@johnco online

the internet home of John Collins

February 27, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on Getting Back To Basics

Getting Back To Basics

Back in January 1998, I did my first ever ‘voice track’ show. I had recently arrived from Paisley’s Qfm and was the new Programme Director of Scot FM where one of my jobs was to take on the Late Night Love shift on Saturday and Sundays.

I had no particular wish to be in Leith seven days a week so decided to use the technology Scot had used on and off and enter the world of ‘tracking’.

For the uninitiated, a voice tracked show should sound just like a live show. But rather than record a three hour show in three hours, you can do it in just 30 minutes. The computer plays you the end of the song you’re coming out of, you do your link and then play in the next song exactly as you would. The computer takes care of playing the songs so you don’t need to hear – you just progress to the next link and so on.

I can report that despite me not sitting in the studio pressing buttons, the audience shot up and we actually started getting letters. Lots of them.

The process put me in mind of the way we made many programmes at BBC Radio Scotland in the mid 80s, with presenters sitting at a table and folk like me doing the techy stuff.

Both experiences taught me a lesson. Presentation and pressing buttons are two separate things. It’s possible to be the slickest operator in the world and be a terrible presenter. Similarly it’s possible to be great on the microphone and terrible with the fiddly bits. There are many who can do both really well.

But radio training at many levels has a habit of concentrating on the technology, not the skills required to bring a programme home and engage with the listener. The net result is that a lot of people are incredibly proficient operators but lack the skills to talk directly to their audience, one at a time.

Voice tracking has forced presenters to concentrate on what their chosen job title suggests – present. Since the pandemic I think we’re hearing much better programming on any number of small stations. One-to-one communication and fewer technical mistakes.

Getting back to basics, albeit using modern technology, has raised the medium’s game.

February 23, 2021
by johnco
Comments Off on World Radio Day 2021

World Radio Day 2021

I wrote this on 13th February on Facebook, just a wee post to mark World Radio Day. It got a ridiculous number of likes and kind comments, so I thought I’d post it here for posterity!

Back in 1977, 14 year old me passed my ‘test tape’ at the local hospital radio station and was awarded my first show. Radio Royal’s “Country Clinic” aired at 7.30pm on Thursdays.

It’s been quite the journey since: BBC Scotland, Forth RFM/ FM, Qfm, Scot FM, Clyde2, Beat 106, Kingdom, Clan, Forth2 and all sorts of deps, network commissions and one offs along the way.

Then there’s the teaching. I thought it would be a bit of supply to augment the radio work for a wee while. 15 years later I’ve still not been found out.

This year saw the 10th World Radio Day and the wheel has turned full circle.

I still do many things for Radio Royal and get to play Country music nationally on Chris Country Radio. (I’m there in the afternoons, by the way)I’m very fortunate to have been involved in the medium I love for 43 of my 57 years. Let’s aim for the half-century and beyond!

#WorldRadioDay2021

January 22, 2018
by johnco
Comments Off on A teen finally finds the studio

A teen finally finds the studio

I had the radio bug.

Listening wasn’t enough. I needed to understand how all the parts went together. The shows were impossibly sexy sounding. Dave Marshall on breakfast on Clyde sounded like he was high up a tower looking down on the city ‘marshalling’ the morning commute. Brian Ford at the other end of the day was impossibly slick and had an amazing voice.

Closer to home, Forth had come on air and once Mike Scott arrived on breakfast the impossible largesse of paying for someone’s shopping each morning sounded frech and different.

How could I be part of this?

Initially my brother provided the answer. Kevin was a genius with a soldering iron and fabricated a box (actually a passive crossfader) that made an early version of ‘Bedroom FM’ possible. Many happy hours were spent creating shockingly bad ‘radio’, but I was beginning to understand how difficult this this really was.

In my head, it struck me that all local radio stations (in Scotland at least) had rivers for names. The nearest unclaimed river was the Tay, so an early version of Radio Tay was born. (The irony that I now broadcast on Bauer’s Tay 2 is not lost on me).

