This week, BBC Radio 3’s always diverting Between the Ears series opened up an inventory of cassettes packed with the life and work of a man named Mark Talbot. For decades, Mark made his own radio shows, usually called ‘Second Side Up’, complete with records, phone-ins and interviews. But while the clips suggested him to be an articulate and slick host, he never became what you might call a ‘professional’ presenter on a national or even a local station. Instead, his programmes were specially and even individually made for members of his family, his friends and partners. It’s a melancholy but compelling half-hour about how the very act of communication can become an obsession. A kind of dialogue at one remove.

One piece of music I keep going back to is called “I’m 49” by Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and frontman with the group Prefab Sprout. It lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral music, with a yearning but resigned quality to it, but what gives it an extra devastating edge is in its use of speech samples, taken from late night radio conversations and phone-ins. The callers are unhappy and even desperate. At the close of the track someone (Paddy?) almost whispers ‘Just hold me’.

The genesis of the track, and indeed of the whole record, I Trawl the Megahertz, had come from a period of convalescence for McAloon; after eye surgery, he had to rest his sight, and so relied on radio and sound which sparked his creativity into making a solo record (his only one to date).

It’s a given that many radio listeners are lonely, especially at night. I find it a shame that more and more night-time radio is now automated or pre-recorded, even on a national station like BBC Radio 2 which recently dropped the much-loved Janice Long and Alex Lester.  There’s no shortage of stuff to listen to in the dead of night, but little of it is live and interactive. And in the small hours, people often need company. Even if it’s just to say hello to someone.

What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that, sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere.

Thirty years ago or so, in my teens, I worked in radio for a bit, firstly as a volunteer at hospital radio and then at local radio. In the early stages of learning the ropes of broadcasting, you were advised to imagine you were addressing just one listener. At the time, I presumed this was to calm a novice’s nerves, but over time, I realised it was probably also to banish any delusions of celebrity that a budding presenter might be hoping for.

When it soon became clear, at least on hospital radio, that I had very few or indeed no listeners, I would occasionally amuse myself by making and recording programmes for my friends. Back then, I wasn’t sure why I did this, but I think I did it to sound more confident, or at least to find a context which gave me a reason to communicate. If it was just me, with no records or microphone, it felt like it wasn’t enough.

I was about to say that I don’t do that anymore, that those lonely years were a long time ago, but are they always? There are times when all that’s changed is the medium. Tweets have the concise economy of radio links, and you can be serious or silly, but sometimes I strain to come up with them because behind it is a terrible feeling of not being good enough, that everyone else is having a better time.

In a sense, on social media, we front our own shows: linking to playlists and video clips, announcing events, reacting, commenting. But what if we wake up in the morning and we have nothing to say, or nothing we can face admitting? You might be able to unleash one plaintive status update on Facebook, provided you offer the disclaimer that you’re over the worst now. But you can’t do it again. No-one, you assume, will want to read that.

At least with Twitter, you can do that a bit more often, but you feel it’s on the condition that you have to think of some witty metaphors along the lines of ‘I am wearing a grey hat made out of screaming wasps’. In other words, something that might distract people while you wear yourself out.

Maybe you need to talk to someone. In real life. Where ‘it’s really complicated’.



  1. After Iain Lee on Talkradio, who’s shift ends at 1 am, I cannot find any decent speech/phone-in radio stations or programmes. Talksport in in it previous incarnation was acceptable right up until Kelvin MacKenzie bought the station. I mainly listen to overnight shows due to meds and a stupid body clock and Talksports overnight presenter – Ian Collins – went from a regular liberal bloke to Mr Tory very, very rapidly. It’s almost like he was currying favour with his new uberTory boss, heaven forfend. Then that group of radio staions more recently started broadcasting repeats of a hing called something like The Two Mikes in the overnight slot and it’s genuinely shite. That narrowed my listening choices down a lot.

    I cannot even find a home for my ears at BBC Radio 5Live, where it’s either the nice but less-than-riveting Rhod Sharpe or the terrible, stupid, self-absorbed Dotun Adebayo who recently managed to turn the latest London terrorist incident into the latest London Dotun Adebayo incident. I, I, I, I. Many moons ago I might have had BBC Tees or Newcastle as options but they just shove the 5Live shows on.

    There are people like me who would to have good late night radio to listen to and phone-ins are always -always- better in the wee smal hours than any other time. Nicky campbell and Peter Allen on 5Live are unlistenable partly because of the awful twats the producers insist on letting through,Talksport and Talkradio are essentially textbait (at 50p a text, by the way), though Talkradio does have the, uh, attractions of Julia Hartley-Brewer and the imbecillic Sam Delaney…

    So given all the above and the catastrophe that is local and national commercial music radio I’m buggered.

    iPlayer and 4Xtra next.


  2. To Justin Lewis. From Mark Talbot of Second Side Up.

    Hello Justin. Its somewhat difficult knowing where to start as
    I happen to have a fair number of comments that I wish to make
    generally (not just regarding your article in particular), but will
    begin there, and with this…

    ‘What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that,
    sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an
    outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of
    course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what
    ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level
    to express themselves somehow and somewhere.’

    I believe your comment is correct, and as an example, will use
    my own personal experience as an example. Please excuse the
    random remarks!

    SSU merely began on a whim, and prior to any real aspirations
    of making ‘real’ radio a paid profession. As it turned out it was
    to become a time consuming, full-time private career in its own
    right. What others classed as a simple hobby was in fact a
    quest to create a broadcast-standard product without the need
    of a transmitter. That’s why it ended up circulated on cassettes.

