Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Like the BBC interviewee with his kids milling around, I'm all too aware of the perils of live broadcasting

By Malachi O'Doherty

Robert Kelly's interview with the BBC became an internet sensation after his children invaded his home study. But a commentator who broadcasts increasingly from home says it's a miracle that such unintended chaos doesn't occur more often.

The professor whose children disrupted his interview on BBC television now knows something about broadcasting that he apparently didn't at the time. Robert Kelly, a political scientist at Pusan National University in South Korea, was settled in his study before his computer with the door closed and trusting he would not be disturbed. This was important, after all. He had a UK national audience. He had to be prepared, focused on the issues, and he had to make a good impression. You don't want to disappoint the BBC, after all.

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Then the door opened and his little girl came in and he tried to deter her.

But behind her came a smaller child in a little walking frame, full of enthusiasm.

Presumably daddy's conscientious retreat to the study had wired her off that something exciting was happening, something that she should be a part of.

The poor professor must have thought that his credibility as a broadcaster was in jeopardy.

It wasn't.

And then in came the mother of the children, ducking low, diving, trying to evacuate them discretely, but providing huge entertainment for the audience and guaranteeing innumerable repeats on social media.

What the professor knows now, and perhaps didn't know at the time, is that the BBC was going to love this.

Frank Mitchell
Frank Mitchell
Stephen Nolan

Perversely and paradoxically, an interview going horribly wrong is better material for broadcast than one going well.

Up to a point.

Calamity like this has to be rare to be entertaining.

But speaking as someone who does a lot of live interviews from home for radio and television, the marvel is that these things don't turn into farce more often.

For this is my home and it's not possible to stop everything for Nolan or for Frank Mitchell or for Sky or LBC or CBC or RTE.

There are still some programmes which will ask you to come into the studio for a live discussion. Talkback and Evening Extra do that.

I have never been in a radio studio with Stephen Nolan or Mitchell.

Sometimes I leave the dinner table and go down to the wee utility room, as far as possible from human activity, and do what I can, in the circumstances, to explain the RHI scheme to London commuters on their way home.

It's easy to forget that you are talking to, easily, 100,000 people. I have been caught up in angry political discussions on air downstairs while my wife was upstairs in bed, being part of the audience and wishing it would all end so I could bring her breakfast on a tray.

I am on the phone to the Nolan Show when the doorbell rings.

Proper preparation would have entailed disconnecting it, disabling all the other phones in the house, warning anyone else who is at home that I'll be on air and that they are not to make a sound.

I open the door and hold a finger to my lips to urge the caller not to speak. It's the fish man. A voice in my ear is sounding off about poppies, or Arlene Foster, or Brexit, telling me to wise up.

I mute the phone for two seconds and ask the fish man to call back.

Later I'll explain to my wife that the reason we have no fish for dinner is because I was working.

When I first was called on as an interviewee for radio or television programmes, I would go to a staffed studio in the BBC, and the stress of the occasion was in the formality of the surroundings and the self-consciousness that came from being watched and timed and supervised from a cubicle behind a glass screen.

In many of the BBC studios other presenters had drawn wee faces on the sponges covering the microphone heads, so that they wouldn't feel so isolated and lonely.

Then things evolved so that, if you were the interviewee you went to Broadcasting House and were escorted to a small studio, barely a cupboard, by a 'meet and greet', who had another job to be getting on with, who would set you up with headphones at a microphone and mixer desk and make a call to 'traffic' to put you through.

This was much more relaxed, and yet a bit scary too, for occasionally something went wrong and, being the outsider, you didn't know which fader to bring up on the mixer. Now, more often than not, the interview is done at home, sometimes by phone, sometimes by Skype.

This is fine. Journalists, academics and 'usual suspects' get a fee for this. It isn't much, but the inconvenience isn't great either.

The danger in it all is the very opposite of the sense of intimidation you might feel in a studio. It can all be too casual.

There are cardinal sins which would get you barred - chiefly swearing on air.

I swear floridly in normal conversation but have trained myself not to do it while broadcasting. You wouldn't think that was possible.

I've had Nolan's people call me when the programme was already on air, asking me to stand by to engage with Jude Collins or Danny Morrison. I like to take a few minutes to cue up three key points on my laptop, so that I'll know what to say whatever I am asked.

But that's the buzz of live broadcasting. Sometimes a planned guest cries off and another has to be found at short notice.

And the contacts books or databases fill up with the names of commentators who can wing it on anything from Trump to the Pope and back, from education to climate change or the Bible. That's what I do now, and there are dozens of others like me.

Do you need someone who can voice an opinion on Prince Harry or Nicola Sturgeon? That's me.

And we do it from our homes, sometimes before we are even dressed.

I was once on BBC Radio 4's The Moral Maze in my underpants.

And many of us could offer a little advice to professor Kelly. Like, why didn't you just take that wee girl up onto your knee?

The BBC was in your space, a guest in your home, a slightly inconvenient guest too, and was only going to give you £50 for your trouble.

And the world would not have come to an end if you had simply hung up, or whatever the term is for what you do when you break a Skype connection.

The next time they needed an expert on Korea they would have called you again. Professor Kelly's dilemma was a product of the new style of broadcast production that depends on our being amenable and saving them huge sums on resources by letting them use our living rooms.

I think we can trust that they are grateful for that and that they understand how it can all go wrong; but the risk should be thought of as theirs as much as ours.

Belfast Telegraph


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