Hero To Zero (30)

The responsibility for this particular posting just for a change lies not with my own sick imagination, but in fact an old colleague and friend called Laurence Lennard who runs a video production company called Yada Yada Productions. They are naturally superb and should be your default choice for any video production needs.

I know this, because he emailed me a few weeks ago to say he was clearing out some boxes recently and came across a video tape which he identified as mine, one which I had given to him to potentially digitise some eight years ago, back in the day when not all of us had the means to turn old fashioned tape into magical shiny digital bits. Said tape duly arrived in the post, giving me the chance to relive a brief (two weeks in fact) but rather fun time in my life when I became a weekly TV pundit.

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The programme in question was Zero 30, an entertainment roundup which was broadcast on BBC News 24 at half past midnight every weekday (hence the name). I often tuned in to it to hear my own words read back to me, as their weekly roundup of the latest singles chart was often accompanied by a voiceover that featured facts and figures which I could have sworn were lifted from the dotmusic commentary I’d put online a week before. It turns out they were, my suspicions confirmed in April 2000 when I received a email from the programme editor:

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Hey, if they are going to nick your work the least worst thing they can do is to ask you to come on and use your words yourself on their programme. After a quick telephone chat it was agreed that I would travel down and appear on one of the last few Zero 30 shows before they came off air to launch the new BBC Choice show, and so this was how I found myself on the afternoon of May 1st 2000, on a train down to London ready to appear on live TV in the middle of the night.

My BBC taxi collected me from my sister’s house and I was sped to TV centre and ushered into the newsroom where waiting for me were Christopher Price and the chap from Uncut magazine who would also be a guest on the show. Being a bank holiday this was clearly a far more relaxed atmosphere than normal and indeed the whole programme had an end of term feel to it. They were in their last couple of weeks, winding down and getting ready to move onto something else very exciting. All I had to do was show that I was worthy of being a part of it. After a short wait around the corner from the set, during which time I chatted with the autocue typist who it turned out had been at school with Mel B from the Spice Girls, I was ushered on set, had a microphone clipped to my shirt and was live to the nation for the first time in my life.

Get a haircut boy!

A few things to note here. First of all oh my God did my hair look stupid that day. I was pretty much unemployed at the time, so trips to the barbers were something of a premium product which had to be rationed. At the very least the style, plus the power and studio lighting made me look incredibly pretty. Also it was clear that whatever enthusiasm I had for music chart facts and figures on paper was not necessarily going to come across in a series of TV sound-bites, so for all that the programme team were fans of my work, I don’t think I was the most exciting pundit in the world, even for ten to one in the morning.

Nonetheless, everyone seemed happy with the way it turned out, and we returned to the newsroom afterwards for a chat and a coffee, before I was ushered back down to reception to await my BBC taxi home. I ended up sharing a sofa with Jenny Agutter who just happened to be there that evening as well, as if the whole thing wasn’t showbiz enough.

One week later I was back in the same seat again for a second bite at the apple. This time the whole atmosphere was a little more business-like, although it was another marvellous rite of passage to be sat in the newsroom during the pre-show briefing and chatting to showbiz reporting legend Rick Sky who was also on the show that night whilst he read the printout of my column that week with intense fascination.

Yes, this time round I’d had the much needed haircut, was slapped down by the host for trying to build my part with a gag, and for some reason decided the most comfortable way to sit was slumped forward across the desk with the chair some distance behind me. Whereas on the previous show I had slipped off the set once my slot had finished and could watch the rest of the show go out, this time my crisply dressed researcher minder whisked me away the moment the cameras were off me and I was more or less back on the street of White City before the show had even finished. Talk about efficient.

It will doubtless not have escaped your attention that the brand new Liquid News show on BBC Choice debuted a few weeks later without any contributions from yours truly. It is entirely possible that the whole “get the chart expert on screen to be a chart expert” didn’t really make for very exciting television and so the idea was quietly dropped. I also have a suspicion that the producers quickly realised that a slot at 8.30pm on a mainstream entertainment channel meant that the door was open to get actual celebrities on as guests, rather than the parade of semi-anonymous talking heads that a post-midnight show on a news channel was having to make do with. Either way, my glittering TV career was over as soon as it had begun, leaving me with just the memories – until the video tape dropped through my door once again.

Once more, this posting was made possible by the excellent and talented people at Yada Yada Productions, whose website and portfolio you are all going to check out. Aren’t you?

Where The Trade Goes

bad_boys_4Yes, this is about work again. Deal with it, I’ll find another fixation soon.

Last night I did a terrible thing. I willed the England football team to lose. My role for the evening was producer of the show dedicated to covering England’s Euro 2012 qualifier match against Switzerland at Wembley. It was theoretically a bit of a raw deal, a programme which nobody in their right mind would actually choose to listen to. Who, aside from a few hundred ex-pats who couldn’t get internet coverage of the match anywhere else, would listen to us flip-flopping between two pundits in a studio and two more in the gantry at the stadium as we cheekily pushed the boundary of “not doing commentary” as far as we could without getting into trouble? Who indeed, given that the game was live on free network television or for those unable to be in front of a set was being carried live on another radio network.

Yet when England went 2-0 down midway through the first half, I permitted myself a smile of satisfaction. The thin dribble of tweets, texts and emails through to the studio became a trickle and then swiftly a flood. England were garbage, a huge numbers of people knew exactly what they wanted to be hearing at that moment, two blokes on talkSPORT arguing about why that should be. Far from presiding over a well meaning compromise, I was helping on air a must-listen forum for immediate reaction.

I tell the above tale of why I drifted home yesterday evening on a high, not to brag, but simply to note that I can understand completely the conclusions drawn in an article published in The Observer Magazine today, one which has been circulated far and wide during the day as a fascinating observation of just what makes this particular award-winning radio station tick.

Here Come The Boys by Carole Cadwalladr was always going to be an unusually in-depth piece after the lady who wrote it spent an entire day in the office a couple of weeks ago. Just about every single person who opened her mouth on air that day was grabbed for a quick interview, and the result is a fascinating and rather thoughtful account of what just makes the office tick, all written from the perspective of someone who would probably never consider listening to the radio station under any normal circumstances but who came away realising just what it is that makes it so popular. As many others have commented, landing in the pages of the Sunday supplements is surely the ultimate stamp of middle-class approval.

Nonetheless even the Observer journalist didn’t quite manage to resolve for herself the two issues which just about every otherwise glowing commentary of the station recently has found time to wrestle with: is it right that a radio station should proudly state it is aimed at men, and are the audience nothing more than van driving Neanderthals given all those commercials for building supplies?

“For men who love to talk sport” proclaims the header on the website, incidentally the only place the slogan is actually used but which is often seized on as the ultimate expression of its audience niche. During one particular flurry of attention we attracted a few months back, one rather angry young woman complained long and loudly online that it was “hateful” almost as if the website consisted of nothing more than a giant penis mocking her.

Here’s the truth though. Every commercial radio station in existence is aimed at one sex or the other. We just seem to be the only ones open about it. Ask anyone in advertising and they will tell you that in any average household it is the female who makes all the big purchasing decisions. Sure, it may be the man who opens his wallet, but the choice of carpets, curtains, food, entertainment, holiday destination and garden layout is dictated by the tastes of the woman. For this reason it is in the interests of music radio stations to build their audience unapologetically around the female of the species and serve her up to advertisers on a platter. When I was a presenter we were told that our show was aimed at the mother and her children and nobody else. One large London station went even further, and constructed for their presenters a profile of “Susan”, the 34 year old mother of two who was their target listener. Every word out of their mouths was to be aimed directly at her and what she might be thinking about at that time.

Naturally all these female skewed radio stations do create a rather large gap in the market, and it is one that talkSPORT unashamedly fills with great pride. Hence when the manufacturers of male grooming products, promoters of exciting action films or the producers of interesting new innovations in tyre technology want to hit their own target demographic it is to a certain sports based radio station that they turn. One whose profits in 2010 you will note were £6.4m, up 36% year on year on a turnover of £28.2m, itself a year-on-year increase (source: Media Guardian).

So that’s why the station is aimed firmly and squarely and unapologetically at the over 80% of its audience that sport Adam’s Apples. It makes them money, lots of it.

It often confuses people that when you break down the social demographics of the talkSPORT audience, the figures show that a majority are middle class ABC1 listeners, and not the “lower orders” of the C2DE that the snobs imagine form the core of the listening body. Granted the skew is a rather even 55%/45% but a majority it still is. So why then did the Observer piece take time out to note the prominent place in the advertising logs for organisations such as the Selco Builders Warehouse (a reference, incidentally, which will I can guarantee cause their marketing manager to be on the phone to his account manager at UTV Pitch to crank up his spend for the next period given that awareness of his brand has gone through the roof). Surely, the logic goes, it is only your local plumber and his mate driving around in the battered transit (insured through Budget Van Insurance no doubt and with windscreen chips and cracks fixed thanks to those nice people at Autoglass) who have even a passing interest in the best place to buy some essential building supplies.

