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Radio Reflections: Talking About Movies on Air

As the host of Talking Movies, as part of a movie review programme that has been running for almost 10 years, there are a few things one will pick up along the way. Stephen 'Spling' Aspeling better known as Spling on Fine Music Radio is heading towards 500 episodes of Talking Movies, a milestone considering the Cape Town movie reviewer hasn't missed a single broadcast in 478 weeks and counting...

Radio Reflections

Here are some thoughts and reflections on Talking Movies, the movie review show, and on talking movies on radio... something Spling has done on and off for many years. From getting called up to talk about this week's latest film releases, Spling's Top 5 Movies of the Year, the latest Bond movie, the South African film industry, being a movie critic, film celebrity obituaries or even as a special guest... it's always fun to have your film conversation broadcast far and wide.

The Origins

The Talking Movies segment was adopted at a point in time when Fine Music Radio was seeking a presenter to take over the show after the slot had been open for a several weeks. Connecting with the station at a time when they were eager to onboard a replacement reviewer, Spling stepped up to the plate without much more than a weekly 5-6 minute slot called Talking Movies broadcast on a Friday morning at 8:20am.

There wasn't a format, which gave Spling a good deal of creative license in crafting a weekly episode consisting of three film reviews of titles coming to screen, now showing and available on rental. In its infancy, Spling actually used his notes to create a more spontaneous feel to the segment so that it wasn't too robotic. Over time, he moved from using key notes to formulating a fixed format and script. Nowadays, the "transcript" appears before the recording and makes it easier to ensure everything's there and that there's a good sense of how long each show will run - aiming for a word count of under 1,000 to land close on six minutes. Each episode takes roughly 9-10 hours to create from start to finish.

The Zeitgeist

This introduction to Talking Movies and Fine Music Radio was before the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Showmax - a time when walk-in video stores were in the early stages of their slow and steady decline. DVD was still a contender with Blu-ray trying to establish itself as the go-to optical media product of choice. Netflix was a DVD delivery service under revolutionary digital transformation set to change the industry forever, which prompted such local startups like PushPlay and even DVD vending machines.

The changeover happened so abruptly that its ripple effects were soon felt in South Africa as the video rental store exodus began and faster Internet speeds made it only a matter of months before even the technology behind DVD delivery and vending machines obsolete. Places such as DVD Nouveau continued, aided by their incredible depth of selection with a few die hard video stores dotted around Cape Town. Who would have thought that Spling's "rental" reviews would eventually come to encompass the bulk of his film review segment?

Again and Again

While an avid film fan who turned his lifelong passion into a profession, making the trek through to press screenings two to three times a week is easier said than done. It's so much better to watch a film in the scenario it was designed for and it's even easier to have your arm twisted when the pre-screening comes with a complimentary Coke and popcorn. Admittedly, the Coke turned into soda water but the time commitment and logistics make it difficult to keep up with the demand - even if you live within a few minutes of the screening venue.

Unable to make it into studio at 8:20am on a Friday, it was decided to pre-record Talking Movies. Radio's dirty little secret is that not everything you hear is live on air all the time. There are many interviews and segments that are pre-recorded and edited down to sound better and Talking Movies is one such thing. There's much more control. You can cut out mistakes, lip smacks, odd clicks, stammers and practice getting difficult-to-pronounce words and names right. The beauty of being able to pre-record is in just repeating your line after an error... again and again until you get a good take. The reason it's important to do this is so that you can keep the momentum, remember the intonation and offer a sense of continuity in terms of energy. You get to prepare a show that is to your liking.

Chasing the News

The Covid-19 pandemic forced cinemas to shut their doors and this drove a wedge into the lives of film critics and entertainment journalists who were used to visiting the cinema up to four times per week. Think about it. There were at least three to six films releasing each and every week, most of which came with the promise of a press screening in order to drive traffic and sell more tickets. Since our culture is all about the "toast of the day", the latest film releases are always given more importance and there's no space for yesterday's news - even if we were getting some "new releases" weeks if not months after their international debut (it's cheaper to license the longer you wait).

So, the pandemic was a major shake up, disrupting the lives of movie reviewers who were used to getting film releases served up on a silver platter. For Spling, a film critic whose audience ranges from fanboys to aficionados, the hunt for the right kind of films has always been a challenge. Ideally, he tries to find movies that can appease both arthouse and commercial tastes so that it's not a case of talking to a variety of audiences with their own custom film selection. This would be preferable but almost impossible given the nature of the job and that doing this would eventually run dry if you're constantly after new-ish films.

Is this Thing On?

