I’ve never fallen off the back of a camel before but if you’re going to do it then you may as well be at the foot of a pyramid dressed in a Liverpool FC shirt surrounded by a crowd of people convinced you might actually be a multi-millionaire footballer.

As you can plainly see, I don’t look like Mo Salah.  At all.  I dream of having that much hair.  It’s safe to say we’ve never been mistaken for each other – but that wasn’t going to put off the crowd that gathered after I’d let slip I was born in Liverpool.  Just that one single quirk of geographic fate was enough to make me Mr Popular.  In the cold light of day (even though it was 43 Celsius in the shade in Giza) making my getaway from the crowd on the back of a passing camel wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had.

I was there to highlight how Mohamed Salah is hero worshipped across Egypt and the Arab world.  I think I proved my point even if it did mean heat exhaustion and dehydration.  

I’ve been working on a documentary and podcast series for, seemingly, ages.  As a lifelong Liverpool fan I’ve often walked a very thin line between journalistic integrity and taking every opportunity I can to see and ‘big-up’ the Reds.  This was the modern day equivalent of a bus driver’s holiday.

Never does a story go by without me looking for an opportunity to tie in a reference to LFC – I remember getting a serious telling off as Jane Garvey and I chatted to each other on BBC Radio 5 Live about the great days of the 1970s and 1980s when Liverpool would return home with a trophy or two and the city would explode in a sea of red.  OK, I was standing outside Old Trafford at the time and I should have been talking about Manchester United’s homecoming  after they’d won the Champions League – but I wasn’t going to miss a chance to talk about my Reds.

The Semi

It all started in April 2018 as I pestered my boss to be allowed to go to Rome to cover the return leg of the Champions League semi-final between Roma and Liverpool.  She wasn’t keen.. but had another idea: a documentary about the life and times of Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian footballer who had signed for Liverpool 10 months earlier and had taken the club by storm.  In case you’ve been camped out in the desert without internet access and don’t know anything about him just click here for a list of his achievements.

I thought it was going to be a three week project.  Over a hundred days later I was still working on it.  By the end of the recording, editing and production, most members of my family were utterly fed up with the Mo Salah songs and interviews I’d been working on for over three months (it might have had something to do with me constantly singing them).  

The Documentary

The idea was for a one hour long programme to be broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live.  This mushroomed out to include a version for BBC World Service with accompanying social media promo films and other content.

Versioning

We often talk about ‘versioning’ in the media – creating different versions of material to suit different markets.  Nothing exists in its own pool anymore – anything you create has to work across a number of outlets – video, audio, social, broadcast, print, online, serious, quirky, humorous, long, short, fast, slow.  I’m not sure this exists outside the world of broadcasting and publishing – when friends who aren’t in the business tell me they’re making a film I’m still a bit surprised when they tell me that’s all they’re doing – there isn’t an accompanying article, social media campaign and a different version for a dozen different audiences.  

So it was with ‘Salah’.  The World Service element gave it all a bit more excitement.  A ‘World’ audience comes with a whole new set of, er, opportunities.  It’s not just a case of changing the ‘ident’ from 5 Live to World Service.  It’s a reworking, a remix and let’s be honest, a re-edit from top to bottom.  My voice had to be a bit more formal, I had to cut the scouse accent a bit, change measurements from imperial to metric, currencies to dollars and my links between interviews to be a whole lot less sarcastic.  Like fine brie or a three year old son with a pint of milk inside them who then decides to go on a rollercoaster, sarcasm doesn’t travel well.

The Recordings – Liverpool

Work on the programme started off in Liverpool – where I was born.  I’ve used this fact of chance countless times over the years.  If I’m ever in trouble – at a checkpoint or a roadblock, a belligerent security guard or a bored police officer – I throw out the “Liverpool” card and the doorway in front of me opens.  It’s worked in Jordan, Iraq, South Sudan, South Korea, Nepal, The Central African Republic and, less successfully, in Belfast where it turned out everyone I met was a Manchester United fan.  Weirdly, in Bulgaria once, I managed to talk my way out of being arrested by telling the police officer I was from Middlesbrough and knew Chris Rea (I’m not and I don’t).

