Jeff Zycinski’s laugh and tell all about BBC Radio and his two year stint in Selkirk

A life on the airwaves...is recounted by Jeff Zycinski in his novel The Red Light Zone, which is billed as a laugh 'n' tell of his 25-year career with BBC Scotland.
A life on the airwaves...is recounted by Jeff Zycinski in his novel The Red Light Zone, which is billed as a laugh 'n' tell of his 25-year career with BBC Scotland.

Daytime television convinced Jeff Zycinski that it was time to finally write his much-threatened book.

And The Red Light Zone was the upshot, detailing Jeff’s 30 years working in radio during which time he faced up to Prime Ministers, princesses and Hollywood superstars.

His self-styled “laugh ’n’ tell” memoir focuses on his 25 years with the BBC, but also details his first forays into the studio at Moray Firth Radio in Inverness and Radio Clyde in Glasgow.

Jeff then applied for a job at the BBC because a friend told him it was ‘money for old rope’ and he was posted to the Beeb’s Selkirk office, the home of BBC Radio Tweed.

Unfortunately, Radio Tweed had been shut down a year before but that gave him the freedom to commission unique shows – and it was the making of him.

Jeff went on to become a department editor with BBC Radio Scotland and, later, the longest serving head of Radio Scotland until the post was scrapped in early 2018.

And it was at that point he decided to pen his book.

Jeff (56) explained: “When I left the BBC, it wasn’t under a cloud. I was happy to go and there were no hard feelings.

“But there was always a standing joke that if we wrote a book about what went on, no-one would believe us.

“I always threatened to write it; no-one believed me.

“After watching too much daytime television, with adverts for memory foam mattresses, over 50 and funeral plans, I finally decided to write the book.

“The message was lie down and don’t get up again so I thought I’d better do something more useful!

“I had lunch with Donalda MacKinnon, the director of BBC Scotland, and casually broached the subject but assured her it wouldn’t be a kiss ’n’ tell, rather a laugh ’n’ tell.”

And that’s what Jeff has achieved in The Red Light Zone; the jokes are mostly on him and the spotlight firmly on the daft situations he found himself in doing a job he clearly very much loved.

While he went on to interview a galaxy of stars, his first job in radio couldn’t have been less glamorous.

Jeff recalled: “I was in my early teens when I really started enjoying radio.

“I would listen to the BBC, Radio Clyde, as well as the likes of Radio Prague and the Voice of America.

“I loved the fact you could hear everything from songs to drama and comedy.

“So I started writing short stories for Radio Clyde about Nelson Pipsqueak which went out in the middle of the night.

“That gave me a fascination for how a radio station worked.”

After studying psychology at Glasgow Caledonian (then Polytechnic) Jeff did his postgraduate in journalism at University College Cardiff, during which he did a two-week placement at Moray Firth Radio and was offered a job.

It was a good grounding for his future career.

“I was a news reporter based in Inverness and that first year was busy,” he said.

“The Ness Viaduct collapsed on my first week on the breakfast show, there were prisoners on the run from the south of England, nuclear plant scares and the odd sighting of Nessie!

“But my first big scoop was about a colleague who walked backwards down a mountain because she was too embarrassed to call mountain rescue for help.

“That taught me to always ask what your colleagues got up to at the weekend!”

Jeff then spent three years at Radio Clyde, where he hoped no-one would mention Nelson Pipsqueak, before becoming the BBC’s senior producer in Selkirk.

He said: “I’d just arrived when I was told I had to attend a charity concert in Kelso. I thought I just had to thank everyone for going – no-one mentioned I had to sing ‘We’re no awa’ tae bide awa’ and I only knew the first three lines.

“My wife enjoyed my embarrassment!”

The following year, Jeff convinced Doddie Weir to take part in a spoof soak-a-thon, which saw listeners calling in to defend the rugby legend and suggest other more worthy ‘victims’.

Jeff has only fond memories of the Borders.

“Coming from Glasgow, you felt a bit cut off from the rest of the world,” he said.

“Odd things also caught us out like pubs not selling alcohol to women!

“And the rivalry between the towns was incredible.

“I remember going into a shop in Selkirk. It was bucketing down but the lady serving was delighted as it was Gala’s Common Riding!

“At that time, some 25 years ago, the Borders was pretty much undiscovered as there was no train service.

“But we lived there for just over two years and loved it.”

Red light means you are live!

Jeff Zycinski was born in Easterhouse, the youngest of eight children and delivered by his dad who only phoned the midwife once the new arrival made an appearance!

He now lives with his wife Anne in the Highlands.

They have two children, Sarah (24) and Alan (22) who are both following in dad’s footsteps.

Jeff explained: “Alan did a multimedia journalism degree at Glasgow Caledonian University and won a digital team award at the Scottish Press Awards the other night.

“He was walking back from a shift one night when he saw the fire start at Glasgow School of Art and was so busy filing copy and pictures that he didn’t realise he’d have nowhere to sleep that night – his flat was in the exclusion zone.

“Sarah has followed her own path and is a radiographer in Paisley – at least it’s still got radio in the title!”

The Red Light Zone in his book refers not only to a microphone going live but also a career-defining moment in a Soho strip club, for which he was fully clothed!

Jeff said: “I was recruited by Capital Radio for a programme covering 24 hours in the life of London. I was sent to the Raymond Revue Bar because I had the look of someone who could blend into the background of a seedy nightclub.”

Jeff’s book also details a to-and-fro with Margaret Thatcher and telling Princess Anne exactly where to get off as she enquired about Govan bus routes!

And he details how Hollywood really is another planet.

Jeff added: “I was interviewing Gregory Peck and all these helicopters kept flying over. The neighbour was flying in a forest of Christmas trees!”

The Red Light Zone is available now via Waterstones, Amazon and usual outlets, priced £8.99.