    This involved a lot of expertise in many areas to actually make
    it happen, but that aside, a brief remark on political issues.
    Now first and foremost was that I enjoyed every aspect of what
    it took to produce the programme – but importantly, I had total
    autonomy to do as my intuition and instinct instructed, and
    that in itself was primarily inspired by my audiences feedback.
    As a consequence I was therefore never under the jurisdiction
    of someone else, such as a person who was appointed to have
    the final word on any aspect of the project. This was to be, as it
    turned out, one of the most critical elements behind the success
    and longevity of the show. No Governing body inference, etc.

    As the years turned into decades I became cynical about what
    ‘real’ radio offered. The prospect of not having some freedom
    on my output was, to my chagrin, a complete paradox of sorts.
    I did make radio professionally, as a Broadcaster/Researcher;
    but as a contributor and not ‘that guy with his own radio show.’
    In addition, I saw how radio was changing year-on-year in the
    UK, and its transition actually began way back in the early ’80’s.
    One example concerns a Local Radio jock that was voted the
    countries top Local Radio Personality for two consecutive years
    (his name and the name of the station are best left out).
    However, a new breed of Programme Controller was then
    coming to the helm, and one such individual arrived at the
    nominated station and, like Beeching and the railways, he set
    about implementing the Corporations regime of change through
    ‘modernisation and streamlining’.

    In the year following the Jocks second award as UK Personality,
    he was instructed that his output was too ‘mainstream’. When,
    soon after, he was again reprimanded for sounding ‘too
    commercial’, he reluctantly left, but subsequently went on to
    much better things, – and is still broadcasting. The Programme
    Controller has, however, been off the radar for a many years!

    Aside of this example, I was reluctant towards entering radio as
    many other stations were shedding old faces and going in a
    direction that was hard to comprehend. Media was also going
    through a technical upheaval with the arrival of all things
    digital. Music began to be fully-formatted and shows were
    prerecorded – by computer. The ‘old’ Personality DJ was being
    mercilessly ousted regardless of how their listeners felt about
    it. The real stimulus behind all this was, needless to say, money.
    In saving on Jocks wages, modernisation made radio sound
    mechanical… the dial was now nothing more that a jukebox.

    Second Side Up was therefore a ‘natural’ product unaffected by
    the artificial ‘growth’ that was being injected elsewhere. It was
    like a plant with a known and liked fragrance, and like a song-
    bird with an instantly recognisable identity. The audience even
    related this to me in their own words, and that they preferred
    SSU to anything on offer on the airwaves because of its banality.

    Kindly excuse me re-quoting the following here, but I need to…
    *’It’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet.’*
    // So True, and my 40+ regular listeners found it with SSU, as
    they were not only encouraged to participate, but moreover,
    were eager to be a part of the programmes output. They did
    this by being co-presenters, in the studio, on the telephone or
    on OBU’s (Outside Broadcasts). They would participate by
    doing interviews and other field coverage reports, and soon
    many of them discovered the absolute thrill of radio work.
    Therein lies the true magic, a win-win situation, where the
    listener is actually a contributor. Their involvement was/is
    paramount in any radio output, – and yet… not nowadays.

    *’Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it.’*
    // Mark Talbot indeed needed it because the ‘real’ thing was
    generally unattainable and unattractive : and found it in SSU.
    It was like a self-exciting dynamo that created its own form of
    perpetual motion. It just went on because it had something of
    a mysterious energy that existed between all of those involved.
    It was often staffed by the listeners, the very people for whom
    it catered for.
    I also needed it because of the aforementioned changing face
    of radio that was becoming unrecognisable. Take the BBC for
    example. Up to the early 1980’s their output was created on
    the whole by staff on their payroll, by professionals that had
    years of experience under their belt and who were regarded
    as being one part of the best broadcasting corporation in the
    Along comes some BBC business-minded accountants who’s
    singular task is to turn a bigger end-of-year profit around and
    so they cut the staffing levels, from the Presenters downwards.
    In-house production was, as a result, out-sourced to external
    companies that ‘specialised’ in Media Production. Outhouses
    became the norm, contracted on a need-be basis, so fewer of
    the former employees were needed in the process. The days of
    job security there are now long gone.

    *And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure
    but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs
    at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere’.*
    //Yes, and in the throes of doing so I enabled others to do the
    same. SSU was an invention of my imagination but became the
    creation and product of others – which is what others don’t do.

    On one final note, the BBC coverage of my work/(hobby) is OK
    from one perspective in that it allows you to hear soundbites
    of the show. However, it was devised to be biographical and so
    focuses on my personal relationships, rather than the show
    This is really rather sad as it fails to translate how the show
    came about, how it was created, evolved, grew and changed,
    whilst retaining its identity. It doesn’t portray the effort that
    went into its production, the many hours spent, say, on just
    making one ten second jingle or station ident. It fails to
    relate the 1000’s of hours spent on building up a music
    library that was used on the 1000’s of hours of SSU which
    were eventually recorded; the majority of which are now lost.
    SSU started as a pioneering show with ‘back to back tracking’
    and became a Magazine Programme with slots and schedules
    that featured all manner of topics, and even included many
    interviews with famous celebrities and personalities.
    This, and more, is generally lacking in the BBC Bx, no doubt
    in part due to the given time restraint involved, but all the
    same, if you wish to hear it, then its on BBC iPlayer/Youtube.

    And my sincere thanks for having taken the time to read this.

    Regards. Mark Talbot. Second Side Up.


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