After people find out what I do for a living, the first question they are most likely to ask involves the worst mistake I've ever made on the radio.
I'm truly grateful to say that I've never done anything more serious than stuff that has been greeted with mirth from listeners/bosses and embarrassment from me. I've never cocked up severely, to my knowledge.
The incident that instantly leaps to mind took place on Viking FM's Late Night Love Affair back in the late 90s or early 2000s. I presented the Saturday night version of this programme, which was on seven nights a week, and it was as you no doubt assume it to be - three hours of uncontroversial ballads interspersed with listener dedications. Most commercial stations had a version of this - the Chill Out Zone and the Slow Jam being other common names for it.
Now the majority of calls we got (no texts back then, and emails were rare) came from women, specifically women whose husbands or boyfriends were "away". They'd never say where they were and I soon learned not to ask when the type of fishwife who did ring up would get ratty if I politely enquired where the man in her life was. I was very naive, initially. Messages like "goodnight darling" and "see you in 25 days" were a bit of a giveaway, and I'd feel a little self-conscious as I read them out, trying not to sound anything other than the local empathetic DJ who was on their side.
The letters which the programme got always had a postmark beginning with "H.M.P." which proved that the cons themselves were listening in their cells and writing messages of love (or codes for "be out the back at 0500 hours" for all I knew) for these women waiting loyally back home. I'd read these out as they were written, feeling sorry for the guys because the letters highlighted a very low standard of literacy. I don't sympathise with anyone caught committing a crime, but I do sympathise with guys for whom a bit of support and encouragement early enough in their lives might have prevented subsequent bad turns of events. Joel Ross, on the evening show at the time, was less understanding - he used to call the show Convict Corner ("where you can say hello to your favourite person in prison!").
What was the most disconcerting thing was that these letters, from hardened men trying so hard to show their devotion to their loved ones back home, had bene vetted. Prison staff had read and signed off the letters before allowing them into the external postbag. An invasion of privacy or a necessary act of security?
Anyway, one feature we introduced on a Saturday evening was the Open Letter. This was where we asked listeners to tell the whole story of their love life, or at least one major or significant aspect of it. It was akin to Our Tune but without the element of tragedy and, frankly, not as long.
We got a few letters but often I'd embellish them to make them a little longer. We had the music which Gary Davies used to use on his Sloppy Bit and it needed to be done justice. It was always done on the stroke of midnight and I'd get calls from women in tears afterwards, saying how moving the story was and how they hoped the lady (almost always a lady) in question would "get through it".
One week was slower than normal and so, in order to get an Open Letter on the air, I had to write one of my own. Quite a challenge. The names and situations were obviously fictional and I deliberately made the events within the letter semi-farcical or far-fetched to reduce as much as possible the chance of it reflecting real events somewhere. It turned into a bit of an essay and though now I can't remember what the story was, I know it was long enough to justify the backing music's duration and keep listeners hooked without boring them. The one thing I do remember was the record "requested" at the end - All Woman by Lisa Stansfield.
So, midnight comes and I back-announce the song playing, and let the theme music to the Open Letter come in. One thing Simon Bates always got right on Our Tune was starting the theme music and letting it play for a good while before talking over it. This is something I replicated, letting a good 30 seconds or so set the mood for the audience before beginning the letter.
"This is a letter from *insert made-up name here* from *some random part of the Viking coverage area - probably in north Lincolnshire, as we were targetting that patch heavily at the time* and I have to say, it's one of the most emotional things I've ever written."
Written? Oh you utter tosser.
I meant read, clearly. But I said written on the air. I'll get slaughtered for that. I might be reprimanded. Put on weekend overnights. Sacked. Bollocks bollocks bollocks...
All of the above went through my mind in approximately five seconds after I'd committed the faux-pas. But I was on air. I needed to get out of it. Pretend it never happened? Or use my wits? It had to be the second option. Think man, think...
"... says the lady herself."
As soon as I said that, I felt the colour immediately return to my face. I'd made it sound like the "written" comment was a direct quote from the letter writer and not me. The fact that I was the letter writer was something the listeners didn't know and were not going to. Details, details...
I could have sworn the noise made by my blood rapidly vacating my face a few seconds earlier went out on air, but now I'd rescued the situation. I faded out the mic, cleared my throat, took a deep breath, reopened the mic and began reading the letter. No more cock-ups, all was smooth, I got the teary phone calls while Lisa played. Result.
I got away with it. No listener picked up on it, no member of staff mentioned anything when we all reconvened on the Monday. The remainder of the programme passed by without incident.
I dropped the Open Letter feature the following week.
I've done other stupid things, such as enthusiastically saying "Party Mix next!" at the end of a football show, only for the news bulletin to announce the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother five seconds later and go into full-scale obit mode. Given that I'd been made aware that we were going into obit mode and I just clean forgot, it was not the wisest moment of my career.
I also cracked a gag about dementia after watching a soap opera storyline about it, only to be carpeted by my boss for doing so after complaints came in (from two people - meaning that many thousand others didn't complain, but anyway...) - such complainants don't seem to know the difference between laughing at dementia and laughing at an actor playing the role, but nonetheless I wish I hadn't done it.
My favourite ever blooper involved a feature in which a radio station would give a dozen red roses to someone nominated by a listener because of their acts of love, kindness or loyalty. The DJ in question (no names or stations on this occasion, sorry) rang up a woman live on air and said her husband had written and nominated her for the roses.
The lady was pleased and grateful but didn't go crazy on air, as most did.
I'm paraphrasing from now on. The DJ then asked: "Is *husband's name* in, so we can talk to him about why he nominated you?"
"Sorry, no. Erm, I'm afraid he died yesterday morning."
Now at this point, the DJ should express sympathy and end the call right there. Put on a record or advert and move on. At this stage, it's unfortunate and tragic but none of it is the radio station or presenter's fault. But instead...
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. Erm, should we send you a wreath instead?"
The word is that the DJ, upon saying this, had to be carried out of the studio a gibbering wreck, on the verge of a breakdown.
And no, it wasn't me. Stop it.