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Archives for October 2009

Highland Halloween

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Jeff Zycinski | 23:12 UK time, Saturday, 31 October 2009

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Thumbnail image for Inverness-at-night.jpgThere were witches, vampires and skeletons walking along the riverbank tonight. The Ness Islands had been transformed into a safe haven for pirates and cut-throats. Ghoulish green lights led the way through the trees. Meanwhile, a blood-stained banner was strung from the old Caledonian Building warning of a 'Nightmare on High Street'. Say what you like, but they know how to celebrate Halloween here in Inverness. It's all part of the Winter Festival.

Of course, not everyone thinks its so much fun. When the skull & crossbones briefly replaced the Saltire on the Townhouse flagpole, some people thought this was in poor taste and it was removed.

Others, I know, feel there is enough horror on the High Street most Saturday nights as the drunks spill out of the pubs and clubs.

But the young 'uns seem to love it, including the young Zeds. They were out 'guisin' as usual and came home with a good haul of chocolate, crisps, sweets and satsumas.

Satsumas?

If you ask me, some parents are taking this healthy eating lark just too far!


Brian Taylor's Big Debate

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Jeff Zycinski | 23:10 UK time, Friday, 30 October 2009

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I'm rarely in Glasgow on a Friday but being at Pacific Quay today meant I was able to watch Brian Taylor's Big Debate programme as it went out live. Today he had an all-female panel of guests and an audience of opinionated adults and rather more shy schoolchildren.

We're getting a great response to this programme from listeners and, when the programme comes live from Pacific Quay, lots of BBC Scotland staff lean over the balconies to see and hear what's happening. Today, for example, I was rubbing shoulders with John Beattie and Annie McGuire while the programme Editor, John Boothman, was whispering in my ear and telling me about his plans to have outside broadcasts around the country. Dundee next week, he said.

All of which made it difficult to listen to the actual debate. I'm surprised Brian didn't stop the programme and tell the four of us to stop chatting.

The programme's on the BBC iPlayer, of course.

The Team Behind Radio Caley

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Jeff Zycinski | 20:13 UK time, Thursday, 29 October 2009

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Thumbnail image for Radio-Caley.jpgAnother night at Pacific Quay and another tour of the building. But it makes all the difference when you have a group of people who are genuinely interested in what they're seeing and who ask all sort of challenging questions.

As it was tonight when I met the management team from Radio Caley - the student-run radio station at Glasgow Caledonian University. They hit me with questions about marketing, audience profiles, comedy scripting, news-gathering, social networking, technical infrastructure.

I had to call a half-time break so we could have coffee and a breather. Then it was off into the Get It On studio where they asked Bryan Burnett about his playout system and the method of ingesting music into the conputer system.

Phew. I must remember to do more of these tours in the daytime, when I'm still capable of stringing sentences together.

News You Can Use

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:55 UK time, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

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Thumbnail image for BBC-mic.jpgI worry about the future of newspapers. Every month I read about the dwindling circulation figures and I work out how long it will be before some of the most famous titles are selling fewer copies than my old school magazine. Then I try to do my bit by buying two or three papers every time I'm catching a train. I also make sure to toss them in the bin afterwards so that no one else can read them for free. I hope that helps. Not the planet, obviously.

But I don't just worry about newspapers; I worry about the future of news itself. It's one of my favourite conversation topics. Just get me started on this and I can clear a room within ten minutes. I'm not kidding.

I first performed this vanishing act many moons ago during a BBC Review Board. These are meetings where we gather to discuss and dissect recent output. People come from different departments and with different points of view. Sometimes I suspected they had colluded before those Review Boards and agreed to say nice things about each other's programmes. A non-hostility pact, if you like. At other times the meetings could descend into mutually assured destruction as estranged colleagues settled old scores.

That doesn't happen anymore. Well, not often.

But it was at one of those Review Boards, when I was voicing some criticism of Radio Scotland's news output, that the programme editor defended himself with the following question.

"But what do you think we missed?"

I didn't quite understand what he meant, so he elaborated.

"I mean, was there anything in the newspapers that morning that we didn't cover on the radio. Did we miss any stories?"

Well, the discussion went on for a bit. Some people made their excuses and left. Others were so numb that they couldn't think of an excuse and just threw themselves out of a window. Finally I had to accept that we hadn't, in that sense, "missed a story" but it confirmed my view that news journalism can drift too easily into information-processing. One journalist gets a story and everyone else transforms it into a radio or television piece, a magazine column, an online article, a blog and so on. The next morning that story is "taken on" by seeking reaction from a relevant person or organisation.
When I worked in commercial radio every political story had to be followed up by reaction from other politicians and then the CBI and STUC. Always riveting stuff, of course.

Journalists ought to be defined by their ability to find or cover that original story. To be first with the news, in fact. To tell people things they don't already know. To ask the right questions.

