Geeks Vs Loneliness: lessons learned from Ed Doolan

You might not have heard of Ed Doolan. But he's a man who quietly taught some valuable lessons...

Hello and welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our spot on the site where we try and natter about things that may be affecting you, or people around you. We’re realistic: not every post is useful for every person, but our is that over the course of this series, there’s something that resonates and helps you, even a little. 

This week, I’m going a bit niche, and I want to talk about a broadcaster called Ed Doolan. Ed was born in Australia, but really made his mark on the world in my home town, Birmingham. He ultimately took the lunchtime slot on Radio WM in 1988, and whilst he worked across television and newspapers too, it was radio that was his first love. A love that proved infectious.

For what Ed brought to the airwaves was kindness, remembering whose side he was on, and fighting for those who didn’t have much power, against those that did. His consumer advice and support programme on Radio WM soon proved to be essential listening, as Doolan did battle with huge companies on behalf on his listeners. He did it with courtesy, steel and no shortage of humour. His distinctive voice and his big personality soon saw Brummies adopt him as one of their own.

I was an avid listener. What Ed Doolan proved is that if you have a platform, as he did, you can and should use it for good. I remember one caller in particular ringing up, on live radio, and telling Ed that he wanted to kill himself. I stopped completely in my tracks. How on earth would anyone deal with that?

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What followed was a masterclass in dignity, respect and compassion. Doolan, as great broadcasters can, made it feel like a conversation between two people, as he carefully talked to said caller, and metaphorically talked him down. It was incredible. Radio WM have been playing clips of Doolan’s work too, and at the other end of the scale, it dug out one where a man was being given a phone number on air, of a company to call who could help him. Doolan started giving out the number, but it was soon clear that the man concerned was struggling to write it down properly. This went on for a good minute or two. About half way through, rather than hand the job over to an off-air producer, Doolan simply said right, we’re going to do this. And carefully, kindly, made sure the man had the information he needed. He saw the humour, sure, but there was no ridicule. No nastiness.

Just compassion. Manifesting itself in a very small, but impactful, act of kindness.

Ed Doolan died on Wednesday, following a prolonged fight against dementia. He allowed me to go behind the scenes of his radio programme once, in my teens, when I was working out what I wanted to do, and I saw a master class in treating his team and his audience with respect. I saw him again as he battled dementia and thanked him. He continuted broadcasting, albeit less, after his diagnosis, and what I was struck by was a man with all the information in his head, but a real frustration he couldn’t get it out. Not that he grumbled.

I do appreciate that, when people pass, the stories tend to be uniformly positive. But I don’t think there’s glossing going on in the case of Ed Doolan. Here was a man who I’d wager most of you haven’t heard of, whose work ultimately boiled down to helpin and entertaining others. To understanding that a small act of kindness from him could make a major difference to the recipient. To be clear, I’m not saying that he did it for personal gratification. Rather, he just had an ethos that it was the right thing to do.

Anybody and nobody can be another Ed Doolan. On the one hand, his broadcasting style is virtually impossible to match. But on the other, those kindnesses, those moments of fighting for other people, and a deep-rooted care for those around? I don’t think you need a microphone and a radio station to practice those.

If any of this has encouraged you to find out more about Ed, then BBC Radio WM has put together a tribute here:

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But whether you’ve heard of the man or not, and want to find out more or not, may the lessons of Ed live on.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back to normal next week.