Sunday, 7 November 2010

Ricky Gervais, Jarvis Cocker, Ed Byrne and Peter Kay

The 2010 Student Radio Awards take place this week. I am usually involved as a judge, and this year I had the privilege of arguing over who should win the non-news speech category. I was also asked to contribute my memories of the first two* awards ceremonies.

Although some of the key moments of the first (in 1996) spring readily to mind, I had to ask where the 1997 awards were held. At this point they probably should have taken me off the project.

They didn't, so I made an appeal on Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone else could remember anything about either awards.

Despite several people coming forward, which at least established the 1997 awards' location (Oxford), it seems there is a general air of folk amnesia surrounding what happened. This, I think, suggests both were a spectacular success.

If you were at either event (or the third in '98 at Brick Lane), please add your comments below. This is a slightly re-written version of what I submitted to the 2010 awards organisers:

"Details of the first two Sudent Radio Awards are largely lost in the mists of time, with most of the participants now dead, or having faded into insignificance.

This was in the days before your social medias, your so-called Facebooks and fancy Twitterspaces. Hard though it may be to imagine, mobile phones were the size and weight of gold ingots, with about the same functionality.

There were no digital cameras (thankfully), and because the water in the last century wasn't safe to drink, most students survived on a form of methanol suspended in food colouring, known as Mad Dog 20/20.

As a result almost no records of these events taking place actually exist, and the ones that do are a little hazy. But ULU 96 and Oxford Brookes 97 did definitely happen, much to the surprise of almost everyone involved.

This much I know. In November 1995 I was elected Chair of the SRA. In December 1995 I wrote (when people conducted business by sending letters in the post to each other) to Matthew Bannister, the then Controller of Radio 1, suggesting the SRA and Radio 1 set up a student radio awards.

He wrote back, on a letter (I know!), two weeks later, saying it was a jolly good idea and that we ought to come down to Radio 1 to discuss it.

For a student with far-off dreams of working in the radio industry this was like receiving an invitation to the Emerald City.

Armed with the Secretary of the SRA and a nice man called Dan McEvoy (now a high up at 5live) who independently had the same idea as me, we converged on an office somewhere in Yalding House (or was it Egton? It was probably the now-demolished Egton).

There we were welcomed by the poshest woman I have ever met. In a faintly disinterested manner, she told us Matthew Bannister was sorry he couldn't come to our meeting, but he really wanted the awards to happen and so they would.

We went away and did everything we could to make sure student stations entered the competition and came to the event. Radio 1 put a genuinely fantastic team (not including the posh lady, who I never saw again) on the case, who provided patient, friendly and expert guidance whilst making sure the very first Radio 1 Student Radio Awards was worthy of the name.

The first ceremony took place at the University of London Union in November 1996. The Evening Session's Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq hosted. The gig afterwards featured the bands Shoot, The Longpigs and Space.

The compere at the gig was a chubby, cheerful northern fella called Peter Kay, who had recorded childrens' TV theme tunes onto a dictaphone, and spent most of his act playing them out through the PA and saying "Remember that?".

Jarvis Cocker, one of the most famous people in the country, was on the guest list that night. I remember seeing his name and asking the Radio 1 press person "Why is Jarvis Cocker on the guest list?".

She said "Dunno, we thought he might like to come, we invited him, and he said yes..."

Never going to happen, I thought. A few hours later I was standing at the bar and Jarvis Cocker walked past. "Jarvis Cocker!" I blurted, in amazement.

"Hello." he said politely, and walked on. The man who wrote Common People and who, the previous year, had headlined Glastonbury with Pulp, had just popped his head round the door at an event I helped set up.

Mind you the Ents Manager at ULU...

Me: "Is the ents manager alright with us coming here and taking over most of his union for a private function on a Friday night?"
Radio 1 person: "yeah he's fine. He's a really nice bloke actually..."
.... was Ricky Gervais, who was 8 years away from being in the same room as Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, clutching a Golden Globe for The Office.

It was a good night.

The second Radio 1 Student Radio awards was the centrepiece of the 1997 Student Radio Association autumn conference, held at Oxford Brookes University. Word had spread through the student radio community (using some sort of rudimentary semaphore) about the success of the inaugural event and loads of students from all over the country piled into Oxford.

All the talk was of Oxygen 107.9, the student radio station which had broken out of closed-loop AM broadcasting and FM RSLs to win a permanent FM licence. We all know how that turned out. Oh well.

The star turn at the awards was Ed Byrne, a hilarious young comedian who went on to become the voice of Mowbli in the Carphone Warehouse adverts, and despite never having to work again, is a now an older, but still hilarious, award-winning comedian.

Ed was effectively hired to give us all a laugh before the awards started, but when Dave Pearce dropped out of presenting duties due to illness, Ed was forced to announce himself as the host, a job he did with considerable aplomb, given it had been sprung on him at the last moment.

There are rumours that Oxford Brookes marked the first sit-down dinner at a student radio awards, but I don't remember it like that. At ULU the refreshments were basically crisps, nuts and beer. I seem to remember us being seated theatre-style for Oxford Brookes.

Having trawled around for peoples' memories, that recollection appears to be in dispute.

As I say, it's all a little hazy now."

I'd like to wish all the students who have been nominated for awards this year the very best of luck. The standard in the category I judged was particularly high, and there is some genuine talent there, which I hope the industry will be in good enough shape to pick up before long.


*The Radio 1/student radio awards relationship had actually existed well before the "first" ones in 1996. I didn't know this when I first approached Radio 1, and neither did the people at Radio 1. At that time there was something of a scorched earth policy towards Radio 1's previous regime and everything it represented.

The previous existence of an older awards scheme became apparent when we were working on the new ones. The discovery that Radio 1, in its incredibly naff phase, had held a relationship with the Student Radio Association's predecessor NASB (National Association of Student Broadcasters) filled me with terror. If Radio 1 discovered the previous regime had also thought holding a student radio awards was a good idea, they might feel it was tainted by association and drop the new one like a shot.

