STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT

Musings of a late-night newsreader

It’s 6.35am and I have just returned to the newsroom after reading a news summary on Network Africa, a lively morning current affairs programme on the BBC World Service.

It’s one of the many duties we World Service announcers perform. The English language service (alongside 33 other language services) is broadcast round-the-clock; during each 24-hour period a team of announcers will read news bulletins on the hour and half-hour, present the news programme World Briefing, script and deliver the links in between programmes, check the timings for each hour and make sure everything stays on-air. Then there are our guest appearances at certain times reading the news on a separate stream for Africa.

These occasions are a welcome break from the norm: new studios, new faces and the occasional chance to engage in some merry banter with the programme’s presenters. When it comes to Network Africa, alas, I’m usually none too merry as the first edition of the programme comes slap-bang in the middle of a nightshift at 4.30am.

What an awful time of day that is - neither night nor morning, but some ghastly place in between. There’s a special kind of tiredness on nightshift that no amount of coffee and carbs can cure. Your brain seems to work at about half its usual pace and, if you’re not careful, your voice can emerge as a Barry White-like growl or a barely-there squeak. And you try saying Ratnasiri Wickremanayake when your tongue feels like a great slow slug. The marvellous thing about radio, though, is that you can look like death warmed up as long as you sound awake, and we each have our own ways of achieving this – a quick sprint round the courtyard, a splash of cold water in the face, or in my case buckets of tea and a large bag of carrots.

Just under an hour to go now before my shift finishes at 7.30am. As I sip my tea and gaze into the middle distance, the Africa News Editor Martin Plaut, sitting opposite, says something which stirs me from my torpor.

“Do you know how many people just heard you read that?”
“What? Oh. Um. No.”

Eloquence and quick-thinking don’t really come into it when you’ve been awake all night. Martin proceeds to tell me that somewhere in the region of 19 million people in Africa will have heard me read the 6.30 news summary - the main story was about the peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region of Sudan – and that 17 percent of all Nigerians will have been listening. I am stunned.

Many people here in the UK think of BBC World Service as the preserve of shift workers and insomniacs - BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Wales all broadcast World Service programmes overnight. So it might surprise you, as it did me, to learn that 163 million (count ‘em) listeners around the world tune in every week, with the English service attracting a weekly audience somewhere in the region of 44 million.

Ever since I started in broadcasting I have been told that the secret of sounding friendly and relaxed is to imagine that you’re speaking to a single listener, nearly always a little old lady. I tried it, but it didn’t really work for me. I kept imagining the little old lady shouting back at me “Speak up dear!” or “You couldn’t say condoms on the radio in my day!” However contemplating the vast hoards out there is a potential recipe for nervous meltdown.

When I first came to the BBC World Service in 2003, I had a fantastic training session with a former World Service announcer. I emerged surer of voice and calmer of delivery – but more than anything I remember two stories he told me about reading the news. First, he recounted having dropped his son off for a school coach trip. A short time later, driving along with the car radio on, news came through of a serious crash in the area involving a coach carrying schoolchildren. His blood ran cold. At that moment, he said, the newsreader was the centre of his universe. She was giving him the most important news of his life. So, he told me, when you’re reading a story about some accident or other in some faraway place that you’ve never heard of – remember: someone is listening who is hearing for the first time something that may change their life. (By the way, it was his son’s coach. His son was OK).

The second story involved meeting the vice-president of Poland some years earlier, a man who needed very little sleep. No matter when he went to bed, he always awoke at 5am and the first thing he did was listen to the news on the BBC World Service. So, my trainer said, when he felt like the last thing he wanted to do at 4-in-the-morning London time was drag himself through another news bulletin, he would think of an important dignitary waking in Warsaw, alert and eager for the latest international developments.

It’s funny how little things like that really stay with you. And Martin Plaut says something now that will, I suspect, stay with me too.

“In a way, you could think of our Africa Service listeners like people who’ve paid top-price tickets for the opera. That’s how incredibly expensive batteries are. So when people listen to their radio, they really listen.”

Now that’s something to keep me awake at night.


copyright Kathy Clugston 2006