Saturday, 13 October 2012

Inside Radio 1

Some week. And I'm never one to ignore the "elephant in the room". Just a few facts to begin, about a man whose face has this week made me want to be physically sick. Some perspective.

He worked in the dance halls of the mid 50s. He actually managed a dance hall just a few miles from my Essex birthplace in the year I was born. His first radio work was recording record company shows for Radio Luxembourg in the late 50s. He claimed to have invented Top of the Pops and was its first host in 1964 from Manchester - pre-dating Radio 1's existence by 3 years.

He didn't actually work at R1 until 68. And by the mid to late 70s he was only an occasional visitor.

These are all facts in the public domain. But you wouldn't think it from some of the press coverage in the last 7 days.


This blog is about the period 75-88 and my experience of being around Radio 1. I'm not writing this for any other reason than to educate those who weren't there. This was the Radio 1 I knew.

The HQ of R1 was then Egton House - a small building close to Broadcasting House, just off Portland Place in W1. So close that it was joined to "BH" by a small foot tunnel under the road.
When I first went there in the mid 70s there were no on-air R1 studios in Egton. These were a good 10 minute walk away through BH - so the on-air side of the station was totally separate from the production offices.

Egton had 4 floors and a small basement. R1 occupied (in 75) the 3rd & 4th floors and a bit of the basement. The ground floor reception was also dedicated to R1 with a stalwart BBC commissionaire called Tom. Firm and fair and militarily upright.

The reception had pigeon holes for various shows and production people so that the record industry "pluggers" could leave their samples. These folks weren't really supposed to go beyond reception but, provided they were signed-in by a BBC staff member, they could.

They would head for floors 3 & 4. These were the production floors where all R1's main output was created by producers, DJs and production secretaries. The male/female split was around 60/40 - very healthy for the time.

On floor 3 were the evening & weekend programmes. John Peel, Tommy Vance, Fluff. There were tiny individual offices for some producers and an open-plan area for all their secretaries. Some producers looked after several individual shows, some just concentrated on one.

Floor 4 were the executive offices of the Controller and support staff, alongside the offices for the main weekday output. Again, tiny individual offices for producers sharing with their DJ and separate space for secretaries.

You can only imagine the paperwork involved in UK music broadcasting at the time. Every running order and scripted was typed. Every record or tape played had its details recorded for "needletime" payment purposes - reporting sheets to the Performing Rights Society and the Musicians Union. After every show transmitted a "PasB"  (Production as Broadcast) was prepared - this had to record exactly what had been played and for what duration.

So the R1 secretaries spent their days doing the paperwork mountain and also compiling the record boxes. These very useful black boxes could take an entire 2-3hr show of singles and albums and scripts. They were prepared, checked and then sent over to the R1 studios in time for the DJ to arrive and, ostensibly, do prep before "tx". The secretaries also fielded off phone calls from record pluggers, visits from pluggers and dealt with their producer's requirements.

One of their particular skills was keeping DJs in line. Some of the male DJs were like schoolboys. Actually, my schoolmates were more mature than some of the idiots who got jobs as DJs. The secretaries were brilliant at putting DJs in their place. They were assisted by a forceful, direct executive - Doreen Davies. Doreen, a BBC careerist, hired & fired DJs. She nurtured some, tolerated others. And she was fiercely protective of the secretaries, instilling them with a confidence that they needed to have. The last thing that most of my contemporaries would do is pick a fight with an R1 secretary. You would lose and they would not let you forget it.

Their producers dealt with compiling shows, listening to new releases (sometimes 80 new singles and 30-40 albums a week), attending playlist meetings, planning future broadcasts, dealing with DJs' egos and problems. No wonder they liked to disappear for lunch with a record plugger - to get away from the factory for a bit.

It was a production line. Complex, intense and yet it produced a seemingly simple product of entertainment. Although it wasn't a 24hr service in the early days, it did make big demands on people's time. Breakfast producers in a 5am. Night producers still there at 11pm. And BBC staff back then were paid very badly.

Now music stations are completely digitised with touchscreens. Then, if you wanted an "oldie" you had to visit the 2nd floor of Egton and comb through hundreds of filing cards to find a reference number. Then fill-in a requisition set of forms, and then wait to get the records delivered to you.

If you wanted to edit a pre-record you had to book a studio and an engineer. So enterprising producers had tape machines in their tiny offices to do their own edits. And, eventually, someone nicked a BBC outside broadcast kit and had it installed in the basement of Egton, so we could actually record and make output without going through the archane BBC studio system. This studio was never permitted to go live on-air - because there would have been a strike.

Over the years the building changed as the BBC became less restrictive. When I went back in the mid-80s we had our own 2 self-op studios on floor 2 - these were the main output studios. Close to the production heart - brilliant. We even had a kitchen with a bread bin where Bruno Brookes would grow penicillin on his white-sliced.

So - that's how it all happened. That's who they were. Executives, producers, secretaries, DJs.

Now - I may have painted a bit of a Pollyanna picture. Because there were exceptions. There were producers who would go out and get so drunk that they couldn't prepare their show - so the secretary would do it. There were people doing commercial work on BBC premises using BBC equipment. There were pluggers with so much access to a show that they virtually controlled the content.

But the scale of these offences was minimal. And if you look around other public institutions you'll see far worse corruption. A recent newspaper article reckoned that £13m of equipment every year goes missing from the NHS.

Humans, huh? You just can't trust 'em.


  1. The NHS employs about 1.5 million staff, so I reckon the article writer just assumed that everyone nicks £10 of paper clips per year...

    I am just wondering, did everyone consider you the "conservative" DJ? The Frasier Crane of Radio One? "Smitty" was about as PC a nickname as you can get, which made me wonder about this back in the day.

    Finally, what was the worst re-tellable disaster you ever had as a DJ or as production staff there?

  2. Hi Mike, you mentioned Fluff on your way past - just for those less in the know (or probably younger), Fluff was Alan Freeman - the "voice" of British pop radio. So much so that Harry Enfield based his character "Dave Nice" on him.

    We loved working with Fluff at the studios. His signature theme tune was "At the sign of the swinging cymbal," and he used to turn up at the studio with his own special cut pressed onto a 45. This damned record was getting so tatty that I took a digital copy (early days of digital) and spent hours de-clicking it for him so that we had at least one safe copy stored!

    Alan's dress sense was legendary. He used to turn up at the studio wearing a tracksuit and elastic sided boots. An unusual combination, but for some reason, on him it worked.

    Alan had a great sense of humour and a modestly low opinion of his own contribution to radio (off camera at least). But he was a worse gossip than I was and we always used to make sure that there was over run booked onto any session to give him elbow room to chatter and tell stories between takes.

    One thing Mike left off his above, rather wonderful description, was the relationships between some DJs and their producers - especially the old school.

    Some of the producers like Batesy had the same producer for centuries, it seemed. They would be little partnerships that would go everywhere like a couple. I was involved making programmes for the independent sector - everything from BT to BA Inflight and production companies like Unique and Eardrum doing progs for the Beeb. And of course, a huge number of commercials.

    But the number of times one of the old school would turn up complete with their producer was amazing - no idea what they were doing there most of the time. Just along for the fun, it seemed.

  3. Tim Blackmore became Fluff's manager and looked after his affairs when he fell sick and later died. Dave Price was Rosko's business partner - if ever you saw "Orange" PA equipment, it most likely came from them.