Inside the Nolan Show
As I arrive in the control room there’s just ten minutes of the show left. The news has come in that Una Crudden the cancer campaigner has died.
Editor David Gordon looks calm enough but the team has a problem. They want to end the show by getting the Health Minister to say something about her. But they can’t get hold of Jim Wells. In the meantime Nolan is talking – not to the listeners, but to us – he wants to play out with some music as a tribute, something moving and reflective.
Gordon says let’s go with Fields of Gold, but he can’t remember the name of the singer. Vinny is on the phone to previous minister Edwin Poots who agrees to speak about Una Crudden and is put on hold. Tom is googling away in the corner and shouts “Eva Cassidy” They load up the song, and notice it is four minutes long, Poots has just started speaking and there is only a couple of minutes left. Gordon confers with Nolan and they agree that the music doesn’t work, so Nolan carries on talking to Poots.
The show ends a minute or so late and Gordon and I go into the studio where Nolan is still sitting where he always wanted to be, where he thought he might never be, and where he wants to remain, behind his mic.
A dangerous combination
Gordon made his name as a fearless investigative reporter before he joined the Nolan Show. He defines his approach to journalism as “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” and has a formidable grasp of policy, politics and detail.
And he is not at all afraid of confrontation “When I was first interviewed to join the show I told the editor “you are in danger of becoming too respectable”. To work the show has to have an edge and be prepared to ask difficult questions and ruffle feathers.”
Add that mindset to Nolan’s unquestionable ability at conducting hostile interviews and appetite for an on air scrap and you have a potent, some would say dangerous, combination.
Nolan is driven. He only ever wanted to be a broadcaster and as a student was desperate to join the BBC. He says he would sit in his bedroom and cry with frustration as the rejection letters mounted up. Now he has made it, he’s not letting go. As well as the Radio and TV shows, he makes documentaries and also broadcasts on Radio Five Live, working a seven day week. He does take time off now – long breaks in the USA - but in the early days there were times when his bosses ordered him out of the building because they were worried about his workload.
In your face
When the Nolan Show is on air we only hear his voice. It’s rather different behind the scenes. Nolan switches off his mic when he is not talking so he and Gordon can discuss tactics, agree questions, debate, argue and even shout at each other.
“It is often robust and in your face”, says Gordon. “He’s not a political anorak and that’s a good thing because I can give him ten good questions and then he’ll come out with the killer one himself because he’s always sitting back thinking of the punters, asking himself if they are bored and working out what they would ask.”
Nolan loves it too. “I tend to get all the flak and also all the praise but we do have the most talented editor in Northern Ireland if not further afield on the show. He really is that good but doesn’t realise how good he is. I’m constantly getting all this knowledge in my ear.”
As to the style of the show Nolan says he is on a journey from being controversial, sometimes for the sake of it, to tackling issues that matter and that he is mellowing as he gets older.
“The aggression is still there when it needs to be, and the full on personality, but I don’t shout so much as I used to. In the very early days being controversial was part of the statement I was trying to make whereas now the programme has risen to the point that it is so impactful that some of the issues really matter to me.”
Asked to give an example he cites the case of Jean Faulkner, the 93-year-old woman who contacted the show when her health trust told her she would be moved out of her care home.
Nolan said: “If a family member had not contacted this programme she would have been moved out of her home. It’s a statement of what I want this show to be: one citizen with no letters after her name, who has neither status nor power, contacts us and all of a sudden government is listening to her story and changing their policy. If I could encapsulate what I want this show to be that is it in one story.”
The chattering classes
Nolan is smiling a lot and speaking softly but there is no mistaking his quiet anger at his critics, what he calls “opinion formers”
Gordon interrupts briefly. “He’s talking about the people who call him a shock jock, and say that the show is appealing to the lowest common denominator and that some of the people we talk to should never be allowed on air. You know, the chattering classes.”
Nolan continues: “It is tempting sometimes to try to be more popular with them but that would be a sell out.
“Now that I’ve made quite a lot of money and I’m established in the BBC it is sometimes tempting for me to cosy up and be more friendly to opinion formers at the expense of some of the ordinary punters who rely on this programme. It would certainly be much easier and safer to do and make me more popular and prolong David’s career and we’d both sleep better at night. But that would be a sell out.
“The people who I will continue to fight against are those that say the type of callers we have shouldn’t be on air. And I ask them: what do you mean those people? Do you mean those people who are not as articulate or as intelligent as you think you are?
