Over the past few weeks, huge changes have been announced in the UK radio industry – again. To be fair, it seems like there’s big changes and stations disappearing every 3.2 seconds
This isn’t my thoughts on that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the small, commercial, local radio stations I’ve worked at, which either no longer exist or won’t in a matter of weeks.
Anyone who’s worked in local commercial radio will know that you’ll have a primary job role – mine has been journalist/news editor – but you will do EVERYTHING. In 12 years, I’ve been promo team, station mascot, presenter, stage host, sales rep, HR, pot wash and emergency plumber (I’m not even joking about the last one).
Those who’ve worked in the smaller stations will also know that every single day is tinged with madness. There’s the bizarre moments, there’s the tantrums, the blood, sweat and tears; a lot of laughter, love and friendship. For those who haven’t, here’s a taster of what it’s like to have the best job in the world, even if it is a little odd!
There’s two of these places that hold a place in my heart. Today I’m taking a trip back to Yorkshire.
In 2008, I was given a full-time job at Ridings FM, local radio for Wakefield and the five towns. I still to this day could not tell you which the five towns were with any degree of confidence.
I’d been desperate to get that job; I’d been supplementing my sporadic freelance shifts with a waitressing job. I am not a good waitress, I take the stance of if you’re rude to me, I’ll be rude right back and spend most of the shift skiving in the kitchen (sorry to all my former colleagues). I actually unloaded those thoughts on Beth, within a minute of meeting, she had come into the studio while I was recording a demo. I thought she would think I was weird, then we became colleagues, allies and firm friends and I knew I had nothing to worry about.
Everyone expects radio to be all glamour, it’s not. Ridings was tucked away on an industrial estate, with a cracking butty shop around the corner that never opened on a Saturday. The radio group’s colours were Purple and Green, meaning the office was decorated Purple and Green. I know the saying is ‘red and green should never be seen’ but I’ll campaign until my dying day to get purple and green added to that – it was not a good look.
I spent those first weeks getting hopelessly lost in Wakefield and those pesky five towns, pretending I had the first idea about Rugby League – dear reader I KNEW NOTHING ABOUT RUGBY LEAGUE.
Radio and journalism is a bit like driving; in the same way you don’t learn to drive until you pass your test; you don’t learn to be a radio journalist until you get a job and you learn fast. Starting with what to do when you are weeks in, and the Saturday morning presenter appears to have overslept? Kev, I will be eternally grateful you arrived in the nick of time, I was just staring at the desk praying for a miracle.
No one prepares you for dressing as Rocky the Ridings FM bear, that you’ll end up running a 10k or sleeping in the news booth after an all-night election.
No one warns you that you’ll be spending an afternoon Geo Caching with a presenter when all you want to do is punch him and go home to sleep.
No one tells you you’ll spend a Friday night alone, looking for gangs to talk to about why it is they’re generally a pain in the arse. In hindsight this was one of my more reckless jobs, no one knew where I was and 5”2 me was approaching gangs of 6” tall lads – at the time I didn’t register that it could be dangerous.
No one tells that you’ll have to part a curtain of cigarette smoke entering some houses, that rugby players will do an interview with no clothes on; not expecting a woman to be with the other sports reporters (men) and that this is really bloody awkward.
You don’t expect to find yourself in the middle of a football scrap while marshalling a match with the police or as a victim in a mock nuclear disaster.
No one tells you to NEVER accidentally mispronounce ANYTHING because there’ll be a middle aged, overweight bloke, sat in his boxers somewhere, sharpening his knife and plotting your demise or more than likely he’ll just ring you up to tell you that you’re rubbish.
No one prepares you for redundancies and learning to do more with less.
No one tells you what to do when you’re the only person in the office and a blocked toilet floods the place – move all the electricals off the floor, try and find a ballcock and lift it, then hope for the best.
In fact, the only thing university prepared me for was the nuts and bolts of the day to day job and that was relatively easy.
Those early few months passed in a blur, it was bloody hard work. Three of us collected an insane number of interviews every day, produced a fifteen-minute news programme every night (on top of the hourly bulletins), did podcasts for all three rugby clubs, produced news specials and at some point found time to go home.
We worked bloody hard. Holly, the news editor, had high standards, none of us wanted to fall below that.
She could be a task master; she’d send reporters out to find a story out of nothing. No reporter was sitting in the newsroom all day, ‘that’s not how news happens’, she had a point. We also weren’t allowed to use social media (Facebook was blocked in the office). It taught me how to sniff out a story just by door knocking and talking to people, I got some cracking exclusives this way – they had to be good stories.
