It was the Yule log and flip-flops that did it.
In Paul O’Grady’s Christmas Day show, repeated today on Boom Radio in a novel Easter tribute, he told of the struggle of eating (producer) Malcolm’s mum’s mince pies:
“If you’ve got a mouthful of veneers, you’d ‘ad it - know what I mean – and I remember her Yule log from three years ago. Someone round here - who was wearing flip flops at the time…”. (Pic Emilie Sandy)
He could have carried on with mince pies – but he moved to 'Yule log' - peculiar and better in an anecdote. Similarly, the gratuitous flip-flops. He was painting colourful, relatable pictures - instinctively.
Someone suggested to me the other day that maybe we radio folk get a little too obsessed with the words we choose and how we frame things. But words are all we have - and delivery. Yes, some of the greats break the rules – but they’ve already made it. We’re all just trying now to do our best to grow our audience inch-by-inch in the most competitive radio industry ever.
Paul got a black-and-white picture and coloured it deftly with his pastel paints. Just as Terry Wogan described his BBC boss ‘collecting the milk bottles….in that disgusting dressing gown and that air of shabby gentility that characterises the BBC’s executives’. Or Jane Garvey recalling the stabilisers being removed from her bike in 1969 and being rewarded with a ‘chunk of Fry’s Chocolate Crème’.
As ever, we don’t need anything over-seasoned like a sixth form essay. Just a couple of the right words can change a link from functional to memorable - and arouse emotion or relatability. Even on the tightest formats.
What else was special about Paul? He related to his audience and knew them. He'd lived a life, working in the civil service, as a barman and in an abattoir. He knew what it was like to struggle – do a job you hate - and he’d witnessed hardship probably much like the very people to whom we all turn for comfort when life becomes a challenge. It’s a real advantage for any communicator to have lodged in other worlds apart from media.
Paul's programmes were relatable. We could guess that he was deservedly earning decent cash by the end of his amazing life, yet we also felt that he knew what real life was like. When he reached for stories – he did so from a normal listener’s world – a world of aunties and uncles and bay-fronted semis, not headphones, mixing desks and VIP red carpets. You can tell he watched people and listened to them – as the best communicators do.
His show was targeted perfectly at the audience he sought to attract. When he used Muttley to describe Malcolm’s laughter, he did not need to say ‘I’m from your age group’. We knew. He mentioned Wogan because he knew we liked him too.
He was likeable. And to like someone, you have to know them first. We knew Paul – he gave just sufficient of himself on-air and we witnessed more off-air. He was true to himself - authentic - and we knew he cared. And once you know someone cares and are generous in spirit, they can get away with blue murder.
There was light and shade. Amidst the festive daftness, a nod to his love for underdog dogs and to care workers worked wonders.
He also sounded as though he was enjoying himself – and wanted to be there. That probably says a great deal about his ‘long-suffering’ producer Malcolm – and illustrates that those on-air need the right environment to do their best work. Well done, Malcolm.
Too many stations don’t get that. Step forward with pride GHR, whose welcome for Ken Bruce was exemplary and will have served in many ways beyond the PR value. Ken will feel wanted. And - in fairness – Absolute Radio, another from the Bauer stable, also know how to say thanks and goodbye when people are moved on. It's so important.
There’ll never be another Paul O’Grady – but to study his technique is time well spent, whatever format we work on. He was clever and funny - with immaculate delivery.
Following the awful news of Paul’s death, listeners asked to hear his Christmas Day show again on Easter Day on Boom Radio. It attracted record Sunday listening. A festive radio repeat that can deliver significant incremental audience on a balmy Spring day is something very precious.
Our thoughts are with Malcolm and all Paul's friends and family.
Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting.
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