Insights from the recording studio
This article appeared last week in The Preacher, which is the journal of the College Of Preachers. It appears here by kind permission.
My introduction to preaching on air came on 15 October 2006, when I participated in a live service on BBC Radio 4 broadcast from Wesley’s Chapel in Central London. On that occasion I was one of three preachers from the College of Preachers who all preached from the same passage in Isaiah. Spurred on by many who had enjoyed the broadcast, I went on to contact the BBC regarding possible involvement in Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2. One thing led to another, and since then it has been my privilege to record over 70 such talks for them. Some of these have been two-minute slots on late night shows, and others have been two and a half minutes on breakfast shows. Audiences on these programmes range between half a million and three million. Over the past four years I have been coaxed, cajoled, moulded, critiqued and helped by a string of very gifted producers, and I am grateful to all of them. When I first started on this journey with some trepidation, Mark Wakelin said to me that ‘every preacher should be produced’, and I think he had a point. The following are some reflections from my experience of preaching on air so far.
Know your audience
When I first started on late night radio, the BBC sent me a multi-page document on my audience. It told me how many of them there were, what sort of jobs they have, what sort of programmes they listen to and what sort of words they use. It even gave me advice on what sort of words to avoid. This was absolutely invaluable. Other people had put hours of research into this so as to help me refine my message for my audience.
Respect your context
When presenting a Christian thought on mainstream radio, the audience is not the only factor you have to consider. When I first got my invitation to provide these slots for Janice Long’s show – I listened to programme after programme, and even got a friend to transcribe the Pause for thought slots so that I could study them in more detail. Janice’s programme is a late night zany blend of live and recorded music, quirky stories from the news and the occasional raunchy joke. To insert a talk with any kind of spiritual value into that takes a deft touch. When I recorded my first batch of Pause for Thought talks at BBC Manchester I had a stab at my first one, and my producer then stopped me. She played me an excerpt of Janice in full flow from the programme at loud volume (especially loud in the confined space of the studio) and said ‘now fit into that.’ Too much of a clash between the presenter’s tone and the preacher’s tone can be disastrous in such a context.
Tone is king
Probably the biggest lesson I have learnt over these four years is the value of tone in broadcasting. The best script can be undone by an uninteresting tone, and even an average script can be elevated by an animated tone. Here I must pay tribute to my producers whose endless patience had made them willing on occasion to analyse and remould my tone even on a sentence by sentence basis. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been asked to say a certain word differently, or to adjust the tone and emphasis of a particular phrase. If it is done well you would never know it – but you would soon miss it if no-one paid attention to it. I soon learnt that it doesn’t do to be too ‘precious’ about your script in broadcasting.
Timing is key
I once heard an after dinner speaker who went on too long in the hopes of becoming interesting described as being ‘like an ugly girl who thought that if she stood around long enough she would become beautiful’. It doesn’t work. My late night slots last for two minutes and my breakfast show slots for two and a half minutes. Within that there is a tolerance of ten seconds either way, but no more. One of the things this has done for me is to make me rather less tolerant of those who feel that they ‘cannot say anything worthwhile’ in a short sermon. Why ever not?
Don’t be twee and do be real
Within the confines of that very short time it is sorely tempting to pick some funny story and then ‘stick on’ a spiritual application and be done with it. I have done this on occasions, and been caught out by my producers on every single one! The trouble is, if you don’t link story and application seamlessly it just sounds like an ‘add-on’. Instead of commenting on life from a spiritual perspective, which these talks should do – you end up turning life into some sort of corny object lesson. It is important, too, to speak with your own voice. In one early script I was describing the ‘speck in your brother’s eye’ passage, and talked about having a ‘dirty great plank in your own eye’. My producer asked me whether I would really say that – and I had to admit that I wouldn’t. I was just trying to keep up with Janice’s informality and it didn’t ring true.
The thing is, all the skills I have mentioned above apply as much to preaching off air as they do to preaching on it. We should always take time to know our congregation – to understand their habits and vocabulary. We should always respect the context of worship in which we preach too – for a sermon is rarely heard in isolation. We should pay as much attention to tone in the pulpit where we can be seen as we do on the radio where we can’t. If we really believe in the power of the sermon as a word-event then we should believe its impact is not determined by its length. And as for being twee, I couldn’t possibly comment!
There will be a wider discussion of this in my book, Who Needs Words, available from Saint Andrew Press in the Autumn