When radio folk gather for a BBC meeting you can usually expect things to be civilised. Raised voices are rare and verbal abuse is delivered with such coded eloquence that you can be insulted on a Monday but it will be Friday before it dawns on you.
This week in Glasgow, however, I was chairing our fortnightly Creative Meeting at Pacific Quay and I threw the cat among the pigeons by introducing the vexed subject of pets.
"Forty percent of Scottish households own either a dog or a cat," I announced, while handing out a sheet of statistics "and there's also a smattering of gerbils and so on. So maybe we need a regular spot in the schedule for pet-owners."
Well, there were about a dozen people at the meeting and, until that point, we had been united in a common purpose to do our best for the cause of public service broadcasting.
But then it all kicked off.
The cat-lovers rounded on the dog-owners. The pet-haters formed a breakaway faction. A senior colleague launched into a spiteful diatribe about her son's pet terrapin. Another threatened to tear up the handout saying that he didn't need facts and figures to tell him stuff he already knew. A news journalist said she would welcome any idea that didn't involve more economic gloom. Someone who had been working too hard claimed that cats were just evil and would happily kill us all if they could organise themselves.
Every utterance was greeted with either cheers, boos, gasps or sighs. It was quite exciting really, but we didn't resolve much so I'm throwing the issue over to you.
Do we need more about pets on BBC Radio Scotland? Please discuss calmly.
Sitting in the production office in Aberdeen this afternoon I was suddenly confronted by Frieda Morrison asking me what I knew about leather jackets. Well, that was a conversation that could have gone in so many different directions. The first thing that came to my mind was a gang of Hell's Angels, then I though about that iconic image of Marlon Brando in the peaked cap and then...
"No, no, " said Frieda, " I mean the crawly things. The insects. Those things that grow into a Daddy-Long-Legs if they live long enough."
Apparently these particular creepy-crawlies have been causing havoc with the football turf at Pittodrie - they attract crows - and Frieda has been suggesting various experts who could provide information to the Aberdeen newsroom. Frieda, in case you don't know, presents our gardening programme The Beechgrove Potting Shed, which returns this Sunday after its winter hibernation.
And speaking of iconic images, there's one of Frieda herself to accompany the new Scotland's Gardenspodcast which is also being launched this Sunday. Frieda tells me that many people have been just a little bit too impressed by her new photo.
"You look great, " they say, "how many years ago was that taken?"
Fancy an underwater adventure? How about exploring the wreck of a German submarine that was sunk in the First World War?
Producer, Dan Holland, is completing a radio documentary called The Hunt for U12 which you'll be able to hear on BBC Radio Scotland next month. During the course of his research he came across a rich collection of photographs and video which have now been made available here on the Scotland's History website. There's also an accompanying article telling the story of the U-Boat and and how it came to be found on the sea floor, 25 miles off the coast of Eyemouth.
Dan, I should explain, is a keen diver himself and is also a member of the lifeboat crew in Inverness. That explains his passion for this kind of programme.
The video (and above photograph) was provided by Graeme Govenlock. It gives you a fantastic view of the sunken sub inside and out. Also on the site is some bonus audio recorded by Dan.
The Hunt for U12 will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 5th March at 11.30am
Our sports reporter Chick Young has been talking about caravans on the A9 again. It's part of his familiar routine about the epic distances involved for those football fans who have to travel to Inverness whenever Caledonian Thistle are playing at home. No matter that the Caley Thistle fans have to travel south more often than other fans travel north. No matter that footy fans of English league clubs have to travel much longer distances. No matter that caravans have come a long way since they were being pulled up the A9 by an over-heating Hillman Imp.
I am, however, unable to rebuke Chick about his geographic prejudices because he is protected by a powerful force: my wife thinks he's great.
Besides, he's not the only one. Phrases such as "the long road north" or "remote" find their way on to our airwaves far too often. When you think of it, a place is only north if you are south of it...and it's only remote when you are far away from it. BBC Radio Scotland, however, covers the whole of Scotland with studios and production staff based all over the country. Saying that Inverness is in "the north of Scotland" makes perfect sense but assuming that everyone has to travel north to reach it does not.
Oh and while I'm galloping forward on this particular hobby-horse let me address the Frequently Asked Question about why I'm actually living in Inverness at all. Three little words: quality of life. Yesterday, for example, I suggested to Mrs. Z. that we meet for lunch. We left the town centre at one o'clock and ten minutes later we were parking at the Dores Inn on the shoreline of Loch Ness.
