11 April 2012

"30 seconds on this, then we need a minute into the ads..."

Double shifts this week - mid-mornings in Bradford, drivetime in Wigan. Nine hours of radio a day, including a tiny chunk of pre-record while I dash from one studio to the other.

Today is even more extreme however; after the drive show finishes at 7, I'll remain in the studio until 10, pressing the buttons and ordering takeaway pizza while football commentary comes down the line.

The technical operator - the T/O, as they're known, and it's always a slash rather than a full stop separating the initials, for some reason - is the faceless hero of every radio station. They are required less than they used to be thanks to networking of stations and updated technology, but nonetheless they are vital and stations can't often run properly without them.

When I started out, computer playout systems only contained the jingles and adverts. The music was still on CD, encased in a protective plastic box and shoved into a Denon player, therefore if you ever needed to pre-record a programme (in my case, once a year - when the group of stations was hosting its annual awards) you needed to make sure a T/O was willing and available.

As I was on the nightshift back then, this wasn't easy. T/Os were casual, paid a small fee shift by shift, and had full-time jobs to hold down elsewhere. Engineers, bank clerks and driving instructors had little sidelines as button-pressers at their local station and luckily for me, the driving instructor had a quiet day of bookings ahead so agreed to come in to "play out" my nightshift while I attended the awards.

The process was laborious. Once permission had been granted and the T/O booked, you then decamped to a studio with a copy of your music log for the given date, put together and printed off with a hurumph of reluctance by your head of music. It was then a case of recording dry links into the computer, trying to make them sound as 'live' as you could. Timechecks were impossible to get accurate, but if you felt confident you could do the odd 'nearly 20 past three' routine, giving you a good three-minute leeway. Nobody on the nightshift was especially arsed about what time it was anyway.

Once each link was done, they had to be clearly labelled ("!!!2AM HOUR LINK 01" - the exclamation marks crucial as they would put the links automatically at the top of the file) and saved into the system. Then you had to write the same file name on the music log, indicating to the T/O which link to play and where. It was then up to the T/O to find the links and play them out over the records. One error meant I would be gleefully nattering about the great new single from the Manic Street Preachers while some dirge from Alice Deejay was actually playing out; hence why you didn't piss off a T/O, as he had the tools to make you look a prize berk. If they were responsible professionals they didn't do that, of course, but I expect radio people have at least one story of a scorned T/O exacting some kind of revenge.

Later, as the technology developed, the need for a T/O to play out a self-contained music show was reduced as the music was now on the system, which meant you could load the whole show yourself and press a button that guaranteed everything would play out in sequence. The only thing that you needed to keep an eye on was timings, especially as off-peak hours meant IRN bulletins and therefore you had to be on the nose. This is how a lot of shows work to this day.

Nowadays, the T/O is needed only for outside broadcasts. Every weekend when you hear a football commentator in a gantry banging on about a striker's eight-game goal drought, there is someone in the studio making sure he sounds good and waiting for the cue to play the adverts and then chat to him off-air, ready for the next swathe of instructions. These guys are also recording the commentary as it goes out and quickly cutting and pasting goals and incidents into new files, ready to be replayed in the post-game hour. It's a tough job. It's a skilled job.

The relationship between a presenter out in the field and a T/O in the studio is a tentative one. The presenter is in charge in theory but the T/O is in charge in practice. I've been in studios when OBs have been going out and I've overheard presenters totally monster their T/O down the line when something has gone wrong, and I've seen T/Os walk out in disgust at such actions too. When I commentated on football, I tried to be civil and cool with T/Os - especially as they were friends as well as colleagues - but sometimes the strain of the occasion did prompt a harsh word or two. Fortunately, all soon calmed and we were still mates when the show ended. And a good T/O will make a presenter on an OB sound amazing, especially when the task of closing the show bang on time comes up - the presenter is doing his final spiel, trying to be articulate and authoritative to the last, while the T/O in his headphones is counting down from 30 seconds. From each of them, it's an art.

T/Os are capable of making you laugh too. One non-footballist who was T/O-ing a football show I was hosting also had the job of telling us latest scorers and scores on the talkback button for us to announce on air. His stab at pronouncing the Swedish striker Fredrik Ljungberg's surname will live with me for a very, very long time. I'm not sure I ever properly stopped giggling for the whole programme.

No T/O for my overlapped shows this week, as the bits of pre-recorded output are self-contained on the playout system. Sometimes I wish there was a T/O as, for all its sophistication, a computer can go wrong. A good T/O never does. Tonight I have to be that good T/O so the listeners only have to worry about their team's performance, not the radio programme bringing them it.

19 August 2011

"It opened in November 1967, and the glass roof was added 20 years later..."

I'm working for the Pulse of West Yorkshire for a month, doing the daytime five-hour slot. It's a station I've always wanted to work for, having lived in its target area for five years of my younger life.

Today, I was sent on an outside broadcast. I've done a fair few over the years but as a freelancer it's one of the things you miss about having a regular, nailed-down, six days a week gig. Still, off I was packed to Keighley, on the far edge of West Yorkshire, where the radio station had been doing its Proud To Be Local campaign all week.

I was in the Airedale Shopping Centre, and having been seated at a desk at the front of an empty shop with branding all around me, I looked a bit of a sitting duck. People who notice OBs react in one of a few different ways; they gawp like hell for ages and assume you haven't noticed, they come over and chat and take whatever merchandise is on offer; they ignore you entirely or, regrettably, they try to put you off when you're doing a link.

Plenty of the first three and, fortunately, only one solitary example of the latter; a teenage girl with a Croydon facelift who thought it would be kerrrrrrr-azy, and ever so cool to all her gang, to shout something obscene, followed by the name of a rival station, in my direction. The daft lass hadn't accounted for me not being on air at the time though, as a song was playing on the speakers and I was not wearing any cans and, indeed, not actually speaking into the microphone.

The official stuff consisted of brief interviews with a woman who owned one of the cafeterias in the shopping centre, plus a local councillor who used his couple of minutes to sell Keighley and sell it again. He was very impressive. Otherwise, I was required to present the show in the same way as I would have done if sitting at the controls in the Pulse's nerve centre in the centre of Bradford. I did also have my photo taken with the mascot of the Keighley Cougars rugby league club - a cougar that goes by the name of Freddie. The best mascot-related act of punnery ever. And, last but by no means least, the much-revered Ben Baker, resident and proud of the place, turned up to say hello - wearing an Atari T shirt.

Great fun, and over the next month I'll be doing a couple more, I think.

29 June 2011

He wakes and says hello, turns on the breakfast show

An odd little incident occurred on Monday.

I had a free day marked on my calendar until a 5pm call came in on the Sunday evening asking me to cover a breakfast show as the regular host had been taken ill. Dutifully, I said yes and immediately prepared for an early night which, with the busy weekend I'd already had, would be easy to have anyway.

The show started at 6am, as ever, and it went well. One of those days where you think you've performed to a good standard, entertained and informed, without necessarily cooking on gas. It's quite hard to be at your absolute peak when you're in as a last minute stand-in but I was happy.

Before the show started, I advertised it on Facebook, as I often do. The regular host is a friend and colleague and so I linked to him in the status update I posted. Later, I randomly clicked on his name to look at his wall, expecting to see a stack of get well messages from his public.

I didn't get beyond the first thread, which made me smile and think at once. Someone had said good morning to him, clearly before they'd even turned on the radio. A second fan of his then said he wasn't there. Between the two of them they chatted on his wall bemoaning his absence - and then said they were going to retune.

They weren't critical of me, I should add immediately. And I was amused. So I posted a comment saying I wasn't offended by their decision to go elsewhere, complete with ample smilies to make it clear that was the case. There then followed any number of backtracking, grovelling, embarrassed messages from these two saying they wouldn't re-tune after all and they were sorry, and do I have a spade they could borrow to dig a hole for them to crawl into, etc.