And that's what worries me about the demise of newspapers. Fewer journalists will mean fewer original stories.

I imagine that, around the world, there are newsrooms full of dedicated, intelligent staff who are working very long hours processing a very small number of stories...and that news agenda seems to be getting narrower all the time.

More than a year ago, at the Radio Festival, I found myself making headlines because I dared to state the obvious and point out that news was becoming dominated by stories about celebrities like Amy Winehouse and her trips to rehab. I went as far as to say that there were plenty of young women in Scotland whose lives were also being ruined by drugs and that we, as journalists, should find ways of putting their stories at the top of our bulletins.

News, I said, is what we say it is and we don't all have to say the same thing. It's why, on BBC Radio Scotland, we created the fortnightly Investigation programme...and why we have programmes like Give Me a Voice where real people - not professional journalists - get the chance to tell their own stories and demand answers from the authorities.

But maybe I'm wrong. Arrogant, even. Overweight too. Sober, though.

Maybe news should only be about what sells newspapers or bumps up listening and viewing figures.

So you tell me...what should be in the news?

And if you would like to read a more eloquent view of modern journalism, please look at this piece from the Nieman Foundation for Journalsim at Harvard.


Radio Or Alba On Freeview?

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Jeff Zycinski | 23:25 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

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BBC-Alba.gifI'm a big fan of BBC Alba and not just because it allows me to watch free football on a Saturday night. There have been some great documentaries and music programmes and the nightly news programme from Inverness has the kind of freshness and originality that appeals to my old journalistic instincts.

Great presenters too.

Having said all that, when I first heard about the plans to remove every BBC radio station from Freeview so that BBC Alba could find a home there I was, shall we say, a bit put out.
I'm afraid to say I was responding with the kind of gut instinct that leads some of us in radio to think of ourselves as Cinderella. I'm not going to name the ugly sisters.

But when I started to look at the facts and figures, the idea began to make more sense.

For starters, only about one percent of all radio listening happens through Freeview. And of that one percent very few people have no other alernative, be it FM, DAB, Online or Satellite TV.

At the same time, attempts to promote digital radio listening have been a bit messy because there are so many platforms available. Most of the marketing spend has centred on DAB while internet listening (my own favourite) rarely gets mentioned - except on the radio stations' own idents.

But there's a plan -outlined in the U.K. Government's Digital Britain report - to switch off most FM radio as early as 2015. Most people in the industry regard that target as "ambitious".

For BBC Radio Scotland there are a number of complicating factors around that. We currently offer a split service of FM/MW programmes most weekday evenings. We also split FM transmission geographically to offer localised news and sport in areas such as the Highlands and the Borders.

Currently we cant do either of those things on DAB - which is something many DAB listeners complain about. It needs a technical solution. There is one, but it comes at a cost.

Add to that the long-standing transmission blackspots around Scotland, such as the A9 corridor, and you can see that our issues go way beyond the decision to keep radio on Freeview or not.

But you can have your say on that. The BBC Trust has just launched a consultation exercise and there's a online survey you can complete by clicking here.


So Pleased To Have Pleased The Queen

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Jeff Zycinski | 15:09 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

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This is a first for the Radio Cafe team. The California-based actor and performance artist Mihkail Tank has written to The Queen telling her how much he enjoyed being interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland. Her Majesty was clearly a little too busy to send him a personal reply, but a Lady-in-Waiting has written to Mikhail to tell him how pleased she was to hear that.

Mikhail was interviewed by Janice Forsyth at the tail-end of this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He'd created an online virtual fringe show which, he said, was all about "creating restore points in your soul".

The show could be seen by anyone, anywhere in the world, who had the correct password. I'm not entirely clear why, in that case, it was an Edinburgh Fringe event, but there you go.

I wonder how many letters the Queen gets.

You can connect to Mikhail Tank's official website here and hear that original interview with Janice.

No Longer Under The Influence

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Jeff Zycinski | 21:18 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

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Twenty-six days into BBC Radio Scotland's Under The Influence season and people are still asking me about my own decision to give up drinking.

"I've only given up drinking alcohol," I tell them. Otherwise I would have dehydrated to the point where you could scoop me in glass jars and sell me as crystals of dried fat. Yet the questions continue and this worries me. It suggests that my friends and colleagues feel unsettled unless they see me holding a pint glass and wiping a blob of froth from my chin. Especially at breakfast time.

When I insist that I'm not really missing the booze, no one seems quite satisfied with that. So I tell them about the first few days of my abstinence when I was having those biting headaches and bad dreams.

"Ah...that's the toxins making themselves known," said one know-it-all. Who knew that toxins were such attention-seekers?

Anyway, I've realised I need to come up with some better answers if only to keep others amused. Allow me to test the following on you and invite you to suggest better alternatives if you feel so inclined. Mind you, if you're so inclined, you've probably had one too many yourself.

