Season 5 of The Skewer begins on Wednesday, November 3rd 2021 for a 7 week run on BBC Radio 4 at 11.15pm. It’s also available as a podcast on BBC Sounds.
The Skewer will return for Series 6 in 2022.
1.How would you describe the show?
Hmm. Tricky. The best I can do is that it’s a kind of concept album made of news. We’ve been using the phrase ‘satirical river of sound’, which sort of sums it up and seems to work. What I’d say is that it’s a sort of new approach to topical news jokes and, unusually for such things, rewards repeat listens. I’ll let others describe it instead:
'An immersive, otherworldly, freeform assault on the senses constituting a ludic yet deeply haunting collection of juicy quotes and well-placed soundbites from recent global bulletins, juxtaposed to form an eerily beautiful, discombobulating mosaic of political spin.'
'Holmes takes the newsscape as his playground, juggling countless noises and titbits from topical Brexit coverage to create a jarring, unsettling work specifically designed to be experienced immersively via headphones. A mind-boggling collage of extracts, interviews, and fragments of speech, it satirically defamiliarised the (all too) familiar, critiquing the Machiavellian nature of yah-boo politics.'
‘Cleverest thing on radio by at least 8 distances’.
‘The boldest thing I’ve heard on BBC Radio in years. A masterful piece of radio. Brilliant.’
‘An audio rollercoaster. Magnificent. Give this all of the awards.’
‘Mind-bogglingly brilliant and distressing. Intelligent, catchy and powerful.’
‘I’d be quite happy to stop listening to the news and just listen to The Skewer.’
‘Wonderful. It’s been a while since something was this engaging and listenable from start to finish.’
‘Simply brilliant. Please listen to it. It’s the most incredible satire of current affairs I’ve ever heard.’
‘Nightmarish. But – oh my God - in a good way.’
‘Audio news drugs to medicate the strange world we live in.’
‘There is just nothing like this out there. Brilliant songs, cutting edge satire. Compelling and you have to listen more than once. Evocative. Intoxicating. Incredibly original. Listen and listen again – you always hear something new.’
2. How Do You Put The Show Together?
With Pro-Tools. Deadlines vary – see bottom of document. (Fyi for s5 we’ll be mixing Tuesday and on Wednesday we’ll master and add last min topicals up to 5pm.) Over the week I make stuff, weave it into contributions from the likes of you, and then send rough mixes and audio stems to our brilliant engineer (Tony Churnside) and then we mix and master. We’re constantly tweaking and adding stuff and I am forever saying things like ‘flip the stereo on that one particular word’ and ‘where’s the plug-in that makes it sound backwards?’, which I think drives him mental.
3. How Would You Describe The Perfect Contributor?
No such thing. Everyone is different and anyone is welcome to pitch in. What makes the best contributor? One who is fucking angry. Channel your anger and frustration with the world through us. This is what gives us such a broad range of voices and ideas. It’s diversity in action! It’s not an ‘opinion’ show, we just take audio that’s out there and present it in our style. We’re neither left nor right, nor ‘woke’ nor whatever the opposite of woke is. One advantage of this approach is that because no-one is having to be on a stage we don’t have to say the same old predictable crowd-pleasing stuff to a radio theatre audience of Guardian readers. And because we don’t have to chase gags and punchlines, we can also make people think and reflect. We’ve had messages from people who have cried at, to give just a couple of examples, our coverage of the horrific murder of Sarah Everard, Grenfell, and Holocaust Day.
4. What Kind of Contributions Are You Looking For?
We take long form ideas or simple, short cut-up ideas. Listening to the programme will give you an idea of what we mean by that (s1, s2, s3, s4 are all available on BBC Sounds.) So, for example, one of our contributors for s2 said ‘What about Farage in Baywatch, given he spends so much time on the beach looking for migrants?’ And so we made that. Ditto Ghislaine Maxwell as the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Some of it’s silly, some of it is very dark – but we do like it to be ‘satirical’ (small ‘s’) in the sense that you should be making a point, or making listeners think. And certainly maybe making them think something they possibly haven’t considered before. We’re happy to jolt people.
5. How Would I Format My Contribution?
In the first instance, an email pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org an idea. To be clear, we don’t just take stuff from people who are adept at fiddling with audio, we also just take ideas on paper. Often, if we like it, we’ll ask you to source clips and then send over the links with timecodes on an email. You don’t have to build it – we can do that. Many great bits come in in this way and it means that anyone can pile in with ideas - which is what we like. Others will make the whole thing themselves. We then ask for the separate audio stems which we reserve the right to cut down, add to, mess with, repurpose and remix into the overall soundscape. You can make it in anything from Audacity to Reaper to Audition to Pro Tools – that’s up to you. All we need are the separate .wavs.
We have some regular commissioned contributors, which we review and will add to if we feel your contributions are regular and you are consistent in getting stuff on. As a non-com contributor you will be paid if we use your stuff on air. We pay per minute of delivered, ‘made’ material or, if you have a simple cut up line (usually mixed somewhere into at the beginning of each the ep) we pay a one liner fee. If you have a have a long form idea but don’t want to / don’t have the tech to make it and are just happy for us to take the idea and run with it, we pay an ‘idea’ fee, if it makes it to air. We will ask you to source links to clips and timecodes for these.