But what next?

Despite some very encouraging teachers school didn’t have the kit to make radio so I needed a miracle.

In 1977, that miracle appeared.

I was 14 when Radio Royal launched. It was a hospital station serving Falkirk and Stirling Royal infirmaries from studios atop the nurses home at the RSNH in Larbert. My poor dad drove my up and down there while I learned the ropes – visiting patients, helping put together the music for shows and learning how to work the equipment.

We had a studio, a control room, an office, a record library and a sort-of common room.

From memory the studio featured a ‘Partridge’ Mixer, a brace of Garrard 401 turntables and a lone cart machine for jingles.

By modern standards it was inflexible, slow moving and very mechanical. The quality of early microphones wasn’t great, so the walls were treated with egg boxes and heavy curtains to control the sound of the room.

Rudimentary it may have been, but to me it was a palace of technology.

After a long spell choosing tunes for other people and collating requests from the wards, the time came. I was allowed to make a demo.

It was awful. I could operate the studio and I could certainly hit the post, but everything else was poor. So I sought help from another member who had just started a job in commercial production at Radio Forth. Keith Hogg was, therefore, an expert.

The second demo was much more successful and resulted in me getting a show. Who knew that 41 years later I’d still be playing the same music on the radio?

7.30 on Thursday evenings. The show was called the “Country Clinic”.

January 7, 2018
by johnco
Comments Off on An unlikely start

An unlikely start

I was born in 1963. That’s the year the pirate stations started broadcasting from just outside territorial waters, but in the town of Grangemouth in central Scotland there was no such challenge. Life was pretty simple. Mum was a teacher, keen to help my dad be anything other than a bricklayer. The music in our house was mostly light classical and the radio was pretty rigidly tuned (by the time I would understand what these things were) to Radio 4.

We were ahead of the times as ours was a home that had a ‘stereo’ and we listened on FM. There was also a Bush radio in the house. Probably my earliest memory of the radio was Listen With Mother.

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”.

I believed that the voice was speaking directly to me from inside that box.

The general theme inside of our rapidly growing house was ‘improvement’. Thus contemporary pop music was mostly frowned upon. Top Of The Pops on a Thursday evening (after Tomorrow’s World) was accompanied by a running commentary from my parents that boiled down to “There’s no tune in this”, “He looks like a girl” and “She could do with a right wash”.

Most importantly of all, we didn’t have radios of our own. What media we consumed was enjoyed in the living room at 2 Mountbatten Street.

I got to hear bits of Radio 1 at school or at my friend’s house. It’s hard to believe now that I thought Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds and Paul Burnett were slightly subversive guilty pleasures, but I did! I started to become obsessed with the Top 30 chart reveal on Tuesday lunchtimes and can picture listening to the countdown in the playground. It was only a matter of time before I got my first radio.

It was red AM only ‘tranny’. It changed everything.

Within months I listened to almost all of Radio 1, I had discovered Radio Luxembourg at it’s peak and become hooked on a faint signal that I thought came from America – AFN Europe. In addition to music shows that station brought me into close contact with one of my other great loves – American Football.

I was 10.

This little box gave me the freedom to listen to anything, anywhere.

Then local radio appeared on the horizon.

Barely into my second decade I knew I had to be part of this.

January 17, 2017
by johnco
Comments Off on Doing The DAB

Doing The DAB

I’m taking part in this event next month, asking lots of pertinent question of the great and the good after the lovely Stuart Barrie gets the evening going. Ay questions you want me to ask?

 

Glasgow’s dynamic and thriving digital radio scene will be celebrated at a special free digital radio event in conjunction with Radio Academy: Doing the DAB. The event will take place on Thursday 23 February from 6.30pm at 29 Private Members’ Club in central Glasgow and features leading BBC and commercial radio broadcasters.

