Interview with BBC presenter Bernie Keith

Bernie Keith is a BBC Radio Northampton DJ and a thoroughly lovely man. He’s very kindly had me on his show twice now and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to turn the tables and find out a little bit more about his life, on and off the air.

Joseph D’Lacey: Hi, Bernie. It’s wonderful to have you visiting my tiny corner of the vast internet! Can I offer you coffee, tea or something more mind-altering?

Bernie Keith: A fondant fancy and anything with amyl nitrate would be lovely, thank you, Joseph.

JD’L: *grins*

One of the things I love about talking to you on the air is the amount of research you do. It always feels like you’ve done some serious homework and makes it so much easier to have a focused, lively discussion. This attention to detail isn’t universal in radio – or any of the media. Are there BBC guidelines for how much research you do or do you make that decision yourself?

BK: See, this is probably going to get me into trouble, but there are loads of BBC guidelines (called “Producer Guidelines”) but I’ve never read any of them! They’re all printed up somewhere but I don’t know where! My guidelines are based on both common sense and a lifetime immersed in radio: I know that the BBC shouldn’t make overtly commercial statements, should adhere to basic constraints of taste and decency etc. and don’t need to read it in a list of instructions. It’s just what you pick up by listening to the radio for most of your life.

No, the practise of reading the book and doing research is one borne out of respect and courtesy: you show respect for your guest by knowing what they’re in to talk about, you show respect for the audience by recognising that they’ll want a degree of knowledge and intelligence in what they’re listening to, and it’s self-respect. I may only be an insignificant presenter on a small station but I’m doing the job I always wanted to do and it means the world to me that I do it to the best of my ability and don’t let myself down.

I want people to say “I really enjoyed that” or “no-one else read the book”, but most of all I want to think I did the best I could with what I had to work with. If I listen to the radio, do I feel short-changed if I hear someone do an interview into which they’ve clearly put no effort? The answer is “Yes, I do” so therefore I try not to do it myself.

JD’L: I’d imagine some people think being a DJ is an easy job but the preparation for a daily three-hour show must be quite a task and running that slot five days a week must bring with it many pressures. How does a typical work day routine go and how do you maintain a ‘consistent’ show?

BK: Ha! That’s funny! Most people think I just work for 3 hours a day and then have nothing to do but relax, so thanks for seeing it as a bit more than that.

Firstly, I should say that my job is only talking and playing records and, in essence, anyone can do it. There’s a skill to it, but it’s no great talent. I don’t see it as pressure, however: it’s the place in life where I feel most at ease, confident and valid.

That said, I work at it. I prepare everything at home; I’ve never worked in a radio station’s office as it would drive me mad. Plus at home I’m closer to my biscuit tin! It takes about 6 hours to prepare a 3 hour show. First off I jot down some ideas that I can talk about the next day and then flesh them out into something more substantial. I try to create a “show” every day and my thing is to entertain people and try to be funny, so that takes time and effort. People like Kenny Everett and Jonathan Ross apparently rocked up with no prep, just doing it during the show as it went along, which strikes me as extraordinarily clever.

Then there are interviews to prepare – generally 4 or 5 a day. I research each guest, read their book/watch the dvd/listen to the cd and find some interesting angles for the chat. The trick is to ask the questions that people listening would want answers to.

Then there’s music to pick out. I select about two-thirds of the songs myself (because I love music and won’t be dictated to by a faceless bloke in a suit pushing buttons on a computer miles away) and there’s a knack to knowing where and what to play, but I won’t bore you with that here!

To me, all the strands are as important as each other: interviews, music, my links – three prongs to my fork!

JD’L: Do you find time to relax at the weekends or does part of you stay perpetually in work mode?

BK: I am so rubbish at it, Joseph! I do a 6th show on Saturdays and then, come Sundays, I have to start work on Monday’s show. My mind doesn’t seem to be able to shut down until I have a holiday but then it’s a complete break and I can completely switch off as soon as I leave the studio. The irony is I’m very lazy and I hate it that I can’t just slob out. So any advice on getting a better balance would be gratefully received! I’m 50, I live with a dog, I work 7 days a week: I guess I screwed up somewhere along the way!

JD’L: In any creative job, people’s opinion of your work can vary considerably. People have said some pretty harsh things about my fiction over the years. How do you deal with being daily in the public eye (I know, it’s the public ear in your case…) and how does public opinion affect you?

BK: Well, I’m not really in the public eye. Most people have no idea who I am. But there are plenty of message boards and Facebook pages where I’m routinely slagged off. It does have an affect even after all this time. I think it’s because I know I work so hard and to then have it dismissed can be difficult, but it goes with the territory.

A friend asked me years ago why I was bothered by someone I don’t know, who has no bearing on my life and whose opinion I don’t respect, and I didn’t have a good answer for her. So now I try not to take any notice. Not everyone can like you, just as you or I can’t like everyone (you don’t, do you, Joseph?!) so I just get on with it. If people can’t stand me, that’s why God invented power-cuts and the off switch!

JD’L: Well, I don’t like everyone, it’s true. But, like you, I try to focus on what I’m doing rather than on what people think of it.

