'The Red Light Zone', by Jeff Zycinski (published by The Lunicorn Press, 2019)
Jeff Zycinski can write. By the end of the book, you also know he can spot an idea, turn it into a commission and deliver it, mostly, successfully. But then again, he would say that, wouldn't he?
The Red Light Zone
is subtitled, 'An insider's laugh 'n' tell
of BBC Radio', and it also delivers. There are plenty of chuckles and views from the inside out. Not that he tears the BBC inside out. He has an insider's affection for the medium in which he practiced his fine arts, and the dark arts of the politics of a large institution are described with equal measures of affection and frustration – although never in triplicate.
Zycinski is the former head of BBC Radio Scotland. The book serves as a memoir of his time in radio, when once started, he never looked back, no doubt just in case someone was actually following him.
And though Zycinski may claim to have delivered decent radio across the airwaves, and there are few dissenting voices in his book, what he wrote, he can really write. Each chapter is crafted like part of a miniseries which builds the narrative to who knows where but will always have a pay off before the chapter ends. And then we begin again.
And so, we get from his beginnings in commercial radio, then into rural BBC, before the Inverness jaunt, then starting and raising of his family, the BBC big wig gig and eventual retirement. Along the way, the intricacies of his Johnny Sellotape stand up persona got an airing and his ability to produce results in a BBC matrix are illuminated. At times, the details of these shows are glossed over a little as the juicy gossip may affect someone still living or perhaps are not suitable to be written about quite yet. However, we could do with someone from inside the BBC, who believes in public sector broadcasting as Zycinski does, telling it as it was. In short, you feel there is a deeper book to follow. This feels a little like the Reader's Digest
But it is well-crafted and the wide range of well kent faces and personalities who have made comments to help promote the book are testimony to his effect whilst in the bowels of the BBC.
What he does manage to do, as an insider with a wider knowledge of radio than just one institution, is to show clearly how the Beeb has to take account of the prevailing mood of the country. Once those moods are gathered, he has to deal with the media landscape and the collective frustrations of being within a corporation with such intense scrutiny and pressure. That those pressures come as much from 'initiatives' as they do from the reality of being the state broadcaster are well-aired.
Zycinski does not descend into moaning for a career which was stifled by filling in forms that were never read but he points out that creativity needs more than a collegiate approach. By its very nature it needs freedom, and he was one who wanted to give it that freedom, have the ability to spot, nurture and produce. And there are examples of when it worked – Breaking the News
, Stark Talk
and Open All Mics
– under his watch and when it never really got off the ground – like his game show format and calls for greater investment and focus on ground-breaking music and comedy initiatives for emerging artists.
It is therefore not a whinge. I get the impression that Zycinski could whinge if he had a mind to do so, but being in the BBC for so long, many would suggest he might have lost that mind.
For me, he also did something quite remarkable.
Whilst the bias of the BBC is up for debate, he contextualises how it may be perceived on the outside and mounts a defence of it from within, without actually being defensive. It reminded me of why the BBC is such a treasured institution. It is not just because I believe in state intervention, nor because I happen to think the damn thing is perfect – far from it – it is because the disruption it makes by being in the same pool as the commercial stations means that it has real influence.
The range of programmes that Zycinski got himself involved in commissioning is a sweep across the major elements of Scottish culture. For that reason, I was once again finding myself enthralled to the joy of BBC radio drama, music, politics and sports programmes, and why it is vital that areas of our lives which are not shared by large swathes of our populace are supported by a state broadcaster. It opens them up to greater focus and wider audiences. It also supports the fabric of a nation where culture is a principal part of everyday life – even if you need to fill that form in again with the blue ball point and not the black one.
His description of the meetings, the fruit he consumed until they threatened to take it away from him, the advice that he should keep his head down which was often not heeded, and the missed humour of asking someone whether they were learning to fly and play the violin simultaneously, helps the narrative along. This is a book, of whimsical recollection, rather than a serious reason as to why the BBC is worthy of supporting for the many years to come and I never thought I would ever write that.
Donald C Stewart is a broadcaster, reviewer, educator and writer based in the West Coast of Scotland, currently to be found through his Twitter account @CommuneArts