 

  • Hear about the nearly-70 digital stations on air in Glasgow, and about the 30 stations launched in the last 18 months
  • Hear about the Scotland digital pop-up stations, BBC Radio Scotland Music Extra and Scottish Sun Christmas Radio
  • Hear about the launch of the latest radio station in Glasgow, Rock Radio

 

Doing the DAB is open to everyone but places are limited. Attendees should reserve their place by emailing rosie.kendrick@digitalradiouk.com.

 

The event will be hosted by Stuart Barrie, Chair of Radio Academy Scotland and East Scotland Regional Content Director of Bauer Media.

Speakers include:

  • Graham Bryce, Group Managing Director, Bauer City Network;  
  • John Collins, Presenter, Bauer City 2;
  • Adam Findlay, Group Managing Director, New Wave Media; 
  • Piers Collins, Strategic Development, Legal & Business Affairs, Wireless Group;
  • Spencer Pryor, Director, Brave Broadcasting, who has pioneered the Glasgow mini-mux which now carries 11 stations;
  • Ford Ennals, CEO, Digital Radio UK;
  • and Ciaran O’Toole who was recently awarded the Glasgow/West Central Scotland licence for Rock Radio. A leading speaker from BBC Radio Scotland will also feature in the final event line up.

 

This event, is produced in partnership with Radio Today.

 

Reserve your place by emailing rosie.kendrick@digitalradiouk.com.

January 11, 2017
by johnco
Comments Off on Hello again, world!

Hello again, world!

About a year ago at the end of 2015 my blog went off line. It turns out it was hacked via the comments section of the site and was being used by bad guys to send spam.

My ISP and I closed down the site and then took steps to reinstate it. The back office part of that is done so it’s time to put the old posts back over time and get back to occasionally blogging again. I’ll definitely be posting again as the year wears on. Thoughts, opinions and information about the country show I present for Bauer’s City 2 network.

I’m in the process of restoring the old posts – words first then media later.

I doubt I’ll ever enable comments again, but I hope you enjoy what I write.

J

December 14, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on While Air Traffic Wasn’t, LBC Was Soaring

While Air Traffic Wasn’t, LBC Was Soaring

I was driving home on Friday afternoon, listening to Julia Hartley Brewer on LBC. It was a fairly ordinary phone in about (I think) immigration or a similar topic that gets the phones lighting up at an otherwise slow time.
And then JHB said two words that made me instantly retune to BBC Five Live. There was a problem in the airspace above London. Air Traffic Control had closed it while they addressed a problem. This was “Breaking News”.
Click.
I retuned to the BBC’s News and Sports station. With access to the biggest resources in the world They would be all over the story.
Instead we got film reviews, news heads, a sports bulletin, a quick mention about issues at Heathrow and then more film reviews.
Click.
LBC was reporting the issues calmly and authoritatively. The existing format was mostly binned and both JHB and later Iain Dale did an excellent job of identifying the facts on the ground and in the air and reporting them.
The coverage was speedy, on point and super-served this listener.
I don’t know what Five Live did after 4pm. In the golden 15 minutes LBC had reacted and reported. They clearly appreciated the size of the story and it’s interest to the great majority of listeners who care about news.
That’s the point when there’s a big story breaking. If you dither you’re left to do ‘more considered’ coverage and reflect on what’s happened. But I posit that listeners who don’t have access to rolling TV news want timely updates. Radio is hopeless at detail most of the time so a reporter in the studio laying out the story is all it needs in the first place. Listeners’ expectations have moved on and without even a hint of dumbing-down, James Rea’s team at LBC have understood that reacting quickly and well to these events makes their opposition look flat footed and old fashioned.
With much smaller resources LBC once again trounced its BBC rival. Others have blogged about how the station has been one of 2014’s winners, notably around phone ins with political leaders but also with some remarkable items on James O’Brien’s midday show.
Meanwhile Five Live has become lost. A station with a constantly shifting line up and one that sounds like it doesn’t know what it’s for any more.
This is terrible for radio. Britain needs a strong BBC offer to keep commercial radio on its mettle. BBC Five Live is a vital part of that offer. Many of my closest friends are staffers at the Beeb and they defend their employer as they should. But i know that they want to get in about stories and not be held up by logistics or formats. I wish they got their way more often.
When a story was breaking in London that had national implications, LBC once again demonstrated that when it matters they’re becoming the station to turn to when news breaks.