Speaking of message boards and such, I recently left Facebook and Twitter for a number of reasons. How important do you think social media sites are and what value do they bring to our ‘connected’ lifestyle?

BK: They don’t. I use Facebook to promote my rock’n’roll show and to post things on there that pertain to the music and I have a general page so that anyone who listens can get in touch and ask me whatever they want. There is no barrier between me and my audience anyway: I’m just a listener who works on the radio.

I’ve under-achieved to a tremendously high degree and don’t think I’m anything special, but if people want to know a bit more about me through Facebook, they can. I don’t use Twitter as I have no time and no knowledge: I have a Galaxy 4 Smartphone but don’t know how to use it! Bit rubbish really, aren’t I?!

JD’L: Actually it’s nice to know I’m not the only tech-ignorant, under-achieving slacker on the planet! Vive la revolucion, brother!

Despite not seeing yourself as anything special, you have a very natural ability when it comes to broadcasting. Were you an early or late starter in the world of radio?

BK: Well, I listened to the radio at the age of 3, was obsessed with it by the age of 5 and doing my own programmes on the landing at the age of 8. I then joined hospital radio at 16 (which is early) and got my first professional job at the age of 24 (which is late).

I faffed around going to university which I wouldn’t do if I had my time again, but I had no confidence in my ability to get a broadcasting job and university was kind of expected of me so that’s the route I took.

JD’L: How has the journey been, thus far, and where would you like to see your career going? Do you have many, as yet, unrealised dreams?

BK: Like I say, I’m aware that I have under-achieved, but I’m grateful for what I have. As a kid I had dreams of being on Radio 1, but that never happened, so now I’d just like to become as good as I can be with whatever gifts and opportunities I’m given.

I do the job I always wanted to do, for which I’m truly thankful (that might be the only biblical reference I make this month!), but the highs I thought would come my way never have, so maybe if I could create some of those it would be nice.

As wet as it sounds, I like to make people happy and cheer up their day, so if I can do that for a while longer – be it for a few people or a lot – then I’ll be satisfied.

In terms of stuff outside of work, I’ve tried to do right by my folks and, had my work been any different, for instance, I might not have been able to care for my parents in the way I did. I’m happy with how I am as a person right now, I’ve long accepted the things that make me different so, at this stage, the journey’s ok. A little lonely at times, but ok. Why? Do you known something I don’t?!

JD’L: Well, I don’t think I know anything you don’t, but I do know this: if you’ve accepted yourself as you are and if you’re doing the thing you believe you came to Earth to do, then you’ve come close to perfection. That’s really all I wish for myself or anyone.

You mention being lonely, however, you’re not entirely solitary, are you? One of the unique aspects of your show is your ‘silent’ partner, Riley. Can you tell us a bit about him and how he came to occupy such an important role at BBC Radio Northampton?

BK: Oh God! A gay man with a cute dog!!! I’m such a cliché!

He’s 6 this month (September), he’s a mini schnauzer (I couldn’t afford a full-size one!) and I love him to pieces! I just thought I’d like a dog and was in a position to give one a good life. I didn’t ask if I could take him to work – at least I don’t think I did. But it’s quite an eccentric thing to do and I didn’t get into radio to be normal.

My producer tells me there are 2 types of people: beige or hot pink. I guess Riles and I are in the latter camp. Occasionally he sits on my lap as I interview people and you can hear him breathing/ snoring: listeners often think I’m having an asthmatic attack!

JD’L: He’s a fine fellow, Bern, and I’ve no doubt he has a life any Schnauzer would envy!

Let’s finish with some book questions…

* What are you currently reading or have you most recently read and was it any good?
“I’m reading ‘Springsteen on Springsteen’ which is a collection of Bruce interviews, “The Chimp Paradox” by Steve Peters which is all about mind stuff, and “Catching The Sun” by Tony Parsons.”

* Have you ever not finished a book? If so, what was it and why did you stop?
“Ulysses by James Joyce. For the same reason everyone else stops reading it. And I’ve tried with Kerouac’s On The Road so many times as I love the idea of it, but I just can’t do it.”

* Have you ever read a book more than once and, if so, why?
“I’ve re-read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City’ series because I love the characters so much and because it’s the life I wish I had. And I’ve read ‘The Secret’ so often I could tell you which phrase appears on which page! All I need is for “You Bet with Matthew Kelly” to come back and I’m on it!”
* What’s your favourite book of all time?
“Probably ‘Last Watch of The Night’ by Paul Monette, for really personal, private reasons.”
* If you had the time, the money and the ability of Shakespeare what story would you write?
“I’d re-write the Bible with a stronger plot and fewer characters. Man, where was HIS editor?!!”

JD’L: Bernie, you’re awesome. I have laughed out loud several times over this. It’s been a real pleasure to have you on my blog. Thank you so much for your time and I hope to see you again soon.

BK: You know, you have a rare gift to make people feel good, Joseph, just by being around. Now, how much for that session? Same time same couch next week?

JD’L: *grins* For you, sir, no charge!

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