Well yes and no. Your friendly local tradesman, quite possibly in the C2DE social bracket, is indeed in the market for some trade brand supplies. At the same time however the decidedly middle class boss of a large building firm, a self made man with an Essex mansion, swimming pool out the back garden and a Jaguar tucked away in the garage and who is most definitely ABC1 also has more than a passing interest in where to get his raw materials from. On Monday morning he may well have a meeting with his procurement manager with the aim of reducing some of their overheads in a tough market. Handily whilst driving in to work, the identity of a particular building chain has been planted in his head by a series of catchy radio commercials. Their price list may well be of interest to him as well, and he is after all in the market for 500 bags of plaster, not just a few lengths of copper tubing.

Looks like the boss of Selco Builders Warehouse has picked the perfect place to spend his marketing budget, wouldn’t you say?

Indignant posturing aside, the writer of the Observer piece did manage to neatly hit one nail perfectly on the head, noting herself at the start of the article how after spending a couple of days listening to talkSPORT she has gone from an almost total unawareness of the internal politics of West Ham, to feeling like she has been married to Avram Grant.

I had to smile. For a period last year I employed as one of my technical operators a very talented friend of mine called Talia. She’s a music freak, a great writer and the least sporty person you could meet, yet she’s also a brilliant radio person and someone I was very glad to have the chance to hire and give her a flavour of how to make speech radio. After leaving work one morning she commented on Facebook that she never thought she would see the day that she had an opinion on Wayne Rooney, but after listening to callers talking about him all night it was very hard not to.

Great minds always think alike.

Station Of The Year Much?

We all knew before the people at the ceremony did.

This was thanks to an overzealous online editor at the Guardian who accidentally published the writeup of the Sony Awards winners and losers just after 7pm, thus breaching the embargo and ensuring anyone with their eye on the ball knew that it was indeed talkSPORT who had walked off with the prestigious UK Station Of The Year award. As anyone who has ever attended an event at the Grosvenor House Hotel will testify, mobile coverage in the downstairs room is essentially zero. There was literally no way of communicating the advance news of the victory to those of our colleagues dining away in luxury, even if we wanted to spoil the surprise for them.

My association with the radio station dates back to the summer of 2002. I was broke, absolutely skint. My salary from my very enjoyable computer job was suddenly no longer able to keep up with my lifestyle and I was on a regular basis bumping along the bottom of my rather generous overdraft limit. The tipping point probably came in July when despite being scheduled to leave my bank account just a week after payday, my rent payment to my landlady bounced.

Financial salvation came in the shape of some useful extra weekend work at a certain national sports radio station of some mixed repute. Not only did the phone call inviting me in for a chat open the door to a useful salary boost, but it also turned out to be the pivotal moment of my career to date. Nine years later, talkSPORT represents the high point of everything I’ve ever achieved in radio.

It wasn’t always like that, naturally. The radio station I joined appeared at times to be stuttering along in a state of organised chaos, thanks mainly to the management at the time who were newspapermen to a man, with the direct result in that they attempted to run the office like a newspaper. Thus programming was chopped and changed on a whim, shows were unveiled and then binned six weeks later and very often the entire topical agenda for the day was set by the mood of those in charge – the day the entire morning on air was devoted to the problems of dog poo simply because the boss had stood in a turd outside the front door as he exited his car was still fresh in the minds of many when I arrived.

Yet the reason the audience stuck with us, and steadily grew over time was because once you peeled away the rubbish there was genuine radio gold lurking there. All it took to take things to the next level to discard the stuff that didn’t work, to gradually extend the good stuff across the day until we reached the point we have now – where not only only are audience figures are at record levels but the finest minds in the industry have decided we are better than anyone else.

talkSPORT’s awards victory prompted some entertaining coverage in some of the national newspapers, with hacks quickly dispatched to write stories along the lines of “talkSPORT – not actually as rubbish as we’d lazily assumed”.

Hence The Independent in their media page acknowledged the way big name advertisers “appreciated the clarity of message” whilst The Guardian invited one of their writers to spend a week listening to the radio station, during the course of which he concluded that the station was “fun, authoritative and knows its audience extremely well”.

If you need further convincing then a few appropriate clips of audio may be of assistance. First the incident referred to in the Guardian piece above, the day that out of nowhere in a discussion about Celtic manager the studio phone rang. On the end was a man with an unmistakeable voice: “Hello, this is Rod Stewart…”

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It is days like the above which hammer home what enormous fun it is to do what we do. As indeed was the chance we took at the end of the season to look back on the moments in live football coverage where not everything always went to plan. As lovingly compiled by my colleague Owain:

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Did I personally win an award? Well no, I didn’t, so the moment when I can start willy waving (as one friend put it) about being a Sony Award winning producer will have to wait. The one programme of mine that was entered for the awards was sadly overlooked totally when it came to nominations, which I genuinely thought was a shame. The documentary I made for Christmas looking back at the 2010 World Cup was easily one of the best programmes I have put together to date. Indulge me then this one final moment of ego stroking, for here is the 60 minute edit of the three hour show which was entered for Best Feature in the Sony Radio Academy Awards. A succession of BBC productions picked up Bronze, Silver and Gold but I like to think our offering wiped the floor with them as the perfect illustration of how when talkSPORT sets out to cover an event, we do so in a manner which proves we care every bit as much as everyone else listening at home.

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Don’t Choke On The Pork Medallions

Tonight is a very special night for a privileged subset of those people who work in radio – the annual Sony Radio Awards, which aim to celebrate all that is good and noteworthy about radio broadcasting. Nominees and invited guests will have assembled in the Great Room at the Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane to be wined and dined and to subsequently applaud loudly as brightly coloured Perspex blocks are distributed to those whom the judges have deemed worthy of such an accolade.

You will note incidentally that in the above paragraph I studiously avoided referring to the awards as “The Radio Oscars”, something which always strikes me as outrageously biased towards the Hollywood movie awards of that name which are somehow held up as the Gold Standard of awards ceremonies. As the Oscars actually mean nothing to the vast majority of people and are only of interest to the kind of movie nerds who remain glued to their seats in the cinema until the last credit has rolled, I would suggest for anyone involved in radio that technically we should regard the Oscars as “The Movie Industry’s Sony Awards.”

You will further note I am not actually there tonight. I went last year and thus finally had my rite of passage that everyone in the industry secretly feels they are owed. This year therefore it is not my turn to be honoured with an invite from the MD, the summons to the ceremony quite rightly restricted to the members of the production teams from the shows of ours that have picked up well deserved nominations. Nonetheless I did devote nearly three weeks of my life to being an integral part of the team that assembled our entries so I have permitted myself a small degree of bitterness at having to watch most other people in the office get glammed up and then assemble at the comedically named Dr.Inks bar around the corner before proceeding the event itself. To counter the fact that they are tonight carousing at the company expense whilst I am sitting at home in my pants watching the online webcast of it all taking place, I thought it appropriate to assemble the inside story of what takes place at this most honourable of awards ceremonies. What really takes place.

This therefore is your guide to attending the Sony Radio Awards. In any year.

1) Turn Up

An easy one you might think, given that you’ve hired the tux from Moss Bros and have been sleeping with the invite under your pillow for the best part of the last fortnight. However it is only once your get there that you realise that Park Lane is an INCREDIBLY long road and that the Grosvenor House Hotel seems to be nattily located exactly bloody miles from any of the surrounding tube stations. No matter whether you decide to head for Marble Arch or Hyde Park Corner stations, you will still be faced with a walk of at least ten minutes just to arrive at the hotel, a journey made all the more miserable by the fleet of hired limousines zooming past, all hired by the great and the good who are considerably richer than you, a humble producer from the provinces.

When you finally arrive at the door of the hotel, a phalanx of photographers will crane their necks eagerly just on the off chance you are somebody really famous. As you are not, they will relax again and continue to scan the road. If you are really unlucky you will attempt to enter the building at the same time as someone who is a genuine celebrity – such as Hugh Bonneville or Ryan Giggs for example – in which case you will be temporarily blinded by flashes. Now would be a bad time to realise that the rigmarole of wriggling into your hired trousers meant you forget to do up the fly. Whatever you do, don’t let this happen.

