Thursday 6 September 2012

The friendly Leicester Sound

Bros were really keen to see themselves on 'Pebble Mill at One'.  It was to be the boyband's first TV performance and they didn't want to miss it just because they were on the road doing a radio interview.  All very well, but, sadly, Leicester Sound did not have a TV set.  I ran back to my flat nearby to grab a heavy portable set; and returned breathlessly just in time to twist the wire aerial to get a fuzzy picture of their three young, smiling faces. 

Just another lively day in the rich life of Leicester Sound.  The station was always going to be a challenge. It rose from the detritus of Centre Radio, the first commercial radio ‘failure’ which closed abruptly after just two years, amidst financial difficulties.  When neighouring Radio Trent’s offer to keep Centre on life-support was turned down, the station died and its legacy handed over to the liquidators.  The hopes of Trent’s immediate rescue had been sufficiently high for a package of jingles to be recorded hurriedly at Alfasound.

Process kicked in; and the then regulator, the IBA, re-advertised the Leicester franchise. 
Trent, meanwhile, bought the premises, thinking it would either launch the station at a later stage under its new franchise; or sell it on to a rival franchise-winner.  It was a nice asset – an 1876 stately home on the edge of Victoria Park, boasting stained glass windows, beautiful stone fireplaces and an underground cavern equipped with a generator large enough to power Loughborough.

Norman, Ron & Chris
Leicester Sound was awarded the franchise, one of the first times ever the IBA had awarded a second franchise to a related company.  The Trent management team, headed by Ron Coles as MD, with Chris Hughes as programme director and Norman Mabe in the sales director's chair, prepared to gear the business back into action.

I recall travelling to Leicester just after the decision, armed
with the Granville House keys for a Marie Celeste moment.  Anoraks will appreciate what it’s like to click on the light switch in a studio which had fallen silent abruptly one year before.  A half-empty plastic coffee-cup; the final weather forecast; and a defiant red biro doodle lying on the black, scratched MBI mixing desk.

The Leicester on-air team was recruited by the Trent programming management: Nick Murden; Guy Morris; Tony Lyman; and Andy Marriott, all poised to broadcast live for 12 hours a day.  Graham Neale’s rock show, specialist music programmes and the late show with Erica Hughes or Chris Burns filled the remaining hours, piped from Nottingham.  They resided in the roomy presenters' office, replete with coving, which was typically an atrocious mess, strewn with cardboard 7" single covers addressed to ex-jocks and decorated just by a model of Thunderbird 2 dangling from the high ceiling adjacent to Marrow's desk.  

Marrow claimed he sensed a ghost on the stairs next to the the beautiful stained glass windows.  Not only a radio station, it was said, had died tragically in this lovely building.  

The newsroom was housed across the corridor in a draughty conservatory, with the compulsory aged car stickers peeling off the cracked window panes. Newsroom staff through the years included great voices like Julie Langtry-Langton (now with BBC Leeds); Jackie Leonard (BBC World Service); and Sybil Ruscoe (later Radio 1 and 2).  Character was supplied by the likes of the gentlemanly news editor, Peter Butler. Meanwhile, talented sports journalist, Keith Daniel would hammer out the sports scripts on a battered typewriter, whilst the religious team, Ian and Suzanne would bicker in the corner.

Guy Morris
On September 1984, the station launched and, at last, those Alfasound jingles were belatedly aired from their blue AA3 carts with pretty labels.  My only duties back then were assisting from afar at  Trent, making many of the Leicester promos, by invitation. My earnest efforts with copying, vari-speeding and phasing on 10.5 inch spools was not called 'imaging' back then.

The station launched cautiously, as suggested by its geometric logo, in corporation green set in anemic caramel. That was best displayed on the radio car, a lop-sided, converted Cortina with questionable suspension and a retractable mast as high as Droitwich.  The vehicle and the studios overall were duly maintained by the station's committed engineers Bob, Denis or Pete, who lived in the station's engineering workshop from which the delicious smell of flux would waft.

My dad once said that if you can sell something in Leicester, you can sell it anywhere.  These were testing times still for commercial radio generally, and Centre’s failure did not help the determined souls selling airtime spots.  Leicester Sound boasted a characterful team, including the woman who once threw a glass of wine over me. 

The commercial team was headed by moustached Tim Rogers in the early days, then Barrie in his suave grey suit. Both sought to climb the necessary hill to persuade the cynical burghers of Leicester to invest their monies in radio spots. The other option was 'co-funding': a cunning early form of sponsorship which enabled us to attach brands to certain programme features.  As it transpired, Cavendish Finance and Barry Wardle's Motorama added their name to just about anything that moved, or at least anything which had not already got a Leicester Co-Op 10" solus ad attached.  Tim also hosted the Country show on the station, back in the days when evening specialist music programmes were commonplace, and he quickly deduced correctly that if he secured a lucrative sponsorship for his own programme, it would remain on the schedule ad infinitum.

The station was always in the shadow of its big brother, Trent, which powered in as an audience and advertising competitor.   I recall it once being suggested, probably accurately, we were making more money from renting out some car parking spaces and running the Coke machine than the radio business was making.  As James Cridland will recall, for he was an early student, Leicester Sound also frantically launched a training school, where young disc jockeys were coached in which colour leader tape to use.  Under Heather Purdey's beady eye, corporate training was also on sale, and I recall sitting in the derelict Studio 4 pretending to be a police officer at the end of the line as we coached Leicestershire Constabulary on how not to proceed in a 'Northerly direction' when searching for an 'assailant'.
Chris Hughes
I cringe at memories of my arrival there as a young manager in 1987. Maturing from a brief ‘awkward jock’ phase into someone who wanted to do more, I’d been despatched to 'bleeding' Leicester Sound, as it was often dubbed at Trent, as Deputy Programme Controller.  I’d made a case that the station would benefit from more attention; so I was to be the day-to-day man on the ground.  The station’s nominal Programme Controller, Chris Hughes, wisely left me to it and his visits to the station  - and to the Happy Eater en route  - became increasingly rare.  I was poorly-equipped for the challenge ahead of handling those who were on the air when I was growing up. One learns quickly. May I apologise here for everything.

Wendy Staples and me
Anyone who talks now about Leicester Sound will smile and utter one name within the first minute of reminiscences.  Wendy.  Wendy on reception.  Every great station needs a Wendy: an individual who instinctively unites the building, whatever their title.  Despite being a highly-skilled role, it pays little and there is no interview process. Wendy was a stunning receptionist, who realised her job was to satisfy listeners, not to answer phones.  She also knew everything and everybody. She listened; and said the right things to the right people to ensure the most positive outcomes.  She defended vacillating management decisions with serial professionalism and loyalty; and supported managers less able then she was.  She both looked after 'her boys'; and told them off.  People both hugged her and cried on her shoulder. She danced to the Bee Gees as you played them; and made the sort of encouraging faces through the glass which every presenter needs to see when they are on-air.  She understood.

Wendy lived like a princess in the most beautiful reception ever: high ceilings, a huge fireplace and cartoons dangling from the mahogany picture rail. Large leather sofas reclined in the corners, so comfortable that one programme guest once notably fell asleep. Being just a few paces down the beautiful New Walk from town, Leicester Sound reception became a haven for all sorts of Leicester oddities who would call in for tea and sympathy and to stare into the studio or at the logging tapes go round in their glass display cupboard.  

The green baize studios were wisely locked away in what had been the stable block; really unfortunate if you popped out during a show and forgot your key. Step forward, Erica Hughes.

On-air, the station was fun. The imagination and freedom of the early '80s was evolving into a slightly more considered approach. Mind you, we still all picked our own oldies from the huge walls of vinyl in 'Bubbles Goodbody's' (Di Harris) record library, and the new CD albums we played rather depended which ones St Martin’s HiFi had lent us. Playing something 'off CD' was a major event and thoroughly trumpeted on-air.  Leicester's own, inimitable  Kenny Hague became a regular and much-loved feature of the line-up, and new talent like Wigston lad, Mark Hayman and David Manning were recruited to the ranks.  Guy Morris ploughed on, like the focused professional he is to this day, distracted only by the many calls he took for his other businesses on the studio ex-D line during his segues.  

