Eddie Mair: ‘If you want someone to rant at you on the radio… I can’t do that’ | Media

I meet Eddie Mair in the glistening cockpit of a futuristic spaceship. Actually, I meet him in his LBC radio studio, but it is so fluorescently lit that I almost have a spontaneous migraine. “It’s like this because it looks better on screen,” says Mair, which sounds odd, because he presents a radio show. But radio has a visual presence these days, and this bright broadcasting box is designed for that.

Relaxed and dapper in his suit and shirt (his photo outfit: he’s usually more casually dressed), Mair shows me around. “Have a look at this!” he says, pressing a button. Part of the wall slides back to reveal a small, sealed window that looks out over Charing Cross Road. He shows me hidden drawers that contain differently branded microphone covers, explains that the digital wall display can be changed to the logo of any one of the eight stations – which also include Heart, Capital and Classic FM – owned by radio firm Global. Mair seems very much at home in his hi-tech bunker; though, he says, he did have a panic when he first started.

“I’d looked over people’s shoulders when they were working the computer system, and I’d thought: ‘Oh I vaguely know what that’s about,’” he says. “But when we finally got into the studio, on the Thursday before the Monday I started, I couldn’t work it. I went home thinking: ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get scripts on screen, I don’t know what I’m doing with the phones, or faders, or anything. This was a huge mistake!’”

After a sleepless night, he asked his producer for some one-to-one training, and by lunchtime it was fine. And that, says Mair, was the only time he’s felt regret about leaving his old job, as presenter of Radio 4’s PM show. Sorry, PM fans.

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Mair was at PM for 20 years, at BBC radio for 31 (he joined when he was 22), so it really was a surprise when he left. Especially as many Radio 4 heads see LBC as infra-dig, a step down for one of the most respected on-air presenters in the UK. How could he switch to commercial radio? And, even worse: a phone-in show! But there it is: Mair’s been at LBC since last September, happily presenting his own show from 4pm to 6pm every weekday. I listen a lot, and enjoy the programme very much: it’s newsy, insightful and fun.

And even before Mair tells me why he joined LBC, I can sense part of the reason. Global is the UK’s largest commercial radio broadcaster and its HQ has a definite upbeat glamour. Walls are decorated with positive messages (“Here’s to the obsessives…”); the reception desk flashes with different colours; bright young things in ankle-flashing skinnies dash up and down the spiral staircase. If BBC radio is the sensible family estate car, Global is the glitzy midlife cabriolet. “It wasn’t a midlife crisis!” Mair insists.

Anyhow, when Mair announced his departure from PM, there was much listener woe. His wry humour and interviewing ability had made him an audience favourite, especially over his final few years; he’d won several awards, including a Sony Gold in 2012. I speak to Robert Peston about Mair. Peston appeared on PM many times, and he had a funny, prickly on-air relationship with Mair, which stemmed from a genuine moment of irritation – Mair once mentioned a story that had been Peston’s scoop; an annoyed Peston said: “Don’t you listen to the BBC?”; then Mair got irritated too. The excellent thing about this story is that after that, every time Peston went on PM, Mair was a bit grumpy; and Peston didn’t know if he was still cross or not. “Eventually I worked out that it was an act,” says Peston. “He kept it going until I left.”

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Peston spends quite some time telling me how great Mair is: he says Mair never tries to look clever, he’s all about entertaining and engaging the listener. And when I ask for a quote about Mair from Joanna Carr, his long-term PM producer, she emails me a lengthy stream of compliments. “Forensic”, “witty”, “sense of theatre”, “listens so carefully”… “The thing people don’t see,” she writes, “is how incredibly hard Eddie works. He put so much effort into every part of PM. He thinks a lot about every single interview. He used to listen to every package, every trail, come up with these killer ad libs… He knows what’s being said in jest and what’s being said from a place of deep emotion and he knows they can coexist in the same minute.”

This last is very true: Mair’s graceful ability to switch from seriousness to humour is unparalleled, I think. Plus PM had developed interesting offshoots: the weekly iPM podcast, which took listeners’ stories and developed them into full programmes; the daily Grenfell inquiry podcast, which Mair continued to host after he’d left until the first phase of the inquiry ended.

“The thing about PM,” says Peston, “is Eddie created it. It was Eddie.” So why leave? A combination of reasons. First, three years ago, Carr was promoted to head of current affairs; and when she went, he’d wondered: “Should I stop now?” He didn’t, but the thought was there. Second, there was a problem with how PM was being treated within Radio 4. The BBC correspondents that PM wanted on the show were often busy doing other things, “pulled in different directions, online and TV”: PM was not a priority. Mair says, amiably enough, that “on PM, we were – very pleasantly – generally ignored by the BBC”. But you note that the Today programme is never ignored, and that must have rankled. (Peston says: “I fear he felt that he was undervalued.”)

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Third: as happens in your 40s and 50s, friends were getting seriously ill, and Mair did too. In early 2018, he was mugged while on holiday in South America, and the cut he got on his neck developed into sepsis. He nearly died. He wrote about this in detail in his Radio Times column and it sounded terrible, but he shrugs it off today as “a minor brush with illness”. He became braver.

