“It needs to be surprising to get on air”

Dubai Eye’s Georgia Tolley loves the adrenaline spike of coming up with the goods every day

Credit: Joachim Magtoto

Maths has never been my strong point, but I sat down recently and figured out that every year I do over 1,500 on-air interviews. Six a day, five days a week, 260 three-hour radio shows a year.

But if somebody asks me my favourite interviewee, I’m always completely stumped. The churn is just too quick – I can’t keep up with all the stories I cover and all the people I interview. The news agenda is incessant.

That makes it sound exhausting, and some days the grind gets to me, but mostly it’s exhilarating. Also, professionally it is almost all I have ever known – I have always worked on live, daily news shows.

After over two decades in the industry, it means I’m addicted to the daily adrenaline spike of having to come up with the goods every day. A normal job seems too pedestrian, although after a late night, occasionally I wish I could come into the office and hide behind my PC.

My morning starts at 8am, with a cup of tea, research, and writing the introductions, or cues, to each of my interviewees. But the process of picking the topics and choosing the guests starts the day before, in partnership with my producer Jennifer Crichton. We work incredibly closely, and our job is to distill all the local and global news into a three-hour programme.

Finding stories

Emphasis is placed on local stories and anything that prompts conversation, for example, if you would chat to a colleague about it in the queue for coffee, then we want to talk about it on our show. Sometimes the stories are obvious, on other days, like in the summer, or over Ramadan, Eid or Christmas, it is nigh on impossible to find a suitable topic that has not been done before.

Often it all comes down to the ‘quality’ of the guest. The programme’s success depends on people coming to talk to us, to share their stories and expertise. My job is to make them comfortable, and I’ve always preferred a gentle approach of questioning to the rough and tumble of combative political programming.

Of course, radio as a medium helps people share. It is much more subtle than TV, much more intimate. There is no camera and people frequently forget that they are speaking into a microphone. They get confident, talkative and fluent, and sometimes their mouth runs away from them. At other times, it is what they skip over, or do not say, that is revelatory.

In this region nuance in news is far more important than in the west. Sometimes I like the subtlety. Often it drives me up the wall. My favourite topics are the ones that get people talking.

Entertain and inform

We have a responsibility to inform, but also to entertain, and if I have a strong view, I will express it, even if it riles people up. Listeners regularly message to tell me I’m wrong, and as a presenter you have to learn to take the more barbed comments with a pinch of salt.

A huge part of our job is to imagine the listener on the other side of the speaker – the mysterious audience. I imagine I am talking directly to a couple of people, both from very different backgrounds because our audience is so multicultural.

I often wonder what people are doing when they are listening – whether my voice is coming out of their radio, or out of headphones, directly into their head. It still feels like an enormous privilege to have a platform to talk to people so intimately.

Driving the desk

My show lasts three hours and by the end I am pretty zapped, literally drained of words. At Dubai Eye, presenters control everything that goes out on air – we call it driving the desk – which means you have to keep total concentration at all times. Loo breaks are snatched in between interviews, during songs and ad breaks.

By my third hour on air, we start to look at the next day’s show. Jen and I scour all the news websites and X (or Twitter) for breaking stories. We have a simple rule, it needs to be surprising to get on air, but even a seemingly straightforward topic can come alive with the right guest.

That might be why picking a favourite interview is so hard; on the day, on that subject, they were the perfect commentator, but then the news agenda moves on, and the whole process of making a programme starts again. That’s the fun of it.

By Georgia Tolley, presenter of Dubai Eye 103.8’s The Agenda, every weekday from 10am to 1pm  ­