December 11, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on While The Radio Academy Circles The Drain

While The Radio Academy Circles The Drain

I think I’ve calmed down a bit since last night when I followed the Radio Academy’s AGM on twitter and then read a few blogs. Two things stuck with me.
Firstly the fact that while the need for change is acknowledged, nobody senior seemed willing to offer suggestions as a way of getting the ball rolling. For a meeting filled with some of the industry’s biggest brains that disappointed.
Secondly, the suggestion that those who were upset by the shuttering of the biggest activities and their eventual move to London were somehow akin to those who condemn every modernising change the industry changes because they want to hark back to a ‘golden age’.
I’ve long been critical of aspects of the Academy’s work but have remained on the Scottish Branch Committee for many years. That’s because I believe [passionately that there has to be a place where we come together as a broader industry. It’s great to see BBC folks and IR lifers meeting, chatting and discovering that they face many of the same challenges every single day.
At an event I helped organise for Creative Loop and Bauer’s Media Academy last week it was a delight to see BBC staffers posting selfies at Radio Clyde. It’s exciting to see the pride and passion that broadcasters have in their environments and their teams and the fun they have visiting others.
Then there was the annual Scottish Branch Christmas Quiz last Monday night. I loved that for two reasons.
Professionals from the indies, BBC, Bauer & Global all took part and enjoyed a fun night alongside students and their lecturers from across Scotland.
The other reason is my team won.
To most in the industry up here, where the Radio Festival took place was irrelevant. That’s was one of the reasons we worked so hard to get the two-day Creative Loop Student Media Festival off the ground and to ensure that we booked big names to have big thoughts.
I’m wondering whether in Scotland we take that event and grow it a little to include sessions designed for people who already work in the industry, maybe even rolling in a couple of awards and so on. Let’s face it, the Scottish performance in the UK awards hasn’t exactly been awe inspiring of late and it would be wise to recognise and develop our best talent.
With Bauer, Global, Creative Loop, BBC Scotland and others already active in this space a Scottish RA has the ability to bring industry-wide support to events and initiatives – almost a seal of approval. That doesn’t take much money – just effort and a will to succeed.
Similarly other regions and nations could be federalised and encouraged to come up with a programme that works for their area. Pull together the broadcasters, podcasters, teachers and more who make radio the diverse and challenging industry it is today.
If the London guys don’t want to travel to Salford, that’s fine. Let’s see them run fantastic events in the home counties and share them nationally.
Whatever the RA becomes it has to be about it’s members.
Not the big broadcasters and smaller patrons, but the wee guys who stump up their annual dues, often from their own pocket.
If the RA stays close to the membership and concentrates on super serving its needs, it’ll have made a start.

November 23, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on Live & Local v. Real & Relevant

