A good contacts book sets you apart from your rivals. Radio journalism is about finding the right person to say the right things – fast and first. If you have a good contacts book, you have a better chance of getting that great interview before anyone else. You’ll impress your news editor and your rivals and that may mean a better job and more money! Contacts are your living. I promise: - your contacts book can be the difference between you and dozens of radio journos like you. So, develop a great contacts book. Guard it with your life. Don’t let your colleagues borrow it, and never share a personal contact.
A good contact can give you the stories than no-one else gets; can provide valuable background to stories; can suggest people better equipped to answer your questions. In the world of rolling news, contacts can give you instant informed opinion and reaction.
‘Where do I find them – these ‘real people’ contacts?’ is a common question from my National Broadcasting School students. Answer? - they’re all around you.
Let me explain. Everyone – and I mean ‘everyone’ - has something interesting to say, something useful for a journalist – an experience, information, an opinion. Sometimes, you have to dig a bit. They may not think their story is interesting because they’ve lived with it but, to you and your listeners, it’s fresh. Your job is to find those stories. So, talk to people. Show an interest in them. Try to discover their passion, their humour, their experiences, their knowledge, their sadness, their highs and lows – perhaps even their skeletons. I promise you that you won’t find out unless you invest time in talking with people, asking them questions. Engage with friends, relatives, friends of relatives, strangers. Chat to people at the bus stop or at your pub.
Two examples: It’s a hot day in the summer of 2006. I’m sitting at a street café in Brighton. Two elderly ladies with strong Lancashire accents arrive and sit next to me. It’s a squash and one apologises for sitting on my bag. They’re lively and chatty and we get talking. They’re visiting Brighton for the first time since 1952 - the year they worked here as chorus girls in a saucy stage show. That meant, they say, removing as many clothes for the audience as the law and decency allowed. It was a morning of wonderful stories, sound-tracked by gales of laughter, that later made what I thought was a brilliant recording.
Second example. I’m a smoker. I don’t mind being driven out of public places to smoke on the street because it’s been a wonderful opportunity to share a few minutes with new ‘real’ people. Result? New contacts with whom I’ve shared a sort of ‘behind-the-bike-shed’ experience! Over time, I have built a bond with some of them. They know they can trust me: - the nurse who talked to me about cleaning (or lack of it) in the local hospital; the security guard at the Crown court; the woman exiled from Zimbabwe for political reasons. It’s a non-stop supply of great stories. I’m not suggesting that you take up (or continue) smoking but shared experiences – the pub, sport and so on – are your chance to meet ‘real people’ who you can add to your contacts book. It doesn’t matter if a new contact is instantly relevant or usable. Log them in your contacts book and, one day, you may be grateful.
So, listen. Don’t be frightened. Be forward. Be friendly. Be polite and be nosey! And don’t be afraid to ask for an address and number.