October 30, 2015

'Radio's about getting inside the listener's head'

BBC commentator Jonathan Agnew on microphone skills, on-air chemistry and arguments, and how social media helps

"I think people want to hear about what's going on: it's a live event, it's happening now, and that's why I try and generate live content" © Getty Images

Let's start with the differences between radio and television commentary. Richie Benaud's maxim about not speaking unless you add to the pictures obviously doesn't apply to radio, where you cannot allow dead air.
The art on television is saying as little as possible but making it as interesting as possible, which isn't actually terribly easy either. If you're bound so completely to the screen, there's only so much that you can offer that doesn't sound boring. I always have in mind a blind person, be that a blind person actually at the ground or somebody who can see perfectly well but who's sitting in his car or working in the office. And that's the No. 1 task of the radio commentator: to describe, to explain, what these people can't see. It's got to be clear. It's got to be accurate. And it's got to be believable. It takes a while, I think, for a new commentator to earn the trust of the listener. You get there eventually, but it does take a while.

Do you think there's more freedom with radio, then?
Oh yes, there's total freedom on the radio. It's up to you to decide how you're going to fill the time while the bowler's walking back or there's nothing going on in the game. But TV can give it more depth. If you look at the make-up of commentary boxes - and people talk about too many former players and former captains in a television box - I think that expert knowledge is crucial on TV, because you're having these slow-motion replays and lots of analysis and the viewer does need to know you're coming from a credible background for that to work. On the radio - and we have our Geoffrey Boycotts, who are very clear in how they think the game should be played - until you can actually see it, it makes it very tricky for that sort of analysis.

The absolute key difference between television and radio is the ability of radio to communicate. With television you can watch the screen and your mind can be anywhere. On radio it requires a certain amount of discipline from the listener to follow what's being said. Therefore, the art of communicating, the art of reaching out and getting inside that person's head, is what radio's all about. People really have to engage with you, and you have to make an effort to engage with them.

Some of the cricket in the UAE - it's the hardest Test series to commentate on, on the radio, because of the pitches, because of the type of play. That is hard work. You will be worn out. By the time you get back to your hotel room, you won't want to talk to anybody, because your brain has just been going at 1000% to generate conversation, talking points, enthusiasm, the sort of essential ingredients that are needed to keep people listening. There are times when it's very easy, lots going on, but there are other times when you have to work your socks off. But without sounding like it. It's all got to sound the same. While your brain's going at a million miles an hour it's still got to come out your mouth at your usual rate, otherwise it sounds all very forced.

"I did a stint with Phil Tufnell at Lord's last summer. I asked him what he had planned for the evening, and he said he was going to a board game party. Suddenly we got talking about Monopoly, Balderdash, Cluedo. People were emailing in, tweeting"

Have you ever had any voice training?
I've had no training, and I'm often amazed that people don't think about it. When you're speaking, you can manipulate your voice to make it sound interesting, melodic.

I find myself, when I'm commentating, pitching every word. You've got your background orchestra, which is the crowd. You've got that constant hum. You can pitch your voice against it, both as a note and in terms of strength. I often talk about it being a soloist against an orchestral backing, and that's what radio commentary is.

It has to sound nice, it has to sound attractive. If your voice grates, or there's something annoying about it, people just reach out and switch it off.

Just as people have a face for radio, they also have a voice for radio…
That's right, but I really believe you can work at it and make your voice sound better. I started when I was 31. Your voice is tighter, you haven't quite got the depth and the resonance that you have when you're 55. So the voice has a sort of timbre that comes with older age and drinking too much red wine, and so on. It develops a different character.

I'm always conscious that I really relax my throat, so I'm almost breathing each word out. I always turn my headphones up quite loud too, which means you set yourself quite softly. You're not forcing anything, so you've got somewhere to go. When there's excitement or drama, you can force it a bit more, against the "music" of the crowd, so it sounds that little bit more dramatic, but without shouting. If a commentator has to resort to shouting, then he's in trouble.

Do you have production meetings where you brainstorm potential topics of conversation for when there's a danger of running dry?
Adam [Mountford, the Test Match Special producer] and I will talk about doing intervals, what's newsworthy, but in terms of content for commentary, then no: nothing. That's what makes the job so interesting.

"Boycott's time on the radio has done him a lot of good. People have warmed to him more. And he's a softer character than he sounds" © Getty Images

I've always believed that if you sit down and spend hours researching things before each day's play then you'll turn up to work with a mass of paper, and you'll want to show everyone that you've researched it, so you'll read things out. And they're boring. I think people want to hear about what's going on: it's a live event, it's happening now, and that's why I try and generate live content, if you like.

Is the balance between information and entertainment something you're always mindful of?
Oh yes. You do have to do both. Hopefully the cricket will do it for you, but if it doesn't, then you have to generate it yourself. These days, with social media, you can start to tell pretty quickly if people are bored!