2) Mingle

The journey towards your dinner table is actually quite a lengthy one and comes in several stages. You will first of all be required to perambulate past a roped off area, behind which is a backdrop being used to catch publicity shots of some of the really, really famous people who have been invited tonight. This is generally the point at which you start to wonder if you are completely out of your depth here, for the room suddenly appears full of very big names from the world of entertainment, all of whom are being greeted with air kisses by other big names from the world of entertainment. Despite the fact that you have the invite, this is actually the kind of party to which you are not generally invited. What the hell are you doing here? Run away immediately.

Fortunately this moment of panic passes quickly, and you soon regain your focus and note that most of the really famous faces here have actually very little to do with radio. They are the invitees of the sponsors and the organisers, the heavyweight entertainment names who will be doing the honours of reading out the names of the winners and then pretending you don’t smell of sweat and chablis when posing for a photograph once you’ve been presented with your award. A closer scan of the room reveals it is most populated by ordinary people like yourself. If you are lucky (and bear in mind there are around 1000 guests in the room) you might even locate the people you work with. Myself, I turned up at the very end of the drinks reception and so just shot down to the dinner table to find the friendly faces all waiting for me.

3) Get Drunk

This is the easy bit, for your will find that your table is veritably groaning with assorted wines and chilled bottles of beers. The cost per head of buying a table at these events may be astronomical but you do at least get your money’s worth. If you happen to be attending the ceremony with someone of director level from your company then you will generally find that the gold credit card is produced at least once more in the evening to ensure a top-up of champagne is brought around. This is far and away the best bit of the night, so kick back, loosen that ridiculous looking dickie bow and enjoy.

4) Eat The Meal

There is a reason why lots of wine is generally served in the build up to dinner events, the food itself is often indifferent and it is only the fermented grape that is preventing you from focusing too fully on this issue. This isn’t a knock on the hard working chefs in the kitchen of course, merely an inevitable consequence of having to prepare exactly the same meal for upwards of 800 people. It has to be something quick, functional, and easily decorated with either a spring of parsley or a suspiciously coloured sauce. Inevitably this results in some form of pork medallion.

To be fair, if you are going to attend an event where mass catering is the order of the day there are far worse places to do so than a five star Park Lane hotel. The meal I ate at last years awards was an order of magnitude better than the one I was subjected to at some sports charity event at Wembley Stadium a couple of years back. Fair play.

5) Applaud BBC people. A lot.

It is time for the gong giving to begin. After the traditional pleas for acceptance speeches to be kept brief (ignored by all and sundry once they arrive on the stage) we can settle back and remember why we and the less attractive ones from The Corrs turned up tonight. This is where you learn how each award lands in the general pecking order with the rather duller ones that will inevitably be handed to people nobody has heard of coming fairly early in the proceedings. This is also the point where you become conscious that despite efforts to promote the event as otherwise, the Sony Radio Awards are a BBC backslapping festival. Maybe they do make programming that is better than anyone else on the planet, or maybe there are a rather large number of gongs that in truth only the BBC is going to win. “Best Drama” or “Best Documentary” are, with the best will in the world, unlikely to be heading to Heart Bognor any time soon. So let’s laugh it up. The BBC are going to win a lot of stuff you never will.

6) Avoid The Temptation To Heckle

Yes, despite the love being shared around the room there will be occasions when you and your friends get a little bored. These moments generally come when someone from the BBC World Service is presented with an award. These dedicated folk appear to inhabit a slightly different plane to the rest of us and have been known to view the receipt of a trophy for their documentary on earth moving in middle Africa as the affirmation of a lifetime of dedication and having to turn up to work every day at a building called Bvsh House. Their acceptance speeches tend therefore to be interminable, thanking everyone from the boss right down to the Portuguese lady who empties the studio bins. This bores the pants off of everyone else in the room beyond a shadow of a doubt. Often this is the cue for a piss break.

7) Take A Piss Break

Radio is a very incestuous business. By that I don’t mean that everyone is related to everyone else (although sometimes the case) or that everyone has slept with everyone else (again, despite the best efforts of a handful of individuals). It simply means that if you have been around long enough you will have built up a considerable network of former colleagues and former bosses, many of whom you may be hoping to run into during the course of their evening having spotted their names on the seating plan. In practice, the Great Room at the Grosvenor House Hotel is so vast and the number of tables so large and confusing that the opportunities for mingling and pressing the flesh are rather limited to say the least. Naturally fate will determine that you will encounter one of your former bosses when you end up standing next to each other at the urinal during one of the aforementioned piss breaks. This is more or less inevitable. There is nothing you can do in this situation other than maintain eye contact with the wall, observe for future blackmail purposes whether they wash their hands afterwards and remember above all that it is only acceptable to break the code of silence in the gents if it is 2am and just before chucking out time.

8) Be Polite

Despite the copious number of awards for BBC networks and the 20 minute speech from the nice World Service lady, you can almost guarantee that there will be at least one token gong for a tiny local radio station who are getting the chance to show they can hang with the big boys. As bored as you may be with the parade of names and semi names weaving their way up to the raised stage that Chris Evans is bestriding, nothing can match the room-wide show of indifference for the breakfast team for Radio Saffron-On-The-Wold. Chaps and lady, you deserve your moment to shine, but the oh so parochial London-centric media has little interest in your school of the day feature and sadly never will.

9) Have A Sense Of Humour

Pretty essential this. Inevitably there will be a category for which you are sure you are a lock, where you felt your showreel entry was a work of genius and for which every member of the team who works on the show has been invited and is occupying a place at the table. The award instead will go to someone from the BBC. It just does.

Most importantly, when the organisers balls things up you must under no circumstances throw bread rolls. Take last year when host Chris Evans turned over two pages of his script and announced that Five Live were the UK Station Of The Year before he was supposed to. Whilst everyone else I knew sat around stony faced and a little pissed off that the fact that they were nominated was never going to get a mention, I found it incredibly hilarious. Well you have to laugh.

10) Enjoy The Drinks And Dancing

This is in the running order for the ceremony you will note, although it always starts about an hour later than scheduled. The upstairs bar is opened and it is easy to presume that everyone will be boozing the night away and swapping anecdotes about the time the desk crashed in the middle of that tricky interview with the leader of the opposition or the time you nearly dropped a reel of tape into a paddy field (World Service again). What you generally find is that the great and the good and the famous have far better things to do than mingle with you proles and have probably taken off to Soho House or the Groucho Club for a rather more refined atmosphere. An evening that began with you being shoved out of the way by Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s minders will end with you supping overpriced Peroni whilst staring at the cleavage of a sales lady from Heart FM. Showbusiness, it is all about glamour after all.

I Jest Of Course…

The Sony Radio Awards are actually a wonderful institution and one I can only hope I get to attend again. I’ve been writing the above whilst watching a webcast of Chris Evans crammed into a small flash window on the high def TV screen in front of me (at least give us the chance to resize it you bastards). Amongst other awards, we’ve walked off with Programmer Of The Year for my boss, Moz Dee and not only that THE BIG ONE – UK STATION OF THE YEAR.

So now I am insanely jealous of the invitees getting to celebrate something we didn’t last year. Getting drunk all night long to celebrate that they, along with me, works for the best radio station in the country. Officially. Much more of this over the coming days…

Outer Labial Detail

Yesterday was a very special day for those of us serious media anoraks. It was the fortnightly event known as Ofcom Monday, 10am marking the publication of the latest complaints bulletin wherein the media regulator details the issues it has dealt with in the last 14 days and dishes out the summary smacked wrists it deems appropriate. I used to take the view that reading these bulletins was a requirement for anyone making programmes of any kind, if only for a useful up to the minute guide to what you can and cannot do. Most of the time however the document serves as a frustrating illustration of the flaws in the current regulatory system and allows one to marvel at the public money that is being wasted on dealing with matters of utter trivia.

Complaining used to be something that took dedication. Sure enough there were plenty of people prepared to take the time to voice their concerns, but the sheer effort involved in sitting down and putting pen to paper, setting out the grievances and then working out where to send it meant that only the truly dedicated had the energy to waste in objecting to broadcast material. By and large everyone got along fine with this and it was only the truly serious matters which received appropriate scrutiny by and large. The electronic age changed all of this. Just one click of a mouse can take you to a simple form which you can fill out with whichever variation on the theme of “I think it is a total disgrace” you feel capable of articulating and then sit back in satisfaction knowing you have done your bit in attempting to ruin someone’s career, or at the very least given them a headache they would rather do without.

I think it was Charlie Brooker who postulated that the era of public votes in entertainment shows has meant there is a section of the population who regard broadcasting as a giant reality show during the course of which they can vote off the participants they don’t like. At times it seems groups of people take an almost sadistic glee wielding what they believe is the power to get someone sacked for the hideous crime of saying or doing something they disagree with. Consequently a complaint to the top level regulator has gone from being the action of last resort to a kind of default reflex action for many people. Don’t like the new actor in your favourite show? Complain to Ofcom. Object to the tie the newsreader is wearing? Complain to Ofcom. Feel that your favourite act should have stayed in X Factor? Make MANY complaints to Ofcom and cc: them to your favourite web forum at the same time. Never mind that it might all be such a waste of time.