Having had years of live phone-in movie review interview experience with weekly slots on ChaiFM, 2Oceansvibe Radio, CapeTalk and 702 - it wasn't all that difficult to do Talking Movies. Being able to write a single script and using this as your notes to appease several different call-in scenarios across just as many stations makes absolute sense. The problem is that being a weekly opportunity, this does of course mean one needs to be available and prepared enough not to make a fool of yourself on national radio on a regular basis.

To his credit, Spling was always prepared and even if it involved some last minute prep - even sitting in his car after a screening, there was enough to talk about to keep it entertaining and interesting. Pro tip: cars are reasonable makeshift sound studios if you can't find a quiet space where you are and consider keeping a thick blanket nearby if you really want to optimise your sound. While it's not often spoken about, this under a duvet trick works remarkably well when you're in a bind.

Please Standby

The problem with regular live phone in "what's new at the movies" type interviews is usually a mix of time and remuneration. The time factor is normally not so important. If you're usually at your desk, work in a quiet or manageable sound environment and already have your notes, then you've got the greenlight. The problem sneaks in when you're more on-the-go, have several different hats and have little to no control over your sound environment.

You're basically caught wherever you are, which can prove to be a bit of a challenge when you're nipping out to do an interview between press screenings at a busy mall. The no-pay factor can be mitigated by being able to mention your website as a trade exchange for exposure, but then you're assuming those extra click-throughs are eventually going to lead to more income or jobs somehow. You've got to get a handle and full appreciation of what the foothold's really worth at the end of the day.

Talking Movies on Fine Music Radio started at a time when Spling had two weekly movie review phoner interviews already. One was during the late afternoon ChaiFM drive on Thursdays and the other was on Cape Talk/702's Friday night. While doable, it's quite a thing being prepared to do a five to ten minute interview twice a week. Think about it, you need to have your wits about you, have your notes down, be ready to receive a call, keep a good rapport with the presenter and try not to become infamous overnight week in and week out. What's trickier is the time slot because lets face it, taking an interview on Fridays at 9:45pm means your weekend only starts at 10pm.

Write and Record

So doing a pre-recorded show is so much easier - even though you don't have the rush or excitement associated with the live broadcast, offering your opinions on the latest films and making jokes on air that could go horribly wrong. The other benefit is that you get to sound the way you want to sound. The best thing about pre-recorded shows is that you can do them at your convenience and have a final mix before they air. Having constantly been involved with multi-person interview movie segments, it's actually quite liberating to do all the talking.

Talking Movies has a 5 minute 45 second limit, which is quite long for this broadcast length during weekday shows. This time limit protects audiences from getting bored, switching stations and knowing that the worst case scenario is that things will probably have moved on in a few minutes. While fairly long for a talk segment, it's even longer if you're listening to one voice. The benefit is that the speaker has the floor, won't be interrupted or overpowered by an eager or egotistical interviewer and this allows you to get to say what you really want to say about the films you're reviewing.

Find Your Comfort Zone

These movie interview segments don't usually run much longer than 7-10 minutes, which means that if there's too much banter or dialogue that you tend to offer a fairly superficial review. This can be derailed by the film's theme, cast or other superfluous elements. Radio is obviously entertainment and like television speaking to a broad audience can make the review fairly frothy and geared primarily around infotainment rather than in-depth analysis. This is just part of the trade off. You want to be able to convey authority without becoming overly self-indulgent or too technical. Speaking about the mis-en-scene or cinematography of a film when the audience literally want you to cut to the car chase means you have to read the room.

So, in many ways Talking Movies has been a perfect vessel to review film. What's made the movie review show even more enjoyable for a film critic like Spling, it that Fine Music Radio is regarded as an arts and culture hub. This means he can review movies in such a way that the craft and finesse of the film become important. So important that you won't be mocked (much) but actually encouraged to discuss the finer points and nuances that make and break films. This isn't to say that you're instantly talking in such a way that listeners can hear your nose is up in the air or that you talk over people's heads but that you can review with a degree of freedom.

Read the Room

Having said that, there are still limitations depending on the make up of the audience you're speaking to. For instance and this is generally-speaking, Fine Music Radio is not a radio station for what's referred to as "skiet, skop and donner" (shoot, kick and punch) movies. Anything that's too action-orientated without much in the way of cerebral grounding, tending towards gratuitous sex, blood-letting and ultra-violence is not tolerated. Sadly, many action, superhero and horror movies that focus primarily on spectacle find themselves lumped into this category too.

When it comes to Talking Movies, it's a joy to be able to speak to people about film without talking down to them. Even if the review goes over their heads, it's not so much a case of asserting some form of pretentiousness as it is in encouraging viewers to watch, discuss and wrestle with film more readily. Spling's review style is to point out the good, the bad and even the ugly without becoming irrelevant or preachy - building a case for each film based on both its flaws and merits. Hopefully the show's format and Spling's unique insights have made spending 5-6 minutes a week in his company worthwhile.