A Freedom Of Speech Issue

gavel bangWas it ever going to be a good idea to challenge a ruling by the broadcast regulator? Back in July, when former national radio presenter Jon Gaunt lost his appeal over a court decision not to overturn the Ofcom judgement that he had breached the Broadcasting Code during an interview he conducted in November 2008, it was clear that this was an application of good old fashioned common sense by the three Court of Appeal judges. By handing down their verdict they finally brought to a close a rather sordid saga which had dragged on almost ever since the presenter was dismissed from the radio station he and I both worked for, for that self same interview.

In their judgement (which you can read in full here), the assembled judges described the interview with a local councillor over a recently introduced policy of not placing foster children with smokers in terms of its “…bullying manner, interruption, ranting and insults…”, making it all the more extraordinary that a supposedly professional broadcaster should even contemplate that calling his interviewee a Nazi was an acceptable form of debate whilst (with the backing of human rights group Liberty) insisting that his right to freedom of expression was being infringed by the sanction. Surely nobody could be so completely lacking in self awareness. But that it seems is Jon Gaunt all over.

I am personally of the opinion that this exercise in legal futility was more of a means to an end than anything else. Mr Gaunt’s stated desire to take legal action against his former employers for dismissing him was always going to be a non-starter with an Ofcom judgement against him for the very incident which cost him his job. By breaching the Code he was almost certainly in breach of contract and liable for summary dismissal. I think his only hope was to somehow make history and have the Ofcom finding overturned to clear the way for his vendetta, an attempt which as we have now seen has ended in rather inglorious failure. Indeed the whole affair has merely served to have his faults and failings as a broadcaster set out as a matter of public record. It is hard to see how any professional broadcast outlet would be willing to take a chance on putting him back on the air to present ever again.

There is a faint whiff of tragedy about what must surely be a rather sordid and humiliating end to the man’s mainstream broadcasting career, because close analysis of his life and work reveals that there is clearly an active and potentially rather brilliant mind at work, but sadly in use by a man whose very arrogance leads to his undoing.

When it was first published I was on record as praising Jon Gaunt’s autobiography ‘Undaunted’ as a quite fascinating read, and it indeed I stand by that analysis. In it you will find details of his past life as a champion of the arts, as a theatre manager and as a promoter of artistic talent. A great many comedians and performers from the West Midlands will grudgingly admit they owe him a genuine debt of gratitude for providing them with the platform from which they launched their careers. If you are paying close enough attention, Gaunt even appears in an unnamed cameo in Frank Skinner’s own autobiography as the theatrical promoter who rented the performer the Edinburgh stage for his first ever solo shows as a budding comedy star.

When he turned his hand to radio, Gaunt also managed to make an unexpectedly large impact. He repeatedly seizes on every opportunity available to refer back to what he was proud to call his “three Sony Radio awards”, all presented to him on the same night for a show he presented on local radio in Luton back in 2001. No matter that to this day there are grumbles that technically two of them were awarded to the production team working on his programme rather than himself personally as a presenter and that the three gongs were all for the same individual broadcast, hair splitting aside he can still legitimately claim to have hosted at least one programme which has been judged worthy of three of the industry’s highest accolades. That is actually worth shouting about regardless of who you are. It remains three more than I have ever won for a start.

When the upward career trajectory which resulted from this triumph finally brought him to national radio prominence on the mid-morning show on talkSPORT, it was hard not to be impressed – at least initially. Having witnessed myself at first hand the kind of tedious shows which had occupied that slot over the years, Gaunt was truly a breath of fresh air. On virtually every programme he did the switchboard was routinely jammed with antagonised or fired up listeners wanting to have their say on the topic of the day. If you judge a phone-in show by the level of response it generates from the listeners, then the Jon Gaunt programme was up there with the best. His audience figures shortly after his debut spoke for themselves, with Gaunt’s arrival almost doubling the listenership for that slot in one fell swoop in comparison with its previous incumbent. Love him or hate him (and plenty professed to do the latter as we shall see) he was clearly required listening for some.

I never had any particular personal axe to grind with him either. On the odd occasion when I covered a shift working on his programme it was possible to appreciate his focus, his careful approach to setting out the arguments he was presenting, and perhaps more importantly be in a position to spot the moments when there was a small element of self-parody in some of his more astounding pronouncements. The downside to this approach being naturally that it is hard to see a twinkle in the eye on the radio, and so to many listening he was simply sliding deeper and deeper into extremism as his views on his favourite subjects slid ever further into outrageousness.

I should also take time out to pay tribute to the one time when he went over and above the call of duty on his show. One day in 2007 I was saddled with trying to wrestle onto the air the radio station’s side of a charity appeal for the NSPCC which a bookmaking client had asked us to be involved in. Part of my brief involved allocating various spokesmen for the charity a slot on the air to discuss their work and to solicit further donations. Whilst most shows begrudgingly granted their interviewee a five minute chat, Jon Gaunt seized the opportunity to make the NSPCC the focus of the first part of his show, offering the charity spokesman an hour long slot as his studio guest and doing more than anyone else to make the whole appeal sounded like it mattered. It was a classy and professional thing to do, going above and beyond either what was required or what any of the other producers felt able to do that day, and I respected him enormously for it.

In fact more than many of the people he worked with on air, Gaunt was actually an extremely proficient and highly skilled broadcaster, particularly when it came to the core tools of the medium. In fact so good was he that during his tenure the radio station picked up the most bizarre Ofcom judgement ever when the regulators were concerned there was insufficient distinction between a commercial script he read and the programme surrounding it. Most of the other presenters had little clue how to deliver a scripted read in a manner which sounded natural and unforced. Gaunt’s delivery of the sponsored read was so seamless and so relaxed that it was nonsensically deemed to have breached broadcasting regulations. This may rank as the only time the presenter breached Ofcom rules and commanded universal sympathy around the office for the monstrous unfairness of it.

As good as all this sounds, Mr Gaunt’s radio work did suffer from a single but hugely significant flaw. Much of the “quality” was at best superficial. Probe a little deeper, study the shows for any length of time and you would discover just how true it is that empty vessels echo so much louder.

Not long after he started at the radio station in the summer of 2006, I had a brief conversation with his then producer, commenting that his new host appeared to have got off to a flyer, with the switchboard routinely jammed with eager contributors, as I mentioned in marked contrast to some of the shows in that slot which I had worked on prior to his arrival. “That is true,” he commented, “but in all fairness he has rather gone for tap-ins. Cutting edge it isn’t”. This was indeed the case. What we refer to as tap-ins are the tried and tested subjects on which every mouth-breather under the sun has an opinion. For football shows it is the old standing v sitting debate, or should Celtic and Rangers join the Premier League. For current affairs debates it was the usual – immigration, sex offenders, custodial sentencing, “broken Britain”. Yes it provokes a response, and yes you are guaranteed a full switchboard, but at the same time it is lazy radio. Everything that can possibly have been said on the subject has been debated already and there is very little to be learned from treading the same tired old paths again and again. Yet this was all too often the Gaunt strategy, homing in on his pet subjects, playing to the gallery and worse still establishing his own point of view on the subject as the unimpeachable truth, resisting all attempts by people to disprove his point.

This lack of depth all too often infested his one time weekly column in The Sun, an effort whose subject matter would often feed back onto the radio shows and in many cases vice versa. He was justly proud of the platform this gave him and clearly fancied himself as the heir to Littlejohn, a strident right wing polemicist who could eviscerate his enemies with a well chosen turn of phrase or better yet some rapier wit. The problem was that he just wasn’t that good a writer, his columns full of bland admonishments for some misdemeanour on the part of public servants or expressions of disgust about matters which will indeed have been viewed as disgusting according to the orthodoxy of the publication he wrote for. Anyone searching the prose for an elegant turn of phrase, a genuinely new insight on the matter at hand or even the tiniest spark of genius was bound to some away disappointed. It was possible to see a parallel between what I always saw as the frustrating mediocrity of his written work and the long-term quality of his radio show. Bereft of any new terrific new ideas or new bandwagons to leap aboard, he was reduced to singing from the same small hymn sheet of songs with the almost inevitable result that he ran out of constructive things to say and was reduced to red-faced ranting. That was never going to end well.