Local radio gives you something of a profile but you are very much an anonymous minor figure, even when hosting a successful breakfast show. Trouble is, as these two proved, there is an assumption that you're not normal, not regular, not the same as them. Breakfast show hosts, or any local radio hosts for that matter, apparently don't feel knackered in the morning, have issues with family and finances and, of course, they never read Facebook. It never occurred to these two that the regular host and I would be Facebook friends, nor that I would therefore have the time or inclination to read their comments. It was as if they knew I existed, but not really. Not in their world, anyway.

How very strange it all was. But it did make me laugh.

Talking of local radio, that organ of esteem the Guardian has been reviewing breakfast shows recently in an effort to find what they would deem the best. Naturally, they've done exactly the thing that hacks me off more than anything else about the press attitude to radio, which is just look at stations based in London and then end the series there.

Most of the national stations, rightly, got reviewed (they didn't do the two classical stations), but then there was absolutely no justification in then reviewing (and, therefore, hugely plugging) Capital (London) and Heart (London), putting their breakfast gigs in the same category as the national shows, and then not doing likewise with the other Capital and Heart stations up and down the country, as well as the hundreds of other worthy local breakfast shows on offer.

I suspect they sussed this at the very last minute, and quickly they threw it open to their readership to "suggest" to them "unsung heroes" (God I hate that phrase) of local radio breakfast time. By "unsung hero" they mean "person on air outside of London whom I'm never going to hear". That rankles, especially as I could name a dozen and more breakfast presenters on non-southern brands that make Vaughan and Theakston look like shoddy beginners. Some breakfast show presenters on local stations are major, major stars of their patch and would attract a bigger crowd at appearances and events than a lot of equivalents on national stations.

Anyway, it seems that some of these great shows are going to be reviewed by the Guardian, which is at least something. It's just a pity that they didn't have the intelligence or decency to discover the worthiness of these programmes themselves and had to be shamed by their public into doing so.

10 February 2011

When Savage Garden brought down our emails

I heard a Savage Garden song on the radio this morning. They were unusually popular in the 1990s and their new releases regularly made radio station playlists and yet not too many people - within the industry, at least - ever seemed to rate them.

Firs time I heard their debut single, I Want You, was when I played it on the weekend graveyard shift at Hallam FM in 1997 and instantly I assumed it was the bloke from Roxette with a new band. And sounding like Per Gessle shouldn't exactly be a great career breaker.

But anyway, they succeeded and developed a fan base. I'm not sure who their target audience really was. A clean-cut Aussie duo, they weren't a teen idol band for screamers, despite youth and looks, but more of a lite-pop outfit that young mums and equivalent social demographics could warm to. Blokes didn't seem to like them very much. When Truly Madly Deeply, their big ballad, was released, women went eternally gooey for it. It still gets requested now. Then there was Affirmation, the philosophy of life anthem that was mercilessly parodied by breakfast show presenters but, again, was seen as some great lyrical masterpiece by the fans. And as that fanbase really grew, radio began to know about it.

Savage Garden fans in the UK were potty - or, at least, the ringleaders around one of the first online forums about the band were so. In the late 1990s, radio wasn't playing "enough" Savage Garden for their liking. I remember at Viking FM we only had two of their songs on recurrent play (three times a day maximum - Truly Madly Deeply and the Almighty remix of To The Moon And Back) and the rest simply didn't "test" well, as the famed expression of the industry goes. Brand new singles would go on, but maybe not for very long. Some of the sloppier stuff - I Knew I Loved You, for example - got on to the late night love shows but that was pretty much it. Generally, this was replicated by most commercial stations as ultimately you had to play the stuff your core audience seemed to like the most.

And these fans didn't like it. So, one day, somebody on these forums spent a whole day researching the name of every radio station in the UK and then, from within, making a list of all the presenters on that site. This long list was then sent out to other fanatics, who all typed their own "Play Savage Garden!" begging letter with equally restricted levels of sophistication and literacy and, with the press of one button, sent it to every radio presenter in the country.

They didn't try to hide the fact that it was a bulk email, which took out any personalisation and proof of actual listenership which might, if anything, have been the one thing to sway a jock into doing as they asked. DJs didn't then - and don't now - choose the records they play but always made suggestions and contributions to the programmers who did compile the playlists.

I got my email and was staggered to see hundreds and hundreds of addresses thereon. It had gone to everyone from Chris Moyles and Ken Bruce to invisible overnight jocks like me. They had also, interestingly, sent it to presenters whose role perhaps involved playing less music, no music or just different music - presenters on Radio 4, for example. And Classic FM. This email campaign was all about awareness and obsession, and little to do with impact.

Moyles took the piss completely on the afternoon show he was hosting at the time, reading verbatim from the forums that had instigated this campaign about how much they knew and loved and admired Darren Hayes. My abiding memory of it was getting a reply through from a presenter at a station in Leeds who, accidentally or not, had clicked Reply To All instead of just Reply, and so hundreds of radio presenters, as well as the Savage Garden crazies, got his one word response: No.

This caused further problems, as we started to get daytime email from irate BBC local radio presenters saying that this email had bust the system and they were now unable to get online. A few internal mails were then sent out, asking us to ignore and delete any bulk correspondence from these fans as it was making trouble for other presenters elsewhere. It wasn't a rivalry thing - the email from Leeds put out a BBC intranet system in Cambridgeshire, I think it was. Pot luck. Or pot lack of luck, if you prefer.

The campaign continued for a while longer and the effect remained entirely nil. Savage Garden performed Affirmation at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics - introduced by Barry Davies, who clearly had to consult a grand-daughter or great-niece to get his stats on them - and then split up. Darren Hayes' brief solo career was essentially Savage Garden under a new name (though he had a hit with a song called Strange Relationship that I really liked).

When the September 11th attacks happened, I was at Imagine FM in Stockport, having already been on air with breakfast, and my colleague noticed just in time that his first song after the extended, mournful, serious news bulletin was a Savage Garden song called Crash And Burn. His mouse-clicking fingers were quick enough to save the day.

You've noticed I've not included an embed of any of these songs. Yes, that's deliberate. I wouldn't want the online fan club to think I'm on their side.

31 August 2010

Death of a Princess

When Diana, Princess of Wales died in a Parisian hospital in the early hours of this very day 13 years ago, I was on the radio.

This meant that I, along with every other live weekend overnight presenter in the country (and there were many in 1997, as opposed to the little more than a dozen currently on commercial radio today) had to go through the obituary procedure, which had never previously been necessary in the modern broadcasting era.

For presenters, the theory was that you read the ring binder full of instructions from IRN about what to do in case word of a Royal death started to emerge. In other words, you were expected to know it off by heart. In reality, presenters forgot all about it and got on with their own thing until or unless such a day occurred.

We were expecting it, however. Just not with Diana. In 1997 both our monarch and her consort were in their 70s and monarch's ma was pushing the ton. All three, along with the four royal siblings and the direct heirs to the throne, were on the A-list of Royal obituaries and would receive the works in terms of respectful tribute and focussed media mourning when their day of judgement arrived. Despite being de-royalled by her divorce, Diana was also on there, still, as she had given birth to one future monarch via her nuptials to another.

So I drove to the studios at about midnight, ready for my 2am start. As I parked up, the 1am IRN bulletin announced that Diana had been in a car accident in Paris. This was breaking news and therefore there was little indication of whether it was a minor prang or a serious crash, though the late show presenter looked very grateful to be leaving the studio and heading home when 2am came round and I stepped in.

The 2am news again was vague, but the studio televisions began to tell us a lot more and, with a rolling news service not seen before on both the BBC and ITV (as was) we knew this could be quite a big moment. However, the rules dictated that commercial radio stations should continue broadcasting their planned, regular material until directly instructed otherwise. So, both myself and the chap on the AM sister station across the corridor continued. I was playing records by Will Smith, Michelle Gayle and Ultra Naté, talking up the breakfast show's Monday return, playing Rudders Plays Pop with the audience (just don't ask) and making lame observations about stuff in the papers.

By 3am we were convinced, without any proof at all, that she was dead because the hospital in Paris was telling the media absolutely nothing on the record. Both of us - and we were the only people in the building aside from the security chap who was too busy snoring in reception to notice - re-acquainted ourselves with the obituary procedure and located the copy of the national anthem that had been placed in each studio.

