'Stop mumbling and muttering,' my late mother-in-law would shout at me. Although at the time I was several hundred miles away, talking into a tin can. 'Speak clearly. Have some respect for your listeners!'
Audrey was an inveterate listener to, and shouter at, the wireless; when I began working for BBC Radio Scotland, she would enthusiastically listen to my programmes, enjoying most of the music ('I’ve always loved the Rolling Stones') but stridently critical of my enunciation. She could just about understand me when we were conversing face-to-face, but not when relayed via microphone, transmitter and speaker.
It must be said that Audrey (originally from Plymouth, but 60 years in Glasgow meant her ear was well attuned to Caledonian inflexions) was not alone in finding my broadcast speech a little impenetrable. Or uncomfortable. I had childhood elocution lessons in Pollokshields with a flamboyant and extremely aromatic woman called Miss Fountain, and I’ve always blamed my popping plosives (the letters 'p', 'd’, 'b’, 't’, 'k’ and 'b’, with an occasional hard 'g’) on her insistence that 'powerful projection is paramount'.
Despite, or because of this, my talking into the brutally revealing machine marked 'mic’ has at times frustrated producers, station managers and myself. There’s nothing worse than an on-air panic attack instilling the certainty that you will never, ever, be able to catch a breath again. Except perhaps the certainty that you’ll never be able to stop inhaling and will, inevitably, explode.
I was sent, for lessons in how to breathe, to a very pleasant lady in Aberdeen who had taught Annie Lennox (to sing, not to breathe, though presumably inhaling and exhaling properly was part of the process). That, a brief course of beta blockers, stopping smoking and cutting down on the on-air triple espressos seemed to help. Also, just being live on air, five days a week, hour after hour. Eventually you build up a tolerance to nerves, an immunity to performance, which, when you stop for any length of time, can be difficult to compensate for. This is why former broadcasters are sometimes to be found shouting at bus queues, telling jokes to conventions of double glazings salespersons or, worst of all, running heavily anecdotal media training seminars. They’re pursuing that lost adrenalin. And money.
Myself, I’m happy these days to be a listener. Though you can become obsessed by voices, wondering what has provoked that slight phlegmy coarseness (not still smoking, surely?), that morning tremor (out last night? Not the bucket-beside-the-desk, again?). Never in the history of radio, have presenters’ voices been so ruthlessly exposed, not just by the quality of the technology at the production end, but by the methods people now employ to listen. Intimacy has always been at the core of radio’s power. And today much of it is consumed in the workplace, over the internet, on closed headphones or earbuds, at high, solipsistic volume. The comforting background rattle and hiss of transistorised static, valve hum or other listeners’ conversation has largely gone. The words are naked, unadorned, and sometimes struggling. And when a voice is damaged or out of sorts on air, it can be very difficult to listen.
When the BBC’s referendum whipping boy Nick Robinson made his post-lung cancer treatment move from his role as the BBC’s political editor to presenter on the BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, I was more than surprised. He clearly thought getting up at 3am every day to spend three hours combining combative politico-grilling with daft Telegraph stories about people in Tunbridge Wells who farm therapeutic leeches would be less stressful than the telly. He quickly discovered that he was going to live or die on the radio on the basis of his voice. And his voice wasn’t working.
I have to admit, as a Today addict since the days of Jack De Manio, I initially found Robinson’s damaged larynx very hard to take. Just as one cough in an audience provokes a plethora of spasmodic harrumphing, I found my throat clenching with embarrassment as he spoke. He was receiving intensive therapy (steam, not leeches) to try and improve something he was clearly more than conscious of himself, but it was a hard listen. And in November last year, he admitted he was struggling: 'What I have to come to terms with is that it will never 100% physically recover'.
Perhaps. But now, he’s sounding fine. Robinson is an extremely tough customer – as a young man he fought back from an horrific car crash which killed two of his best friends and left him severely burned – and now his voice seems to my ears at least to be smooth and catch-free. Probably due to practice more than treatment. The fact is that when you’re broadcasting and listening to yourself, headphones clamped over at least one ear, there’s a kind of mental feedback loop that can multiply every fault until you simply can’t escape what you think you’re hearing: you make yourself worse. Until you learn to listen less obsessively to what’s coming out of your throat and echoing around your skull.
Robinson replaced James Naughtie, who had latterly moved into a perilous area for the veteran interlocutor: his questions were tending to be not only much longer than any answer could be, given time constraints, but seemed to be considered, at least by Naughtie, as more important. And they were usually more richly sonorous, more gravitas laden, than any tensely-spun reply.
It’s easy to fall in love with your own voice when you’re on the radio. The intimacy of the lip-caressed 'proximity effect’ microphone can be at first seductive then addictive. During his uneasy debut on Today, Nick Robinson evidently hated and was embarrassed by the way he was talking. And maybe he was thinking too about his mentor as a young man, the late Brian Redhead, whose son was one of those killed in that awful car crash so many decades ago. Redhead had one of the great radio voices, capable of solemnity and wit, lightness and shade, depth and joyous superficiality. He used to talk bout the privilege of 'dropping a word in the nation’s ear'.
I for one am very glad that Robinson now sounds like a man who can speak his mind and his script (not necessarily the same thing) without fear or uncertainty. Clearly. Without a hint of a mumble. Audrey would have no complaints. I doubt Brian Redhead would either.