7. Any Prizes?
Yes. How kind of you to ask. The pilot won an award at the 2019 Audio Production Awards and Series 1 won Gold at the New York Radio Festival, and a British Podcast Award. Since then we've also won Gold (Best Comedy Producer) and Bronze (Sound Design) at the 2020 Audio Production Awards., and Best Comedy at the 2021 BBC Audio Drama Awards. Other nominations include the Chortle Awards. Oh and we've just won Best Comedy and Best New Show at the 2021 Arias Radio Academy Awards, Best Podcast at the British Podcast Awards, and The Skewer is a finalist in three categories at the 2021 New York Festival Awards.
8. Why Is Radio 150 Times Better Than TV?
Well it just is. Let me give you a recent example. In one ep of s2, as late as the afternoon on day of transmission, we had the idea that Donald Trump was appointing Derodomontatus the Supreme Imperial Magistrate from the Transformers universe to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the US Supreme Court. We then put that together in about half an hour. Can you do that on TV? No. Well, you could, but it would require hundreds of people in dozens of departments at enormous expense, and everyone would get cross because the show is due to air in a matter of hours and the set builders, make up, sfx, camera crew and IN FACT everyone concerned is rightly due a break. We can do it with few clicks. Also, we like playing with sound and aural perception. We like to treat people who are listening on headphones with special little sound easter-eggs. There are so many layers, and we use all kinds of techniques from binaural stereo to ASMR. As I said earlier, we reward repeat listens.
Do get in touch if you’d like to contribute. The ABSOLUTE key is to go back and listen to previous shows. To be honest, they’re a much better guide than this load of old shit that I’ve just written.
Your long form ideas ‘on paper’ that you’d like us to make at our end: FRIDAY MORNING (prior to the coming Wednesday’s show.) Long form ideas you’re making yourself: email pitch by FRIDAY (prior to Wednesday’s show) and, if it’s a ‘yes’, delivery by END OF SATURDAY please. Obviously if big news stories break after this (or you have an idea that you think we simply MUST look at) we will still accept stuff later than this. It takes a while to collate stuff and integrate it into the overall soundscape which is why we prefer things early; it means it stands a better chance.
Quickie topical stuff (eg simple cut ups like the stuff that usually ends up in the first few minutes of each programme) you can send anytime MONDAY- WEDNESDAY. We can drop these in as late as Wednesday afternoon.
All this said, feel free to pitch at anytime, because your idea could work for a future episode, you never know.
Finally, don’t be disheartened if your idea doesn’t get on first (or even second or third) time, and we don’t get back to you with a box of tissues and a kind shoulder. Firstly, tissues aren’t provided for in the budget and second, despite being able to hug people again, you’ll have to take us for dinner first. We don’t put out for just anyone, you know. Alas, we just don’t have time to contact everyone individually with feedback, I’m afraid, and neither do we have time to contact you before broadcast to rejoice in your success if you’ve got stuff on. In the first instance, you’ll find out when you listen. But keep trying. We still like you.
NOTE: Contributor Dan Sweryt has also written a contributor guide (which is irritatingly better than mine), so you may also find the below:
"Persistence Is Fertile" - writing for The Skewer
Obviously, you should listen to the show so what you’re pitching/writing suits the format of the show. Standard advice for all the open submissions shows.
No, I mean it. LISTEN TO THE SHOW! (he shouted, to make a point). Alright, you should listen to all the other shows before pitching but you’ll probably get close to the format if you know you’re writing gags or sketches. Cos a gag’s a gag and a sketch is a sketch, right? (You won’t get anything on those shows, but you could write something akin to what they want).
With The Skewer, you ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT get anything on if you don’t listen to how the show works. You need to know that to be able to pitch anything.
It might confuse you at first because it’s very different to everything else. And the first thought is ‘Oh, I can’t possibly write for that!’ but YOU CAN! Because we said that, and then we did! (Also, it’s multiple-award-winning, and who doesn’t want to write for a multiple-award-winning show?)
There’s no excuse to not listen because (a) every single episode ever made is on BBC Sounds and (b) it’s brilliant. And I mean that even for the stuff that’s not ours!
And wear headphones. You need to wear headphones to listen to it, especially if you’re going to try and write for it.
Oh, and if you don’t listen before pitching you will look like a loser to Jon Holmes, which is not good, because…
(At the time of writing) Jon deals with everything. He’s who you send your pitches to. He’s who fixes your sketches and finds clips that are better than the ones you suggested. He’s who makes the actual sketches (with the award-winning help of genius audio magician Tony Churnside).
If you know anything about radio comedy, you’ll know Jon Holmes, because Jon Holmes is lots of radio comedy. Your ideas don’t have to jump through hoops like other writers or script editors reading through your stuff and ‘passing it on’ to the next level above and the one above that. You are dealing directly with ‘The Boss’ and the boss is a good man to impress, not least for your writing career.