But I admit it: it would have taken longer if we were towing a caravan.
Let me give you a bit of advance warning so that you don't miss a cracking bit of radio this week. On Friday morning at half past eleven we're airing a play which is set in a mountain rescue centre. Much of the story is told using the radio messages coming in from the rescue team and the pilot of the rescue helicopter. In that sense it makes best use of the medium of radio. The play is called Wings of the Morning.
I mention this because I'm aware that radio drama is not everyone's cup of tea. I've seen audience research that suggests there are a good many listeners who react to a play by imagining the actors standing around in a studio banging empty coconut shells together whenever the script calls for the arrival of a horse. For those listeners the idea that the "pictures are better on radio" simply doesn't make sense.
Yet a darn good story can conquer all and as Wings of the Morning builds to a climax you'll be on the edge of your seat wondering how that story will play out.
So go on, give it a listen. There are no coconuts or horses involved.
A treasure trove of radio history appears to be under threat according to my colleague Dave Gray in Kirkwall. It seems that the Orkney Wireless Musuem might have to close because they can't find or afford a new store for the museum's vast collection of artefacts.
Dave, who has been covering the story for BBC Radio Orkney, says the collection also includes the original BBC studio desk on which he cut his teeth as a young reporter.
I fear this might be another example of the 'curse of the blog' because I actually made a short video about the museum when I visited it way back in May 2007. It was a brief visit because I had less than thirty minutes to spare before getting a taxi back to the airport.
I had always intended to make a return trip.
Life is full of little choices and today I began to think I had made a bad one. That was my thought at five o'clock tonight when I switched on the radio and heard about Caley Thistle's two-nil victory over Hibs.
Why hadn't I gone to the game? Why had I not been listening to the commentary on Sportsound? Why had I spent a sunny afternoon sitting in a darkened cinema watching a movie that seemed to defy the laws of physics and actually stretch the very fabric of time?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonwas the flick in question. It's the story of a boy who is born old and becomes younger as the years go by. We in the audience, however, seem to age decades as the story unfolds. I actually fell asleep for a few minutes but was roused back to semi-consciousness by a strange clicking noise from the seat behind me. I turned to see a man struggling with the safety cap on a bottle of pills. I'm guessing he was medicating himself with some sort of stimulants. Resisting the temptation to beg one from him, I made my way to the foyer and bought a bucket-sized cup of black coffee. I returned to my seat and exchanged a quick glance of shared suffering with the pill-popper. "We're both gonna get through this," I wanted to say, but didn't.
So why was I there? Well, because I'm the kind of great father who is prepared to sacrifice an afternoon at the footy so that he can take his teenage daughter to the movies. Mrs. Z, meanwhile, went to the game with our son. This is the modern way, don't you know?
Mind you I did begin to doubt that I was acting in the best interests of my little girl. The movie was so long that I thought she might have missed a year or two of school by the time it finished. Look, I don't want to be too harsh here - it was a great story - but it just took an hour too long to tell.
My daughter summed it up better than any critic I've heard. I asked her if she'd enjoyed the film:
"Yes, but there was a lot of it that wasn't really needed."
Besides, I don't think I made a bad choice after all. I'm guessing there will be a time when she wont ever want to go to the cinema with her old dad.
One of the perks of my job is that I now get a sneak listen to Friday night's edition of Watson's Wind-Up a full four hours before transmission. The programme is recorded in front of a live lunchtime audience at the Glasgow Film Theatre. The producer, Phil Differ, then edits it, calls me in Inverness and plays it to me down the phone. I listen on a special headset that gives me the sense of self-importance you associate with air traffic controllers. Oh yes. Well, that's how it makes me feel...but it actually makes me look like I'm trying to flog car insurance in a call centre.
The idea behind all of this is that I'm able to check that the programme complies with the BBC's editorial guidelines. Topical comedy is seen as "high risk" in that regard.
The trouble is, I tend to get caught up in the jokes and forget that I'm supposed to be sitting with a finger poised over my computer keyboard, ready to veto anything that's too naughty.
In tonight's programme, for example, there's an absurd sketch about two men sharing a bottle of memory-erasure pills. The sheer silliness of it just tickled me and I was laughing like a drain.
Yet maybe some listeners will think the sketch condones drug use. Who knows?
Tell you what...listen tonight (or all next week on the iPlayer) and pretend you're me. You don't even have to wear the headset.
