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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’.

April 21, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on Why Old Fashioned Thinking Might Let Spotify Win

Why Old Fashioned Thinking Might Let Spotify Win

Everywhere I go to talk to music programmers the talk turns to the threats and opportunities of online. Rarely, if ever, do any of them engage me in chat about music streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and the upcoming iTunes Radio.

I always ask how big the threat is from the music playlists listeners have compiled, presented in high quality & uninterrupted in the car or on headphones. “Not a threat”, they intone. “Our presenters bring compelling content to every link – the playlists can’t do that”.

Now to a point that’s right. But last week I listened to the excellent ‘Get It On’ on Radio Scotland build a show around the tapes and CDs listeners loved in their first cars. I didn’t hear any mention of the DJs and radio stations I listened to. With the arrival of smartphones in cars it’s even more likely that listeners will listen to digital ‘mixtapes’ of their favourite music.

Many music stations major on sweeps of 2 or 3, with speedy DJ links. The longer links generally go into commercial breaks and are given over to promotional messages or ‘throwing forward’. Not a lot of personality in most cases.

Now one thing the streaming services don’t do is segue properly. The noble art of playing songs back-to-back in a way that they blend and compliment each other is one of the great skills of the good music presenter that computers simply can’t emulate unaided.

Meanwhile, almost all radio stations insist on playing short station IDs between every song. The official reason given for this clutter is that it reminds the listener who they’re tuned to just in case they get asked by RAJAR, especially in crowded markets.


Most listeners have FM or digital receivers that display station name, track title and much more as part of the DAB or RDS information streams.

Adding in this unnecessary clutter replaces the silence between tracks with something that jumps in and distracts from the music experience. It also prevents the listener from enjoying carefully crafted segues by presenters who care about their music – the very thing that the streaming services don’t offer.

It’s just another example of clutter getting in the way of great content that should be unique to radio.

And in this case clutter that represents the thinking of 10 years ago.

January 21, 2014
by johnco
Comments Off on Bonus Audio

Bonus Audio

TTShortly before Christmas I started moving to get the Scottish Media Podcast under way and went as far as recording an interview for it.

As often happens with my diary, real life took control of my diary, notably the addition of a radio show to do every weekend. All I’m saying is that it takes a lot of prep to sound as unprepared as I do!

The podcast will return as soon as I meet up with the key players so expect an announcement soon.

However I don’t want to sit on the interview any longer as it’s a fun bit with a good friend who has just published her first book.

Theresa Talbot’s “This Is What I Look Like” is a great read and she’s a really entertaining listen.

December 31, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on 40 Things about Radio Clyde

40 Things about Radio Clyde

Radio Clyde turned 40 at 1030pm on Hogmanay 2013.

I was 10 when it launched and vividly remember tuning in to the test transmissions on 261 metres on my wee transistor radio in Grangemouth. Then the station went to air and it somehow sounded much more local than I could ever imagined, even though it came from the impossibly glamorous city of Glasgow.

I’ve listened almost daily ever since and thought I’d come up with a list of 40 ‘instant memories’. They’re not exactly in any order – just the way they came to mind.