How it works is that IRN sound the obituary alarm in every newsroom in the country once they have their confirmation of a blue-blooded demise. In the event of an empty newsroom - like they all are at 4.45am on a Sunday - the alarm also activates as a flashing light in the studio to alert the presenters without alerting the listeners (though some studio alarms do make a sound if the microphone is not live at the time). Upon the activation, presenters are required to drop all programming features, production and adverts and play back to back "appropriate" music until the next scheduled IRN bulletin.

I mentioned 4.45am as that was when the alarm finally sounded. I can remember as clear as day that my last link had been something suitably unamusing about a cocaine-taking rock star, and the record I was playing was, erm, Every Day Is A Winding Road by Sheryl Crow. Not exactly ideal but we were in "normal" mode, and presenters' fingers have been metaphorically chopped off by their bosses for daring to change the music around without good reason. I didn't regard what was still officially only a rumour about Diana's farewell as good enough reason, so I played the less than tastefully titled song as it appeared on my music log.

IRN's leap into action meant we followed the rule book until 5am and then faded them up to begin a sombre, extended, repetitive bulletin. I can't remember how long it lasted but it was long enough for both jocks to make the required phone calls to management. One of the two Sunday breakfast presenters was just arriving at the studios when the alarm sounded and so instead of brewing up for us all and doing his prep for his show, he got on with the task of rescheduling the music for the two stations.

IRN's initial elongated bulletin ended and it was back to individual studios to continue the process. This should have involved the playing of the National Anthem, but we could only find a copy of it on Sonifex cartridge (with the words 'NATIONAL ANTHEM' affixed to the front with red Dymotape), and the machines that played these wonderful things (I love carts to this day) had long been decommissioned and replaced with the computer playout system. After toying with the idea of playing the Queen version from A Night At The Opera - it was the only recorded version of the anthem that I knew, and it was accessible on vinyl in the record library (and our turntables were still wired up to the desk, albeit rarely used) - we decided against playing it at all and just started the "serious music tape" that had sat on its shelf for months and years waiting, like a fire extinguisher, to be needed.

There was only one such tape in the building. It was, delightfully, a Revox reel tape. This suggested its vintage (although in the late 1990s many presenters still did splice editing of their stuff; I have several boxes of reel tapes in my garage containing all sorts of crap) and after it was placed on to the spools and wound into position, a deep breath was taken and it was fired off as soon as IRN completed their final wrap.

The tape contained suitably mournful, uninterrupted, melancholy tunes for use on air in between 15 minute IRN updates. That there was only one didn't matter on a technical basis, as it just meant that one of us could fade up the other's studio from where the tape was played. This would have been fine, except the tape in question had not been updated since one of the two stations had undergone a complete rebrand and therefore there were jingles of a radio station that no longer existed going out on two differently named stations. Confusing for the listeners and also for those of us responsible for airing it, as serious music tapes had to be brandless. Why those jingles were on it I will never know, but as soon as we heard one after the first two songs (the first song was All I Have To Do Is Dream, that I do recall) we faded it out in a hurry and started handpicking slushy Whitney Houston-esque ballads from the CD racks until our shifts ended at 6am, by which time the rescheduling of the day's music had been completed and new logs printed off.

And that was it, really. The two jocks due for breakfast shifts from 6am had to do their four-hour stints playing back to back wrist-slitters with only occasional pauses for forlorn repeat announcements from IRN. I drove home and went to bed, totally shattered. The adrenaline that hits you as you take on such a sizeable and unexpected burden is immense, making the comedown afterwards all the more jading.

I was less than a year into my professional radio career and had just assumed responsibility for the radio station's reaction to an event unprecedented in UK commercial radio's lifetime. I think, given the problems with the anthem and the serious music tape, not to mention the most unsociable time of day for trying to rouse important people and inform them (and take advice), the two of us on air did a good job. This made the station boss's comment to the staff at a meeting a few days later that it was "unfortunate that our most inexperienced presenter was on the air at the time" seem most unfair, crass and arrogant - until August 31st 1997, no presenter of even John Peel's years of service had ever done a Royal obit! The last Royal death of equal or greater significance, assuming exiled former monarchs with Nazi sympathies didn't count, was that of King George VI in 1952.

It took me ages to get over that comment. I wanted a "well done" and never got one. And believe me, you can rehearse it all you like (and this station evidently didn't or it would have known about the unplayable anthem and the jingle-drizzled tape) but when Royalty dies and you're the person in charge of reacting, there really is no pressure like it.

These days, technology makes the job easier. In 1997, studio computer systems only contained the adverts and the jingles, and presenters still played their songs from CD players. Now the computers have everything, and also are sophisticated enough to be accessed and altered from the engineer or programme director's front room, meaning a couple of clicks of a button are all that's needed in the event of a Royal breathing their last to change the automated, presenterless output into one more respectful.

In truth, that it was a) Diana, and b) an accident, made this Royal obituary even harder to react to, as a sudden death in such circumstances prompts speculation and forces the hand of those responsible for confirming the details. Buckingham Palace and the hospital in Paris had to do so before dawn broke, having had to deal with the frantic requirements of the media for four hours previously. As we discovered when the Queen Mother died four and a half years later, a much more natural, "controllable" and, let's be honest, anticipated passing could be made public at a time convenient to all. There had been rumour all of that Saturday of her death but we weren't told for definite until 5pm and were instructed to carry on with the programming until IRN at 6pm, who would make the announcement. The only thing to alter was the promotion of the post-6pm shows as clearly these were now not going to occur.

I was on air for this too. I was at Millwall FC, presenting the coverage of Stockport County's game there and providing co-commentary. Easter Saturday of 2002, it was. The game had just ended and I was conducting the post-match phone-in when the chap pushing the buttons back at base gave me the news during a commercial break and told me that from 6pm we would go, until further notice, to IRN.

6pm was the football show's scheduled finishing time anyway, which didn't help things for me. I don't think I have made a bigger faux pas in my career than the moment leading up to 6pm when, with the producer counting the seconds down to the top of the hour into my headphones, I ended my spiel in the way I always ended it, with the words "Party Mix next". Five seconds later came the sorrowful voice of the IRN announcer informing the nation of the Queen Mother's expiry and I could have easily died with her right there.

24 June 2010

Alan Cooper

I've just received the sad news that my first boss has passed away. Alan co-ran the news agency where I worked between 1993 and 1998 and was already beyond the usual retirement age when I hooked up. I'm guessing he was 83 when he died yesterday afternoon.

He was a fantastic bloke, fully red-bearded which made him identical to Richard Stilgoe, except Alan was a far better wordsmith. He and his business partner Stan were old school hacks, brought up on typewriters, spikes, trench coats, copy via telephone boxes and what looked like 4,000,000 wpm in very complicated Pitman. They had run the agency together since the 1950s.

Alan hired myself and another 20 year old trainee in order to replace a young reporter destined for bigger things (that chap is now chief football writer for the Daily Mirror) and also to allow him to take a little more time away from the office. I can only recall him dashing out on a breaking story once, which was a tragic road crash in Sowerby Bridge which involved a lorry, a BT van and two shops, and resulted in half a dozen deaths. He drove to the scene and returned with a story, loads of quotes and a clear idea of how it should be written. It was done in half an hour and over several front pages the next day.

He wouldn't mind me saying, however, that those of us who knew him in the 1990s and onwards remember best what he was like in the pub rather than in the office. He was phenomenally generous, and always got the first round in irrespective of how many people were in it. He and Stan saw it as a gentlemanly duty to take me and the other newbie for a beer each evening after work, as well as the odd lunchtime and always in the press box bar at Huddersfield Town on a Saturday, because they were aware that our salaries weren't exactly outstanding and so a young boy's ale requirements should not be part of his weekly outgoings. Through this period, we were treated to endless tales about their finest hours and maddest moments as West Yorkshire journalists from the 1950s onwards, and as raconteurs they were hard to match. Both men were so different, as individuals and as a partnership, and yet so similar. They embodied principles and values and kindnesses that I hope rubbed off on everyone who worked with them.