Small but exciting things happened last night and continued through the early hours of this morning. It was an event we'd been anticipating for months and, to be honest, some of us had begun to give up hope. Let me reveal all:
Programmes from BBC Radio Scotland's Medium Wave schedule began to appear on the BBC iPlayer.
Now, just in case that little fact is not as jaw-dropping as I may have led you to expect, I should explain that this problem has been frustrating us for far too long. It meant, for instance, that four of our themed Zones could not be found on the iPlayer. Now they're all there and there's also a new 'running order' feature on the Zones web-page to make it easier to find and play the exact programme you want to hear.
I'm afraid that doesn't solve some of the rights issues we have for sport and music programmes which means we can't make some available outside Scotland (football) or outside the U.K.
There was the voice of a killer on our airwaves this morning. A serial killer. It was the voice of Peter Manuel who, in the 1950's, confessed to the murder of eight people. He later denied making that confession but failed to convince a jury of his innocence while conducting his own defence at the High Court. He was sentenced to death.
It was while he was being held at Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison that Manuel was interviewed by a psychiatrist. The recording of that interview was obtained by reporter David Miller and producer Kathy Long as part of a Freedom of Information request. It was used in this morning's Investigation programme which went on to pose some interesting questions about the nature of psychopaths and how they are dealt with by the justice system.
Those issues were explored in the subsequent phone-in element of the programme and
in our news programmes throughout the day.
I was struck, however, by the sheer power of that interview with Manuel. He speaks in a matter-of-fact tone and in a style that belies the fact that it was recorded fifty years ago. Yet because we, the audience, know of his crimes and of his fate, that voice from the past takes on a chilling quality.
If you missed it this morning, you can listen by clicking here on the BBC iPlayer.
Here's how you can find true love this weekend. Or, at least, avoid losing it. I mean, you've obviously left it too late to send a Valentine's Day card and those novelty e-mails just don't have the same kind of charm. Fear not, I have the solution. Just download our latest Burns podcast and you can send your partner (or prospective partner) a rendition of My Luve is Like a Red, Red, Rose as performed by Brian Cox.
It is, of course, part of our ever-growing Burns audio archive on the BBC Scotland Robert Burns website which, last month, received more than half a million page impressions. The top five poems and songs requested were:
Address to a Haggis
My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose
My Heart's in the Highlands
To A Mouse
I'm guessing the more romantic pieces will rise to the top during February, but romance can often end in heartbreak and disappointment, so To A Louse might grow in popularity later in the year.
Who was Reginald Molehusband? That was the question I asked the fine ladies and gentlemen of the Ayr Writers' Club last night. I had been invited to Prestwick Community Centre to talk to them about radio comedy and drama.
Reginald Molehusband was a character in one of those old public information films they used to show on TV way back in the seventies. It was all about reverse parking. Amazing to think that government departments used to devise ways of helping us improve ourselves in this way. Nowadays such films seem designed to nag us and scare us.
I was trying to make a point about an audience's terms of reference. All but one of the students I had been speaking to the previous day had never heard of Reginald. Last night all but three of the Ayr writers were nodding and laughing in recognition.
Of those three, one had the excuse that she wasn't living in Britain in the seventies. The other two...well, I guess they just didn't watch enough telly.
"An hour of sex, violence, bad language and free gifts."
That was how I introduced my session to Glasgow University students at this year's Media Week. It was a bit of a comeback for me, having been dropped from the 2008 itinerary despite my sterling efforts in the two previous years
This time I was welcomed by Zoe Grams from the Students Representive Council. She's been organising this year's sessions in which various bods from the world of TV, radio, Press and publicity get to yak on about their jobs for 60 minutes each. My session was on radio comedy and drama with some reference to the issues of taste and decency which have become such hot topics in the past year.
Zoe's accent betrayed her Canadian upbringing, but she told me she was actually born in Edinburgh. moved across the Atlantic when she was a child and only returned to Scotland a few years ago to complete her studies. She explained that the worst thing you can do to a Canadian is mistake them for a citizen of the U.S.A. Thanks goodness we don't have that kind of problem in Scotland where no one cares if you are mistaken for an English person.
Today's session was held in the McIntyre building and in a room which has been upgraded since my last visit. there was a swish audio-visual console with an electric drop-down screen and built-in sound system. My various slides and audio clips all worked without too much faffing and students seemed to appreciate my giveaway pens.
