Jeff Zycinski's book gives an insider's view of life on air
by Margaret Chrystall
APPLYING for your first BBC role by telling them you are not right for the job worked for Jeff Zycinski – he went on to spend 12 years in charge of BBC Radio Scotland.
Now recently retired, his book – about a broadcasting career that began with two weeks’ work experience at Moray Firth Radio in 1988 – takes in his 25 years with the BBC after moving on from MFR and Radio Clyde.
That early peek at Inverness proved pivotal as Jeff fell for the place and returned twice, bringing up his family here with his wife Anne, still happily living in the city today.
“I was knocked out by it, I can’t explain it,” he said remembering returning to the city and to Moray Firth Radio for his first proper job after completing his journalism course. “I rented a room in a house out at Scorguie. It had a balcony that looked over the Beauly Firth and it just took my breath away.
“I remember thinking ‘Gosh I would love to live here!’ and I was always dreaming myself back.”
His book’s title The Red Light Zone sounds racy but refers to the red light of a live radio studio.
There is that early reporting triumph from a Soho strip club, Jeff mentions. Though it may not be quite what you expect!
But a natural storyteller, Jeff shares a lifetime of good stories and the book is packed with funny anecdotes which is why he decided to call it a “laugh’n’tell”.
As a creative broadcaster blessed with a wealth of new programme ideas he was also a BBC executive learning the corporate and budgetary ways of the unique broadcasting corporation before becoming a decisionmaker, directing the development of BBC Radio Scotland, including shows from The Quay Sessions to topical comedy Breaking The News.
In the book Jeff has some illuminating things to say about his former employer with fascinating insights into the workings of the mammoth organisation as it evolves over time.
The former head of radio comments on and criticises the BBC at times, including how it covered the European referendum and, earlier, looks at how the accusations of BBC bias hit during the Scottish independence referendum – and the resulting protest that might even have turned the fortunes of the Yes vote campaign.
From Easterhouse in Glasgow originally, Jeff’s love of radio began as a youngster listening to the World Service and Radio Free Europe, progressing quickly on to writing spoof Raymond Chandler mysteries about a detective called Nelson Pipsqueak, broadcast on Clyde in the small hours.
“That was two things I loved, writing and radio.
“I would get the bus – I didn’t have to, I could have posted them – but I would deliver them in every Saturday so I could see the radio station.”
After a social sciences degree in Glasgow, Jeff headed for Cardiff’s post-graduate course at the Centre of Journalism Studies, progressing from MFR to Radio Clyde, then on to the BBC in Selkirk.
From there he returned to Inverness to take charge of Radio Scotland’s daytime Tom Morton Show which broadcast from the city.
Jeff tells the story of heading to Hollywood with the show. He got to interview his own hero, TV newspaperman Lou Grant in the shape of actor Ed Asner. And the show also featured Gregory Peck, TV talk-show host Jay Leno and – after some persuasion – gang members from LA’s Compton.
The show had a contrasting experience when the razzmatazz of Radio One’s Chris Evans came North for two weeks with his breakfast show settling into the studio next door to theirs. A PR disaster ensued as the celeb DJ started a bad-tempered, one-sided feud with Moray Firth Radio’s presenter Tich McCooey.
Looking back now, Jeff recalls that the BBC in Glasgow wanted him to try to ‘keep the press sweet’.
He writes: “My efforts only caused more trouble. After drinks with one London newspaperman I invited him and his photographer to grab some pictures of Tom Morton broadcasting from one studio, as the Radio One Breakfast Show beamed out from the one next door.
“The camera flashes set off panic among the Evans team. They covered the connecting window with books and newspapers, shielding themselves from further intrusion, and it was no surprise when they cancelled plans for Chris to appear on Tom’s show. The official reason was that Chris ‘had a meeting with his financial advisers’.”
But less well-known would be Jeff’s debut at a Comedy Store audition in Glasgow in 1998 as a dare turned into a comedy audition playing ‘Johnny Sellotape’ up against another hopeful – Craig Hill who won the audience vote and kickstarted what is now a thriving stand up career.
Jeff – a fan of comedy who championed it during his head of radio years and would still love to start a comedy station – even agreed to play himself in an Edinburgh show which featured a regular but unseen character “Head of Radio Scotland”.
He writes: “It was a bit of a laugh, but the director’s notes afterwards were crushing. Apparently, my performance as the Head Of Radio Scotland was … unconvincing!”
