixer and listeners alike that contact has been lost, so the feed's faded out, making it self-fulfilling.

    Bring back analogue. VOIP's a disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Posting 4

    "With a little bit of planning they could rehearse the interview while the phone was working and the presenter could summarise the points that the interviewee was going to make - or aren't there enough staff?"

    One even wonders if a lot of these live interviews are really necessary, especially on the Today programme? ‘The World Tonight’ hosts far less (live interviews), yet the quality of the editing/production/presentation rarely slips. Additionally, the programme has the knack of generating some outstanding broadcasters – Douglas Stuart (so saddened to hear of his death – had a huge influence on the trajectory of my ow life), Robin Lustig, Samira Ahmed, Philipa Thomas, Felicity Evans, Claire Bolderson……….The current debate relating to females within the world of radio hasn’t mentioned any of these talented individuals.

    A 2Khz bandwidth is more than adequate for voice related radio…….and longwave allowed the imagination to operate in spherical co-ordinates as one multiplexed between the principal speaker and that mysterious Russian radio callsign in the background that went: ‘Bing bang bong bing bang’. The heterodyne whistles also added to the pleasure of radio listening……and one could compose a very romantic poem about the life of an aerial in Burghead (in the style of William McGonagall :):):) )

    I’d like to hear Feedback conduct an interview with a BBC marketing person and ask them this question: ‘what is more important within your life: promoting radio or marketing digital fads’? Surely the in-betweens within our lives (the analogue world) are far more interesting than beginnings and endings (digital world)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.


    Lawrence: I share your enthusiasm for LW AM, though I'd say 2kHz was cutting it a bit fine for comfort. I'll stick with the nominal 4.5kHz, thanks. Another benefit is that you can tune off to France Inter 162kHz etc. if you want to brush up your languages and get a different, often markedly so, perspective on the news.

    You can also receive these stations over much of Europe without retuning, in a car, or wherever.

    I also like the way, that at this time of year, increasing atmospheric static crackles give you some idea of approaching thunderstorms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    This morning's "Today" featured not only the disappeared interviewee, but also a complete loss of direction to the programme, with the presenters apparently being subjected to some sort of confusing distraction in their headphones, which left them unable to speak at all.

    It was resolved by James Naughtie asking unequivocally, what the programme was doing next, and finally we were able to move on.


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