Nonetheless I felt I had to bring it to Radio 1's attention. After all, knowing the awards had existed previously hardly meant we could launch the new awards as the first.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Er... I've discovered that Radio 1 used to have a student radio awards scheme which it ran with our predecessor organisation."
Radio 1 person: "And...?"
Me: "Well that means this isn't the first Radio 1 student radio awards, like we've been calling them."
Radio 1: "Oh, I don't think we need to worry about it now."
Me: "Er... okay."

And so the new awards were born. The first between Radio 1 and the SRA, and the ones that have grown into the extraordinary talent-sourcing behemoth they are today.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Have a Lovely Day

I'm not a very good shopper. The only "retail experience" I enjoy is at the supermarket. It's a once-weekly opportunity to indulge in some anticipative bonding with my digestive tract. The rest is just stress.

Today I was sent to Walton town centre with instructions to retrieve a pair of Mrs Wallis' boots, which were being re-heeled at Timpsons. On the way I was distracted by an ancient Top of The Pops trivia quiz game, sitting in the window of our local Sam Beare charity shop.

Everyone has their weakness. Mine is a limitless capacity for consuming pop trivia. Who doesn't want to know which member of Duran Duran was made ill by drinking water infected with elephant wee, why Trevor Horn never got to produce U2, what The Smiths' manager said as he watched Morissey record the lyric to How Soon Is Now and how the drum sound was created by accident on Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight?*

So I was in the Sam Beare shop like a shot. I grabbed the box and took it to the till, with the exact money counted into my immaculately moisturised palm.

At the till, the nice foreign (South American? Mediterranean?) lady set me on my way by saying "have a lovely day".

Have a lovely day?

A lovely day?

I am on my own, in a charity shop, in Walton on Thames. How lovely can it get?

Deploying the sharpness of mind for which I am justly revered, I replied "and you" as I left.

I think I did so mainly out of cultural embarrassment. After all, "have a lovely day" might be a perfectly normal thing to say in a shop in her country (wherever it is). And, to be fair, she was really nice, so if she was prepared to wish me a lovely day, I was happy to wish the same for her.

I did make several other instant assumptions, mainly that as a volunteer in a charity shop she was doing something she actually wanted to do, and therefore was well on her way to having a lovely day anyway. I would never wish someone a lovely day when there was a good chance they were nowhere near getting one.

Now, Timpsons pride themselves on customer service. Everytime I go into Timpsons I am struck by how ebullient and knowledgeable they are about heels and batteries and keys. It takes a lot to care about that sort of thing. It also takes a lot to care about how your customer feels about their interaction with that sort of thing. I generally think heels and batteries and keys are mainly annoying, so gearing myself up to deal with someone who straddles the world of heels, batteries and keys like a knowledgeable Colussus takes some effort.

Having retrieved Mrs Wallis' boots and paid for them, I still wasn't prepared for the Timpsons man to suggest, as I left his shop, that I might like to "have a lovely day", exactly echoing the phrase I had just heard in the Sam Beare shop.

The Timpsons man was not foreign. He was an honest-to-goodnes, salt-of-the-earth heel-repairer, key-etcher and battery retailer. And now he was staking an interest in the rest of my day. It threw me a bit.

It didn't feel right to suggest to a man I just met that he too should have a lovely day, so deploying the sharpness of mind for which I am justly revered, I replied "Cheers" as I left.

Was this churlish? Was I wrong not to wish him a lovely day too? Maybe he was having a lovely day at work, surrounded by keys and batteries and heels.

Or maybe, once he had taken off his maroon apron at 5.30pm that evening, he would be off to a wedding in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, where he would enjoy the company and bonhomie of old friends, on a special occasion, in a magical setting. That would be lovely.

By saying "Cheers" was I reinforcing the inherent client/supplier relationship in every retail transaction? The idea that because I have money and you want to take it from me, you have to be obsequieous and I can act like an arse? You state, on the record, that you want me to have a lovely day and I am so self-obssessed, so uninterested in your poxy little life that the most I can bring myself to utter is an expression of thanks for a superfluous entreaty?

Well, really....

Also (and I have no idea why) I felt uncomfortable about wishing another man a lovely day. It just felt wrong.

"Have a lovely day."
"You too, boss."
"A day filled with love."
"For both of us."
"Kiss me, Timpson."

I wandered into The Works, attracted by the usual collection of books reduced from RRPs of £18 or £19 to £1.99. My kind of bookstore.

I picked up a book on grammar which I had once flicked through in a different shop, thought was brilliant, then refused to buy because of the cover price. Now it was going for a fiver, so I had it. I took it to the till. I paid my money. I took the receipt. The store assistant, as we parted, said "enjoy the rest of your day".

Oh, ffs.

Enjoy the rest of your day?

There is an unwitting hint of the directive in that sentence, which isn't entirely welcome. And once more I am left speculating as to why someone selling me a bargain-bin book in a discount store would choose to chuck coins in the fountain of my immediate future.

Once is fine. Twice is odd. Three times is unnerving. Did I miss the memo which introduced a new paradigm of retailer/consumer interaction expectation? Is this unique to Walton? Why would three complete strangers gun for me and my prospects in such gushing terms for no apparent reason? Do they know something?

I tweeted about this experience earlier today, and a dear friend suggested the people I encountered in Walton High Street were merely being friendly and polite. This is fair enough.

However, I like to consider myself friendly and polite (esp when dealing with strangers), but I have never briefly met someone and then speculated that they might have a lovely day.

 Especially without any inkling as to what the rest of the day might hold in store for them. Why would you?

*Answers on a postcard.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

War, Walton and interviewing people in their nineties

Hazel Green (above), 93, one of the interviewees for the Walton Memories film


Earlier this year Melvyn Mills, the husband of my mum's best friend's cousin, was elected a local councillor in Walton-on-Thames.

Melvyn had long complained that the Walton Heritage Day, held down by the river every year in September, wasn't very good, or very well publicised. So to shut him up, the organisers put him in charge of it.

