30 Years in Radio

Written on January 6, 2022

October 2021 marked being involved with Radio for 30 years. It was October 1991, at the age of 14, when I became a volunteer at Hospital Radio Chelmsford. 

I had previously expressed my interest after visiting it during a Boys Brigade ‘communications’ badge challenge of presenting a radio feature but was too young so had to wait for my 14th birthday to come before retrying. I was lucky in that the studios were around a 10 minute walk/5 minute bike ride from my house and it wasn’t long before I was down there most evenings.

I started on a Monday night ward visiting and presenting the Request Show. We were lucky to have a long term ward in the Hospital called The Links unit (it was based right next to a Golf Course) and so visiting ‘Smiler’ and Christine each week was much easier than meeting other patients who had never seen you before and were poorly. As a 14 year old visiting people at their lowest certainly helped me to meet people later in life. The Maternity ward also provided some surprises for a 14 year old who had yet to see much female naked flesh!

I soon added Sundays to my schedule and met the man who became my best man, Mark, and who is still a good friend. There are many tales to tell about my HR days including overnight engineering and painting sessions to get Studios working in time for the Mayor to officially open. Many Christmas shows including ripping off the audio from a Radio 1 Christmas show Simon Mayo did live from Lapland and pretending to be there myself. The Election programmes we used to do were our most technically ambitious productions and we all remember the 1997 Labour win election with fondness and a sense of history taking place in front of our eyes and ears. The station in 1994 also ran a RSL for 28 days on 105.8 FM (before Virgin took the frequency) which turned the station into ‘a proper’ station for a month.

Two years later in 1993 it was time to think what to do and I had truly found what I loved which was Radio so decided to go to College in Southend and study for a BTEC National Diploma in Media specialising in Print and Radio. I had my eyes set on the BBC as at Hospital Radio we would go to BBC Essex, based just a few more minutes down the road, and collect their news scripts after their 1900 bulletin take them into the photocopier room and make a copy to bring back to our studios. It was whilst walking on their incredibly spongy floor in the newsroom I thought it was for me. I also thought the BBC would not accept anyone without a qualification and sacrificing two years between the ages of 16 and 18 to get it would be the best way of getting in rather than just offering myself for work experience. 

I found the course difficult. Travelling for nearly an hour each way on the number 11 bus did not help alongside the timetable having huge gaps in it and the pull of Hospital Radio work made my attendance a little poor at times. I found it hard editing reel to reel tape at College of vox pops that would never be broadcast vs editing it at Hospital Radio where it would be played out hard to motivate me to do it at College. 

Whilst I was at College in 1994 when I was 17 I started volunteering at BBC Essex helping on the ‘County Trail’ programme on a Sunday morning in their Radio Car and also doing some days working on the Helpline and in the Gram Library pulling and putting records and discs away for shows. I did this until late 1995 when I finished at College and got a job working in a Video rental shop and I had to work on Sundays.

When I finished College it was then about applying for any jobs I could see. Checking the Media Guardian on a Monday and also grabbing ‘Ariel’ the BBCs Newspaper and checking the jobs there. I even had an interview for the Today programme as a BA for them which was terrifying. 

Eventually in May 1996 I got my first permanent job at the BBC! I walked into Broadcasting House from Oxford Circus in disbelief that at 19 I was working for this establishment. My job started working in a department called ‘Current Recordings’ and it was our job to ensure all the Radio networks had all the pre-recorded programmes for the day to playout. I only did this for a month before being sent to another area of the Archives which dealt with the Radio Archives. Basement level 1 in BHX and my role was to pull and put away archive recordings which we had on Reel to Reel, Vinyl and the new format of CDR. This was a time at the BBC where you needed special permission to have access to the internet and email had only just begun being used. All the requests came on the phone from the researchers up in the daylight! This was a Monday to Friday job which of course meant I could continue with Hospital Radio and then start filling my weekends with other work.

This work came around October 1996 when I started to work for Essex Radio Group. My college friend, James Bassam (who now presents Gold breakfast), had been working for them for a while and was presenting overnights and not sure how it came about but Ray Clark got in touch and asked me if I could tech op his show (The Ray and Pete Show) on a Sunday morning. You can actually see the studio in this video https://youtu.be/Cf6ywayNY3g and my job was to play in their links from reel to reel between the music and ads which were coming off a newly installed computer playout system called BCX. Legend has it they swapped their travel aeroplane for this playout system. I believe this show used to be 10 – midday. It then wasn’t long before I was asked to ‘op the “Double Power Hour” on Essex FM 2-4pm and then babysit the Chart Show 4-7. Going back to Breeze from 7 – midnight. So it was a full day of desk driving.