  • Did Alex Dickson really read all those books he read?
  • Super Scoreboard trouncing Scot – when Scot had commentary
  • Dave Marshall’s sig tune
  • Mark Goodier going on holiday and never coming back
  • Dr Dick’s Midnight Surgery
  • Brian Ford – the epitome of slick on Homeward Bound
  • Half Way Down Robertson Street
  • Captain George patrolling the Conga Line
  • Jim Waugh in the overnight with lots of talk
  • Stick It In Your Ear – the tightest music mag on the radio
  • Richard Park doing football commentary
  • The first time I went in there and thinking OMG
  • The colour red. Everywhere.
  • Kids singing songs for Tiger Tim
  • The recipe on Steve Jones show with Sheila Duffy
  • ‘The Big Day’ with live music all over Glasgow in 1989
  • The early ‘Clyde Festivals’ in Kelvingrove Park
  • The way it sounded huge in the Bobby Hain era
  • Frank Skerret’s turntable going round and round with old songs and bad jokes
  • A local 2-way family favourites – ‘Radio Clyde Worldwide’
  • The way I felt a wee bit disappointed in people who left Clyde to join the BBC
  • Mike Riddoch pointing out the management leaving the building in their helicopter
  • Thinking I’d hit the big time when I was finally allowed on Clyde 2 in 1999
  • Donald Dewar hosting a Friday evening phone in between stints as an MP
  • Ronnie Bergman’s tiny football OB that came in a shopping bag. Ours came in an estate car.
  • Jimmy Mack proudly (and ostentatiously) using a BBC programme box for his show
  • Ross King on the chart on a Saturday morning using an amazing edit of Ah-Ha’s ”The Sun Always Shines on TV”
  • The jingle for Ashfield Motors, featuring a Frank Sinatra soundalike
  • Bill Smith’s old ‘Smithsonian Institute’. Pop fodder & banter it may have been, but I loved it.
  • Billy Sloan’s brilliant Simple Minds programmes around the time of ‘New Gold Dream’.
  • The launch of Clyde FM – a production tour de force
  • The switch from 95.1 to “Stereo Live, 102.5”
  • Riddy on Breakfast. At his best, the Gold Standard of morning shows.
  • Mike Holloway “in your ear”. Nuts but a brilliant music presenter.
  • Donna Summer’s “Love’s Unkind” at Number 2 on Clyde’s Tartan 30. 10 days before it was released.
  • The fact that it had a swimming pool when it moved out to Clydebank.
  • McLaughlin’s Ceilidh, listened to by “grannies oan trannies in single ends and butts & bens…”
  • Lots (and lots) of speech programming
  • A dim memory of Glenn Michael (of Cartoon Cavalcade fame) having a regular show
  • Me Mark Page at his singular best on weekends. I couldn’t understand how he was so knowledgeable about Glasgow until the penny dropped.


There’s a ton of old Clyde audio out there and this set of cuts produced by Bill Padley in 1985 popped up on Soundcloud. In many ways the retrospectives concentrate on the 70s, but in the mid-80s the station was at the peak of it’s powers. I joined the BBC in January that year and moved to Partick and finally became a loyal local listener. It’s fair to say that what they did then influenced everything else I’ve done since. Incidentally, can you name the male lead on these jingles?


December 4, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on A Tale Of One City

A Tale Of One City

This is a revised version of  an article published in the excellent e-radio on 4th December. That article started out at 900-odd words and i was asked for 500-700. This version takes a view slightly more distant view and re-incorporates some of the elements I dropped for space. It also makes a couple of corrections and additions.

The tragedy at the Clutha Vaults in Glasgow will rank as the biggest news stories of the year – especially in Scotland, where the bar is one of the most famous in the city. It was also a game changer in how the news was covered.

At Clyde, Content Controller Davey Walker spotted early tweets shortly after the police helicopter crashed into the roof of the busy pub. Real Radio Scotland’s Paul Harper initially thought the social media flurry was one of those ‘twitter rumours’, but he lives nearby and could tell something was going on.

While Walker was talking to Brian Paige (Clyde’s Content Director), Harper went down to the scene, arriving shortly after the initial rush of activity. “Amazingly, my iPhone was fully charged – on a Friday night – so I grabbed some interviews to send over to news, who I knew had been scrambled.”

Walker and Paige almost immediately agreed that Clyde 1 and Clyde 2 would both come off the network and ‘In Demand: Scotland’ presenter Romeo was doing a separate programme to the network by 1120pm. “I think he really captured the spirit of the city” said Paige, with 2 news reporters in the studio, phone reports from the scene and social media to paint the picture. It was a raw, in the early stages faltering broadcast. But it caught the emotion of the moment.

The rest of Bauer’s Scottish network programmes carried additional news bulletins and continued something resembling their normal form, but in Glasgow it was different.