From the outset, there was worry that we were being confused with the hugely successful, and first ever, BBC local station.  We experimented, puzzlingly in retrospect, with declaring that we were 'the commercial sound of Leicestershire' and 'after the break radio'.   Then, we discarded the element we had in common in our names: Leicester.  Hence, the name 'Sound FM' was born.  Not the greatest of names, but the thought was there.  

The station had launched on 97.1 FM, moving to the better 103.2 and then eventually in 1997 to the powerful 105.4, where only London's Melody Radio prevented it being heard in Surrey.  
The Sabras tea
Leicester Sound inherited from Centre Radio a hugely popular AM Asian programme stream, called Sabras (all tastes), run by the impressive Don Kotak. On Leicester Sound, these hugely popular evening programmes expanded into a full night-time station.  Within the building, this dedicated team became part of the station's rich character, from Didar's wonderful curries to rather large overseas phone bills.  I was called upon by the hard-working Asian commercial producer to voice ads for '30% off all saris, Belgrave Road, Leicester', which would be liberally spiced with tape echo.  Anwar worked literally through the night at busy times and was always puzzled with English work patterns: 'why do you work 9-5 when there's nothing to do, and yet go home at 5 when you're busy?'.  He had a fair point.  

Don't ask me about the Health & Safety nightmare when a Bollywood star arrived: it was like JLS popping in and I still go cold when I realise how close to catastrophe we got.  I had alerted PC Plod beforehand, who turned up when it was all over.  And there were the jingles too: I recall sitting in rainy Manchester with Alfasound vocalists, Steve and Ian, paired with a chap banging Tabla and some great Hindi vocalists, all singing in unison over 1960s PAMS tracks.  I think Len Groat was feeling in a polite mood when he heard the results.

Me on LS Airshow Radio 1494
The Careline was fun.  Wise daily words about toy appeals, venereal disease or the inter-denominational Winter tree. One never quite knew what would follow the accapella. The Careline team was a fascinating group of folk too: I recall there was once some sort of military coup amongst the troops, connected with Careline operation and management.  Whilst on-air, I had to put on my management hat half-way through a long song and dash out to the opposite pavement of London Road where rival factions were arguing angrily over who should have custody of the desks.

Kenny Hague
They invented a new title for me of 'General Manager'.  I inherited the sort of office you dream of: a heavy mahogany door with golden handles and enough room inside for a rave.  And I inherited the lovely Gill as my PA who initially frightened me, back in the days when one needed a two week course to use the new word processor. Post-It notes on Gill's door warned us not to disturb her during 'petty cash Fridays'.   

I presumed I was still also Deputy Programme Controller rather than Programme Controller, until Chris Hughes wandered into my office one day and we debated, per chance, who did what. ‘I thought you were Programme Controller’, muttered Chris. Hence I became PC.  

An early duty had been to attend to the difficult issue of the breakfast show presenter who was arriving a little late rather too often. Having been tipped off, I arrived at the crack of dawn just to witness things for myself.  As 6.00 came and went, Nick failed to arrive and I duly cranked up the station myself.  When he eventually arrived, looking more than a little crestfallen to see me in the chair, I sent him home.  Alas, Nick's life was to end prematurely, at the age of 30, a few months afterwards.  Sadly, far too many complicated radio lives end far too soon. Three of those in the launch presenters' shot at the head of this article are not around to muse on this 30th anniversary. This can be a job and an industry of enormous highs and lows. The station's first voice is remembered with huge fondness to this day by former colleagues and many listeners.

They were funny old days. Marketing departments did not exist. So, it was left to me to wait for the stage to arrive at a rainy Abbey Park and help to unroll the tent. Then, putting on silky jacket, standing on a stage for three hours talking to three men and a dog; one of whom turned up at every single event we ever did. He clutched a branded carrier bag of unknown contents.  