I've spent the past four nights in a strange bed, which is slightly more respectable than spending four nights in a stranger's bed. Or in a bed with four strangers, for that matter. On Sunday afternoon I decided to drive from Inverness to Glasgow and, since then, I've been waiting for a gap in the weather so that I could return home. Hotel bedrooms begin to feel like prison cells after a day or two, especially when a strict diet means you can't scoff the little chocolates they leave on your duvet or drain the contents of the mini-bar.
This morning I was all set to make the dash north but Mrs. Z called to tell me that the heavy snow had finally arrived in the Highlands and that the A9 had been closed since two in the morning. There was nothing for it. I went back to my desk at Pacific Quay wearing the same emergency shirt I had worn yesterday. Between meetings I checked on the weather and road conditions. I also scanned the property pages just in case I had to rent a flat for the remainder of the winter.
Then news came through that snow gates were open and that cars were being lead from Aviemore to Inverness in a convoy system. I grabbed my car key and made my escape.
As it turned out, the weather improved throughout the afternoon and by the time I reached Drumochter the gritters had done a fine job with the roads. I even stopped at a lay-by to take a few photographs but scuttled back behind the wheel when another car pulled up behind me and a man got out with a camera telling me that he had the same idea.
Somehow it felt like the start of a Hitchcock movie and I wasn't too keen to find out how it ended.
This afternoon I was led into a small, darkened room and interrogated about my personal life. The man demanding answers was our trails producer, Ken Lindsay, who is making a new promo for our expanding list of blogs and podcasts. He was recording my answers in one of our small editing studios and employing a technique which involved asking enough questions until I said something quirky enough to make it into his final cut.
"When do you write your blog?"
"Who do you imagine reads it?"
"Have you been surprised by any of the comments?"
Finally, I must have given him what he was looking for because he switched off the microphone and told me I could go back to my desk. Unless, that is, there was anything else I wanted to add. I nodded, he flicked a switch and the red light went on again.
"I often take photos of the people I meet," I told him, "now...say cheese!"
Before it leaks out to the tabloids I would like to confess to having made a racist remark in front of my BBC colleagues. It was meant as a joke, but I now realise that this kind of thing is just not acceptable in a modern workplace. The fact that other people were doing it too is no excuse. I think the very least I can do now is apologise and, of course, give you all the sordid details.
You see it all happened yesterday afternoon. You'll remember how there was all that snow down south and London came to a stand-still. There was bad weather in the south of Scotland too and the odd flurry of sleet in Glasgow. I was sitting at my desk , watching it out of a fourth floor window at Pacific Quay, when my wife called me on the mobile to tell me that it was bright and sunny in Inverness and that she had actually been able to hang out a washing. There was some further chit-chat about my underpants but we needn't go there.
As I finished the call with my usual kissy kissy noises, I noticed a new e-mail pop up on the computer screen in front of me. It was one of those all-staff thingies offering advice about the weather and advising that all non-essential employees should make their way home immediately. Well, of course, I had my coat on and was headed towards the door when someone pointed out the annoying fact that it had actually stopped snowing in Glasgow.
This prompted a small tirade from me about how we never got that kind of 'go home' advice when it was only snowing in Scotland. For no good reason I might also have widened my rant to include rude London taxi drivers and then - oh the shame of it - I might have launched into a Dick van Dyke-style cockney accent and enacted the part of a Pearly King struggling through the snow to buy some jellied eels.
I would like to state that I meant no offence to anyone born within earshot of Bow Bells and I am now offering to personally lead the next bout of BBC self-flagellation.
And cor blimey, guv'nor, I can't say fairer than that.
Another year and another final of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician competition. I tell you, the quality of these competitors gets better every year and tonight, at the City Halls in Glasgow, I was just glad I wasn't one of the judges.
In the end, the big silver quaich went to Ruairidh Macmiilan from Nairn. He had wowed the audience with some fantastic fiddling but he also had great stage presence and spoke with the confidence you expect from a seasoned professional.
The chairman of the judging panel was Alasdair Campbell who spoke about looking for a "certain x-factor". I'm sure he regretted this when our host, Mary Ann Kennedy starting making comparisons to Simon Cowell and his ever-rising waistband.
As ever my role was simple: a few words of welcome at the start and then back on stage at the end of the night to open the silver enevlope and reveal the winner. Recalling how I struggled with this task last year, I decided to share the job with the Scottish Culture Minister, Linda Fabiani.
It's the first time I've ever asked for a Government bail-out, but, hey, it seems to be the fashion at the moment.
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