The greatest thing about Liverpool, people will tell you, are the characters who live there.  And, for once, they’re right.  There is no finer place for vox-pops or just a ‘stop-in-the-street’ interview than my hometown. Whilst making this programme, I was wandering towards the ground at Anfield.  It was an hour and a half before kick off and I needed a few interviews with Muslim fans (I should explain that Salah, who’s Muslim, is really popular with all fans but I wanted to find out what fans who share his faith thought of him).

The first man I spoke to was a new fan who’d come to love the club because of the number of Muslim players employed there.  

The second fan I spoke to had brought his daughter to the game for the first time because he felt it was a great environment for her to be in.  

Most of us would have been happy with that but I had a feeling that Anfield had more to offer. 

I approached two men standing opposite the Kop end of the ground. One was wearing an Egypt football shirt.  I asked him his name.

“Salah.  Mohamed Salah”.

Game over.  Three-nil to Garnett.

My wife always tells me I lead a blessed life – that good things land at my feet.  Of course, he wasn’t THE Mohamed Salah – it turns out there are six Mohamed Salahs in his village alone.. but still – never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

Defeat

The programme was going really well. I’d recorded dozens of interviews and captured loads of ‘colour’ – the type of conversations that make things come alive – but the programme was heading towards its crucial moment.  The Champions League Final beckoned. In my notebook, the plan went like this: Mo Salah scores twice before kissing the trophy as he holds it aloft in front of the cheering crowd in Ukraine.  He’s adored around the world which reverberates to the chanting of his name and the singing of his songs.  As kick off approached I was back in Liverpool to watch the game on a big screen at Anfield. It was a party atmosphere. Nothing could go wrong.  Liverpool were about to be crowned Champions of Europe for a sixth time.

Oh sh*t.

Salah was injured and left the pitch after 26 minutes. Liverpool lost.  It was a disaster – on two fronts.  Firstly, Liverpool’s season was in tatters and, possibly more importantly, my programme was in the bin.  Luckily, as I kept saying during the programme, this wasn’t a piece about football.  It was about something much more important than that and to get to the bottom of it all meant a trip to Egypt.

Egypt

Hot.  Hotter than hot.  My main memories involve heat exhaustion, food poisoning and sitting on that camel wearing a Mohamed Salah footy shirt.  

It had taken weeks to get permission to travel.  As a working journalist you have to get a special visa from the authorities. It’s hardly ever a good idea to go in to a country ‘unannounced’ – especially when, let’s be honest, it’s such a ‘good news story’.  However, the Egyptian authorities were concerned that I might not have been telling the truth when I told them I wanted to see how Salah was helping the people of his village and how he was, basically, a boss la’ (translation: a good egg).  They thought I might be up to no good so they sent someone to sit in the car with me as we drove from Cairo to Nagrig, Salah’s hometown, four hours to the North.  

It was a clever plan of the Government, foiled only slightly by the fact that my minder spoke less English than I spoke Arabic – so even if I had been secretly planning to cause trouble (I wasn’t and I didn’t) then he wouldn’t have been able to understand what I was saying and I wouldn’t have really known what he was saying to me.  In the end, he came to realise that I WAS just trying to see what good can come from a multi-millionaire footballer who cares about someone other than himself.  If you have a spare hour, have a listen to the programme or the podcast series and you’ll see what I mean.  But, bloody hell, it was hot.

Charity Begins At Home

I don’t want to give the whole game away – I want you to listen to the documentary or the podcast series – but, in a nutshell, Salah turned out to be a revelation; donating huge amounts of money to help the people of his village. We met some amazing people with staggering stories – which work much better on radio or podcast than they do in print. 

The Edit

A lot of the first half of the programme dealt with events in Liverpool so I already had most of it ‘in the bag’ by the time I went to Egypt. It seemed almost sacrilegious to be sitting in a hotel room in Cairo editing when I could have been out looking at Tutankhamon but time was really tight.

By the time I flew home the first half was done and the second half was mapped out.  I’d recorded over twenty four hours of interviews for the one hour documentary.  Obviously, I had quite a bit of good audio left over by the time the final edit was done.  So it was decided I should put out six half hour podcasts as well.  If you thought turning one hour of output into three hours is an easy job, you’ve never made one before.  It’s a whole new ballgame – podcasts are not radio programmes.  I’ve actually no real idea what they are but I do know they’re not radio programmes.  New links had to be recorded, interviews re-cut, relationships between conversations had to be built.  And, to top it all, I was doing the whole lot on an iPad on my summer holiday in Spain.  I’d taken a really good quality microphone with me and a pair of headphones that made me look like Mickey Mouse with an ear infection. Along with a couple of duvets pinned to the wall (to stop sound colouration) I was set.

