Interview: James Bird
Images: BBC and Offside Sports Photography

Football is evolving relentlessly and rapidly and it’s a lot of fun. Balotelli’s celebrating with an Instagram Story and Chris Wilder’s getting Sheffield United to play with inverted overlapping centre halves and there’s goals coming out of our ears on Twitter and Wolves have a Brazilian E-sports player called Flavio who looks phenomenally good at those skill drills on FIFA before kick-off and the World Cup this summer is going to be amazing. It’s all gravy.

But one thing that doesn’t really change is football on the radio. I wrote about it recently. Since the first game to be broadcast live in 1927, not a lot has changed. It doesn’t need to, the simplicity of it is the yolk of it: someone with a microphone telling you what is happening somewhere else. And, often, that person with a microphone is Mark Chapman. Among a shedload of other things, Chappers currently hosts Match of the Day 2 and has hosted BBC Radio 5 Live’s flagship Saturday evening roundup Sports Report since 2016. His voice is one of the most familiar in British sports broadcasting.

He’s a radio geek, is Mark, really loves it, and so I rang him to talk about how his love for the radio happened, why the radio is still important despite technological advances elsewhere, and his favourite memories of listening to it.

James: Mark, what are your earliest memories of the radio?

Mark: It’s interesting, nobody has ever asked me that question, and I think my earliest memory of the radio is being sat in my dad’s Scirocco listening to Cliff Morgan on Sport on Four on the way to football training or school.

I think it’s similar for everyone; you can carry on doing the other things you’re doing.

And that’s the joy of it. Even now, the number of texts and tweets I get from people who are cooking their tea or are sat in the bath is absolutely remarkable. You can be doing a whole variety of different things and still have one ear on the radio.

Not many people like silence and I think just having the radio on in the background, particularly radio that isn’t just non-stop music, makes you feel like you have somebody you know in the kitchen or in the bath. The radio is a friend.

Yeah, I find it proper comforting. As a teenager, were there certain shows you enjoyed or specific shows that you tuned in for?

Simon Mayo’s breakfast show on Radio 1 was the one that inspired me: that was the one that I wanted to work at. I flicked between Manchester radio up here and Radio 1, because despite Radio 1 having Mayo on and people that I listened to, it still felt very London-centric. Whereas, listening to Pete Mitchell, Steve Penk, and James H Reeve in Manchester felt very Mancunian—which was actually very important to me. It is a bit of a stereotype, but when I was meant to be in bed or asleep, I would be listening on a little radio to James H Reeve, who did late-night radio on Piccadilly, under the covers.

What about a specific first memory?

Well, as a 14-year-old in 1989, I can remember making a massive thing of getting up to listen to Bruno fight Tyson. I did that because my grandpa died that day and he loved his boxing and I was very close to him. That was my first experience of death.

I can remember listening to Bruno fight Tyson that night in tears because he wasn’t there.

That’s an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it. How did you feel when you started doing Radio 5 Live on a Saturday?

One of the things I did when taking over Saturdays was bring back the opening music at midday. I wanted that theme tune at the start because I think music is so important on radio whether its music radio or non-music radio. And, of course, it’s imperative to the history of that show.  My main aim when I eventually stop doing this is to not have messed it up for whoever follows me because I don’t want to mess it up on behalf of those who have gone before me.

I suppose I was very influenced, again, by Radio 1 when it changed under Matthew Banister when he got rid of a lot of the Smashie and Nicey types [from Harry Enfield's Television Programme] and brought in Chris Evans and Danny Baker. I loved Evans’ breakfast show; it was one that would wake you up. I remember him doing the Grand Prix around the streets of London, and I’d wake up deliberately to listen to it. I would wake up to listen to Mark and Lard, who weren’t everyone’s cup of tea but they were hilarious. Even now, last week, when Greg James did the escape room, I thought ‘what a brilliant bit of modern radio that is’ and they just captured it brilliantly. You wanted to keep listening; you wanted to listen to Clara and Scott and Grimmy to find out what was going on.

You can get that with drama and wanting to know what happens next, but radio is specific and very special like that.

Yeah, definitely. Radio, in theory, is a sort of analog piece of media in a world that is changing via digital so quickly, constantly evolving… How does radio have to evolve or change to stay relevant in a very digital world?

I don’t think a lot of it has to change; I think there is still very much a place for one person with a microphone talking to and you feel like you are in a one-to-one conversation. That, in essence, is radio.

Even in those very early days, I can remember joining Radio 1 in 1999, and the discussions back then were about ‘how technology will be the death of radio’. And that’s not the case. What technology has done is opened it up even more. If I sit with my 11-year-old daughter on the school run and she hears something being talked about on the radio and it has a visual element to it, then she’s straight on my phone looking at Greg’s Instagram or Radio 1’s Instagram or whatever it may be.

If you’re going to create event radio, like Big Weekend or Tailenders on the road or That Peter Crouch Podcast, you’ve got to put a visual element to it now, whereas you didn’t use to have that. If you’ve got a radio show you need to make sure you’ve got cameras there, you need to make sure of how it looks when you put it out on social. Standardly, what we would do is say on the BBC Sport app and red button, we’re going to give you the additional offering of various stats, graphs, updated league tables, whatever it may be, and you can listen to us as well.

What radio has been able to do that TV hasn’t necessarily been able to do, with the rise of technology, is add more to the product. The Monday Night Club is just four people talking about football, but there are webcams in the studio now so you can put that on social now. You never remember that the cameras are there. The technology has enhanced the offering without spoiling it.

