What radio presenters can learn from designer Paul Smith
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
With due razzamatazz, Nottingham Castle has re-opened after a £30m refurbishment.
Deep in its sandstone basement, there’s a special exhibition devoted to Nottingham’s favourite colourful son Paul Smith – one of the most successful fashion designers in the UK.
Given my penchant for his stripey excellence, it’s not surprising I wandered down, duly masked, to garner what I could about this highly successful unassuming gent. Maybe it’s just my odd mind – but something of what I found struck a radio chord.
Paul started small. His first shop measured twelve feet by twelve feet and did not trouble with windows.. He was able to experiment at low risk. As he observed in his narration, had he started in a large company, the risk would maybe have been seen as too great and he'd likely have been quickly side-lined . He took the time to perfect his art on a small stage.
Some broadcasters make their debut on a stage too large. We’ve all heard presenters who are not quite yet up to the job they are given. One can’t fault them for taking on the gig – but we can question the wisdom of those who put them there – given they’ll likely fail and their career will be tainted. Start small. Experiment first – and there have never been quite so many ways to do just that.
Paul’s career grew slowly: "There was never a breakthrough moment where it went off like a rocket. I held my nerve". Great radio shows often take time to build. Markets take time to own - and it always takes longer than you think.
Paul talks of surprise. Classic design with just a hint of colour or novelty. His jaunty touches are the trademark of what he does.
Great radio programmes are a blend of rhythm and familiarity – with just that hint of surprise. As one consultant years ago told me – think what you’re about to do and do something else instead. In language or treatment, just turn right when the others turn left. Don’t say what lesser presenters say, think harder. And – of course – individuality is what marks you out.
Radio stations are the same. What marks you out?
Paul hates over-designing. His greatest works are classic outfits with just that quirky collar or cuff.
Words alone are highly powerful, and too many links are ruined by over-production.
Do you really need that backing music? Does that promo really need all those effects? Does your co-presenter always need to chip in? Does that question really need to be so long? Do you really need to cram so many words into your thirty second trailer/promo/ad, or could you better let them breathe.
He talks about using your own observational skills – and drawing on inspiration away from the job. He gets his - not from books, but from living life. The colour or texture of a market stall or the rainy cobbles on a London street. He once created a knitwear range based on the colour scheme of a Parisian apartment that he'd seen in a magazine he’d grabbed a dentist's waiting room. As he says, if you just rip off your competitors, your work will be yesterday’s newspapers.
Great links can come not from prep sheets or from stealing the work of others – but from living real life and keeping your eyes open.
Paul carries a notebook, pencil and camera. You carry your phone. Jot down that blindingly obvious funny line or topic - because it is so relatable and so good, you’ll forget it.
Rough and smooth
He talks of contrast – rough and smooth.
There’s that old light and shade radio point.
Most cheery uplifting radio shows can now and again go serious to huge effect – and serious shows can wink at their audience beautifully now and again. Great broadcasters can manage to ride both those horses with consummate skill – and Covid has shown who excel. Witness the great talk broadcasters like Ferrari, Garvey and Humphrys. Savour the breakfast shows of Greg, Dave or Christian O’Connell.
Mainstream vs Distinctive
In a talk I attended from Paul after seeing the exhibition, he returned honestly several times to this theme. Readily, he told that some of the out-there designs simply aimed to seize the P.R. Get the glossy coverage. Get the headlines.
Meanwhile, he conceded that the money was made elsewhere - on quality product which consumers would be able to wear day-to day. These products he said 'pay the rent'.
To me this is radio. Some listeners cry out for highly distinctive offerings and believe that is the route to huge audiences. It isn't. In carving out a reputation as radio station, you do need to have distinctive traits , but you also need to make sure you are playing the songs you know your audience at large wants to hear, predictable though they may be.
I smiled on hearing Paul talk of how he creates the Paul Smith brand digitally: 'It's increasingly about words'. His brilliant, original shop fronts have served him well in cities around the World - but now he also needs to do that online.
He speaks of the difference between 'a travel suit' and a 'suit to travel in'. I wish some promo/trailer/ad writers had been there to hear his message.
Paul talks too of overused works: 'luxury' or 'vintage'. Again, a message for broadcasters and copywriters alike. When talking of your radio station, you need to own the words - not share them.
If you see someone wearing something with the words 'Paul Smith' splashed across it, Paul suggests it's likely a rip off. Doing that is not his style.
Yes, it contradicts the subtlety of his design, but there's more. As soon a potbellied guy sports one of those, the brand can lose its panache. Which 20 something then will aspire to wear it?
Many UK radio stations now are really and rightly careful about how they portray their brands and own their history - if they are to remain relevant to younger audiences.
Tradition and modernity
Paul makes the styles of yesterday look beautifully fresh
Old ideas are not bad just because they're old. They can be a good place to start.
Who’s best at this?
Paul cannot draw. He expresses his designs in words and his wife does the crayoning-in.
Do what you do best. Is the person drafting your show trails the best at that task ? Is the best person designing your contest? Do you have the right ideas person in the mix?
And – like Paul's wife Pauline - whom he credits for so much of his success - having a supportive partner is key. They’ve got to understand you. Radio is a very odd job
Watch your reputation
"Even with something so basic, there is always a way to do a bit better than the man next to you that is not necessarily aggressive - it's just to do with being more thoughtful"
'Realise that if you're selling something - anything - you work in service. Be friendly and helpful. Don't forget. Think Service! Service! Service!'
Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting.
Read this book and gain insights into:
Tight contemporary music presentation-
Generating engaging talk content-
Developing authenticity and likeability-
Handling double-acts, callers and contests-
Understanding the audience and keeping them listening
Whether you are a newcomer or a seasoned performer, Radio Secrets is essential reading.