You're only on for 20 minutes - five or six overs - which doesn't sound very long, but it can be exhausting and you're very much dependent on the person you're with. I did a stint with Phil Tufnell at Lord's last summer, the graveyard shift on a slow day and a pretty bland pitch. Making conversation, I asked him what he had planned for the evening, and he said he was going to a board game party with friends. Suddenly we got talking about Monopoly, Balderdash, Cluedo - all our favourite board games. People were emailing in, tweeting. Chat, chat, chat, chat, chat, and even though the cricket was dull, the time flew by. As he got up to finish his stint, Adam said: "That was fun. Have a great party." Tuffers said: "Oh, I made that up!" He completely hoodwinked everyone. Just to have something to talk about.

That on-air chemistry and repartee is a very important ingredient of TMS, of course, but there are also differences of opinion. How much do you feel you can disagree with someone on air before it becomes bad radio?
That's a good question. If you really felt strongly about something you'd disagree until it really did become bad radio. Obviously Boycott and I have a few moments, but I think I would withdraw before it got too vehement. You can politely disagree. For instance, I like that Simon Mann, who's doing my job out in the UAE, has very differing views to my own on lots of things. But that's really good for the programme, as long as it's done politely. People aren't listening to us for arguments and rows.

On the subject of Geoffrey Boycott, he seems to polarise opinion - certainly in England, where he's not everyone's cup of tea. How do you think he's viewed now?
I think he's viewed more affectionately now than 20 years ago. His time on the radio has done him a lot of good. People have warmed to him more. And he's a softer character than he sounds anyway. Yes, he has his way - he's always right, everybody else is wrong - but he's very professional; he's brilliant at analysing the game, particularly batsmen's techniques, and he gets there very quickly. I really enjoy working with him and there's a lot of mutual respect there.

"If anyone ever accuses me of bias - on Twitter, say - they're blocked straight away. It simply isn't true"

Which other commentators have you admired, or learned from?
The answer is that you learn from everybody. That doesn't mean to say you do what they do; sometimes you avoid doing what they do. It's an interesting education to listen to cricket commentary when you're not at the game. When you're there, which is most of the time for me, it flows over you. But when you're not there, you look at it in a slightly different way. You pick up things. You might hear something and think, "Oh, that's a good way of saying that."

I do like some of the old-style commentary. Their vocabulary was deeper. They didn't do as much cricket. The modern commentator is blighted by the amount of cricket we have to do. Whereas Johnners would rock up and do three one-day internationals and maybe five Tests in a summer, and occasionally pop out for winter Tests, we're doing 13, maybe 14, Tests a year, and goodness knows how many limited-overs matches. Therefore it's very easy to slip into cruise control with what you're saying. You need people listening to you, saying: "You've developed that as a habit", "You're saying that too often." It's very, very easy to get formulaic - TV people particularly, because they've got less scope than we have. Your brain goes into overdrive mode. That's harder for us now than when they didn't do so much cricket.

I was listening back to Alan McGilvray recently and just the way he defined where fielders were reminded me how it should be done. I think the way it was done 30 years ago was the blueprint for radio commentary. I don't think that will ever change.

Is that easy to grasp for the specialist broadcaster who hasn't played professional cricket?
Take someone like Christopher Martin-Jenkins, for instance - a very keen club cricketer, but that was the extent of his playing ability, yet a massive cricket fan and lover, a great thinker of the game. It's very important that that type of individual can come and commentate on TMS. He went from that background to become one of the most respected writers and broadcasters of the game. Probably those days are gone on television, for the reasons we were talking about. But on radio it's important to get that broad spectrum of people's understanding and love of cricket.

Agnew interviews Andrew Flintoff after the pedalo incident during the 2007 World Cup © PA Photos

How important is impartiality in the commentary box? Do you find it easy to offer forceful, perhaps bitingly critical opinions, or is that just part and parcel of the job?
Yeah, I have no problem doing that at all. If anyone ever accuses me of bias - on Twitter, say - they're blocked straight away. It simply isn't true. What complicates it a bit is that we're broadcasting largely, though not exclusively, for an English audience. So, with reports at the end of the day, they are for the BBC to air in the UK, so you have to gear those reports to reflect what England have done more than the opposition. I try and balance it, but if I'm given 40 seconds then it tends to be 30 seconds on England's success or failure.

However, in terms of incidents on the field, then absolutely, I'm going to be impartial. I can point to dozens of incidents where I have been very critical of England: Harmison running out Inzamam at Faisalabad; Collingwood upholding the appeal to have Grant Elliott run out after the collision with Sidebottom at The Oval. I have no qualms at all about doing that, but it can make things awkward.

I've known Stuart Broad since he was a child, living up the road from me. I walked my dogs with Stuart. But at Trent Bridge in 2013 I did what I considered to be my job and said standing there was unacceptable. Life was very unpleasant for some time. I'd still rather say that, though, than be biased. That's where your credibility is as a commentator.

