The creative force behind many of the best Christian music radio programmes over the last few years has been the BBC's MICHAEL WAKELIN. He was quizzed by Tony Cummings.
Producer of Ministry Of Sound is Michael Wakelin who as Chief Producer of Religious Music Programmes on BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2 has built up an international reputation for broadcasting excellence. His pioneering programme, The Dream, a stunning musical-documentary on the life of Martin Luther King, won a coveted Sony Award (Michael's pioneering production of the Midnight Massacre featuring the World Wide Message Tribe has been entered by the Beeb for this year's awards) while his production of the Gospel Train series (soon to return for its fifth run!) proved to the doubters that a religious programme could hold a mass audience. If Michael wasn't busy enough, he is now getting increasingly involved in television production as well. The very popular Songs Of Praise From Old Trafford was one of his and he will be producing Songs Of Praise regularly in the future. Michael took time off from playing with the Beeb's digital editing suite in the BBC's Manchester HQ to answer some questions about his career in broadcasting.
I understand that your parents were missionaries. How on earth
did you end up working for the BBC?
"I got a job with the YMCA in Norwich organising children's holidays. Eventually, I landed a job researching a series on the Bible for the BBC that Brian Redhead presented. At the end of that I had a 17-week contract, two and a half days a week. I was taking home 62 pounds. I had almost no money to eat! I had to do all this freelance work for The Monday Programme on Radio 4. But then eventually I got a weekly contract and got into a job as trainee producer and worked for Radio 2 and then started doing work on Radio 1."
How did you start doing Christian music
"I'd always loved gospel music, it really does something to me emotionally, and in 1987 I got Radio 2 to do a series called Jubilee. Nowadays, when you get a series it is big money and champagne but back then it was, 'Okay, let's try and see if it works.' Jubilee was presented by Lon Satton, who was in the musical Starlight Express. It wasn't quite right, too much of Lon, not enough of gospel music. But from there we'd got a toe in the door for gospel music and we started Gospel Train, presented by Gloria Gaynor. Gloria presented it for about four years!"
How are the listening figures for Gospel Train?
"Thursday night on Radio 2 is never going to be great but we had about quarter million which is no mean number, is it really?"
A quarter million sounds pretty enormous.
"Well, Good Morning Sunday on Radio 2 get about two million every week. Pause For Thought with Terry Wogan about the same. Thought For The Day on Radio 4 has two million. The Morning Service on Radio 4 has one million every week. Our programmes are mainstream; they stand up alongside all the secular stuff around. We are in the market place! Jesus didn't spend his time in the temple; he went out into the market place preaching. So that's where we are. If you are going to have religious radio like in America, that's like being in the temple. We aren't doing that. We are out there with other people. Rub shoulders with them, take the knocks, get the criticism from the Review Board, which happens every week and can be extremely nasty, put up with all the people that are cynical about religion, and we still fight through. If they don't want our programmes it won't be because they're not good enough. I take exception to people that think that there isn't any religious radio because there is lots of it."
How did Gospel Train progress?
"The show took off and we started doing sessions for it which added much more to the live element and then we thought 'hang it all, why don't we just do it in a church?' And when we moved up to Manchester two and a half years ago (I was perfectly happy in London and it was a shock at first but it's okay now), that was one of the first things we decided to do - take the Gospel Train on the road - record gospel where it should be heard, where it's sung every Sunday morning, all day Sunday. We go into the churches and record, giving a platform to musicians from all over the country...Noel Robinson, Steve Thompson, John Fischer. It all works for us and the choir directors... fantastic talent."
You're white but you seem to have a passion for the gospel
"I don't believe in reincarnation but I think somewhere inside me there's a black person trying to get out! I feel gospel music. I can't begin to understand the oppression that black people have to overcome, but when I hear "How I Got Over/My Soul Looks Back In Wonder" - the whole business of overcoming the suffering and triumphing over it with a victorious shout of joy comes home to me. Interestingly, it seems to be that the future of the black churches, in a way, could well be the catalyst, the salt in the mixture, for the white churches. Because the white churches are taking off the black gospel music with such enthusiasm... It seems to me white evangelical Christians are catching the fire of the black gospel enthusiasm and they're injecting into it a certain drive and organisation that wasn't there before and the combination can be really electric. I'm very excited by that and I think that black gospel needs to have a wider stage and it needs to be packaged in a way that's right for white evangelical churches. There are people that are well involved in that already like Graham Kendrick."
