Behind the scenes at BBC Surrey radio in Guildford
- Credit: Peter Stewart
A comforting constant in a fast-changing world, the BBC Surrey Breakfast Show effortlessly combines local and national news for an informative and entertaining start to the day. Surrey Life editor Caroline Harrap gets a sneak peek behind the scenes
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2017
Stepping out my back door, a full moon beams down, picking out the silhouettes of the stark winter trees, and there’s a distinct bite of frost in the air. I pull my coat around my ears, and the matchsticks from my eyes, and set off on foot for the train station. It’s four o’clock in the morning. Who said the life of a radio star wasn’t glamorous?
This, however, is the daily reality for the talented team on the BBC Surrey Breakfast Show, led by ebullient presenter James Cannon and his effervescent co-host Suzanne Bamborough, and ably supported behind the scenes by producer Mitch Mansfield, along with broadcast assistant Kam Ellahi and news editor Angus Moorat.
Overseeing it all is acting managing editor, Mark Carter, who has been with the station for around 15 years – and up this morning since a particularly ungodly hour, having travelled from his home in Godstone to the station’s Guildford studios.
“The early starts never get easier, particularly in the cold winter months!” says Mark, with a rueful smile, as we sip rocket-fuel strength coffee from BBC Surrey mugs. “We all have our own way of coping with them. Some of my colleagues will have an afternoon nap, whereas others like me will end up going to bed ridiculously early. My two children have been known to put me to bed, rather than the other way round!
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“That said, the breakfast show is by far the best show of the day to work on. It’s fun, fast-moving and a real privilege to be part of so many listeners’ lives as they start their day in Surrey.”
Certainly, on this chilly Monday morning, the atmosphere at the BBC Surrey studios is electric as producer Mitch effortlessly juggles multiple items – ranging from a live phone-in guest chatting about that weekend’s Strictly result to an in-depth interview ‘on the ground’ with a victim of the Caterham floods, still yet to get back into her home some six months later, to a light-hearted piece on Pierrepont Farm in Farnham where they have recently installed a vending machine for their unpasteurised milk (apparently “sweet, creamy and beautiful”, in case you were wondering…).
This carefully-curated blend of both national and local news – from the informative to the entertaining, the serious to the funny, and the moving to the downright quirky – is right at the heart of local radio – the real bread and, er, butter, if you will, of a BBC breakfast show.
“The programme is designed to be a one-stop show, providing listeners with everything they need to know for the day ahead,” says Mark. “So the big local and national stories, regular weather and, of course, travel updates… and engaging presenters who’ll put a smile on your face. In James and Suzanne, we’ve found the perfect combination. They’ve got a natural rapport.”
This super-professional pair do indeed seem to have it down to a tee – effortlessly bouncing off each other – knowing just when to chip in or let the other one talk. Whether listening at home or, as I am now, watching them through the window of the studio, you just know that you are in safe hands. It’s an impressive feat – especially given that it’s also still stupid o’clock!
It helps, of course, that they have such a great team behind them ‘backstage’, with Mitch, Kam and Angus running a clockwork operation – from writing scripts, sourcing sound bites and dealing with breaking stories to sorting out special audio pieces, compiling news bulletins and welcoming bleary-eyed guests like me.
On the mic
Right on cue, just at that moment, in walks Helen Roberts, archives and special collections manager at the University of Surrey, who has come in to the studios to share her expertise for a piece about Winnie-the-Pooh illustrator, EH Shepard, who lived here in Surrey. In her case, she hasn’t had far to come as the studios are based literally in the middle of the university campus. Mind you, it’s still not even 8am yet, so she is duly furnished with a steaming mug of their full-strength coffee before being dispatched into the studio.
“Wherever possible, it’s always preferable to have guests and contributors in the studio,” continues Mark. “Face-to-face interviews tend to work better and obviously you get an improved sound quality too.”
On that subject, it’s fascinating to learn just how far technology has come in the last few years – and certainly since the days when I did hospital radio at East Surrey Hospital’s Radio Redhill. Back then, we had a huge production desk, with multiple faders, coloured buttons, the works, and an actual vinyl record player. Now, however, it’s pretty much all done via computer.
“Technology has certainly moved on at a pace – and, believe it or not, it’s now possible to broadcast in quality from an iPhone!” says Mark. “That said, we also have a dedicated radio-car, using a satellite to broadcast back to base. So, yes, things have moved on significantly since the days of vinyl and reel-to-reel! Digital technology certainly makes things easier, but it’s also changing all the time too, so it’s important to keep up with all the latest developments.
“Of course, we also utilise social media to the full as well, which gives us the opportunity to engage directly with our audience in real time.”
Meanwhile, back on this morning’s show, there’s a breaking story unfolding about the potential expansion of Heathrow Airport, travel news to report with a major hold-up at Junction 8 of the M25, and someone has just got in touch to share their own experience of drinking milk direct from the cows on their family farm in Shamley Green (apparently their grandma is “now well into her 90s and there’s nothing wrong with her”) – and it’s still not even 9am!
“And that’s the wonderful thing about our listeners… you can always expect the unexpected!” adds Mark. “The show gets a lot of interaction by phone, text and social media and people will call in about all sorts of things. One minute, our producer will be taking a call about someone stuck in a traffic jam on the A3, the next it might be someone who’s about to go sky-diving for the first time at the age of 80.”
At the end of the programme, we all convene in the studio for a ‘wash-up’ meeting. The general consensus is that this morning’s show has gone well, so everyone is happy – albeit flagging a little now. While most people have only just got to work or dropped the kids off, it feels like it’s already closing in on the end of the day for the team here.
So, after some preparation work for Tuesday’s programme, they’ll head back home and try to snatch a few hours sleep – ready to do it all again at the crack of dawn tomorrow.
• Catch the BBC Surrey Breakfast Show from Monday to Saturday, 6am to 9am, on 104-104.6 FM or on DAB digital radio. It is also available to watch now on Freeview channel 722. For more information, pay a visit to their website at bbc.co.uk/bbcsurrey
Mark’s memorable moments
Here, acting managing editor Mark Carter shares a few of the highlights from his 15-year career working at BBC Surrey…
Best ever moment…
“One of my favourite moments was presenting my Sunday Show live from the top of Box Hill as the 2012 Olympic cyclists hurtled by. That’s something I won’t forget!”
Most moving moment…
“The kindness of listeners when my wife gave birth to our first child, Lily. We received a number of hand-knitted blankets, which was so kind and reminded me yet again how privileged I am to do the job that I do.”
Worst ever moment..
“My worst moment was undoubtedly falling asleep on an overnight shift. In fairness, the programme was 10 hours long and we were only off air for a few minutes, but I still shudder at the thought of it!”
Sound advice for budding BBC presenters...
When it comes to breaking into the competitive world of radio, budding breakfast show hosts need to be dedicated, determined and tenacious, says acting managing editor at BBC Surrey, Mark Carter. So what other advice would he have for someone who wants to get into BBC radio?
“Apply for a work placement, get to know the names of the editor and assistant editor at the radio station and maybe even offer to help out at something like BBC Children In Need,” says Mark. “A foot in the door and knowing who the key people are at the radio station are both very useful things! Here at BBC Surrey, we also offer work experience placements of up to 10 days, which is a great introduction to the world of radio.”
To apply for a work experience placement at BBC Surrey, applications can be made on their website at bbc.co.uk/workexperience.