6 September 2008

"Read ... read ... READ! I meant READ!!"

After people find out what I do for a living, the first question they are most likely to ask involves the worst mistake I've ever made on the radio.

I'm truly grateful to say that I've never done anything more serious than stuff that has been greeted with mirth from listeners/bosses and embarrassment from me. I've never cocked up severely, to my knowledge.

The incident that instantly leaps to mind took place on Viking FM's Late Night Love Affair back in the late 90s or early 2000s. I presented the Saturday night version of this programme, which was on seven nights a week, and it was as you no doubt assume it to be - three hours of uncontroversial ballads interspersed with listener dedications. Most commercial stations had a version of this - the Chill Out Zone and the Slow Jam being other common names for it.

Now the majority of calls we got (no texts back then, and emails were rare) came from women, specifically women whose husbands or boyfriends were "away". They'd never say where they were and I soon learned not to ask when the type of fishwife who did ring up would get ratty if I politely enquired where the man in her life was. I was very naive, initially. Messages like "goodnight darling" and "see you in 25 days" were a bit of a giveaway, and I'd feel a little self-conscious as I read them out, trying not to sound anything other than the local empathetic DJ who was on their side.

The letters which the programme got always had a postmark beginning with "H.M.P." which proved that the cons themselves were listening in their cells and writing messages of love (or codes for "be out the back at 0500 hours" for all I knew) for these women waiting loyally back home. I'd read these out as they were written, feeling sorry for the guys because the letters highlighted a very low standard of literacy. I don't sympathise with anyone caught committing a crime, but I do sympathise with guys for whom a bit of support and encouragement early enough in their lives might have prevented subsequent bad turns of events. Joel Ross, on the evening show at the time, was less understanding - he used to call the show Convict Corner ("where you can say hello to your favourite person in prison!").

What was the most disconcerting thing was that these letters, from hardened men trying so hard to show their devotion to their loved ones back home, had bene vetted. Prison staff had read and signed off the letters before allowing them into the external postbag. An invasion of privacy or a necessary act of security?

Anyway, one feature we introduced on a Saturday evening was the Open Letter. This was where we asked listeners to tell the whole story of their love life, or at least one major or significant aspect of it. It was akin to Our Tune but without the element of tragedy and, frankly, not as long.

We got a few letters but often I'd embellish them to make them a little longer. We had the music which Gary Davies used to use on his Sloppy Bit and it needed to be done justice. It was always done on the stroke of midnight and I'd get calls from women in tears afterwards, saying how moving the story was and how they hoped the lady (almost always a lady) in question would "get through it".

One week was slower than normal and so, in order to get an Open Letter on the air, I had to write one of my own. Quite a challenge. The names and situations were obviously fictional and I deliberately made the events within the letter semi-farcical or far-fetched to reduce as much as possible the chance of it reflecting real events somewhere. It turned into a bit of an essay and though now I can't remember what the story was, I know it was long enough to justify the backing music's duration and keep listeners hooked without boring them. The one thing I do remember was the record "requested" at the end - All Woman by Lisa Stansfield.

So, midnight comes and I back-announce the song playing, and let the theme music to the Open Letter come in. One thing Simon Bates always got right on Our Tune was starting the theme music and letting it play for a good while before talking over it. This is something I replicated, letting a good 30 seconds or so set the mood for the audience before beginning the letter.

"This is a letter from *insert made-up name here* from *some random part of the Viking coverage area - probably in north Lincolnshire, as we were targetting that patch heavily at the time* and I have to say, it's one of the most emotional things I've ever written."


Written? Oh you utter tosser.

I meant read, clearly. But I said written on the air. I'll get slaughtered for that. I might be reprimanded. Put on weekend overnights. Sacked. Bollocks bollocks bollocks...

All of the above went through my mind in approximately five seconds after I'd committed the faux-pas. But I was on air. I needed to get out of it. Pretend it never happened? Or use my wits? It had to be the second option. Think man, think...

"... says the lady herself."

As soon as I said that, I felt the colour immediately return to my face. I'd made it sound like the "written" comment was a direct quote from the letter writer and not me. The fact that I was the letter writer was something the listeners didn't know and were not going to. Details, details...

I could have sworn the noise made by my blood rapidly vacating my face a few seconds earlier went out on air, but now I'd rescued the situation. I faded out the mic, cleared my throat, took a deep breath, reopened the mic and began reading the letter. No more cock-ups, all was smooth, I got the teary phone calls while Lisa played. Result.

I got away with it. No listener picked up on it, no member of staff mentioned anything when we all reconvened on the Monday. The remainder of the programme passed by without incident.

I dropped the Open Letter feature the following week.

