Thursday, 28 May 2015

Change of Address

After many years here I've migrated this blog to a new home - it's part of a tie-in with a forthcoming makeover of my main website.

I've kept a few posts here as others have linked to them, but everything else is now available only at...

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Way It Was

A former colleague recently gave me this photo of the IRN newsdesk - taken in the 1980s (probably 1983/4).

It's a wonderful 'snapshot' that really captures the flavour of the moment.

Newsreader Douglas Cameron waits for the script while 'scriptie' Alan Mitchell pulls the required audio carts from the rack ready for the top of the hour news bulletin.

Battered typewriters, carts, BT key-and-lamp phone units and several people wearing ties (even striped ones with checked shirts!) - and not a computer in sight. That's how radio newsrooms were 30 years ago - and during a major news story the atmosphere was electric.

Reporters would use a Marantz cassette recorder and, on their return, would have to dub material to tape for editing (with razor blades and sticky tape) as well as putting a short clip on a cartridge for the bulletins.

The studios were through the double-doors on the left of the photos; note the illuminated signs indicating which studios were being used for (LBC's) on-air programme and the news bulletin. On the right, behind the noticeboard was the 'wire room' which contained lots of incoming teleprinters from the various news, sport and financial agencies (Press Association, Reuters, United Press International etc.). To the left of the noticeboard was 'IRN Audio' which took in material, edited it and then fed it out to the other commercial stations.

So many fond memories are encapsulated in this single shot.

Photo L-R: John Greenwood, Alan Mitchell, Martin Jackson, Don Shanahan. John Sutton, Douglas Cameron, a blurred Paul Donovan (we think) and Nigel Jones.

By way of contrast....

In the mid-1980s a new newsroom was built in the newly-vacant basement of the other half of Communications House in Gough Square.

Although typewriters continued to be used for a while, a new computer system, ('Newstar') was introduced.

New technology had begun to arrive!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Taking The Biscuit

“The Home of Good Baking - Supersound UBN” might not have been quite the snappiest strapline in the business, and probably had one of the oddest radio station names, but the United Biscuits Network, which closed in December 1979, was a fertile training ground for the first wave of ILR stations throughout the 1970s.
UBN was a cable radio network serving the main United Biscuits factories around the country. Making and packing biscuits on a production line was boring and repetitive, and led to high staff turnover. UB’s boss at the time, Sir Hector Laing, decided the company should have its own radio station to entertain the staff and help improve both productivity and staff morale.

While the studios were based at UB’s factory at Osterley, the running of the station itself was sub-contracted to a company called ‘Sound Developments’ (run by Roger Sinclair), rather than being managed directly by UB, with Neil Spence, better known as ‘Dave Dennis’ on 1960s offshore station Radio London (‘Big L’) as the first programme director.

From there, the station was networked to other factories at Harlesden (in NW London), Liverpool, Manchester and Tollcross (Glasgow). Each factory had their own, weekly ‘local’ opt-out show (produced and presented from the main Osterley studios); each broadcast on a different day of the week and repeated to allow the different shifts to hear it.
Giles Squire on-air
Although it was a fairly compact operation, UBN was well-equipped (by 1970s standards), with three almost-identical self-op studios; one for on-air; another for the ‘local’ shows (usually done live the first time but recorded off-air for the later repeats) or ‘standby’; and a third for production. There was also a small newsroom (consisting of a Press Association teleprinter and a typewriter) and news booth - although the station later used bulletins from IRN. In addition there was a record library, reception/general office and the PC’s office.
Studio equipment consisted of a custom-built eight-channel mixer, with two Gates turntables, two Plessey cart machines and an Ampex tape machine (two in the production studio).
In the factories there were speakers at regular intervals along the production lines, with one for every group of three or four workers. While they could adjust the volume (or even turn it off), they couldn’t switch to another station, so it was important not to alienate them.

UBN’s programming was tightly-formatted. Music was played in ’sweeps’ of 2 or 3 songs in a row; if you did speak between records it had to be over the ending or intro, with no speech allowed over dead air, and no backing music or ‘beds’ either.

In addition to the music there were jingles, of course; the original “Home Of Good Baking - Supersound UBN” package was by PAMS, and based on the WABC/New York jingles. This was later replaced, first by the accapella-based 'Frontline Radio' and then, in 1975, by a more-contemporary package by Ivor Raymonde.

Probably the most intriguing aspect of UBN’s programming were the ‘commercial breaks’, These were actually promos covering various subjects, such as workers’ personal safety and the importance of hygiene, but there was no ‘management propaganda', such as orders for people to “work harder”!
Adrian Love and Pete Reeves producing a 'commercial'
Presenters had to produce these promos on a regular basis, in order to help keep the station sounding fresh, and the better ones were re-cycled over the years.
One, in particular, on the subject of compressed air (“CompressssssssssssssssedAir can kill!”), produced by the late Roger Scott, is one that still sticks in the mind after all these years; it was also one of those featured in UBN’s final hour.

In the early-70s, Graham Dene won Billboard magazine’s coveted International Radio Personality of the Year Award; quite an achievement for a small station like UBN, but also a good example of the high calibre of programming on the station at the time.

