Source: Review Copy
Publication: 24 January 2019 from Lunicorn Press
Stop! Danger! Sex for sale! A red light can signify any one of those, but in a radio station it means a microphone has gone live: the walls may be soundproof, but in studio space, everyone can hear you scream … or sneeze.
For twenty-five years, Jeff Zycinski worked for BBC Radio and became the longest-serving boss of Radio Scotland. He made the big decisions buying a new vacuum cleaner for the Selkirk office and chaired a meeting that almost erupted in violence when someone suggested cats were better than dogs. He has a lot to say about Brexit, Scottish Independence, football, BBC bias, Islam and strippers … but not in this book. Okay, he talks about them a bit … mainly the strippers. An affectionate, humorous account of inside life at the Beeb. You will never buy chips in the same way again!
Disclaimer: For a number of years I worked for the BBC in Nations and Regions communications mainly in Local Radio and Regional TV. I have even done the odd freelance shift for BBC Scotland. But although I have met him in passing a few times, I don’t know Jeff Zycinski. So I read this book partly to see if it rang true and because I’m interested in what kind of chap Zycinski is.
The Red Light Zone begins and ends with Jeff Zycinski leaving the BBC in the way many people do, after an endless restructuring process where it slowly dawns on you that your job has just been restructured out of existence and you either have to re-invent yourself or decide the time is right for you to go. Restructuring happens in the BBC about once every 4-5 years and it’s been known to make a lot of people both anxious and bitter. Fortunately, Zycinski is not one of those people.
The Red Light Zone is a light touch book full of humorous anecdotes, fond recollections and a refreshingly honest and self-deprecating take on a career spent in both commercial and BBC Radio. It is also imbued with a love for the creativity of programme makers and if there’s one thing I take away from this book, it is that Zycinski is a living, breathing member of the programme making classes, and not some BBC ‘suit’. Mind you, that’s true of most of the Senior Managers I have met in the content side of the BBC; it was love for the medium and the programmes that really drove them to stick in there.
The Red Light Zone offers a lot of humour, but it is also in many ways an inspiring story of how the child of a sailor in the Polish Free Navy who came to Glasgow during WW2 and stayed to marry in peacetime, with seven siblings living in Easterhouse, rose to become the Head of Radio in Scotland.
It’s surprising he got that far, given that his first job, working as a journalism student for Capital Radio, was to undertake a day’s recording in the famous Raymond’s Revue Bar in Soho. Working out how to convey nudity on radio was an interesting problem for a fledgling reporter.
Zycinski’s love of radio began when he was 14 and his big sister Rose introduced him to Radio Clyde. He loved to twirl the dial and listen to short wave station from the BBC Worlds Service to Radio Moscow and Radio Free Europe. But it was Radio Clyde’s overnight show that got him writing in an over-egged Chandleresque style and cemented his love for radio forever.
Spells in Moray Firth Radio, and Radio Clyde followed and then He joined BBC Radio Scotland as a Senior Producer in Selkirk. It is here that we first begin to understand the somewhat arcane nature of BBC structures, but Zycinski treats all such matters with a light touch humour and only occasionally does the inevitable frustration leak out.
Peppered with names you’ll know and some lively anecdotes, Zycinski is not often sharp-tongued, but when he is, you can tell he means it. The visit of Chris Evans to Inverness is a particularly pointed recollection.
In a career spanning 4 BBC Directors- General, it is easy to see why Zycinski is a survivor. His no-nonsense approach, combined with a love for creativity led to a revamp of the Radio Scotland schedule , the introduction of many of the programmes we can still hear today and his love for comedy and what we used to call in the old days ‘light entertainment’. Even if that revamp did lead to Ian Rankin describing him as a ‘numptie’.
In a nicely balanced book, the reader is able to laugh at events and anecdotes but also to understand the frustrations of a man who loves radio and yet could not understand why getting Radio 4 to talk to Radio 2 was ‘slightly more difficult than creating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East’.
Similarly, getting his presenters on Radio Scotland to know and understand the rest of the station’s output so that they could talk coherently and confidently about it to listeners was a bit of an uphill struggle.
Zycinski spends some time reflecting on the Referendum campaign; the attacks on BBC Scotland’s coverage and on some presenters as well as the impact of network BBC news bosses finally sitting up and taking notice. He discusses strike action, morale at the BBC, the role of HR and Charter Renewal. The advice he got from Ken MacQuarrie, now Director of the BBC’s Nations and Regions, about attending corporate BBC meetings is priceless because of its simple truth.
As well as chronicling his time at BBC Radio Scotland, Zycinski offers amusement, bemusement and some honest reflections on the work. The book is interesting for all these reasons, but also because it paints a portrait of a man who loves his radio and whose heart lives for creativity in programme making.
I wish I had got to know him.
Verdict: A must read for those interested in BBC Scotland written with a light touch and containing plenty of humour to keep the reader interested.
Jeff Zycinski was born in Easterhouse, Glasgow in 1963, the seventh son of a Polish sailor who settled in Scotland after the Second World War. He was educated at the Central College of Commerce in Glasgow, Glasgow College of Technology and University College, Cardiff.
Jeff was the BBC’s Head of Radio in Scotland from 2005 to 2018, the longest-serving occupant of that role.
He commissioned and scheduled programmes for BBC Radio Scotland and was responsible for the production teams working for BBC Network Radio based in Scotland. His portfolio included online and multi-media content including podcasts and themed audio streams.
Jeff started his career as a news journalist in 1989 and, in 1992, joined BBC Scotland as Senior Producer in Selkirk. A year later he moved to the BBC in Inverness to launch the Tom Morton morning programme. Jeff was promoted to Editor, Topical in 1998 and returned to Glasgow. He launched both the lunchtime Lesley Riddoch programme (which won a Sony Silver Award in 2001 and again in 2002) and the Gary Robertson mid-morning programme in Autumn 2000.
In the 2006 Sony Awards, Jeff was nominated as Station Programmer of the Year. Other awards as Editor include a Sony Silver for Asking For You (2003) and Sony Bronze awards for Old Firm Day (2002) and Life Stories (2005).