Eddie Mair.

Eddie Mair photographed in the LBC studios. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

“It didn’t make me fear death,” he says. “But it made me consider risk, taking a chance. Had it not been for the mugging, and the aftermath, I think I would have been too scared to leave.”

As it happened, six months earlier, James Rea, Global’s head of news, had been in touch to say that he’d thought Mair’s PM interview with the then foreign secretary Boris Johnson was great (not the “nasty piece of work” one, but the one where Johnson shuffled his papers and didn’t know his stuff about schools), and had he ever thought about leaving? Mair didn’t jump immediately – he’s too cautious and respectful for that – but they had lunch and started a conversation. They still have a conversation now, he says: he and Rea meet every week. They’re meant to talk about the show, “but honestly, we gossip. We shoot the breeze: ‘Did you hear about that? What’s going on with her?’ It’s very convivial.”

I would love to go for a lunch like this with Mair, because there is a side of him that is immense fun. You could sense this at PM, and it’s there in his LBC show, bubbling under almost all his encounters. He likes to tease people: he pretends throughout our chat that he doesn’t know his producers’ names, he ribs me for being tied to my children’s timetable – “It’s your own fault, Miranda, for procreating.” I’m sure, when he’s not being recorded, he’s a hoot.

But when my recorder is on, he has his foot firmly on the emotional brake. He’s far happier being the interviewer, as opposed to the interviewee. I ask him a fairly open question about what he thinks will happen with Brexit (we’re talking before the Commons voted down Theresa May’s deal) and he demurs.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I bet before it’s over, someone else will be called a Nazi.”

Give me a guess, I say. You talk to loads of callers about it.

“But that doesn’t give me knowledge about how it’s going to go. It gives me knowledge about how people are feeling. On one show, a woman said: ‘I voted Leave and I can’t wait.’ She talked about her daughter’s businesses and I said: ‘What happens if your daughter’s businesses are affected? What if they lose their jobs?’ And there was a long pause as if she hadn’t considered that, and she said: ‘Well, that might change my mind but I still think it’s OK.’”

I notice that he shifts focus on to someone he’s talked to, as opposed to saying what he thinks. He doesn’t want to tell me his opinion, which is fair enough. But it’s quite a strange approach for an LBC presenter.

“Yes,” he says. “In one of the earlier conversations I had [with LBC] I said: ‘Well, look, I don’t have any opinions about anything. I’m not even sure I have an opinion about having an opinion. So if you want someone to come on and rant at you, I can’t do that.’ They said: ‘No, we have a mix of people, just be you and that’s great.’”

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Perhaps not showing his hand is part of the BBC training: it’s noteworthy that, of all the weekday LBC presenters, only Mair and Shelagh Fogarty, also ex-BBC, don’t announce their politics loud and clear. With everyone else, you can make a good guess as to how they will vote. “I’ll maybe develop opinions at some point,” says Mair. “I don’t remember having fiery opinions which somehow the BBC drummed out of me. I’m an observer.”

He is; and so, he’s a bit of an anomaly. LBC is known for its willingness to put controversialists on air. Katie Hopkins used to have a weekly show (supposedly, staff cheered when she left), and Mair’s programme is followed by an hour of Nigel Farage’s bluster and bluff. Just a few days after our interview, LBC gives Jacob Rees-Mogg his own show. So who are Mair’s friends at his new home? He names Nick Ferrari, James O’Brien, Fogarty, Steve Allen and Andrew Castle as people he would chat to at a party. Not Farage; but Mair tells me a funny story involving the two of them.

Last March, Mair happened to be in Leicester Square. No one at the BBC knew he’d been talking to LBC, but he found himself outside Global’s front door.

“And I thought, I’ll get a selfie of me outside,” he says, looking for the picture on his phone. “So I line myself up and as I do, I see, behind me, Nigel Farage and someone else coming out of the pub and into the office. It was – look – 18.40, so he was coming in for his show at 7pm. So I take the shot, and Farage is in it, and then, literally 10 seconds later, utterly randomly, a really senior figure from the BBC appears at my side, and says: ‘What were you doing there?’ I was thinking, ‘Oh my God’, and so I said: ‘Well, I saw a photo opportunity to show what people have been wanting to see for many years – the back of Nigel Farage.’ And no more questions were asked. Nigel gave me a cover.”

It’s a good story; and it also shows how excited Mair was to be going to LBC, taking selfies before he’d even arrived. So let’s talk about why he might be so excited: his show.

The very first Eddie Mair show was a little awkward – he had to introduce himself to listeners without a script, and he doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. But since then, it’s settled into a topical discussion of subjects including millennials, dementia care, what kind of king Prince Charles should be, whither M&S and, of course Brexit (LBC listeners love Brexit chat). It also does foreign news (it covers Syria really well) and, naturally, listener experience. Mair enjoys trying to work out the show’s balance: “Do we do a topic at four and a topic at five, do we have a sub-topic that starts at 10 to five, and will that carry on to five-thirty? Do we need a guest there? Have we crowded out good calls with stuff we’ve set up already, have we been brave enough? All that kind of nitty-gritty stuff that we have to worry about, that’s what I love.”

