Newsjack producer Lyndsay Fenner on open-door comedy

Newsjack producer Lyndsay Fenner on open-door comedy

By Emma Morgan 21/02/13

Want to write for radio? Open-door shows allow anyone to submit so, to make your submissions stand out, take the time to be legible and appropriate – oh, and funny...

Radio producer Lyndsay Fenner has the unenviable job of reading through hundreds of open-door submissions to Newsjack each week. So, to improve your chances of making the cut (and to make her life a little bit easier), here’s her expert advice.

 

Read the guidelines

Newsjack is very clear about the kind of material it wants: sketches and one-liners, in documents attached to an email. So heed the advice, and listen to previous shows for a better idea of the finished product. “Listening to the show is the really important thing,” says Lyndsay [pictured below]. “I’ve just read a sketch with God interviewing for a new Pope – we covered that in last week’s show... You need to know what you’re submitting for.” And make a note of the cast when crafting your sketches: “One big thing that drives me mad is when people send in sketches with four blokes in them; our cast [pictured above] is two men and two women – Justin Edwards, Lewis Macleod and two of: Pippa Evans, Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Nadia Kamil. So write sketches with the right number of parts in it for the right number of actors!”

Be original...

“If we’ve had 10 sketches that do something in the same way, and then something else comes along that’s got a totally new angle on it, it surprises you,” says Lyndsay, “and those sketches tend to be better.” So don’t bother submitting the obvious gags already doing the rounds: “This week, we’ve had ‘Oscar Pistorius hasn’t got a leg to stand on...’ sent in a lot. And we’re not going to put it in, a) because it’s a horrible story – it might be something you can refer to tangentially, perhaps, but it’s not really funny in any way – and b) because it’s a joke that everyone has done on Twitter.” 

...But be appropriate

Having an open-door policy inevitably means a mixed bag of submissions. “I don’t mind stuff being bad,” says Lyndsay, “because it’s people having a go. They’ll either get better or get discouraged. But I do mind stuff that’s just offensive, because it means they haven’t listened to the show.” So if you’re writing material that would make Frankie Boyle blush, think again before pressing Send. “For one particularly offensive gag, I actually emailed the writer back; it turned out to be a young student who thought they were being edgy... Some people don’t think about the fact there’s someone reading it at the other end. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

Newsjack producer Lyndsay Fenner

Prepare for rewrites

Newsjack’s fast turnaround doesn’t leave time to give feedback, so even sketches selected for possible inclusion in that week’s show are likely to be reworked. “There’s a lot more leeway given when we’re doing the first reads,” says Lyndsay, “but for the finished show, the bar is as high as it would be for anything else.” And it’s not just the open-door material that’s rejigged – the commissioned writers go through the same polishing process: “Even the people who come in on the Tuesday do redrafts of the sketches they’ll write.” But fear not – even if what you sent in is almost entirely rewritten, you’ll still get credit. “It’s really important to make sure everyone is properly credited, even if it’s just a line or an idea, because that’s the thing that encourages them.”

Lay it out legibly

You needn’t worry about having the latest version of Final Draft, but do take the time to make your submissions easy to read. “If I can open a document and it’s legible, that’s the main thing,” says Lyndsay. “When you’re reading 800-odd emails over two days, you just want to be able to open and read it straight away.” And the format of a submission is often indicative of better writing: “You do tend to find that people who bother to lay them out properly are the ones who write better sketches, simply because they put more effort into it generally. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get something all in block capitals in the body of an email that’s brilliant.”

Persistence pays off

Newsjack pays £36 per minute for sketches and £18 for one-liners, so getting your material on the air doesn’t mean you can quit your day job just yet. But people who impress week after week can find the open-door policy leads to more doors opening. “If people are consistently good, we get them in for a writing day on the Tuesday, to fill in the gaps,” says Lyndsay. “One of our current contract writers, Tom Neenan used to submit stuff, started getting things on and then got invited in and now he’s got a full-time job writing for the radio comedy department. It does work.” And writing for Newsjack can lead on to bigger things: “I also produce The News Quiz, and each week we get one new-ish writer to come in and write additional material, with our three main writers, who are all very experienced. In the last series of The News Quiz, all but one of the people had come through Newsjack.”

Newsjack is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Thursdays at 10.30pm.

 

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