Live & Local v. Real & Relevant

Years ago, in a meeting with Ross MacFadyen at the RNIB’s wonderful Insight Radio in Glasgow I heard a phrase for the first time.
“Yes we’re a community station, but what we serve is a community of interest”.
He was making the point that while the station broadcast in Glasgow on a low-power FM Community Radio license, the key was the national audience on various digital platforms who could access their programmes. The community of interest? Blind and partially sighted people.
Listening to the latest Radiostuff podcast as I walked the dogs this morning, that phrase came to mind moments before interviewee James Cridland used it. James is a wise man: he said radio is much less about here and now – it’s much more about what I want to hear, now.
There’s a disaffected school of former radio presenters that want to go back to “radio like it used to be” citing a time when Americans were already experimenting with automation as if it was some kind of Golden Age. Indeed many of the US powerhouse stations of the time (like 77WABC and WLS) were effectively automated from the jocks point of view with the tech-op running the desk and playing in the tightly playlist music.
They insist, as James says, that “live and local” should be the mantra. They’re only partly right.
If you’re a local station surrounded by regional and national mega-brands then you absolutely should be local. I’d argue that where at all possible you should be live. That’s because there’s unlikely to be a music position you can stake out and anyway, your competitors wouldn’t want to be sullied by that small stuff. Own your patch. Attend every event and always use local names, words and rivalries.
But as James and host Larry Gifford point out, that’s what relevant is all about.
Your content may be on AM, FM, Digital or a file, but it will only succeed if it’s relevant to your community of interest. To me that’s media, politics and travel – to others it’s maybe sport, food, cars or astronomy.
The new platforms actually get us back to one of the first principles of good radio.
It needs to understand its audience and be genuinely compelling. As long as programmers strive to make programmers strive to programme beyond the lowest common denominator and deliver content that’s real and relevant the medium will continue to thrive.

October 27, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on Radio Hero: Jimmy Mack

Radio Hero: Jimmy Mack

Ten years since his passing, I’ve realised that the more I worked with Jimmy Mack, the more I admired him.

I first met him in the mid 80s but had already listened for years to his show on BBC Radio Scotland. Always afflicted by odd scheduling, they started him at 8.45. That (crazy) 15 minutes was one of the finest things on the station – Cliff Hanley and Christine Kinnear joined him for a preview of the day and what can best be described as banter. Better at being Jimmy Young than JY could ever be, Jimmy M deftly negotiated the talk elements and demonstrated first-rate music skills.

That shouldn’t be surprising as 20 years early a younger Jimmy was honing those skills on a different station with (almost) the same name aboard the MV Comet. Anchored in assorted points around Scotland the station was always held in high regard by it’s thousands of listeners. This wasn’t really a surprise as it’s line-up was a roll call of current and future greats. From there Jimmy went on to have some ‘normal’ jobs, start a family and then make the move to the BBC in the early 1970s. It was only a matter of time before he turned up at Queen Margaret Drive during one of the station’s classic periods alongside Tom Ferrie, Colin Bell, Ken Bruce and others.

The superb thing about his act was the level of preparation. He was every bit as comfortable with a ‘consumer’s friend’ interview or handling callers live on air. He also had a special knack of making scripts and live pieces sound exactly as natural as each other. This leant almost everything he did with an air of relaxed authority absent from many of his contemporaries.

Towards the end 0f the 1990s there was a changing of the guard at Radio Scotland and a feeling that the station needed to reinvent itself in keeping with the times. Presenters moved around, including Tom Ferrie starting a long tenure at Westsound. But Jimmy’s move was characteristically yet another reinvention. He left the BBC and its enormous production teams with vast phalanxes of audio staff for Clydebank.

With Clyde ‘splitting the airwaves’ into the hot AC Clyde 1 and significantly mellower Clyde 2, the afternoon drive shift was a natural home. The years of working with BBC eccentrics meant that the maddest Clyde could get was grist to his mill. I like to think that his experiences built to this moment when he had much more creative control over his act.

Why’s he a hero to me?

He loved radio and music but never lost sight of the people that he worked with along the way, always finding time to chat and encourage along the way. He was meticulously prepared for his shows and had a skill I never adequately mastered – back timing. His daughter Barbara, now a senior producer at the BBC, once told me that back timing was the mark of a radio professional. One of the ways you could tell where somebody learned their trade was how their hours ended. I think that’s why I remember him every time I hear Del Amitri’s ‘Roll To Me’.

Another thing that reminds me of Jimmy is a small but perfect thumbing of his nose at station management. His finely honed shows at Clyde, with their CCDs, LPs and paper scripts were always delivered to and from the studio in – a BBC ‘Programme Box’.