I recently had the good fortune of interviewing Peter White, a broadcaster I greatly admire. Like myself, Peter has been blind since birth and I was keen to find out more about his experiences working in radio. Radio is something I have always been passionate about. I have enjoyed many of Peter’s BBC Radio 4 programmes, including his weekly programme aimed at visually impaired people called In Touch, and consumer programme, You And Yours. I love the way he interviews his guests and challenges them when they don’t always answer the question properly or try to skirt round the issue. When conducting the interview, I decided to take a light-hearted approach and ask him questions he may not usually get asked. The results of which are below. Enjoy!
Why did you decide to get into radio? What was it about that industry that excited you as a visually impaired person?
It took me a long time to decide I wanted to get into radio. I did lots of other things first, including beginning a Law degree. But then I discovered I didn’t really have the kind of grasshopper mind to become a lawyer. I eventually decided upon a career in radio because I thought it was a suitable medium for me as a blind person because it is all about words. I became an avid radio listener at about the age of three or four: I listened to as many programmes as I could, including ones on foreign stations and political ones. I didn’t always understand the content, but I just loved the medium as a whole. As a blind person, radio is where you get a lot of information from. Also, I was surprised there weren’t more visually impaired people working in it at the time because for me it just seemed such a natural medium. This was back in the 1970’s when I initially became interested in pursuing a career in radio. I had some advantages as well: I have a fast braille reading speed which means it’s easier for reading scripts. Radio has become less formal over the years and it’s easier to ad lib things now, but with the type of programmes that I wanted to do which involved news, it was important to be accurate. For example, You And Yours is a consumer affairs programme so it’s important that things are accurate in this area and be able to read scripts at a fast speed. I had the kind of mind that liked to jump from topic to topic and have variety in the things I did, and I think it finally dawned on me that radio was what I wanted to do.
Were you inspired by anyone – do you have a favourite radio broadcaster and why?
There were two radio broadcasters that I admired, both of whom are dead now. One was a man called Rene Cutforth who was a journalist and foreign correspondent. I first heard him report on the Korean war in the 1950’s when I was about six or seven and thought he had a great gravelly voice. In his later years, he did some more thought-provoking radio looking back on his childhood and how he got into radio. I was inspired by Rene because it didn’t all go smoothly for him either, and he didn’t know what he wanted to do in his early life.
The other radio broadcaster I admired was Nick Clarke (who used to present The World At One on BBC Radio 4.) I thought he was a fantastic broadcaster because the way he asked the questions didn’t allow for the interviewee to have an escape route out of answering the question. Further, he asked the questions but was courteous in the way he did so and wasn’t aggressive in the way that he asked them. He was so on the money and on the button: a great news broadcaster. Nick represents the type of presenter I want to be when presenting serious news programmes.
You have been presenting In Touch on BBC Radio 4 for a long time. Who has been your favourite person to interview and why?
There are two people who I have really enjoyed interviewing. The first is David Blunkett. We originally met at a conference about programmes for blind people when I was in my twenties. In those early days David Blunkett didn’t think there needed to be a programme for blind people and wanted to get rid of them, and that was what this conference was about. We had a lot of arguments back then. David and I have many things in common though: we both have the same eye condition and we both went away to boarding school at the age of five. Our birthdays are also twelve days apart. Over the years I watched his career progress from leader of Sheffield Council to becoming Labour MP and everything he had to deal with from the public. I would say we are friends now. The other person I really enjoyed interviewing was the blind American jazz pianist George Shearer. He was really interesting to learn about, and was similar to me in that he used to be a pub pianist in his early days. He played the piano much better than me though! His dad used to take him around, and he’d catch buses to lots of pubs and play there night after night. There are loads more that I can think of, but those are just a couple.
Who have you found the most challenging person to interview and why?