Melvyn decided the theme of the Heritage Day this year would be Walton at War, in order to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz.

Because Melvyn lives next door to a TV picture editor called Simon, he decided it would be nice to raise the profile of the Walton Heritage Day by making a short film about the war. Excitingly the "film" is getting its debut (and very possibly only) showing on the double-decker bus which Brooklands Museum sends along to the Heritage Day every year, and which just so happens to be kitted out with a DVD player, brand new flat screen, sound system and window blinds. Wahey.

Melvyn has lived in Walton all his life and knows virtually everyone, so it wasn't long before he had a list of people who had lived in and around Walton during the war. Now all he had to do was get all of them to the same place at around the same time whilst fitting in with his full-time job, my schedule and Simon the TV picture editor-turned-amateur-cameraman's schedule. This summer Simon has been contracted to work for this year's Big Brother on a rotating shift basis, with very little downtime.

Eventually we chose two of Simon's rare rest days, I took two days out of my holiday and Melvyn took a couple of days off. Simon borrowed a £10K HD camera from a friend, I put a suit on, and Melvyn rounded up our interviewee subjects by asking them to put in an appearance at the Walton Day Centre for Retired People on the specified dates.

Melvyn worked very hard. People in their nineties don't do times, they do mornings and afternoons. When you reach a certain age, getting out of the house can be a long and exhausting process. Added to that, nonagenarians don't really care all that much about being on telly, or how nice or polite you are when you want something. 

In short, all our interviewees were absolutely within their rights to treat our whole operation as a rather presumptuous inconvenience.

Eve (below) had actually come along to the day centre to keep another interviewee company. She had to be persuaded to sit in front of the camera and talk to us. Once she did, her story of being bombed by the Luftwaffe whilst working at the Vickers factory in Weybridge was astounding. On 4th September 1940, 85 people were killed in three minutes. Eve told us of the speed of the attack, which happened in broad daylight - there was no air raid siren, just the sudden realisation they were in serious trouble.

She described watching electricity arc-ing across the factory floor, and as the ceiling caved in looking through a hole in the roof to see a German swastika on a plane as it swooped over. Eve told us of her escape, climbing over a body to get out and then being strafed by machine guns from the German planes as she and her friends ran towards the air raid shelters, seeing people around her being shot as they ran. At the time, she was 20 years old.

Other interviewees told us of losing loved ones, being bombed out of their houses, watching doodlebugs being shot out the sky, living in air raid shelters, putting babies to sleep in drawers because there was no furniture left in the house and trying to find a way of struggling through under immense duress. Needless to say, hearing their stories was a very humbling experience.

It was also inspiring to meet people who'd been around for so long and seen so much. It must be strange, carefully negotiating your way around a world which barely acknowledges you, with a lifetime's worth of memories echoing through your head.

The resulting material is being given the reverence it deserves - we have been playing the interviews out on BBC Surrey Breakfast throughout this week, and Simon is working frantically on getting the film together for Saturday. We are also in the process of putting the audio up permanently on the BBC Surrey website and I will be down at the Walton Heritage Day this Saturday (11 Sep 2010) to do some live reporting from the event. Do come down if you live nearby.

I would like to profoundly thank everyone who agreed to be interviewed, and went out of their way to meet up with us.

One thing I did notice over the course of the two days was that the media tradition of asking pre-recorded interview guests to tell us what they had for breakfast became less a technical exercise in getting the right sound level and more a research project into longevity. If you want to make it into your nineties in good nick I would suggest you first of all ensure you are a woman, and then eat fresh fruit every morning.

Although when I asked one of the liveliest 93 year olds I've ever met what she had for breakfast, she said "Two slices of toast and marmalade," before fixing me with a meaningful stare "and TWO cups of tea."

Monday, 23 August 2010

One year in the job

On 1 Sep 2010, I will have been presenting the BBC Surrey Breakfast show for exactly a year.

In summary: I have got better, it has got better and the listening figures have gone up.

The above belies twelve months of teeth-grindingly hard graft. That said, nattering on the radio is still at the dossier end of what constitutes actual work, so you're not going to find me complaining. It's been enormous fun and I've met some incredible people.

One of the things I am most proud of is that we have, on occasion, spoken to people who have contacted us about an injustice, or a problem they're having with local bureaucracy, and shone a light on it by calling those in authority to account. Sometimes, possibly as a result of our involvement, things get resolved very quickly and I am grateful our listeners have come to us, and reminded of the value of a strong, totally independent, local media.

One significant recent career developement is that over the past few months I have been able to pick up some television work. As well as the language programme for BBC World, I am also doing some investigative filming for another part of the BBC, the fruits of which should appear in October.

Radio has the advantage over television because of its intimacy, immediacy and unpredictability, but when it comes to impact (especially in a news programme), television can be hard to beat. It's good to be working in both worlds.


Monday, 5 July 2010

How my friend Chris saved BBC 6 Music

There were obviously a few significant strands to the campaign to save 6 Music. The grassroots efforts of the listeners, with their Facebook campaigns, twitter hashtags, real live demonstrations and flashmobs. Adam Buxton was the perfect poster boy for the campaign, and he rose to the challenge admirably, somehow successfully articulating the listeners' rage through his deafult filter of knowing lunacy.

Other important pop culture figures like David Bowie and Damon Albarn weighed in to save the station. Jarvis Cocker's impassioned "rant" at the Sony Awards in May (hear my interview with him about it here) left the BBC hierarchy in no doubt that the fuss over 6 Music was not going to die down.

In fact, the sustained level of support the Save 6 Music campaign enjoyed from the moment this story was leaked to The Times in February, to today's decision, is a tribute to the passion (and savvy) of its fans.

But I would argue the BBC's plan to can the station was fatally holed by an email my mate Chris wrote to Ed Vaizey MP, who was then the Conservative Party spokesman on culture. Ed's response gave the campaign hope and momentum.

