Getting a story read on BBC Radio 4 is very competitive. Di Speirs outlines how work is selected.
The process of successfully translating written work to the airwaves is as intimate as that of any editor within a publishing house. There is nothing like structuring the abridgement of a novel or a short story to focus the mind on the essential threads and hidden subtleties of a work, be it originally 3,500 perfectly chosen words or an intricately plotted 300-page novel. You aim to retain the essence, but in a trimmer, slimmer version.
So how do you get your story on air and to all those eager listeners? What are Radio 4 and BBC Sounds looking for and what works best?
New book submissions
New novels are found almost entirely through submissions from agents and publishers to individual producers. It is extremely rare that an author submits directly; even rarer for them to be successful in what is the most competitive readings slot of all. Bear in mind that in my office alone we receive upwards of 50 manuscripts and proof sets a week – a lot of work for a team of three producers. Having a reputable champion who can expand on why your novel really is potentially right for the slot is a genuine plus in getting to the top of the scripts pile.
What makes a good book to read on Radio 4?
Radio 4 is looking for the quality of the writing, coherence of plot (bear in mind though that complex sub-plots can sometimes be stripped out by skilful abridgers), a comprehensible, identifiable and preferably fairly small cast and perhaps above all, a sense of engagement with the listener.
It’s a broad spectrum but there are of course some issues surrounding language, violence and sexual content; these can be surmountable in many cases – judicious pauses are effective and radio is, after all, a medium that allows the imagination to fill in the blanks as far as you may want to.
Think too about the voice of a novel – this applies, as much does here, to the short story too. It’s an aural medium. Does your book have a ‘voice’ – can you hear it leaping off the page? Would you want to hear it read to you? And will that be easy to do?
The vast majority of short stories heard on Radio 4 will be commissioned. Publishing a collection, or appearing in many of the excellent literary magazines, winning one of the many short story awards or finding a voice through live literary events, will often bring you to the attention of producers, who also approach novelists and non-fiction writers from time to time.
The short story is a demanding form, and skill and practice are perhaps more vital here than anywhere else. You may have a better chance of being considered by aiming your story locally (some local BBC radio stations run short fiction from time to time). Be aware of which independent and regional teams work in your geographic area, as the Radio 4 slots reflect the regions and nations of the UK.
In all the readings slots, the BBC is looking for terrific writing, a good story and an ear-catching ‘voice’. Despite the fierce competition, producers love to ‘discover’ new writers for the network and every year sees new talent getting their work on air. Keep listening, get to know the slots and if you have a story – long or short – that demands to be read aloud, try to find a champion for it.
Di Speirs worked in theatre and for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before joining the BBC as a producer for Woman's Hour. She edited the Woman's Hour serial for three years and produced the first ever Book of the Week. She is now Editor, Books for BBC Radio – responsible for the output of the BBC London Readings Unit (about a third of Book of the Week, a quarter of Book at Bedtime, short stories on Radio 4 and essays on Radio 3), as well as Radio 4’s Bookclub and Open Book, and World Book Club on the World Service and abridged readings and Classic Stories and Novels for BBC Sounds. Instrumental in the BBC National Short Story Award since it began in 2005, she is the regular judge on the panel. She chaired the Orange Award for New Writers in 2010, judged the Wellcome Prize in 2017, has twice been a nominator for Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative (literature) and this year is a judge for the Dylan Thomas Prize.