Even if it's not a million pounds, you never forget the prizes you win. As a kid, I won a white Alba ‘transistor radio’ from BBC Radio Nottingham - second prize in a jingle contest. SECOND bloody prize.
I also won a Stranglers punk LP from Radio Trent – sadly not what this Bay City Rollers fan really wanted. I cannot recall whether I expressed my dismay for I was generally a polite little lad in those days.
Since working in radio, like many of us, I’ve been involved in my fair share of contests. When the prize is significant, you look forward to the payoff – and you rather hope the listener gets excited too - and shows their enthusiasm unreservedly like they seem to on American media. Sometimes they do, and that’s great.
Other winners are less chuffed.
In response to my Tweet on the topic, @OndineB rambled from Bristol about how their station gave away two tickets to the Superbowl. And flights. And accommodation. And spending money. ‘Yeah, well’, said the winner. ‘I’ve been before so I’m not that excited’.
Radio experts used to suggest that cash, cars and holidays get listeners excited. We can debate that another day, but I almost gave up on holidays. When we told a listener they were off on a trip for two to New York next month, they were not happy. They didn’t want to go next month, even though we’d always said it was going to be next month. Their girlfriend couldn’t get the time off. And they’d need someone to look after their kids - were we going to pay for that too?
John Foster recalls the: ‘how on earth am I going to get to their airport?’ enquiry from one holiday winner, for whom you might have some sympathy, until the supplementary presumption: ‘and we’ll need some food before the flight’.
I recall one holiday prize where the winner had some issue with the toilet in their hotel room. Rather than raising it with the hotel at the time, they complained to us when they got back, demanding a substitute prize - after lying in the sun for a fabulous fortnight.
John Simons had a listener winning a family holiday to Disney World - but who then told the station they didn’t like flying. They requested the overseas jaunt be swapped for a holiday to Pontins. John suggests that exchange was more challenging to organise than it might sound.
Mike Gibbons reminded me of the newly-married couple who won a prize trip to New York – what a glittery destination for their first holiday together as man and wife. Their relationship fell apart whilst away, however, and they promptly announced their intention to divorce. Pity the presenter accompanying them, as he did his jolly two-ways into the drive-time show, with the couple alongside, but not on speaking terms.
What about the tale Chris Carnegy tells of the tearful holiday winner? It's so long ago he cannot recall now if it is true or apocryphal. Anyway, said winner was upset that there was no cash alternative to the holiday prize as she feared the flight might burst her breast implants.
One chap complained to me about his phone bill. He had racked up hundreds of quid in charges on our premium rate contest, where we had explicitly announced the cost every time we played it – in a very loud voice. I asked him if he had known there was a cost per call. ‘Yes’ he said, ‘but I didn’t think it would add up to this much’. He suggested he was going to go the press unless we paid his phone bill. I told him he should.
Cars? They must be easier…
Ian Brannan relates the tale of delivering a wonderful new car to his top prize winner. The station had created a fitting hand-over occasion, with ribbon draped around the dealership, its boss smiling in his best suit - and the local press poised to record the moment. As soon as the photographer began putting his camera back in its case, the winner started negotiating with the car dealer to sell it back to them.
One of my wonderful colleagues in Ireland, Will Faulkner, tells of the listener who refused to collect a €20,000 car, insisting on a cash alternative - despite the terms explicitly stating none would be offered. The stalemate lasted months, until the dealership suggested parking charges would be incurred by the winner.
At Century 106, we staged – wait for it: ‘Yaris or Paris’. So much in UK radio relies on alliteration or consonance - and, frankly, we often start at the title and work backwards when devising mechanics. You can guess the provenance of this contest, the Toyota dealer wanted to give away the then new Yaris, and that sounded a bit like Paris.
After a couple of interminable weeks of contest rounds and a surfeit of sponsor credits, two listeners fought head-to-head in a nail-biting final on the breakfast show. The car winner was delighted. The winner of the trip to Paris was fuming. Yes, it wasn’t the top prize by some margin, but the fact he might only win a wander down the Champs-Élysées was implicit in the contest title. He huffed and puffed and said it wasn’t fair – his case being that the questions were not ones he knew the answers to.
Mark Seaman knows what it’s like: ‘We had someone on a sponsored radio comp many years ago to win a brand new car – first two questions after being told they had won were: ‘what colour is it’ and ‘is it insured?’.
James Masterton recalls the late, great Jim Brown relate the story of the winners of a hot-tub on a contest on Metro. Having insisted on it being installed in their living room, they then claimed that the plumbing couldn’t give it adequate hot water and demanded it be removed.
And do you recall those endurance tests? Spire FM mounted a 'Hands off My Car' contest, where the last person still touching the vehicle won. As the clock struck midnight, heralding presenter Ian Axton's birthday, one cheery yet unlucky contestant took his hands off the car to conduct the rendition of happy birthday.
Barrie Hodge recalls the Real Radio 'fugitive'. The Grassmarket in Edinburgh is going crazy, with everyone asking a homeless guy: 'Are you the Real Radio Fugitive?'. He's not. But he stands up - and happens to ask the right question to the right person - and wins £1500. Live on air, he's invited to 'say those words' (I'm a winner'). “I F%VKING WON!', he retorts instead.
Cash? Much easier. Or is it?
Rae Earl recalls the glee from a winner who’d just carried off a ONE THOUSAND POUND bounty: ‘It won’t be a cheque will it? It’s such a faff’.
Is it indiscreet to let on that the phrase ‘prize pigs’ is used at some stations, to refer to those who will devour any prize? These animals have mastered when to call, how often to call, and want to carry off anything and everything you’re giving away.
One listener, I’m told by Sean Dunderdale, reaped £500 on the station’s Mystery Voice – and then won a shed full of DIY goodies the same week in another contest. The final for the latter was staged at the DIY store itself. Just before she left, the winner was spotted sitting in her car – and was heard on-air on a rival station winning yet another competition.
Alarmed at some of the legitimate restrictions designed to let others have a chance, some listeners invent new names. Stations wised up to that circumvention; and demanded ID on collection of the prize. Adam Bridge tells of the Birmingham prize-winner who doctored their birth certificate; and of the canny station exec who noticed. Well done, Lesley ‘Morse’ Galbraith.
There was also the winner who was claiming benefits, even though every listener knew that his bank account was brimming after a major giveaway, topped off with ‘he’s a winner’ promos every half hour. And let’s not forget the winner whose whereabouts were ‘of interest to the police’.
It’s odd, but it’s often the smaller prizes that earn a better response. Jem Stone used to be on-air in his early BBC days and says people still get in touch recalling albums he gave away thirty years ago.
I recall our variant of Pay Your Bills, where we gave away the cash for experiences and fun, but also more functional purposes. I shall never forget the teary delight from a woman on being told her £40 gas bill had been dealt with. Or the person who had just moved into a new flat with their child, after what sounded like a nightmare chapter in her life. She just wanted a bed to sleep on. She got it.
And this is why we do what we do – really.
Enjoy tales from radio history?
Enjoy my very personal and candid wade through the last fifty years of this great medium, as a listener - then a presenter and ultimately a manager, in my book 'Radio Moments'.
True insight - and fond recollections of what life was really like caught up in this colourful analogue age - with its changes, challenges and rich characters.
Available now in paperbook or ebook.