They tried their best with me, but even they couldn't turn a decent writer into someone who had decent news sense, though I still felt I learned more in a fortnight with them than I did in a year on an NCTJ training course ("What do they teach you in these bloody colleges?") and so in 1998 I quit being a journalist for the alleged career I have now. By then both had retired entirely and sold the agency on. For all the enjoyment I got from working with a new boss, it wasn't quite the same as hearing Alan grumble about the accounts or tell a yarn about Frank Worthington or James Pickles while Stan argued with a copytaker or practised his singing.

Stan informed me of this news about half an hour ago, and it's so sad. I've had my share of evil and incompetent bosses over the years, so when one of the Really Good Guys goes, it is all the more poignant. Rest in peace Alan, here's a pint and a whisky chaser. Now tell us again about Lord Kagen's downfall.

29 April 2010

Turned to liquid

You may recall that at the back end of last year, I was elated to be offered a job as the breakfast presenter of Pennine FM in Huddersfield.

Today I attended a meeting at the offices of liquidators instructed by the radio station's holding company to detail the assets of the station, which closed down over the Easter weekend.

I had lasted five weeks at the station. After just 24 shows, I was called into the finance director's office and had my contract terminated as, simply, they couldn't afford to pay me. They emailed me later the same week to confirm this. And to this day, they still haven't paid me. Under the terms of my contract, I'm owed one four-figure sum in wages and a larger four-figure sum in severance pay. Since then I have also incurred legal fees and threw in a final £30 in train fares to get to today's meeting, hoping there would be some crumbs to throw back out.

There were none. And, bleakly, it looks like there will always be none. I've been left helpless, jobless and potless.

They dismissed me on February 4th. What else happened on February 4th? Suffice to say, I've enjoyed better days.

I issued a County Court order for my wages, which was ignored. I sent in the Sheriff (different to bailiffs, as the Sheriff is private and therefore has more incentive to come away with money or goods) and that came to nothing. A week after the Sheriff went in and compiled an inventory of all the gear, the radio station closed down thanks partly to transmitter issues and partly to the owners of the property where it was based calling in months of unpaid rent. Landlords or mortgage providers get priority, under the law, when it comes to seizing goods of value to recoup their debt, leaving my little bit of legal action in tatters.

So, once that was over, I waited for my letter from the liquidators and it duly arrived, inviting me to today's meeting. I had no idea - and dared not guess - how many other creditors there were and how much they were owed. Upon arrival at the liquidators' offices this morning, I was handed an agenda and a breakdown of the company figures, and at the back was an alphabetical list of every creditor, including me, and the amounts owed to each.

(They had cut my debt to a tenth of its real worth, but it turns out that was a typing error).

There were 86 creditors. That's 86 people or companies or institutions that are today still owed money by this radio station. The smallest individual sum owed was £2.16; the largest was more than £13,000. And all bar one of the debts larger than mine were to companies. Only one was, like me, owed to an individual in terms of salary for agreed services.

Anyway, the upshot of it all was that despite the best efforts of the few creditors who felt it was a wild goose chase still worth pursuing, the cupboard was and is bare. The problem, nay scandal, is that it seemed to be bare from the beginning. It was bare when they placed the ad to which I responded, it was bare when I started work, it was bare when I was fired and it was bare when - get this - they then placed more ads seeking to hire further sales people.

One of the other creditors who turned up, a fellow presenter who stayed the course until the station closed down, told the liquidators that he was essentially lied to, was down to his last three pounds, had no food in the house and was desperate for at least some of the substantial sum he was owed. He was sad in his demeanour; I was just livid. I felt I had a right to be scathing and vindictive and asked the liquidators to make an individual liable personally for the sums owed, which under the regulations they can do. I submitted, via my legal advice, that the trading had been wrongful and possibly fraudulent as they knew that the company was insolvent when they took over and continued to trade while their bills and debts continued to far outweigh their income and assets.

There is no doubt that they had trouble in persuading clients to pay them due advertising and sponsorship revenue. January was tough because the snow meant the sales staff couldn't get in. But they continued to hire and solicit for staff throughout this period of zero, or negligible, turnover.

When I was dismissed, an email was sent out to the remaining members of staff which informed them I had got a job at another radio station. This was a lie, designed to not induce panic among the remaining few members of the on-air team who, like me, had not seen a bean all year but in some cases unlike me, did not have the alleged security of a signed contract. A friend kindly forwarded me the email and I handed a copy to the liquidator, along with copies of my contract and each of my invoices that were appropriately submitted after each week of work had been completed. The contents of that email suggested cowardice and blind stupidity, as well as incompetence.

Sadly, ethics and morals don't override the law and the bank's debenture (I had to ask what a debenture was, and didn't like the answer very much) and the landlord's priority claim meant that even if the cupboard wasn't quite bare, the chances of receiving even a small percentage of what I am owed is now almost wholly nil. As a creditor who was not on the staff payroll, I am a long way down the list. I and no other creditor can do much about it. It will take a lot for the liquidators to decide anyone is personally liable, and there is a huge burden of proof to uncover before any allegations of fraudulent trading can be levelled at any individual.

It's a grim and frustrating business, all told. It's hard enough to find a job in radio at the moment, let alone find one that gets you all excited and then turns out to be an utter sham. I feel really let down.

6 January 2010

"Fartown High School has just gone..."

It's the first time I've ever liked snow.

I'm not a child, and nor do I have any. Therefore I cannot think of a reason why a grown-up should enjoy snow. All it does is cause injury, delays, separation, isolation and hypothermia.

However, the timing of the snow in West Yorkshire couldn't have been better in one sense.

It got people tuning into the radio station where I now work.

Local radio is never more important than when there is a crisis in the area that actively threatens to spoil or change the day that people have planned. Regional and national radio can talk about the main roads - Bobbi Prior's travel bulletins on Radio 2 yesterday were so long the music bed ran out while she spoke - but only a very local station can get specifics, take correspondence from people stuck or suffering and use it, and then change its priorities so that helping people through their day becomes the absolute.

Especially when the schools close.

On yesterday's breakfast show at Pennine FM, only my second, we were bantering away about anything and nothing for the first hour when the snow started to fall. And the sky really was hurling this irritating white stuff down.

Within minutes, emails were arriving about schools that were being closed for the day. The list grew gradually but steadily until we were giving mention to more than 100 schools in Kirklees (that's Huddersfield, Dewsbury and surrounding smaller towns all west of Leeds) that were staying shut for the day.

All other features and formats went out of the window (which we obviously closed again quickly). Every link was offering an update or a recap. People are tuning in all the time, information is always being updated and the job of local radio in this situation is to serve its people as well as possible.

We understood from colleagues who were channel-hopping in the car that our rivals, who had bigger regions to cover, were only mentioning schools every 20 minutes or so. But when a parent wakes up and sees that weather, they need to know now, now, now. They may have childcare to arrange, or a day off work to force through. They might not be able to get through to the school if they ring it. So their next port of call is the local radio station. And they simply can't wait 20 minutes because you have some daft quiz to play.

By 9am yesterday (and today, in fact), I was drained. Not exhausted, but drained. The adrenaline and the spontaneity and the need to deliver concise and correct information constantly really wore into me. It is always live, but it really felt live. And the number of calls we got to our specially set-up Schools Line, and the amount of emails we were sent, and the number of hits we got to our website, where we had published a full, alphabetical list of shut schools, suggests that we got our priorities right. When you need local information right now, the place you should turn to is your local radio station.

And given that I'm on a breakfast show that needs to raise its profile, a potential crisis, live and happening, supplies the best possible and most urgent reason for making people come to you. I'm in no doubt that many of the listeners who tuned in to us over the last two days have not done so in weeks, or months, or possibly even ever before. They may have been Radio 1 types, happy to enjoy Chris Moyles and his articulate rambles because their journey to work and their nine year old's journey to school was not threatened. But on this occasion, they knew that Chris had to be sacrificed.

