These are fearful, paranoid times. We are all under observation (Even you. Especially you, in fact.), and our habits and utterances are being monitored for the merest hints of insurrection and incitement. There’s a question to which I need an answer. Is it OK for bearded men to smile and pull faces at children on public transport? I do it because I remember how much I enjoyed a good childish adult when I was a bairn. Hiding behind a hand then removing the hand to reveal a gurning visage. All adding to the gaiety of modern life in all its grimnitude. I’m not doing it to groom anyone. I’m doing it because I’m 38 going on 6. Maybe there should be a licensed jester scheme, with CRB-checked gurners being denoted by a ‘harmless loon’ badge? Until then, should I just scowl at youngsters to be on the safe side? If the Phantom Dog-Nosher of Norwich does a phone-in on this, I’ll know I’m onto something.
Not entirely unexpectedly, there has been a wee bit of reaction from within the BBC at Norwich to my musings on BBC Radio Norfolk presenter Nick Conrad. One colleague of Conrad’s, whom I know a little and like a lot, dropped me a note to say “I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but I have always got on very well with him and I think he’s an excellent presenter”. We agreed to disagree on the final point. However, another colleague was less warm, describing Conrad as a “walking disaster area”, and noting that the blog post had “caused some smiles”.
Conrad achieved a degree of national notoriety in February, when he had as a guest on his show a man who claimed to be the son of the rightful owner of the cat adopted as a pet by the Camerons. The whole thing was a hoax intended to highlight churnalism, and, while Conrad sounded sceptical throughout the interview, the fact was that by the time the piece went out, it had already been revealed as a hoax. That “really troubled some of us here,” Conrad’s colleague explained, “It wasn’t only because he and others were taken in by an experiment in churnalism. They picked the story up from the Daily Mail which is their habit and then, had they simply checked on Google News, they would have found the originators ‘fessing up to it. But that one simple check wasn’t done.”
Another broadcast that caused alarm to some of Conrad’s colleagues was his show of 27 July 2011, which was billed as a look at the Olympics and Norfolk’s part in the whole beano. It transpires that it doesn’t have one. Once again, the programme opened with a repetitive, breathless three-minute introduction that said all that needed to be said in the first minute.
Mmmm, pie. Any more pie? How many times did he refer to pie? I truly can’t be arsed to count. The real problem with Nick’s Olympic spectacular had little to do with catering arrangements or duff metaphors, though, and everything to do with the unprofessional way he addressed the unavailability of Keith Nicholls, head of the University of East Anglia’s Sportspark, whom he, in the words of his dismayed colleague, “berated”. “In Conrad World nobody has anything in their day which could be more important than answering his summons,” his fellow broadcaster observed, “And it is in direct contradiction of BBC Producer guidelines where a clear ’empty chair’ policy is set out. And we are simply not allowed to make a judgement on people who choose not to come on a programme.”
Note the moment where he suggests the council chap should spend more time in the Radio Norfolk studio, so that Conrad can keep him informed on his own business. That’s the sound of someone who believes their own publicity a wee bit too much. It’s the sound of massive self-importance, and it’s completely at odds with the laid-back, gently-mocking tone of Radio Norfolk’s best presenters and output.
The following day, Mr Nicholls made time to visit The Forum and make an appearance on Conrad’s show. Why was Mr Nicholls denying Norfolk its slice of Olympic pie (presumably made in a tin in the shape of five linked rings)? Mr Nicholls explained calmly the logistics of Olympic training, and how it would not be in the interests of the Sportspark users to deny them use of the venue for a month so that it could be given over to training.
Mr Nicholls is not some bland suit or a risible Mr Brittas-style timeserver. He’s a former English volleyball international, and he was instrumental in setting up and designing the self-funding Sportspark over a decade ago. In summary, he knows what he’s talking about, and in his professional judgment, the interests of the UEA Sportspark and its customers would not be best served by chasing reflected Olympic glory. Later in the interview, he states that he’s open to discussion with teams who want to use the Sportspark, but clear that it would be on the Sportspark’s terms. Fair enough. Except it isn’t. Conrad ploughs on, suggesting that Nicholls and the council have lied or been guilty of some kind of cover-up, when clearly a sound and reasonable business decision has been reached. Listen to a Conrad show (if you have the stomach for it) and the phrase “I put it to you…” will be much in evidence, suggesting more an over-familiarity with the Network DVDs of Crown Court than any sound journalistic nous.
Towards the end of the interview, the subject changed to Mr Nicholls’ non-appearance on the previous day’s show. If you can’t be bothered to listen to the whole of the following clip, go to 2 minutes 27 seconds, listen to Nicholls, then listen to Conrad’s reply, and do please let me know in the comments below whose side you’re on.
“Forgive me, ” Conrad practically hisses, “but I know my audience far better than you do.” What a horrendously high-handed thing to say, even if true, and what an unpleasant way to say it. Conrad’s despairing workmate puts it this way: “Since then ‘I know my audience’ has become another tongue in cheek quote plied around the production office here. But what happens next time we want to talk to the UEA Sportspark? I think it’s the lack of a sense of a proportion which I find so shocking. He thinks he’s Paxman.”
