My Life in Media: Mary Kalemkerian
Monday 12 May 2008
Mary Kalemkerian is the head of programmes at BBC Radio 7, the digital station that revives drama and comedy favourites from the BBC archives. She is nominated as the Station Programmer of the Year at this evening's Sony Radio Academy Awards. Kalemkerian grew up in the Scottish Borders and trained as a teacher before beginning her radio career 30 years ago. She has worked for the BBC in Edinburgh, Manchester and London, and has run BBC7 since it started in 2002. She lives in north London and has a daughter aged 26.
What inspired you to follow a career in the media?
I didn't expect to work in any media, let alone radio. After leaving school in my late teens, I did evening classes and became a teacher. BBC Radio Scotland invited me to write for them in 1979 and from there I got offered a job as a producer on a programme for young children called Nickerty-Nackerty. It was like Listen With Mother but not so posh.
When you were 15, which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?
I'm from a working-class family and we got quite a few papers. My dad got The Scottish Daily Express, which was a very upmarket paper for our street in a small town on the Scottish Borders. We got The Border Telegraph once a week for the weekly news and The Sunday Post, which I think most families in Scotland did. I loved it for the Dudley D Watkins cartoons, although it had the most parochial articles in it. We also got the News Of The World, but I wasn't allowed to read that.
What were your favourite TV and radio programmes?
We lived in a very small house but we had the biggest radio you can imagine. It was bigger than the sofa and we'd sit round as a family and listen to anything, especially music programmes. We also listened to comedy on a Sunday. Funnily enough, it was a lot of the comedy I broadcast on BBC7 now – Round The Horne and The McFlannels. On television Dr Finlay's Casebook was a great favourite.
Describe your job.
I am entrusted with the BBC's heritage and I have to select what will go out on the air, but it is not just like a jukebox where you pluck a token out and put something on. I have to make sure the rights are cleared, as the BBC doesn't own half of its archive. So I work a lot with agents and also look at ways of polishing up these radio jewels by repackaging programmes to make them more accessible to a younger audience. I also commission some new programmes – quite a bit of contemporary comedy.
What media do you turn to first thing in the morning?
Radio 4 for the Today show. By 8am, when Radio 7 switches to comedy, I feel I've had enough news and have a quick burst of comedy before I head off for the Tube.
Do you consult any media during the working day?
A lot of the BBC network. We get a pack of press cuttings for the day, so I have a flick through to see if anything is going to affect us.
What do you tune into when you get home?
I like to catch Front Row on Radio 4 to keep abreast of what's happening in the entertainment industry. At 8pm I switch over to Crime And Thrillers on BBC7. Murder while you're cooking the dinner – you can't beat it.
What is the best thing about your job?
Listening to a lot of entertaining material that makes me laugh.
And the worst?
I work in an open-plan office. I'm quite messy and make a lot of noise. It would be helpful for other people if I had my own office.
How do you feel you influence the media?
BBC7 has raised the profile of digital radio. It wasn't until BBC7 came along that Radio Times started listing the programmes for digital stations. Since then, most of the newspapers list them.
What's the proudest achievement in your working life?
Launching BBC7. Nothing beats getting the opportunity to launch a brand new network.
And what is your most embarrassing moment?
In February I was at the Radio Times covers party. I knew David Tennant was going to be there and I was very keen to speak to him as he spent his early years in the same small village in which my sister lives and she knows his family. I went dashing off to speak to him and I blathered on about this town in West Lothian, and the actor looked at me very blankly and said: "I was brought up in Leicester." It was Richard Armitage from Robin Hood. I found David later on and had a good natter.
What is your Sunday paper? And do you have a favourite magazine?
I get The Observer, and The Sunday Times for the "Culture" section. It has a very good radio column in it. I'm not a major consumer of magazines but I do like Radio Times and Broadcast, and recently I started to subscribe to a magazine called Living France because I've just bought a wee place in the Dordogne.
Name the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire?
I would like BBC7 to be the first of the BBC digital networks to make that magic 1 million listeners. We're not that far off at over 800,00
What would you do if you didn't work in the media?
I'd probably be in education because I thoroughly enjoyed teaching.
Who in the media do you most admire and why?
Sir David Hatch, who died last year. He was controller of Radio 4 in 1983 when I first came to London. Also Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News. I first met her when she worked across the corridor from me as a presenter of Woman's Hour. She's had a lot of jobs in the BBC, is a great role model for women and she gave me the job at BBC7, which was a risk, but she trusted me all the way. She takes risks, she's got charm, she's tough and has great humour.
1979: Joins BBC Radio Scotland
1983: Moves to London to run children's programme Listening Corner
1985: Goes back to Scotland to work as a freelance radio producer
1988: Heads to Manchester, working on the Radio 4 children's show Cat's Whiskers
1990: Returns to London as a chief producer on the launch of Radio 5
1993: Appointed editorial director of BBC Audio
2002: Joins BBC7 in March, ahead of its December launch
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