Every day for the last eight years, Chris's company, CMU music, has sent out a free daily email for people who work in the music industry. At the last count he had around 18,500 subscribers. Within a week of the decision to close 6 Music being announced by the BBC, Chris wrote an open letter to Ed Vaizey. In the email, he explained why he thought the BBC should cherish, rather than close 6 Music, and asked Ed for his help.

The email itself, (published on Chris's personal blog) is worth reading. It is a long, beatifully-pitched and incredibly well-informed piece of writing. Ed may not have known about Chris, or his blog, before he received Chris's email, but he clearly felt it was a credible enough forum to send a strong message to the BBC and the BBC Trust about what senior Conservatives were thinking about all this. Ed's reply is also posted on Chris's blog.

Chris press released the email exchange to all his contacts. Within minutes he had a call from someone purporting to be from BBC News online who said (breathlessly, I'd like to think):

"Is this genuine?"
"Can you send us those emails?"
And he did.

The exchange was confirmed at Vaizey's end, and the story was taken up by The Guardian and The Telegraph (probably picking it up from a PA re-write) before gaining wider currency in the broadcast and online media. I cannot find the orginal story (if it was ever published) on BBC news online at all.

In seems in that period in early March, Ed Vaizey wrote a number of emails to outraged listeners who contacted him. You can see one of Ed's emails on the Facebook campaign to save 6 Music, but the email to Chris, as far as I am aware, was the first, and it was a damn good scoop.

I think Chris's initial contact may have gone some way towards persuading Ed Vaizey to come out in favour of 6 Music. It was certainly the very first shaft of light for 6 Music's fans. What was originally presented as a fait accompli suddenly looked shaky and the station's supporters found they had gained a powerful friend in a very high place.

The CMU website doesn't really break stories. I was having lunch with Chris a week or so after he sent his email to Ed Vaizey and asked what other exclusives he's nailed, expecting him to reel off a list.

The best, no, the only one he could come up with was when Anthony Hall resigned from the BPI over their "three strikes and you're out" policy on illegal file-sharing. Anthony sent a copy of his resignation letter direct to CMU, rather than the paywalled Music Week, ensuring maxiumum online exposure. Clever Anthony.

But that was it. Which makes the Ed Vaizey email and its subsequent impact all the more interesting.

So hats off to Chris and congratulations to everyone who fought the campaign. I worked at 6 Music as a freelance music newsreader and had a great time there, and I'm pleased it's going to remain part of the BBC's radio portfolio.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

John Inverdale and Alison Booker

Last week John Inverdale made his second visit to BBC Surrey since I started working there. Although he lives in Kingston (just outside our patch, and despite what anyone tells you, including many residents, NOT in Surrey), John is also Chairman of Rugby at Esher RFC. Esher are the most successful rugby club in our patch, and last season were promoted back to the Championship in stunning style, winning every game but one.

I approached John at the Sony Awards in May and asked if he would like to drop by BBC Surrey in the run-up to Wimbledon, to talk about Oxshott Andy's chances of winning the championship and Esher's plans now they were promoted. He asked if we'd like to have him in on the Monday Wimbledon started. I jumped at the chance.

John actually ended up coming in a day later than planned, but it was still great to get half an hour of his time on a day when he would be working long into the evening, presenting live television.

Why am I telling you this? Well, John Inverdale is the reason I work in radio. Many years ago during a summer break from university I was watching Wimbledon at home on TV. The match being shown was a little dull, so I wandered into the kitchen where the (then) BBC Radio Five was on.

Having picked a match, TV is more-or-less bound to stick with it to its conclusion, but radio can abandon a tedious error-fest, ping out to commentators and their co-hosts at the other courts, bring in some interesting studio guests, range off into the furthest reaches of the grounds to get a flavour of the non-tennis side of the tournament, all the while keeping you informed of every single significant score as it happens.

That kind of style has almost come about out of necessity - tennis doesn't lend itself to radio commentary (the time between each stroke is too short to describe it), so unless it's a really big match where listeners are hanging on the outcome of every shot, the presenter has to tell the story of the whole tournament as it is at that exact moment. And John Inverdale did it in a way that seemed almost magical. He kept his eye on the scores and would link fluently to the court commentators, who all seemed to be as articulate, warm and well-informed as he was.

John injected interest into meandering conversations, let them flow when they deserved it and asked exactly the right question of whoever he was talking to at the time. The light bulb went on and I decided there and then that I was going to try and make a career in the media as a radio presenter.

A few years later, in 1997, John won Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Awards. I was there (a young, wet-behind-the-ears wannabe, working, I think, as a general gopher for the Radio Academy) and was absolutely thrilled that the radio industry rated him as much as I did.

After a long night, I was trying to find my way out of the Grosvenor House Hotel when I bumped into John and his wife, possibly as refreshed as I was, clutching his Sony, and trying to do the same. I blurted out that he was my inspiration and how glad I was for him. He thanked me, shook my hand and gave off one of the happiest grins I'd seen in a long time, before his wife dragged him out to their waiting car.

Nine years later I started presenting at 5live and although John and I had the odd chat on air, I never met him, because he would be on location at whatever sporting event he was covering and I would be in the studio.

When he first dropped in on my show at BBC Surrey, it was during my first week on air so it didn't seem appropriate to say anything, but when he came in last Tuesday I introduced him adding something like "and purely for the purposes of embarrassing him, John is the reason I decided to become a broadcaster, so everything about this show is entirely his fault."

Given he was there to talk about Wimbledon, it felt right to do it. As I expected, a set up like that quickly led to a discussion about how many Wimbeldons he'd covered (25) from when it was on Radio 2, then Radio 5, then 5live and his subsequent shift into television.

A dear ex-colleague of mine, Alison Booker, died of cancer on Thursday. Ali was the best broadcaster at the first BBC radio station I worked at - BBC Oxford. We lost touch, but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, regained it. She lived with her disease for years and wrote a very droll blog about it. Just over two weeks ago she won a major radio award for her cancer diaries. She was too ill to attend the ceremony, but was ambushed on tape with the news at Sobell House hospice. In her impromptu acceptance speech, she thanked her tumours "for making it all possible".

