Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Won't Get Fooled Again!

It's April 1st and time for the media to come up with something that they hope will capture the public's imagination.

One of the true classics was on BBC-TV's Panorama programme in 1957, which broadcast a film narrated by Richard Dimbleby featuring a family from Ticino in Switzerland carrying out their annual spaghetti harvest. It showed women carefully plucking strands of spaghetti from a tree and laying them in the sun to dry; at the time spaghetti was not a widely-eaten food in the UK and was considered by many as an exotic delicacy.

The film explained how each year the end of March is a very anxious time for Spaghetti harvesters all over Europe as severe frost can impair the flavour of the spaghetti. It also explained how each strand of spaghetti always grows to the same length thanks to years of hard work by generations of growers.

Another was in 1977 when The Guardian published a seven-page travel supplement extolling the delights of  Sans Seriffe in the Indian Ocean. This country consisted of two main islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, and its leader was General Pica.

Those who knew about printing terminology and fonts would have got the joke but many more fell for it.

Radio, too, has had its fair share of notable stunts.

During his time on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show Noel Edmonds did an outside broadcast from a cornflake factory. During the programme he interviewed a person who claimed there were twelve different shapes. This, apparently, led to thousands of listeners tipping their cornflakes out of the box to check.

A couple of personal favourites - probably because I worked there at the time - were done by Capital FM.

One year April 1st fell on a Saturday so Chris Tarrant and the entire weekday breakfast show team came in and did the show as though it was a Friday. Quite a few people got caught out by that one.

A year or two earlier, Tarrant had been away and 1st April was his first day back. On-air he sounded so laid-back he made Bob Harris or the late John Peel sound manic by comparison, and was playing very mellow music to match. Apparently, so the story went, he had been on a ‘Transcendental Fishing’ trip and, in the process, had been taught a special mantra that had changed his life. Listeners could hear more about this by calling a premium-rate line - on which they were reminded, after a minute or so, which day it was, and that all proceeds from the call would be going to Help A London Child!

What made all of these so memorable was that the idea was just plausible enough to be true, rather than be easily recognisable as an obvious April Fool stunt. The execution also has to be believable for the stunt to work.

A good example of this is my favourite from this year. Fitzy and Wippa on Nova FM in Australia who, with some help from engineering, were able to play out a pre-recorded piece where Fitzy "quits" - but which was only heard within the radio station building.

There are other stunts which have failed miserably because they were just so obviously fakes.

Some stations, though, have often been wary about April Fool's Day. A couple of ideas were pulled by management at LBC, even after much of the original production work had been completed. One of them involved a report that oil had been discovered in the St John's Wood area and Lord's Cricket Ground would be the site for a new drilling rig and oil well, complete with an interview with an irate, elderly cricket fan.

My all-time favourite stunt was by the late Jeremy Beadle when he did the late-night weekend show on LBC in the early-80s. The whole show was done from a car driving around central London visiting as many different 'blue plaque' buildings as they could. If a listener spotted Beadle and flagged-down his car they could win a T-shirt.

It all went quite well until the car broke down! Beadle and the team decided to abandon it and took the tube from Marble Arch (nearby) to St Paul's - the nearest open station on the Central Line to LBC (Chancery Lane was closed on Sundays) - continuing to broadcast as they went! When they got off the tube the duty newsreader filled while they dashed back to the studios in Gough Square to finish the show.

Well, that's what the listeners thought anyway, but the whole show was a complete fabrication; including a real-time recording of the tube journey. It was done so well it even fooled one of the station's senior engineers who couldn't understand how they managed to get a signal from a tube train!

Shortly after the show finished the police turned up. Apparently so many people had followed the "route" they were now jamming the narrow streets leading to Gough Square.

Brilliant radio - although it wasn't done on April 1st it certainly fooled a lot of people!

Friday, 28 March 2014

She's A Lady

Happy 50th Birthday, Radio Caroline!

At 12 Noon on 28th March 1964 (Easter Saturday that year) a station began broadcasting from a ship anchored just outside British territorial waters and started a radio revolution:

(Simon Dee's opening announcement)

"Not Fade Away" by the Rolling Stones may have been the first song played but the overall feel of those early days of Caroline was not pure pop but a mix of pop, jazz and MOR - as this clip from the first show demonstrates.

