Radio: You have to be mad to work there

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The Independent Culture
The Government had advised us not to look at the eclipse at all, except, perhaps - and only under the strictest supervision - on the telly. This was still considerably too risky for me (the Government has been known to get it wrong before, after all), and so I decided that the only really safe way to experience the eclipse was to listen to it on the radio.

And go to Cornwall, where, as anyone who has ever sat huddled with their parents in a Bodmin launderette (father repeating endlessly, and year after year, the words "never again") knows, not only cloud cover but monsoon- style rain cover is virt- ually guaranteed throughout the month of August.

So who do you want to listen to if you want to hear the full eclipse experience? I was tempted by BBC Radio Cornwall, but having read the previous week's edition of the West Briton, feared a cavalcade of whingeing at odds with the generally infectious good humour I'd found among the local populace.

I had a nasty feeling that Radio 4's You and Yours was doing an eclipse special, but as my opinions about that programme are not so printable, I thought I had better give that a miss, too. So it had to be Radio 5 Live. National, demotic, yet with the imprimatur of authority in case things go badly wrong. It almost meant having to drop, for good, one of my party lines - namely that I have been on Radio 5 for longer than I have listened to it - but there you go.

When I tuned in, everyone was talking to, and indeed deferring to, a man called Nicky. No second name was offered to the audience throughout the time I listened, so I assumed that, like really, really famous and important people, who only need to be known by their first names, this was Nicky Campbell, R5 talk show host, and, soon, new presenter of BBC2's Newsnight programme. It certainly sounded a lot like him.

I have, in fact, been in a studio with the man, and I was impressed not only by his youthful, almost puppyish good looks, but by his practically scary professionalism. I'd been called in, along with a rent-a-quote Tory and an academic who knew what she was talking about, to join a panel taking phone calls about post-colonialist attitudes, and what I noticed about Campbell was that while his own position was instinctively on the left, it was the left-wingers he gave the hardest time; I realised he knew that he could leave the right-wingers to make real asses of themselves without any outside help.

So it would be interesting to see how he dealt with the eclipse. He evidently knew how to do his job, but his technique - which, as I said, seems to be based on going against the grain of his own inclinations, that is, refusing to indulge them - might not work so well here. Should he do awe- struck or flippant?

Added to this consideration, anyway, was the strong possibility that all broadcasters are mad to some degree. Whenever something momentous happens, they have to ask themselves, "Now, how shall I present this to the nation?" - an almost psychotic level of aggrandising delusion that does not look or sound good, but is, like it or not, part of the daily job if you want to make a living behind a microphone.

So the eclipse represented a beautifully poised conundrum for the commentators: how do they manage to convey (a) the majesty of the whole event, (b) their own sense of humility - for humble, apparently, was what the event was going to make us all feel - and (c) their own capacity, indeed, right, to describe the event to radio listeners?

Pure awe, it would appear, was not part of R5's brief. There was a lot of banter going on between Campbell and his co-presenters, who sound attractive, whether they are or not. And there were lines addressed to him like "I'm very insignificant ... but you still want me to stay." They had people in France speaking bad French - but also one French woman speaking good French. Mr Campbell began: "Les oiseaux arretent ..." And then stopped there. "Yes, the birds, ils ne font rien du tout," said the caller. Then they had a matey scientist saying "as you know, the Earth has a magnetic field" . That "as you know" being a nice touch, in a country still largely unsure even after last Wednesday whether the Sun goes round the Earth or whether it's the other way round.

In short, the impression given by the R5 team was of a jokey office, where everyone felt - well, yes, part of a "team"; not special, but professional. The kind of office where maybe one person has one of those "You don't have to be mad to work here" stickers on the wall of their cubicle, but ironically.

R5 were up to the task, though. During a chat about the number of New Age travellers in Cornwall, Mr Campbell came up with an extraordinarily good phrase, the best I have heard in all the coverage: "So, it's Middle England howling at the Moon today." And his co-presenter, whose name I sadly did not catch, said: "When totality happened ... Nicky went quiet."