People like Ali and John are the benchmarks for the sort of presenter I want to become. I've got a long way to go, but I'm grateful for the way they've influenced my life, as broadcasters and unwitting mentors.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Your own private hell

I saw him walking along the Seven Hills Road as I drove to Guildford at 5am a few weeks back. He wasn't hard to miss. He was tall (at least 6'2") and wiry, wearing black lycra leggings, black trainers, a black top, a black rucksack, two reflective armbands and a black beany hat.

He looked like a cyclist who didn't have a bike. And he was walking hard.

The Seven Hills Road is nearly two miles long. It links Walton and Weybridge to the A3, and skirts St George's Hill, the most expensive private estate in the country (The Beatles lived there, now it's more for Russian oligarchs). Pedestrians are few and far between.

Thirteen hours after I saw him, I saw him again. In almost exactly the same spot, the same man, dressed in the same clothes, was walking back towards where I had seen him coming from at 5am in the morning.

"Surely he's not...?" I thought to myself, and then decided to find out. I hit the brakes, pulled into the side of the road 20 yards ahead of him and buzzed the passenger window down.

"Excuse me!"

The man stopped, and lowered himself to look in through the open window.

"Do you want a lift?" I asked.

He didn't want a lift. He was happy to walk. He was "happy" to be alive. He used to cycle along the Seven Hills Road every day until he was hit by a lorry around this time last year. He spent two months in a coma. The lorry driver never stopped. He nearly died. He has severe epilepsy. He's not allowed to drive, and isn't really that keen to cycle any more. He has memory loss, problems concentrating, and spent the latter half of 2009 in a hospital bed, trying to find a way to function again.

He works at Air Products in Hersham as a production manager. After his accident, they kept his job open. So, yes, he now walks 6 miles to work every day and 6 miles back. From Hersham to Byfleet, where, at the age of fifty-something, he is living with his mother, who can monitor his health and be there to alert the emergency services if he has a fit.

I ask him what it's like walking past the spot he was nearly killed, twice a day, five days a week. He looks bitter.

"Well..." he says, "you know..."

I ask if he's had any luck tracing the driver of the lorry, or any damages, or any support from an epilepsy charity or any assistance at all in his recuperation. He shakes his head.

He doesn't know the extent of his brain injury, and so can't claim for damages for 3 or 4 years. He's had all the physio and help he needs from within the NHS, but now he is back on his feet, he's on his own.

I ask him if it's sustainable, walking 12 miles a day, every weekday, whilst putting in a full day's shift.

He isn't sure. I tell him what I do, and ask him if he wants to talk about this on the radio.

"Sure." he says, dispassionately, "apparently it's quite helpful to the recovery process to talk things through like that."

I ask for his contact details. He has them all written on a post-it note inside his wallet in case he blacks out.

He hands it over. I look into his eyes for a moment. Fucking hell.

The exchange has lasted about three minutes. It's starting to spit with rain. "Are you sure you don't want a lift?" I ask.

"No. I'm fine." he says. I wish him goodbye, put the post-it in my pocket, and pull back onto the road.


Saturday, 15 May 2010

Talk Talk

When I was 9, I used to record each episode of Top of the Pops off my parents' mono telly, through the in-built microphone on my mono tape recorder, which I had lobbied to get for my birthday for about a year.

Recordings would not last very long, because the number of tapes I could afford was limited, and tapes would not last very long, because I would generally play them to bits, or at least until my tape recorder got bored of playing the thousandth poor quality rendition of Tears for Fears' Mad World and chewed up yet another C90.

Although crappy pop music was fairly ubiquitious, decent pop music, for a boy of limited means, was very hard to find, and certainly wasn't available on the radio.

When we moved back to Britain (my dad was in the army, and most of my childhood was spent stationed in West Germany), my options for hearing decent music didn't change much. I would still have TOTP and my mono tape recorder, but waiting to hear a particular new song on the radio was torturous, and the only other option -  Dial-a-Disc from British Telecom, was equally frustrating as you had to listen to the top 10 songs in order, down a phone line. At 10p a minute. Pricey even now, come to think of it. If this sounds like the dark ages, it was.

In 1982, my baffled parents began to think that perhaps my addiction to pop music might be something that they could respond to, even if they couldn't quite understand it. So for my birthday or Christmas, they bought me a 7" record. This would have been a breakthrough event even if it was by the bloody Wombles, but it wasn't, it was Talk Talk's second single, "Talk Talk".

Largely dismissed by critics as derivative bollocks, I remember liking it at the time, but was unimpressed by the band's white suits, which they wore, uncomfortably, on the sleeve's back cover. To be honest, I also didn't like the big nose of the serious-looking singer, Mark Hollis.
Talk Talk. Mark Hollis second from left.
I had no further interest in Talk Talk for 4 years. I was vaguely aware of their second album "It's My Life" which came out in 1984. A cracking title tune, and a quite a few others, including "Dum-Dum Girl" and "Such a Shame". But as a band, they were a bit... meh...

Then the album "The Colour of Spring" came out, in 1986. I was 13. The repetitive piano refrain of the single "Life's What You Make It" was an instant hook. Building on the interest the previous album had stoked, it became a world-wide hit.

Talk Talk - The Colour of Spring
I loved the song. I didn't buy the album, but I do remember thinking, "Ooh. Good pop band deliver good pop record. Again. Despite big-nosed, serious-looking singer"

A year later, in 1987 (now 14 - and listening to a lot of Smiths and The Cure)  I took "The Colour of Spring" out from the RAF record library at JHQ Rheindalen, taped it, and for the next 6 months it soundtracked my life. Whatever I did, was done to the amazing songs on that record. It was a such a brilliantly-produced, perfectly-written and performed album, and it made me reassess everything I thought I knew about music. It was depressing, odd, uplifting, poppy, epic and weird all at the same time.

