Dead Medium, making radio

I love radio. I love making radio even more. Pre-recording shows, live broadcasting, racing between decks as the last song fades out and you still haven’t picked the next one, tripping up your co-host with an outrageous comment right before you go on air, sitting in the outer studio watching the clock jealously lest someone steal your airtime. I love it all. As a shy teenager I snagged a volunteer job at Anna Livia FM on Grafton St (today Dublin City FM), doing continuity announcements. You know, those little bits between the programs where a soft voice fades in to say, ‘That was Wolfgang Synott conducting the Cavan Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Levi Strauss’s Denim in C Minor, and next up your weekly dose of news and opinion from the world of competitive piglet fancying, with Snort and Swine. It’s five past seven and you’re listening to…’

Links went out live, and each night as the seconds ticked down on the silent studio clock, perched before the seductive muffle of the big condenser microphone, waiting for the nod, I’d sweat and redden and start to shake a little and get dizzy. The live light above the door would blink on. I’d wait a moment then begin, my best sonorous radio baritone tickling out of a panting throat. Sometimes I’d laugh, more often than not I’d cough or sputter, or lose my train of thought. Such was my focus on the vanishing moment, on the cadence and rhythm of the link, on the many listeners I imaged driving through the rainy night or lying at home, drifting to sleep to the sound of my voice, that my tongue would trip over itself and fall out of my lips to twitch in a spitty knot of shivering funk. This powerful cottonmouth effect seemed an insurmountable barrier to ever getting good at radio. I remember asking an old blues man, a sweet eyed slope backed character who chain smoked and hauled great whale bladder packs of grooved surprises up the stations narrow stairways, “Does it get easier?” He thought about it for a moment abstracted from the hidden harmonics of Northern Soul, of Big Band Blues, of Proto-Motown, and replied, ‘If you ever stop feeling nervous, you’ve stopped listening, and you won’t be any good no more’. Well he said something like that, assuming the kid would lock away forever the sagacious titbit dispensed by a modest man in late middle age tuning every iota of love and memory into radio show forty years too late to be appreciated.

Dancing in the studio, check.

In college I got over all that, all that fretting and quaking before the threatening mast of the muffled microphone, all that delicious fission of the audience. I finally got to make radio, and what radio we made. Talk shows, comedy shows, music shows, politics shows, all night experimental shows reading beat poetry over early dubstep, drunken shows, sex chat shows, wildly defamatory gossip shows. We lived in the studios of Trinity FM. Spent far more time there than in our classrooms or the library. We even made a TV show, locked in the outer office out of hours. It was a liberation, unhinged access to the airwaves, amateur anarchic broadcast libre.

Skinhead and drinking in the studio, check.

After I left, in the post college hangover that lasted two years or more, I started making something I’d had too much fun to try in college, scripted radio. My first effort was dreamt up, sleepless on the hard wood floor of my parent’s study, where penury and the fear of change and a loathing of the managed workplace penned me. I was reading John Hodgman at the time, the ‘I’m a PC guy’, from the hit Apple ads (for UK readers, the yank equivalent of David Mitchell). Hodgman’s first book, The Areas Of My Expertise, purported to be a complete compendium of all world knowledge. In a stroke of genius he had single-handedly revived an all but forgotten form of comedy, the misleading manual. Although this wonderfully dry genre dates back at least to the 17th century, my favourite examples are the post war guides of the British author Stephen Potter. Potter penned tongue in cheek volumes on gamesmanship and one-upmanship: Guides on how to achieve victory in life, sport, love and in the workplace through the honourable art of almost but not quite cheating. Hodgman, in satirising the almanacs of his youth, had accidentally revived this long dormant form. His almanac was a collection of frankly hilarious distortions, misleading half-truths and outright lies. Reading the book it suddenly occurred to me that by combining Hodgman’s approach with live radio, or even better – on location radio – something novel and fun could be done in comedy. I got up, turned on the light, scrawled down some notes and lay back down. I thought of something else, lept up, scribbled it by the light of my mobile and lay back again. By the wee hours of the morning I’d worked out the basics of what become The Invisible Tour Guide.

The Tour Guide was a comedy show purporting to be a guide to historic Dublin, in the company of a pompous aristocrat based in large part on the American actor, storyteller, and surrealist playwright Edgar Oliver. This character, the grandiloquent fop known as Byron Frump, became a sort of homage to that very British pomp I find endearing, that early 1970’s Oxbridge positivism repeated endlessly on late night television during my childhood. Frump was from a thick vein of blue blood, and as the show developed his family’s feudal history became so baroque and fantastical I had to write a forty-page ‘bible’ just to keep everything in check. Carrying him along in podcast form, listeners were mislead utterly, regaled a contentiously imperialist history of Ireland, and even introduced to completely fictional historic landmarks.