Q. I hear you've given up the booze...how's that going?

A. Just fine. No problem at all. I mean, sucking the alcohol out of thermometers doesn't really count, does it?

Q. So what made you give up drinking anyway?

A. Well you know those crazy programme ideas you're always trying to pitch to me in the pub. Lately I started to believe they were actually good.

Q. I'm told you're off the sauce. Are you going to be a bore about it?

A. Not at all, but last night I was visited by the Holy Spirit and he told me you had better stop drinking too or risk eternal damnation. You going to eat those chips or what?

Q. You've gone almost a month without a drink. Do you feel better for it?

A. Are you kidding? I've never felt better. It's like my mind is really clear for the first time in years. The last thing I remember is going into the Student Union to have my first legal pint and now it's twenty-eight years later, I have a wife and two kids and they tell me I'm running a radio station. How did that happen?

BBC Radio Scotland - The Lego Movie

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Jeff Zycinski | 23:29 UK time, Saturday, 24 October 2009

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My son was mucking about with a camera and a laptop this afternoon while we listened to Sportsound. It inspired him to make this epic promotional video which, I'm sure you'll agree, is an accurate picture life at BBC Radio Scotland.

Except, maybe we're not quite as animated as he imagines.

Tony's New Book Reads Like A Radio Adventure Story

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Jeff Zycinski | 18:25 UK time, Saturday, 24 October 2009

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Tony Currie - my BBC Scotland colleague - has written a short memoir about the early days of Radio Clyde. It's lavishly illustrated with photographs of the station's first presenters, the backroom staff and even some of the technical equipment that was used. For us radio anoraks it's a must read, but in truth the early chapters are like an adventure story. You get a real insight into the birth-pangs of legitimate commercial radio in Scotland and you find yourself wondering if those pioneers are actually going to pull it off.

They do, of course, and the rest is history.

Leafing through the book first thing this morning brought back all sorts of memories for me...mainly as a listener. I was a schoolboy in Glasgow when Clyde came on air, but I well remember listening to Tiger Tim Stevens, Dr Dick's Midnight Surgery with Richard Park and Brian Ford's punk and new wave programme Stick it in Your Ear - which has got to be one of the best ever names for a radio show.

Tony includes a chapter on the station's ill-fated listing newspaper Clyde Guide. I remember buying it on the way to school and showing it to my geography teacher who ridiculed the content before turning his attention to me. He was a BBC Radio 3 listener and he told me that local radio was a waste of time and that my time would be better spent listening to Beethoven and joining his chess club.

Well, he was right about Clyde Guide. It closed after a year.

I worked for Radio Clyde as a news reporter but didn't join the station until 1990. Many many of the legendary names were still there at that time. Tiger Tim once praised my "professionalism" because I always wrote my name -phonetically - on a piece of paper and handed it to him in the studio just before he had to introduce the news bulletin.

Jeff Ziz-in-ski.

I wasn't expecting to be mentioned in the book, but there on page 114 is a photograph of me in a line-up of newsroom staff preparing to cover a General Election. I even get a mention in the index...under 'Z' of course.

Tony's book is called Not Quite Altogether Now! and I must take my copy to Glasgow next week and get it signed.


Thumbnail image for Clyde-Book.jpgNo postal strike today so we had a bumper delivery of mail at Zed towers. Among the various bills and brochures there was an eagerly-awaited package from that online book store based in the South American rainforest.

One New Listener In Inverness

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Jeff Zycinski | 13:48 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

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I'm always encouraging our programme-makers to meet our audiences. Today, on the High Steet in Inverness, I came face-to-face with one of the biggest listeners in the city. Mind you, I'm not exactly sure that huge mobile puppets are included in the official Rajar figures.

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This one - the Sky Trumpet - is on the streets as part of the Highland Homecoming celebrations. Its being trundled along by a three person team of assistants who call out to small children and invite them to whisper their wishes into the extendable ears. Those wishes are then recorded and re-broadcast to passers-by.

I was prepared to elbow a few toddlers out of the way so that I could get my own wishes into the system, but by the time I had finished scribbling out my list, the puppeteers had wheeled off into the distance.

Next time.

And The Nominations Are...

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Jeff Zycinski | 00:31 UK time, Thursday, 22 October 2009

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Two hundred and fifty years after his birth and Robert Burns has secured us a nomination in the Scottish BAFTAS. I thank you, Sir. Pity you're not able to make it for the big night.

Now, I have to confess that when those BAFTA nominations came out the other day I didn't pay very close attention. They're primarly concerned with the film and television industry and, despite my oft-stated claim that the pictures are better on radio, we don't tend to get a look-in.

