It’s five to ten on a Wednesday morning and Chris Aldridge, senior announcer at Radio 4, is sitting in a compact, sound-proofed studio on the fourth floor of Broadcasting House reading the news. At five to ten, not ten o’clock?
That’s correct, because this is Aldridge – one of the most familiar voices on the network – rehearsing the bulletin that he’ll be reading for real a few minutes later.
He’s a tall man, but his seat is low – “It’s important to keep your back straight and open up the diaphragm,” he says – and the value of the pre-broadcast read-through soon becomes obvious.
“The party of the sacked Catalan leader Carlos Puigdemont says it has secured paramilitary backing from left-wing separatists to reinstall him as regional president,” Aldridge reads out loud to himself.
Paramilitary backing? Can that be right? A split-second after Aldridge has uttered the word, he stops and has another go: “parliamentary backing”. Ouch. Big difference.
And a narrow escape, as well as a reminder that when you’re reading the news, you’re never far from a verbal trap. Aldridge, who is 56, has granted Radio Times access to one of the most sacred of BBC inner sanctums – that of the Radio 4 newsreader, a place made up of the intensely familiar and the completely anonymous.
Would we recognise Neil Sleat or Diana Speed or Susan Rae if they sat next to us on the train? Unlikely. But imagine if we got talking to them. Hearing a voice we knew so well would be very strange.
That newsreaders and announcers mean so much to us was evident from Radio Times’s recent 50 Greatest Radio Broadcasters poll. Corrie Corfield and Charlotte Green both made the top 25. The late, great Peter Donaldson also scored highly.
We trust these people, we are reassured by them, we take pleasure in their voices, there is a purity to the companionship they offer. Although they rarely do anything other than read words from a script that someone else has written, they still manage to express a great deal – partly about themselves, but perhaps more about Radio 4.
“I see the announcers as defining the character of Radio 4,” Aldridge says — a role that is growing. “When I started in the 1990s things were far more prescriptive. These days we’re encouraged to, as the controller would put it, undo one button. Your personality can come through and for me that reflects the whole progression of Radio 4.”
Twitter has also allowed newsreaders to let a little light in on their magic. Aldridge tries outlines of continuity on his followers. Corrie Corfield keeps hers amused with tales of the 4am car journey to the studio from her home in Tooting in south London.
But the mystique remains, as it must with a job that involves conveying to the nation the great events of the day.
What are the key principles? Both Aldridge and Corfield give identical answers to that question. “You must always remember that you are telling a story.”
Aldridge talks about creating a sense of narrative running through a two-minute bulletin, even though it will comprise five or six unrelated stories. Living by the clock is a way of life.
Does acting come into it? The premium on a vocal aesthetic means that many a newsreader has had a thespian past. “I think when you start out there is an element of acting,” Aldridge says, “because you have to overcome the immense pressure of being part of this incredible station, the core of the BBC, and for most people a bit of acting gets them through. But when I audition people for the job I’m looking for that spark of confidence and character that they’re going to be able to project live on air. You still don’t really know until they do it for the first time.”
It strikes me that newsreading might be a bit of a lonely job. Just you, your script and a studio that Justin Webb and Nick Robinson (or whoever) have probably taken the opportunity to slip out of for the duration of the bulletin.
It can clearly be a stressful one. Charlotte Green – a Radio 4 continuity announcer, then newsreader, for 25 years until 2013 – tells me that after a day reading particularly harrowing news, it really affected her.
“I remember being on duty for both Lockerbie and the Zeebrugge disaster, and I found I needed to unload a bit when I had finished.”
Aldridge says that at the grimmest moments, it’s important to remember that you’re not there to tell the listeners how to feel. “There are subtle changes of tone and pace you can make, but the stories speak for themselves.”
And while he is aware that the job brings with it periods of isolation, he isn’t lonely doing it because, he says, “I’m there with the listener.”
It’s now half-past ten and Aldridge’s shift is over. He’s been in Broadcasting House since 4.30am. The first of his bulletins was at 5.20am. He did six on the Today programme. He’s finished telling the world about Army recruitment ads and mudslides in California.
He has managed to say “parliamentary” and not “paramilitary”, and he’s ready to pass the baton. And who’s this arriving for work? Why, it’s Zeb Soanes…