The Rights Nightmare

Some people say that getting a programme ready for transmission is like nurturing and bringing up a new born baby – you care so much you don’t want to let go.  Twaddle.  By the time I’d finished the main documentary and sent the finished file to the powers that be I was already packed and ready to disappear on holiday again. A week at a friend’s home in France beckoned.  

Call me an idiot but I didn’t turn off my email.  The holiday is forever to be known as ‘The Holiday When We Didn’t Really Have A Holiday’).  A couple of days before the Workd Service version was due to be broadcast to an audience of millions my email pinged.  We didn’t have the rights to broadcast any of the commentary of any of the matches that Mo Salah was playing in – which were a central part of the whole programme (it being a documentary about a footballer!).  

International broadcasting rights are a palaver.  You can play something in some countries but not in others, you can use a few seconds of audio in some territories and class it as news footage and be slapped on the back of the wrist for doing so if it gets published elsewhere.  I now had to recut the whole programme without any of the commentary from the games.  Imagine watching Top Gear without the cars (although that’s, perhaps, a bad analogy!).

I had an iPad and a dodgy internet connection.  And less than twenty four hours to do the editing.  oh.. and I was in the middle of France and the red wine was really nice. By the time I’d cut the commentary out I’d lost three and a half minutes of the original piece.  If you read the words ‘three and a half minutes’ quickly it doesn’t feel like it’s too bad.  Just 210 seconds.  Less time than the average Beatles song. You try sitting silent for ten seconds and you’ll realise that the idea of having ‘dead air’ for that long isn’t really an option (although, if you bribe me well enough I’ll tell you about the radio station that broadcast silence for five minutes and nobody phoned in to complain).

Anyway, by four o’clock the next morning I’d managed to rebuild the programme using extensions of interviews, slowing down a few links, using some long words and using a bit more music.  The next problem then struck me – a storm had hit the region of France I was in.  Power was out – so I had to upload it using my phone.  In .wav format.  No more data for ME this month!

Tech

It’s what you’re really interested in, isn’t it?  So, here we go:

All the interviews were recorded on a phone, using the internal microphone in most cases.  Whenever I tried to use an external mic things went wrong.  I lost two great interviews because I faffed around with microphones that caused the phone to crash.  As I’ve always said – as soon as you plug anything into a phone you create a weak point.  In this instance I used an iPhone X but, obviously, there are loads of others that could be used as well.  I was able to use the phone, too, to film in public places that would have meant I attracted too much attention using a standard sized camera. 

In terms of apps – my audio app was Ferrite.  I used it for all recording and for basic ‘chop-it-down’ editing.  For final production I used Adobe Audition because I needed to bring in some VST audio processing on the music I was using – guitars needed a level of EQ that I couldn’t really do on an iOS device alone.  I also needed to cut some background noise using adaptive reduction and I might have slowed the whole thing down a tadge to get it to exactly the right duration for BBC World Service!

The studio links were a bit more complicated – because I didn’t use a studio. As I wrote previously, the majority of the first half of the programme was compiled and edited in Egypt.  We had the material from Liverpool in the bag and it was already edited so I used a MikMe microphone in my hotel room and on location to create the  ‘in-the-head’ style of links I was after.  The difference between the quality in interviews and in links is really important – many radio productions try to do everything in as ‘perfect’ a quality as possible.. which is fine until you want to actually highlight the ‘otherness’ of your interviews – you don’t want everything to sound the same.  So the MikMe gave me the high quality links I needed between my, slightly thinner sounding, phone interviews.  

The second half of the programme was cut at my home near Manchester.  I built things in a pretty linear manner – because I’d recorded them like that and I wanted the whole piece to sound like ‘a journey’.  For these links I was able to use a Sennheiser MK4 plugged into an iRig Pro that was fed into a phone. Thank goodness for Airdrop which allowed me to move large amounts of audio around wirelessly – the days of emailing audio to yourself are over!

The same process was used for the podcasts as well – a combination of studio links recorded on the MikMe and location material recorded on phone.  The only difference being the amount of sarcasm that was added to the podcast links using a VST Sarcasm Plug-In on Adobe Audition.

Here‘s the link to the programme 

And the podcast is here