What many people struggle to grasp, and what Ofcom valiantly attempts to spell out on its own website, is that ultimately broadcasting standards are judged against a document which has gone through many names in its many incarnations over the years but which is now known as the Broadcast Code. An at times impossible vaguely worded and oblique piece of verbiage, it is nonetheless the bible that every licensed broadcaster in the country is required to know backwards. Scrutinising this document for yourself is theoretically an easy task, although it first of all requires the visitor to the Ofcom website to work out what on earth a “Stakeholder” is and find the link to the Code within the appropriate section. All Ofcom can do when notified that someone has found the content of a broadcast objectionable is to consider it against the policies set down within the code. Overwhelming numbers of complaints are rejected either because the complainant has confused “stuff I don’t agree with” with “something that is not allowed” or because things like the conduct of the elimination show on X Factor isn’t something that is any business of the media regulator.

Occasionally you will hear grumbles that some broadcast or other has been found to be in breach based on just a handful of complaints, a tiny fraction of the audience that actually watched. This is to miss the point entirely, for broadcast regulation has to be based on a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis. How many people objected is immaterial, for if something breaches the code then it matters not how many people agreed or disagreed. Theoretically one complaint is all it should take to trigger action, particularly as by and large the regulator is a reactive and not proactive organisation – for the most part reliant on the public to raise the alert. By the same token however this does demonstrate that mass “complain to Ofcom” calls to action are a total waste of time. Quite why the outraged brigade imagine that an offence is any more serious because 400 people have hammered Ofcom with the same boilerplate grievance is beyond me. All it means is that 400 more copies of the final adjudication have to be mailed out.

If you clicked on the link above to read the code in full, you will notice that certain parts of it have been adjusted recently. Many of these were to implement changes to the existing 2003 edition that were long overdue. Ceremonially deleted is a long segment that warned against the wonderfully vague concept of “undue prominence” that was originally designed to ensure that commercial messages did not swamp editorial output on TV and Radio but which in practice created a strange climate of fear which meant that the products of sponsors could not be directly referenced even in segments that they had paid for. This meant that a betting feature on a radio show sponsored by a bookmaker and featuring a contribution from a spokesman for that company could not actually talk about the odds being offered by that company. Instead vague references to “the market” abounded, even though it was clear to anyone that a bookmaker discussing betting prices was inevitably going to be referring to their product. It was an insult to the intelligence of the audience to suggest otherwise and it is to Ofcom’s eternal credit that this nonsense has now been done away with.

Naturally there are plenty of imperfections that still exist within the system, many of which also serve to turn the notion of broadcast regulation into something of a joke. Buried within British broadcasting legislation is the principle that television and radio broadcasts originating from these shores should be subject to British broadcasting standards, regardless of the location of their intended audience. This has in the past resulted in farcical judgements such as that handed out in June 2009 to Swedish broadcaster TV6 for a game show featuring contestants stapling items to their body. Despite Ofcom themselves acknowledging that the channel “cannot be received in this country on normal satellite or cable equipment” and that “Swedish audiences may have different expectations” they still found the show in breach of the code based presumably on what they presumed would be the reaction of an audience who would never see the show.

This however pales into insignificance compared to what we seasoned Ofcom watchers have dubbed the Battle Of The Scud channels. For the past year or so, the highlight (or possibly lowlight) of almost every single Ofcom Monday has been reading the latest instalment in the battle between the regulator and the softcore adult channels that populate the back end of the satellite EPG. Barely a fortnight would go by without complaints being received that one or two of the scantily clad ladies in question were maybe a little too scantily clad and that it was a matter for grave concern. The Ofcom policy of not shying away from the explicit detail of what it was considering meant that the regular regulatory bulletins were reduced to a blow by blow (no pun intended) account of just which dirty words the ladies were using and precisely how much outer labial detail they were showing and at which times. Somewhere buried inside the gleaming offices on the South Bank of London were a group of public servants devoting hours of their working day to deconstructing satellite grot. It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Best of all, as anyone in the know would tell you, virtually none of these complaints – all along the lines of “The complainant said the content transmitted was too sexually explicit to be available without mandatory restricted access” – came from actual members of the public. So competitive is the market for the dirty talk channels that most operators assigned members of staff to monitor the opposition and fire off complaints to the regulator in an attempt to screw them over. In the case of one company it worked. After innumerable upheld judgements where Ofcom would typically find that the broadcast featured “presenters [were] shown apparently performing masturbation and oral sex on each other in a realistic by: licking and spitting on each other’s genital area; pulling each other’s buttocks apart and licking their anal area; pulling their thongs to the side to briefly reveal genital area; touching and rubbing each other’s genital area; lightly slapping each other across the face; and spitting into each other’s mouths.” the licenses owned by Bang Media Limited were revoked and their channels were pulled off air.

Not that this stopped the war continuing of course, and shortly afterwards you suspect a measure of revenge was meted out as the broadcasts of Satellite Entertainment Limited came under scrutiny. In an interesting twist their response was to decline to provide recordings until Ofcom answered their questions as to the “validity of the complaint”, a statement which made me break out in spontaneous applause upon reading it. After that the forensic examination of adult phone channels vanished from sight, only to reappear in the bulletin published this week. Comments within these judgements intimate that some delicate behind the scenes negotiations have taken place to end this farce with a final “this is what you are allowed and no further” statement hammered out between all the broadcasters.

Whilst in theory it is hard to disagree with the principle that a check must be kept on the degree of explicitness broadcast by adult channels, there is something rather badly skewed with a system that take no consideration of the fact that if their regular one handed audiences have any complain at all it is that the programming is if anything far too tame. In the meantime some well meaning public servants, all paid for with the tax money raised from the likes of you and I are having to spend their days scouring tapes of groin thrusting young ladies for the exact moment they crossed “the line” wherever it may be.

I’m actually completely in favour of the idea of broadcast media being subject to rigorous regulation. Society, as manifested in the powers of Ofcom, acts as the gatekeeper to the broadcast airwaves and so as such is perfectly entitled to define and insist upon standards of broadcast, the breach of which can and should result in the privilege of broadcasting being taken away. By and large the approach of the regulator is steeped in common sense and thorough research of public attitudes. Their judgements are rarely blunt instruments designed to stifle creativity – witness the most recent adjudications this week where some Frankie Boyle jokes were censured, but crucially not all of them and where some jokes about Mexico made by Top Gear presenters and which provoked a newspaper-led storm at the time were dismissed in a manner which indicated the system is run by people blessed with an appropriate sense of humour.

No, the true flaw is now in a system where regulation is triggered on the whim of people with nothing better to do, where time and money can be wasted because someone has objected to the cut of someone’s jib and clicking on a web link is far easier than sitting down and gaining a sense of perspective. The only barrier to broadcasters being subject to control by a baying mob is faith that a bunch of civil servants can be relied upon to remain impartial enough to take the high ground. I’m not so certain we can afford to be that complacent.

A little more time needs to elapse and more water needs to pass under the bridge before I do, but I actually have a story of my own to tell about participating in a broadcast which upset a group of people, all of whom decided that foaming at the mouth outrage was the only suitable reaction. The full tale of how they failed miserably later this year, promise…

Stock Footage

If there is one thing that tickles those of us in radio more than anything else, it is the endlessly clichéd way that we are depicted by the other areas of the media when they deem it necessary to acknowledge our existence. This isn’t often by the way, as in a classic case of “class war” radio is in general looked down upon by those in television or seen as something as a threat by people from the written press. Sometimes however they have little choice but to turn to radio and its practitioners for material.

In the case of newspapers, this means that just about every local radio presenter in history has found themselves depicted in their local rag in the following manner:

– Headline “Local Radio DJ In A Spin”, because despite the fact that presenters don’t actually “spin” records any more, it is the only suitably punsome title that makes subeditors feel their have earned their crust that day. “Local Radio DJ In Frantic Hunt For ‘Next’ Button On Console” doesn’t quite have the same ring and perhaps crucially doesn’t fit so well in a 20 point headline.

– Picture of said jock posed at mixing desk, holding up either 7-inch single or gleaming CD (depending on era) with one hand and pointing with the other. Expression on face can either be happy perma-grin if the news is good (such as starting new show or breaking some audience record) or with a comedy pout on face in the event of slightly lesser news (such as splitting trousers on air or losing false teeth in middle of news).

– In the event that you are a phone-in presenter rather than music jock, above picture can be substituted with one of you slumped in studio chair with suspiciously large number of telephone handsets wound around your neck and dangled over your chest. Because you talk to people on telephones you see, so obviously that is what you do, juggle telephones. Simple.

