“Change of plan, we’re doing the whole show live.”
Two hours before the start of this year’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest, and ‘Plan A’ for the international radio transmission was being thrown out of the window into the Maltese harbour. While our broadcast still had the option to hand over to the EBU’s English-langauge commentary (a sterling job from Luke Fisher and Daniel Testa), a new option was available for the international radio broadcast…to take a clean sound feed of Junior Eurovision and offer the show with an exclusive radio-focused commentary and analysis alongside the planned in-studio discussion.
‘Plan B’ was in effect, and to be honest, ‘Plan B’ was always going to offer a far better show for radio listeners in the UK, Ireland, America, New Zealand, and the rest of the listening world.
It’s just that two hours notice was cutting it rather close.
Junior Eurovision FM, Take Two
2014 was the second year that I’ve been involved with an FM radio broadcast of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, so this story has to start with the 2013 edition from Kyiv. Following on from the experience of online commentary from Eurovision Young Dancers 2013, the EBU team trialled a commentary team from Kyiv of Luke Fisher and myself.
Alongside that, I worked with Edinburgh’s community radio stations to simulcast Junior Eurovision, bringing the Contest back to the UK airwaves for the first time since 2005. The 2013 UK broadcast was a relay of the EBU live stream, although the radio stations also carried a number of preview shows broadcast from Kyiv in addition to the live show.
The EBU’s stream and the UK’s FM transmission proved that there was an audience. As the 2014 Contest appeared on the horizon, it was time to improve on the 2013 radio broadcast.
Just A Few Forms… And Some Meetings… And Some More Forms…
This is the point of the story where there should be a lot of dialog between myself, various radio stations, the EBU, PBS in Malta, and other interested parties, about rights and territories and other arcane broadcaster stuff about rights and stuff. It’s quite scary, I’ve blanked it from my mind, and I’m not going back to revisit it.
Let’s just say things happened and the radio rights arrived at the end of this process, okay?
Hello Malta, This Is Glasgow Calling!
Every broadcast has an unsung hero, someone who is never heard, but contributes a huge amount. In the case of Junior Eurovision on the radio, that was Tony Currie. As the driving force behind Glasgow-based Radio Six International, Currie has broadcast in various form since 1964, always ready to try new ideas and projects. Some of them fail, many of them work, but all of them are learning experiences and make the next endeavour better.
A multinational broadcast of Junior Eurovision was just the sort of project to excite Currie.
Along with Currie’s interest, a number of radio stations had shown an interest after Kyiv in carrying the 2014 Contest from Malta. Both Currie and I pitched the show to a number of other stations looking for something different in their schedules. The final line-up of stations carrying Junior Eurovision included:
103 The Eye (England), 92.5 Phoenix FM (Ireland), World FM (New Zealand), 247 Music Radio (Singapore), K107, Radio Six International, Shore Radio (Scotland), KCGW Nebraska, WXDR New Orleans (United States), and Oystermouth Radio (Wales).
Most notable in that mix are the two US broadcasters – apart from rumours of a PBS Broadcast in Boston of one of the Song Contests from the late seventies (as another site would say, citation needed. Anybody?) this is likely the first broadcast of Eurovision in the United States, and certainly the first in the 21st century.
I’m really proud of that, and I hope this can be built on in the future.
So the stations are organised to receive the show, the Glasgow team are ready to provide the production facilities, and I have the OB studio in my suitcase ready to fly out to Malta. The infrastructure and technology is ready to rock and roll.
What about the radio show itself?
Now Over To Gary Thorne, High Above AT&T Park
Anyone who has spoken to me about covering the Eurovision Song Contest will know that I have some strong personal ideas on how the Contest should be presented. The Reithian principles of entertain, educate, and inform, will always kick in, but that says nothing about the tone of the broadcast. Listen to the coverage of a Contest on BBC 1, and compare it to ORF, Ictimai, or even PBS Malta, and you’ll hear different approaches. Actually, listen to the Contest on BBC 1 and BBC Radio 2 and you’ll hear a marked difference!
For me, the approach that I believe works is not one of light entertainment, or Saturday Night At The Malta Shipyard Palladium, but one based on the live presentation of and around a sporting event such as an F1 Grand Prix, the World Cup, or the MLB World Series. Those events all offer opportunities to talk about individual performances, predictions, analysis, history, background, and have opportunities to mix in lighter magazine-style moments with more in-depth spots.
Think ‘Match of the Day’ but replace the football with the music and you have a starting point for Eurovision coverage. With an almost blank canvas for the radio broadcast of Junior Eurovision, it was time to take those ideas and put them into practice.
The Best Laid Plans
This was ‘Plan A’. In the week before the live broadcast, the ESC Insight Daily Podcasts and the Juke Box Juries were joined by additional content to build up four hours of preview shows to get everyone in the mood for Saturday night’s broadcast.
That would start in the Maltese studio with myself anchoring and two or three expert analysts in the studio, We’d run a mix of discussions and interviews from 1845 (Maltese time), twenty minutes before the show starts, running up to 1905, just after the start of Junior Eurovision at 1900 (because, and this is vitally important for tradition, we ran ‘Te Deum’ at the start of our broadcast, and didn’t want two introductions).
