Over the years a number of radio shows have played an important part in my musical education, on the whole these shows were presented by people who cared about music and that showed in the style and content and the sheer enthusiasm that flowed from the speakers of your radio.
My earliest memories of radio were of listening to two way family favourites on the Light program while we ate Sunday lunch. This was obviously before the shake up of the BBC services in 1967 after which I recall that we became a Radio 1 household. I also remember not being able to work out how they managed to get all of the performers in and out of the studio so quickly but obviously I later worked this out as I discovered records!
I think if you ask most people my age what Radio shows they listened to growing up the answer would most likely be either the John Peel show or Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock show. I did listen to these shows but neither of them were regular listening. I remember listening to Peel in the days when he still played Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water but interest waned when he pursued the alternative music in the post punk days. I dipped in and out over the years but not on a regular basis. Tommy Vance’s show was regularly taped when he had a band we liked in concert as we were often out at the rock night at the Mayfair when it was on. My mum had been trained to go upstairs at 10pm to start recording and then again at 11pm to press stop, eject and turn the tape over before pressing record again!
The main show that I listened to was on a Monday night on BBC Radio Newcastle – it ran from about 7pm till the presenters got bored! The show was presented by a guy called Dick Godfrey alongside Phil Sutcliffe and Ian Penman who were also well known for their journalistic endevours for magazines like Sounds, NME and Melody Maker. They played a mix of music from classics to new material and especially promoted local bands. The competitions were good too and my dad has said he always knew when there was one because he would hear me leap up and dash downstairs to the phone! In fact so good was the show that it took the storming of the Iranian Embassy in 1980 to drag me away while it was on….and then only for a short time!
The magazine style format made the show – chat and discussion as well as interviews between the music was infinitely more interesting than the “that was, this is” style of DJ-ing. This sort of program would always attract me over the years and the shows that really stand out were always like this. Having said that, before I leave the North East I must give an honourable mention to a show called “Keep on Truckin’” which was on Metro Radio on a Saturday night. It played heavy rock music and we often listened to it. I could also do a reasonable impression of the presenter whose name escapes me!
I tried my hand at being a Radio DJ while at University and had a regular 2 hour slot on Salford University Radio on a Thursday night. I played an eclectic mix of music from Echo and the Bunnymen to Bruce Springsteen. I even had my own intro music in the style of John Peel that I would play at the start of each show. I shouldn’t think the show attracted more than a handful of listeners but I enjoyed doing it. Sadly it didn’t last as the radio station was one of the places the axe fell when Mrs Thatcher cut the grants to Universities in the early 80’s
At the end of our first year we were supposed to have U2 playing in our smaller venue along with the Radio 1 Roadshow. Sadly they pulled out and we ended up with a band called the Polecats instead. Richard Skinner was the DJ that came with the Roadshow and over a pint we got him to record a jingle for the station. It went something like this “Hi this is Richard Skinner telling you to listen to Salford University Radio on….sorry what did you say the frequency was!” Sadly it never got used. However Richard Skinner was the presenter for a while of the next show I want to mention and that was the Saturday Sequence on Radio 1.
When I first started to listen to this show it was presented by Roger Scott. I was living in London by this time and was lucky enough that I got to see some of the bands that Roger would feature on his show. He loved the music and would proselytize about any new act that fired his imagination in the same way as you would if you bought a new album and wanted your friends to hear it. Bands that I discovered thanks to Roger included Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Michelle Shocked and Mark Germino whose song Rex Bob Lowenstein could have been about Roger and the Saturday Sequence.
There’s a disc jockey in Hartlanberg
Who works at W.A.N.T.
He puts two or three eggs in him
And he’s in your car by 6.00 am
He lives for his job and he accepts his pay
You can call and request ‘Lay Lady Lay’
He’ll play Stanley Jordan, U2 and Little Feat
And he’ll even play the band from the college down the street
And his name is Rex Bob Lowenstein
He’s forty-seven, goin’ on sixteen
His request line’s open, but he’ll tell you where to go
If you’re dumb enough to ask him why he plays Hank Snow
Sadly Roger died tragically young of cancer in 1989 and his place was initially filled by Richard Skinner. I’m sure that I listened to the show during the years Richard presented it but it wasn’t until Johnnie Walker took over the reins that I became a regular listener again. Johnnie’s style was similar to Roger’s and he introduced me to some great bands as well such as Todd Snider, Tom Ovans and many more. His interviews were always interesting and intelligent with his usual sense of humour thrown in. Every week there were usually one or two artists playing live in the studio and he took the show on the road to some great places to report on music.