Meanwhile presenter Paul Harper and Programme Controller David Treasurer sat and crafted a new music log and discussed what the most appropriate tone would be. The call was made to only use calls and social media where it actually added to listeners’ understanding of the story. Paul anchored from before midnight as Real Scotland left the network and began rolling coverage. Having been at the scene, there was a different feeling to the broadcast, with the audio he captured at the scene and input from the reporters who, by now were filing from the city centre.

Like the other Scottish stations, news at Real was extended with the Bailieston team feeding overnight bulletins to the network in addition to providing live material for the station itself every 20 minutes.

Meanwhile a mile from the Clutha Bar at the BBCs Pacific Quay HQ, Radio Scotland resolutely stuck to it’s schedule of pre-recorded content within a music show. The live bulletin at midnight had some information, but the pre-rec continued until the station joined 5 live’s excellent coverage. The presenter was there with a built show and nothing to do other than play out the scheduled interview, play a toned-down running order and trail the next bulletin. This continues a trend for the station where despite having reporters in the field, they have serviced other outlets and failed to go live locally.

This certainly raised eyebrows, both inside and outside PQ, where programme teams felt ready to go to air long before their 1am join to Salford with the material they had available to them. Sources close to to the station lamented the lack of live coverage or even signposts to the coverage on Radio 5 live. After the relay of 5, they returned to cosy and jolly local programming that didn’t reference the crash until the schedule permitted local production.

The first long-form locally produced content on Radio Scotland was a very thorough Good Morning Scotland at 8am and for the remainder of the day the style and tone of the network changed and various news specials were aired. A police press conference also was given precedence over football commentary. Having come late to the party, the station really had depth and breadth in it’s coverage.

The tone of Knoxy’s Radio Clyde programme, which started in Glasgow at 4am captured the mood of many – “It’s four o’clock on a Saturday morning and like you, I’m trying to come to terms with what’s just happened”.

Capital Scotland were faced with a difficult situation. A heavily networked brand and short bulletins were never going to work in the crucial overnight and small hours. PC Stuart Barrie and Head of News did an excellent job of tweaking their music and running extended local bulletins. The bolstering of their local operation in subsequent days by reporters from elsewhere in the Global family added to the breadth and depth of their coverage which maintained the tight, immediate style they have become known for. A special note that like others, Capital also used social media to get the info out there with numerous tweets and  boos of bulletins and interviews.

At Real, David Treasurer was really proud of the stations work on a difficult night. “I’m very proud of the news and programming teams effort, professionalism, and sensitivity through what has been a tragic story to report on”.

In Clydebank, where Scotland’s first commercial station is weeks away from its 40th birthday celebrations, Brian Paige summed up his feelings, “I’m really proud of our team. We really captured the pulse of the city.”.

So did the city’s radio stations.

November 17, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on Doing Old Right

Doing Old Right

I’m ‘properly’ middle aged. I turned 50 back in April. Therefore, I’m well out of range of any number of young brands. The models in the Boden catalogue that wear the shirts I love to buy are lucky if they’re half my age. The Music, video and TV channels tend to avoid the likes of me in their big mainstream offerings.

Despite being in the demographic at the peak of it’s financial powers, commercial broadcasters aren’t particularly interested in me.

When they do – particularly in radio – I’m treated like I’m either a reheated 20 year old or already clutching my bus pass.

The stations aimed older seem to have ‘nice’ presenters saying not very much and tunes that are chosen not to excite me. It’s safe, sensible and probably wearing a beige cardigan.

I was in my mid-teens when glam and prog gave way to punk. Sure, Top of the Pops was sanitised but there was a real surge of excitement as the new bands came through. The 80s certainly has a lot of gloss, but the gender-bending of the New Romantics changed everything that followed.

The same can be applied to the intervening 30 years. Music presenters were personalities, who cut through the incredibly regulated 90s adding personality and relevance to their music. At Radio 1 there was a lot of cheese (it was on the ILR stations too) but I grew up with DJs that talked between the tunes. Stations sounded exciting – and listeners wanted to be part of it.