The forecast suggests we may be talking snow and schools and roads tomorrow and Friday too. That's fine by me. One hopes that we do a good enough job to prompt them all to stick around with us long after the snow has melted and sanity has returned.

Local radio is being much maligned right now. The group that owns all the Heart stations (many of which were rebranded as Heart when they were bought a couple of years ago, after years with a familiar local name) has talked openly of maybe being permitted one day to make its London breakfast programme the morning show on every Heart station, thereby removing the localness from everything each station does at breakfast time. How they could ever maintain their credibility on snowy days I would never know. What I do know is that whitened days like those most of us are having proves just how important, and special, and helpful, real local radio is.

So, while offering all my sympathy if this weather has ruined your week in some way, I rather like snow this week. It won't last, promise. Especially if I'm out in it rather than seated in a warm studio, reporting on it.

5 January 2010

"The snow is causing chaos in Brockholes this morning..."

When a sage as distinguished as Five Centres makes a demand, you have to take it on board. He claims, within the responses to the previous post, that he wants a report on how the first show went.

Well, it went fine. I enjoyed it. It's for others to say whether it was any good, and the odd technical mini-trauma aside it was as good as one can expect on a new show, new format and in new surroundings. Plus this was the relaunch of the whole station so there was extra need to make it reasonably listenable.

Charles Nove, frequent companion on our Nerd Nights and Deputy Voice of the Balls, is the voice of my production package and the stuff he has given us is fantastic. I rather hope a smart programmer is reading this and realises that the great Lord Nove seeketh work after the Wogan show came to its conclusion last month.

We're keeping it simple and fun, geting local schoolkids involved each day and running a twice-daily music-based competition for cash. It'll take a few months of marketing and promotion before the fruits of our labour begin to show in the ratings but, like Lennie Godber after his history exam, I will admit to feeling quietly confident. And that's an achievement, given that I don't do anything quietly.

If you have any urges, you can quell them here each morning at 6am.

4 December 2009

A car park space for ambulances

I'm working for Pure this week, which is always a joy, and at the moment there is a campaign on the station to find Stockport's Perfect Pub. Listeners are voting between two pubs a week and eventually we'll get to a final two and the accolade will be handed out.

I remember as an FHM reader when I was a thrusting twentysomething that the mag had a feature called The Lush, in which an unspecified number of the magazine's people visited a different UK town and took in five of the local bars and hostelries. If I recall rightly, they marked on the basis of convenience, welcoming of strangers, range of "strong lagers" to mix, the chance of a decent conversation and the likelihood of a beating. I lived in Huddersfield at the time, and they went to at least two bars whose doors I'd previously vowed not to darken again - and liked them. Maybe it was just me that night, then.

The worst pub I've ever frequented was in the Lowerhouses area of Huddersfield, one of the more dubious parts of the town. I drove through this estate every day to get to and from work, and there was one pub in the centre of the estate called the Masons Arms. I would never have visited in a thousand years but on this occasion, I had to because of work.

A well known (to the police) extended family lived on the Lowerhouses estate and were extremely notorious in the area. They were responsible for a number of burglaries, deceptions, thefts and the like, to the extent that the Local Intelligence Office at the police station, where I as a hack had to go each day to be given the overnight crimes, had photographs of every single member of this family on its wall, almost for decoration.

This family committed one crime on the Lowerhouses estate too many and local vigilantes decided to do something. The house the family squeezed into (we're talking a dozen adults here - a mum and dad, sons, daughters, nephews and nieces) was firebombed. The house itself didn't catch fire but those family members present were forced to flee.

As an agency hack, this had potential to do more than just trouble the local press and so we needed to find a way of flogging it to the nationals. So, a colleague and I were assigned to go and talk to the Lowerhouses locals and, of course, the best way to do this en masse was to head for the Masons Arms. we were given a bit of company petty cash in order to get a round in for willing talkers, and off we went.

Oh dear. This place was even more horrendous inside than even the grubby exterior could ever have made you imagine. However, it was evidently popular with the residents, and on the midweek evening we turned up, plenty were in. We got the inevitable "who the hell are you?" look when, as strangers, we walked through the door and ordered two pints of lager. But after ten minutes, we managed to get chatting.

We figured the best way to go about it was to be honest about who we were and what we wanted from the beginning, and this seemed to work. A round of ales later and a few tongues at the bar began to loosen. We didn't ask for names and didn't make notes; our best hope was to not look like journalists at all.

The goodwill lasted about half an hour, then gradually they began to turn on us. We quickly finished our drinks and did the classic hack's routine of making our excuses and leaving. I'm not especially brave in most situations, but I have to admit that throughout my time in that wretched tavern I was terrified. These were rough people and I doubt that they were especially law-abiding themselves, but we had gone in there to try to profit, in a way, from their desperation and anger and although for a while we got away with it, in the end they made it clear what they'd do if we didn't vacate.

The Masons Arms was undecorated, floorless, freezing and odorous. I look back now and wonder how the hell it maintained a licence and a safety certificate. The cracks in the furniture and the splinters sticking out of the pool cues suggested frequent punch ups. As we recalled what we were told in the office the next day, we knew we'd had a lucky escape.

We got bugger all in the papers and the Masons Arms closed down within weeks. I drove past it for two more years on my way to and from work and never saw it reopen. I wouldn't be surprised if it still stands there, crumbling and desolate, housing a thousand nasty memories for all those who unwittingly drank there.

To my knowledge, the extended family never changed their ways. I expect their mugshots are still on the police station walls to this day.

8 October 2009

Currie favour

On the left is Debbie Currie, daughter of vampish ex-MP Edwina, who is obviously on the right. Debbie earned some brief fame when pretending to be a wannabe pop star as part of a Cook Report exposée on the music industry.

I was reminded of her yesterday when a colleague brought up her mother's name during a conversation, the nature of which now escapes me. It was probably about eggs, or something equally as predictable. Anyway, since the fake pop princess incident, Debbie has been in the papers for the usual kiss-and-tell reasons and stuff about single motherhood, and was chased a bit when details of her mother's (still hard to believe, and gross to picture) fling with John Major was revealed via serialisation of her diaries.

However, one of Debbie's first ever appearances in our beloved, ever-sympathetic press was down to me. At least in part it was.

That isn't necessarily a boast, as I hated hounding or chasing folk when I was a hack in Huddersfield; indeed, it was one of the many reasons I disliked the job and knew I wasn't at all cut out for it. But I must confess it was something of a buzz when the agency for whom I worked was assigned by a well-known Sunday organ to go after this young woman, and it was made easier by the positive reasons for it.

I can't pinpoint the exact year but I suspect it was 1996 or 1997. Debbie's mum was still a big attraction to the media and interest in her daughter had grown. She was an undergraduate at Huddersfield University, living in poky student digs near Great Northern Street, only a short distance from where Peter Sutcliffe took his one Huddersfield-based life at the end of the 1970s. It wasn't a pleasant place to live at all, and still had something of a red light reputation, but students had always occupied this short row of urban terraces.

All we had was some rumour that she had taken a particularly appealing part-time job with the local Kirklees Council to supplement her undoubtedly meagre grant. It was the kind of vocation that would lend itself to good quality photography. Our job as hacks was to stalk her, essentially, and then report to the paper's assigned photographer exactly where she was. He then would turn up with his gear, do his stuff, and we'd submit a handful of paragraphs of copy to accompany what was just a big photo story.

So, once we'd uncovered where she lived, we simply drove to the street and waited for her to leave the house, hopefully for her new place of work. As well as her student address, we'd established whereabouts in the borough this pleasing job of hers took place, so all we had to do was follow her and she would, hopefully, take us to it.

I was driving a battered V-reg Fiesta at the time, the 1980s model with an unmarked gear stick and considerable lack of comfort or style. It was all I could afford. My boss joined me in the passenger seat and together we waited in this not picturesque street, keeping a watchful eye on the house while still far enough away so as to not attract suspicion.