He’d always been frustrated at PM when the show was covering a very newsy subject: “We wanted to hear how the listeners would respond to it there and then, but we could only get texts and emails.” With his LBC show, of course, he does get a response, and sometimes the topic hits a real nerve. Just before Christmas, on a show devoted to homelessness, “John” phoned in. A retired firefighter put on a zero-hours contract, John and his wife could no longer afford rent. They’d fallen on such hard times that all their belongings had been sold and they’d been sleeping in service stations and cheap hotels. John cried on air. Mair is careful when he talks about this, but the show set up a GoFundMe page and the listeners gave John £25,000.

Politicians are fond of LBC, too, possibly because they get more time to speak: in the first few weeks, says Mair, he interviewed more politicians than he had in all his years at PM. (He’s never, for instance, interviewed Jeremy Corbyn, and not Theresa May since she’s been prime minister, which I find astonishing.) Ken Clarke came on the show, and has been back twice: “We can’t get him off.” David Davis is coming in tomorrow, and the other evening, Vince Cable was in for a segment called Convince Vince, where Brexit fans called in to say why the UK should leave Europe, and Cable had to counter their reasons with his own. I listened; it was funny and informative. There are features in the show that are just there for a laugh: every day, for instance, there’s a clip from Steve Allen’s early morning show of him ranting about something random. And the show has a pot called the Chris Grayling Jar of Truth. Mair puts a pound in the pot every day that Grayling doesn’t answer his question: does Grayling take personal responsibility for awarding a £14m contract to a firm that has no ships?

When we talk about all of this, Mair is engaged and chatty. He could, of course, be earning more money: he was offered Newsnight but turned it down, because “it’s the day-to-day job that I’m interested in”, and TV presenters don’t do half the journalism that radio presenters do. Plus he’s excited by the newness, the adventure, the non-BBC-ness. He tells me, with amazement, how Global hires a cinema for a big meeting of everyone in the company when the Rajars come out. (Rajars are the measurement of a show’s audience; they’re released every three months.) At the meeting, Richard Park, Global’s director of broadcasting, goes through every show’s results, in front of everyone else in the room. “It’s quite frank,” says Mair. “You know, ‘You’re doing well, congratulations; you, however, have got to pull your socks up.’” (At PM, says Mair, they were never told their ratings. No one was, other than the Today programme.)

“Did you know,” he says, warming to his theme, “that among 15 to 34-year-olds, in London, LBC has overtaken Radio 4 on both reach and share?” (Reach and share are two ways of judging how people listen to radio.) “When I heard that, it was breathtaking to me. In the BBC, there are subcommittees upon subcommittees trying to work out how to get replenishers [younger listeners] to listen to the radio, and people there say: ‘Don’t bother, they’re not listening, don’t try and get them when they’re 18, 19.’ And here, they seemed to have cracked it!”

Mair hastens to add that those figures are from before he came to the station, but it’s clear that he finds them exciting. He’s a work freak. But when I ask him about Beverley Turner, who has just quit LBC, pointing out that it only has two female presenters, he doesn’t want to comment, other than to say: “Well, there are certainly lots of males and lots of white people.” And when I mention that Global’s board is even more white and male than its presenter line-up, he says, mildly: “Is it?” No opinions, remember?

Naturally, when I venture into more personal areas, he gets even more tight-lipped. He does try to give me information: he tells me he likes binge-watching TV, and recommends The Bureau and Schitt’s Creek. He listens to podcasts: he loves Alec Baldwin’s interview with Elaine Stritch – “she tells this story and for my money, pound for pound, it’s the funniest story I’ve ever heard.” He had a five-binbag declutter of his kitchen this weekend. He goes for walks (the day before he started at Global, he got lost three times). I try to find out his typical day and discover that he gets up at the most unbelievably early hour: four or five in the morning.

Why, for God’s sake? You don’t have any kids.

“Well, I go on the laptop and see what’s going on in the world. And then I compose an email to my producers Virginia and Steve, as I want you to call them in the article. I’m a morning person.”

Because of this, he goes to bed at nine, though he does drag himself out on occasion: he’s seen Company and the panto at the Palladium. “Luckily they were loud enough.”

“You really don’t like being interviewed, do you?” I say.

“It’s always nicer to interview,” he says, “because I’m very interested in other people. And I know who I am. I’ve gone to therapy for many years – my guy says that in another 10 years I’ll be cured – but I think that allows me to explore all the stuff that you might conceivably do in an interview. The true, inner stuff, I feel quite at ease with all that. So, the sort of examination that I might get into with other people, I’m there already with myself.”

As I leave, the Global PR, who sat in on the interview, asks me, “Do you think Eddie was being serious about the therapy?” And I say, “Yes”. Mair knows exactly what he wants to talk about in an interview. But I’d still love to have a lunch with him to gossip about all the other stuff.



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