There is no doubt that Jeff is still passionate about radio – he likes to point out that 95 per cent of people still listen every week.
And having retired, he decided to write about his broadcasting career.
Jeff explained: “There were a number of reasons and one of the jokier ones was so I didn’t have to bore my kids with the stories – I can just refer them to the book.
“Also just about the time I was leaving the BBC my wife’s mother was very ill and had a form of dementia and her dad had the same thing and it was that thought, of all those memories and wanting to record them in some way.
“And especially because radio is that ephemeral medium – or it used to be. You would make a programme and it would disappear into outer space. Now, of course, you can listen again. But with radio there is very little out there about what is going on behind the scenes and why certain decisions are made.
“I think it’s of interest, not just for media students like my son, Alan.
“People love radio in a different way from television, they love presenters and stations, whereas on television, you love programmes.
“You don’t necessarily go round saying “I love ITV”, but you go round saying “I love Coronation Street”.
“So it’s also to explain some of that.
“I did think ‘Well are people really interested in how these stations are managed?’, but I thought if I could make it entertaining and give people a bit of a laugh when they are reading it, because that is the way I talk about it myself…
“It was entertaining and enjoyable and I loved the job, so hopefully I can communicate that in the book.”
Jeff writes early on in it that when the role of head of radio was ultimately absorbed into a newly-created structure, there was almost a repeat of what happened when he went for his first BBC job.
Then, he had told them he didn’t think he was right for the job that started his career there – and that came full circle with his departure!
“During the last restructuring I almost got to the point of talking myself out of the job,” he revealed.
Jeff told his boss that he didn’t see how his role would work, given the other changes.
“When I was told it would go, I was almost saying to her ‘I was right, I was right!’.
“There was the option to stay and do something else, but I didn’t want to stay.
“I was 55 and I thought ‘If I don’t go now?...’. I would be what they call a ‘BBC lifer’ and you will never go and you will never know what is out there and what other things you could do. And I always knew that I wanted to do something creative.”
He had already written a novel after taking up walking in the aftermath of a long period of travelling called for by his BBC role at one point.
Jeff says: “A lot of executives in Glasgow find themselves on planes to London and I once worked out it would be cheaper for the BBC to let us have our own plane – I think it probably would have been cheaper.
“But of course the perception of that ..!” he laughed, imagining the outcry.
The relentless round of travel from home in Inverness to lonely nights in hotels between London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, the occasional meeting in Orkney, Shetland and Selkirk, took its toll, particularly after the death of his father.
“You couldn’t really have a life. I tried every strategy, drinking the mini-bar dry – that was not a good one! Then I would sit in the bar with all the other hotel people who were execs and salesmen and things like that. Then I tried complete abstinence and walking at night through dubious parts of the places I was staying in.
“I used to visit my dad in Glasgow every Wednesday night and that would give me some focus. I think after he died the whole thing seemed bonkers.”
Jeff began to walk regularly, starting to write a book when he came home.
“The novel came from the walking,” he said. “I started writing it because I was listening to a lot of audio books and ran out of good ones. So I wrote the book.
“I was just going to put it up free on Kindle and the next thing was this friend said she knew an agent.”
But as the book was being prepared to be published, the agent died suddenly and Jeff’s enthusiasm “went off the boil”, he says.
“And I started enjoying my real job again.”
Jeff said: “The novel’s sitting upstairs finished, but it’s like a dead thing. All the characters were alive in my head, but now it seems flat.
“I spoke to another agent about it and she said ‘The market has changed in that period. You couldn’t add in a serial killer, could you?’.
“So it would go from this romantic comedy and I thought ‘That would be a heck of a plot twist!’,” Jeff laughed.
Now The Red Light Zone is out giving a unique look back at Jeff’s life in the Beeb.
He said: “In my leaving speech I said ‘You can cut someone in half like rock and it will say ‘BBC’ all the way through.
“That’s not me.
“But it might say radio all the way through...’.”
Jeff’s Inverness book launch is at Waterstones today (Thursday, February 21) at 6pm with Jo De Sylva. Also see Jeff at: Inverness Rotary Club Talk –Thursday, March 7 at 1pm; Highlands & Islands University, Inverness – lecture on Thursday, March 21 at 6pm. Full interview: www.whatson-north.co.uk