Eventually, Debbie left her front door and got into her car. We'd seen her before in a photo and instantly we knew it was her. The resemblance to her mother is astonishing, as you can see above. It was a similar reaction to when you saw Julian Lennon or Samantha Beckinsale for the first time. If it wasn't for Edwina's old bat status they could be mistaken for sisters, albeit sisters who were born when their mum was 16 and 39 respectively. So we had our girl. Now we just had to trail her.

It was difficult, as my Fiesta wasn't exactly a sharp mover, whereas Debbie didn't have an especially swift car but it was newer than mine and she was a bit of girl racer to boot. I don't think she knew she was being followed, even though her place of work was a bit of a distance and she may have noticed this rusty old white heap a car or two behind her every time she checked her rear view mirror. Nonetheless, she didn't half shift once she got going.

It was approaching rush hour in Huddersfield, and Debbie snaked through the traffic with aplomb. I was still a fairly new driver, with one serious rush hour accident behind me, and this was quite a test for my nerve at the wheel. We joined one of the A-road exits from Huddersfield and made our way east towards Dewsbury, thereby pretty much confirming the place of work we'd been given was correct.

Eventually we hit one of the Dewsbury suburb centres and Debbie parked in a schoolyard. We found a space on a single yellow across the road and (using a phone box; the agency couldn't afford one of those newfangled mobile things) rang the photographer, who was in the area and was just waiting for a precise location. Once he turned up, we left, our job for the day done.

A day later, we got a call saying the task had been a great success and a picture would be going in the paper. It was, and I assume remains, common practice for tabloid newspapers to inform people in the public eye that something is going to appear in their publication about them in the near future, to give them a chance to offer a comment or, at the very least, prepare themselves and loved ones in case the tale is damaging or unflattering. And so, yes, I was sent back to Debbie's unclean street - and this time I was knocking on the door.

Her flatmate answered and hollered up the hallway for her without asking who this scruffy bloke with a loosened tie was that wanted to talk to his chum. Debbie duly came to the door and I explained, carefully and politely, that she had been snapped doing her part-time job and would be appearing in a paper at the weekend. She wasn't remotely surprised, although she assured me she didn't know she had ever been followed on her way. I got a handshake and a smile. She was a very good sport indeed.

The photo was superb when it appeared, with our small scrap of copy underneath. I wish it was available online, I really do. She later ruined it by posing with fried eggs (a nod to her mum's past?) on her breasts during the pop industry sting, but the photo I recall was of someone just enjoying life, not seeking attention or notoriety.

In her white jacket and with the tool of her trade in her grip, she was the most exciting, interesting and attractive lollipop lady I had ever seen.

1 June 2009

It's time to get up, and get on your way...

I have a week off - at least, so far I have - and the prospect of catching up on a spot of shuteye is a most attractive one. Yet when the next batch of dawn calls comes along, I'll relish it.

For the last three weeks the latest I have dragged my sorry arse out of bed on a weekday is 4.10am. The earliest is 3am. This is because of some breakfast show cover on Pure 107.8FM in Stockport and then 102.4 Wish FM in Wigan. The latter involved the 3am starts as Wigan is a bit further away from me than Stockport and the show starts at 6am, an hour earlier.

An alarm clock at 3am doesn't really wake you up. The six minute snooze to which I treat myself prior to the second alarm acts as the slow waking process - you are conscious but still beyond drowsy. After many years of doing inhuman shifts, my body now has an involuntary way of maintaining my consciousness levels until the second alarm sounds, and that involves a frenetic, unceasing waggle of my toes.

Once out of bed, I'm fine. I'm not a rush job at that time, I want to allow myself time to shower, shave, make myself some breakfast and give myself time to eat it. Some people on earlier-than-thou shifts are out of the house within literally two minutes of throwing aside the quilt. I can't do that. They must stink. And they must be hungry. And they won't have even begun to wake up.

Although it's a weekday alarm, I'm also aware that at 3am, as I'm tiptoeing round the house getting ready, that people elsewhere are still considering the prospect of going to bed. That does feel strange, especially when Saturday night comes round and I'm doing the nightclub gig, as I finish at 3am on Sunday and as I crawl, dog tired, under the sheets at the bed and breakfast ten minutes later, I'm aware that on five of the six previous days I was just getting up at precisely the same time.

Driving on a motorway between the hours of 3.30am and 5.30am is also a strange experience. At this time of year it's practically daylight by setting off time and, having tucked myself in no later than 9pm the night before, it's daylight then too. This means that early risers in a British summer see no proper darkness at all for five days of the week.

Being on a motorway, in daylight, when it's conspicuous by its emptiness, is good for someone in my job. As I'm freelance, I can't afford to be complacent. Long though it is, the drive is uneventful thanks to the sheer lack of traffic and it allows me to concentrate my mind, psyche up the performer within and by the time I get to the studio - no less than half an hour before I'm due on air - I'm ready. I'm wide awake, raring to go, aware that my upbeat persona, should it be such, is key to making sure that knackered people forcing themselves from their pits from 6am onwards feel cheery and happy as they begin their daily routines.

Sometimes, usually midway through a week of these hours, you hit the wall. Driving back home after coming off air at 10am can occasionally build the wall before you but if it does turn up, it's usually in the afternoon. 3pm for me in early mode is the equivalent of 8pm for a conventional career person, and at 8pm a lot of people are snoozing in front of the telly after a hard day's graft and with a bellyful of dinner. That's 3pm to me. Sometimes the wall is unavoidable, but on most occasions to have to clamber over it, as even an hour's kip can make you feel totally wretched afterwards.

Last week I was in bed by 9pm and up by 3.06am, each weekday. This was my routine when I worked full time on breakfasts and you do get used to it. You get used to the sound of the birds waking up and of milk floats humming along. In my case, a light would go on in the house opposite as regularly as clockwork while I was abluting as the bloke who lives there is on 24-hour medication and has to wake himself up before cockcrow to take a tablet. You notice stuff like that. You notice every over-sensitive security light down your street - the ones that ignite when a car has the temerity to drive past, or a cat starts a fight in the garden next door. As I leave my house at 3.35am, three lights down the street come on.

I love my sleep and I'll enjoy my good lie-in this week, but there is something special, if not necessarily attractive to those not in the know, about being out and about at that hour, beginning your day when most of the nation is comatose. It's the tranquillity of it, the knowledge that you are doing your job in order to help them get in the correct frame of mind to do theirs. Being able to leave work before midday earns you jealous looks from colleagues and envious catty comments from friends. People ask me, when I do breakfast shifts, how on earth I cope with the early starts. My answer is rather straightforward and surprises them - it's the easiest thing in the world. The nature of my job, the excitement that goes with it, the glamour that it exudes to the rest of the world (not that it truly exists, but you let them believe it) makes a 3.06am final warning from my alarm clock the most bearable of things. When I think of the jobs I could be doing following such an anti-social alarm, I'm grateful...

11 May 2009

What a tangled web we weave

Most days we will read a court story in our morning papers. The criteria for getting a case from a mere magistrates court into the national press is three-fold, and only one needs to be applied to give it a chance of avoiding the Fleet Street spike. To wit, the story must involve a famous person; or it must be as a consequence of an infamous or wildly serious and well-publicised incident; or it must be a little quirky.

If it has all three (which is extremely unlikely, given that serious and quirky don't really mix) then all the better.

I spent almost five years reporting the magistrates court proceedings in Huddersfield when my career path had forced me to wear a tie and look shabby and underfed on a daily basis. And apart from the odd local sporting person getting done for shouting at a policeman or being a few microgrammes over the limit, nobody famous got done on our patch at all.

The serious stuff was quite rare too, certainly in my time wandering up and down the concourses from courtroom to courtroom. We had one especially notorious murder case - it was very familial in terms of the victim and the perpetrators - but magistrates are merely part of the process in the most serious cases and there was next to nothing the law would allow me to report.

The quirky stuff was the most likely to generate some lineage and a few pennies from the nationals. Way back in this blog, I talked about my favourite ever criminal court case, and it's available here for your eternal perusal, or at least until the day comes when infirmity, boredom, blindness or a call from a celebrity's lawyer forces this blog to close. Look at the last paragraph and you'll see I also mentioned, teasingly, a second great court story that was discussed on Have I Got News For You and was, rarely for me as I genuinely was a poor journalist, a proper scoop as it didn't involve an actual court case.