There are many people who have been challenging to interview over the years. David Blunkett could be quite challenging when he wanted to be. I’ve interviewed every prime minister since Harold Wilson. I always remember being nervous before interviewing the feminist writer Fay Weldon, and I don’t usually get nervous before doing interviews. Just before the interview I received a call from her taxi, saying it was too early and she didn’t want to get in the cab. When I did interview her, she was absolutely charming. The other person who was very challenging was Margaret Thatcher. She even stormed out of my interview which I felt very proud about! The reason was because I asked her if the Talking Books Service (which is part of the charity RNIB’s library service) should be part of the public library service rather than a charity and books read by volunteers. She wasn’t happy with me asking this question, and was angry with her advisors for not warning her that she might get asked that question. She thought she was going to have an easy interview and didn’t think she was going to get any difficult questions. Someone else who I found challenging to interview was the MP George Galloway. He isn’t heard about so much these days, but he had very strong views on Iraq and could be quite hard work to interview.
If you could interview anyone in the world, alive or dead, who would that person be and why?
I would have liked to interview Adolf Hitler if I’d had the chance. I would have liked to get to the bottom of his psyche, but seeing as no-one else has managed to do that, I don’t think I would have stood much chance. The other person I would have loved to interview is John Lennon. This is because I was a big Beatles fan in my youth, and still am today. I think they are one of the greatest rock bands ever.
I am aware that you have presented a series about travelling as a blind person on BBC World Service in the past. When you were making that programme, did you travel anywhere exciting or go to a place you haven’t been before? And what challenges did that throw up?
I travelled to a lot of exciting places when making that programme. The most exciting moment was when I was interviewing a man who was a shoe shiner in a market in Nairobi in Kenya and a fight broke out. The fight was about the right to own a piece of ground in the market, which was obviously very important. The producer I was with wanted me to stop recording as the fight was getting very serious, but I refused. I told her it was making fantastic radio, and it did turn out to be a very powerful piece of radio, I think. I also did a lot of recording on American railway stations which was interesting because most of them were sleepers. The first place I recorded in was San Fransico. I was struck by how one side of America was wealthy such as cities like Washington, and the other side was poverty.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love going to sports events. It doesn’t matter to me that I can’t see what’s going on and that I have to rely a bit on what someone’s telling me, it’s the atmosphere that I enjoy. I’ve also been to a West Indies match in Australia, but I don’t go away to watch them as much as I’d like because of the job. I also read endlessly when I get the chance: both audio and braille, but mainly braille. The development of electronic braille and E-books has meant that I’m able to read a lot more widely than was possible before. I also love dogs, and though I don’t have a guide dog deliberately I enjoy walking other people’s dogs.
In your career what has most inspired you and conversely what has challenged you the most?
When I first started presenting In Touch, one of the things I wanted to do was to question big organisations such as RNIB, Guide Dogs and service charity Saint Dunstans (previously Blind Veterans UK), about the work they did and the decisions they made. They were reluctant to answer questions about their jobs at the time, and I wanted that to change. They thought they were doing such a wonderful job and that they were such wonderful people, but that wasn’t always the case. I wanted them to answer tough questions about themselves, which they weren’t always willing to do. But I think that has changed a lot over the years: not just because of me but also because of the producers that I have had throughout that time. I think the same has happened with politics too: we’ll keep asking the questions until we get answers!
How do you see the future of the radio industry with the increasing use of technology such as apps and smart speakers that people are using to listen to radio? Do you still see yourself going into a studio to record programmes such as In Touch in five years’ time?
I think it is a challenging time for radio, not just for the BBC but elsewhere too. But it has a special place in people’s hearts and I think it will survive. Talk radio such as the programmes Radio 4 does will survive. I don’t think anybody else is doing it to the same extent as we are. People always thought one form of communication would replace another, but that didn’t happen. For example, people thought television would replace radio, but it didn’t. People thought local newspapers and journalism would replace local radio, but it didn’t. So radio still continues to survive. Whether a specific programme like In Touch will still be around in 5-10 years, I’m not sure but I’d like to think so. It’s managed to survive 59 years so far (next year it will celebrate its 60th anniversary), so I think it will be. I think radio has a very bright future.
I would like to thank Peter White for taking the time to speak to me, and for such an fascinating and entertaining conversation which I hope you have all enjoyed as much as I did!
By Harriet Smith