As I write this, it’s the Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend. To most people, just a normal bank holiday weekend (or as normal as it gets at the moment).
But to a good number of us, it’s a poignant weekend. After tomorrow, 49 local radio stations will vanish from the dial, instead rebranding as Greatest Hits Radio. Among them, four I worked at, including Dearne FM and Rother FM where I was part of the team to launch the stations from scratch.
I’ve seen a lot of posts from former colleagues this weekend, signing off from their shows for the final time, and I’ve heard a few teary moments over the wireless along the way. (I was quite humbled to get a couple of mentions in the farewell links from presenters who I’d managed in years gone by).
I wanted to say something to mark the occasion. I’m not going to discuss the ramifications of the rolling out of the Greatest Hits Radio network (after all, I do work for the company which runs it). Instead, something a little different…
I worked in radio management for many years. There were ups and downs and a (very) lot of challenges along the way. One thing that never failed to amuse me was the things listeners would complain about.
Don’t get me wrong here - I didn’t mind complaints. There’s something kind of special about someone who receives your product for free feeling the need to remonstrate with you about it. It’s kind of flattering.
But sometimes, just sometimes, all I could do was laugh.
So today I’d like to share with you my three favourite complaints I dealt with in local radio management, in reverse order of weirdness.
3. Last Friday Night
Remember the UK Riots in 2011? If you need a quick reminder, there were a few days of quite violent protests, rioting and looting in several cities around the country, initially triggered by a man being shot by police.
The whole thing passed. The following Monday I arrived into work to discover there had been a complaint made - a listener was outraged that we’d played ‘Last Friday Night’ by Katy Perry, which they said contained messages encouraging people to go back out and riot again.
Here’s a little excerpt incase it’s a song which has slipped your mind:
Last Friday night / We went streaking in the park / Skinny dipping in the dark / Then had a ménage à trois
Last Friday night / Yeah I think we broke the law / Always say we're gonna stop-op / Whoa-oh
This Friday night / Do it all again
The listener (quite seriously) believed we’d deliberately played it to encourage people to go set fire to something.
I mean, I wouldn’t have minded, but the riots started on a Saturday and were finished by Thursday.
2. The wrong Valerie
Everyone loves Amy Winehouse, don’t they? She had a colourful life, to say the least.
It would be hard for any of us to pick out a favourite song of hers, but her collaboration with Mark Ronson, Valerie, was an absolutely massive radio song back in its day. For weeks and weeks, it was on the A-list and coming around every few hours.
As with every song, in time it started to drop down the playlist but still made a healthy number of appearances.
I was Programme Manager of Rother FM when that song was out. We had a regular listener, whose name I cannot remember (probably just as well) who had a tendency to have a couple of drinks on an evening and leave rambled messages on our studio voicemail.
One day we came in to discover he’d left a complaint (in fact, he left it a few times, just in case we missed it the first ten times).
He was absolutely fuming that we had - shamefully - played ‘some awful band’s cover version’ of Valerie instead of Amy’s: It was an insult to her... she may have her problems but how dare we appoint ourselves judge and jury - it’s just plain offensive that we’d play someone else’s version of her song.
You may already know where this is going. The version of Valerie we’d played was by The Zutons; the original version - released well over a year before Amy Winehouse covered it.
1. Raise the alarm!
OK, there’s a bit of boring background stuff you need to know here.
There’s a company called Arqiva. Most radio stations have dealings with them. They do all the technical stuff a radio station needs to broadcast - masts, aerials, fancy satellite dishes, very long cables… that kind of thing. So, they’re called Arqiva - remember that bit.
Most commercial radios have traditionally taken the national top 40 chart on a Sunday afternoon. Things have changed a bit recently, but in its day, The Big Top 40 could be heard on the vast majority of commercial stations.
Most radio stations would play out the chart, live, using a special feed from one of those fancy satellite dishes I mentioned. Let’s call it a ‘channel’ - this same channel would sometimes be used to broadcast big national events, so radio stations could carry live coverage of them. The channel was (I think) called ‘IRN 4’ but that’s not particularly important. The aforementioned Arqiva would manage the channel to make sure it worked for everyone.
So, every Sunday at 4 o’clock, a clever switch would flick to ‘turn on’ that channel, and then after the number one played, it’d switch it off again at 7pm. Worth noting, this was all done by a computer - there’d be no one at the actual station at that time.
Now, when the chart wasn’t broadcasting, a test message would play out on the channel. That’s so we always knew it was still working if we checked it (silence would always be a cause for panic in radio). It’d consist of a high pitched beep for around 20 seconds and then a generic voice announcing something along the lines of ‘This is IRN 4, broadcasting via Arqiva on the *something* *something* satellite’
Right, that’s enough background. One Sunday at Rother FM the chart switched on fine but due to some idiot (ahmm) messing up the computer command that week, it didn’t switch off at 7pm.
The computer started to play out the pre-recorded evening show as normal, but after a few minutes the test tone came on in the background and - sadly - played out all evening.
Well, I arrived at work on the Monday to a full blown terrorist incident.
A listener had misheard the word ‘Arqiva’ in the message and thought the station had been hacked by the terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda. They had called and left messages on our voicemail, but when no-one had called them back immediately, they’d decided they had to do the right thing - and called the police.
I had to spend a fair amount of time on Monday morning explaining to South Yorkshire Police that Arqiva were indeed not a terrorist cell and that rather than the station being hacked by extremists, I’d just clicked the wrong button when I finished up for the week the previous Friday.
As Mondays go, that one will stay with me for a long time!
To be honest, my memories of working in local radio are so numerous I could carry on writing all day long.
Radio from September 2020 will look a lot different - and it could be an opportunity for community stations to step up and fill gaps left in some areas. That’s probably a subject for another day.
For now, I’d just like to say so long, farewell, and goodnight to four radio stations which gave me migraines, sleepless nights, and endless amazing memories.
And to those people who find themselves out of work after this weekend, the very best of luck in whatever you do next. And remember - you’ll always have your own endless amazing memories.