Television likes to think itself a rather more refined medium, with items featuring radio stations cut together artistically and designed to convey the full flavour of the in studio experience. So the theory goes anyway. In practice this means that every single television report you see which features footage from inside any radio station will follow the same basic sequence of shots. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in a studio and been filmed by a TV news crew. I’m firmly of the opinion that the combined libraries of the BBC, ITN and Sky News have enough stock footage of my hand pushing up a fader to last them until we start operating mixing desks through mind control. I wrote about the last time I was filmed for posterity whilst at work here a couple of years ago.

Today the crews were back in the talkSPORT studios, frustratingly on a day I’d taken off so my hand or the back of my head didn’t get to feature on Channel 4 news this evening. However the resulting report on our Wayne Rooney debates over the past couple of days have presented the perfect opportunity to deconstruct How TV Thinks It Should Portray Radio:

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SHOT 1: The presenter 2-shot, neatly establishing that we are indeed in a radio studio, with the requisite number of microphones and indeed presenters. Talking. On the radio.

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SHOT 2: The arty bit this, a carefully framed close-up of a microphone sleeve which gives the station which has generously allowed an ENG crew to clamber all over them for 40 minutes their compulsory brand exposure. Disturbing close up shot of co-presenters nose is an unfortunate side effect but only noticeable when smart alec bloggers post screengrabs all over the shop.

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SHOT 3: The level meters! Radio you see by its very nature isn’t all that visual so the creative director needs something, anything to make the action look alive. Dancing level meters are the perfect solution to this problem. In the old days this was easily achieved with a quick shot of a couple of needles whizzing back and forth, but now we have digital desks so a quick burst of a computer screen has to suffice. Never mind that to the average viewer this might as well be showing the blood pressure of the current on air caller. It moves. That is what matters.

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SHOT 4: Mics are live! We have the camera, we have the action, what we really need to make TV people feel at home is lights. Fortunately all radio studios have one light in particular that goes on and off at regular intervals. Sometimes it might be just a red bulb, in other places a big red box like the one we have above. What finer way to illustrate briefly to a watching audience that the blokes they have just seen are indeed talking into mics. Which are live.

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SHOT 5: Faders up. It is the thing that catches everyone’s eye the moment they walk into a radio studio, the mixing desk all gleaming lights and strange electronic abbreviations, along with the bits where the dBU markings have rubbed off with the sweat of a thousand greasy freelancers all caressing the plastic. Cameramen looking for cutaways will always request a quick shot of a hand pushing up a fader. No matter that this is done once every ten minutes in speech radio, it has to look as if it is something that goes on all the time. Ben here is demonstrating the “turning on Mic4” technique which was either staged or was filmed during the news headlines.

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SHOT 6: Ah, it was the latter for here we have the other handy cutaway shot, the distance view showing the two presenters in the true context of their surroundings. Usefully this allows us to peruse the studio clock so we can see just how fast they managed to edit the piece before airtime and also catch up with whatever is on the control room monitors. On the left we have an advert for some ambulance chasers on the TV which normally shows Sky News and just to its right what appears to be an old edition of Soccer AM. Now I know this has to be a setup. It was just after 4.30pm, the chances of any of the studio tellies not screening Deal Or No Deal should be close to zero.

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SHOT 7: Finally the money shot. The talking head. This is where the news crew can whisk the presenter or pundit away from the nasty business of doing their job and sit them down to get a considered opinion from them. This is always filmed in the off air studio which has been specially tidied for the purpose, all traces of old promo scripts and rotting coffee cups cleared away. Even the best cameraman in the world however cannot cut out of frame the bit of the wall where the covering for the ducting has been lost and the wires spill out. It has been missing for ten years and hasn’t been a problem so far, so just pretend you can’t see it.

There is one final shot you sometimes see, that of the studio gallery or alternate room a suitable hive of activity and featuring producers and telephone operators all abuzz. Not every radio studio has such a facility and sometimes these get staged. Many years ago a local news report featured a local radio station I worked for and included a memorable shot of the then programme director sat at a mixing console looking through a window at the main studio. The irony that he did not have the first clue how any of the equipment worked and had probably never sat in that chair for anything other than publicity shots was not lost on any of the people who worked for him.

All joking aside, it actually should mean a great deal when TV steps out of its own unique world and emerges blinking into ours. The fact that over the years I’ve seen an endless number of news reports and even documentaries feature extensive footage of our studios demonstrates that editors and producers are only too aware that the most powerful opinions and the most forcefully held views can always be found on our airwaves. No report about a matter that is occupying the public mind can really be complete without a brief look at how radio is covering it. Even if they have to jump through creative hoops to make it work on television.

Numero Uno Was Better

The sad passing of disco diva Loleatta Holloway this week attracted an appropriate number of tributes from people who had always respected her work, with the universally expressed view being that it was a shame she never quite became as famous as her impressive vocal talents deserved.

Inevitably many references were made to her most high profile vocal performance, that which featured on the Black Box single ‘Ride On Time’, a global smash hit from 1989 (it spent six weeks at Number One on these shores) and which was essentially created from chopped up samples from her 1980 single ‘Love Sensation’. That original record was itself by and large ignored upon release, save for a brief flurry of popularity in American gay clubs at the time, but it remained a staple of many DJs from the period, people who ended the 1980s as dance producers in their own right. Full Force were the first people to borrow part of the track, incorporating it into the single ‘I Wanna Have Some Fun’ that they made for Samantha Fox in 1988, but it was its subsequent use by Black Box which elevated it to the status of a lost classic.

Yet what most people probably don’t realise is that the vocals they hear on their copies of ‘Ride On Time’ don’t belong to Holloway at all and indeed only ever briefly did.

The Italia house classic was created by DJ Daniele Davoli along with collaborators Mirko Limoni and Valerio Simplici. Davoli claims to have created the concept of the driving piano rhythm by accompanying the tracks he played as a club DJ on a keyboard with a sampler attached. One of the samples he used was a small acapella snatch of of ‘Love Sensation’, prompting Limoni to suggest he brought the full track into the studio to create a record of his own around it,

Snapped up by DeConstruction records for UK release, ‘Ride On Time’ was a classic example of a post-summer club hit. Released in mid August to coincide with the arrival back in Britain of holidaymakers keen to buy the sounds they had been dancing to abroad, the single entered the charts at Number 28 in the week of August 12th 1989. A fortnight later it was a Top 3 single and on September 9th eased its way to Number One.

The only person who wasn’t happy was Loleatta Holloway. “I’ve been around for years trying to get this one hit record”, she stated in an interview later, “It annoyed me knowing that Black Box were Number One [all over Europe] and I was not getting any credit for it.” Adding insult to injury was the fact that for TV and promotional performances of the track Davoli had drafted in his ex-girlfriend Katrin Quinol to mime the vocals, this despite being unable to speak a word of English herself. Holloway threatened legal action and Black Box’s label were confronted with the very real possibility of their hit single being injuncted and its distribution being halted unless they paid out an expensive settlement or took remedial action.

To sidestep the problem they did something that was more or less unique and switched horses midstream. To much puzzlement retailers were told that no more copies of the existing version of ‘Ride On Time’ would be pressed. Instead from the second week of September they were offered stocks of the ‘Ride On Time Remix EP’, a 12-inch single that would still count for the same chart run as the original. To call it a remix was actually something of a sham. This new version (eventually given the official title of “Massive Mix”) featured an entirely new female vocal with another uncredited singer doing her best Loleatta Holloway impression – falling slightly short in the process.

The singer in question was none other than Heather Small, the future star of M People but at the time just another jobbing session performer trying to make it big. A few years ago I asked her about this odd open secret that she was the uncredited voice on the “new’ Ride On Time and she confessed that it only ever seemed to be people close to the music business that ever asked her about it. At the time she had no idea what the purpose of the session was, she was simply booked to spend an hour or so recording the vocal lines needed to recreate Ride On Time from scratch, was paid a flat fee and thought no more of it. Next thing she knew, her voice was on the Number One record of the moment.

Maybe I only noticed because I saw it pointed out, but when you hear the two side by side the differences between the track are obvious. Small was clearly doing her level best to recreate the exact phrasing of the original but she never quite pulls it off. Whereas Holloway sings “hot temptation” raw from the back of her throat, Small growls it from her diaphragm and when it comes to the preceding “You’re Such A..” line she cannot help but sing it in her native Manchester accent, meaning it comes over as “You’re Sooch Uh”. If you are paying close enough attention it is almost comically bad. The new version can be heard below:


The change of singers went subtly unmentioned at the time. When the “remixed” version of the track was hastily flung out during the single’s third week at Number One, it sat on the shelves alongside the original and speculation was that many existing purchasers snapped up a second copy, presuming that the disc contained a different edit of the track. By the following week Alan Jones noted in Record Mirror that three quarters of its sales were of the replacement version as copies of the original became scarce. Most radio stations, Radio One included, continued to play their original promo copies meaning that the version played on the Sunday afternoon chart show was by the end of its run a totally different one to that available in the shops.