I've done other stupid things, such as enthusiastically saying "Party Mix next!" at the end of a football show, only for the news bulletin to announce the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother five seconds later and go into full-scale obit mode. Given that I'd been made aware that we were going into obit mode and I just clean forgot, it was not the wisest moment of my career.

I also cracked a gag about dementia after watching a soap opera storyline about it, only to be carpeted by my boss for doing so after complaints came in (from two people - meaning that many thousand others didn't complain, but anyway...) - such complainants don't seem to know the difference between laughing at dementia and laughing at an actor playing the role, but nonetheless I wish I hadn't done it.

My favourite ever blooper involved a feature in which a radio station would give a dozen red roses to someone nominated by a listener because of their acts of love, kindness or loyalty. The DJ in question (no names or stations on this occasion, sorry) rang up a woman live on air and said her husband had written and nominated her for the roses.

The lady was pleased and grateful but didn't go crazy on air, as most did.

I'm paraphrasing from now on. The DJ then asked: "Is *husband's name* in, so we can talk to him about why he nominated you?"

Long pause.

"Sorry, no. Erm, I'm afraid he died yesterday morning."

Now at this point, the DJ should express sympathy and end the call right there. Put on a record or advert and move on. At this stage, it's unfortunate and tragic but none of it is the radio station or presenter's fault. But instead...

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. Erm, should we send you a wreath instead?"

The word is that the DJ, upon saying this, had to be carried out of the studio a gibbering wreck, on the verge of a breakdown.

And no, it wasn't me. Stop it.

5 September 2008

Keegan, some toys and a perambulator

When Kevin Keegan returned to Newcastle United as manager in January, I scrawled on this blog that I wish he hadn't done so. And now the soap opera surrounding Keegan's principles and emotions has resurfaced, and he's gone again.

I really, really like Kevin Keegan, far more than I like the club he loves or the fans who follow it. But my liking of him is because he has been all the right things in the game - an innovator, a believer, a man unmotivated by material wealth and someone who has always believed in the game's roots. His priorities, as a player and manager, have always been to the supporters and he has viewed most of the money men with suspicion. This idealistic view has now cost him again.

Hull City travel to Newcastle next weekend so I'm quite pleased at a different level that this has all kicked off, as it may be that we end up playing against a team of unmotivated players, coached by someone they barely know and the fans despise(Dennis Wise), in front of a stadium largely empty apart from the black and amber contingent merrily singing our manager's name. Okay, the talk of a boycott is unwise, as we know it's all talk that the Newcastle fans would stay away in droves, but we need the points and if we have more of a chance of getting them because of the opposition's inner turmoil and failure to recover its head from the vicinity of its backside, so be it.

As for Keegan, I want him to retire. I still think we are capable as a nation of remembering him as the finest English footballer of the 1970s when his legacy comes up for discussion, rather than as a manager who relied on beating chests and whispering in ears more than anything else. In Newcastle they'll continue to canonise him because it's the easy thing to do. It may not, however, be the correct thing to do - but as long as they only realise this after we've been to St James Park, I'm not bothered.

3 September 2008

MR *heart* KH

I'm pleased that Strictly Come Dancing is due back on our screens soon. It means I get to watch this woman and dream...

Gary Rhodes had better be good.

2 September 2008

1 September 2008

Do not go gentle into that good night

I found out last night that my next door neighbour died a few days ago. There was an ambulance outside his house but, frankly, we didn't think too much of it because he had a history of illnesses and his tearaway daughter had also been known to self-harm, so emergency service activity on our quiet estate had become fairly commonplace.

I have to say I couldn't bear him, as he was the archetypal middle-class misery. He complained and interfered constantly; about overhanging hedgerows, conservatories and particularly the sound of dogs barking. If one of the Bassets made even a mild grumbling noise at 3am he'd bang like billyo on the wall, waking us up from deep slumber and terrifying us until the first few seconds had passed. My nature has never made me punch or threaten anyone; yet he pushed me so damned close.

If a dog barked during the day, while at play or to warn the window cleaner not to do anything daft, we'd hear a curt "shaddap!" from the garden next door. The dogs didn't care less. Neither did we. We did all we could to prevent his wrath - locking the dogs in at night even though we's constructed an enclosed dog run with hatch to give them freedom - but it was rarely enough.

When I moved in ten years ago (alone - the house was initially my bachelor's home) he welcomed my parents to the area instead of me because they were first to run up on the day I moved in, helping lump stuff in because I couldn't get the day off work. I'm told that his face dropped towards the earth's core when my dad said "Oh, it's not us - my son's moving in. He's a DJ." However, his daughter - then probably 16 or 17 - seemed suddenly interested in her new neighbour at this point, which amused me when I heard so afterwards...