Over the next few years many more similar stations, including Radio London ('Big L'), 'Swinging' Radio England, Radio 390 and Radio Scotland, joined her, but there has always been something a little bit special about "The Lady", as she has become known.

A great deal has been written elsewhere about the history of those radio pioneers so I shall leave that to them - in particular Jon Myer's excellent 'Pirate Radio Hall of Fame'.

The offshore stations provided the 'soundtrack to my life' as I became a teenager and as a result sparked my interest in radio.

My one "claim to fame" with the station came in 1989, when I was freelancing as UK radio correspondent for 'Billboard' magazine and its European-focussed publication 'Music & Media'.

On Saturday 18th August officials from the UK and Holland boarded the MV Ross Revenge - Radio Caroline's home - in international waters. The following day, thanks to those involved with Caroline, I was taken out to the ship to see the results of the raid for myself. (You can see some of the photos I took on Flickr).

MV Ross Revenge (c. Paul Easton under Creative Commons)

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Tra-La Days Are Over

Still the best logo the station ever had
When Global acquired GMG Radio it was obvious that the Real Radio stations would become Heart and industry observers expect this to take place within the next couple of months.

Less obvious was what they might do with Smooth - after all they already had Gold and having two separate networks targeting the over-45s in their portfolio would only cannibalise that audience. Might the two be merged into a single entity perhaps?

The die has now been cast, though, and Smooth is now Global’s main 45+ brand. Most of Gold’s present frequencies have now been switched to Smooth – leaving Gold available on AM only in London, Manchester and the East Midlands where Smooth is already available on FM.

Almost all of Gold’s presenters have now left the station, with Tony Dibbin’s Breakfast Show, as well as David Andrews (on Saturday Breakfast) and Simon Hirst’s Vinyl Heaven on Saturday afternoons remaining as the only presented shows. The rest of the schedule will be non-stop music.

I spent three enjoyable years at Capital Gold in the early-90s working alongside some true radio legends and a typical day could involve producing Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett and Alan Freeman. It was a great station and I have many fond memories of my time there so it’s obvious I’ve been watching recent developments with some interest.

Over the years Capital Gold has changed – as well as merging with the former Classic Gold network to form what is now just Gold.

Meanwhile presenters such as Dean Martin, Eamonn Kelly and Tony Dibbin have built up a very loyal following via social media, which has meant the changes at Gold have been difficult for those listeners who feel as though they have lost a friend – and is testament to the way radio can build a relationship with its listeners. “Your friend in a box” as somebody once put it.

Nothing ever remains the same, though, and change is always inevitable. What’s always important at times like this is to manage the change positively.

However, keeping both Smooth as the premier network and having Gold as Global’s equivalent of Sainsbury’s ‘Basics’ range begs the question “Why bother?”

Pardon my cynicism here but is this being done by Global to prevent potential competitors from getting those licences rather than maintaining the Gold brand for the sake of it? I’m sure Phil Riley and David Lloyd at Orion Media would love to have the East Midlands AM licence to extend Free Radio 80s - or even bring back the name ‘GEM AM’ to complement their existing regional FM service – but would Global be willing to sell?

On those occasions where stations have handed back their licences Ofcom has not re-advertised them – preferring instead to use the freed spectrum for community radio. Now that a set date for digital switchover is no longer hanging over the industry – and Ofcom has announced a consultation on longer-term licences – it’s possible there might be a change in policy.

In which case in London and Manchester a couple of major licences – even on un-sexy AM – would represent some serious radio real-estate.

Maybe Gold is being kept going with a view to becoming a brand-extension for Smooth (Smooth Extra?) and possibly launching on the D2 national DAB multiplex if/as/when that happens.

Regular readers of this blog know that while I have a fondness for radio’s history and heritage I have no desire to be a prisoner of the past or become one of those people who are stuck in the past and who believe that turning back the clock is the future.

Much has changed over my nearly-40 years in radio – admittedly not always for the better – but new technology, new developments and new thinking are all helping to produce new ways of doing radio to ensure that the industry we love continues to remain both contemporary and relevant to today’s listeners.