Ride On Time wound up as the biggest seller of 1989 and is ranked today as the 20th biggest selling single of the 1980s, Yet despite settlement being agreed with Loleatta Holloway over the use of her vocals (she bought a fur coat with the proceeds we are told) it is the Heather Small starring “Massive Mix” of the track that has become by and large the default version of the track. Certainly it was the Massive Mix that found its way onto the subsequent Black Box album ‘Dreamland’ issued in May 1990 (although see note below). I own three copies of ‘Ride On Time’ in my own collection, all from compilation albums released at different times. My copy of “Hits Monster” from December 1989 features the Massive Mix, and it is even listed as such on the sleeve. On the 1994 compilation “Ultimate Party” there is no reference on the inlay which version is featured, yet it is once again the Heather Small vocal, yet on “Fantastic 80s 3” released in 1998 the Holloway vocals are present and correct.

It seems almost to be pot luck which master you get when you licence the track for release, leading inevitably to consumer confusion elsewhere. Of the handful of different versions you can pick up via the iTunes store today, you can cherrypick it from the still available “Dreamland” (Small vocals), pick it up as part of the 2009 UMTV release “Floorfillers – 90s Club Classics” (ditto) or buy it as part of “Now Dance Anthems” also from 2009 whereupon you will be treated to the proper Holloway-sung version.

So in a sense it is a shame that Loleatta Holloway is being remembered mostly for her vocals on a track which doesn’t actually feature them on most of the copies that were sold, and indeed many that still are today. Far better perhaps to note that one of her other famous performances, and yet again one which went largely unnoticed by the mainstream at the time, was to originate the female vocal line on a disco classic which would go on to become one of the more famous and best loved singles by Take That first time around. Take it away Loleatta. May you always be strong enough to walk on through the night…
(Fast forward to 8:08 into the video…)

NOTE: There has been a great deal of traffic to this post recently thanks to a thread on the Popjustice forums on a similar subject. One point that has been corrected therein is the version of ‘Ride On Time’ which appears on the ‘Dreamland’ album, several people having pointed out that contrary to what I stated originally, it is the Holloway version which is featured. I can only hold my hands up and confess that I originally came to the conclusion thanks to a sampling of the preview available on iTunes rather than having access to an original copy of the album. It would presumably be an interesting exercise to purchase a copy online and discover just which version of ‘Ride On Time’ is delivered to you as part of the package.

Not that iTunes (or indeed any of the online stores) have a perfect track record in keeping track of what is the correct mix or version of some reworked album tracks. For example try tracking down a copy of the Tori Amos album ‘Boys For Pele’ which features the original version of the track ‘Professional Widow’ rather than the radically remixed Number One hit version. Nigh on impossible believe it or not…

Something To Talk About

It has been an extraordinary few weeks to work where I do. In my entire career I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite like it. Yet one fact stands out from the madness. I work for the most talked about radio station in the country, one which has managed to achieve a level of publicity and scrutiny that is surely unique in the modern commercial world. It is an amazing privilege to do so.

The astonishing sequence of events first began to unfold on the afternoon of Wednesday January 26th. Those of us in the office knew something was afoot, but nobody was really sure what. Even those with their ears to the ground on these things could only shrug their shoulders and admit they were as much in the dark as everyone else. All we knew was that the Hawksbee and Jacobs production team had all been summoned to a meeting room an hour before they were due on air and emerged wearing what can only be described as inscrutable expressions, ones they did not take off even to tell people what was going on. There was also a brief flurry of studio tidying and the swift assembly of a tripod and camera, almost as if something was about to take place inside that soundproof box which required preserving.

As managers strutted around with half and eye on the clock and whispered to each other about “coverage” and “press releases”, I wondered if we were set for another announcement of some live sporting rights or some other major programming deal that was subject to an embargo. Then the 1pm news bulletin ended, the opening music for the show played and Paul Hawksbee uttered the magic words:

“Richard Keys will be giving us an interview in just a few minutes time.”

Not for the first time, the printed press had generated what Keys himself described as a “firestorm”, all centred around some illicitly recorded audio of both he and his Sky Sports colleague, the sense of scandal only increased by a steady drip of off air videos mysteriously made public by some mysterious figure with an axe to grind. Within 48 hours Gray was fired, and Keys was left fighting for his career and reputation. His choice of medium – a live interview on talkSPORT in which he would try to explain himself.

Now it was clear there would be a huge level of interest in this piece of soul-baring, hence the tripods ready to video the whole event for posterity. Yet even as those of us in the office took to Twitter to spread the word about our fantastic scoop, I don’t think anyone imagined quite what the reaction was going to be. Within a few minutes the name of ‘talkSPORT’ was a trending topic. My usual search for mentions of the name of the radio station went beserk as people across the country and indeed across the globe all alerted each other to the prospect of this interview and how they could listen in.

Yet that was nothing compared the scenes outside. One of my colleagues returning from lunch muttered something about having to wade through a scrum of photographers just to get back in the building. Surely we weren’t under siege were we? I went downstairs myself to take a look.

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This was the view from behind the reception desk. Assembled outside were journalists, TV crews, photographers and associated hangers on. I feared to actually step outside and be confronted by them, but fortunately someone else was prepared to have a go. Entertainingly that person was Graham Norton whose production company shares offices with ours. Seconds after I took the above picture the doors to his quarters opened and he marched out with his pet dogs in tow. The moment the front door opened the press pack went berserk. Here was an actual real live famous person in front of their lenses. Shutters whirred as they got a few pics for the files, meanwhile a few freelancers hared off down the street in pursuit of him, presumably after the scoop on guests for Friday night’s show.

Surreal was hardly the word to describe it.

Coverage in the mainstream media, outlets that generally only mention commercial radio stations whilst holding their noses was naturally extensive. The Daily Mirror even took time out to write a full transcript of the hour long interview for anyone without the patience to sit through the audio, audio that naturally had been reproduced on many of their sites.

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Best of all though was the fact that our video of the event was now in circulation and was even being run extensively on Sky News, this despite our receiving word that their editors were incandescent with fury that a man who (at the time) was a high profile presenter with Sky TV was choosing a rival media to put across his side of the story. The footage was faithfully reproduced on their website, with Nick who shot it subject to endless teasing about the professionalism of his camerawork.

 

We all went home that day knowing we had been a part of something rather special. Little did we know that was only the beginning.

Two weeks later the saga took a new twist. Richard Keys and Andy Gray were not destined to be out of work for long. talkSPORT had done what many in jest had predicted they would do, and signed the duo for a new series of mid morning radio shows.

This time around there was no scrum of pressmen, after all there was little actually going on at the building itself that day. This however did not stop one TV organisation from sending a reporter down to report from the scene of the crime as it were. This was the sight that greeted me as I slipped out to buy some food before preparing to spend the evening at work:

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The friendly ITN camera crew inside were only too happy to confirm that they were set to do a live link into the 6.30pm news that evening. This was a news bulletin that naturally was required viewing inside the office. Let me tell you, there are few experiences more bizarre, more unreal than sitting on a sofa and watching your own front door be broadcast live to the nation.

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We all kind of felt bad afterwards that nobody had raced down to offer ITV’s Natalie Pirks a cup of tea. Contacting her on Twitter later that evening, I pledged to ensure she was refreshed if ever she was sent to our premises again by her editor.

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Now, given the level of interest that surrounded even the first announcement that the pair were joining the station, it kind of stood to reason that their first ever show would be subject to a level of scrutiny far surpassing anything the radio station had seen before. So it was to prove. Arriving at work on Monday morning I have to confess I was a tiny bit disappointed that the area seemed calm. I had visions of another media scrum, of satellite trucks blocking the traffic and maybe even a small band of protesters, doing their bit to register their disgust at either the hiring of the two presenters or the amicable departure of Mike Parry whose slot they were replacing.

In the event the street was almost empty, save for a small band of freelance snappers who I guess were clearly in for a long wait given that it was to be another four hours before the pair exited the building.

The programme itself went off smoothly, but even while it was on air we were party to something unique. Two newspaper websites – The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph – had taken it upon themselves to do a live blog of events as they unfolded. Now this was partially a tongue in cheek “we listen, so you don’t have to” dig at the radio station but in any event the message they were sending out was clear. In their journalistic view, this radio show was an event of major importance and something that required documenting for their readers so they could all share the moment together.