I understand you've done some non-religious broadcasting and
"I have done the odd documentary for Radio 4, one of which led me to writing the biography of J Arthur Rank. I made a documentary on Radio 4 about him called J Arthur Rank Presents. A publisher remembered and I got a letter two years ago saying they wanted a biography because no one had ever written one on J Arthur Rank before. So I've just finished that."
I understand that before the scandal broke you tried to do a
programme on the Nine O'clock Service.
"I tried to do something on the Nine O'clock Service and they said they couldn't organise it in time... so I rang up the Late Late Service in Glasgow and I did a programme with them called God In The Flesh which has actually come out largely on CD. That worked really well and I did a thing with Lies Damned Lies who are the core musicians of the Late Late Service, and I did a thing called Release The Peace which went out on Remembrance Sunday - caused a big hoo-hah on Radio 1 when Danny Baker played the trailer immediately after the two minute silence and on air threw the cart across the floor and said 'It's no wonder...bloody station with crap like this.' I was so proud because the trailer was actually completely inoffensive because all it said was 'War, what was it good for?' The old Edwin Starr hit. It wasn't criticising at all. As a consequence of Danny Baker, the programme got a lot more attention. The last thing I did was with the World Wide Message Tribe, Midnight Massacre, which went out at Christmas last year."
How did you get to do the Midnight Massacre?
"I knew of the World Wide Message Tribe, heard their stuff and been to see them. I'd offered a Christmas special to Radio 1 and they'd bought it from me basically. I had an hour to fill and I really wanted to work with World Wide Message Tribe because they're local to here and they are at the forefront of today's music. The Midnight Massacre was entered for a Sony Award before it was even broadcast because Radio 1 liked it so much. That went down very well. The Review Board usually are very cynical and usually quite down on religion but they absolutely raved about it. Good Morning Sunday has been the main thing that's been occupying my time and I've also done Songs of Praise off and on as well. Last night I was directing Songs Of Praise in Blakeney in Norfolk and I got the plane at 10 to six this morning. I was actually directing it last night."
To someone who's never seen it, say to an American, how would
you describe Songs Of Praise?
"Songs Of Praise is essentially a mix of hymns and testimonies on one level. It tends to be quite event-based. If there's a big church event going on Songs Of Praise might come from it. I'm producing it from April but I've directed it quite a few times before. I did the Old Trafford Songs Of Praise where we had 40,000 people in Old Trafford. It was just a major event, a phenomenal feeling when we realised we were going to fill the place, very exciting - we only ever imagined that we'd get 7,000 (that was our wildest dream 7,000), never thought we'd fill it. It was an extraordinary experience! Songs Of Praise is a mixture of things; it plays all sorts of different kinds of music. You can't categorise it and say it's from an Anglican church with people singing boring hymns - as some people might think - there's a big band Songs Of Praise coming up, one from Barbados with neat black gospel music, there's been very evangelical rock and roll ones and some really pretty ones from nice, decent, clean Anglican churches, big ones from cathedrals, big ones from seaside towns in the summer, often with praise bands. Dave Fellingham has just done one in Southampton with totally modern music. It's a great variety of things - the whole range - all forms of Christian worship and I think people dismiss it at their peril really and it's also pulling in 8 million viewers at the moment and that you can't argue with."
How different is it working on TV than radio?
"Radio you can plate spin so much more easily. All the time I've been doing Good Morning Sunday I've been doing the Gospel Train, the odd Radio 1 thing and other things on Radio 2. On radio you really can work on 10-15 projects at once. With telly, it's a much more concentrated effort on one project. The last three days I haven't rung the office because I know that if I got distracted it would be really bad. You've actually got to really focus; it's a very big concern. With a Songs Of Praise outside broadcast there's 500 people in the church, there's 40-odd people in the crew and it's very much 'the circus comes to town'. It's a very big job but it's fun. Telly is fun. You've got more toys to play with but it's also more restrictive and telly airtime is a far more difficult thing to get than radio airtime. Mind you, time on Radio 1 is very difficult to get too, unless you're called Simon Mayo."