Across all of the shifts, it was reckoned UBN enjoyed an audience of around 40,000, and was considered important enough to receive regular visits from record company ‘pluggers’. After all, when it started there was really only Radio 1 (which still shared much of its airtime with Radio 2) during the day, and Luxembourg in the evening, and only 19 ILR stations on-air by the time it closed, so the record companies viewed UBN as a valuable place for airplay.

The station was not unique, though. A few other companies, inspired by UBN, launched their own services, including Chrysler Audio System (originally Talbot Radio Network) and KCN/Kimberley-Clark Network (who make Kleenex tissues etc.), although neither really managed to emulate UBN’s success, and were both relatively short-lived.
Over the years many people in BBC and commercial radio were associated with UBN, including Steve Allen, Graham Dene, Allan King, Peter Young, Nicky Horne, Phil Sayer, Roger Day, Pete Reeves, Giles Squire, Tony Gilham, Steve Colman, John Peters and the sadly-departed Roger Scott, Adrian Love, Peter Tait and John Hayes. I also had the privilege of being a freelance ‘swing’ presenter at UBN for a while in the late-70s, which provided me with my first invaluable experience of working within format radio.

Another who got his first professional radio job with UBN was Dale Winton. When he joined the station it was common practice at that time for new presenters to be re-named, so they could be given one of a generic batch of name jingles that had already been produced. As a result, Dale became ‘Simon York’, but eventually succeeded in persuading the powers-that-be to let him use his real name. So, one Friday, ‘Simon York’ “left” and ‘Dale Winton’ “started” on the following Monday. Shortly afterwards, UBN apparently started to get letters from listeners asking what had happened to Simon York; “He was much better than this new presenter!”
Another member of the UBN ‘alumni’ even made the charts; Jim Irvin, the lead singer of ‘Furniture’ - whose song ‘Brilliant Mind’ reached No.21 in 1986 - was a presenter and head of music at UBN for the last couple of years of its existence. Jim also co-wrote the hit 'Weekend', which was a 2004 hit for Michael Gray.
In 1979 the decision to close the station was taken, with factories relaying their local ILR station instead. This was more a reaction to the prevailing economic conditions of the day and a knock-on effect from the lorry drivers' strike at the start of the year, than a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the station, but going out when it did, and on a high, obviously contributed to UBN’s near-legendary status.

35 years on the United Biscuits Network is long gone. The Osterley factory, too, has since been closed and demolished, but, in a neat twist of fate, there is still a broadcasting connection; Sky TV’s HQ and studios are now located on part of the former UB site.

Invitation to a UBN Reunion in 2006.
(The original 'Calling Cards' were used by UB employees for requests/dedications via the internal post)

Monday, 30 June 2014

Book Review: 'Me And Thirteen Tanks' by P McD

Although there has been much chronicling of the history of BBC and UK commercial radio, as well as Radio Luxembourg and the offshore pirates, one major broadcaster, however, seems to have received little coverage despite having been very influential; BFBS – the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

Which is one reason why ‘Me And Thirteen Tanks’ makes for interesting reading while filling in a few blanks in broadcasting history.

Although I had known of Peter McDonagh, our paths had never actually crossed until 2006 when I first became a Trustee of the British Wireless for the Blind Fund, of which he was Chairman until 2013. On a number of train journeys back to London from BWBF head office in Maidstone he would often regale me with many scurrilous tales and I am pleased they - or at least those that can be told in public - are now available in print.

Peter is a good raconteur and writes engagingly about his childhood in post-war Berlin, his attempts to prevent his university studies at Oxford providing too much of a distraction from the task of spending most of his waking hours in local hostelries, as well as his 30 years travelling around the world serving at various BFBS outposts such as Singapore, Germany, Malta, Cyprus, the Falklands and the Middle East, plus as a number of spells back at UK HQ.

He also tells frankly, and movingly, of the loss of his baby daughter, his alcoholism and his current battle with cancer.

Under his alter-ego as “pop-jockey” ‘P McD’, his Saturday morning show on BFBS Germany in the 1970s, 'The Great North Rhine West Phailure', is still spoken of in hushed and reverential tones by those of a certain age who were around at the time.

Peter was also instrumental, while at BFBS Malta, for helping to give the station a more contemporary sound – known as ‘Format 77’ – which was later rolled-out to the rest of the BFBS stations.

Eventually he managed to climb the greasy pole to become Director of BFBS. Not a ‘Yes man’ he got himself into the occasional scrape with the upper echelons but because he was good at his job it helped prevent too much fall-out or collateral damage!

Overall a very enjoyable read.

Me And Thirteen Tanks: The Tales of a Cold War Freelance Spy - by P McD  is available in both Kindle and paperback. proceeds from the book are being donated to Macmillan Cancer Nurses.


There is a wealth of BFBS material on Juergen Boernig’s BFBS Radio Show Archive although, sadly, nothing from McD.

Also, while writing this blog post I happened to come across Alan Grace’s book ‘This is the British Forces Network – The Story of Forces Broadcasting in Germany’ (a copy of which has now been ordered).