So I recently asked Facebook about double-heading.

Smashy and Nicey

It was after a frustrating experience listening to Saturday Live in which Richard Coles had been partnered with John McCarthy, a relationship as easy and comfortable as anthrax and doughnuts.

How many people you should put on air at once has also been part of recent discussions surrounding Grimmy’s ascension to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. Now with added music, and, apparently, an added sense of indecision about how many sidekicks to let, well, kick.

Tim Page (Radio Shropshire) offers this: “(It’s a) good way of adding texture and variety in a speech-heavy segment where you don’t have music (or much music), but the danger is that they talk to each other rather than the listener. Same sex can work (I was in two such pairings), but I think you need to watch for character (and possibly voice!) differentiation so the listener can establish who’s talking as easily as a male-female pair. In either case, you want to make sure your pair delivers the variety you’d want from doubling your presenter bill – no point having two clones of each other.”

At the risk of sounding horribly hetero-phile, I always warm to male/female pairings better. There’s an in-built ‘lad’ thing going on in most male-male partnerships.

Not that that excuses the worst excesses of ‘DJ and Side-chick’ syndrome. Michelle Hussey is part of a two-woman show at BBC Radio Manchester (alongside the equally brilliant Natalie-Eve Williams. Full disclosure: I put them on air together.)

“I can’t believe the male lead/female ego-massager still does exist in places. It’s awful and makes me cringe. That’s my only definite ‘please no don’t do it’. Otherwise I think it can be great depending on the people. It is about chemistry and differences, the common ground should be the listener. But I think the day you have to train two people to work together then it’s not gonna happen. Technical training, yes, because there are obvious differences with two people on a studio, but you can’t develop chemistry. Gender doesn’t matter to me if both people are good at what they do and can make the listeners feel involved. Although obviously, on a personal note, two females is the ideal pairing …!”

So how about double-bloking?

“Mark Radcliffe worked better with Lard, in my view,” thinks Paul Bajoria, “because there was an obvious ‘presenter + sidekick’ dynamic there, rather than two equally dominant personalities. But chemistry is the key, and as we all know, that’s impossible to write a formula for. If we all knew what would work before it was launched, how dull our jobs would be!”

Andy Peebles offers the greatest old school example in just four words. “Kenny & Cash. Genius.”

So can programmers-cum-alchemists create that chemistry? I’m as guilty as the next control-freak for arranging a shotgun radio marriage. I once partnered a junior woman with a dinosaur of a bloke, based on their relationship in one regular feature, only for it to self-destruct under the pressure of their joint-billing as show presenters. But not before their genuine discomfort with each other generated some amazing radio moments. So even when it’s not right, it can be OK. Sorry, Whitney.

In speech radio, there’s a lot of double single-heading going on. Where the producer’s convenience of having two presenters (one on air, and one prepping at any one point in the show) is often the tail wagging the dog. 5 live Drive, the notable exception. So often you hear these shows where presenters vanish for a bit. Or when they do appear, there’s no attempt to lubricate between scripts, even in that nasty regional TV sofa style moment. The worst offenders are when one presenter is clearly competing for which stories to cover, which guest to blag or even how many seconds they can clutch from their co-host. These need strong management – and probably a show of their own. After all, if you can’t change the person, better change the person.

Valerie Geller virtually sighs as she contributes, “It’s NOT “One size fits all”. What works is a dynamic of Generator + Reactor (doesn’t matter if it’s Male/Female, Male/Male/ Female/Female). It’s the talent/training & dynamic of the individuals.”

That’s a view, not surprisingly echoed by Valerie fan, Andrew Peach of Radio Berkshire.

“The dynamic of one person who creates an idea and another person who runs with it works best I reckon. Bringing different life experience to the party helps. It’ll never be more than mediocre if the engagement between two presenters is planned, but the magic comes when you get a relationship where you know what the other person might do with something before they know themselves.”

I agree that good coaching will make things better. (Like, dur, I coach people.) Although I’m not a fan of the term ‘casting’, because it involves ‘acting’ and presenters who ‘act’ are not being themselves, it IS possible to work with people to lean into the thoughts and traits (that, crucially, they already own) and discard others, to help complement those of their co-host. As Michelle suggests, there are also practical and technical techniques to help marshal the natural chemistry of a good radio partnership.

Gaydio’s Antony Murphy (himself part of a male/female duo) reckons “You can maybe come up with a formula for what ‘should’ work, but we’re dealing with the complicated beast that is ‘people’. Some things work, some don’t.”

Maybe we should leave the last word to a real-life listener. Neil Woodard went to school with me (and is one of the few people in my Facebook who’s not radio!). “Differentiation is key. To me, it’s also about ‘chemistry’ and the pair being able to actually talk rather than just joke about like two teenage mates – gender mix isn’t too important to me.”

I’ll return to gender in my next blog.

But Neil’s point about talking and teenagers is key.

There are those who think studios should be brimming with people, so that each listener has someone to ‘relate to’, particularly in morning radio. There are fine examples. Elvis Duran springs to mind.

I just worry that in smaller markets, with less experienced talent, it’s easier to lose that connection through the air to the listener, if there’s more than one mind in the studio.

In our endless re-invention of this fashion medium, is the time right to return to solo presentation (but with orbiting friendly faces)?

After all, zoos are for animals.

Sales pitch: 2ZY offers talent coaching and consultancy for your station. Email or call us on +44 161 834 3282.


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