Every night's a First-Night for someone...
I used to dream about standing on stage at the Radio 1 Roadshow, the crowds clambering on each other’s shoulders just to witness me playing my JAM namecheck jingle at full volume.
Or being allowed a security pass to allow me to swan through the big blue door of Radio Trent, where hitherto I’d just invented reasons to sit in reception.
But my first ever radio show proper was on a hospital radio station. I’d rehearsed, of course, in my bedroom for years with a couple of tape machines, a record player, a cheap mic and a Woolworths editing kit, but unlike today’s generation, I couldn’t broadcast to the World with any ease from our bungalow.
The debut appearance came 45 years ago today – Saturday 17th December 1977 on the infirmary station in Nottingham. My voice soprano through nerves and youth; my style darting between impersonations of everyone I’d ever heard on-air.
The programme to be murdered by this painfully shy 16-year old was called Weekend Singalong – targeted at those unable to escape from the geriatric hospitals. My first record to be cued-up was an oldie - the 1932 'Underneath The Arches' from a warped Flanagan and Allen LP, telling a little of how well-targeted the station genuinely was.
One popular feature within was the 'birthday list': "Hello Agnes, happy 93rd birthday. Here's George Formby - and the one entitled...". Pre-GDPR, we had access to lists of patient names and dates of birth, but we did take the precaution of checking on dear Agnes's health just minutes before the unsolicited dedication; on the pretext of delivering a branded Christmas card.
To me, the studio was impressive, installed in a lean-to next to a prefab semi-derelict hospital building. A four-channel desk, two Garrard turntables with red slip mats and a borrowed Plessey cartridge machine of sorts which chugged away throughout like a diesel bus waiting at some traffic lights. Two reel-to-reel tape recorders - a Revox and a chunky industrial Ferrograph - lay in wait for the playing of the compulsory signature tunes or features.
The mixing panel may have been small, but if one wanted to achieve something slick, the choreography had to be tight owing to the demands of slip-mats. Elbows and noses to the faders when hands had run out. There was the luxury of a mic-live light, provided you’d troubled to turn it on manually with the light switch Gaffer-taped to the Formica top.
One always needs someone to inspire and teach - and one never forgets who they were. In my case, I admired a warm-voiced chap called Steve Voce – who knew everything about presentation and production. I’d watched him many times on-air, witnessing at last the secrets of how the radio I’d loved was actually put together.
Hospital radio was the first time too I’d made friends with proper grown-ups. How I managed to summon up the courage to join the whole affair two bus rides away surprises me, looking back. But when you want something as much as I wanted radio, you’d kill for it. It formed a welcome distraction from adolescence.
Running the station was a team of frighteningly efficient Barries, Beryls and Bettys, wearing DYMO badges and clutching clipboards. Rather too many hospital stations appear to target their disc jockeys rather than their audience. Yes, hospital radio can be a great training ground, but that is not the reason for its existence. Ours had mandatory ward-visiting with summary execution for those who missed it more than once. Wisely so. When my old dad was in hospital towards the end of his long life, someone stopping by his bedside for a natter was much welcomed.
There was broadcasting training too, although they only ever got around to giving me one session. I could have actually been good at this.
On-air though, early lessons were quickly learned about the importance of vocabulary. Listeners were referred to as just that on-air, never "patients". The hope was that our pirated jingles and spotty, adolescent presenters playing The Old Rugged Cross meant that they might forget the major surgery the following day.
We received a convincing lesson on the one-to-one nature of the medium; not least because, on lucky days, we did indeed amass that single listener. Alas, too many on-air professionally nowadays forget the power of the singular "you" and suggest that "any of you out there" "keep your texts coming in".
Over Christmas this year, Radio 1 will again showcase new and emerging talent with 29 new presenters seizing their once in a lifetime opportunity to broadcast on that excellent huge station. I suspect they will likely remember their first Radio 1 show as vividly as I recall my more modest affair. I hope it’s the start of great things for them; and for anyone else making their first inroads into this wonderful radio world in its broadest sense.
Our industry is changing more quickly than ever, but people will always have ears, and will always want something to listen to.
I never imagined that 45 years on, I’d be still at it – feeling as privileged and excited now as I ever did about this magical thing. Doing some late night editing for Boom Radio these days in my bedroom, ready to get back on-air on Monday broadcasting to older listeners, my radio life has come full circle - and that feels good.
Seize the moment.
Grab my full, fond account of radio days beyond the hospital radio years in my autobiographical book 'Radio Moments'.
It's a very personal and candid canter through the last fifty years of this great medium, as a listener - then a presenter and ultimately a manager - through my days at Trent, Leicester Sound, Lincs FM, Century, Galaxy, LBC, Virgin and Orion Media, diverting through spells as a regulator and as a BBC staff member.
Radio Moments - Available now in paperbook or ebook.