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Amusingly the one thread common to both pieces, and indeed many of the reviews that other newspapers felt compelled to publish the following day was a general air of “oh my word, they have Richard Keys reading out adverts for TILES, how irredeemably vulgar and what a humiliation for him”. Because heaven forbid a commercial radio station should actually feature these things called adverts after all. Few writers spotted that the only reason you don’t hear television presenters reading out commercial spots is because the regulations don’t allow this at present. Trust me if Sky were able to have their commentators extol the virtues of the Ford cars being sold by their sponsors, they would be doing it unflinchingly.

We should also skirt around slight pointlessness of attempting to review a daily radio show on the very first day it is on the air. Few, if any, of the best radio shows in the world got it completely right from the word go. The best formats, the best presenting styles and the best examples of the radio art are those which evolve over time. A more considered journalistic view would be to review a show either four weeks, four months or even four years after it first started to gain a greater understanding of what it is about, but naturally this was a story of the moment so a knee-jerk response was really all it was going to merit.

As with the original Keys interview, it was the activity outside that was of far greater interest. Rather more by accident than design I found myself outside on the street at the precise moment the two stars departed in their specially arranged limousines, emerging from the depths of the courtyard car park to face the barrage of press photographers. It would have been remiss of me not to capture that moment as well, so here it is in full:

 

I think this was the moment when things couldn’t really get any more extraordinary.

So what to take from all this? There is no doubt at all that my boss took an incredibly bold and courageous step when he inserted us into the melee that was following the two presenters around. In doing so however he attracted far more publicity for the radio station than anyone has ever achieved in the past. I worked there when Kelvin McKenzie’s idea of stirring things up was threatening to sue the BBC over sports rights and broadcasting football matches from hotel rooms with some measure of pride. Somehow this new way is far more effective. I think you would have to go back as far as the late 90s and Chris Evans’ tenure as owner of Virgin Radio to find a time when a “mere” commercial radio station was attracting column inches and critical opinion to this degree. Yet I don’t think even he managed to get reporters doing live inserts on the TV news from the station doorstep, or ensuring that he’d created a story so big that even the BBC news website felt it required space in their database:

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This naturally is a very good thing, not just for the radio station that I happen to work for but possibly for the industry as a whole. Radio is so much more than the BBC, so much more than the breakfast shows on Radio 4 and Radio 2 which at times you would think were the only broadcasts which mattered. Over the past few weeks we may well have proved that by being at the heart of a story, by being unafraid to attract attention and publicity, you can not so much punch above your weight as demonstrate how you were actually dancing around the ring all the time.

I work for the most talked about radio station in the country. Long may it remain that way.

Saint Peter Don’t You Call Me

Today I have a day off.

Now this isn’t actually all that weird when you think about it. It is the Christmas holidays after all, that pleasant winding down period between the festive period and the new year fun. Many of us have a day of around this time. One of many in fact. Except you see I work in broadcast media, and a media tightly concerned with a form of entertainment which far from taking its foot off the gas, actually ramps up the schedule around this time of year – leaving those of us who ride on its coat tails gasping for breath.

I’ve written in the distant past how in the broadcast media Christmas is actually prepared in advance, leading to the weeks up to the holiday period being a frantic rush of deadlines, panic and staffing crises, but in the wake of the utterly manic schedule I’ve had to live through since a week and a half ago I thought it was worth documenting just for the record why I have barely had time to turn around and fart lately.

Saturday December 18th

My first day back at work after a two week break for other priorities, a factor which probably contributes to the mountain of jobs I have to get through before Christmas Day itself. For now though there is the small matter in hand of live football to produce – or rather than lack of it as the prevailing weather conditions have conspired to wipe out most sporting action around the UK and in particular the live game at Liverpool which was set to be our live commentary this evening. The short notice cancellation of the game has rather gouged a huge hole in the programme schedule and so instead of helming a live football match and subsequent post-match phone in, I spend four hours guiding Danny Kelly and Stan Collymore talking about nothing taking place. Truth be told occasions like this are some of my favourite ones, and those of us locked in the studio whilst the world tore itself apart outside discovered from the sheer volume of audience response that we were providing the nation some much needed entertainment, particularly for those stuck inside cars in slow moving queues of traffic as they fought their way home from a wasted journey to a non-existent football game. Of particular note was the conversation we had with chief commentator Sam Matterface who had just checked in to the last hotel room available along the M6, his journey home having been delayed by a need to find out if the game he was due to commentate on tomorrow was due to take place. It wasn’t, and so he found himself miles from home with little to do except field phone calls from us.

Sunday December 19th

Another day of somehow conjuring radio out of nowhere, the bad weather once more wiping out the sporting fixture list and leaving us with a terrifying hole in the schedules. This one caused my bosses a particular headache. With the original plan having been to broadcast two back to back commentaries it had been decided that the Sunday afternoon show did not require an anchor. One commentary team would go on the air and hand over to the second once they were done. Somehow, in the middle of a giant freeze and with barely 24 hours notice, my bosses had rustled up three presenters and guests for a four hour studio discussion that would take the place of the live games. I sat in the warm, drank my tea and praised the writers of the playout system which coped flawlessly with me scheduling endless amounts of repeated commercial breaks, the schedule naturally having originally assumed that with two live football games on air, few advertising segments would actually be needed.

Monday December 20th

A day in the office, which I had planned to be devoted to the preparation of a three hour World Cup Christmas special, due for broadcast on Christmas evening and which at the present moment consists of a series of raw clips with no linking narrative. However due to an ill-advised pledge to assist with the recording of another show several weeks earlier I am instead plunged headlong into a recording session for Andy Goldstein’s Boxing Day show. The production is further thrown into chaos by the fact that John the producer is stranded somewhere in the Belfast area due to the adverse weather conditions, leaving those of us back in London to manage the vast parade of musicians, footballers and glamour models who are set to appear at the studio at various times during the afternoon. Due to a hitch in the transport arrangements and the plans of some of the telephone guests, much of the show ends up being recorded arse about face and in a completely different order to that which will eventually be broadcast. It is after 4pm by the time the final segment is in the can, leaving me with little time to do anything other than knock together a running order for the World Cup show to assist with the writing of the main script. I return home, staring down the barrel of some intensive work still to come.

Tuesday December 21st

Progress of a kind on the World Cup show as various presenters and pundits are deftly manoeuvred into a studio to record their considered thoughts on some of the more notable moments of the summer tournament. Needless to say all this does is add to the pile of raw material that still requires assembling into a three hour documentary, but I feel a little happier knowing some of the more important contributions are now in the can and ready for use.

Wednesday December 22nd

DAY OFF! Well of a sort anyway, as although I am absent from the office in order to fight my way to Luton airport to pick up members of the extended family, I am still required on the telephone a couple of times to clarify various points about the main narrative script, being voiced this morning by Adrian Durham. The good news is that this passes without a problem. We now have all we need to make the show, although the deadline is looming fast.

Thursday December 23rd

World Cup edit day. Theoretically I could have done all this at home but there were just one too many screaming newborn babies in the house to make this a practical proposition. Instead I trudge to the office through the ever grimier snow and ice, commandeer a desk and then hunched over my laptop with a set of headphones clasped to my ears. By 2pm the first hour is assembled, by 4pm the second and by about 6.30pm I can finally click “save” on the final segment of the final hour of the show. I have no idea if any of it runs to time and will fit in its designated slot in the schedule but I’m so exhausted I might just have reached the point where I don’t care. Besides, I now have another task to fulfil relating to the Christmas shows. I dump the master edits of every single Christmas Day show, each one from 8am to 9pm lovingly prepared by their respective production teams, onto a portable hard drive and head back for home ready for a long evening of CD burning.

Ah yes, did I mention I had volunteered to be responsible for ensuring that the broadcast masters were prepared and placed in the studio ready for the day itself. Each hour of the day fitted onto one CD, I had to make both a master and backup copy of each, there were 11 hours of programming to prepare, meaning my evening was spent shivering in the back room (which the heating never seems to reach) meticulously burning and labelling audio CDs. As the hours wore on the pile grew ever larger and it was with a sigh of deep satisfaction that I placed the final one in its sleeve and retired to bed at 2am.

Friday December 24th

At the start of the week it was my fervent hope that I would not wind up in the office on Christmas Eve. Sadly there was no getting away from it. I transported the precious cargo of discs to the office, bagged each one up in an envelope which contained detailed instructions on when it was to be broadcast and how long each part lasted. I tested a random sample of discs in the studio players to check they did actually play (have been caught out by that in the past) and asked random colleagues to select envelopes from the pile and to check that they did indeed contain the discs they claimed. At 11.34am (I checked my Sent folder) I emailed the staff on duty tomorrow the final details of how to play the shows out before slinking out of the door to begin what might laughably be called my Christmas holiday.