What I hadn't realised, of course, was that there is an award category for websites and BBC Scotland's Robert Burns site is up there among the contenders. It's the home of the huge online archive project we launched at the start of this year. Every poem and song written by Burns will eventually find its way there, performed by some of Scotland's best actors as well as some other famous voices. They're heard first on BBC Radio Scotland, then made available on our twice-weekly podcast before being added to the Burns website.

Radio producers Dave Batchelor and Esme Kennedy have provided that element of the site's content, while our online colleagues - led by Tom Hodgkinson - have been managing the actual site itself, linking it to other Burns-related content and making it easily searchable by theme, title or the performer.

And there we are, up for a BAFTA and up against stiff competition that also includes another BBC Scotland production - the brilliant China Stories website.

This Fat Ugly Beast Must Lose Weight...And The Dog's On A Diet Too

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:37 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

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fat-Rascal.jpgOur Lhasa Apso, Rascal, is getting too fat. The vet was none too happy with us. She didn't exactly give us a row, but there was an icy tone in her voice when she explained that he was two kilos overweight and asked us if we had been feeding him tidbits from the table.

"Sometimes he gets little bits of pasta, " said a shame-faced Mrs Zed, being so economical with the truth that you would have thought they were rationing it.

"Yeah and sometimes I chuck him a leg of lamb." I might have added, but didn't.

The vet was right, of course. It is our fault. We've not even been exercising him as much as we ought to. Not unless you count those leaps he does at breakfast time when we're eating bacon.

So he's weighing in at over nine kilos when he ought to be closer to seven. We've signed him up for a 'weight clinic' which is a bit like a Fat Club for dogs. He has to go back regularly to sit on the scales. If things don't improve I expect the authorities will be alerted and there will be a dawn raid by the SSPCA.

I've decided, in the spirit of man-dog solidarity, to join him on the diet. If Rascal can lose two kilos, surely I can easily lose ten times that. I'll race him to that target, in fact, and keep you up to date on our progress.

This will mean an end to nibbling away at left-overs and licking the children's greasy plates. No more little bone biscuits before bedtime or being allowed to chew away at a pig's ear as a special treat.

Oh and Rascal will have to cut that out too.

How I Became Jimmy Krankie

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Jeff Zycinski | 16:19 UK time, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

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I'll say one thing for this job of mine, it's full of variety. This afternoon, for example, I was asked to assume the role of Jimmy Krankie and display my limited acting skills in front of a group of people interested in mental health. Not my mental health, but just mental health generally.

This was during a comedy workshop were were staging at Pacific Quay as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. Producer Margaret-Anne Docherty and comedian Raymond Mearns were performing extracts from the BBC Radio Scotland comedy No Hard Feelings. The central character - Raymond Swann - has to cope with depression and anxiety after the death of his mother. We wanted to explore whether or not this subject matter was suitable for comedy and what changes we should make in advance of the next series.

The audience included people who had either experienced mental health problems themselves or else were involved in the professional side. We heard some interesting and valuable points of view and I was particularly struck by those who suggested that a comedy could also have an educative role and could help explode some of the myths surrounding therapy and psychiatric care. Others took us to task for not understanding that, in reality, psycho-therapists say very little during a session...although it was accepted that might not make for very interesting radio.

In one of the extracts, Raymond Swann hallucinates a clone of himself as a minature Jimmy Krankie. That was my chance to play a bit part in the performance.

I wont tell you what the audience thought of that, but "fan-dabi-dozi" would be inaccurate...and far too obvious.

I Get No Kick From Champagne

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Jeff Zycinski | 19:34 UK time, Monday, 19 October 2009

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It's true. I never have liked the taste of Champagne. Yet as all Daily Mail readers will be aware, we've been forced to drink it for years here at the BBC. Up until recently you were handed a glass each morning as a little 'thank you' for turning up for work. All those perks have been done away with now, of course. Pretty soon we'll be told to hand back our caviar spoons. Things are grim.

Ahem, but seriously folks, we're now in week three of BBC Radio Scotland's Under The Influence season - a month of programmes themed around our nation's relationship with alcohol. Each weekday morning Fred MacAulay has been keeping tabs on five listeners who have each decided to curb their intake of booze. This morning I was heartened to hear Roy Hudghton talk about how his decision to monitor his own drinking habits had encouraged his friends and colleagues to do the same. Many of them discovered, with a shock, that they were downing a lot more than Roy.

"I'd like to thank Radio Scotland," he told Fred, "and that's not something I would have said three weeks ago."

Meanwhile I have no regrets about my own decision to stop drinking. It's been remarkably easy so far and I've even discovered a good alternative for those social situations when other people get uneasy because you're the only one without a proper drink in your hand.

Diet ginger ale laced with lime cordial. It looks good served in a whisky glass and even has a bit of a kick to it which means you don't knock it back too quickly.

One potential snag is that ginger ale is becoming harder to find, especially in pubs where you often have to go through a whole rigmarole of explaining that you don't want ginger beer.

