Natural Born Fillers

This is a Training Zone post. For the regular radio blog, please click HERE

I’ve just woken up after a mammoth shift covering the local elections in Nottingham City, and across the rest of the county my colleagues are sweating it out at counts in the various districts. It’s a huge logistical task for a radio station, and if you’re looking to work in the industry a fascinating process to be part of.

Politics is perhaps the biggest subject that gets journalists talking. But what do you do when there’s nothing to talk about? I’ve covered plenty of elections and attended plenty of counts. Yet nothing could have quite prepared me for what happened last night.

Voting's the easy bit - covering the results is a slightly different matter

The usual timeline is that the ballot boxes start coming into the counting centre at about 10.30pm. By around midnight you have the first results. And if you’re lucky, you have a pretty good indication of the final result by about 2.30am. Job done, go home.

But this year something different happened. Nobody’s quite sure what, but it seems that a high proportion of people opted for a postal vote – but didn’t bother posting them – choosing instead to bring their ballot papers to a polling station. The bonkers outcome meant that these papers had to be checked in far more detail than votes cast on the day. Don’t ask me why.

The net result was that we had no results until just after 5.30am, meaning a lot of airtime to fill with not much to say. So, what do you do in these situations?

We could have chosen to go off the air for a while, allowing everyone to recharge the batteries, and come back when we had a result. But nobody – including the returning officer – knew when this might be. We’d have risked missing the action.

We had the benefit of a political expert to provide comment and analysis on the delays and the results in the rest of the country. But many areas were suffering the same problems as Nottingham.

So, when all else fails, my view is that there’s only one remaining option : Make ’em laugh.

Elections are a serious business, but once the polls close there’s nothing that anybody can do to influence the result. As a reporter, this is your chance to ask those boring politicians silly questions. Nothing insulting, of course – but ask them how they stay awake, what do their partners make of their idiotic lifestyle, why do the Monster Raving Loony Candidates do dressing up so well – you get the picture.

No Loonies in Nottingham : But Dave Bishop stood for the Church of the MIlitant Elvis Party

And don’t be afraid to take a few risks. I found myself wandering about the coffee bar and interviewing people who’d never normally agree to go on the radio.

None of which is going to win awards or build audiences. Which might leave you asking why we bother doing it?

Well firstly, part of the job of Local Radio is to support the democratic process. Reporting on every single council seat may not be possible – but speaking to some of the key personalities, not least the Lib Dems who took a kicking, ensures that we hold politicians to account.

Secondly – on a more practical level – an all night broadcast provides valuable raw audio for the breakfast show, the very moment when your audience is hungry for detail – even if in this case the news was just about trickling through.

And thirdly, if you’re relatively new to this game, it’s a great way of building up your contacts book. Remember, these guys are going to be in power at your local council for the next four or five years. Get their phone numbers, find out what makes them tick. It’ll pay off the next time you want a comment on a Bank Holiday weekend.

So next time there’s a local election of any kind, bug your local radio station and ask if they’d like an extra volunteer to work on the count. It’s a great learning process.

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