“I think that is snobbery and I won’t have any part of it. I don’t like snobbery."
So would he at least accept that his show is sometimes irresponsible?
“Well I’ve made mistakes. But let me tell you this. The perception of me is that I’m this arrogant, cocky broadcaster but actually I worry about getting it right and I understand the responsibility because this programme has an incredible amount of influence. I do spend a lot of time worrying that we’re delivering and if we do get it wrong, then that matters."
What about his well-known penchant for not wanting guests in the studio, preferring them to call in on the phone, is that not because he finds it easier to be aggressive when he doesn’t have to look them in the eye?
Nolan smiles. “That’s an interesting question. Certainly some politicians think that way which is why they’ll ask to come in if they are in for a rough interview. But to be honest, operationally, it’s much easier to get someone off the phone if the interview is not going too well than out of the studio!”
Refusing to go on
I tell him that a lot of PR people I talk to are terrified of him and that many don’t ever want their bosses to go on the show. TV and radio interviews are quite easy to navigate if you know that you’ve only got a couple of minutes to get through. Most media trainers tell their clients to repeat “key messages” rather than answer the questions. This can sometimes work: but not on the Nolan Show.
Nolan said: “I just keep pushing until they answer the question and because we have a flexible format I have the time to do that. It is incredible the amount of times I could be disarmed by a politician simply answering the question or saying I don’t want to tell you the answer so I won’t but these long winded answers where they don’t answer the question gives me the opportunity to keep on asking it.
“And I think people are realising that refusing to go on the show doesn’t help either. Take Ulster Bank as a case study (during its systems failure crisis) – they didn’t ever put a human voice on this programme but it didn’t stop us doing an outside broadcast outside their building or mentioning them every day it was editorially justified. Not appearing doesn’t stop the coverage."
Nolan is often at his deadliest not when asking hard questions, but when he falls silent. It is an old trick but one he has perfected.
“Sometimes it’s a very natural pause - sometimes you want your brain to take in something that’s just been said but secondly, and also this is the advice I’d give other interviewers, sometimes if a broadcaster doesn’t say anything it forces the interviewee to say more and so the interviewee has said something that digs them into a hole and so rather than pushing them I’ll just sit quietly and more often than not they will fill the silence and dig themselves even further in.”
The Nolan Show is a high risk, high octane affair. Live radio is always fraught but, with the edgy topics and a volatile and often passionate listenership, when feelings run high it can be a minefield.
You have to watch out for and shut down defamatory and abusive comments, keep within editorial guidelines, try to stay focused, watch the time, make sure that the studio mic is switched off when you talk to the studio, ensure that the content is strong and close to the edge and yet steer clear of trouble.
All the time things are going wrong: callers are dropping off, or turn out to be unavailable at the last moment, a contributor you’ve staked a lot on will turn out to be boring, and there will be rows behind the scenes, between the editor and presenter and within the production team.
Nolan said: “We’re very unusual in the BBC because we have a single team. We do not do what a lot of other shows do and move people around we keep it tight, like a football team, because in a high octane environment you need to know what everyone else is doing and build up trust and loyalty.”
Gordon said: “It’s a bit like a newspaper really – we go for a main story, then some discussion, then some lighter bits as well. But it can be very tense. There are times when it gets to ten to nine and you have no idea what you are going to do – you have no good contributors for your lead story, or else those you have are dull – and you’re facing dead air. But then Nolan will say something, a caller will say something and the show will take off."
Edwin's finest hour
His favourite moment in recent months was when Edwin Poots was replaced as health minister.
“We thought that was a good story but there were also new revelations about cuts so we wanted to talk to Edwin but also to Sammy Wilson about cuts because cuts was the breaking story.
So we went with the cuts story as our lead and we thought Edwin would get squeezed out altogether – he had been on Good Morning Ulster earlier and hadn’t said very much. Anyway the discussion on cuts went on a long time, but then somebody’s phone dropped so we went to Edwin and that’s when he made his famous comments when he announced Peter Robinson’s “resignation plans” on air. I’ve no idea whether he was being mischievous or had just misunderstood Peter’s position.
“The result was a great moment of breaking news on the show and within 20 minutes there was a statement of denial from the First Minister’s Office. We had absolutely no idea that the show was going to go in that direction. It was a rollercoaster.”
Nolan gets up to leave, he’s going to meet someone in town. When he has gone I ask Gordon what he is really like. He must know him well given they work so closely together. He shrugs and says: “An enigma.”
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