In fact, I was on a train two weeks ago and watched a female passenger arguing with the guy in charge of the drinks trolley because he had never heard of ginger ale. She finally conceded defeat and ordered a vodka and tonic instead, then she phoned her husband to tell him what had happened.

"You'd have thought I was trying to buy a gram of cocaine." she said, much to the amusement of everyone else in the carriage.

Why Bowling Shoes Go To Sweden

Jeff Zycinski | 18:42 UK time, Sunday, 18 October 2009

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Lately I've found myself asking people all sorts of daft questions. I've always had the kind of over-developed curiosity that could get through more cats than an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, but this used to be tempered with a degree of self-censorship.

No more.

These days, whenever I encounter some petty puzzle or everyday enigma, I transform into N. Parker Esquire and browbeat hapless strangers into sobbing submission.

"Can I ask you where you bought that kebab?"

"Do those piercings hurt when you have them done?"

"But what made you think you were any good at stand-up comedy?"

I think this is a symptom of middle-age. The idea that at least half of your life is already over makes you want to find answers before it's too late. I mean, you don't want to be lying on your death-bed wondering how they make cornflakes out of corn or trying to think of another word for 'synonym'. Imagine asking the priest to postpone his reading of the Last Rites so he can look this stuff up on Wikipedia. He'd be miffed.

Life, you see, if full of profound mysteries and lots of silly little queries.

This afternoon, for instance, I was with Zed-son at the Inverness Rollerbowl. Tenpin bowling is one of the last two remaining father-son activities where I can still be confident of victory. (The other is mini-golf, but it's easier to cheat at that.)

So, having watched my son's final ball rumble into the gutter, I set a good example of fine sportsmanship and acknowledged my win with a humble handshake and a lap of honour around the burger bar. But it was as we returned to the shoe counter that my quirky curiosity kicked in.

"Tell me," I asked the manager, as he used trigger spray disinfectant to remove the scent of glory from my bowling brogues, "does anyone ever forget to return their shoes?"

His eyes rolled skywards in a passable imitation of a zombie.

"You don't know the half of it. We lose more shoes that way!"

"Really?"

I looked again at the blue, white and burgundy footwear and tried to imagine anyone walking down the High Street in such a pair without incurring the ridicule of passers-by or attracting a small parade of laughing children. Either way it seemed reasonable to assume that bowling shoe thieves would be easy to spot, but the manager was shaking his head.

"The furthest away our shoes have reached is Sweden."

"Sweden?"

"Yes. Sweden. We had a stag party in here one night and one of the boys left with our shoes. The next morning he got on a plane to Stockholm still wearing them. To be fair, his mate phoned me and confessed and even offered to pay for them, but I let him off."

Well, I was glad I had asked and, you know, I think the manager was pleased that someone else was actually interested in his vanishing shoe problem. He returned my own Velcro-fastening trainers with a cheery smile and not a single comment about my fashion sense.

And there we have it. Curiosity satisfied.

As for my next question...just don't ask.

On The Line

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Jeff Zycinski | 17:20 UK time, Thursday, 15 October 2009

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This afternoon I watched as three strangely attired men splashed about in the River Ness trying to pull a slithering, wriggling creature from the water. There was a police car parked nearby and one of Northern Constabulary's finest had walked down the river bank to get a closer view. His female colleague stayed in the vehicle, observing the proceedings from a safe distance. Suddenly there was a flash of silvery scales and the beast emerged. The fish, I mean, not the fellow officer.

I think it was a salmon. It might have been a sea trout. Where's David Attenborough when you need him?

To be honest, I've never really understood the appeal of angling despite my Dad's best efforts. I must have been nine years old when he took me into a shop and bought me all the gear; the rod, the spinner, the hooks and, well, you know the kind of stuff I'm talking about. Tackle! Yes, that's the word I was searching for.

"A fisherman is born!" Dad announced to the shopkeeper and they both looked at me in a way that made me blush and step backwards into a stack of waders. I think that was the point that Dad started to have his doubts.

Or maybe it was at the loch when I had tangled my line in a clump of submerged weeds, even though I had been told repeatedly not to cast in that direction.

Or maybe it was after I had snagged another line in a tree.

Or that time I got the hook stuck in my thumb.

The truth is, I loved everything about those fishing trips except the actual fishing. I loved driving to the loch and talking about "the conditions" and wondering if the fish would be biting today. I loved the noise of the spinner and the swish of the line just before it hit the electricity pylon. I loved the huge corned beef sandwiches that Dad had made up for us the night before. I loved scaring my sister with a tin of live maggots.

As I say, it was all great, apart from the fishing business.

And today at the Ness, as I watched that poor creature thrashing about on the ground before being thrown back in the water, I still couldn't see a point to it all.

I dare say the fish aren't that keen on it either.

