Interview: Calum Macdonald explores where the future of radio lies

Right from the start of first year, graduation never seems that far away. With the constant bombardment of reports on the bleak job prospects of our generation, a career in the world of journalism and broadcasting seems especially elusive. Yet Calum Macdonald has achieved the seemingly impossible. Only 12 months after graduating, he landed himself a staff contract as a producer on Radio 5 Live.

Wednesday, 12 October saw FreshAir student radio hold the Student Radio Association’s Scotland Training Day. Special guests and speakers had backgrounds in different areas of radio and broadcasting, from presenters to marketing executives, and the day aimed to give students a flavour of the industry. Calum spoke to members of student radio stations from across Scotland about how he got where he is now, the importance of student radio, and the future of the platform. Chatting to him afterwards, we got to the bottom of where his love for radio began.

Calum recounted: “When I was about 11 or 12, I saw a radio news programme going out for the first time […] it blew me away, I thought this was just incredible, so cool. It was awesome.”

Nowadays, Calum is living his dream: “I’m currently a broadcast journalist with BBC Radio 5 Live, so primarily producing programmes, occasionally reporting on various bits and pieces, reading the news from time to time, and recording various interviews and podcasts.

“What I put it down to is constantly going back for work experience, so although it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow, taking a few days unpaid here and there where I could […] keeping in touch with those people. Because you’ve kept in touch with these people, and demonstrated a bit of what you can do, then they can kind of point you in the right direction when opportunities are going to be coming up.”

For Calum, the pressure of live radio never wears off: “The most recent time I [read the news] was exactly the same as the first time I did it. One presenter once told me the day you don’t get nervous is the day you should quit, because you’ve stopped caring enough about the programme. So no, nerves are good, [they] keep you on your toes.”
Student media thrives at Edinburgh, and he believes that his time here contributed to his success so far. Looking back on his time at university, Calum regards FreshAir as hugely important, describing it as “just a good playground, to try stuff out.

“And on the News team, we were really ambitious, I mean we were doing programmes that rival professional media organisations. It’s that kind of ambition to progress, and I think that somewhere like the BBC’s really good at opportunities like that as well.”

When posed with the question of whether radio is in decline, Calum offered a valid counter argument: “I think radio is changing, we’re certainly very aware of that at 5 Live, that now it’s not just about what you’re doing on the radio, it’s about how you’re creating an impact with it, what are you doing online to either match or enhance your onair stuff, so online is a really great way of reaching new people.”

Calum recently worked on an exclusive with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), highlighting the unhealthiness of many relationships between YouTubers and their adoring fans. While it seems that younger people are engaging less and less in radio, using Spotify or other streaming services to listen to music, Calum thinks radio still has a fighting chance.

“Radio’s intimate, it just is. So, it can be anywhere. I think it can be a subconscious ‘I’m listening and doing other stuff’; I think with things like YouTube you need to actively sit and concentrate… Good luck watching a YouTube video not falling off your bike.

“I think Radio 1’s doing this really well, it’s really advanced its performance online. You need to go and meet people where they’re at, you can’t expect them just to come tumbling across your radio station.”

So does he think that student radio capitalises enough on its unique position to engage the student population?
“There’s no other station that is set up primarily to target those students, and so it’s in a really good position to do that. FreshAir’s always done something which is really impressive and had a really varied schedule. Everyone’s online, there’s no getting away from that, so that’s where people need to go to. FreshAir does it well anyway, but can continue to improve its presence on Facebook and Twitter – putting content out specifically for these platforms, so that people can come to it.

“Everybody that’s in this room today who wants to work in radio is in a perfect position to be reaching the future radio audience… They are the future radio audience as well. To know what they want, to know how to get that content to them, and then take that lesson into ‘real life’, [it is] a sort of industry experience.”

Having been on both sides of the conversation, Calum had plenty of advice for Edinburgh students looking to break into the world of radio.

“The one bit advice that really used to annoy me was to ‘be myself’, and I used to hate that. But actually, my lesson from that was I presented a music programme, entered the student radio awards: didn’t win. Following year: presented a news programme, entered the student radio awards, and won. I was being myself, I was doing what I loved and that made all the difference.

“I think as well, enjoying it, if it feels like a total task and you’re just having to drag yourself through your programme every week, if that’s not enjoyable then sack it and do something that you actually want to do. Variety is a good one as well actually […] Next week’s guest, how are they different to this week’s guest? How will we do something a bit different to make interviews come to life?”

Calum has achieved a lot in the short time he has been in the professional world, but he started young. From speaking to him, it seems that persisting with work experience, however discouraging, is one of the best ways to make the first steps into the industry. But it is not the only way.

“Always be aware that while people like me might give you advice on how to get somewhere, there’s loads of different routes, and so what’s worked for me might not work for the next person, so just start knocking on doors and speaking to people and work out the best way for you.”

Image: Robert Wilson Photography

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