Professor Byron Frump, host of The Invisible Tourguide

The other idea I have that night to thank for was The Emerald Arts, a faux imperialist, condescendingly intellectual arts show in the vain of long dead, lavishly budgeted radio programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope or Melvin Bragg’s never ending history of intellectual life In Our Time. These programmes were a kind of broadcast grammar school, offering a suburban child, in still penurous and Catholic Ireland a glimpse into a glamorous world of art, ideas and comfortable middle class elitism. The show would push this premise to absurd levels, purporting to be a century’s old, cantankerously stodgy Arts Programme, whose history stretched back to the colonisation of Ireland by Gatling gun and steam train, and whose character’s self importance was only ever bolstered by a universe that literally revolved around them.

Technolotics, Episode 42 ‘Palm Jam’

At lot had changed since The Invisible Tourguide, I’d started and then stopped being a standup comedian. I’d run a fair few spoken word and comedy gigs, MC’d a wrestling match, had a one man storytelling show, and even been invited to lecture at the Electric Picnic! This new show would be more ambitious, recorded in a real radio studio, with a full cast of actors and comedians, original music, and hundreds of sound effects.

Lorcan Hogget and Hawthorn White, from The Emerald Arts, played by myself and Gary White

Predictably, the production of the Emerald Arts grew into a Sisyphean task, taking dozens of people months of weekly recording sessions to lay down, and gluing me to an editing programme for hundreds of hours spaced over half a year. The talented young Irish electronic composer Kieran Dold (Kara Kara) contributed an explosive theme tune, Korean indie music promoter Jin Lim helped with the multitrack studio engineering, and eleven talented actors helped voice the frequently bizarre characters that my co-writers (Andrew Booth, John Hoysted) and I had created. In the process I learned an enormous amount about the practicalities of script writing, directing, production schedules and the logistics of working with so many people (all of whom kindly volunteered their time) over such a long period.

Lenny T, from The Emerald Arts, played by Shane Conneely

Most importantly I discovered that a) producing something so involved for free is a very special kind of madness that only the young or recently young can get away with, and b) nobody wants to listen to a long form scripted radio comedy satirizing 1970’s arts coverage. To be fair, I had a pretty good feeling about that last bit before I began, but I still sighed each time I sat in the studio babysitting the broadcast and the texts rolled in describing us as ‘benders’. At times I felt like our fictional broadcasters, surrounded by savages beating at the gates, protected only by high culture and the stout broad chest of erudite paternalism.

Dead Medium – ‘What Lurks Inside His Noble Mind’

For the past year I’ve been working on a new project; something that once upon a time was an incredibly popular format but is today, alas all but deceased – the radio sketch comedy show. Our initial funding application to the BCI was ambitious, original, and almost inevitably got turned down. We’d planned a series of live shows with standup comedy and music, with each episode recorded before a studio audience. We’d have live sound effects by Roger Gregg, and record it in a real honest to God theatre. It would have been half Goon Show, half Other Voices. It could have been a runaway success, or perhaps more likely a backbreaking headache. Either way, it seemed like the logical next step. But the harsh realities of public broadcast funding hit home and we scaled back our ambitions. Instead we started working on a podcast show, recorded in my ‘home studio’ (a Rode NT1, connected to an old analogue mixer, connected to my aging Mac). My fellow writers and I met one evening a week to work on sketches. After a year we had ninety written, enough for a six episode, thirty minute per show series. But as recording approached, repeated equipment breakdowns and the tiresomeness of working on a voluntary project with no feedback or appreciation wore down the crew. Folks bowed out one by one, till finally it was just me. Oh benighted starving artist! Crestfallen, with nine sketches recorded, but no cast or co-writers left, I all but gave up on the project.

After spending a month moping about my wasted year. Finally I pulled myself together and started working. It would be unfair to proceed with our original title, something we’d all owned and honed and crafted together. It would be unfair to use the sketches my co-writers had submitted on their own. But damn if I wasn’t going to make something of the stuff we’d worked on together. I found some creepy Victorian death portraits online, slapped a website together, and Dead Medium was born. The formula is simple – One brand new original comedy sketch each week. The first couple I put out were sketches we’d recorded together, remixed and tightened up. Then I started laying down new sketches, voicing multiple characters and looping over myself as I used to back in the days of the Invisible Tourguide. The show has a lot of things going for it as a creative project. It’s iterative, flexible and low maintenance. Its short form and easily consumable, requires no prior knowledge to grok, is reasonably clean and stays clear of pop culture references. It’s also deeply weird, and a lot of fun to make. I’ll pull in friends and other comedians to voice characters here and there, but overall I’m happy to do the work and take whatever reaction (or invisibility) results. This is my thing a week. A quickly made, highly varied way to stay creative, and keep making radio. There are sketches about kittens, sketches about superheroes, sketches about magicians and time travel and muffins. It’s free, and I made it for you. I hope you like it.

Dead Medium goes out late each Tuesday evening. You can listen to it for free on bandcamp.


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