At the time no-one seemed to appreciate how good The Colour of Spring's second track "I Don't Believe In You" was, but I did, and over time it became my favourite song.

Years later, in 1997, I got a job at Xfm, and became a broadcast assistant to the producer Phil Ward-Large, who was a one-time John Peel producer at Radio 1. During an impromptu off-air natter in the studio he mentioned he rated I Don't Believe In You as one of his top 5 greatest songs of all time.

I had never heard ANYONE mention that song in company before. It was nice to hear one of John Peel's producers, who, let's face it, has probably heard one or two records in his time, laud that song so highly. I remember glowing with validation.

In 1988 Mark Hollis was about to play the trump card. The record that would take him (from hundreds of thousands of worldwide sales and mild critical acknowledgement) into a realm of his own, was "Spirit of Eden".
Talk Talk - Spirit of Eden

I was still at school, and Talk Talk had achieved that sense of a band who could go stratospheric. You could not listen to The Colour of Spring and not be aware that you were listening to a special talent - yet not that many people (relative to consumers of middle-of-the road chart pop) had heard of them.

But, because of Talk Talk's refusal to be remotely interested in the music industry, no one talked up the next release. In retrospect, it was probably because the record company knew it was unsellable, and ditched the promo budget.

We, the mug punters, at the time, did not know this. We just knew a band which kept getting better and better, was about to release their new album.

Spirit of Eden was a complete game-changer. I still maintain that as a cohesive artistic endeavour, it's not as successful as The Colour of Spring, but then I'm a pop tart, and will always love a good tune over a bit of self-indulgent bollockry*. That notwithstanding, Spirit of Eden contains a couple of moments which take it far, far beyond anything The Colour of Spring manages. And in their genius, those moments effectively redefine the parameters of pop. No, really. It's not just me saying it.

Whilst I had some idea that this was an amazing record, I was also 15, and when the Stone Roses came along, I left that strange, haunting, Spirit of Eden sound behind for many years. I followed Talk Talk in the music press, and listened with interest when the undeniably inferior "Laughing Stock" album came out, but detached and contemplative music is not what I really needed for my student years.

As I got older, I kept returning to Talk Talk, and The Colour of Spring, and the Spirit of Eden. With the advent of iTunes I re-connected with the music and started tracking down more Talk Talk material, whilst also trying to find out what happened to them.

I know that Mark Hollis effectively disbanded Talk Talk after Laughing Stock, releasing a spare and minimal album under his own name in 1998. As someone brought up on the epic pop of "Time It's Time" (the last, eight-minute track on The Colour of Spring) I had no desire to hear an artist quietly disappear up his own fundament. Unfortunately subsequent reviews suggested he had. In the course of writing this I've since listened to snippets of that last album online. It sounds amazing, so I'm going to buy it and spend some proper time with it.

Now, Mr Hollis, is that a smile starting there?
(Photo: Michael Ochs archives)
I also found a Talk Talk oddities album called "Asides and Besides" which is 70% horrible and 30% extraordinary. "John Cope", which was the b-side to the first single off Spirit of Eden is a better song than anything on Spirit of Eden. I can see why they didn't include it, because all the songs on Spirit of Eden relate to each other, but it's astonishing to find out they wrote and recorded a better song which didn't quite make the final cut, and it's just been floating around in the ether for the last 20-odd years.

Another good (if unsophisticated) song on Asides Besides is "?" which is the b-side to the original 1982 single "Talk Talk". I listen to it a lot now. There's also "Again a Game Again" which I think was an early one-off single, and then there's another b-side called "It's Getting Late in the Evening" which is so far ahead of its time, it makes you realise that if Mark Hollis had a more useful skill, he would have been picked up by a top secret government agency and pressed into the service of his country.

As far as I am aware, Mark Hollis is musically completely inactive. He "retired" more than ten years ago, and has remained retired ever since. No one seems to know why. In an era when people make it their business to track down influential recording artists to interview them or offer them vast sums of money to perform, it's odd that no real information about Mr Hollis has surfaced. I can't be the only person who wants to know.

If you only ever listen to one record by Talk Talk, make it the one below - "I Believe in You".

I sincerely hope you like it.


Postscript: I wrote the above post in 2010. In 2012 a Talk Talk tribute album came out, put together by those excellent people at Fierce Panda. The Guardian article to mark it takes the story on a wee bit, with information on Mark Hollis' latest movements.

2019 update: I've written a new post here, paying tribute to Mark Hollis on hearing he had died.

* Re-reading this 9 years after writing it, I've changed my mind and now prefer Spirit of Eden. Damn those critics for being right all along.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Sonys 2010

Further to my last post, I think the above photo goes some way towards showing why I love doing the webcast reporter job at the Sonys. Yes that is Sir David Attenborough and me in the "winners interview area", which is basically a small area of branding next to the Grosvenor kitchens.

I have no recollection of the moment, I've listened back to the interview and can't identify it from the audio, but there it is, a photo which looks to all the world as if me and Sir David are sharing some sort of hilarious joke. He is, as you won't be surprised to hear, a very nice man.

The night itself was damnably hard work. It's usually tolerably hard work, but the new set up meant concentrating even more than usual. If you want to hear the interviews Marsha Shandur and I recorded on the night, have a gander at the Sony Radio Academy website.

Highlights include a long interview with Jarvis Cocker about 6Music. I haven't interviewed him since approaching him in a cafe at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a few hours before the John Peel tribute gig in 2005. He was lovely then. He was equally patient and gracious on Monday night.

It was also great to collar Moz Dee, the man who gave me a break when he was commissioning editor at 5live and who is currently steering TalkSPORT to new heights.

I interviewed a few other gold winners, a few celebs and a few people who we thought would have something interesting to say about their nomination or about the industry as a whole. I was chagrinned (is that even a word?) to miss Nihal, because he is a lovely bloke, a very talented broadcaster and now a Sony Gold award winner (getting admiring props from Victoria Derbyshire on 5live the following day for his wonderful acceptance speech).

