Hey: you talkin' to me?

'Never eat anything the listeners send in' is the second golden rule of the disc jockey. So what's the first? Martin Kelner learns the tricks of the trade
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The Independent Culture
Never go to the toilet before a programme, an American disc jockey once told me. His theory was that a full bladder lends the voice a certain understandable edginess and makes a show sound more urgent and exciting.

Maybe urgent and exciting is not what the BBC is after, then, because Jenny Wilkes, afternoon presenter on the BBC's station in Birmingham, positively insists on a trip to the loo before a broadcast. It is number 10 in her "Ten Top Tips to Presenters". Under the heading, "Remember The Little Things," Jenny tells a class of young hopefuls: "It is easy in the rush before a show to forget the little things like going to the loo, or switching off your mobile phone. I'm always forgetting to switch mine off, although luckily as yet nobody has rung me while I'm on air."

If Jenny were to practise the prescribed pre-programme denial (as my American friend would no doubt put it) and present her show from the edge of the seat, perhaps that mobile phone would start ringing a little more.

But then the Americans, who can lay claim to having invented the dark art of disc jockeying, have always been more earnest about the business than us. I have been spinning platters for nearly 20 years, and this teach- in, a Radio Academy festival fringe event, is the closest I have come to anything resembling training.

There are 25 of us at Heart FM in Birmingham to hear Jenny's 10 top tips and those of Heart's programme director Paul Fairburn. About half are disc jockeys from small commercial stations, the rest being the type of young chap - they are invariably male - unfailingly, and a little unfairly, derided in the radio business as anoraks: single-minded enthusiasts who in any other branch of entertainment would probably be welcomed.

Two of us grizzled veterans are clearly there for the satirical possibilities of disc jockey school (Lesson Five: The Time check. "Class, repeat after me: 'It's 21 big minutes before the hour of three o'clock'.").

But it is never too late to learn, and Fairburn passes on a vital hint for potential phone-in hosts: "Don't worry if someone phones up and says they are going to thump you. They won't. The people who are really going to hit you don't tell you first." This is not altogether encouraging, but interesting to know, and we dutifully take it down.

We also note Fairburn's tip number one: "Get A Life". "If you are an interesting person, you will be a more interesting disc jockey," says Fairburn. "So don't just hang around radio stations. Get a life." Which is a touch ironic, because if we had a life, we probably wouldn't be sitting in Birmingham on a Wednesday afternoon taking notes.

For some of us, of course, it may be a little late for all this. We went into radio in the Seventies, when the role models were people like Tony Blackburn, who never felt the need to go to disc jockey school.

A suntan, a fast car, and a king-size bed were all the disc jockey needed, according to Tony, whose modestly titled 1985 autobiography The Living Legend included this fascinating insight into the public service broadcaster's leisure-time pursuits: "I invite all the ladies in my life to the same Italian restaurant in west London where the waiters understand how to create the mood of love," writes Tony. "I have a special table and as I take a girl's hand in mine, or look deep into her eyes, the lighting is lowered by an attentive waiter to cast a seductive glow... if she agrees to come home with me it's not long before we are climbing the stairs to my king-size bed."

Times have changed, says Paul, and now you may need to learn your craft a little before ordering the king-size bed. To this end, today's DJ will almost certainly be invited to spend valuable tanning time at seminars absorbing the accumulated wisdom of American masters of disc jockery.

Dan O'Day, an American breakfast-show presenter generally regarded as the Pavarotti of the turntables, hosts weekend schools (next one: Heathrow Hilton, 8-9 July) at which topics such as "Positioning The Characters on Your Show" and "Telephone Rapport - What it is and How to Achieve It" are earnestly discussed. The Metro Radio group in Britain even makes its presenters sign an undertaking not to divulge disc jockey secrets learnt on the group's training schemes.

However, courtesy of Fairburn who picked it up from a former Metro trainee, I am now able to reveal exclusively one of those secrets.

"You are 10 minutes from the end of a four-hour show," Fairburn tells the class. "You are naturally winding down, sounding tired; so a second or two before opening the mike, yell 'Wow!' very loudly into the closed mike. Then when you open it, you will sound wide awake despite yourself." It does work. I have tried it, although "Wow!" never seems quite le mot juste for Radio Two, so I tend to shout "Heck!"

Another example of low disc jockey cunning, which never occurred to us relics, is the phone-in trick, the ideal way to ingratiate yourself with the local audience should you find yourself working in a strange town. When someone phones in, you find out in some detail - before putting them on air - where they come from, what the local landmarks are and so on. Then when they appear on the radio and say they are calling from 27 Gasworks Street, Tamworth, you can say authoritatively, "Oh yes. Just round the corner from the fire station".

Brilliant, and so much more practical than the advice I was given back in the dark days by a colleague of the king-size bed tendency to whom I gave a cough sweet. "A listener sent it," I said, at which he spat it out. "Second rule of radio," he said, "Never eat anything the listeners send in." "What's the first rule?" I asked. "Don't fuck the listeners," he said.

With the benefit of an afternoon's training, I can now see such Neanderthal attitudes have no place in today's highly competitive radio market. Next weekend Dan O'Day will deliver a lecture to breakfast show disc jockeys entitled "How Misuse Of 'Benchmarks' Can Kill A Morning Show".

I was told hangovers were the main problem for a breakfast show presenter. "Some mornings," my colleague warned me, "it can be so bad you have difficulty getting anything resembling words out of your mouth. The best thing to do is talk to yourself all the way on the drive in to work. Only problem is, if you drive under a bridge, you can't hear a word you're saying."

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