Standard topical advice here: find a bunch of things that have been in the news, write them all down in a big list. Don’t try and be funny with them yet. Just write them down.
Some things will just jump out at you straight away. Like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk racing to be the first into space. “That’s so ridiculous it could be Wacky Races!” Well, yes, exactly. So we did just that:
Or what if Matt Hancock’s introduction of Test and Trace was one of his tasks on Taskmaster:?:
Try and think of how a topical news story could be linked to a TV show, or film, or advert (none of those have to be topical, and Jon does like a reference to an old sitcom!).
If there is a new film or big TV series coming up, that’s great too, not least because there will be numerous trailers hanging around [https://twitter.com/jonholmes1...], ripe for mashing up with some serious news stories, which brings us on to the next point...
I cannot stress this strongly enough. You are mashing up things not ‘writing’ per se. You can try writing the lines that you think would work, then spend endless hours hoping that a clip somewhere exists with exactly the line you need. Finding clips and mashing things together into a single coherent, funny sketch is an absolute shedload of work already, even if you already have the lines!
Make sure you have the basis of a report somewhere to lay the spine of your sketch upon. Skim through Newsnight or Panorama on the iPlayer, find some news reports on YouTube, listen to Today on Radio 4 and 5Live on BBC Sounds. All of these report on topical events, and that’s only what’s in the news. THEY’RE DOING HALF YOUR WORK FOR YOU!
(TOP TIP: don’t link to the main news programmes on iPlayer, as they disappear after a day for some reason, so aren’t any help to anyone!)
Now you have a vague idea of what you want to do, you’re going to pitch your idea to Jon.
Write very briefly what your 3 or 4 ideas are in a couple of lines each and (maybe) a link to the story to show him your starting point.
Pitch these ideas in an email to him on Friday.
Let him pick the ones he likes and says 'go for it' because it's an absolute shedload of work trying to find all the clips, so you’d have to be very confident if you think something’s going to work that he hasn’t greenlit. (But I will reiterate, Jon has a lot of radio comedy awards. How many do you have?)
Obviously, doing everything in The Skewer (and a hundred and one other shows), he may not always be able to get back to you with his thoughts. Generally, this is because he’s too busy, rather than hates your ideas. Obviously, he hates a lot of our ideas, but he probably won’t hate yours.
So get on with your favourite pitch and work that up. Or a new idea you didn’t pitch but think might work. Don’t take silence as rejection and write your fantastic idea that is too good not to be on the show.
It’s a weekend thing, The Skewer. It doesn’t have to be, you can write whenever, but Friday is probably the best day for pitching, then Friday and Saturday nights for writing up and submitting. Jon and Tony are already putting together sketches over the weekend for that week’s show. So,yours needs to be in the mix sooner rather than later. The longer you wait, the better your sketch needs to be!
You can put together the audio of your sketch, if you are so inclined. If you do, you will be paid more (£50/minute of broadcast material). Only do this if you are into it and really want to. It can be fun making your own sketch. But you won’t want to make three of them every single week of the series.
Like with any topical shows, the most topical bits are in the one-liners. These are generally in the first couple of minutes of each show and are most likely two news stories mixed together to give a funny punchline. So, on Monday and Tuesday, listen to the news - radio is probably a much better starting point if you haven’t heard any perfect clips on telly or anywhere that morning.
Submit your one-liners pretty quickly, as the show is being more and more put together with every passing minute.
Submitting one-liners on a Wednesday is high-risk, high-reward. You’ll have THE most topical material on the show, but the show might already be in the can, as it’s got to be finalised and go through all the BBC hoops before broadcast that night.
You won’t know if you have anything on the show until it goes out. There are no ‘well done for getting on’ emails. There are no ‘close but no banana’ emails. But there is an enormous sense of satisfaction if what you heard in your head is suddenly broadcast into your ears. Perhaps more so than any other show you’ve written for. Enjoy.
Persistence is fertile. Keep doing this every week for the whole series. Then repeat for every week of every series.
So your stuff didn’t get on. Well, you’re not going to give up, are you? Keep coming up with stuff and pitching, for a start, but also, around twice as much material is actually put together by Jon and Tony than is actually broadcast, so it may have been good enough for the show (particularly if Jon gave you the go-ahead after pitching), but just didn’t make it for whatever reason; time but, more often than not, late news events superseding it.
Well, the difference between The Skewer and almost every other show is that THERE AREN’T ANY ACTORS! Perhaps not good news for actors, but great news for writers, as you have all the links in your sketch AND you have access to free, relatively straightforward-to-use audio editing software (ie Audacity and many others), meaning you can record the sketches and put them together yourself, for your own posterity! It’s relatively easy (even I can do it, put it that way!) and it’s extremely rewarding to hear your own work produced by yourself. Then you can stick it on Twitter or Facebook so others can hear it. With how many other places you’ve had sketches rejected can you do that, eh? Even fewer train you in audio production!
© unusual. may 2021