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The Day We Went To Dornoch

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:34 UK time, Wednesday, 14 October 2009

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Can this really be Scotland in October? Did we really spend the day at the beach? Well yes and yes again. We went to Dornoch, which is about 45 miles north of Inverness. I say "we" and by that I mean the Zed family minus Mrs Z. She's working this week, while I'm off. Next week we trade places. That way we've got both weeks of the Highland school holidays covered.

Dornoch, I have to say, is a beautiful wee place. It seems to have been perfectly preserved and having a family picnic here is a bit little stepping back into the pages of an Enid Blyton adventure story. I half-expected to see some smugglers making their way along the shoreline. I told the Zed-teens to be on the alert for skullduggery. Then I told them to look up the word 'skullduggery'.

A few empty shops, of course. Among those was M.G. Ross, which looked like the kind of place where, in years gone by, you would have gone to buy a replacement valve for your big radio set. You can imagine the day they first put a TV set in the shop window. People probably fell of their horses.

But Dornoch today has enough tea shops and cafes to provide venues for a festival of pastry, should anyone ever come up with that idea. And if anyone ever does, I'm happy to be a judge.

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A Night To Remember

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:51 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

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Last month, when the scent of summer was lingering in the air, I turned down an invitation to attend the Proms in the Park concert on Glasgow Green. Instead I listened to it on the radio, sitting in my car in a supermarket car park imagining the crowds and the atmosphere and wishing I was there.

Last week I was invited to the launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's new Thursday night series of concerts at the City Halls. I was determined not to make the same mistake again, so I rearranged my diary so that I could be in Glasgow on Thursday night. Thank goodness I did.

Watching Donald Runnicles conduct the SSO was one of those experiences that I know I'll remember for the rest of my life. Inspiring, was the word I used, but that doesn't come close to describing the sheer emotional impact of that night. As those fabulous musicians worked their magic on the masterpiece of Mahler's 1st symphony, it was simply thrilling to watch a world-class orchestra in full flight. I was, literally, on the edge of my seat and it was all I could do to stop myself from toppling front the front row of the balcony.

As the music finished the audience applauded and then we whooped and whistled and cheered. The new conductor had to return to the stage three times to allow the performers to take their bows.

Afterwards, in the foyer, I met Mary Ann Kennedy. She had been hosting the live TV broadcast of the event and admitted to me that she was almost too overcome to read the intended script. We both agreed that we had been witness to something very special. Inspiring, yes, and intoxicating too.

If only Donald Runnicles and the SSO could bottle that stuff. Then we could all give up alcohol.


*Click here to read Michael Tumelty's review of the concert in The Herald

Recreating Radio Bedroom

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Jeff Zycinski | 20:41 UK time, Wednesday, 7 October 2009

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A nice young man called Jannik Giesekam e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago and invited me to speak to members of the student radio association in Scotland. Today's a big day for the SRA - it's when they hand out awards to the various campus radio stations. They also combine that with a day of talks and training up at Glasgow University.

"unfortunately I cannot offer you any payment for this," Jannik had added and he didn't even try to entice me with chocolate biscuits.

Well, I like that kind of brutal honesty and, besides, I'm not allowed to take any payment for my licence fee-funded utterances. I agreed to turn up and talk about myself for half an hour. Regular blog readers will know what a trial that is for me.

I spent three hours in a hotel bedroom last night, perfecting my spiel and digging out some photographs for my PowerPoint presentation. Thinking that Jannik was a Polish name, I even dusted off my ancestral vocabulary so that I could greet him in the appropriate lingo.

"Dzien dobry!", I cried, shaking his hand as led me to a waiting laptop.

"Jannik is actually a Dutch name," he said, "not that I speak that language either."

So we moved right along. The students filed in to the room and I began my talk with a little story about the very first radio station I ever tried to manage.

"It was Radio Jeff. I ran it from my bedroom when I was a teenager. Look, here's a photo of me in a natty zip-up cardigan that Mum knitted for me."

Of course I had no actual clips of archive audio to play them, so I went to the microphone and, in a squeaky voice, tried to recreate the experience for them.

"and now...one of my favourites...it's the Bay City Rollers and they're saying Bye, Bye, Baby!"

As I said to the students, every time I look at that photograph, I go down on bended knee and give thanks that podcasting was not invented when I was broadcasting to my own four walls. I could have been a danger to the public, or public eardrums at least.

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Mind you, also in the audience today was Stuart Barrie who runs Galaxy Radio in Glasgow. Now he's a man who knows talent when he hears it.

I expect he'll make me that job offer tomorrow. Or the day after.

What Am I Like?

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Jeff Zycinski | 19:10 UK time, Wednesday, 7 October 2009

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Imagine you invited a friend to tell you about your strengths and weaknesses as a chum. Or what if you asked your son or daughter to give it to you straight as regards your parenting skills? And just suppose you asked a colleague to tell you if you were any good at your job.

