Media: Crazy goings on in the wee small hours

Late-night radio is a world of its own, with its own strange rules and rituals, writes Julia Brosnan
Click to follow
When I had my car nicked a few years ago, an earnest policeman estimated the time of theft to be approximately 2am. "You get a funny breed of person out after midnight," he said. "Up to no good, or they'd be tucked up in bed." At the time I was fascinated by the notion of freaks and ghouls lurking about long after the rest of us had pulled on our bedsocks - little knowing that it wouldn't be long before I became one myself. For it isn't just car thieves who creep out of their hidey-holes in the wee small hours; it's also the people who go to make up late-night radio.

This came to me recently as I was bundled into a tiny studio, clamped into a pair of headphones designed for an alien life form and cross-questioned about the value of creative writing workshops on the Internet. It was well after midnight (in fact Well After Midnight may have been the name of the programme), and as I gamely tried to conjure up an opinion I remembered the policeman's words and understood that in programme terms this, too, is a strange breed. I was one of a team of ill-informed guests (my knowledge of the Internet is nil), discussing marginal issues in a poorly equipped training studio that led off a toilet. In another two hours it would be 4am, the hour universally acknowledged to be the one in which we are most likely to die. And as the discussion stretched fruitlessly ahead, it figured.

As anyone who has ever been in a radio studio knows, they are soundproofed, sealed and windowless. Yet you can always tell when you're on a late-night programme because of the mass of crazy food that's provided. Jaffa cakes, twiglets, gooey dips, fizzy orange and 6 per cent wine, all in grotesque abundance, are proffered at two-minute intervals as you wait to go on. This is unheard-of in normal daytime broadcasting; you're lucky to get a cup of coffee. But then they do tend to pronounce their guests' names correctly - and they pay them. When it's Well After Midnight you have to make do with a tub of cheese footballs.

Apart from one greedy film buff with the diabolical habit of sucking the middle out of bakewell tarts, I have never seen any guest take more than a single polite nibble from any of these extraordinary snacks. But I have seen researchers and presenters filling their pockets when they thought no one was looking - the poor loves were probably driven by starvation. For this is shoestring radio - the twilight zone of broadcasting. It is the tacky, wacky, second cousin once removed from Melvyn, Libby and Laurie.

"I just love doing these shows!" cried someone I sat next to around the tatty green table recently. "You meet such interesting people." This is a lie invented by frequent visitors to these off-toilet studios. It is a graveyard. The guests are made up of anyone who once published/ performed/ said/ gave birth to anything unusual or (on a bad night) anything at all. Otherwise they do something weird for a living (a stilt walker, a cat hypnotist and a rare banjo restorer are amongst those I've rubbed up against) and/ or came on once, managed to string a sentence together and are now called upon every other week for all manner of subjects (I'm one of these). But the producers and researchers aren't completely undiscerning in their choice of speaker. There are two essential criteria: you must be able to stay awake from one sports news break to the next, and you must live within a tenner's taxi fare of the studio. Not even the cash- strapped ghouls of late-night radio expect you to camp out at a bus stop at 3am. And they do also aim to broadcast something a little more edifying than snoring.

Not for nothing did the creators of Alan Partridge chose darkest hour radio as the naffest corner of medialand in which to place their hero. But here I would like to muster a little dignity. Whilst Mr Sports Casual Partridge was on local radio (anyone off the street can do an entire series on their local station between 3am and 5 am - ring them now, they are desperate) what I'm talking about is network radio, broadcast nationwide - and by a major media outfit of top repute. This is not the sort of air time that is gratefully handed over to a doddery Brown Owl so she can tonelessly read out her Brownie pack's news; this is a proper programme with presenters, stopwatches, earnest girls with clipboards and all the trimmings. And there's the rub. Despite the grimness of the hour, the peeling studios, the chronic choice of discussion topics and the bizarre refreshment overload there is no shortage of old lags (such as myself) ready and willing to have their vanity propped up by regular forays on the airwaves. And it has its advantages. Why, if you had a mind to, you could organise to go out for a drink with friends on a programme night. You could then make a great show of leaving early, shouting (in a busy pub, for best effect): "Sorry, sweeties, I'm doing a show tonight - must dash. Listen in - I'll try to give you a mention!" As well as quadrupling the audience (sextupling it if anyone else in the pub takes up the offer) this is guaranteed to impress those who don't know anything about broadcasting (though it clearly won't work with those who do).

But is there anyone who doesn't receive a direct personal invitation from someone on these programmes, who really listens to them? Is there an audience beyond the mothers/ sons/ press ganged significant others of the said broadcasters? Ask one of the production team about listening figures, and you enter dangerous waters. On the odd occasion I've dared do this I've been met (aggressively in my opinion) with a stony plate of sausage rolls. Maybe this is the reason for all the crazy food: it's a front designed to detract attention from the lack of audience. But does it matter if all the corny bons mots and tortuous anecdotes we cook up never make it past the off knob? I think not. We should perhaps be guided by members of a much older profession of the night: as long as it's confined to consenting adults in conditions that are reasonably clean and safe, it's OK. After all it's not like stealing cars, is it?