Behind the scenes at Sunday Sequence

11 Sep 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 11 Sep 2015

Scope meets Seamus Boyd, the driving force behind Radio Ulster’s flagship Sunday Sequence show. 

Boyd is sitting at his desk, surrounded by newspaper clippings preparing for his next programme. He is a thoughtful and self-effacing man and has a fascinating take on the impact radio has on people.

“Radio has many purposes:  for some people it is background noise to their lives and that can be very important background noise or it can be the distant hum of passing traffic and occasionally they hear a loud lorry, but usually they hear very little and I think our job as producers is to make people think, sometimes to entertain and inform them but sometimes to make them have uncomfortable thoughts.”

Boyd is softly spoken and the background noise to our conversation is the din being made by the Nolan Show team who occupy the next desk along in the Factual Programmes department.

I ask him if that’s what the Nolan team are always like – anarchic and raucous. He laughs:  “No, not at all, that’s a general after-show radio thing. When I worked at Talkback we used to annoy the hell out of the Evening Extra people when we came back from lunch and were relaxed, excited about the last show and looking forward to the next one and making a similar racket. It’s just what happens.”

The BBC does not give audience figures for the show, presumably because it doesn’t have to, however its listenership is pretty much on a par with Good Morning Ulster, the weekday drive-time news show.

Competing with the snooze button 

This is extraordinary when you consider that it is a serious show, dealing with ethics, morality and religion and broadcast from 8.30am on a Sunday morning when so many of us are still asleep.

This also conditions Boyd’s thinking.

“When you think about it conditions are perfect during the week for a morning news show. Most listeners will be fully awake, washed, dressed, alert, many in their cars. Conditions are perfect.

“That is not the case at all for a serious programme broadcast early on Sunday morning.  I used to say to William Crawley that our biggest competitor is the snooze button and so we have to do challenging stories in a way that doesn’t annoy the ear. I used to have this mental image of the audience being the person whose turn it was to feed the baby. They were getting up and putting the radio on but if it is an annoying sound, the person in the other room will say ”turn that crap off I’m trying to sleep.”

 It is a fascinating insight into how producers think but it is only part of the reason why Boyd is so determined to ensure his show is full of interesting debate and conversations rather than confrontation

“I hate people shouting over each other.  I like polite intellectual disagreement. I don’t know if you remember it but there used to be a wonderful programme called After Dark on Channel 4 many years ago and I remember watching Enoch Powell and Tony Benn having a debate. They were polar opposites but they were so clever and so good at argument you found yourself agreeing with one and then agreeing with the other even though they were saying opposite things.

“They were giving each other time to expand which is important. These days people are often so well media trained that they have enough answers and views for a three minute conversation but if you test them beyond that it can get very challenging for them, and there is no need whatsoever to be aggressive when you do that, just enough time. “

Cutting things out of newspapers

This question of providing enough space and time for serious debate, properly exploring issues, is a hallmark of the show and something that Boyd feels passionate about.

“What really annoys me as a listener is when a presenter says, just as an interview is getting interesting, ‘we’ve no more time’ and I’m looking at my watch and saying, ‘what are you talking about, I’m enjoying this, there is all the time in the world. There’s plenty of time you’ve just not managed it very well and now you are going to tell me what the weather is like!’ “

So what makes a story for him, how does he construct the show?

He laughs and looks down at his newspaper clippings and tells a story about a colleague whose young son was asked by a friend “What does your Daddy do?” and he replied: “He cuts things out of newspapers.”

Boyd is an old school journalist and often challenges himself to come back with a story from just walking down the street on his lunch break

He gives an example: “Okay, so you walk down Dublin Road and pass three beggars. How many do you give to? If you give to one why that one? And as you could afford to give more why did you not?

“We are all making ethical decisions all the time and issues are not hard to find"

When he is preparing a show Boyd, a former newspaper journalist, writes a headline for it.

How stories are prepared

“If you can crystallise the story in a headline it is going to be worth doing, if you can’t you probably haven’t got your head round what you are trying to do.”

He illustrates this by showing me the cue he has written for the first item in the next show which is on the refugee crisis.

“The defining image of this week is undoubtedly that of a drowned three year-old boy lying face down on a Turkish beach. The resulting crescendo of the masses was that ‘something must be done’, but here's an ethical question. If you agree that every country should do its bit, what would you personally do to help another person? Would you give up a room in your house, for example? Or, do we elect politicians so that our personal conscience then becomes, as they say, a devolved matter?”

For Boyd it is no surprise that these days the media is full of stories related to moral, ethical and religious issues: equal marriage; Islamic fundamentalism; the right to die; abortion, the list is endless.

“I think they have always been there but tended to be corralled into a narrow world of religion but these issues are for all faiths and none. They concern matters that define your behaviour. “

He’s particularly keen on posing difficult, even troubling moral issues: recent examples include debates on whether people would inform on their own children; whether Christians have a duty to expose and condemn users of the adultery site Ashley Madison; and whether people have the right to forgive others for wrongs. Each of these issues is posed in a way to make it personal to listeners, encouraging them to relate it to their lives.

The Chuck Berry principle

Boyd has been producing the show for four years, and for most of that time working with William Crawley, a former cleric with a formidable grasp of theology and moral philosophy. Crawley has now joined Talkback, and Sunday Sequence now has two presenters - Audrey Carville and Roisin McAuley - who take it in turns to host the programme.

So how does he work with them?

“I like to follow the Chuck Berry principle. He used to hire local bands when he was on tour. He expected them to know the music but his only instructions to them were ‘When I put my foot up you stop and when I put it down again you start.’ That was all. But he had confidence in their ability.”

Before the show the presenters will be sent a briefing note on each item and Boyd will offer more extensive briefings if required. He does not tell them what questions to ask.

When the show is on air he doesn’t talk to them during interviews through their head sets. Instead he will email them feedback prompting them to ask this or that or else telling them to wind things down if the discussion is getting tedious.

“The relationship is like two trapeze artists. Each has to have the trust in the other: and know that if you fall off the wire you will be caught.”

Boyd is passionate almost to the point of fanaticism about journalism.

For him it all started as a nine year-old when a family friend got a job distributing newspapers. He often used to call around to their house on Saturday nights to drop off copies of the next day’s papers.

“For me this was magical. We thought we were the best informed family in all of Ireland getting tomorrow’s news today. And that sense of magic never ever leaves you.”

An encounter with genius

It was almost inevitable that he would end up in newspapers. For several years Boyd was an advertising rep at the Irish News. He proved to be a brilliant salesman and got a company car and a decent salary.

But there was something missing in his life. One day he walked into work, gave in the keys to his company car, and gave up most of his income to train as a journalist.

“I remember standing in the toilets of the Irish News and thinking ‘I’m just going to tell them I can’t go through with this’ - I went from someone very assured in their job to someone who was beginning something new with no idea how it would turn out.”

And his highlight in the BBC?

“That is when we did a special tribute to Heaney just after he died and we had lots of people from the academic world talking about him and what he meant to them and his importance as a poet. I argued strongly that we needed to have a farming voice and got my way and we found a Co Derry farmer and he read the poem The Follower on air and when he read it you could see the sweat on the horse’s back and you could feel the academics shrinking away because true genius had entered the discussion and that he understood the poem in a way they could not.

“It was like that Sinatra moment - you have people singing Sinatra at a karaoke and then the real person turns up.”

 

 

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