Things were okay initially. But in the last seven or so years since having the dogs we've had numerous threats of action on environmental health grounds because of the supposed noise. Notes from him had been pushed through the door, promising such action. This was noise which no other neighbour, either on the other side of the fence or across the road has even noticed, let alone moaned about. Conversely, when his daughter's troublesome phase was at its peak and the emergency services were regularly called round, we'd say nothing. This was despite regular screaming sessions and threats ringing through our walls (not aimed at us, I should add). At the time I was on 3am starts each day, but just put it down to family troubles that a rebuke from me about the noise would failt to assist.

Needless to say, he never carried out his threats. No official ever turned up to investigate the howling and incessant barking which had breached our neighbour's peace. He once told us he had put his house up for sale because he couldn't cope with it any more. After thinking "good!", my wife - who works in estate agency - did a search for his home on the market. Again, needless to say, he hadn't put it up for sale at all.

This man was retired, in his late 60s, and riddled with ailments of one sort or another, though he was constantly standing outside having a fag. We'd see him regularly walking round the village or catching a bus to do the shopping - despite all our quarrels, I'd often give him a lift home if I saw him in the next village laden down with bags.

It wasn't just us, either. He said to our neighbour on the other side "you can't afford a conservatory, you're only a single mother". He frequently complained about dog noise to people further up the street. He regularly interefered when it came to the building of fences and always stuck his oar in when the council pinned plans for extensions made by other folk down our street for their houses. He was shameless about it too; he'd often complain loudly about our dog noise to the neighbours on the other side (who had a Rottweiler and then a boxer) and issue his thoughts on what other people got up to in the direction of anyone within earshot.

Anyway, the ambulance turned up last weekend. But it was only when I bumped into another neighbour last night while walking the dogs did I find out that he'd died. It was raining, and this deceased man made our lives a misery at times, yet my instant reaction when I was told was to remove my cap.

We won't be at the funeral, that would be hypocritical. But nobody is savage in my family, and my thoughts are with this man's wife and family. A quieter life for us is yet an unhappier one for them, and I feel for them.

31 August 2008

"That ain't workin'!"

Money For Nothing is a brilliant record. I defy anyone to say otherwise. However unflatteringly it may have aged, it remains to me a masterly piece of father-friendly rock.

There are numerous things to love about it. It was so confidently arranged by Mark Knopfler that he had the nerve to push his guitar solo into the foreground, forsaking all other noises so that his belting riff could be mimed by players of invisible guitars everywhere. It is an instant classic.

I've taken to playing it lately at my 80s Night, even though Walk Of Life was always the more disco-friendly Dire Straits song off the album and, indeed, of all the band's discography that decade (playing Private Investigations was a mistake ... must remember not to try that again*). Off the back of U2's Pride (In The Name Of Love) or Simple Minds' Alive And Kicking, it segues so well. Sting's slow warbles of "I want my MTV" as the volume builds prompts recognition for the crowd who instantly are waiting for that opening solo to kick in. And it sounds absolutely awesome at ear-splitting levels with the treble turned up, as I've found out. Watching a crowd not wholly in tune with the 80s responding with whoops and pretend chords of their own is ace. Shivers go down your spine.

Then there are the words. Knopfler's tale of how he just memorised the cutting, envious words of some electrical goods trucker watching MTV during a fagbreak ring true. Any chorus which provides a comparison between rock and roll's hedonism and the process of lumping in white goods and audio-visual gear works in my book.

I love the way that the record company panicked over the use of the word 'faggot' in the second verse and just left it on the cutting room floor when the single edit was made. Yet most radio stations now reach for Brothers In Arms when putting their copy on Myriad or RCS and so you hear it all the time. He's a little faggot with an earring and make-up, his own hair, his own jet airplane and a few quid; but in 1985 we weren't allowed to know that. You can imagine him asking his daughter if Boy George was a man or a woman.

I love the gatecrashing by Sting, which prompted his lawyers to insist on a co-writer's credit even though he just did as he was asked when he popped into the Caribbean studio where the band were recording to say hi. I also love the rumours that the legal people behind the boy Sumner tried to stop him performing it with Dire Straits at Live Aid because of technicalities. Talk about missing the point.

And yes, everybody pointed out the contradiction in listening to Mark Knopfler singing "I shoulda learned to play the guitar" while writing and performing one of the most recognisable pieces of axework in rock history.

The video? I was less bothered about the Headroom-esque animation than I was about the flourescent instruments, headband and drumsticks during the clips of the band performing onstage - as 1980s as you could be when putting together a video. And putting together a video which was so obviously made for MTV while also not unkindly namechecking the company was clearly a work of shrewdness.

Maybe it's a song which I've grown to love again because I tried it in the club and that solo just sounded explosively good on very loud speakers. Through your iPod or on the radio it might not draw itself into your being quite as well. But, well, I love it. See for yourself here - faggots all present and correct...

*That was a joke. I've never played Private Investigations in a nightclub. No, really.