What about the independence of the broadcaster from cricket boards and obligations to sponsors? I'm thinking of something like the IPL, and the constant hyping of the spectacle - not only by the Indian commentators with connections to BCCI, but also the overseas commentators clearly pleased to be aboard that gravy train.
It's beyond excruciating. It really is. If ever there were something like ECB Radio, or there was any sort of pressure applied from the authorities, I would resign and go and do something else. That would be it. I could never do it.

"Some of the cricket in the UAE - it's the hardest Test series to commentate on, on the radio, because of the pitches. By the time you get back to your hotel room, you won't want to talk to anybody, because your brain has just been going at 1000% to generate conversation"

You mentioned Twitter just now. Is it a bane or a boon? Do social media help the broadcaster?
Yes, absolutely. Brian Johnston would love social media, I'm sure. There are some very funny, very bright people out there. TMS is made for social media and that sort of interaction, but unfortunately there are also a small number of deeply unpleasant human beings out there who get a lot of enjoyment out of being nasty. You can't excuse their behaviour. It's just vile. For all the thousands of people who message you with support, it only takes one horrible negative comment, and that's the one you remember.

On a lighter note, your famous "leg over" commentary, corpsing with Brian Johnston, was voted Britain's favourite ever piece of sports radio. Did you ever think of it as a millstone, that you were always going to be remembered for that, in your first year, whatever else you did?
I don't think of it like that at all, actually. As I said, it takes a long time for listeners to trust you, so that was quite an important step in my development. It did make it a bit awkward when I covered the "dirt in the pocket" affair with Mike Atherton a couple of years later and people associated me with the chortling leg-over nonsense rather than [thought of me as] a cricket correspondent with a strong view. It muddied those waters.

But the BBC correspondent has loads of arrows in his quiver. He is the frontman of TMS - doing interviews and intervals, commentating - but also banging out obituaries, giving opinions on aspects of the game, doing the stuff that a newspaper correspondent would but with all the rest on top.

That light-hearted element in the box is one of the charms of TMS, but things can also potentially get too matey for the listener. It's a fine line before "banter" becomes exclusionary and alienating - for instance, with all the in-jokes of those ex-team-mates in the Channel Nine box. Is that something you keep an eye on?
Absolutely. I hate it. I don't think it happens very much on TMS. You just have to remember that listener - for me, that blind person - and if at any stage you feel, "I'm not quite sure of this", you can pull it back. You just move away and gently change direction. Read out the bowling figures. There's no harm at all in just moving away. End of sentence: stop and change the subject.

"I've known Stuart Broad since he was a child. But at Trent Bridge in 2013 I did what I considered to be my job and said standing there was unacceptable" © Getty Images

What about stuff that might be construed as cruel - Henry Blofeld describing Ashley Giles as a "wheelie bin", for instance? Do you have to give each other the occasional self-policing prod?
Geoffrey's certainly had the odd prod, but I think what TMS does is give almost a caricatured description of people that you're looking at. Again, because of the blind person. A listener recently complained that I have a fixation with hair, but it's one of the most obvious things that you see: Fair or dark? Long or short? A lot or a little? What style? I actually interviewed a blind person who said it really helped: they could now picture what Ryan Sidebottom looks like. If you don't mention it, the picture isn't there. You build up a person's character, and by the time you're finished with someone - the walk, which is very distinctive from 100 yards away, the hair, whatever else - they are probably 200% of the person they are in reality. But yes, if you only do it in a negative way then people will take offence.

Such as with Andrew Strauss' infamous four-letter opinion of Pietersen, for instance. Have you ever let anything slip out when you thought you were off air?
That was just unprofessional. I'm sorry, you can't defend it: if you're going to swear in the vicinity of a microphone, you'll get in trouble. It's interesting, though, because TV discipline is very different to ours. We use microphones that pick up sound throughout a room, whereas they use strongly restricted lip mics. If you go into a television commentary box, they're all talking to each other off air, quite loudly, and when they come into our box we have to tell them to shut up. Hopefully - and I'm frantically touching wood here - we have a culture where there couldn't possibly be any swearing.

What other things might go wrong, aside from Tony Cozier reading out emails from a mysterious "Juan Kerr"?
Well, we did have to broadcast from the fort at Galle once, but I guess it's mainly about the line going down. Other than that, nothing else, really, because if it does then you have to work your way through it. You can be feeling ill, really rubbish, or in a filthy commentary box with dirty windows. Once we had the Calcutta pigeons roosting in the ceiling. Literally. There were feathers everywhere each morning. It was pretty unhygienic. And they were cooing, which was clearly audible. But you can't complain about it. It comes back to that utopianism you want to project. As soon as you complain, you shatter the listener's illusion. People don't want to know. They're driving up the motorway, it's pouring with rain, it's cold, and they'll just switch off. You don't want to shatter that idyll.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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