Like many stations, Leicester Sound boasted an impressive array of merchandising, from  the usual T shirts and mugs to branded cuddly teddy bears and a selection of boxer shorts.  Given there were male and female versions of this attractive logoed underwear, it was Wendy's job on reception to ensure that those who needed a pair with a useful opening received just that.
The station took its place in the fabric of the City, and rallied round in times of crisis. One terrible Winter, I recall a Sunday where Mark Hayman and I launched emergency programming with non-stop information on power cuts and road closures, and that double-header continued for eight hours, barging right through the Pepsi Chart.  One valiant chap parked his car just outside and slid up the path to bang on the reception door, only to ask for a wire coat hanger with which he could fashion a makeshift aerial for his car.  Back then, it seemed, you just couldn't live without radio.
Ron Coles & Miss Leic Sound!

Leicester Sound was one of the first stations in the country to put its AM and FM frequencies to different uses rather than simulcasting the entire output; and it formed one of the six stations in the IBA's 1986 experiment.  Evening Asian programming had been the first tentative venture, before AM was peeled off completely to form GEM AM in October 1988.  This was to be the UK's first completely separate 24 hour AM service.  MD Ron, wearing yellow trousers on the day, demanded that the station launch with an Olympics-inspired regional run round its three counties.  The stunt began outside Leicester Sound at the crack of dawn, with inserts live into the Leicester, Nottingham and Derby breakfast shows.  The success of Sabras, however, meant that, in time, Leicester's AM frequency, 1260 kHz was later to be pulled away from GEM to be allocated to Asian programming full time.

Times were tough in those days for a host of reasons. Eventually, in a cost-saving round, I was asked to share evening drive programmes with Trent at a time when I was ill-positioned to stamp my feet and say no. Hearing on my Leicester station that it was 'busy' on Nottingham's Maid Marian Way was annoying, to say the least, when we were seeking to carve out a reputation as 'Leicester's station'.  Those who tut at today's regionalisation easily forget the quiet economy measures of that era.  I also recall the occasion when all four Midlands Radio stations were each asked to make two redundancies.  Such a reduction cut proportionately harder in Leicester than in the mega Birmingham operation; and I cringe when I look back at implementing my first ever round of painful redundancies.  Not least as one post just saved the grand sum of £8,000.
Mike Cass

In the end, after the East and West Midlands stations merged to form the Midlands Radio Group in 1992, then one of the biggest radio groups in the UK, this was the one job that became too much. The on-air daily shows combined with the off-air programme, marketing and general management hassle, amidst the the frustration of the birth pangs of a radio group, took me to the brink.  As I drove to yet another Midlands Radio Group meeting at Mercia, I missed my turning on the ring-road and got lost in Coventry. The straw duly broke the camel’s back, and I resigned in tears on arrival.  Ron offered me a prawn sandwich to calm me down, but to no avail.  I handed back my lovely Nissan 200SX and resigned with no job to go to.

We had a lot of interesting folk through the doors of the Great House, including our fair share of work experience folk.  Dashing student, Keri Jones, now Radio Scilly supremo, quickly became an expert at packing the 'whizz box', the daily package despatched by bike to Trent.  I also recall one particularly annoying dark-haired spotty teenager who really got in the way, to the extent I suggested that Kenny Hague sent him away.  The lad returned, determined, a few months later, by which time he'd emerged into someone alarmingly indispensable. Called Mike Cass.
Reunion at new premises: (l-r)Tim;Paul;Di;Wendy;David;Andy. Guy (back)

So ended four years at Leicester Sound. On reflection, great memories, as for so many others.  Certainly a huge learning experience.  Every radio group has a 'challenging station' which struggles for no explicable reason, and they often push some of their best people inside it, in a valiant effort to make progress. The Leicester Sound Hall of Fame is impressive. 

I do recall the closest we got to audience success in those early days, when the company reached 40% reach overall (29% for Leicester Sound FM and 19% GEM AM/Sabras), which prompted the commissioning of a pricey celebratory spread in the Leicester Mercury.

Julie Langtry-Langton from News in Studio 2
The Leicester Sound memorial is maybe its home, Granville House: largely impractical but utterly beautiful.  Later, hurriedly converted into net-curtained flats. On a recent daytrip, as we paused to take a photo outside, the new inhabitants waved through the ‘boardroom’ window. I suspect I was not the only one who’d returned to take that same fond shot– and I guess the new residents had been treated already to tales of, well , all the above. And more.