Do you think they would be honest? Would they sugar-coat the truth? Maybe.

But reading between the lines, you might also learn something about yourself too. Could you handle that?

Well that's the premise of a new conversation format we're devloping with the production team in Inverness. It has the working title 'What Am I Like?" but so far there's no confirmed line-up of guests. Feel free to make some suggestions.

The idea was inspired by part of Tom Morton's new series Drinking for Scotland. In the first programme, in which Tom embarks on 30 days of abstinence from booze, he interviews his own wife about his drinking habits. Susan is a practising G.P. in Lerwick, so her opinions have that added element of medical know-how.

If you heard the programme (which is still available on the BBC iPlayer) then you'll know that Susan was very careful with her answers. Sometimes, she says, Tom does drink too much...but not as much as some other people she knows. She believes Tom is interested in alcohol for reasons well beyond its power to intoxicate and that's why he writes books about whisky. She also mentions one particular incident when he drank so much at the Gaelic MOD that he was still incoherent when he returned home.

All this on national radio of course. He's a brave man.

So have a think about this idea. If you had to interview three people about yourself - knowing it was for broadcast - who would you choose?

They Call It The Teuchter Triangle, Apparently

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:27 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

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I can't blame the folk at Aberdeen train station. The sign clearly said that the taxi rank was to the right. I simply didn't believe it. When I looked right all I could see was a flight of steps leading towards an underground car park. That's not where I remembered the taxi rank to be, so I turned left.

What I didn't realise was that they're in the final stages of building the new shopping complex attached to the front of the station and the old rank was temporarily closed. No matter, I decided I would simply walk up to Union Street, trailing my little trolley case behind me, and find a cab there.

No luck. So I rumbled through the Bon Accord centre and emerged in George Street where a wee blue sign indicated there were taxis to be had if I walked around the next corner. I decided to start believing in signs again but, alas, that rank also seemed to have vanished. By this time I realised I might as well walk all the way up to the BBC at Beechgrove Terrace. I've done that many times before and usually only get lost about one in three times. It was worth the gamble.

But I tell you, as I trudged up Rosemount Place (past empty barber shops advertising fantastic deals for fast haircuts) I began to regret my decision to give up drinking. By that I mean that I longed for a big St. Bernard dog to turn up with a little barrel of brandy under its chin. Boy, do I need to get fitter.

But I made it and, eight hours later I was in Glasgow, sitting inside an actual taxi as it took me from Queen Street to Pacific Quay. The driver was listening to a commercial radio station and on came one of those Government-funded public health adverts advising us to give up weekend boozing and do something more useful with our lives. The driver switched it off before it was finished.

"Where are you from?" he asked me.

"Well I'm from Glasgow, I live in Inverness and I'm just back from Aberdeen."

I thought he would be impressed by this globe-trotting lifestyle of mine.

"Ah they call that the Teuchter Triangle," he told me, "I ought to take you up to the Park Bar. You'll probably know everyone in there."

Great banter. I wonder if taxi drivers get Government funding for that.


Chris Gets Closer To Leith

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Jeff Zycinski | 21:13 UK time, Tuesday, 6 October 2009

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What started as a light-hearted quest for Chris Neill is turning into a real-life family detective story. Chris is probably best known to BBC Radio Scotland listeners as the pithy contributor on MacAulay & Co and Fred's roving sidekick during the Edinburgh Festival shows. On Friday, however, we aired 25 Per Cent Leith - a one-off programme in which Chris toured the streets of Leith trying to prove he had a genuine Scottish connection. That's despite the fact he sounds every inch the London boy.

Now, in what he describes as "the power of Radio Scotland" Chris has unearthed up some genuine family connections after receiving an email from a listener in Dalkeith who turns out to be a distance cousin of his father. Now, in an exchange of emails, they've managed to plug some of the gaps in their family history.

It seem Chris might be a Leith man after all (skipping a few generations, of course).

Chris also sent me the above photograph of his great uncle's sweet shop in Edinburgh@s Stockbridge. It dates from about 1940.

You can still hear 25 Per Cent Leith on the BBC iPlayer.

Sixteen Hours Of Kangaroo-packed Adventure!

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Jeff Zycinski | 20:31 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009

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So who remembers Skippy - The Bush Kangaroo? Extra points if you can also hum the theme song. Altogether now:

Skippy, Skippy,

Skippy the bush kangaroo,

Skippy, Skippy,

Skippy a friend ever true.

Skippy was one of those TV programmes I remember from my childhood and always associate with eating fish fingers, chips and a one half of a salted tomato. It was about an Australian boy called Sonny and his adventures with a pet kangaroo. Sonny's Father - Matt Hammond -was the Head Ranger in a National park and patrolled the danger-laden bush in his jeep or by helicopter.