It wasn’t by any means perfect. Listening back a lot of it is toe-curlingly awful with under-prepped jocks doing little more than hit the post in an American accent. And the same can be said for the scattergun, unfocussed recreations of old stations

If the radio industry has learned one thing, it’s that you can capture the excitement of the stations folk like me grew up listening to and rework it in a modern way. The broadcasters are there and they’ve had a big enough fright to understand the need to be focussed and economical. They can even be trained to keep off the music.

Do that and they’ll bring the thing that others can’t: a sense of entertainment & event. Listen to John Morgan or Robin Galloway or many others work an audience on air. Building suspense or involvement, just through great communication and not being afraid to open their mic to engage with listeners.

Oldies radio in the UK as almost uniformly bland and beige. The creativity and excitement are lavished on the up-to 45s.

Surely it’s time to pay the same attention to the people o the Digital/ AM stations and increase the energy? WCBS-FM or KRTH in the US demonstrate that done right, it really can win.

Getting into the audience’s head (or even face) won’t make the 45+ demo switch off. It’ll frame the content the way they grew up listening to it – in fact transporting them to a better time. It’ll cost almost nothing to do. Just a little effort, creativity and a willingness to try something new old.

November 7, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on Radio Hero: Derek Cooper

Radio Hero: Derek Cooper

Coop (courtesy Your Radio)

Coop (courtesy Your Radio)

Sometimes my radio heroes are market leading megastars – sometimes they’re people who influenced me along the way. But other times I’m simply blown away by their creativity and their willingness to go the extra mile.

My daily routine 16 years ago was to get into Qfm’s less than bijou studio in Paisley, prep my own show and then do the mail. This was before the days of zillions of emails pinging around. I would chat to the news guys, catch up with what sales were up to and stick on any cassette demos that landed in my in tray. That was always a great part of the job. You never knew what you were going to hear next. One ran the obligatory five minutes and I didn’t get round to switching it off. 30” of silence was followed by some non-RA language. That person got a polite reply!

The one that really sticks in my mind from that time is one that almost made me late for my show as I listened to it thee times. The guy had a ridiculously broad local accent, but his command of the language was spot on. ‘This guy can communicate’, I thought. He did all the DJ bits really well. But what really jumped out of the speakers was his creativity and his ability to tell a story. A couple of hours later I was on the phone to Derek Cooper with a view to getting him in ASAP for a chat. Days later he found himself doing an overnight shift (those were the days) which I stayed up way to late to check out. He was superb. Long story short, Coop jumped the queue and became a real project – rising to every challenge we threw at him On top of that, anywhere we scheduled him he built audience and really engaged with his audience. In many ways he was 10 years ahead of the social media curve as the things he would do lent themselves to the way people like to programme now. The things he chose to talk about were almost always spot on and he could take the slightest thing and give it talkability. (“So why… why am I doing tonight’s show naked. It’s all because of a bus.”)

I was moved on and eventually Coop moved on as the revolving door of radio turned. Replaced by a great jock with the smoothed-out tones of the typical Scottish broadcaster. The fact that people who sound different and don’t have a classic ‘radio voice’ do really well (Jonathan Ross? Graham Norton?) was overlooked in favour of sounding as much like the competition as humanly possible.

One of the most ridiculously talented people I ever had the chance to work with makes way more money in retail than some of the daytime jocks on big stations could hope to earn. But he’s back, once a week on a chippy little radio station just outside of Glasgow. Your Radio’s Friday nights sound unique, special and local.

When I’m out and about (and after ‘Any Questions’ has ended on Radio 4) he does a show that feels like Friday night ought to. He’s loving it – and I have a feeling the listeners do too. I just don’t understand why he didn’t pop up on the ‘big’ brands in the Central belt. An enormous talent that’s just a little different.