I aspired to return to Leicester in 1994, when Lincs FM (as 'Jupiter Radio') applied for the Leicester licence upon its re-advertisement.  Few commercial radio incumbent licensees were challenged across the UK, and even fewer were displaced (LBC, Victory, Devonair). At the time of the Leicester re-advertisement, however, good old Leicester Sound did look a little sorrowful, with its FM audience figures suggesting a 25-44 adult reach of 16%, and female adult reach at 14% (Rajar Q2.93).  Notwithstanding methodology changes, Capital in the larger East Midlands TSA now enjoys a 29% 25-44 reach, in the face of two FM local competitors and reinvigorated BBC music radio on FM.  
The original Leic Sound sales team, fronted by Tim Rogers

For the Jupiter team, the application was sadly not to be successful, although I gather we were close to seizing the crown.  GWR had just assumed ownership of the station at the time from Capital (as Capital shed its Midlands acquisitions apart from BRMB in January 1994, a year after it had acquired them), and fuelled by the canny return of Ron Coles with his talented quill with which he'd penned so many successful licence applications, the new team retained the FM licence. The AM licence, which had been, by then, sub-contracted to Sunrise Radio, was given deservedly to the Sabras team which launched its own dedicated operation, on-air to this day from a fine old church building on Melton Road.

GWR was to merge with Capital to become GCap in 2005; and GCap was acquired by Global in 2008. The future could have been different had the Piccadilly acquisition of the Midlands stations, including Leicester Sound, in 1988 succeeded, or had the Radio Authority not blocked the DMG Radio acquisition of Leicester Sound alone in 1997. Or had Jupiter won.

Launch on-air team
Andy, Guy, Nick & Tony
Leicester Sound moved from Granville House into more sensible premises on July 30th 2002, with Steve Jordan uttering the last words from the battered studios.

The station then continued until the back end of 2010, when its old name gradually faded out, ready for its 'merging' with Trent (Nottingham) and Ram (Derby) to form Capital (East Midlands) which blasted on-air from Nottingham on 3rd January 2011. The transmitters now form part of Capital Midlands.

This is an archived blog post - you can see my new blog here.

For more Leicester Sound memories - catch my book 'Radio Moments' 

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Listeners are allowed to be awkward

Wearing a long beige coat, his face wrinkled with annoyance, he was clearly not happy we had made some changes at the radio station. So annoyed, he’d popped into reception personally to tell us off and inform us he was about to write to his MP. We were a public service and we’d let him down. By changing.

Listeners are demanding. I remember once, having introduced some major changes on a format, getting angry calls from listeners saying ‘What have you done to my radio station’. Calls tantamount to a landlord ringing his tenant in disbelief on learning the tenant has just knocked down the living room wall.  We are but temporary custodians of someone’s else’s property - their radio station. Each call started with the words: ‘I’ve been listening to station X for Y years’; I could even recite their script before they started.  Whilst temporarily distracting, the calls must actually be a comfort to us: such listeners genuinely feel we belong to them.  We are part of their lives; part of their family.

One listener some years ago once wrote to me about a presenter change.  She hated the new presenter.  She told me he had offended her 13 times so far on the day she wrote.  I pictured her, sat with a chewed HB pencil gripped in hand, crossing off another strike on the third five bar gate on her Basildon Bond notepad.  A former colleague related to me too the story of the listener who could not believe that a programme time had been changed – she had always had her Sunday bath accompanied by this show. I think he gently suggested she revise the timing of her ablutions instead. Isn’t it flattering, though, that listeners believe that the station is for them alone - as, actually, that is exactly what we suggest to every broadcaster: you are speaking to one person.  Mind you, be careful who that one listener is: I recall the tale of one brand change years ago when a listener had a coffin delivered to the station boss.  He had killed their station.