For a man defining himself by his strident and forceful points of view, he was furthered hampered by one of the thinnest skins I’ve ever come across, unable to take criticism on the chin and reacting to any negative point of view as if intended as an aggressive personal insult. This made his desire to expose himself to it at all times all the more bizarre. Before he arrived on the scene, texts and emails sent into the studio were processed by the production staff who would filter out the illiterate and the insane before presenting the written contributions to the presenter to deal with as they saw fit. Gaunt insisted that he was more than capable of digesting his own listener contributions and successfully lobbied for a computer terminal to be installed by the presenter desk where it remains to this day. This did sadly mean that there was subsequently no filter in place and he was exposed throughout the show to the seedier side of the listening public’s tongue lashings. The net result of this was that he would frequently become enraged by some particularly barbed piece of personal criticism sent in via text and waste precious on air minutes banging the desk in rage at the person who had dared to besmirch him in such a manner. Granted some people did indeed cross the line, going down the keyboard warrior path of threatening harm not only to the man himself but members of his family, but it was a button that his most vicious haters quickly learned to push. Often when a message came in that he found particularly offensive or threatening he would loudly insist on air that the police would be contacted, forcing the production team each time to go through the motions of alerting the (indifferent) local constabulary that some radio station listener had said something nasty about the presenter’s mother. I can neither confirm nor deny that during particularly quiet days on the office floor, we used to send our own insults through to the studio just to see which particular shade of purple we could make the ludicrous man go.

This lack of self awareness and fragile self-confidence even apparently manifested itself off air as it seems that Gaunt (or somebody purporting to represent him) would routinely trawl the internet for slights upon his person, firing off spittle-flecked communications to anyone he felt had defamed him by daring to suggest that he might actually be wrong about something. One friend of mine found himself on the receiving end of such a tirade when a message board which he ran happened to sprout a topic about something the man himself had said or done. The first he knew of any problem was an email which read:

threat1

Although even this was surpassed when despite repeated requests for clarification as to exactly what the offending material was, the entity who initiated the communication responded with:

threat2

Now I should stress here that there is absolutely no direct proof and nothing to suggest that the person emailing as “gauntyinfo” was Jon Gaunt himself (although colleagues regularly communicated with him via email addresses from that same unusual internet domain, if not that specific address) and indeed given the aggressive and threatening tone of the missives it seems highly unlikely that such rather sinisterly worded communications would have come directly from such a well respected broadcaster in a position of such national prominence. He does in that case have some rather obsessed and slightly unhinged fans or associates who are prepared to go to some rather extreme lengths to defend the name of their idol online and it can only be hoped that it makes him as uncomfortable to read of this as my friend was to be on the receiving end of these threats.

Gaunt’s thin skin even extended to being unable to deal with jibes from his fellow presenters. James Whale, when he occupied the opposite end of the schedule, used to take great delight in poking fun on air at what he saw as the man’s broadcasting shortcomings, going as far as to play Sweep puppet sound effects as an imitation of Gaunt’s rather high pitched tones and conducting an on air conversation with the noises. All good fun and all in the noble tradition of speech radio potshots as pioneered by Howard Stern and Don Imus back in the 1980s and in actual fact a rather superb piece of cross-promotion. Whether he intended it that way or not, Whale was merely ensuring that Gaunt was the most talked-about presenter on the station, a situation which could only result in ever improved figures for his show as people tuned in to see what the fuss was about. Rather than embracing this or laughing it off and trying to give back as good as he got as any sensible person would, instead the station management would regularly receive telephone calls from Gaunt’s agent complaining that their client disliked being undermined in this way and requesting that some action be taken to ensure it ceased forthwith. None ever was, to Whale’s oft-stated amusement.

Believe it or not, the man who would deflect criticism from listeners on air (and indeed from those he worked with off it) with the pompous expression “when I want tips on broadcasting, I’ll ask” eventually had the chutzpah to refute the radio station’s account of the events that led up to his sacking, protesting that “he disputed that the requirement to remain with the [Ofcom] Code was ever made clear to him …. stating that he had received no training in this respect.”

Perhaps he simply forgot to ask.

I mentioned above that the most positive aspect of the Gaunt show, particularly in its early months, was its healthy performance in the audience figures. With some small settling of the numbers this by and large remained the case right up until his demise – although this wasn’t without its downside. Close analysis of the measured figures revealed that although he did have an audience, his constant on-air references to “my listeners” (as if they were all some kind of club) was nearer the truth than anyone imagined. Gaunt’s audience grew increasingly unique to him as time went on, a slightly older demographic than that of the rest of the programming on the station. They were tuning in for him, and him alone and not actually sticking around for any of the subsequent presenters, regardless of how skilled Gaunt’s promotion of them was. Ask any radio programmer and they will tell you that this isn’t automatically a good thing. Your reach may go up, but your average listening hours plummet.

People used to wonder just how he managed to command an audience given the large numbers of people who cared to express an opinion declaring that they switched off in protest the minute he came on. If that was indeed the case, then it never really mattered as for every three who stayed away at 10am, two more came in to replace them. The problem was that once things returned to “normal” at 1pm, Gaunt’s audience by and large waved goodbye for the day, badly damaging the programmes which followed, which then effectively had to draw in an audience from scratch. He had a large audience, no doubt about it, but in the long term its value to the radio station was actually rather limited, and they weren’t missed when he finally left.

For my part, the moment when the scales fell from my own eyes and I saw the man as he truly was came just a few weeks before his ultimate departure from the radio station. In October 2008 we suffered what became known as the “weekend from hell” when an electrical fault knocked out our studios for three days. On that Friday morning we had been forced to decamp across town to the premises of another radio station from where we would be able to resume broadcasting. I was on duty at this temporary facility from early on, having been summoned from my bed to assist the breakfast show in getting back on air. Due on air after that was Jon Gaunt, who had travelled across town in a taxi along with his production staff who had been at pains to explain to him that they were about to do a show with limited resources and that it would be very much a case of improvising whilst guests and telephone calls could be arranged.

Gaunt arrived at the studio, took one look at the facilities available – a microphone, a few newspapers and his wits – and flew into a blind panic. At the door to the studio he refused point blank to go on air, throwing a tantrum and insisting that the breakfast team (already 20 minutes past their scheduled slot) would have to stay on until guests were arranged or until suitable telephone lines had been rigged up for him to take calls. In front of many witnesses (all of whom confirmed my recollections of the incident), both his own colleagues and the staff of the station who were generously hosting us, he behaved in a manner which was unprofessional, unedifying, embarrassing and which only served to make an already stressful situation even harder to deal with.

His attitude stood in stark contrast to that of a fellow presenter later that same day. After we had prematurely returned to our usual premises, the studios died once again and for a short period our only means of broadcasting was an outside broadcast kit connected directly to the transmitter network. At the height of the emergency and armed once again with little more than his wits and a fistful of the day’s newspapers, Danny Kelly was apologetically invited to wear a headset and keep the station on the air by whatever means he could whilst we re-established the link to the backup studios. This he did with good cheer and not a little style, conducting a monologue which must have lasted for at least ten minutes. All without complaint.

More than anything else, the events of that day exposed Gaunt for what he really was. The proud three-time Sony Award Winning broadcaster, national newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed voice of the common man was indeed exposed as a classic empty vessel, man whose talents had been measured and found wanting when it mattered the most and in my eyes a man whose ego wrote cheques his ability simply could not cash. The French have an expression for it: péter plus haut que son cul “to fart higher than one’s arse”. From that moment on it was hard to hear him talk without feeling the rush of hot air.

Perhaps it was inevitable that within weeks of this incident he finally span out of control, spat bile at a public servant taking the time out of their day to discuss their policies and effectively plunged his on air career and reputation down the toilet. It was in a sense, frustrating timing. His production team were only too aware that they needed to work with him to develop his radio show, move him away from the ranty right winger persona into a more mature and considered one. For the first time in his career take him to Act II and expand who he could be as a broadcaster, even if the man himself was convinced there was no particular need. This is really the core of the tragedy. He had it in him to be a shining star of the genre and a truly great communicator, but so convinced was he of his own infallibility that he seemed unwilling to put the time in to develop. And was then fired from his biggest gig ever before any plans could be put into practice anyway.

As one final footnote to this rather sordid tale, I thought it appropriate to offer up one final example of the shortcomings of Gaunt’s broadcasting ability. Just prior to Christmas 2006 I had been charged with preparing the specially recorded shows which would be broadcast over the holiday period. Pride of place in the schedule was the annual Clash Of The Titans show, which saw the biggest names on the station all put in a studio together and invited to argue with each other. All the weekday talk hosts had been invited to participate, with Jon Gaunt making his debut on the show having joined the station earlier that year.

Not long before the recording, an unseemly row blew up. At least one of the other participants was keen for other recent recruit George Galloway to participate in the show, but this had apparently vetoed by the management. Rumour circulated that Gaunt had blocked his inclusion in the programme and refused to participate if the MP was included, something directly stated as fact by Galloway himself when he came on air immediately after the broadcast of the show, seething after hearing himself described as a “guttersnipe” during one exchange where his name came up.

For the record, I don’t believe there was any truth in this whatsoever. As producer of the show, I was informed well ahead of time what the line-up was to be and was charged with ensuring they were all present in the studio on the appointed day. At no time was there ever any question that George would be included on the panel, and indeed given that he was scheduled to be on air with a live show immediately afterwards it would have sounded odd to hear him as part of the previous debate. The very idea that any one presenter had veto over the make-up of the panel was simply ludicrous and can be rejected out of hand as the ravings of some large egos who could still be capable of acting like small children when required.

Nonetheless the issue clearly still rankled with James Whale, to name but one, and he took the opportunity near the end of the recording to confront Gaunt about Galloway’s absence and his part in this. I was secretly delighted, as by and large I’d presided over the recording of a show which saw 90 minutes of four men sitting around agreeing with each other and this was genuinely the one moment where the Titans were actually Clashing as per the title of the show. Nonetheless word of this exchange filtered back to my boss (I’ve no idea how) who instructed me that under no circumstances was it to go out on air in that form and that the exchange instead should instead be edited from the recording. I pressed for its inclusion but sadly to no avail. “Do it, or else” was the unequivocal instruction. Getting a clean edit out of was a more or less impossible task and it meant that this particular segment of the programme sounded rather odd upon broadcast, with a swift cut to a commercial break out of nowhere and a slight under-run on the running time, but I had little choice in the matter. As it turned out the programme was only broadcast once, as after Galloway’s slightly unprofessional on-air rant afterwards, further planned repeats were pulled from the schedule and another show substituted instead.

Fortunately for posterity I kept all the studio rushes and with five years having now elapsed it seems a shame for the short segment not to finally receive an airing. With Mr Gaunt’s new-found enthusiasm for freedom of speech (as backed by his former nemesis Shami Chakrabati) I am sure he would welcome the 2006 Clash Of The Titans being made available finally in uncensored form. It is his basic human right after all.

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Love, Lust and Time

Musicals? I’m kind of indifferent to them to be honest.

I’ve a funny feeling this is linked to endless Saturday mornings spent as a child performing at the Wetherby Music Centre, tooting away on my flute as part of an ever changing series of musical ensembles which rehearsed and performed and endless succession of medleys and songs from popular stage musicals. The man who ran it was into his musical theatre in a big way, and so it is hard sometimes to hear any of the elements of A Chorus Line or Les Miserables without immediately being transported back to counting 12 bars of silence before our particular section of woodwind were due to join the cacophony again.

As an adult, I concluded that there was something rather unsatisfactory about musicals as a form of theatre. The need to shoehorn song and dance numbers into the structure of a dramatic story often mean that plot, placing and character are all sacrificed in favour of a five minute interlude where the principles get to sing their heart out about the pot of jam they’ve just finished (or whatever spurious life event is deemed worthy of song at that point in the libretto). This uneasy balance was never more apparent when about 15 years ago I was gifted free tickets to a touring revival of Grease which had pitched up at the Bradford Alhambra. The story is now so familiar and the songs themselves such audience favourites, that it appeared that this production had been designed to downplay the former in favour of the latter. Rather than engage me with the plot, the whole performance was little more than a string of audience set-pieces linked together by the briefest of stilted dialogue. There was no room to appreciate the acting or to be drawn into the emotion of the tale, we as audience members were there to sit for three hours in anticipation of You’re The One That I Want. Nothing more was required of us.

So even without mentioning the cosy tweeness and endless repeated musical figures of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, I can safely say I regard musicals as the lowest form of artistic expression.

Which is why I’m now about to recommend that you take time out to download and enjoy one.

Me Me Me is the latest creative opus from the popularly vilified Vile Pervert Jonathan King, a fascinating and engaging man whose works you will often find referenced here in my capacity as a fan and a friend of his. His first attempt at producing a musical film was the autobiographical Vile Pervert which featured the man himself playing all the characters involved. For this new production the stakes and indeed production values have been raised. Professionally shot, and with actual proper actors playing many of the roles, this is a musical film designed to be viewed on its own merits, and not simply as a passing curiosity. Best of all, you can stream or download it all for absolutely nothing.

Me Me Me spins the tale of Jonny Bambino, a graffiti artist who is turning heads all over London and who after being tracked down by a tabloid newspaper is turned into a pop star, complete with three straight Number One hits. When his final work of graffiti is deemed to have crossed a line, the previously benign media turns on their creation – all leading to a Shakespearian tragedy as star crossed lovers pay the ultimate price for media hysteria.

Let’s deal with the negatives first of all. Despite the best efforts of all involved and some extremely creative thinking in terms of staging and production, much of Me Me Me struggles to rise beyond the level of a student degree presentation. Some of the dialogue is stilted and clunky, scenes are present for no reason other than to shoehorn in an irrelevant song, and the pacing is so inconsistent you are sometimes fighting the urge to skip through the exposition to the next musical performance. Leading lady Scarlett Emmanuelle is acceptably pleasing on the eye and capable of voice but Red Light One duo Henry and Rupert Stansall who play the male leads are far better at looking pretty as they are musicians and far better musicians than they are actors. That much is obvious.

Yet for all these flaws, I found it hard to resist the charm of the film. What saves it is the overall vision, the salient points made about media created darlings and the inevitable downfalls which result, the sheer labour of love its production clearly was for everyone involved, but most importantly of all the music. The soundtrack to the film is crammed with memorable songs and productions, as I mentioned above not all of which are necessarily relevant to the plot, but all of which you find yourself humming for days afterwards. Most crucially for a film about a pop star, Johnny Bambino’s “singles” are believably radio and chart-friendly and stand head and shoulders above much pop music you may have heard this year. Plus you get the feeling that Mr King has literally been waiting 25 years to make full use of the recordings by failed rock supergroup Gogmagogg which now have pride of place in the film and prove that we are all indeed Living In A Fucking Timewarp.

Possibly the highest compliment I can give the production is that every time I watch it I’m instantly picturing it all on a West End stage, imagining sets and chorus lines, grand entrances and big production numbers. For a high quality but still endearingly amateur production, it all just seems to work and even the half interested viewer intent on staying for the first five minutes may well be surprised to discover they are still there at the end – even if the final dénouement is a little rushed and underplayed (although so was the final act of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and nobody ever seemed to mind).

My own personal favourite moment of Me Me Me comes at the close of what on stage might be seen as the first act, as impressario Ben Volio takes to the stage to show Bambino and crew just what makes him the man to propel them to pop stardom. A long lost track performed by a much younger King himself, this wound up being my favourite musical moment of the summer and a song which helped me see the brighter side of some very dark moments earlier this summer.

Me Me Me is available online to watch in full at its website, with the full soundtrack on sale on iTunes. A soundtrack which includes Penny, three minutes which will leave you with a day-long grin. Enjoy.

It’s What I’m ‘About’ After All

Have you been missing the weekly instalments of what used to be the Chart Watch UK column, absent from the net since Yahoo! Music shuttered its site in the UK? If so it is clear that you aren’t alone, as the enormous amount of traffic that this site has generated since the end of September has proved. My grateful thanks to everyone who has shown an interest in where I might end up next and who has expressed frustration that the chart column had come to temporary halt.

As you might imagine, I’ve not been able to discuss what has been going on behind the scenes over the last few weeks, but suffice it to say I’ve been in conversation with numerous music and entertainment sites about the possibility of picking the column up, impressing on them that an enormous worldwide audience was more or less guaranteed, and one which would return week after week. Nonetheless it has at times been hard work.

I’m still in discussions with some British based websites about appearing on their pages, but for those suffering Masterton withdrawal symptoms I am pleased to revel that I’ve been asked to contribute each week to the Top 40 pages of renowned American website About.com. The first of these pieces went online this week, and by bookmarking top40.about.com you’ll be able to catch up with the main chart headlines of the week every Sunday evening. Given the regular audience of about.com, the focus will be very much on explaining things from the point of view of an outsider, but I hope there will still be enough of the old opinionated me for people to disagree with.

Meanwhile the search for a proper home for the full Chart Watch UK column continues, for the moment keep listening to the weekly podcast for all the facts that don’t fit in the space available on About.

I Won’t Have It In The House

On the day of the Royal Wedding last April I found myself working first thing in the morning, covering for absent colleagues who had elected to take the bonus Bank Holiday off. As well as affording me the chance to witness the normally unlikely spectacle of the South Bank of London virtually devoid of people at 10am, it meant I arrived back home mid-way through the ceremonies. As expected my wife and mother-in-law were both watching events on television. On Sky News.

They are both foreign you see, so to them the most natural assumption was that such a newsworthy event would be on a news channel. Being British myself, I quickly put them straight and flicked over the cable box to BBC One HD where it remained for the rest of the day. For virtually anyone of my upbringing this was the only place to watch an event of this significance. No matter that the view the following day was that ITV’s coverage was usually superior, the BBC was an automatic choice.

Hence there is a strange irony in the fact that I’ve spent the last seven weeks (and last weekend in particular) heavily involved in broadcasts that many would normally expect to find on the BBC, and yet due to the modern era of rights issues were confined exclusively to commercial networks. The events covered two sports – Rugby Union and Football – and the differing attitudes between the audiences for both sports was a subject of endless fascination.

Let me start by reflecting that the past seven weeks being at the heart of radio coverage of the Rugby World Cup will long rank as one of the most exciting privileges of my career. Right from the start, the sense of event we gave the competition on air, and the reception the coverage received made it plain we were involved in something rather special and were providing a service and entertainment to an audience who were appreciating it enormously. Granted it is sometimes possible for your spirit to waver when you are rising from bed at 5am in order to travel to work to broadcast Tonga v Japan commentary to a small online audience, but somehow we powered through. We had demonstrated a commitment to the tournament and a willingness to devote airtime that no other domestic broadcaster of the event had done before. Perhaps best of all it wasn’t on the BBC.

Part of the fun, particularly for the big games such as England v Scotland was to scan online reaction and in the first instance reflect on the bemusement of people turning their radios on to listen and expressing confusion that they were not hearing the commentary where they would expect it. There was an inbuilt assumption that the coverage could be found on the BBC, and no matter how much pre-publicity had been circulated about the correct channel to tune into, some were left wondering if radio had chosen to ignore the matches completely. The BBC can and indeed should take some pride in noting that for many there is an automatic assumption that an event of major sporting significance will be broadcast in some form across their networks, even if modern day circumstances mean this is less and less likely to be the case.

Once the Rugby loving audience had located the correct channel for the coverage they all appeared to be extremely satisfied with what they heard. What helped was not only the quality of the on-air personnel we had assembled to cover the matches (big names such as John Taylor, Brian Moore and David Campese) but strangely enough also the high degree of criticism levelled at the ITV television coverage which seemed to be judged as rather poor by a large number of people. Not having watched much of the TV coverage myself, I’m in no position to judge, but a great deal of the social networking traffic during the matches, and indeed the comments we received directly in the studio, were of the nature of “the TV coverage is rubbish, I’ve turned the sound down and put the radio on instead – far better”. For what is supposedly the ‘inferior’ medium of radio this is high praise indeed.

Compare this attitude then with that of football fans, not the ones for whom consumption of sporting debate around the matches is a habitual part of their appreciation of the games, but instead those concerned solely with the actuality of the matches. The ones who tune in for the coverage, wherever they can find it. Over the last season and a half I’ve been privileged to be at the helm for something unique in modern day broadcasting history – huge high profile Premier League matches which have been wrenched from the bosom of the BBC and handed instead exclusively to a commercial radio network, and in the process it seems taking some of these radio listeners well and truly out of their comfort zone.

A perfect example of this came on the same day as the Rugby World Cup Final when talkSPORT followed its exclusive coverage of the Kiwi victory with the exclusive national radio commentary of Manchester United v Manchester City – a must-consume match for even the neutral fan. By keeping half an eye on message boards and on social networking sites, it was possible to trace a graceful arc of discovery amongst those who had still not cottoned on that the Sunday lunchtime games were not where they might expect.

Reactions ranged from anger at the way the BBC had “chosen” to ignore what was surely such a high profile game (presuming incompetence on the part of their controllers until put straight on the matter) through once more some astonished puzzlement as to where they might find the commentary given that it wasn’t on the BBC as they had expected, right the way up to indignant anger that such an important event was not on the BBC and was thus being soiled (as they saw it) by a commercial network.

It is the latter category of listener, or should that be commenter, which to me is the most fascinating of all. There were people genuinely incensed that the game was on the “wrong” channel, wondering if there was some kind of law which would ban commercial radio from taking the relevant rights. People half-seriously complained of having to lower themselves to tune elsewhere, as if moving over the commercial world was somehow rather dirty with some extremists announcing that they point blank refused to tune in to a radio station which was not their regular choice and would instead be “forced” to follow the match through live text updates.

I was reminded of the tales older friends of mine spin of the early days of commercial television, where in some circles (and in an attitude which was by no means confined to one particular social class), the newly forged ITV was seen as the grubby inferior. Programmes on the alternative channel were to be avoided at all costs, with tales abounding of some homes refusing to perform the necessary retuning of their sets. ITV they said, was not something we would choose to have in our homes.

Such attitudes these days seem quaint, antediluvian even, especially in this modern multi-channel age. Nobody would seriously admit to avoiding all programming except that of the BBC without inviting ridicule. Yet amongst radio listeners it seems this tribalism, this unswerving brand loyalty is still prevalent.

Maybe it is just a hard core of nutters, and football fans in particular  – given that as we saw above this attitude simply did not exist amongst the Rugby Union crown – who are so dogmatic in their choice of radio listening. Goodness knows how any of them would cope in a market such as America where radio rights for teams are traded back and forth between competing radio stations in a local market, each hoping for the edge over their competition which it will give them. Never mind, given that the big Manchester derby turned out to be one of the greatest matches ever, as City’s sixth goal slid into the net, I found myself wondering just how many of the refuseniks had succumbed to temptation and tuned in anyway. Who knows, they may even have enjoyed what they found. Wouldn’t that have been a scandal?

That Big Dog/Dolphin Issue

Was the world holding its breath for the big Stone Roses reunion? Well if it was, feel free to exhale, as after literally days of speculation the band have today announced plans for at least two concerts next year and some newly recorded material as well, which given the 17 year gap since their last output makes the near legendary gestation period of their second album seem positively brisk.

It is news that has quite rightly got many people extremely excited. For music fans of a certain vintage, the Stone Roses were the quintessential band of their era, with their debut album in particular being hailed as one of the defining moments of the Madchester musical revolution of the early 1990s. As a chartwatcher their impact always fascinates me for whilst they never managed massive hit singles in a purely chart-topping sense, their individual tracks became acknowledged classics in their own right, and indeed as we shall see were floating their way onto the singles chart several years after they were first recorded. Most of the Stone Roses’ biggest hits were so long ago they predate even my own writing, but this seemed to take an appropriate moment to look back at just what Roses hits charted when – and most importantly why,

The chart fortunes of the Stone Roses were the very definition of a slow burn. It wasn’t until their fourth single release (and their second on Silvertone Records) that they caught the attention of chart chroniclers, the initial release of ‘Made Of Stone’ creeping its way to 1990 in March 1989. Still plying the cheerful jangling indie sound which characterised their early releases, they reached the Top 40 for the first time at the end of July 1989 (just in time for the annual “taking abroad on holiday” recording of the chart show as I recall) as the enthusiastic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ reached Number 36. At the time they were just another independent band, destined to place a handful of singles in the lower reaches of the chart like so many of their contemporaries at the time – or so we all thought.

The tale of the double a-side ‘What The World Is Waiting For/Fools Gold’ has now passed into legend. As the labelling of the single and its chart listing suggests, the now iconic ‘Fools Gold’ was originally intended as a quirky b-side to the more of the same vibe of ‘What The World…’ only for Silvertone’s Roddy McKenna to suggest that the track with its whispered vocals and James Brown sampled bassline was liable to make just as much an impact. The single was put out as a double a-side, but the label whispered to anyone who was prepared to listen that the flipside was the track to watch out for.

Featuring as it did a high profile track which did not appear on their self-titled debut album (which had been released to little fanfare back in May), the new single landed on the chart as a new entry at Number 13 in late November 1989, as chance would have it in the same week that the Happy Mondays entered at Number 30 with their similarly dance-inspired ‘Madchester Rave On’ EP. This led to the two groups appearing side by side on a near legendary edition of Top Of The Pops, seen by some as a watershed moment in musical history as an exciting and innovative new sound in popular music appeared front and centre on prime time television. ‘Fools Gold’ as anyone with a brain was calling the single, rose to Number 8 the following week to take the Roses into the Top 10 for the first time ever.

Then the band and their label realised they had a problem. They were now one of the hottest things in music but with a single that was almost entirely different in style and delivery to much of the music on their still viable debut album. More pressingly however, the need to cash in on this success was upon them, and to their horror the first evidence of this was a part of their past they would actually have preferred to forget.

In a manner which in a way echoed the sudden bursting into flower of The Beatles back in the 1960s, it was a former label which still owned the rights to a rather naff old recording which tried to cash in first. The band had recorded the happy go lucky but rather cheeky drugs anthem ‘Sally Cinnamon’ back in 1987 for tiny label FM Revolver records. Smelling a shot at making money, the label’s boss Paul Birch re-released the single albeit in what was clearly an inferior mix to the original and to help its promotion put out a rather cheaply made video. The Stone Roses famously expressed their displeasure at this by decorating Birch, his girlfriend, and their offices with paint, an action which landed them a conviction for criminal damage. They need not have worried, the re-released ‘Sally Cinnamon’ limped to Number 46 and was never spoken of again.

Meanwhile it was the turn of their current label to get in on the act. March 1990 was deemed Stone Roses month, with a rapid fire series of re-releases (one every fortnight) of older material designed to kick start sales of their album. Previously uncharted third single ‘Made Of Stone’ made Number 8, the moody ‘Elephant Stone’ followed at Number 20 and even an opportunistic re-issue of ‘She Bangs The Drums’ made Number 34, improving on its initial placing eight months earlier. Whilst the album ‘The Stone Roses’ didn’t exactly catch fire, it did make the Top 20 of the album chart for the first time ever and would be a constant seller until the end of the year.

Finally it was time for some brand new material in the shape of newly recorded single ‘One Love’ which to be perfectly honest had an air of trying a little too hard about it. A valiant attempt to capture the lightning in a bottle of ‘Fools Gold’, the track was essentially a re-tread of its predecessor with even Ian Brown admitting later it was a failed attempt at making an anthem. No matter, a brand new Roses track was the biggest deal going and upon release at the start of July 1990 it stormed into the Top 40 at Number 4 to give the band their biggest hit single to that point.

It was at this point that the band found themselves mired in a legal dispute with Silvertone, realising that their royalties clause was derisory and was certain to leave them short changed given the success that anything they did from this point on was destined to be massive. Their attempts to leave the label lead to a September 1990 injunction which led to them being prevented from recording for anyone else – a situation which would persist until the band won in court the following summer. They duly signed with Geffen records who handed them a fortune to go and record a brand new classic. Little did they know how long it would take.

In the meantime to recover from the trauma of losing the band, Silvertone records began to exploit the music they did own in as many ways as possible. First came a cheeky re-release of ‘Fools Gold’ in September 1990. The single had been withdrawn from sale earlier in the summer and with the track still unavailable on an album a decent sized demand had been built up for it. Citing “overwhelming public demand” the label re-released the single and were rewarded with its second Top 40 appearance inside a year, the single mounting the Number 22 position. It was followed in September 1991 by the album’s lead track ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, released you suspect as a neat “screw you” to the judge which had found in the band’s favour and freed them to jump ship to Geffen. Despite being lifted from a now two year old album, the single was still bought by enough completists to reach Number 20.

Encouraged by this, the label shoved out the melodic ‘Waterfall’, along with some Oakenfold and Osbourne remixes, leading to the single reaching Number 27 in January 1992.  To further wring every last drop from the, ahem, Stone next came the compilation album ‘Turns Into Stone’ in July 1992 which collected together essentially every Silvertone-owned Stone Roses track to date which was not on the ‘Stone Roses’ album. Finally ‘Fools Gold’ and ‘One Love’ were available on an album. It also featured a brand new single mix of ‘I Am The Resurrection’ which deleted the drum track from the original to replace it with a breakbeat. That made Number 33, and by the time yet another re-release of ‘Fools Gold’ had only made Number 73 in May 1992 (surely by then everyone who wanted one owned a copy) things were starting to get silly. It was almost a relief when 1993 came and went without any Stone Roses material being repackaged, re-jigged or re-released.

In the meantime the non-appearance of their second album and the prospect of the band having burned away the millions that Geffen records had given them to record it was becoming the stuff of legend. It wasn’t until late 1994 that the material was finally deemed ready for public consumption, and as the law of diminishing musical returns so often proves, anything which has been worked upon for that length of time and with that level of perfectionism involved was only ever going to be rubbish.

The new album ‘The Second Coming’ was derided as being overblown and overthought, and with the band having for one reason or another failed to strike whilst the iron was hot and their star was shining at its brightest at the start of the decade, they entered 1994 as being decidedly passé. Naturally a great deal of attention was paid to its release but rarely has such an eagerly anticipated album and a follow-up to a classic been deemed such a disappointment.

The record charts of course generally follow their own path and have no truck with critical opinion. The first truly new Stone Roses single since ‘One Love’ was only ever going to be a smash and so it proved with the epic (and in truth rather magnificent in its own way) ‘Love Spreads’ charging into the singles chart at Number 2 in December 1994. This now concides with the Masterton era, so this is what I wrote on rec.music.misc at the time:

No one phrase or sentence can convey properly to an outsider the sense of anticipation that surrounded this track. The debut album by the Stone Roses was released in 1989. Now seen as one of the last great albums of the 1980s, it launched the whole ‘Madchester’ scene into the stratosphere and dragged bands such as the Happy Mondays and the Inspiral Carpets in its wake. Virtually every initial single from the band and from the album made the charts at least twice which included a reissue programme in February/March 1990 which saw them chart a new hit every 2 weeks. The last new material recorded by the band was ‘One Love’ which became their biggest hit to that date when it made No.4 in July 1990 following which the band first of all successfully sued their record company to be released from their contract and then vanished into the studio for over 2 years. Finally then, the band re-emerge with what has to be one of the most delayed albums in recent times. Comments on the music itself are in the main, irrelevant. For most this will have been one of the highlights of the year and the biggest hit ever for the band was just about guaranteed.

INCISIVE, non?

History records what happened next, a series of rather more poorly received singles taken from ‘The Second Coming’, an acrimonious break-up and yet more re-releases of Fools sodding Gold. For posterity then, let us extract from the archives the notes on each. First, ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ from March 1995, a Number 11 hit:

Their ‘Second Coming’ album has generally been panned as a bit of a disappointment but that doesn’t seem to have harmed its sales too much. Following on from ‘Love Spreads’ which gave them their biggest hit ever when it made No.2 last December, the lads from Manchester release what is generally regarded as the best track on the album. The result is quite simply another smash, the seventh Top 20 hit of their career.

I got better when I started getting paid for this stuff you know. Next on their discography, a certain classic reaching Number 25 in a new version in April 1995:

Incredible. Simply incredible. ‘Fools Gold’ is without a doubt the definitive Stone Roses track. It was first released at the end of 1989 in a year which had seen the band become the sensations of the year, released their by now classic debut album and set themselves up as a force to be reckoned with. The moody piece of shoe-gazing reached No.8 and prompted a flood of re-releases of their earlier singles a few months later. In September 1990 the track was back again, released due to ‘public demand’ and it duly staggered to No.22. Then Silvertone records lost a celebrated court case against the band and saw them defect to Geffen records. Keen to capitalise on the one asset they still held, the album was repackaged and re-promoted with a number of singles which included – yes! – ‘Fools Gold’ in a "remix" which fooled nobody and reached No.73 in May 1992. Three years later on, and in the wake of their chart success with singles from their new Geffen album, their definitive recording is back once again in another alleged remix although you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. More, there is little that can be said apart from commenting that they must be the only alternative indie band to have ever been sampled by Run DMC.

The Run DMC track incidentally was ‘What’s It All About’ which just missed the Top 40 in late 1990.

We’re back mining ‘The Second Coming’ next with ‘Begging You’ which made Number 15 in November 1995, a full year after the album was released.

Strange to think that it is now a year since the music world held its breath for the new Stone Roses album before realising that it had been a waste of effort and that it was nothing special after all. The pattern of singles released from the ‘Second Coming’ album has been a strange one. The first single was ‘Love Spreads’ which made Number 2 in December last year, followed by ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ which reached Number 11 back in March. Since then there has been no promotion from the band at all, save for yet another remix and re-release of the ubiquitous ‘Fools Gold’ which made Number 25 in April. Finally here comes the third single from the album, making a fairly impressive debut inside the Top 20 but one which is likely to see it slip away as fast as it came. It is strange to think that in 1990 the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays were being mentioned in the same breath as the saviours of British music. Five years on the Happy Mondays have become the critically and commercially acclaimed Black Grape whereas the Stone Roses just drift on with nobody paying them much attention at all.

That would be that, aside from what was until now the last ever appearance on the singles chart of the famous Stone Roses, and if you cannot work out just what that track was, you really have not been paying attention thus far. It made Number 25 in March 1999.

Just to show you can never keep a good track down. Fool’s Gold was arguably the track that kickstarted the whole Madchester scene in the early 1990s and the record that transformed the Stone Roses from just another late 80s indie band into a major but short-lived phenomenon. A Top 10 hit when first released in November 1989, the track returned to the chart a year later as part of a series of re-releases of virtually everything the band had recorded up to that point. This latest reappearance of the song is thanks to a new set of remixes, part of a new project at Jive records to breathe new life into past releases. The single is headed by an uptempo drum and bass reworking by Grooverider but of course not being a dance aficionado I can’t help but feel that the original mix was perfect enough
as it stood and that this tampering adds nothing to the song.

Truly I don’t think you had to be a “dance aficionado” to work out just how pointless that was. As I write ‘Fools Gold’ is at Number 190 on the iTunes chart. If an X Factor contestant covers it at any point, run away very very fast.

A Law Unto Himself

Everyone who has had any kind of training in the art of radio will have been taught the concept of Theatre Of The Mind. The idea that through artful spinning of words, a presenter can colour in the mental pictures he is painting and leave the listener with a vivid impression of just what has gone on during the show.

My favourite example of this was working with Mark Page in Bradford in the 90s, when a phone character of his was attempting a mind reading act. “Put your blindfold on,” he commanded, “ooh, red silk. Nice”. What the blindfold was made of was completely irrelevant to the gag being set up, but its introduction somehow made the whole skit more “real”.

Yet sometimes the best theatre isn’t one that has been painstakingly created beforehand. It can happen quite spontaneously thanks to a happy coming together of circumstances. Last weekend we experienced this very thing.

To explain, a highlight of the current talkSPORT weekend schedules is a two hour interview show called My Sporting Life. The premise is a simple yet brilliant one – persuade a notable sportsman into the studio in order to pay homage to his or her life and career by means of an extended interview with our talented host Danny Kelly, interspersed with contributions from friends and other interested parties on the telephone. The first series of this show went out during the summer early on Saturday evenings, and was so well received that it won a more or less permanent place in the weekend schedules, at present being broadcast on Sundays at 10pm.

Now whilst the civilised hour of broadcast for the summertime shows meant that the show could go out live, the logistical impossibilities of persuading impossibly famous people to be present on the South Bank of London at midnight at the end of the weekend means that the show is pre-recorded during the week, often at whatever time is most convenient to our chosen guest of the week.

Last week the subject of the show was a true legend of the game of football – Dennis Law, the diminutive Scotsman who had ended up a hero to both blue and red halves of Manchester. He has an impressively put together autobiography in the shops at the moment, and so was in the middle of a promotional tour to publicise the work, meaning he was an obvious choice of guest for the broadcast that week. Just one complication though – his tight schedule meant that he was only available to us for the better part of an hour and a half on Wednesday afternoon. This, as you might imagine presented a particular challenge given that we had to somehow record two hours of radio programme. Even taking commercial breaks and news bulletins into account, a complete broadcast hour runs to around 48 minutes. Without pausing even for breath, never mind a cup of tea, cramming in 96 minutes of conversation with a star and his agent constantly checking their watches was always going to be a struggle. All we could do was set the tape running and hope for the best.

Naturally these things never go to plan. Delays getting hold of guests on the phone, an unfortunate technical failure resulting in the opening minutes of one section becoming lost and requiring restart of the recording, plus a pause in proceedings whilst one particular fact was checked meant that time was running away from us  – and potentially so was the star guest.

Matters came to a head halfway through the second hour when Mr Law’s literary agent who was accompanying him on his promotional tour announced they had a train to catch at five to five and that they would have to leave the building within ten minutes – non-negotiable. Those of us producing the programme were faced with the prospect of this particular Sporting Life coming to a premature end – and more disastrously leaving us at least ten minutes short of programme material.

I suggested that as our show already had a beginning and a middle, what was most important to record was the end, especially as the last segment of the show had been reserved for a talk about Dennis’ work with cancer charities and the tragedies in his personal life which had inspired this work. We could worry later about how to fill any other gaps. So we hit “Record”, paid tribute to the philanthropy of the footballing legend and said goodbye to the audience, at which point we all shook hands and ushered our guests out the door into a waiting taxi. One cup of tea later, we plugged the final hole in the show at a more measured pace by recording an extended interview with famously football writer Brian Glanville, host Danny Kelly covering for the temporary lack of our guest on the show by explaining that he was stuck out in the office signing autographs for the many members of staff who wanted time in his presence. Theatre Of The Mind you see.

The show edited together fine, and to my relief ran perfectly to time without the need for further padding. I loaded it into the playout system over the weekend and thought little more of it.

Yet when we broadcast it, our hastily reassembled programme had a curious effect on the audience. During the second hour of the show, we had broached topics which Dennis was clearly reluctant to talk in detail about. In particular when Danny moved on to his days at Manchester City and in particular a famous backheeled goal which relegated his former Old Trafford team-mates, our guest told us he had nothing to say on the matter, leaving Danny reading passages out of the book to compensate. Then we called up fellow Manchester City legend Mike Summerbee who took his own exception to what he felt was a too flippant line of questioning towards his great friend and made it plain that more deference to his genius was required.

The cumulative effect of this was for the show to be quite compelling listening, possibly more so than normal. The unsuspecting listener was suddenly on the edge of their seat as it looked more and more as if the show was going off the rails as the subject became more and more uncommunicative. This impression was further compounded when we hit the penultimate segment shortly afterwards – the one where Dennis Law was “out in the office signing autographs”.

We knew that he was missing from that part of the show due to circumstances beyond our control, yet in the Theatre Of The Mind for the listener who knew only what we were choosing to tell them, it appeared that he was for the moment withdrawing his participation. You simply could not turn this off for fear of missing out on what would happen next. There was a small danger here that we were in danger of portraying our guest as a cantankerous old sod who threw a hissy fit during a show designed to celebrate his work. Naturally this could not have been further from the truth, as he was in fact charming, friendly and a delight to talk to throughout. It was then a relief that the show climaxed with him back in the studio and spoken of in glowing terms about his charitable actions. His reputation (and ours as producers) remained intact.

We can sometimes overlook just how powerful the medium in which we operate is. A programme that we were concerned could not even be finished adequately somehow managed to become a thrilling rollercoaster of tension – and most importantly of all I guess helped to sell more than its fair share of copies of Dennis Law’s rather brilliant autobiography.

All the editions of My Sporting Life produced so far are available to download in podcast form in the usual places, and if you want to hear the full interview with Dennis Law, it is still on the talkSPORT website. I’d recommend it, even if I have kind of spoiled the suspense for you already.

A Day.io at nextrad.io

IDtagMy father was always going to speak at conferences, as I recall. Or at least attend them. Several times a year he would announce he would be away at some mysterious location for a night or two, leaving my sister and I to run our mother ragged until he returned home with what we always hoped was a present to compensate us for his absence from our lives.

I think the first radio conference I ever attended was a student radio one sometime in 1992, the highlight of which turned out to be a talk from a big burly man from the local BBC station who had a rather unfortunate Robin Williams fixation but who bellowed enough anecdotes to make me utterly convinced that his job was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and who left me dreaming of the day that I’d one day get to express that same enthusiasm to other bright eyed industry hopefuls.

Even as a grown adult though, most conferences are for the big guys – the bosses and management. For people whose lives appear to revolve around summoning people for meetings they are surely the equivalent of an ice-cream sundae. A huge auditorium sized meeting for people who like to have meetings.

So I’ve never actually been to one in any of the jobs I’d had. Until this week, when the best £99 I’d spent on the credit card all summer meant I was in the audience for nextrad.io. This, stated the organisers, was a conference for the people at the coalface. A chance for the ordinary people in radio to be treated to a series of talks by some of the most enthusiastic people in radio. Thursday morning saw myself and a 100 or so other nervous looking radio presenters/producers etc. from all over the country eyeing each other up diffidently over coffee before assembling in the intimate surroundings of the main theatre at the Magic Circle for the first of the day’s series of mini-lectures.

This being the 21st century and most of the attendees being geeks of one form or another, tapping away on laptops and tweeting the proceedings was more or less de-rigueur, leading at one stage to the hashtag #nextradio trending nationwide, presumably to the bafflement of most casual observers up and down the land. I took time out to be personally more amused by the fact that the theatre afforded no place from which to source power and speculated that most people would have run out of battery juice by lunchtime, which proved indeed to be the case. I have to confess I did spend the first half an hour trying to figure out the wireless password for the venue, tweeting my frustrations from my phone. This prompted host and organiser James Cridland to announce for my direct benefit that it was printed inside the programme which I clearly hadn’t read. Naturally I hadn’t, I was too busy staring at people diffidently over coffee as we arrived. Nonetheless this did mean that I not only now knew where to look for the crucial information but having had my name announced on stage was thus briefly the most important and high profile member of the audience. I’d call that a result.

The “less is more” policy of the organisers in timing the length of the talks given meant we zipped through a wide range of speakers, virtually all of whom had something interesting, relevant and thought-provoking to say, and it is worth dealing with some of the more notable ones.

The morning started with Matt Edmondson and his producer colleague from Radio One, waxing lyrical about the one hour show they put together on Wednesday evenings and how they take great care to expand the show beyond its broadcast horizons with as many multimedia elements as possible, such as comedy interviews with celebrities which populate the show’s website. I didn’t want to spend the entire day taking a cynical approach to everything but I did find myself questioning just how “new” a comedy show with every link carefully scripted in advance actually was and the way the pair boasted about how the show was an intimate club crammed with lots of running gags that you have to listen regularly to get made me wonder just how inclusive a listening experience it actually was. But I’m not their target market, so go figure.

They were followed by a short ten minute chat from Nik Goodman who played some creative ideas lifted from radio stations around the world to demonstrate there should be no boundaries to a good idea. The climax of his talk was the playing of Jacksonville, FL DJ Gregg Stepp apparently quitting live on air and walking out of his show on WFYV-FM after learning he was to be fired at the end of the week. The incident from October 2008 is now a famous radio moment, although I’m not sure most people in the room with me grasped that the whole thing was a stunt, dreamed up by the radio station itself in order to drum up publicity, the presenter in question having resigned several weeks earlier to take up another job elsewhere. Nonetheless the incident stands proud as a fine example of how to make an impact by making people wonder if they really were supposed to have heard what they did.

This is a SPOOF people. It wasn’t for real.

 

The legendary Trevor Dann gave a short presentation on the use of archive material, playing some famous radio moments from the past and bemoaning the way most radio is thrown away and forgotten the moment that it is broadcast. The BBC have their own archives but are apparently planning to open their doors to anyone who happens to have old broadcast tapes – causing me to think back once more to my cupboard full of Top 40 tapes and whether it will end up being worth anything to anyone one day. Maybe the answer is closer than I thought:

I also noted on Twitter that talkSPORT has an extensive archive which, although it has gaps, stretches back to the 1990s, although it is only since 2008 that we’ve had ready online access to previously broadcast material and I suspect I’m one of only a couple of people in the building who knows how to work the machine that retrieves the data from the boxes full of DAT tapes which comprise the older archive. Nonetheless it can be worthwhile, as I demonstrated once when doing research on David Beckham and turned up a tape of our present boss hosting the evening show in a previous life. Discretion prevented me from circulating it around the office.

A talk from the BBCs Brett Spicer attempted to turn us on to the way social media can help grow audiences and call attention to local radio. By this he means the circulation of important clips and moments via non-broadcast mediums, citing the recent example of “Angry Melvin”, an hilarious ranting caller from BBC Three Counties earlier in the year which briefly became a national sensation. Actually it is not just local radio which can use this trick to good effect. Check out the recent attention paid to “Jonathan in Swansea”, a caller to talkSPORT’s weekend overnight presenter Matt Forde which served only to further raise the profile of the most popular host that slot has ever had. All thanks to a random YouTube upload by an interested listener. The Nazis were all hippies, remember.

I took careful note of the presentation from Francesca Panetta from The Guardian on the subject of podcasts and the wide ranging ways on demand audio is used by audiences. As a speaker who actually did not work in radio at all and who was instead charged with creating audio content to enhance a newspaper brand, it was interesting to hear her take as an outsider on the way radio deals with podcasting. It often frustrates me that so many radio station podcasts are simply re-edited highlights of already broadcast material, something which strikes me as totally self-defeating. What motivation does a listener have to tune into your output when they know the notional “best bits” are going to be served up to them later. Podcasts should be treated as mini radio broadcasts in their own right, covering topics and discussions that possibly would never find a home on a radio schedule. Certainly that is the approach I take with my own podcast, one which has been a labour of love on and off for three and a half years now. It makes me no money and with downloads in the hundreds rather than the thousands is hardly helping me broadcast to the vast audiences I can achieve on a “real” radio station. Nonetheless, nobody is likely to invite me to broadcast a weekly show about chart news, but the podcast gives me the freedom to exercise the creativity the way I want to. If people are entertained by it and my reputation is enhanced as a result – that’s just a nice bonus.

Just after midday at nextrad.io came the moment I, and my two other colleagues in the audience, had been waiting for as our own boss took to the stage to reveal the secrets of how he added a million listeners in a year. Having been subject to these kind of inspirational talks by him at programming meetings for well over three years now it was fascinating to see the reaction of everyone else in the room as he talked up the success of our station and the reasons why we go from strength to strength. As a former actor, I always think he knows only too well the power of delivery and how to make the most of an oratory. That’s how he makes most of us want to give our all to him each day at work, and by the end you got the feeling half the room were prepared to as well.

The most interesting talk straight after the lunch buffet (during the course of which incidentally, the crudites and savoury dip remained untouched, revealing more than planned about the people in attendance I felt) was that given by Steve Ackerman. He is a brilliant, well regarded man who runs independent production house Somethin’ Else and whose building I’ve visited on a number of occasions as a contributor to documentaries they have been making. His talk wasn’t about broadcast radio at all but instead showing how his company had used radio drama techniques to create a series of audio-focused mobile games to benefit clients such as Wrigleys. It was during the course of this talk that I ended up in a heated twitter discussion with another member of the audience as I noted with some frustration that the innovative and fascinating applications being talked about were confined to the iPhone platform. I pointed out that as I didn’t own one and was unlikely ever to do so, I was never going to be exposed to the brands being thus assisted. Plenty of people in the industry (and indeed earlier on at the conference) bang on about how radio in the future is platform agnostic and how the listener should not have to care about the medium of delivery. If that is the case, why not this particular branded content too? My online correspondent wondered if ROI wasn’t the key, given that it is easier to make money from iPhone games than on other platforms. This did however raise the question as to what the purpose of creating the game was in the first place. We were told that it wasn’t there to necessarily make money (and indeed the game in question The Nightjar is a free download) but to make people aware of a brand of chewing gum. If it doesn’t work on my phone, it follows that the gum is never going to be bought. We left the issue to be chewed over, so to speak.

As the day wore on, some of the later presentations began to be a bit of a blur, perhaps an inevitable consequence of trying to cram so much in. Nonetheless my attention was grabbed once more by a talk by legendary programme director Dick Stone on the issue of show prep. As a knarled old veteran of on air work, I’d had most of what he said about internalising your content and not simply reading out loud things that are written down on more occasions that I care to count, but it was still worthwhile to be refreshed and reminded of the pitfalls of just reading out the weather forecast as it has been sent down from the met office. He also did note that offering presenters a critique of their work is vitally important and how it can actually be difficult to get through their defences. He understands why only too well, presenters having given so much of themselves on air that it is hard for them to accept criticism. If you’ve just done what you feel is the best job possible, it is a hammer blow to the ego to sit down with the boss and be told why it is rubbish, a feeling I remember only too well. If I took anything at all away from the conference, it was this lesson which I’ll remember if my career ever leads me to start running radio stations of my own.