Saturday afternoons are as you can imagine a difficult time to spend listening to the radio especially when you have a busy job and a young family so I used to go to ridiculous lengths to listen to the show. I used to delay the shopping trips so we didn’t leave until 2pm when the show started. I would then press the button on the first tape recorder which had a 120 tape in it and was an auto reverse machine. I would also have set up the second machine which could be set to start recording on power up ready to be triggered by a timer set for 4pm when the first tape ran out. I would then listen to the tape in the car on the way to work on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The up side of this was that I amassed a huge collection of the sessions that were broadcast but the downside was that if there were any competitions I had missed them, particularly frustrating if I found I knew the answer! Sadly like all good things Johnnie’s time on the show came to an end as Radio 1 was being redesigned for the youf market and a program that played anything from Americana to rock didn’t fit the audience profile. I remember the last show which Johnny finished by playing a recording of the controller of Radio 1 saying something like “Radio 1 will always care about the music and that’s why we have people like Johnnie Walker here!”
Thankfully the void was filled by not just a radio show but a whole Radio station, Greater London Radio. GLR was one of the few radio stations where I could listen all day without having to change channel because of a DJ that annoyed me. Johnnie Walker had a show which was almost an extension of the Saturday Sequence except it covered topical news as well as music. The station was ran by Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann (who had been part of the Old Grey Whistle Test production team) and had presenters like Emma Freud, Bob Harris and Tommy Vance (who did the afternoon drive time show – no really!).
One of my favourite shows was on Sunday afternoon and was presented by David Hepworth who had previously been a presenter of the OGWT. The show was similar in format to Bedrock and the Saturday sequence in that it was a wide mix of music presented in an intelligent humorous way. He used to joke that people would listen to it while doing the ironing or driving back to town after their weekend at their country place. He had a competition called the Rock ‘n’ roll A-level which he would play several pieces of music and you had to tell him what the link was and who the artists were. I won it once!
Sadly GLR was almost completely destroyed by the decision of the BBC to not play music during the morning and evening drive time shows. It carried on for a while before again being rebranded as BBC London live.
Over the years many of the best radio shows have been presented by mavericks who don’t fit into the nice cosy format that the MBA holding idiot who calls the shots likes. They don’t fit the audience demographic or they wanted to play music that isn’t on the approved playlist. In a world where listener figures or commercial pressures are applied to radio everything has to fit into a nice neat little box and anything that is outside that, no matter how popular it is, has to be got rid of. What we have ended up with are radio stations that are clones of each other all playing the same music and running similar competitions in order to attract the listeners and therefore the advertising. No one sticks their neck out and plays stuff that isn’t what their market research tells them we as listeners want. The fate of the well informed music show playing non standard music has been sealed like so many things by the man who holds the cheque book. To sum it up back to Rex Bob Lowenstein…
Now, one day a man in a pinstriped suit
Took the owner of the station to a restaurant booth
His pitch was simple, “you’ll increase your sales
“If you only play the song list we send in the mail.”
He guaranteed a larger audience
Less confusion and higher points
“But your drive-time jock won’t get to do his thing.
“Hey he’s not half bad, tell me, what’s his name?
So for a long time now I have been without a regular radio show that I listen to. Johnnie Walker was briefly back on Radio 2 before illness caused him to give it up and he was replaced by Chris Evans which was just about the worst decision Radio 2 ever made. I often listen to radio 4 when I’m in the car as I enjoy the conversation format – at least you don’t have to put up with the trash that passes for music nowadays.
The closest I have come to finding a show that I feel comes even close to the shows mentioned above has been since I discovered Radio 3. There are two shows that I listen to on a regular basis – the first is on three nights week from 11:15 pm and is called Late junction but I’ve already blogged about this. The other show is called In Tune and is the Radio 3 equivalent of a drive time show. The show follows the same format that my favourite shows have in that every day there are artists coming in for interviews and to play live. I have made some great discoveries from both of these shows of artists that spark my interest and make me want to hear more.
I can’t help but feel that a lot of the radio today is about the ego of the presenter and the music is just something to play while the presenter catches his breath. The days of the radio dj who loved the music and wanted you to love it too have sadly gone. When roger Scott died there was a tribute on radio 1 and at the end they read out a letter from someone who had written to Roger Scott. It basically said that Roger had had such a profound influence on this man’s life, shaped the music he listened to and introduced him to so many artists and so much great music it was hard to believe that he had never even met him.