The BBC get a few concerned listeners too.  The ‘don’t take Radio 4 off Long Wave’ campaign was reputed to have that famous polite protest where the grey-haired gathered politely outside Broadcasting House to chant: "What do we want? Radio 4. Where do we want it? Long Wave; What do we say? Please”.  And Mark Damazar probably still rues the day when he thought innocently that Radio 4 listeners might prefer to wake up with a little more solid Radio 4 content, rather than a medley of sea shanties.  Don’t mention the UK Theme. Daa, da da da da daah.... Mark later conceded: "I don't regret it but I think I underestimated the fact that I was causing some people considerable pain". Considerable pain?

What of a station closure? I recall tales from my Radio Authority days of the volume of response which the regulator had received on its decision not to re-award the London talk licence to LBC. Was that more or fewer letters than its fellow regulator, the ITC, received about the demise of Thames Television?

As a friend, we are turned to.  Many presenters can cite listeners getting in touch to say: ‘you really helped me’. I cannot be the only programmer who has taken a call from a listener in real danger who reaches to their radio station for help.

Listeners can be demanding of their friend.  We had a major competition once to win a car, or a runner up holiday prize.  The two contestants duly arrived, one happy and great to be with; the second, a career competitor, who simply wanted the prize.  That’s fine, I guess.  Should we really expect participants to be sufficiently polite to realise that the fair exchange for a free competition might be to provide us with some entertaining programming?  Thankfully, quite fairly, he did not win.  As you can imagine, he took it in good spirit.  He lodged a complaint that his questions were deliberately harder.  They weren’t - tempting though it would have been.  Nor was he satisfied with the holiday prize, it was in the wrong country.  He demanded we change it as he did not want to go there.

Holiday prizes are often riddled with difficulties.  Listeners who find the stipulated dates inconvenient complain. They argue too if they want to take an extra person because they feel the excess is unreasonable and blame us.  A old colleague reminded me of a Barbados trip winner who looked to the radio station for compensation for her sunburn. 

On a Mystery Sound-type premium-rate competition, one chap rang to complain when he got his phone bill for £400.  I took his call.  His question was simple: ‘what are you going to do about it’.  I asked if he’d heard the cost announcements, which we’d duly carried over and above the statutory minimum.  He had.  I asked if he’d seen the web page on which it was given in large letters.  He had.  I asked him if he was aware that using the phone a lot would cost more money than not using it very often.  He was.  But, no, he was going to ‘go the papers’.  I heard no more of him.
The much-needed clampdown following the outrageous and unfair behaviour by some media has made things worse: the trust in competitions has been eroded. The many of us who would rather die than do a competition unfairly are faced with contestants who presume we are guilty of fiddling until proven otherwise.  Rigorous Ts and Cs are assembled for all competitions, read by no-one until there is a complaint – and then the cleverest person wins. Not a battle of wrong and right; more about semantics. It is not that contestants believe we are in the wrong; some just seem to see the potential for ‘I know my rights’ gain.

No longer can stations easily select the happiest-sounding contestant to play competitions; it must often be the luck of the draw.  But, is it right for us to expect a listener to be fairly cheery when taking part?  No, on paper.  But in some ways, is it not like you inviting someone to your party, offering them free food and drink, and then having to accept they sit in the corner looking utterly miserable? Maybe we should have terms and conditions which demand a hint of happiness.  Chris Moyles tries:

“Each day, a shortlist of entrants will be randomly selected from all those who have registered within the past 24 hours. They will be telephoned by a member of the production team who will ask them 3 questions about the Chris Moyles Show and questions about their hobbies and interests to assess their suitability for taking part in the quiz”

And then, just to make sure:

“Given the nature of the quiz, which is solely for entertainment purposes, and the style of the presenter, contestants should be aware that the presenter might help one or other of the contestants.”

We know radio is special.  I’m sure we all go the extra mile, calling back listeners personally when they are aggrieved; and helping them where we can.  Suggesting alternative programmes, or even helping them retune their radios.  It’s right that we do.  It truly is tough to please all the people all of the time.

The day listeners stop moaning at us and stop expecting us to be utterly beyond reproach  - and stop us wanting to please them and them alone  - is the day we should start to worry. 

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