I have to say though that, while Gold may not have closed down completely what is left behind is a shadow of its former self.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn - How 'POP' Might Have Replaced the 60s Pirates

Over the years a lot of what someone once called “dewy-eyed tosh” has permeated into anorak mythology on the subject of the Marine Offences Act, which closed down almost all of the offshore pirate stations in the 1960s

Tony Benn, as Postmaster General - in those days the minister responsible for broadcasting matters - in Harold Wilson’s Government, drafted the legislation to outlaw the pirates; although he had been replaced by Edward Short by the time the Bill became law.  As a result, Benn has long been ‘demonized’ by many in the anorak fraternity for his part in “killing off” the offshore stations in 1967.

However, it seems a little-known fact that, while drafting the legislation, Tony Benn actually came up with some very interesting – and radical - proposals for a new pop music station, to be funded by limited advertising, as a possible replacement for the pirates.

In his diaries of the time *, he acknowledged that “The pirates are establishing themselves firmly in public favour and if we killed them it would be extremely unpopular.”

In their place he proposed “…a national programme of light music run by the BBC or possible by a Post Office network, called ‘POP’.  It might be linked to local stations which could opt in and out of the network if their local resources were unable to fill the full day.”

“This could be achieved by splitting the BBC Light Programme VHF transmitters off.  There would be a terrible squeal from some people but since pop music and advertisers both seem mass audiences there would be no conflict of interest and the Post Office would pocket the cash.”

He also suggested the BBC might be allowed to carry some limited advertising on the Light Programme in return for running the new service.

“I therefore put forward the idea that the BBC Light Programme should be allowed to advertise under suitably authorised conditions.  Judith Hart raised some doubts about this as she dislikes advertising.  So do I, but I’m absolutely convinced that the only way of saving public service broadcasting is by giving it some form of revenue which will grow with it.  It will also kill the pirates stone-dead.”

These proposals were not popular with the Musicians’ Union, the National Union of Journalists and the newspaper proprietors. The MU were opposed to radio playing more music from records and wanted to maintain ‘needletime’ limits to ensure employment for live musicians, while the NUJ believed commercially-funded local radio would take advertising revenue away from local papers. The newspaper proprietors shared the NUJ’s concerns but also felt that if local commercial radio was inevitable then they should be able to become principal shareholders in the new stations

Although Tony Benn’s proposals were eventually scuppered in Cabinet, had they been successful,  Radio 1, or whatever it would have been called (the BBC’s original working name was 'Radio 247'), could have been very different indeed.

Incidentally, one other thing that emerged from Tony Benn’s political diaries was that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was actually a keen listener to some of the pirate stations, especially Radio 390.  In his diary entry of Sunday 22nd May 1966 Benn commented: “He [Harold Wilson] enjoys the pirates and has always been trying to find some way of taxing them.  This of course would be guaranteed to consolidate their strength and the Treasury would then never let us kill them.”

* - 'Out of the Wilderness - Diaries 1963-67' by Tony Benn - pub. Hutchinson 1987

Friday, 28 February 2014

Push The Button

(Photo © BBC)
Some people, especially those who post on internet forums, can get very worked-up about whether or not presenters drive their own desk. It's a perennial topic which has come round again following the recent changes at Smooth Radio.
In a frank interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast in the aftermath of the Ross/Brand affair in 2008, broadcaster Paul Gambaccini criticised radio presenters (such as Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand) who do not 'drive the desk' - i.e. operate the equipment - themselves. "If you don’t do that, you are physically removed from the contents of your programme and you are obsessed on your own performance. "
Having spent a period of time in the past as a presenter I always felt happier driving the desk because it gave me the feeling of being in complete control. These days, though, it's probably easier because your music, commercials, jingles etc. are all stored in a computer-based playout system, ready to be played at the push of the 'Next' button - or even done automatically without anybody in the studio. 'Back in the day', though, doing a live show - playing music from vinyl and commercials, ads, promos and jingles from carts (cartridges) - kept you on your toes throughout the show. One of my radio mentors described it as "the ballet of radio".
Not only that, but you also had to be your own producer - in the ‘proper’ sense of the term - as, especially if you were doing a daytime show, you would also be responsible for arranging interviews/studio guests and other features for your show’s speech content.
I'm not totally convinced, though, by the argument that you cannot produce good music radio unless the presenter drives their own desk.
Dan Ingram on WABC
© Marty Berstell
In the 60s/70s the presenters on WABC New York and KHJ Los Angeles (arguably two of the best music stations that ever existed) were not 'self-op' but had operators to drive the desk - many of the large US stations were heavily-unionized. Interestingly, though, at WABC the presenter and 'board op' were in the same studio, rather than separated by a window.