Let me set the scene. I'm sitting at a table on the concourse one early afternoon, waiting for a case to restart after a lunchtime recess, drinking coffee and chatting to one of Huddersfield's many solicitors, most of whom I got on very well with. As we talked, probably about football as opposed to anything deeper, someone in an official capacity (no names - even rubbish hacks such as I know about protecting sources) asked if I had a moment for a quiet chat.

We slipped into the empty duty solicitor room and this professional court user informed me that a bit of a panic was afoot in the lower ground area of the building, where the courtrooms that usually housed family and youth proceedings were based.

The upshot of it all was that a lad aged under 17 had arrived for a youth court appearance that morning, carrying a cardboard box. Upon his case being called, he left the box in the waiting area and trotted into court. Then, as he exited - thereby not being imprisoned for whatever his offence was - he collected his box and vacated the premises. Straightforward.

However, a panicky telephone call was then made by his mother to the court office over the lunch hour. The contents of his cardboard box had gone missing.

Stolen? Possibly. Let's be frank, you're more than likely to bump into an opportunistic thief in a magistrates court than you are in most places. However, it seemed unlikely as it turned out that the cargo within this box was also capable of disappearing by itself.

It was a tarantula.

A Persian blue-backed tarantula, to be precise.

So there I am, in this tiny, almost soundproofed office, being informed that a large arachnid was on the loose in the very building where the laws of the land were being upheld.

I telephoned the office and got the go-ahead from the news agency proprietor to make this story my priority. He started to research the type of tarantula in question while over the next two hours, I wandered around the building, collecting information about the defendant and quotations from the professional users of the court. Even while going from courtroom to courtroom, office to corridor, outdoor smoking area to phone booth, I couldn't help looking around for the spider myself.

The staff thought it hilarious, with the exception of the man who ran the court at the time. He was a talkative enough chap, but he was rigidly protective of his court's reputation, known as an obstructive individual among briefs and hacks alike and lacked a sense of humour. His priority, upon hearing of the unwelcome intruder somewhere in his building's bowels, was to extinguish it. Not find it, necessarily - even though it was a youngster's pet - but to exterminate it. From his taxpayer-funded budget, he ordered industrial fumigators to come in after hours and give the court's fabrics and foundations a thorough sterilisation. Finding a spider's corpse was less of an issue. This pompous, soulless reaction just added extra meat to the tale.

One lawyer, who was an out-of-town trial advocate and therefore didn't mind being named as he was unlikely to be back, gave me my best quote of the final piece: "We're all going to do our cases with bike clips on." Meanwhile, the ushers surreptitiously set up a crack spider-catching kit in one of the courts, where a trial was ongoing. It consisted of a box and a pasta jar, and came with swiftly-penned instructions on scrap paper, which read: 1 - FIND SPIDER. 2 - PUT SPIDER INTO JAR. 3 - PUT JAR INTO BOX. This apparatus was placed on a spare public gallery table, in full view of the courtroom, while the trial continued. Nobody said anything.

The only thing we didn't have was an actual sighting of the spider, which was somewhat crucial when analysing the story at face value. After all, the box hadn't been opened by the youth that morning, and the only evidence that it existed was provided verbally via his mother's frantic telephone call. I casually mentioned this mild drawback to a couple of court users and staff members prior to returning to the office.

Half an hour later, as the agency proprietor and I were sifting through the gathered information and quotes, working out what we still needed, the phone rang. It was one of the distinguished people who I saw at the court each day, claiming that one of the defendants in the trial court had seen the spider scuttle along the carpet as he gave evidence. When his case was adjourned for the day, he mentioned it to the court user who was now passing this bit of dynamite on to me.

It still wasn't ideal, but it was enough. What really helped was that the Persian blue-backed tarantula was a genuine breed of arachnid, as my boss had discovered when he rang a zoo curator for information, and it was more than possible that such a creature would be able to survive - pre-fumigation - in the various pipes and catacombs of a large building, living on insects and water pools from the air conditioning system. It all added up to a story with legs. Eight of them, you might say.

It was nearly teatime, so we'd done well on the timing front - I had the evening and the next morning to get it written up, ready to send for the unofficial deadline of midday for copy to be considered by the national papers.

So, at roughly noon the next day, a dozen or so paragraphs duly went off with the press of a button down the line and into the computer systems of every news editor on Fleet Street. It also went to the local and regional papers, but we held back on sending it to the broadcasting organisations for fear that staff hacks at the printed media may hear it and do their own version, thereby rendering ours unnecessary or, worse still, there to have bits picked off for free, with us unable to prove they had directly used our information.

We had no need to worry, as we stormed the papers the next day. Sometimes, when doing a story for the nationals, we'd write two versions - one suited to the tabloids, the other to the broadsheets. There were a good handful of page leads and every national newspaper (except the Guardian, who absolutely never printed our stuff) used it in some way. Furthermore, the Yorkshire Post put it on the front page as the light-hearted piece immediately above the serious main yarn of the day.

It was this version of the story, in the Yorkshire Post, which prompted the court boss to ring up our agency that afternoon and complain to me. Using lawyerly argument, he began reading the story out loud and adding the word "untrue" after each sentence, taking light-hearted stuff like "a giant spider is giving magistrates the creeps" literally, rather than in the spirit that such gentle metaphors are designed to exude. I knew I was in the right, but I didn't have the clout for such a debate, so I passed the phone to my boss who talked him down. The local broadcasting establishments picked up on the tale and I was interviewed by the great Ian Timms on BBC Radio Leeds, and even the national outlets were interested, with Radio 5 Live putting me on standby while they tried to get the court boss to talk. He did, but proceeded to talk about a lack of evidence that a spider ever existed.

I can date this story to the early summer of 1996, as on Have I Got News For You at the end of the week, the headline COURT SPIDER IS SENTENCED TO _______ was used on the Missing Words round. Ian Hislop correctly guessed 'death' and Eddie Izzard, guest captain on the other team (it was the series Paul Merton decided to sit out) "complained" that such action was illegal. That was it, as they moved on to the next headline. But it meant I'd had a story of my own discussed, albeit with considerable brevity, on a television programme I rather liked.

The tarantula was never found, alive or dead. To this day I cannot say for certain that it ever actually existed.

21 March 2009

"Humiliation, that's what you need..."

Our village hall still has one of the original Roy Castle Clean Air stickers in its window, having proudly (and pompously) banned smoking within following the ex-Record Breakers host's campaign during his last months to get smoking banned in public places.

His dying wish was, of course, granted as law a couple of years back. My personal belief is that the smoking ban has ruined pubs and clubs, but that's another issue entirely. Each time I walk the dogs past the village hall and see that sign, it reminds me a great story from my time as a hack.

Castle was from Huddersfield originally, the town where I worked as a rubbish agency reporter between 1993 and 1998. Upon his diagnosis with lung cancer, he immediately began to embark upon his campaigns to research specifically into lung cancer and rid public places of the risks caused by passive smoking, as this was the proffered explanation for how he caught the disease. He had been a lifelong non-smoker but had spent many years playing the trumpet in smoky venues.

Part of the campaign was a Tour of Hope, as he called it. This was deliberately timed to coincide with his terminal decline to add extra poignancy and give him something of a positive send-off. His wife, Fiona, became a major figurehead and much praised individual as she dealt with media inquiries while having to watch her husband get closer to death in public.

The tour involved a coach travelling the nation, handing out leaflets and giving speeches and interviews and generally spreading the word that people should be protected in public places from other people's smoke. Press campaigns got Castle to stick dogends on his chemotherapy-assisted bald pate, which were helpful but a little disconcerting, but there's no doubt that the media responded and the publicity was vast.

The timing of the tour itself was deliberate, as was the final venue - Huddersfield. Castle was well-loved in his hometown even though he'd not lived there for years. He had been born in 1932 in Scholes, a tiny village on the edge of Holmfirth, and had done his early dancing at a tap class in the town.