Nihal and I were also once colleagues at the legendary Media Village offices in the late nineties before either of us had got anywhere near the BBC, and I haven't really had a proper chat to him since, other than to occasionally swap texts as his career has continued its meteoric rise. Nihal is one of the good guys and I am chuffed for him.

The most annoying aspect of the night was seeing loads and loads of friends and ex-colleagues and being unable to do anything other than give them a quick hug/kiss, garble something about doing an interview with Frank Skinner or whoever and then run off, promising to trying and find them afterwards.

Usually there is the prospect of relaxing with a few drinks afterwards and catching up with people then, but as I had to be up at 4am to gear up to the show I got a cab back to Walton as soon as I had finished. I arrived home at 12.46am.

Just as I was walking out with my coat, I saw my best man, my former agent, and one of my radio gurus standing near the bar engaged in what looked like the mother of all gossip sessions. I solemnly shook their hands and made my way outside. Next time..!

One final word about another interviewee - Trevor Nelson was given Sony Broadcaster of the Year.  It is the main award of the evening. Before being asked to the stage the winner has to endure the screening of a film which takes the audience through every significant moment of their career, complete with dodgy publicity shots and fawning quotes from their peers.

Trevor apparently had no idea he was going to get the award, and after watching his entire working life pass before him, he gave a very moving speech, right off the cuff. He described his early radio days, which involved allowing the then pirate station Kiss FM to move into and broadcast from his flat. This, unsurprisingly, led to his then girlfriend moving out. He paid tribute to the significant people in his life before revealing that whilst he was getting ready for the Sonys his mum told him she had just been given the all-clear from cancer.

In between fielding multiple congratulations Trevor gave me an interview in which he revealed his love for The Goon Show and (like Jarivs Cocker earlier) paid tribute to his inspiration (and I suspect, still the inspiration for many music broadcasters in the room) John Peel.

Thanks to Alfi Media for their great production job on the webcast (and taking both the above photos), Marsha and Sam for being there, and profound thanks to Zafer, the event producers.


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Sony Radio Academy Awards 2010

I'm working at the Sonys again on Monday 10 May. For the last 4 years I've helped with the live webcast, variously presented by Emma B, Kevin Greening, Margherita Taylor and Richard Allinson. This is what I wrote after last year's event.

In the past, the presenters would do the set piece interviews before the awards were being handed out, and during the dinner breaks. They would also commentate, Eurovision-style, on the proceedings as they happened.

My job was to go and report from the floor, interviewing various Gold winners and the telly celebrities who often show up.

In previous years the all-round radio/podcasting/talent-wrangling/tune-spotting genius that is Marsha Shandur from Xfm has looked after the interactivity - reading out emails and texts into the webcast.

Radio 1's equally gifted Sam Bailey has also been there for as long as I have, working on updating the awards website as the gongs are handed out, and making sure none of the computers on site fall over.

Given the amount of equipment which spends an evening whirring away in one of the Grovesnor House Great Room antechambers, Sam often has quite a task on his hands.

This year the organisers are taking a different approach. Reflecting the phenomenal rise of twitter and the way we now use it to participate in events, our focus will be on the interactive element of the webcast. Sam will be taking over the twitter feed and working the emails and texts. I will still be reporting from the floor, primarily to take photographs and record interviews which will stay up on the awards website.

As it is pretty simple to take the interviews live on the webcast feed (which is up for people to listen to and watch the awards themselves), my interviews will go out live.

This year Marsha will also be live reporting from the floor. Between the three of us we will keep tabs on everything that is happening at the Sonys and become the eyes and ears of the webcast audience participating online. 

I've always had the best of both worlds with the Sonys. It's a wonderful opportunity to see many many old friends and colleauges who are making their way in the industry. My working brief has also given me the opportunity to buttonhole the most interesting people in the room and ask them annoying questions which they have always, very generously, made time to answer.

My favourite interviewee ever was Mark Radcliffe, but for a surreal vignette I will never forget being backstage in 2007 trying to interview Paul Gambaccini about his Sony Gold whilst a (presumably) very drunk Carla Bruni (then a completely unknown singer/songwriter with an album to flog, now wife of the President of France) draped herself all over a flummoxed Gambo, alternately sticking her tongue in his ear and proclaiming to everyone in the duskiest of voices how "bay-ooti-fool" his voice was.

The vibe she gave off was pure and simple attention-seeking ambition (albeit devastatingly sexy attention-seeking ambition) and even at the time I remember thinking "He's not playing hard to get, love, he's er... genuinely not interested."

Ten years before that, my first ever proper boss, Shabs (then MD of a small music PR firm, now UK President of Virgin Records - see the second number 8) in this blog post), took me to the Sonys when I was a starry-eyed rube straight out of student radio. He knew how much it would mean to me just to be in the same room as people I'd been listening to for years.

I want to continue working at the Sonys for as long as they want to have me, but now I have a radio show of my own, nothing would give me greater pleasure than being there on merit, as a nominee. That's the hard part.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

Woking - home of McLaren F1 and the new MP4-12C

This is the new, environmentally-friendly McLaren MP4-12C.

Actually it's a gas-guzzling beast, but according to the marketing blurb "With the 12C’s power output of around 600hp and its low CO2 emissions, it delivers the highest horsepower to CO2 ratio of any car on the market today with an internal combustion engine…and that includes petrol and diesel hybrids.”

So your conscience is clear.

The car will be built in a new £40m factory in Woking (where the McLaren F1 team are based), creating 300 jobs.

Quite how the construction of the 12C sits with recent comments made by Woking Borough Council about how we should all be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint makes for the subject of an interesting email from Mark in Woking. It's the longest email I've ever read out on air, but I thought it was worth sharing.

"Hello Nick,

A recent edition of the "Woking Magazine", contained the obligatory environmental feature mentioning Woking Borough Council's Climate Change Strategy, stating: "this is not something to be ignored, we all have to take action now".
We now have the MP4-12C, McLaren's new road car, to be built in Woking.