We’d find ourselves in very odd situations – Beth interviewed a man who claimed wild ducks kept visiting him, he said they would leave if he gave them unbranded bread but would return for a Warburtons toastie loaf.
I spent every Monday morning meeting the leader of Wakefield council who was more interested in talking about music and festivals – despite the fact the authority had lost millions in Icelandic banks.
On my first reading shift Dwain Chambers, former olympic sprinter (and drugs cheat) signed for Castleford Tigers.
We’d get calls from people asking for the time and what song we were playing – usually Freddie Mercury Living on my own, I never have and never will understand why local radio stations play this god-awful song.
I was not a natural news reader. I’d go as far as to say I was bloody awful, squeaky and very Lancastrian.
They really persevered, I had voice coach come in, who gave me a piece of cork to put in between my teeth in the hope it’d get me to open my mouth wider – it seems I haven’t always had a big gob.
I can’t help but laugh when I think of sitting with a piece of cork in my mouth watching Corrie, I’m pretty sure none of my friends have ever been asked to be louder in the name of career progression. It didn’t make me an amazing news reader; I was taken off air eventually and became permanent reporter for a good 18 months – a bit of a relief at the time.
There were constant challenges, small local stations never have a pot to piss in, there were cuts, building closures and when you think the fat can’t be trimmed any further, there were more cuts.
Every time there were cuts my work place moved further and further away from home. By the end I was commuting 164 miles in a 15 year old Fiat Cinquecento named Chuck – damn that car was incredible, it had nearly 200,000 miles on it when I sold it (yes, SOLD, it didn’t die on the M62).
I ended up covering Barnsley too with May, at one point there was just the two of us providing news for Wakefield (and the five towns) Barnsley and the Dearne Valley – that threw football into my lap as well, luckily the 15-minute nightly news programme had been scrapped.
We still had the desire to be the best and give the best coverage to our patches, despite the odds being stacked against us. I managed to get an interview with Arthur Scargill on the 25thanniversary of the miner’s strike, mainly because I was the only one who turned up on a Saturday morning to hear him speak at a memorial event after nagging the secretary of the NUM. The hall was so full and unseasonably hot even though it was March I nearly passed out (obviously had nothing to do with the hangover); it was totally worth it.
Because what they also don’t teach at uni is, how it feels when you get that first big scoop or produce something you’re proud of. What it’s like when your stations smashes a story with only two journalists. You don’t get told how good it feels when you build close relationships with contacts and they trust you enough with their story.
No one tells you that you’ll successfully blag Rugby League to the point where the world’s quietest Aussie – Terry Matterson – will give 10 minute interviews; John Kear will make you a brew every week and tell you ‘it’s been a pleasure’ during his last press conference and one coach will ask for your advice on Christmas presents.
No one tells you that one day a very broad, elderly Yorkshireman will ring up and tell you “Bah it’s grand to have a proper Yorkshire voice on’t’ radio” – I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m from deepest, darkest Lancashire. I had the flip side when I moved to a Lancashire station but as this is a two parter, you’ll find out about that later.
And no one ever really tells you that, yes, you should have carried out a risk assessment before going to a number of jobs, especially those that include approaching yobs, entering very strange houses and going up in the fire brigades arial platform ladder (my cavalier personality means I only assess the risk after).
I loved my Ridings FM days, I loved never knowing what was coming next, that no two days would be the same. There were days where I tolerated it and days where I hated it too but it was the best place to learn the job.
It taught me that, actually, you can make proper friends at work. You need proper friends in that kind of job, especially on those bad news days. The days where you’re covering horrific stories, seeing the worst in humanity, the days where there are redundancies, the days where you want to pack it all in, the days you think ‘I should get a grown up job’ and the days where you just don’t want to vox anymore. On those days May, Beth, Holly and Claire were like gold dust, they really were the best ladies to start out my radio life with.
In a few weeks the shutters will close and Ridings and Dearne as we know them will be no more. I feel for the staff and the journalists, however, if your baptism of fire was anything like mine, then you’ll be fine because I’m sure you’ve dealt with enough situations to be able to handle anything. Coming from a small station, where there’s never any money and you’re expected to fail, gives you the determination to succeed, makes you stubborn and gives you some valuable life lessons – like what a ballcock valve is 🙂
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm