Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Taking The Biscuit


“The Home of Good Baking - Supersound UBN” might not have been quite the snappiest strapline in the business, and probably had one of the oddest radio station names, but the United Biscuits Network, which closed in December 1979, was a fertile training ground for the first wave of ILR stations throughout the 1970s.
UBN was a cable radio network serving the main United Biscuits factories around the country. Making and packing biscuits on a production line was boring and repetitive, and led to high staff turnover. UB’s boss at the time, Sir Hector Laing, decided the company should have its own radio station to entertain the staff and help improve both productivity and staff morale.

While the studios were based at UB’s factory at Osterley, the running of the station itself was sub-contracted to a company called ‘Sound Developments’ (run by Roger Sinclair), rather than being managed directly by UB, with Neil Spence, better known as ‘Dave Dennis’ on 1960s offshore station Radio London (‘Big L’) as the first programme director.

From there, the station was networked to other factories at Harlesden (in NW London), Liverpool, Manchester and Tollcross (Glasgow). Each factory had their own, weekly ‘local’ opt-out show (produced and presented from the main Osterley studios); each broadcast on a different day of the week and repeated to allow the different shifts to hear it.
Giles Squire on-air
Although it was a fairly compact operation, UBN was well-equipped (by 1970s standards), with three almost-identical self-op studios; one for on-air; another for the ‘local’ shows (usually done live the first time but recorded off-air for the later repeats) or ‘standby’; and a third for production. There was also a small newsroom (consisting of a Press Association teleprinter and a typewriter) and news booth - although the station later used bulletins from IRN. In addition there was a record library, reception/general office and the PC’s office.
Studio equipment consisted of a custom-built eight-channel mixer, with two Gates turntables, two Plessey cart machines and an Ampex tape machine (two in the production studio).
In the factories there were speakers at regular intervals along the production lines, with one for every group of three or four workers. While they could adjust the volume (or even turn it off), they couldn’t switch to another station, so it was important not to alienate them.

UBN’s programming was tightly-formatted. Music was played in ’sweeps’ of 2 or 3 songs in a row; if you did speak between records it had to be over the ending or intro, with no speech allowed over dead air, and no backing music or ‘beds’ either.

In addition to the music there were jingles, of course; the original “Home Of Good Baking - Supersound UBN” package was by PAMS, and based on the WABC/New York jingles. This was later replaced, first by the accapella-based 'Frontline Radio' and then, in 1975, by a more-contemporary package by Ivor Raymonde.

Probably the most intriguing aspect of UBN’s programming were the ‘commercial breaks’, These were actually promos covering various subjects, such as workers’ personal safety and the importance of hygiene, but there was no ‘management propaganda', such as orders for people to “work harder”!
Adrian Love and Pete Reeves producing a 'commercial'
Presenters had to produce these promos on a regular basis, in order to help keep the station sounding fresh, and the better ones were re-cycled over the years.
One, in particular, on the subject of compressed air (“CompressssssssssssssssedAir can kill!”), produced by the late Roger Scott, is one that still sticks in the mind after all these years; it was also one of those featured in UBN’s final hour.

In the early-70s, Graham Dene won Billboard magazine’s coveted International Radio Personality of the Year Award; quite an achievement for a small station like UBN, but also a good example of the high calibre of programming on the station at the time.

Across all of the shifts, it was reckoned UBN enjoyed an audience of around 40,000, and was considered important enough to receive regular visits from record company ‘pluggers’. After all, when it started there was really only Radio 1 (which still shared much of its airtime with Radio 2) during the day, and Luxembourg in the evening, and only 19 ILR stations on-air by the time it closed, so the record companies viewed UBN as a valuable place for airplay.

The station was not unique, though. A few other companies, inspired by UBN, launched their own services, including Chrysler Audio System (originally Talbot Radio Network) and KCN/Kimberley-Clark Network (who make Kleenex tissues etc.), although neither really managed to emulate UBN’s success, and were both relatively short-lived.
Over the years many people in BBC and commercial radio were associated with UBN, including Steve Allen, Graham Dene, Allan King, Peter Young, Nicky Horne, Phil Sayer, Roger Day, Pete Reeves, Giles Squire, Tony Gilham, Steve Colman, John Peters and the sadly-departed Roger Scott, Adrian Love, Peter Tait and John Hayes. I also had the privilege of being a freelance ‘swing’ presenter at UBN for a while in the late-70s, which provided me with my first invaluable experience of working within format radio.

Another who got his first professional radio job with UBN was Dale Winton. When he joined the station it was common practice at that time for new presenters to be re-named, so they could be given one of a generic batch of name jingles that had already been produced. As a result, Dale became ‘Simon York’, but eventually succeeded in persuading the powers-that-be to let him use his real name. So, one Friday, ‘Simon York’ “left” and ‘Dale Winton’ “started” on the following Monday. Shortly afterwards, UBN apparently started to get letters from listeners asking what had happened to Simon York; “He was much better than this new presenter!”
Another member of the UBN ‘alumni’ even made the charts; Jim Irvin, the lead singer of ‘Furniture’ - whose song ‘Brilliant Mind’ reached No.21 in 1986 - was a presenter and head of music at UBN for the last couple of years of its existence. Jim also co-wrote the hit 'Weekend', which was a 2004 hit for Michael Gray.
In 1979 the decision to close the station was taken, with factories relaying their local ILR station instead. This was more a reaction to the prevailing economic conditions of the day and a knock-on effect from the lorry drivers' strike at the start of the year, than a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the station, but going out when it did, and on a high, obviously contributed to UBN’s near-legendary status.

35 years on the United Biscuits Network is long gone. The Osterley factory, too, has since been closed and demolished, but, in a neat twist of fate, there is still a broadcasting connection; Sky TV’s HQ and studios are now located on part of the former UB site.

Invitation to a UBN Reunion in 2006.
(The original 'Calling Cards' were used by UB employees for requests/dedications via the internal post)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

London Rajar - Q3/2014

The Rajar figures for Q3/2014 - covering the period 23rd June - 14th September - have now been published and, as usual, here's how the capital's main commercial stations have fared.

Overall most stations are down year-on-year; only Absolute, Gold and Smooth have increased Reach since this time last year, while Gold, Magic and XFM are the only stations to have gone up since the last quarter.

One of this quarter's biggest casualties has been Heart - down 294,000 year-on-year and down 389,000 quarter-on-quarter. In fact their weekly reach of 1,448,00 is the lowest they've had since Q4/2000 - nearly 14 years ago. Weekday Breakfast in particular has collapsed. Looking back at their figures over the past few years there have been other steep drops but they've always bounced back again.

Perhaps they are being squeezed by Bauer's Magic as well as Global's own Smooth - which also showed a small drop this time round following a steep rise in the previous quarter? Radio 2 was also down in London quarter-on-quarter.

Capital Xtra lost 230,000 listeners year-on-year, while Capital FM was down 171,000 and Kiss also down by 169,000.  Year-on-year Smooth was up 300,000 while Absolute gained 108,000 and Gold was up by 90,000.

LBC (97.3) may also be down in Reach but its share of 5.1% - achieved thanks to very high Average Hours of 10.7 per listener - puts it just behind Capital in joint second place (with Magic) in the commercial radio rankings. The station also continues to rule the late night hours - even without the benefit of the 1152AM simulcast.

So here's how it all  looks:

(Click on images to enlarge)

  
 

Note: Figures used in all charts for Absolute are those for 'Total Absolute Radio (London).
Q3/2014 Survey period - 23rd June - 14th September 2014. Source: Rajar/Ipsos Mori/RSMB.
 
As usual I issue my standard 'health warning' about not taking a single quarter's figures in isolation - Rajar is more about trends than a single snapshot so a year-on-year comparison is always the better one - you'll find the charts for Q3/2013 here and Q2/2014 here.

You'll also find some good, informed, analysis and observation from Matt Deegan and Adam Bowie while the general figures for each station are available on media.info, Radio Today and, of course, Rajar.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

London Rajar - Q2/2014

The latest results are now out and cover the period from 31st March - 22nd June 2014.

To be honest I'm not really sure what to make of these results - they're a bit of a mixed bag.

The star, though, of this quarter's game of 'musical chairs' has to be Smooth with a strong performance in its first full three months since the relaunch.  Since Q1 it has increased Reach by 216,000 (38.3%) and added an extra 1,785,000 hours (49%), while year on year (Q2/2013) Reach has grown by 89.6% and Hours by a whopping 138%! The other Smooth FM stations have also shown increases, although not as much as in London.

It'll certainly be interesting to see how things develop over the next few quarters. Things could start to get rather 'interesting'.

Apart from that I shall let the figures do the talking...

(Click on images to enlarge)
 
 

Here's an updated version of a chart I've posted on a few previous occasions. It's a good demonstration of the volatility of the London commercial radio market. In particular it clearly shows Smooth pulling away from the pack at the lower end of the chart.

 


Note: Figures used in all charts for Absolute are those for 'Total Absolute Radio (London)
Q2/2014 Survey period - 31st March - 22nd June 2014. Source: Rajar/Ipsos Mori/RSMB.
 
As usual I issue my standard 'health warning' about not taking a single quarter's figures in isolation - Rajar is more about trends than a single snapshot so a year-on-year comparison is the better one - you'll find the charts for Q2/2013 here and Q1/2014 here.

You'll also find some good, informed, analysis and observation from Matt Deegan and Adam Bowie while the general figures for each station are available on media.infohttp://media.info/rajar (the new name - and look - for Media UK), Radio Today and, of course, Rajar

Friday, 25 July 2014

Golden Years

Fifty years ago - at 4.00pm on Saturday 25th July 1964 to be precise (the first record played was Rag Doll by the Four Seasons) - a young singer-turned-disc-jockey presented his first-ever show on the offshore 'pirate' station Radio Caroline, which had launched at Easter that year.

Since then Tony Blackburn has been on our radios throughout that time and at an age when many people are happy to enjoy a quiet retirement he remains as busy as ever with Pick of the Pops on Saturday lunchtimes on BBC Radio 2, as well as occasional Bank Holiday specials, regular shows on several BBC local radio stations and also for commercial radio at KMFM in Kent and the Magic AM Network.

That's a busy schedule for anybody which puts many people more than half his age to shame. Tony's also an enthusiastic adopter of new technology and a regular user of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

I've been a fan of Tony Blackburn ever since he was on the offshore pirate stations in the mid-1960s, as well as the first-ever presenter on BBC Radio 1 in 1967, and his was the show I'd listen to while getting ready for school.

To many of my classmates at the time Tony was seen as the antithesis to everything that was "cool"; after all he liked pop music and Motown singles rather than album tracks from artists such as Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart or whichever band was being championed by the late John Peel that week.  He also told corny jokes and sounded bright, rather than the low-key presentation adopted by Radio 1's "serious" DJs such as Peel, Bob Harris and Pete Drummond.

As a radio fan (the term "anorak" hadn't appeared at that time), though, I enjoyed Tony's shows because he was a "slick operator" and I was able to appreciate, and begin to understand, the qualities needed to do a fast-moving show like that.  On the breakfast show I felt he struck the right chord., whereas Peel & co were rmore suitable for the evening or late at night, when people were more likely to listen because they had time to do so properly, rather than use the radio as the background to their breakfast/morning routine.

Tony at Capital Gold for his 25th anniversary in 1989
In the early-90s I had the pleasure of working with Tony for three years at London's Capital Gold, where he was presenting the Breakfast Show at the time. He was always a total professional and a genuinely likeable person who was a pleasure to work with.

I remember on one occasion, after falling off his roller skates (don't ask!) at a 'Capital Gold Listeners' Night', he fractured his wrist, which meant his right-arm was in plaster for several weeks and he had to take some time off. After a week or so of having to stay at home he was, understandably, itching to get back on air.

Around that time the station was having to close down overnight because of engineering work to upgrade the transmitter, which meant the Capital Gold studio would be empty.

Tony asked if he could come in during those off-air hours to 'practice' using the studio in his current condition to see just how much he could do.  To his delight, and probably surprise, he was able to drive most of the desk and get CDs from the studio rack (we used the Denon CD cart machines). The only difficulty he had was using the DAMS commercial playout system, but that was solved by getting his producer to key-in the ads for each break and he was then able to press the 'Start' button.

Now that's what I call professionalism.
In 1989 Tony received the Radio Academy's Gold Award to mark 25 years in radio. Earlier this year he became the first person ever to receive this 'Lifetime Achievement' award for a second time for his 50th anniversary.

I believe the most important factor in Tony Blackburn's continuing success is that he is a true radio personality in an era where few 'personality' presenters exist; whether because (thanks to poor programmers and programming) they've been stifled or because, frankly, some of them never had a proper personality in the first place. His style is always "up" and he's still one of the best in the business when it comes to  "selling" the station, the music and the show.

Congratulations on this landmark achievement, Tony. Thanks for some great radio and here's to many more years!



Tuesday, 1 July 2014

40 Years On...

My original LBC pass
It’s hard to believe that 40 years ago today - Monday 1st July 1974 – I began my first ‘proper’ job in radio, as a young, wet-behind-the-ears ‘Sound Technician/Studio Operator’ at LBC in 1974.

Radio has always figured strongly in my life. It was at about the age of 10 months when, according to my mother’s Baby Book, I was “…recognising tunes on the radio…”.  In 1954 it would have been one of those large, furniture-like, wooden radio sets with a tuning dial and a warm glow from the valves inside.

I must have found it intriguing to have this “magic box” which seemed to conjure music and voices out of thin air and I grew up listening to radio in the 50s and 60s. I remember listening under the bedclothes to Radio Luxembourg and the offshore pirates, especially Caroline and London, as well as tuning in to hear Tony Blackburn launch BBC Radio 1.

Then in 1970 Len Elman (L) and Marty Rose (R) – seen here at the station’s 40th anniversary celebrations - were in the process of launching a radio station at the brand-new Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow and were happy to take on this young, enthusiastic 16 year-old. Len later admitted to me that, while they had initially received some basic training from a few BBC people, much of their radio knowledge and expertise was actually gained through working out how to make things happen – and often just ‘winging it’.

Somehow it all seemed to work and hospital radio turned out to be a very enjoyable, and useful, apprenticeship as I found myself becoming more interested in the various aspects of how programmes were produced.

This led to the decision that I was going to try to get a job in radio and I began applying to a number of BBC local radio stations where they were advertising ‘Station Assistant’ vacancies. This was ‘rewarded’ by receiving a growing number of rejection letters in return.

Then a friend from another hospital station, Dennis Rookard, became one of the original presenters on LBC, the first of the new Independent Local Radio stations, when it launched in October 1973, which gave me the chance to pay a few visits to have a look round.

One night while listening at home I heard an ad recruiting Sound Technicians for the station.  “I can do that”, I thought, and sent off an application the following day.

A few weeks later I got a letter inviting me to come for an interview, which took place on Thursday 23rd May 1974 with Chief Engineer, Mike Barton, his deputy, Ronald Pickup (no relation to the actor of the same name) and personnel manager Peter Wilson.

I wasn’t really sure how I did at the time but it can’t have been too bad because just over a week later I got the letter that was to change my life. 

Dear Mr Easton,

Further to your recent interview, I am writing to offer you a post as Sound Technician. You would commence your appointment on the 1st July 1974.

Result!

Over the following 40 years I not only worked at LBC, which I left at the end of 1987, but also climbed my way up the career ladder, doing all sorts of things and ending up in a number of senior/management roles in programming at some great stations, including three years at Capital where I found myself working alongside some true radio legends such as Kenny Everett, Fluff and Tony Blackburn.

Blue Danube Radio - December 1988
One favourite period was as a presenter and newsreader with the ORF on Austria’s ‘Blue Danube Radio’ from 1988-1990 where I began my long-running love affair with the beautiful city of Vienna.

I’ve helped launch a few stations, including Contact 94, which broadcast from France into the Channel Islands in the late 80s), Melody Radio (now London’s Magic 105.4) and 106 Jack FM Oxfordshire – for whom I still do a lot of work – and not forgetting overseeing the launch and general programming of 40+ audio channels for Music Choice Europe.

There was also a brief dalliance with television while setting up ‘Selector’ for British Satellite Broadcasting’s music channel, ‘The Power Station’. One person making his TV debut there at the time was this ginger-haired chap from Warrington. I wonder whatever happened to him?

40 years on and I’m still enjoying working with some great people who are passionate about radio and trying new ways of doing things. It’s been an exhilarating ‘rollercoaster’ ride with, at times, probably more than its fair share of ups and downs but it's given me some wonderful experiences and fond memories.

Radio faces challenges today that were unheard of even a few years ago and, despite what some people might think, the way forward is not by turning back the clock to how things were done 20+ years ago.

The world is constantly changing and radio must continue to evolve if it is to remain relevant. The idea that “This is how we used to do it  - and we should still be doing it that way” is a fallacy.

No matter how good something may have been, it must inevitably change. We can revisit the past, respect its heritage and appreciate how wonderful it was, but we should also relish the present and retain an open mind for the future.

Which why I despair of people whose mindset remains stuck in the past.

Similarly, though, I also despair of those (usually) younger, people who dismiss the past as irrelevant. As historians often remind us, in order to make sense of the present and the future we have to understand the past, otherwise we learn nothing about ourselves. More importantly, to paraphrase George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it".

Finally, I make no apologies for repeating this quote, but I think it’s apt under the circumstances. It comes from US programmer and executive Randy Michaels: “. . . this isn’t the radio I got into the business to do, but it is the radio we have today. Those who can adapt and embrace it will survive.”

PS. How time flies. I've also realised it's been 21 years - Thursday 1st July 1993 - that I first arrived in Birmingham to spend a couple of months on secondment from Capital to BRMB. More about that can be found here.




