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June 2019
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2006-08-29 Dying while live on air

"Am I live on air?", I enquired, after a few minutes of meandering chit-chat. "As live as can be!", came the reply, in a well-worn mid-West American drawl, "So, how many of you are in the `Three Celtic Tenors'?". I paused in disbelief, believing the clue to have been in the title, then tentatively offered "Em, three?".


"We've a new album", I blurted, by way of a drastic but necessary change in direction. "Have y'all indeed?", he queried, "I wish Lynette would send me one." "Lynette?", I asked, "Don't you mean Anita? Anita, our US publicist?" "Yes. Anita. That's right," the invisible interviewer replied, with a disturbing degree of confidence."I thought she did send you one?" I impatiently exclaimed. "She did. I have it right here in front of me", he retorted triumphantly, "So where are you from Neil?" I drew breath. "It's James actually. James Nelson.", I stated with a new-found calmness, "I come from Sligo". "Sligo!", he shouted enthusiastically, "Oh Sligo's beautiful, it's near Westport. I always stay in the `Silver Swan Hotel' - awesome - they're always so welcoming there - I stayed there only last Fall, Neil." "Really?" I responded dumbfoundedly, not bothering to explain at this stage that, had he stayed in the `Silver Swan' within the last few years it may have been more draughty than he remembered, and the service may have been less than satisfactory, or indeed non-existent. "Anyway, always great to talk to you Neil. That's Neil from `The Irish Tenors', listeners." I hung up.


When I was asked to phone an American radio station a few days before the start of a recent US tour, I hadn't expected my call to have been answered by someone live on air, and perhaps I was naively expecting someone a little more prepared and generally more enlightened. But I expect that is part of the unpredictable joy and novelty of live radio and TV.


Long before my own career path had led me into such situations, I had relished such stories as the one about the lady on Larry Gogan's "Just-a-minute-Quiz", who, when asked for Hitler's Christian name earnestly suggested "Heil". Or the Limerick local radio station DJ in the 1970s, who attempted to cheer up a recently widowed local lady, devestated by the loss of her beloved husband Jack, by playing the up-tempo Number One hit of the day -"Jack-in-the-Box". Or the classical radio station DJ who, assuming he had turned his mike off, proceeded to describe his most recent caller by employing colourful, but far from complimentary vocabulary.


I have had a glass of water thrown at me in a very slapstick situation on a Madrid radio show, swiftly realising the idea was to throw mine over the DJ - I happily obliged. I have kept an almost straight face while a Northern Irish DJ, with the strongest of "What-about-ye"-brogues, abruptly transformed his voice to a cross between West Hollywood, Nashville and BBC Radio 3, as soon as the light came on and his mike was live. I have been interviewed by student broadcasters, who, when the tape began to roll, behaved like rabbits in front of headlamps, so much so that I ended up interviewing them. I have set my alarm clock for 2.30am and attempted to sound chirpy and entertaining down the phone on a Chicago breakfast show, sung Top Cs at 6am on Canadian TV, and mimed -very reluctantly indeed - on German TV. I have recorded countless jingles for radio stations across the globe, some of which I am confident, and terrified, will come back to haunt me.


On BBC Radio Scotland, I was elcomed open-armed into the studio, along with my tenor colleagues, followed by a warm and positive interview, and an enthusiastically-received impromptu a capella performance. After we left the studio, we continued to listen to the radio show in the car, and travelled open-mouthed to our hotel, as that warm and welcoming panel proceeded to slate our album, and then damn our characters by suggesting we were "singing, not from our hearts, but from our wallets." I have the wallet to prove them indefatigably wrong. So what has this old cynic learned in his few years of live broadcasts? Check first if you are live, and never trust a DJ. Or a journalist?