Once the action got under way, we’d pass over to the EBU commentary feed with Luke Fisher doing his best impression of John Motson doing a play-by-play (or is it song-by-song?) with former JESC singer Daniel Testa adding in the colour commentary.
Given the visual nature of the interval act, the radio broadcast would opt-out back to the studio for analysis, discussion, and some more interviews (in our case with Executive Supervisor Vlad Yakovlev). We’d return to the EBU for the votes, and mop up the result in the fifteen minutes after the show.
Just like that, three hours of radio.
(Of course this misses out a lot preparation, audio editing, and technical requirements. As a Eurovision broadcaster we had to have our own backup tape, so if the connection to Malta was lost the Glasgow team could ‘switch over’ to tape. As well as the tape, Currie also had the option to fall back either to the EBU feed from Geneva, or even mix the pre-recorded audio with his own live vocals if it went really wrong… which it didn’t. You prepare for failure, but you broadcast the successes).
Drop The Dead Donkey, We’re Going Live To Malta
What this set-up didn’t cover was the unique demands of radio. Without the visual element of Eurovision, a radio commentator would normally be expected to paint a picture of the scene and the stage (‘she’s wearing a massive native indian head-dress’, ‘there’s a ridiculous amount of pyro coming up’,’ ‘that’s gone big in the hall’, and so on). The EBU commentary would be working on the assumption that people would be watching the live stream. To be honest this was a worthwhile trade-off, and part of the fun of trying something new is working with what you have. It was the most cost-effective way to get the show out on the radio, and without it there would be no show. So we’d bracket Fisher and Testa with our studio discussions and add the colour that way.
Until PBS presented us with the opportunity for a clean feed of the audio from the show, just a few hours before the broadcast.
Cue lots of running around trying to get all the paperwork sorted, finding the right people to sign off on the change of plans, and reworking the pre-recorded interviews and magazine spots. Plus the small matter of throwing the initial script out, briefing the team on the new roles and responsibilities, reworking schedules and timing charts to be passed out to stations around the world, and… if you’ve any broadcasting in your blood, you’ll know that this would have made for one almighty adrenaline rush in the hours leading up to the broadcast.
And that, manic or not, you’d also know it was a lot of (stressful) fun!
The Red Light Is On, Transmission Has Started
And so to the show itself. I have to pass on my thanks and gratitude to the team on the ground for joining me in breaking new ground for the Song Contest. Regular readers of ESC Insight will recognise the names of many of ‘the crew’ (and if you were listening to the daily Insight Podcasts and Junior Juke Box Jury shows from Malta they’ll be familiar to your ears): Emma Backfish for chairing the halftime/interval discussions, Glen Bartlett for joining me in the commentary booth as the songs were performed, and Ben Robertson for switching with Glen to run the stats during the voting. Not forgetting Roy Delaney, Phil Colclough, Vlad Yakovlev, and JP, all popping in for their moments on air during the three hours as studio guests.
Behind everyone involved on the OB side of things in Malta, Tony and Leo Currie were back in Glasgow relaying the show out to the ten stations taking the coverage. Like all good producers, they were feeding back notes on potential content, sound levels, and extra information that could be worked into the on-air show, via a talkback loop from Glasgow back to Malta used to keep everything on track. Each broadcasting station had their own team taking in the audio feed, putting it on air, and in many cases adding their own content and branding during the commercial breaks and mini intervals in the show.
At the end of the day, it’s a pleasure to be part of the fabric of the Contest. As PBS’s Board report states:
The board declared the JESC, held in Malta on the 15 November, a rousing success. It was broadcast on television stations in the 16 competing countries, one station in Australia and 11 radio stations worldwide.
Once more, I’ll return to Eurovision’s patriarch, Marcel Bezençon. The goals he defined for the Song Contest in post-war Europe are still valid today, and the radio transmission of JESC meet Bezençon’s three main visions… to create a sense of community, to share individual cultures, and to test the limits of broadcast and communications technology.
I think it’s especially fitting that in the 21st Century those principles can be achieved using one of the oldest broadcast mediums known. Radio, and indeed audio, is as much a part of Eurovision as HD TV, live streaming, social networks, and YouTube engagements.
Coming Up Next…
What happens next is an interesting question. The easiest answer is “same again next year!” with a bit more planning, and a better understanding of how everything works (and a three-hour broadcast from 2014 to critique). At the same time the radio broadcast can only happen in countries where the EBU partners are not broadcasting the Contest (unless they give explicit permission) so as Junior Eurovision expands, the radio broadcast is going to have to expand out into new territories.
There’s also the question of what happens in May 2015, because there are clear opportunities for the 60th edition. The Eurovision Song Contest gathers more listeners and more fans every single day, and as the television production is pushed to new levels of design and delight, there is no reason why radio cannot join in on the new frontier.
Junior Eurovision has taken the tools on offer from the internet and used them to push the boundaries of radio through this year’s FM broadcast. Projects such as the BBC’s ‘pop-up’ Eurovision station to promote digital and online listening using the Contest as leverage show that it can continue to push boundaries, deliver relevant content, and engage the audience, even as it approaches a pensionable age.