What I remember most is the big shortwave radio in the ranger station. Matt Hammond used it to communicate with the other rangers, but Sonny also needed it because he was a student in the School of the Air. This was a pioneering form of distance learning which connected scattered children with a teacher as well as each other.

My pals all thought the jeep and helicopter looked like fun, but I, typically, fantasised about the big radio set. Imagine if you didn't have to turn up at school every day! You could note down your lessons, race through your homework and then head out into the bush to see if Skippy had found anyone trapped down a well or being menaced by poisonous snakes.

It's been years since I thought about Skippy but today I was leafing through a copy of the Radio Times and a pile of advertising bumph fell from the pages and onto my desk. One was a 30 page catalogue of box-set DVDs and there, on page 27, was the blurb for the complete first season of Skippy as originally broadcast in 1966.

That meant 39 episodes or - and here I take my hat off to the genius blurb writer - "over sixteen hours of Kangaroo-packed adventure!"

I was almost tempted. But not quite.

If only they'd mentioned the radio.

And Me Without The Gaelic Too

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Jeff Zycinski | 19:47 UK time, Sunday, 4 October 2009

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Did you spot me on the tellly this afternoon? A friend phoned while I was at the Caley Thistle - Ross County Match to say that she could see me on BBC Alba. The Gaelic TV channel had live coverage of the game (as did BBC Radio Scotland) and it seems I appeared on screen every time there was action around one of the corner flags.

I have to say, that phone call made me very self-conscious. I stuffed that Scotch pie back into the pocket of my anorak and tried to get a grip of my facial expressions. Mainly I tried to keep my eye on the game instead of letting my concentration wander towards that view across the Moray Firth where a small yacht was making its way towards the new marina.

You see what I mean?

It must be hard having the cameras on you for a full ninety minutes and it does make me wonder how many of the players, managers and officials are doing a bit of acting out there.

Perhaps we need a new category at the Baftas for this.

Oh...CaleyThistle won one-nil, by the way, and the wee boat made it safely home.

Under The Influence

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Jeff Zycinski | 15:53 UK time, Saturday, 3 October 2009

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I was six years old when Dad handed me a tiny glass of whisky and told me I only needed to take a sip. Six, I say, and not sixteen.

It was Christmas Day 1969 and our extended family was gathered around two long extendable dining tables that took up the full length of the living room. One of those tables was usually used for pasting wallpaper, but it looked fine under a white tablecloth.

Christmas dinner could not begin until Dad gave his toast to "absent friends" and we paused for a moment as he recalled the family he had left behind in Poland and the friends he had lost in the war. This was an important ritual and Dad insisted that we make that toast with whisky - even the youngest child and that was me.

I can still recall the almost overpowering aroma as I raised the glass towards my lips and then the burning sensation as I took that first sip. It was vile and I reached immediately for my tumbler of raspberry cordial to wash away the taste.

That was forty years ago but last week, on the last day of September, I had what I hope will have been my last ever taste of alcohol. I was sitting in a pub on Glasgow's Byres Road, enjoying the company of a friend and making sure I was on the ball when the time came for me to buy a round. Men, in Scotland, judge each other by such things of course. About half past ten, I drained my third pint of lager, set the empty glass upon the bar and decided I'd had enough. Enough for that night and enough for a lifetime.

Fellow boozers, I have to explain that my job was starting to get in the way of my drinking. To be specific, I have spent the past few months poring over the various programme offers that came to me when I suggested that BBC Radio Scotland should have a season of programmes devoted to alcohol.

Reading through those proposals, I was confronted by the hideous reality of what is happening to people's lives. The financial consequences, the health issues, the impact on children and families. We're calling our season Under the Influence because alcohol permeates so many aspects of Scottish life. Think of Scottish comedy and Scottish sport. Think about sponsorship deals with alcohol firms. Think of the number of Scottish jobs that are dependent on the whisky and beer industries.

Think of the crime. Think of the violence. Think of the wasted lives.

It just dawned on me - decades too late - that boozing is one of the daftest things we do to ourselves. Well that and following World Cup qualifying campaigns. So I decided I would quit drinking on the first of October, just as our season of programmes begins. I've now been dry for three whole days. Two-and-a-half, really.

I won't lie to you, I already miss it. I'm also worried that my beer-loving pals will abandon me. I fear spending Friday nights in draughty community centres, singing kum ba ya and arguing about whether tea tastes better if you put the milk in first or last. But then, how many of those fantastic alcohol-fuelled conversations do I remember now? Not many.

Oh and I'll try not to become a bore about this. In fact, if you catch me evangelising just tell me to put a cork in it.

October In Inverness

Jeff Zycinski | 22:17 UK time, Friday, 2 October 2009

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This month's photograph of Inverness. The garden furniture is back in the garage and there are high wind warnings for the weekend. Hmmm, this must be Autumn.

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