Monday, 30 June 2014

Book Review: 'Me And Thirteen Tanks' by P McD

Although there has been much chronicling of the history of BBC and UK commercial radio, as well as Radio Luxembourg and the offshore pirates, one major broadcaster, however, seems to have received little coverage despite having been very influential; BFBS – the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Which is one reason why ‘Me And Thirteen Tanks’ makes for interesting reading while filling in a few blanks in broadcasting history.

Although I had known of Peter McDonagh, our paths had never actually crossed until 2006 when I first became a Trustee of the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, of which he was Chairman until 2013. On a number of train journeys back to London from BWBF head office in Maidstone he would often regale me with many scurrilous tales and I am pleased they - or at least those that can be told in public - are now available in print.

Peter is a good raconteur and writes engagingly about his childhood in post-war Berlin, his attempts to prevent his university studies at Oxford providing too much of a distraction from the task of spending most of his waking hours in local hostelries, as well as his 30 years travelling around the world serving at various BFBS outposts such as Singapore, Germany, Malta, Cyprus, the Falklands and the Middle East, plus as a number of spells back at UK HQ.

He also tells frankly, and movingly, of the loss of his baby daughter, his alcoholism and his current battle with cancer.

Under his alter-ego as “pop-jockey” ‘P McD’, his Saturday morning show on BFBS Germany in the 1970s, 'The Great North Rhine West Phailure', is still spoken of in hushed and reverential tones by those of a certain age who were around at the time.

Peter was also instrumental, while at BFBS Malta, for helping to give the station a more contemporary sound – known as ‘Format 77’ – which was later rolled-out to the rest of the BFBS stations.

Eventually he managed to climb the greasy pole to become Director of BFBS. Not a ‘Yes man’ he got himself into the occasional scrape with the upper echelons but because he was good at his job it helped prevent too much fall-out or collateral damage!

Overall a very enjoyable read.

Me And Thirteen Tanks: The Tales of a Cold War Freelance Spy - by P McD  is available in both Kindle and paperback. proceeds from the book are being donated to Macmillan Cancer Nurses.

PS.

There is a wealth of BFBS material on Juergen Boernig’s BFBS Radio Show Archive although, sadly, nothing from McD.

Also, while writing this blog post I happened to come across Alan Grace’s book ‘This is the British Forces Network – The Story of Forces Broadcasting in Germany’ (a copy of which has now been ordered).

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Casey Kasem – The Final Countdown



I'm saddened to learn that veteran US broadcaster Casey Kasem has died at the age of 82.
Since July 1970 his weekly chart countdown show was syndicated to radio stations throughout the USA and around the world for more than 30 years, although here in the UK he is perhaps better known as the voice of ‘Shaggy’ in the ‘Scooby-Doo’ cartoon series.
Blue Danube Radio in Vienna, where I worked from 1988-1990, was one of the non-US stations which took the show.

In those days each week's programme was distributed to stations as four 12” vinyl records (later replaced by CDs, satellite distribution or downloads) and it was the job of one of the producers to have to dub them all onto tape so that the US commercials and sponsor tags could then be taken out and the programme edited to fit into a three-hour slot (it was four hours in the States). Needless to say - especially as the dubbing had to be done in 'real time' - this was quite a time-consuming task.

Also because the discs would sometimes arrive late Blue Danube Radio broadcast the shows a week later than the US to allow for such problems.
For my regular shift on a Saturday I would present the easy-listening programme, 'Serenade', between 2.00 – 3.00 and then stay in the studio until 6.00 to play out 'American Top 40'. Three hours of watching tapes go round isn’t the most exciting job in the world but it’s still an important one as I had to ensure that everything sounded smooth on-air - especially during the tape changes - and finish on time in order to opt back into the Austrian national pop network O3 at the end.
ORF Studio AR-6 (Blue Danube Radio) during AT40
One thing I noticed about the show was that each week Casey would feature some listeners' dedications and play a non-chart song - which, as far as I could tell, usually seemed to be either 'Somewhere Out There (from An American Tail)' by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, or 'That's What Friends Are For' by Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder & Friends.

Some weeks on BDR one or more of the dedications were taken out for timing purposes, but when they were included it did seem to be the same few songs each time.

Every week Casey would also mention some of the stations which took the show and it was always a bonus to hear him say "...and Blue Danube Radio in Vienna, Austria" .
As someone who grew up in the UK and was, therefore, weaned on 'Pick Of The Pops' presented by the legendary Alan 'Fluff' Freeman it was interesting to hear a different style of countdown chart show presentation. Fluff's show was fast-moving and exciting, while concentrating on whether a song had gone up, down or stayed in the same chart position since last week. Casey's style was more relaxed and he gave little snippets of information about each song he played.
Farewell Casey. I shall leave the last words to you - as you always told us at the end of every show "Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."