You’re right. I think there was a time (and maybe there still are times) where people declare the internet as the death of lots and lots of different things. In terms of radio, my dad came down to London the other day, and he said ‘it was a shame I couldn’t listen to the radio on the way’ so I showed him BBC Sounds and showed him he can listen to things that have already happened. He was amazed by it. The word ‘podcast’ to him still doesn’t mean anything. So for him to be able to re-listen to something blew his mind.

It’s remarkable, really. The Monday Night Club, for example, I will get comments about that all week because it’s up there and out there. You don’t have to listen to it on a Monday evening; you can listen to it as a forty-minute podcast, you can listen to it as the whole show, depending on how you want to listen to it. This week we had a conversation about setting up an email address for the programme. It’s an old school way of communicating, but because people are listening all the time, it’s pointless to text or tweet. The email address will give us the communication and correspondence and content that we can revisit the following week if anyone is listening on a Thursday or Friday.

You mentioned the visual aspect of radio that’s emerged, but in terms of communicating something visually that is happening in front of you that isn’t happening visually for the listener, what are the important parts of doing that, how do you do that in regards to football?

You have to take your time, don’t rush it. There’s no need to rush any kind of description because people can’t see it. It’s slightly different for commentators because they don’t want to miss a goal. But really, you can take your time: if you want to mention some stuff you can, if you want to mention other stuff then you don’t have to because the listener will be none the wiser. You will use your journalistic side to mention everything that is important, but if you don’t describe a certain thing that is happening in front of you, as long as it isn’t game-changing, then you can get away with it.

People put their full trust and belief in you because you are their eyes. For example, the opening ceremony of last year’s World Cup, Putin gave a speech to the crowd, and I was told there would be a translated feed that we would play in so that you could hear English words over Putin’s voice. After about five seconds I realised this wasn’t playing in my ears, so I said ‘well I’m sorry but we don’t have the feed of that, but I’ll see if I can do my best for you’. On the screen in the stadium, it was all subtitled in English, so I basically read the big screen for forty-five seconds covering all of Putin’s speech. There was Shearer, Dion, John Murray all giggling away after going  “Wow, you've got an amazing knowledge of Russian’. And I’ve gone ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, it just comes back to you’. People believe you, as they should, I just didn’t make it clear enough that I was reading it off a screen.

What are your favourite football memories of listening to other people do radio?

Alan Green’s commentary of the ‘99 final of Solskjær and him saying Bayern don’t know what’s hit them. Manchester’s hit them’—even now gives me goose bumps. City fans probably hate that commentary. But that really sticks in my mind. You can’t prepare that. They’re the best bits.

I use TMS as a barometer for stuff that I do on TV and radio, trying to find that balance between that expert opinion and assuming the knowledge of the audience, which I think with sport is important. But it’s also important to bring newcomers in and have fun in a way that doesn’t patronise people. It’s one of things I’ve tried to do with the NFL, making sure that if you are a fan, you recognise that we do some really good analysis, but hopefully, if you’ve just stumbled upon it and have no clue what’s going on, you can still enjoy the show. I like that with TMS, being on a car journey and nobody saying ‘can we turn that off?’ My 11-year-old daughter might, but I work by the rule of trying to manage not boring anybody in the car.

Again, in terms of sport, it’s the only thing my girlfriend likes. She loves it when I have TMS on because they could not mention the cricket for six hours and it would not matter.

Exactly. I use that as a bit of a template.

Are there any favourite memories of you personally presenting on the radio?

I don’t know if I have favourite memories. Listen, every time, every Saturday at 5 o’clock when I say those Sports Report intro words, I still feel like I have to pinch myself. It’s like, bloody hell, this is what I use to do with my dad, getting in a car having been to watch rugby or United or whatever it may be, and somebody saying ‘it’s 5 o’clock and this is Sport Report’ on Radio 2 or 5 Live. And now that’s me. Nerves disappear a lot in this job, which is a good thing, but those first few times of taking over Saturday’s doing that is like ‘bloody hell, BLOODY HELL’. It’s not a memory, but an insight into how I feel about doing the job.

The other one that sticks in my mind recently where I was very nervous and conscious that I had to get it right was the night of the Europa League Final between Ajax and United which was a few days after the Manchester bombing. I felt I had to get that right as a Mancunian doing it that night. I had to speak as me, as an individual and hopefully, it resonated with people, both Red and Blue. That was something I worked very hard on. In the grand scheme of things, it was irrelevant whether I got it right or wrong, but I didn’t feel like I got it wrong in that intro.

Everyone’s personality has a chance to come out on radio, but when you have to get the serious stuff right, then there’s a little added pressure because you don’t want to disrespect anybody.

Mark Chapman presents a range of sports on BBC Radio 5 Live, including Monday Night Club catching up on the weekend’s football.

You can download BBC Sounds to listen to Replay for iconic sporting commentaries and interviews from the BBC archives, including Wimbledon beating Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final. 

That was a very nice conversation. We'd go for a pint with Mark. Issue 17 is out now, and you can order it to your house here... or subscribe to get all four issues a year through your door here.

1 comment

Really? Football radio requires the listeners to keep a constant map of the field,the direction each team are kicking to,a running list of all Players,Field and Goal umpires and a GPS of where the ball is in play constantly (not to mention offside decisions and can only estimate how close/far the players where offside) or are we just listening for commentators highs and lows and the occasional favorite/disliked player?.

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