This was to build further when Daily Mail Group bought Essex Radio and they had a station in St Albans and I used to Tech Op their love songs programmes Saturday 10 – midnight on alternate Saturdays when the other one was “Club Essex” playout on Essex FM. I worked for them until approx June 1998. This time with them gave me great desk driving and back timing experience and in essence the job was to load the following days playout log into the system during the midnight IRN news as the system was not capable of doing it itself! It was 1998 when I met Abbey, my now wife, at Hospital Radio and she would come along to St Albans and sit in the studio whilst I tech-op’d and we would chat on the drive there and back.

Around this time I had approached Metro Networks, travel news providers, based at Centre Point in London. I was invited to an introduction night at the premises and I guess some sort of voice tryout. It was also at this initial meeting I met Will Jackson who worked there and he took me aside to tell me about a station he was going to be the launch programme controller of in my home town in Chelmsford. I was interested and decided to take the jump and leave the BBC to join the launch team for 107.7 Chelmer FM. It launched 18th October 1998 and I presented the evening show and was the traffic manager.

It was such a thrill to launch a radio station in my home town and have fond memories of it. I stayed until around May 2000 when I left to join The Beach in Lowestoft to do a similar role for them. I did not stay long. It was my first time of leaving home and by then I had been with my girlfriend for 2 years and was missing her during the week and was lonely living in Beccles. Presenting the evening show gave me no opportunity to build a life there. I was back at home by the end of June with no job! I picked up work at Metro Networks presenting Travel News and then in October I saw a job for a Trainee Studio Managers course for the BBC. I got it and started on the 2nd November 2000. This involved a week in London and then 3 weeks in Evesham at the BBC Training Centre at Wood Norton. This was a complete grounding in everything audio and I had to pickup my reel to reel editing which I had done at Hospital Radio and College years ago! We then had 3 weeks back in Bush House, home of the World Service, doing more practising. I was ready to do my first solo tech oping of a Burmese Programme at 23:59:30 on Christmas Eve 2000.

I worked mainly in the European Section of the World Service and this was doing the mixer faders and levels for languages including Greek, Slovenian, Slovakian, Polish, Bulgarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian and Croatian. The presenters sit through the glass in their cubicle and you have a producer/broadcast assistant sat next to you most of the time telling you what was next. Getting up during playout to rewind and lace up the next reel to reel machine for the next package or getting a phone call through to the desk or an ISDN from the Control Room. It was a ballet of activity and I loved it!

We would also get involved in Outside Broadcasts and Events. I covered a NATO summit in Istanbul where we had to build a studio in a parking bay of a Multi-storey car park. Built a studio in a flat in Bulgaria and did some training in Romania. By 2004 we were moving the operation to Digital as quarter-inch tape was beginning to run out. I helped with this project and was a great big project working with IBM for the technology and a system called Radioman. It was here I learnt a lot about computers and networking.

I used this knowledge working freelance for PSquared (now Broadcast Radio) and had been using their software at Hospital Radio. I joined them on their stand at SBES in Birmingham in 2005 and 2006 as I guess a Customer Champion. This has led onto a great working relationship with the team which continues to this time. I have produced Video screencasts and documentation for them during my time.

Working on the roll out and updates to Radioman involved visiting Oulu in Finland where they are based and working with the software team to ensure our requests were being actioned and provide feedback to them.

One of the benefits of working for the BBC is their attachment scheme. I spent some time working as a project manager developing and deploying a ‘studio in a suitcase’ for disaster recovery and business continuity. I had the pleasure of training users in its operation in Delhi and Miami.

I also did an attachment as a Duty Operations Manager for World Service and worked in the Control Room ensuring the delivery and production of World Service output. 

It was nice to also have two attachments with BBC Essex and this felt like a full circle returning to the station which gave me one of my first breaks. I was their Broadcast Engineer looking after their equipment and training staff in Radio Car usage. I also got the opportunity to present on the station for a couple of years covering Early Breakfast which was absolutely fantastic and thoroughly enjoyed it even though it meant a 0230 alarm clock!

Doing these two attachments moved me away from production and into engineering and this is where I have ended up now working at the Master Control Room at Broadcasting House as a Senior Operations Engineer ensuring the routing, contribution and distribution of the BBCs radio operations Nationally and Internationally is maintained.

So that’s 30 years! I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can get away with not really having a ‘proper job’!

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