Saturday December 25th

Yeah, this was it basically. No need to go into work, although I nursed my mobile phone all day just in case an emergency arose. For the first time in my entire life I wasn’t spending Christmas with my parents, instead doing my best to relax around the house – in between pushing a fractious baby girl around a freezing cold and deserted neighbourhood in her pram. She still didn’t sleep either.

Sunday December 26th

Now the real work could begin. Cold weather be damned, there was still a big programme of football matches to cover and I was at the heart of it. I drove into town first thing and knocked together a running order for the show. For the first time in what seemed like weeks we actually had some live football to broadcast, and I am pleased to relate that the commentaries of Fulham v West Ham United and Newcastle United v Manchester City passed off without incident – as did the subsequent post-match phone in which I was also due to helm. Those of us foolish to agree to work Boxing Day tend to end up with twice the work owing to the large number of other people who have asked to have the day off. After seven hours of live radio I left the studio and made a large cup of tea,

Go home? Ah no, sadly I couldn’t. The lack of available staff alluded to above meant I had a couple of hours off before going back in to play out the Andy Goldstein show which I had been personally responsible for creating a few days earlier. I may be hating my entire life right now, but when the overtime payments come in at the end of the month it will surely all be worthwhile.

Monday December 27th

A day off. Genuinely this time, with no responsibilities other than entertaining my parents who had travelled down to see us. I don’t think I even looked at a radio all day, let alone considered doing anything involving one.

Tuesday December 28th

At around 11pm last night I had a major crisis of confidence. There was a live football show scheduled, covering all the bank holiday games that were due to take place, but I could not for the life of me remember if I was producing it or not. The days before Christmas when I had cheerily said “yeah, just put me down for whatever” all seemed like another lifetime away. What if I turned up and there was nothing to do? What if I didn’t show up and they couldn’t do the show without me? There was only one way to resolve the problem – post plaintive messages on Facebook:

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So with a mixture of innuendo and stern admonishment from various colleagues I was up and about in the morning ready for another full on day of making football happen. The reason for my reluctance to accept that I had agreed to this daytime shift was due to the fact that I’d kept myself on the schedules for my usual Tuesday evening shift as well. The result was a wiped out bank holiday and my second double shift in three days.

Wednesday December 29th

A normal day. Which naturally for me means heading off to work, this time for an evening stint behind the desk. No easy night this either as there is more live football to cover, this time a rare midweek live game for us in the shape of Chelsea v Bolton. In the event, this ends up being a more exciting evening than we had ever anticipated, the dullness of Chelsea’s easy win over their visitors more than countered by Liverpool’s dramatic 1-0 reversal at the hands of Wolves. More pressure on Roy Hodgson results and the phone in after the game is dominated by unhappy Liverpool fans – all of which makes for some terrific entertainment.

With that, I finally reached the end of the line as far as the frantic work schedule was concerned. A total of 12 shifts across 10 working days with just a handful of breaks in between. I’d love to chat more, but of course there is still more to come this weekend with football matches on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I’ve got some urgent sleeping to do to prepare.

Excuse Me While I Adjust Myself

So how are we all? Enjoying the two days of holiday this week? Well some people have been hard at work it seems, most notably in the offices of the Official Charts Company who sent an unexpected missive to the recipients of the weekly charts data earlier this afternoon:

DECEMBER 28th: Last night, Millward Brown discovered a bug in the weighting software used to compile the charts, which has affected a number of positions in the charts published on Sunday December 26. As a result, the OCC has decided to re-run all of this week’s Official Charts. In relation to the Top 40 Singles and Albums Charts, the errors are minimal. But if you wish to correct any charts which you publish online, or simply use the attached charts for reference purposes, please feel free.
Millward Brown is conducting a thorough review of the processes and systems in light of this error. OCC and Millward Brown apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Now a word on what the “weighting system” mentioned above refers to. The average market share of each of the retailers reporting data into the chart system is sometimes used to correct anomalies in the data set to compilers Millward Brown. This arrangement dates from the mid-90s when on two occasions just a few weeks apart, one retailer submitted duplicate data following a system error, forcing an embarrassing re-publication of the affected chart countdown when the corruption was discovered earlier in the week. To forestall these kind of problems in future, the chart rules allow for retailers to occasionally fail to submit data for certain days, the weighting rules used to instead calculate what their sales figures for those periods were likely to have been and those numbers used in calculating the bestseller tables. This, incidentally, is one of the main reasons why music charts don’t reveal the actual sales tallies for all the singles in the countdown. Aside from the commercial sensitivity of such information, the numbers used to rank singles and albums often contain fractions of sales thanks to upweighted calculations. To declare that such and such a single sold 53,424.6 copies would be completely meaningless to the general public, hence you normally never get to see the numbers behind the chart positions.

This is also why when I quote sales figures on Yahoo! Music I tend to talk in vague terms unless the numbers have been formally announced by the Official Charts Company themselves. Apart from the fact that the data isn’t really mine to reveal, however I might have come by it, declaring unequivocally that a single has sold an exact number is fraught with danger. For all I know it may not have done in such a precise manner. Steering clear is the best way forward.

So what went wrong this week? Well in the charts published last weekend there should theoretically have not been any weighting applied. The cover sheet for the chart declared “All expected multiples data was received and available for use in compiling these charts”. I’m sure Music Week will have the full story next week, but it seems entirely possible that some upweighting was applied where it was not required and hence some figures were inflated – particularly when you dig down and note how the revised chart differs from the original version.

So what changes took place? Well as it turns out just one single in particular is affected. It is the X Factor charity single ‘Heroes’, originally Number 18 on the published chart, is relegated all the way down to Number 22. In consequence the singles from N-Dubz, JLS, McFly and Jessie J are all promoted one place. That would kind of imply that the error in the data came from a retailer such as a supermarket who would theoretically only be stocking the X Factor single as a one-off. If there was some confusion as to what sales data they had submitted then it is I guess entirely possible that some upweighting was applied when it was not required.

Further clues as to what actually happened can be gleaned from the changes to the album chart. The Ellie Goulding and Barbra Sreisand albums swap places at 23 and 24 respectively whilst Tinie Tempah and Rod Stewart also swap around at 26 and 27. Cee Lo Green moves from 36 to 34, relegating The Beatles’ ‘1967-1970’ down to 35. The Beatles’ ‘1962-1966’ drops 35-38, promoting Mumford and Sons and Biffy Clyro up a place as well. Finally Take That drop to 40 with ‘The Circus’, swapping places with Lady Gaga.

Spot a pattern here? Rod Stewart, The Beatles and Take That are the artists whose sales appear to have been overstated in the original chart rundown – all of them acts who one would expect to be selling in supermarkets rather than specialist music shops. The fact that lower down it is Daniel O’Donnell and the Chelsea Pensioners who slip places only reinforces that suggestion. The data from one (or maybe several) supermarket chains got accidentally scrambled and forced this extraordinary correction.

I’m sure this will all come out on Monday and to the relief of many no significant chart positions were affected, leaving this to be a minor wrinkle in the grand scheme of things. Imagine the horror if it turned out a single had been promoted to Number One in error. Expect questions to be asked though, the OCC pride themselves on supplying one of the most rigorously researched and scrupulously accurate sales reports of any industry in the world. The fact that they have been required to publish a correction, and in the middle of a holiday as well, will cause a fair number of red faces on the South Bank this week.

UPDATE 30/12/10: As the revised chart permeated into various sales databases over the past 48 hours, it has become possible to get more of a picture as to what changes were required. Many albums, several of them in the higher reaches of the chart, have had their sales totals for the week revised downwards, as much as 20% in some cases. Whilst Matt Cardle’s status as performer of the Number One single was never at risk, it too has also seen its reported sales slashed, to the extent that the single actually slipped from 2 to 3 in the year to date rankings and raising the possibility that he may not after all have the legs to overtake ‘Love The Way You Lie’ as the biggest seller of the year.

Now I stress that much of this is guesswork, but what seems likely to have happened is that data from at least one supermarket chain has indeed been revised in error. Thinking it through, the supermarkets would have reported strong sales for the whole of last week and then exactly zero on Saturday – it was Christmas Day and they were closed after all. Rather than this being flagged as an expected sales pattern, the computers compiling the chart interpreted this as “failure to report” and applied an appropriate level of upweighting to sales from the rest of the week – quite a large chunk given that many albums have had a fifth of their sales wiped out. This was such a serious error that you can understand totally why an extraordinary midweek correction was issued. The number of actual chart positions affected may have been few and far between, but such an error in sales totals simply could not be allowed to remain on the database.