Now, by the time the coach was due in Huddersfield, Castle was very weak. His declining strength had rendered him unable to dismount the coach at previous venues to carry out interviews and press the flesh. Therefore, his people had hired Simon Bates to act as spokesperson for Castle, and his job would be to say hi to the crowds and then do the individual media interviews.

So the coach pulls into Huddersfield railway station, one of the more beautiful stations in the country, and polite applause greeted Castle as he waved out of the window. Bates jumped off the coach, clutching the vehicle's microphone (the one that was probably used to say: "on your right, Cooper Bridge auto-spares where Peter Sutcliffe got his false number plates" as the party left the M62) and gave a brief but positive little spiel to quite a large crowd. He explained that Castle had not spoken on the last handful of stops around the country, but as this was his hometown and the last one of the tour before he went home, he would be doing so.

This brought some nice applause. Meanwhile, me and the assembled local hacks were behind a cordon, desperate to get some audio. Sue Cain, a skilled reporter from BBC Radio Leeds, flashed a winning smile at a security man which was enough to get her under the rope and her labelled mic was soon poking round the corner of the coach as Castle began to address the crowd from his seat, with the window open.

I can only remember his first line: "By, it's grand to be home!"

Anyway, he gave his speech and got wildly applauded, and then it was time for Bates to do the individual interviews. As a newspaper hack, I didn't need to talk to him individually as I could just make notes from his replies to one of the radio hacks. So as Sue interviewed him, I scribbled in my best Teeline the wise, earnest words of Bates. I can't recall him saying "But what was the year?" once...

Afterwards, a small throng of us were comparing notes when we noticed that Christa Ackroyd, famed host of Yorkshire TV's nightly Calendar programme, had turned up. It was the middle of the afternoon so she wasn't doing a live broadcast but she was swanning around through the cordons in a way the other folk representing media organisations were not allowed.

A few mumbles among the rest of us had begun when we noticed an elderly lady, in full overcoat and hat, approach her, clutching a notebook and pen. They were close enough for the conversation to be heard.

"Excuse me, are you Christa Ackroyd?"

She noticed the autograph book and immediately plastered on the smile she keeps for the proles.

"Yes I am."

The old lady nervously shuffled closer.

"You're Christa Ackroyd who's on the telly every night?"

"Yes I am."

By now, Ackroyd was trying to coax the woman into thinking she was quite approachable, quite normal and more than happy to be asked for her autograph.

The woman got braver.

"I wonder if you could do me a big favour?"

Ackroyd now had a look on her face which seemed to just say "for God's sake YES! Just give me the book!"

"Of course, my love."

The woman paused, shoved the book and pen at Ackroyd and asked:

"Would you get me Simon Bates' autograph?"

Well, I've never seen a face drop as quickly as Ackroyd's did. I can only compare it to those old films which feature the Golden Gate bridge suddenly collapsing into the strait and floating away, cars and all, to the Pacific. The gaggle of earwigging hacks of which I was part was in silent hysterics, trying to conceal our mirth by swiftly walking away to a safe distance before letting it all out. I have no idea whether Ackroyd took the book to Bates or just stormed off in a huff. I don't suppose either ending matters because the plot was just so perfect, although I'm sure she did the right thing as on the one subsequent occasion I did meet her, she was very civil and perfectly fine.

I got a smattering of copy in a couple of broadsheets the next day and Sue Cain became a good mate until I left Huddersfield. I think she's in Scotland now. Roy Castle died just weeks after his visit.

17 February 2009

Hello, hello, turn your radio on

Have a look at this T shirt. It's the oldest in my drawer and I suspect the most robust and dedicated of radio anorak types would really like to own it. This is because it is for a radio station that only ever existed in somebody's mind and therefore only a handful were ever made.

I acquired it in the idiosyncratic surroundings of Harry Ramsden's Fish and Chip Shop in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. I know, the plot is thickening with the rapidity of Ramsden's own scintillating curry sauce. A T shirt, of a phantom radio station, handed to me at a chain chippy. Hold on, because there's more...

Performing on a makeshift stage at said branch of eatery was Berri. That is the same Berri whom you remember doing a sizzling dance version of Sunshine After The Rain.

Following her on to the stage were Menswear. That is the same drippy, posing Britpop outfit Menswear whom you remember - albeit dimly - having a hit with Daydreamer and one or two others.

It's about time I cut to the chase. When I was a hack in Huddersfield, I was still an amateur DJ on temporary and hospital stations, harbouring ambitions to make my hobby into my living. Knowing this, my boss at the press agency where I worked gave me a day off to attend the media launch of a proposed new radio station for the whole of Yorkshire, for which a licence had been advertised by the Radio Authority a year or so before. We had no professional interest in the press conference as Guiseley wasn't in our patch, so I went there purely to rubberneck.

The station was called YFM - we have a lot of 'initials only' radio stations in this country - and would be positioned as a big-sounding hit music station with a mammoth breakfast show and a very driven focus on the whole of the county.

These words were spoken by one Richard Park. Alongside him was Richard Eyre. The bid was from the Capital Radio Group and these two influential figures had their names put on to the bid to add some extra gravitas, and so each travelled up to Guiseley for the launch at Ramsden's, a venue chosen presumably because it was their notion of an epitome of Yorkshire-ness.

So I toddled along with the media pack and took a seat among the hacks. The two suited dignitaries gave their speeches, and had brought with them Neil Fox, still very much the "Doctor" of his on-air persona whose audience across the commercial sector on the Pepsi Chart in the 1990s was colossal. Foxy himself said a few words, then introduced Berri who mimed her way effervescently through her signature hit. Coffee and fags later, a tape was played of a sample of their potential audio, complete with specially commissioned sweepers (if you think the T shirt is collectible, I know of ultra-nerdy radio people who would dunk their own mothers upside down in a commode full of David Mellor's germ-ridden urine to get their hands on this audio) plus truncated intros and links, all giving the feel of what their radio station would sound like if allocated the licence. Menswear then went on stage and mimed Daydreamer and a single which would be released a few weeks later, Being Brave. I recall thinking they each looked about 12.

I managed a polite word with Richard Park and gave him a demo. I am utterly horrified at this thought now, 13 years later, but in 1996 I had no real idea who he was nor what the business was about. I thought, with naivety and yet some logic which I'll defend to this day, that he was a programmer looking to launch a new station and therefore would be needing good local presenters to work on it. He took the cassette and put it in his suit pocket. I'd like to think it wasn't placed carefully in a Ramsden's pedal bin as soon as I was out of sight.

I didn't expect to hear from him, but I did follow up the conversation by sending another copy to the bloke who ran Capital Radio at the time. I got a polite reply and the inevitable rejection. By the end of the year, however, I was on Hallam FM in Sheffield and my career, were it worthy of such a description, has stuttered and coughed its way to where we sit right now.

The T shirt, bearing the logo of the station which they wanted to launch, still fits me and I still wear it with (arf) some frequency. The hacks at the press conference all got one as part of the media pack, which also included background info on the licence, the bid, the personalities involved and other guff.

The next day in the Yorkshire Evening Post there was a woefully posed picture of Berri, Foxy (with headphones on, even though he is quoted as saying that any photographer who asks a DJ to pose with his cans should be immediately replaced) and the lead singer of Menswear "eating" an enormous fried haddock with the Ramsden's logo behind them. The story had become the picture, really, and it only got a paragraph of copy. I can't remember it being in any other papers, regional or local, and for obvious reasons existing radio stations didn't touch it.

It was all immaterial in the end as the licence was awarded to the Faze FM group, who launched a Yorkshire brand of Kiss FM on Valentines Day 1997. This later transmogrified into Galaxy, the brand which continues to occupy the slot to this day.

I'll let you know if I ever elect to place the T shirt on eBay. Meanwhile, I would be willing to wager that neither Richard Park, Richard Eyre nor Neil Fox have ever been to a Harry Ramsden's since, be it for promotional reasons or just a large skate and chips with scraps and lashings of vinegar. I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the odd member of Menswear was now working in one.