The day wrapped up as it began with a talk from members of the Radio One interactive team. They told the story of radio’s attempts to use pictures as part of its output and climaxed with a demonstration of the exciting new Radio One website which is soon to be publicly unveiled, an exciting looking design which presents all selected content in a lightbox from the front page, removing the need for anyone ever to actually navigate from the landing page. Their talk reminded me of my own efforts to try to visualise some of the work I do, something I do with caution as it is all unofficial and my bosses sometimes frown on the drawing back of the backstage curtain that is the result. Nonetheless I’ve been known to stream our activities in the control room during major broadcasts as a Twitvid, something I’ve half a mind to do again during the Rugby World Cup.

5pm arrived and we all emerged, blinking, into the sunshine once more, thanking profoundly James Cridland and Matt Deegan for their organisational efforts before the hardier souls in the audience retired to the pub around the corner. I sloped off home, with the prospect of another early start for a Rugby broadcast looming although still with this odd feeling of euphoria. My mind wandered back to the Robin Williams impersonator from 1992 and his love for his job and his medium. There is nothing like being shoulder to shoulder with people who adore being on and working in radio, who know deep down they have the best job in the world and who armed with little more than a microphone and a voice have the ability to tap into people’s emotions and be a part of their lives like nobody else can.

That’s why if they do it all again I’ll be first in the queue for a ticket. Or maybe up on stage explaining just why I do nothing so brilliantly.

Oh yes, and I lasted the whole day online thanks to my netbook and carefully putting my phone in aeroplane mode to conserve the battery. Even the chap next to me with a Macbook only had 15 minutes of juice left by the end.

20 Minutes You’ll Never Get Back

Interest in this little site has never been higher, thanks to the constant flow of people arriving here from the link at the end of the final Yahoo! Music Chart Watch UK column which went online last week. If you are one of those still coming late to the party, hello and welcome, and I promise I’ll keep people updated on any new home that the weekly chart commentary finds for itself online. Discussions are on-going I assure you.

In the meantime if you have an urgent need to find out exactly what I think about the new hits of the week there is no better way to do it than the (mostly) weekly podcast which has been running since 2008 and which for now is the only way to find out my take on the week’s chart news. The podcast is available on iTunes, or via the direct feed link on the right hand side, but for those who find this too much effort, you can listen to this week’s offering below and find out just what the origin of that messy Leona Lewis track is.

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Busy Doing Nothing

I’ve finally worked what to answer when people ask me to summarise what it is that I do for a living. I do NOTHING. Best of all though, I like to think I do it extremely well.

Yes, this may require some explanation so indulge me.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I achieved clarity. It was at roughly 5.15pm on the day of the League One playoff final back in May, taking place that day at Old Trafford. We had approached the prospect of the end of the game with some small furrowing of brows. Adrian Durham, our able host, was effectively going to be on his own for the last 45 minutes of the show as his co-presenter and the assistant commentator on the match had to leave shortly after the game finished. Extra time and penalties were a desirable scenario here, taking the match right up until the end of the scheduled broadcast, but in the event it was not to be. Peterborough United demolished Huddersfield Town by the small matter of three goals to nil. The match had finished, the trophy was due to be presented and I effectively had to steer a man sat in the stands at Old Trafford through maybe an hour of solo broadcasting, on the assumption that no matter how dedicated the audience this particular match would be unlikely to generate much in the way of telephone response. It was a steaming hot Sunday on a bank holiday weekend after all.

I therefore did what any other producer of my calibre would have done. I looked at the advertising log, the list of scheduled commercials, and decided that the show could overrun. We would delay taking the scheduled break at the end of the match for as long as possible, necessitating some catching up over the course of the hour and potentially reducing the need to fill the gap with recycled interviews. So as Kev, our pitchside reporter ran around with a radio microphone and grabbed just about every member of the Peterborough United side, I watched the minutes tick by with no small measure of satisfaction. This was burning up my show nicely.

Then I saw a tweet from one of my colleagues, listening in on his car radio. As far as he was concerned this was one of the most compelling things he had heard in some time. All the emotion, all the drama of a team battling their way to promotion, and here we were bringing the innermost thoughts of some of these footballers live and in the moment. Raw, uninterrupted and unedited.

Just thing, if I’d been alert and meticulous, if I had been determined to make my show run to time and to make sure the commercial breaks went out at the allotted time, I would have been in the ears of the presenters, urging them to break, forcing them away from whatever they might have had going on below, just so I could feel I was doing my job correctly. Yet instead we were making brilliant and compelling radio. I realised there and then, the greatest skill of the live outside broadcast producer. Knowing when to do exactly nothing, and just let it all happen.

I say all this because right now I’m looking nervously at my personal calendar for the next month. My employers talkSPORT are the exclusive radio broadcaster for every match of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, due to get underway less than 12 hours from now, and as one of the most experienced live sport producers in the building, I’ve got the slightly overwhelming honour of being in charge of most of them. For the next six weeks I’ll effectively be on New Zealand time, arriving at the office in the wee small hours of the morning to steer out team of presenters and commentators through some marathon stints of live broadcasting, often with nothing more than a microphone, a set of notes, and several thousand full voiced egg-chasing fans for company.

Throughout it all, the best moments, the best bits of the coverage and my most effective and potentially award-winning actions will be the ones when I do absolutely nothing and just let it all unfold.

I’ll try to write here some of the best moments as they occur, but for those keen to get the real time view, just follow my Twitter account @talkbackstuck or lock on to the hashtag #RWCtalksport for the thoughts and views of the entire talkSPORT Rugby crew. To tell you the truth, I cannot wait for it all to start.

As One Door Closes….?

One or two of the more astute readers had already figured it out. The news, announced a little over a week ago, that the Yahoo! Music site was to close down at the end of September clearly had implications for the weekly Chart Watch UK column I’d been writing for the site for the last few years. This was particularly pertinent given that Yahoo! were keen to direct traffic instead to their new celebrity-focused OMG! site which clearly had little room for the kind of forensic account of the week’s chart movements that I’d been supplying.

This week my contract to supply content for the internet giant expired, and so the Chart Watch UK column which is now live online is the last one which will appear on those pages. None of this came as a surprise, my editors have been totally upfront about the potential changes from the start, warning earlier in the year that there was a strong possibility this would happen and giving plenty of notice of the changes. Even notice periods have to come to an end though, and so here we are.

In a sense I’ve actually been extremely fortunate to have had such a long unbroken run online, especially given the way internet sites have come and gone over the years. After initially writing a weekly roundup of the UK charts on the old usenet group rec.music.misc in November 1992 (a very early example can be found here) I was hired by the publishers of Music Week in the summer of 1995 to start writing for the brand new website dotmusic.com which they were launching. The full summer of how that came about is one I’ve written about before. Dotmusic went through a variety of incarnations and several different editors and owners during the time in was in existence, becoming a fully fledged consumer facing site in the late 90s, complete with expensively produced TV commercials, before being bought around 2002 by BT who used it as the focus of a series of consumer websites they ran around that time. When BT and Yahoo! got into bed with one another in 2003 to launch a co-branded internet and content service, dotmusic was part of that deal and the brand was folded into their own Launch site, which would eventually evolve into Yahoo! Music.

Throughout all of these changes I just came along for the ride each time, picked up by each new owner and every new editorial team as a core part of the site’s content, even if sometimes they did have to find new ways to shoehorn me into the design. I took it as a huge compliment that the readership I attracted and the unique selling point my weekly ramblings gave the site made it continually worthwhile to have me on board.

For now, at least, the ride is over. For the first time in over 16 years I don’t have a home for Chart Watch UK. However I don’t intend this to be the end for my almost lifelong passion just yet. I’m in discussions with a number of places for a new home for the column and I hope to be able to resurrect it sometime soon. In the meantime the weekly podcast will become the focus of the story each week, and you can access that by clicking on the links in the top right, whether by listening on the main feed or subscribing via iTunes. I’ve loved following the music charts ever since I was a teenager and have been privileged to share that love with a huge worldwide audience for two decades now. That’s not a passion which will die out overnight I promise you.

For now it seems appropriate to thank the long line of editors and curators who have stuck with me for the last decade and a half. They include my original Music Week editor Steve Redmond, Andy Stickland, Chris Sice, James Poletti, Ben “7 Digital” Drury, Gareth Bellamy, Ben “Fear Of Tigers” Berry and last but not least Paul Johnston, as well as all the other weekend staff I used to deal with as we passed copy back and forth over email before content management systems for websites were created.

Hope to see everyone in a new home soon, and in the meantime I’ll keep everyone posted as to what happens next. I might miss the Saturdays getting their first ever Number One dammit!