How well does Conrad know his audience, though? As I said earlier, his tone jars hideously with the well-established personality of the station, and it’s a station that has routinely beat BBC Radio 2 in the ratings on its own patch. I’d be very interested to know how Conrad’s figures compare to the rest of the day’s output, and with historical figures for that same slot. Maybe it’s getting to the point where Conrad could reach the same number of people each morning by doing house calls on foot. When I first moved to the area, the bit between breakfast and afternoon was the largely the province of a broadcaster called John Mills, who specialised in solving problems for listeners and tackling the authorities on their behalf. Sadly no longer with us, he was a softly-spoken man whose words nonetheless carried a lot of weight, but who knew when to ease off and keep it light and polite. In contrast, Conrad seems to be under the misapprehension that you have to be a cynical, aggressive hard-arse about everything.
On the 27 July show, Conrad says that sometimes people in authority have to hold their hands up and say they got it wrong. Maybe they’d be more inclined to do so if there were a bit more give and take from his end of the studio. Conrad’s personal response to criticism is illuminating. My correspondent at The Forum sent me another email this week, informing me that the ENPS database on which the station’s contact details for contributors are stored has been amended to read “in big red letters” the following: “WARNING – has written offensive material online. Avoid.” The entry was modified on 3 August 2011 and last modified by Nick Conrad. I have to confess that this news made me burst out laughing. Over the years, I have written plenty of offensive material, both online and in print, but I don’t think my previous piece on this fascinating specimen of bad radio qualifies as offensive in the slightest. I’ve been in and out of The Forum semi-regularly for the last six years or so, blethering unpaid about music and archive TV, and judging talent competitions, simply because I like the station and I like the people I’ve been on air with. Graham Barnard, Chris Goreham and Stephen Bumfrey are among the very best presenters that radio (local or national) can offer, and I loved working with dear old Roy Waller. The production staff too: Amy Barratt, David Webster, Kirsteen Thorne, Kevin Newman, Thordis Fridriksson. All really good radio people. I said what I said about Conrad because I felt he was letting their side down, and if I’m now not welcome at The Forum for saying it, well, that’s a price I’m happy to pay.
Meanwhile, he continues, stinking up the Norfolk airwaves for 2 hours a morning. Has Conrad’s show really got the whole county talking? If so, what are they saying? I suspect that more than a few will be saying “Oh Christ, not him again. Turn it off”.
It’s always fun on BBC strike days, watching to see who’s had no problem with waltzing through the picket lines. Last night, on the late edition of Look East, we got Nick Conrad, the 9am-11am presenter from BBC Radio Norfolk. Immediately, I thought “Oh look who it isn’t. Not only a dog-eater, but also a scab”.
A dog-eater? Why yes. I listen to a lot of BBC Radio Norfolk’s output, but I’m afraid the radio goes off whenever I hear Conrad. He seems to think he’s edgy and provocative, but he strikes me as terribly bland and not a little smug, which is never a combination designed to keep me tuned in. However, one morning in February, I didn’t get to retune quick enough, and the intro to the show made me stay listening, because I thought “this could be interesting”, and not in a good way either. Here’s that intro.
What amuses me most in retrospect is the way that he reiterates the various points endlessly, simply to last until the end of the jingle, which is 2 minutes and 41 seconds long. After the first minute, he is talking loud and saying nothing new. Maybe he feels that the listenership is deaf and/or as thick as pigshit?
My faith was rewarded fully about 20 minutes into the show.
“Every animal should have a right to a human death,” says one listener. Conrad corrects himself. It is unclear whether the listener in question couldn’t spell or whether it was Conrad’s reading at fault, but what is clear to me is the memory of spluttering coffee across the room as I burst out laughing.
Then comes David from Thorpe St Andrew, who has a point to make about the live transport of horses for food. He’s unhappy with the inhumane way the cargo is treated. It is at this point that Conrad deploys what he believes to be his thermonuclear warhead, the thing that really puts the cat among the pigeons (in this case in a white wine sauce with aubergines and shallots). The way he admits to having eaten dog while on holiday in Vietnam clearly indicates that he’s been bursting to drop this bombshell from the moment the show’s subject was decided: “Yes, that’ll get Norfolk’s dander up. My canine snack will really get them going.” The “What do you reckon to that?” is delivered in the manner of someone who feels he’s holding four aces. Outrage will be created. Talk radio gold will ensue.
Only one problem. It doesn’t work. David from Thorpe St Andrew responds in a boringly matter-of-fact manner and proves (perhaps surprisingly) open to the concept of relative cultural values, Conrad doesn’t like it. When David says he’s eaten kangaroo, Conrad’s purse-lipped “Yes” seems to carry overtones of “YES, BUT A KANGAROO IS NOT A FUCKING DOG, SO I REMAIN KING OF THE MEAT HOBBY, THUS I WIN”, an impression underlined by his “David, allow me to speak” interruption. The show is not going according to the plan he had thought so fiendish and clever. David is despatched with “Good to hear your voice, you take care”, which I hear as “Good to hear your voice, but it’s a shame you didn’t use it to react in the way I expected. You take care. Don’t fall down any manholes, y’bastard”.
With David out of the way, Conrad repeats that he “ate a dog” (a whole one?) in Vietnam, and adds that it’s something that “really infuriates people”. Well, not everyone, evidently.
EDIT: In the interests of accuracy, I have been asked to point out that there was no picket line to cross at the Forum in Norwich yesterday. This doesn’t make Conrad any less of a scab, obviously.