Closer to home, 'Fab 208', Radio Luxembourg, had engineer-operated studios for many years.

When I arrived at Blue Danube Radio in Vienna for the first time in November 1988 I was quite surprised to find that not only were most of BDR's programmes not 'self-op' but neither were most of the programmes on Austria's national pop music network Ö3 (their equivalent of BBC Radio 1), just a few studios along the corridor from ours. There was just one small self-op studio ('DJ-1') which was used for a handful of programmes, including BDR's easy-listening afternoon show 'Serenade', but that was it. In January 1989 BDR's music programmes went self-op and ‘Serenade' moved into our main studio (in fact I have the dubious honour of being the last person ever to present that show from 'DJ-1'), although those shows with a high speech content, such as 'Midday Magazine' and the evening news programme, 'World Report', remained with an engineer at the helm.

Similarly, while showing a friend of mine from Italian radio round Capital, when I worked there in the early-90s, he was surprised to see the studios were self-op - as I discovered when he returned the favour a few months later and showed me round RTL 102.5 in Milan, they used a separate studio operator.

Ideally music radio presenters should be self-op, but there is more to being a successful broadcaster than being able to drive a desk, talk up to the vocal, or do a really good segué.

The best broadcasters are those who 'connect' with their audience and surely that connection should not be hindered just because someone is not comfortable operating the equipment themselves.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

It's ‘What's His Name?’ Off The Telly

After 40 years of doing radio stuff for a living there’s probably very little that happens in this industry that really makes me go “WTF?” in complete surprise.

That, though, was my reaction to yesterday’s announcement of Smooth Radio’s new daytime schedule, with Andrew Castle taking over the Breakfast Show and Kate Garraway doing mid-mornings.

Andrew is, of course, a former tennis player who has since gone on to make a career as a tennis commentator and breakfast TV presenter. More recently he’s been doing weekend breakfast on LBC. Kate has had previous experience in BBC Local Radio and, after a spell on the same breakfast TV sofa as Andrew Castle, has been doing cover work on BBC 5 Live and LBC.

Alongside those two, Smooth have also hired radio stalwart Paul Phear from Magic 105.4 to do afternoons, while Anthony Davis, who has seguéd effortlessly between speech and music radio over the years, started his new Drivetime show at the beginning of the year.

Simon Bates and Lynn Parsons exit, following in the footsteps of Pat Sharp and David Jensen who left at the end of last year.

My surprise is not with the fact that schedule changes are being made but whether the new high-profile hirings will be the right ones.

One highly-respected radio programmer once said "In many cases the secret of getting great radio that listeners love is not trying to change the presenter’s personality", which reminded me of a useful piece of advice I was once given. "Don't hire someone to do the kind of show you want; hire the kind of show you want". In other words, don't take someone whose act or style you like and then try to change them into what you want for your station. After all, you already liked what they were already doing enough to want to hire them, didn't you? (Didn't you?)

It’s a similar situation with stations who seem to hire presenters on the basis that because they’ve been on TV the listeners will already know them. There are those who believe that TV stars do not convert easily to radio and true radio talent is not interested in television but, as with any such generalisations, there are those who disprove that theory. Chris Evans and Jonathan Ross, for example, spring immediately to mind as presenters who are comfortable on both radio and TV. I’m sure we can all think of people who have tried unsuccessfully to make the switch from radio to TV and vice versa.

There are also, of course, a number of people who started their broadcasting careers in radio and have returned after spending time doing TV, such as Chris Evans (Piccadilly/GLR), Jeremy Vine (Metro), Dermot O’Leary (BBC Essex) and Dale Winton (UBN/Trent/Beacon).

What is important, though, is to have the right people on-air. Putting someone on the radio just because they are well-known on TV in the hope that having them on your station will automatically increase audiences can easily be a recipe for failure; especially if their radio persona is not the same as how they are, or have been, perceived on TV. Which brings us back to the piece of advice I quoted earlier.

I’m also a member of the school that believes great personality presenters are born not bred. While you can teach someone the basic radio skills, such as driving a desk, you can’t teach them how to be a personality presenter. Having a personality to begin within is a major requirement, obviously!

It would be foolish to pre-judge the new shows without actually hearing them - I’ll leave that to the ‘keyboard warriors’ on the forums etc. - but while Andrew Castle and Kate Garraway are both capable broadcasters it will be interesting to hear how two people with predominantly TV/news backgrounds cope with the change to music-based programming and making a ‘connection’ with the audience.

Having worked with him in the past I know Richard Park can be a very shrewd – and canny – programmer but will this game-plan work? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Sound Way To Spend Your Day

Happy Birthday to what was BRMB in Birmingham - now part of Free Radio in the West Midlands - which launched on 19th February 1974. It was the fourth 'Independent Local Radio' station - as Commercial Radio was known back then - and the first one in England outside London.  LBC and Capital in London as well as Radio Clyde in Glasgow had begun broadcasting in the final quarter of 1973.

In the early 1970s ILR had been conceived at a time when the country’s media, social, political, economic and technological landscapes were very different to how they are today. Stations were required to have a public service remit and were very heavily-regulated. 'Needltime' restrictions on the amount of music that could be played meant those early stations had a high speech content. So much has changed over those 40 years.

I shall leave the chronicling of the station's history to others who have more knowledge and experience - and there are some links at the end of this post - but I do have a personal, albeit brief, connection.

In the summer of 1993 I spent an interesting couple of months at BRMB as 'Acting Programme Controller' on secondment from Capital following their acquisition of Midlands Radio (they subsequently sold the other stations, including Mercia and Trent, to GWR).

BRMB’s studios were at Aston Cross, a rather run-down part of the the city which was about to undergo major ‘urban regeneration’. In the meantime the area was a mixture of grim, boarded-up shops and demolition sites, in the middle of which was the 'HP Sauce' factory and BRMB. It was a hot summer and, with no air-conditioning in my office, I can still remember the heady aroma of brewing condiment wafting through my office window! 

My first day in Birmingham was not an easy one.  I arrived and was met in reception by Allan Carruthers, who was in charge of 'sister' oldies station Xtra-AM. “You chose the right shirt to wear”, he said grimly, “the dark red will match the blood stains!”  Apparently Capital's Programme Director, Richard Park, had held meetings with the BRMB presenters the day before and many of them had been told they were being “let go” from the end of the week. Staff morale was not high that day and anybody from Capital was, not surprisngly, given a wide berth. I remember being taken into the programming office, where the departing presenters were clearing their desks and contemplating the prospects of finding another job. It was like a scene in those old westerns where a stranger enters the bar and everybody suddenly goes quiet. A very uncomfortable moment - for all of us.

I knew it was nothing personal so I just tried to get on with my own work for the next few days.

Things started becoming easier the following week - helped by the arrival of fellow Capital colleagues, Paul Phear and Clive Warren, who would be covering a couple of daytime shows pending the arrival of some new full-time presenters in the next few weeks. Although I knew MD Ian Rufus and Marketing Supremo Mike Owen from various industry events, it was nice to see some familiar faces.

Meanwhile one of the news team (I think it was Nicole Pullman) had come to introduce herself. She'd seen me around the building - especially on the top floor which housed the studios and newsroom - and asked one of her colleagues "Who's he?". Apparently "Oh, that's Paul from Capital. He's all right actually", was the reply. I took that to be a compliment.

The remaining weeks were very busy but enjoyable - and I relished the challenge.

So Happy Birthday, BRMB. I'm sorry I'm unable to be at tonight's party but I shall raise a glass this evening. Right now, though, I'm off to open a bottle of HP Sauce to help bring back some memories!

Adrian Juste in the BRMB studios in 1974 (Photo by Keith Brown)
Further Reading:

Robin Valk was there on Day One and shares some launchday memories

A few from David Lloyd's collection:

BRMB's launch audio

The BRMB Story - from 1961 to Launch

BRMB - Original 1972 Programming Proposals

Finally, there's a great deal of history and memorabilia on Mike Smith's BRMB tribute website