One year ago to this very day, a very brave man (John Clayton, editor at BBC Radio Lancashire – thank you Sir, your royal radioness) allowed two over-excited, outspoken, friends to grace a radio studio.
A newspaper editor locally and budding author, I was fresh from my radio debut on community radio station Chorley FM where I presented a three hour show ‘Lie in with Nicola’ on Sunday mornings, inviting guests (including John!) to join me ‘coming in the ears’ of anybody who cared to listen. Now in my 40s I had decided to try something I had intended to do from day one – it’s never too late and all that.
Left alone to get on with it, I indulged my whim for literary and media interviews by generally exploiting my journalistic contacts. A newspaper journalist by trade, I regularly pressed the wrong buttons including, memorably, taking the studio off air – twice.
My new ‘work wife’ Gemma Ray, former Rock FM breakfast presenting legend (then known as Gemma Dee) who had not graced the airwaves for some time, was now an author, content and marketing wizard and self-help guru. A mother and an inspiration – she had come through dark times and was now out of the other side.
We first renewed our friendship which had begun 15 years earlier whilst rehearsing for a charity performance of the Vagina Monologues (well, you asked) by doing a 5k Parkrun where we both nearly died. It was after that – covered in sweat and looking like crap – we came up with the idea of pitching a radio show to the BBC. We bashed out our pitch over a full English breakfast at St Catherine’s Hospice cafe – post run. I knew John Clayton as we were both editors in the Lancashire media world, so I had the poor man’s contacts. We went for it.
Not for one moment did we think this would actually work. But after a dodgy meeting in a service station where he couldn’t get a word in edgeways, our new show ‘Grin and Tonic’ was born. Safe to say, there was a great deal of reaction to the name – some hated it, some liked it, some thought we were bonkers. Some thought we had a bloody cheek – who the hell were we anyway?
Grin and Tonic, which we sometimes facetiously described as a podcast ruined by songs, was a two hour magazine-style upbeat, outspoken, feast. The music was all singalong, our guests giants in the literary world, podcasters and bloggers, all with a story to tell. Right from the start we introduced a ‘happy news’ bulletin and ‘self care Sunday’ as well as a book club – this was about being those friends to listeners they didn’t know they even needed. Sundays were not the same. We became the only all-female show including even our young producer Sophie, now our ‘work daughter’.
Our very first show drew our very first feedback. Brian, not his real name, hated us. It ‘sounds like they are just women talking to each other’ (er, yes) and he was never listening again – we should be sacked immediately as we were a disgrace to the BBC. He then listed a selection of (male) presenters he preferred. We’d only been on air for 40 minutes. It was a setback but not for long. Gradually, feedback became more positive and our listeners more interactive and we have even got our first fan mail. Before lockdown we even had positive RAJAR results.
Gradually, I learned to drive the desk. We took it in turns until much-more technically proficient Gemma announced I was doing it from now on – she was right – I learned much more quickly ‘driving’ (pressing the buttons) all the time rather than once every fortnight.
And the fabulous guests just kept coming. From our very first, Dragon’s Den winner and skin-guru Hanna Sillitoe ( who just came back for our anniversary show – listen HERE) to ‘You me and the big C’ podcaster Steve Bland plus lots of top authors and musicians. We presented our first ever outside broadcast at the Morecambe and Vice crime writing festival. It chucked it down in buckets and we interviewed amazing authors in between increasingly serious flooding updates as the county went underwater. We had a ball.
Then just after we had brainstormed an exciting spring/summer of shows, Covid hit. The BBC went to an emergency schedule and with one show warning, I was booted out of the studio to broadcast from home. New rules meant one presenter in the studio only. Grin and Tonic was replaced by the four-hour Sunday afternoon show, with phone guests only and me on the end of BBC software through my phone. It was a blow but in the context of things we were lucky, as well-known names were taken off air for the foreseeable future.
We’ve made the most of it, despite the challenges of talking over one another without eye contact. We upped our guest count and have taken part, with the help of established (and lovely) BBC producer/reporter Paul O’Gorman, in some live events, including one which memorably saw me cycling around Preston on a painful borrowed bike, broadcasting at every stop while Gemma juggled the technicals of a zillion interviews from the studio. Meanwhile, I’ve become very well acquainted with the smallest room in my house (not the loo) – I even wrote my Lancashire Post column about it.
Then another blow hit – jobs losses were announced at the BBC. Gemma and I, as freelancers, were not and are still not sure how this will impact us. When they announced the temporary schedules would stay, Gemma and I were unsure what to think. Does the one presenter in the studio rule mean our partnership was over? Would Gemma – vastly more radio experienced – stay and I go? Would we make way for more established presenters?
But it also seemed selfish to worry about this when long-time BBC staff and freelancers are facing redundancy and permanently losing their shows. We still don’t know what the future holds so we are making the most of it and celebrating the one year on air – we were not sure we would make this milestone. We are enjoying the right now – because this is a fantastic opportunity and we want to make the most of it, even if it is cut short through no fault of our own.
This has been the year I have realised it’s never too late to realise your dreams. Life happens and the social narrative of women being considered over the hill from their mid 30s and beyond has to stop. Even I had fallen victim to that way of thinking. I had asked myself who would be interested in taking on a woman who was 20 years into another career – albeit also media – and not a young technical wizard? I was taught shorthand at my journalism post-grad not sound editing!
It’s also given me a kick for my book writing. My first novel may not have garnered interest from agents but I’m now on with my second and bloody hell, it’s brilliant, and I’ve realised they’d be stupid not to publish it. Watch out world. I’m not giving up quickly any more – but also not worrying about what I can’t control.
If I’ve learned one thing it’s you cannot just wait for a door to open – you have to build the bloody thing.
With many thanks for a fantastic year to all my colleagues at BBC Radio Lancashire including of course the boss John and my work wife the lovely Gemma and the talented Sophie Ahmed. We don’t bump into many people on a Sunday ( and less since I’m imprisoned at home) so I haven’t met everyone but thanks to those who extended the arm of support and friendship to us upstart newbies including of course the lovely John ‘Gilly’ Gillmore, Stephen Lowe, Paul O’Gorman, Hayley Kay, Brett Davison, Gerald Jackson, Graham Liver and the breakfast team – and I’m not listing you all – you know who you are.
Happy birthday to us!
Gemma has also been blogging about our anniversary