I must congratulate McLaren on the environmental "spin" in their press release: "lowest CO2 emissions per horse power of any car". Definitely worth shouting about if the car is 60bhp, but surely not if it is 600bhp!
The facts are it is a two seater, 3.8 litre twin turbo, that does 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds, with a top speed of over 200mph, and will cost £150,000. It does not sound like a vehicle that will "save the planet".

Ron Dennis (McLaren Automotive Chairman) describes the car as a "long held dream". Surely for WBC it should be a climate change "nightmare".

I have nothing against McLaren as a company, indeed I know them to be an excellent employer. But I wonder if any representatives of WBC will be at the McLaren party when the production line starts in 2011.

WBC recently granted planning permission for the new factory. It will be discreetly hidden behind trees and a grassy mound. (Out of sight, out of mind?). You would presume WBC would want McLaren's employees to cycle to work, or use public transport. Wrong. There is also a 400 space car park included in the plans.

So why did WBC grant planning permission? Probably because this new facility will provide 300 new jobs. Is it an uncomfortable truth that the economy always has priority over the environment, even in Woking?
Perhaps I have got it all wrong, and this is a wonderful "carbon neutral" project. I would be very interested to hear a public statement from Ray Morgan (WBC CEO) as to whether our green council endorse the production of a 600bhp road car.
Instead of "By Faith and Diligence", perhaps the Woking Borough motto should be: "Don't do as I do, do as I tell you", or "One rule for the rich, one rule for the rest".

So come on everyone, change your light bulbs, get on your bike, and order your photovoltaic solar panels. Remember, as The Woking Magazine says: Climate Change "is not something to be ignored, we all have to take action now".

Well, perhaps not all of us it seems."

As I write I am earwigging a conversation with my producer who is on the phone to Woking Borough Council trying to persuade them to come on and address the points Mark raises in his email. We'll see what happens.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A day in the life

I have two alarms. One alarm goes off at 4am. The other alarm goes off at 4.01am. Getting up isn't the problem - it's going to sleep at an early enough time. Presuming eight hours is a good idea, I usually get six.

At 4.01am I pull on my Slobbing Around At Home Clothes and head downstairs with my ipod in my hand. Over breakfast I check my twitter feeds, which will usually alert me to any big local or national story and an interesting number of small ones. I can also check my emails and facebook messages so that by the time I go back upstairs to have a shower and get dressed I'm already thinking about what I can put into the show.

I make sure I'm in the car by 4.55am as that allows me to get a bit of the LBC paper review before switching over to BBC Surrey at 5am to a) check the early breakfast show presenter is there and b) hear what he has to say in the 5am news.

As soon as he finishes the news and weather, I switch over to Morning Reports on BBC 5 live and keep it there until I arrive at BBC Surrey in Guildford at around 5.15am.

It takes 15 minutes to make a cuppa, log on and generally adjust to being at work, but by 5.30am I am having an initial conversation with my producer about the big topics on the show.

Between 5.30am and 6am my producer is cutting, writing and editing. I am usually going through listener correspondence - deciding what I will read out on air, and how much any listener correspondence will shape the editorial direction of the show.

By 6am I am looking through the scripts we've been left from the night before, getting my head round the stories.

I know at breakfast people are dipping in for a short period of time, but if I start with a few things and a few ideas about where they might go, it helps. You need to have a few (hopefully witty, pithy and illuminating) lines ready in your head before you go on air. Scripting doesn't work - it has to sound right.

Also around 6am the papers and the newsreader arrives. We have an hour to get the programme ready and we do so by beavering away feverishly at our terminals, watching the telly and reading the papers, but also by talking - what is the big story? how do we present it? what ideas and audio will lift the programme and make it genuinely engaging?

So the hardest creative thinking work is done at the most difficult time of day - between 5.30am and going on air at 7am.

Starting the programme isn't easy - we hot desk, which means the early breakfast show presenter Ben Kerrigan finishes saying what he's saying and leaps out of his seat, giving me the duration of a song to watch his computer log off, log back in as me, re-arrange the keyboard layout to the way I need it, log out of his running order and log mine in, all the while trying to come up with hilarious, witty weather/travel/news/music-based banter which will ease the transition into my show and keep in my head the top stories and a reasonably sharp preamble.

Thankfully Ben is a past master, both technically and professionally, so we get through what is quite a sticky junction without too much awkwardness.

The next three hours (7am - 10am) are about being across my brief, and concentration.

During the programme, I interview at least ten people, talk my way around various recorded features, promote the schedule, host a quiz and try to steer the listener through the news, weather, travel and sport, without too much in the way of hesitation or repetition. Deviation is fine, though.

At 10am I switch the transmitter and saunter/stagger back into the newsroom. Usually I am assigned to report on a story happening somewhere in Surrey or North East Hampshire for the following day's programme. I wolf down a sandwich and head out in the car. After recording what I need to record, I go straight home, and try to get an hour's sleep before waking to pick my daughter up from school at 3pm. I then have 4 hours of childcare before my wife returns home.

This does not leave much time to make calls or process emails, let along grub up stories. Like anyone at work, I get around 50 - 100 emails a day and I prioritise those from listeners, and then those directly addressed to me. The rest don't really get read, let alone actioned.

Between 6-6.30pm I'll get a call from the day producer, to talk me through the next day's show. This is vital - chewing everying over with the person who has set the stories up, asking the questions you'd ask on air and making sure they're happy you know what you're going to talk about, and you're happy you've got a proper story to get your teeth into.

My wife Nic returns home around 7.15pm and helps put the kids to bed. Once they go down, usually around 8pm, we eat some dinner, tidy up, and have a brief chat before we start preparing for the next day.

Each second after 9pm I am awake has a significant impact on my ability to perform the next day. I usually get to sleep around 10pm.

It's a tough gig, but there's nothing I'd rather be doing right now. And, of course, the weekends provide a respite. It's how I find the time to do things like put together this.