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Radio's new air force

WHEN, last year, the supermarket loyalty card gimmick swept like wildfire through an unsuspecting nation, Eddie Mair announced on his Radio Five Live lunchtime show that, not to be outdone by the likes of Sainsbury's, he was organising his very own card for regular listeners. It was a joke, of course, but it didn't stop dozens of otherwise intelligent people from phoning up to apply. Realising that an embarrassing situation was in danger of developing, the Scots-born broadcaster and his team swiftly arranged a few benefits for prospective cardholders. These included 10% off meals in a restaurant in Adelaide - that's Adelaide as in Adelaide, Australia - and two quid off any trip costing more than a tenner from a particularly sporting taxi driver in Cardiff (and that's Cardiff in Wales, by the way). A typical example of Mair the Merrier at work. Blessed with a quick wit as dry as a Benbecula sabbath, Eddie is the walking, talking, and very tall proof that intelligent radio journalism doesn't have to be heavy, po-faced, and humourless. In a wireless world in which colour is not supposed to matter, he is the complete Dulux range. While dozens of his broadcasting contemporaries - every Tom, Dick, and Harry - were trying to dig escape tunnels from radio to telly, he was doing precisely the opposite; turning his back on the camera and embracing the very facelessness of the microphone. For him, it was a shrewd career move. Today he's arguably as good as it gets on the national airwaves. What goes around, comes around. In 1993, when Mair left BBC Radio Scotland, the station's then Controller, James Boyle, remarked that he was genuinely sorry to have lost him. Well, five years on and he's found him again. Boyle, now the loved and loathed Controller of BBC Radio Four, has just poached him from Radio Five Live. Mair is now the proud presenter of the Saturday edition of R4's early evening news programme, PM, and the helmsman of the station's new Sunday morning news and current affairs review, Broadcasting House. Eddie Mair is currently one of several tartan talkers who have comfortably assumed the plaid position in London. The names James Naughtie and the two Kirstys, Young and Wark, also spring to mind. For some curious reason, these days our pronunciation is particularly well received across the national airwaves. Take a handful of ever-so-slightly posh Scots accent, mix them with a few plummy Oxbridge tongues, and you've got the per- fect vocal arrangement for any self- respecting waveband. But the thing that makes Eddie just that wee bit special is his perilously unpredictable personality. There is a singularly idiosyncratic side to his work; an acute sense of mischief. Like when he was anchorman for Radio Five's saturation coverage of last year's Hong Kong handover ceremony and he lost his script. Quick as a flash, he announced a competition for his audience to win his official Honkers hand-over press kit (by all accounts a massive collection of mostly useless pamphlets, handouts, and gimmicky gifts which every member of the accredited press gang received). Or the time he was interviewing Lib-Dem MP Ray Michie on BBC Radio Scotland and said: ''I see you're reading your statement from a fax from party headquarters.'' Wicked. And just a tad sneaky. Clearly a man who takes no political prisoners. Like all the best broadcast journalists, Mair is disinclined to let MPs off the hook. When he worked in Scotland he was often accused of being somewhat prejudicial to the Conservative Party. But, just as often, he was criticised for having a right good go at Labour. And the Lib-Dems. And the SNP. So he must have been doing something right. And something left. And something centre. He is genuinely astonished when MPs and political parties complain about his hit-'em-hard style of questioning. But, he reasons, appearing on radio is something which goes with their territory; it's their job publicly to discuss the issues of the day. And when they try (as they so often do) to bodyswerve the tricky questions, Mair believes its perfectly legitimate for him rigorously to pursue them, almost to the point of rudeness. What is worth bearing in mind with Eddie Mair is the fact that he was an experienced broadcaster before he had the experience of being an experienced broadcaster. Confused? Well, he never has been. The son of a lorry driver and a nurse, he was brought up in Whitfield, one of the less salubrious areas of Dundee. His first experience with a microphone came at the local secondary school where he entertained the troops with a lunchtime ''radio' show across the internal Tannoy system. It was something of a captive audience since there was no on-off switch for the speakers. At 14, he and some of his chums were asked along to the local commercial station, Radio Tay, to talk on the air about their school. While the rest of them acted the way you'd expect a bunch of adolescent kids to act under such circumstances (much fluffing of lines and stumbling over words), Eddie came over like a true pro. He was a natural broadcaster: confident, relaxed, and unflappable. Over the next few years, while other kids were swapping comics and riding mountain bikes, he was making regular contributions to the station and, when he eventually gained a not inconsiderable number of Highers, he rubbered academia and chose instead to go straight for a career in journalism. Like many before him, his first real break came when DC Thomson didn't give him a job. Shortly thereafter, he became the 17-year-old presenter of Radio Tay's weekday breakfast show. Recognised as one of the smarter cookies on the cake shop shelf, Mair was eventually lured to BBC Scotland, first as a downtable sub-editor in the Glasgow newsroom and then as a presenter on Radio Scotland's evening news show. Pretty soon, with an AM shift on Good Morning Scotland and a PM stint presenting the flagship Reporting Scotland, he was meeting himself coming home from work when he was going out in the morning. But with Reporting Scotland at last Eddie Mair was in the picture. His good looks, now visible on the television screen, made him the less-than-obscure object of desire for many a female viewer. Sadly for them, it was a pointless exercise. For that was another thing about Eddie. Though he didn't exactly shout it from the rooftops, he made no secret of the fact that he was the Gay Frae Tay, comfortable in his own sexuality and happy in a steady relationship with another man. Just when Mair, at the still tender age of 27, looked set for a high-profile rise up the television personality ladder, he made that great escape down the tunnel and back to full-time radio. It was a deliberate and calculated move - and something of a risk. But he wanted the freedom which only radio could provide. You might be able to grill a politician on television but you can positively barbecue him on the wireless. They called it Eddie Mair Live and it almost died on the first day. It was supposed to be a morning phone-in show - the only problem was that, on its debut, the phones didn't work. It could only get better. And, to be fair, it did. To such an extent that Mair was snapped up by the Beeb in London to join the line-up for the new Radio Five Live.

Like the station itself, he was an instant success with his customary rapier-like wit and sharp-as-a-tack mind. And, try as it might, sophisticated London failed to affect that beautiful loopiness which punctuates his character. The ethos of the new station was to drop the latest news in at the earliest opportunity. So, when word of Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher's nuptials arrived while Eddie was midway through the roasting of the chairman of a beleaguered English water board, he asked the poor chap for a comment on the marriage. There is the illusion of the workaholic about Eddie Mair. And, true, you could never accuse the lad of being workshy. But, at the age of 32, the secret to his sanity, perhaps, is that he has the ability to turn off and tune out when his show is over. Cue end credits and he's up the road. No hanging about for the post mortem and no early arrival for the pre-prog preparations. But a chap's got to keep himself busy and, with his new R4 contract tying him to weekends-only work, Eddie will have time to concentrate on Above The Title Productions, the radio production company which he and his old chum, Bruce Hyman, have just set up in partnership with the independent Ideal World. It will come as no surprise to learn they plan to make comedy programmes.

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