And that’s why he makes the list of my Radio Heroes.

October 23, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on Where has BBC Radio Five Live Gone?

Where has BBC Radio Five Live Gone?

I produced programmes for the original incarnation of BBC Radio 5.

A grab-bag of programmes from all over the place stuffed onto 693 & 909 under a completely lovely controller who seemed totally out of her depth marrying the disparate parts of her network. Radio 5 had some of it’s own shows, some shared with the regions, others with BFBS and some random OU items.

It was a well-intentioned mess.

Thankfully it moved on and Jenny Abramsky arrived with a vision of a news & sports network, following the success of the “Scud FM” service on Radio 4 FM during the first Gulf War.

BBC Radio Five Live was an instant hit. It married news, sport and BBC values perfectly. It was also perfectly cast with Jane Garvey & Peter Allen on Breakfast, Eddie Mair at lunchtime and Inverdale at Drive.

Over the years the schedule evolved with Julian Worricker, Simon Mayo and Victoria Derbyshire excelling in their ability to manage light and shade in their daily strip-shows.

Now 5 Live is a mess.

Breakfast is still strong with great casting and direction. But the new schedule means that casual listeners don’t know whether they’re getting chalk or cheese (Peter Allen or Adrian Chiles) midday and then an afternoon show that manages to falter and halter like a car that needs a trip to the garage, stat.

Some of this is casting. The on-air team has changed rapidly since the station moved to the southern outpost of Salford, meaning that a number of the best voices were lost.

But other errors have been in the recipe.

Different presenters on midday shows in a nonsense that died everywhere else in the world 20 years ago. Listeners need to build a daily bond to keep them loyal to the station.

The formatics are confusing: at one point yesterday they pointed up the news of a shooting in Ottawa and, rather than go straight to it, they trailed an audio clip on the station website!

Five Live ought to be a jewel in the BBC’s crown.

Instead it mucks about with sport discussions and attempts to pull the listeners’ heartstrings. It’s at it’s best when it’s all about the live stiff.

Sort out your formatics guys – particularly your service elements.

Otherwise Global’s LBC will eat you alive!

September 21, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on Finally, a chance to end ‘churnalism’

Finally, a chance to end ‘churnalism’

There’s a lot of grumbling about ‘news hubbing’ in Scotland, with the moves at Bauer to rationalize their news operation. Individual stations will have bulletins presented from Glasgow after 10am, but will retain locally presented bulletins at breakfast – albeit with reduced staffing to reflect the lower number of bulletins read at each site.

I’ve looked around at the folks who are complaining about this and I’m starting to get annoyed!

The bulk of complainers see every move like this as ‘the death of local’, in the same way as every move towards shared resources and use of modern technology is another nail in the coffin of quality.

Most of these guys (and they almost invariably are guys) love radio. They love radio so much that they want to work in it (or perhaps used to). And they equate  paid jobs in small stations with successful local radio. They’ve got it wrong. They’re locked in the radio of their teenage years.

I know well that few of the smallest stations made enough money to keep broadcasting, never mind invest in the future. The mega-groups are looking to taking their brands truly multi-platform and that kind of expansion requires money. Now DJ Dirk Dingler might want to play northern soul on a Friday night, but the giant leaps required of these stations require investment. It’s not just money lining the pockets of ‘fat cats’ –it’s generating profit to invest.

Similarly, the most important people in radio – the listeners – have voted with their ears, demonstrating a love of these stations that’s growing.

I’ve argued before that when it comes to music radio, it simply doesn’t matter where the Rihanna-playing-DJ is sitting. What matters is that they’re playing the right music and connecting with the listener.

It’s the same with news.

When I ran small stations, we had a news team of 2 or 3. In any day, 2 of those staff were stuck on shift at the station reading out a combination of IRN copy and following up on press releases. One of my news heads used to bemoan the fact that there was little time for what they called ‘real’ journalism and what they were doing was merely feeding the beast.

Of course there will be cost savings in the way that Bauer produce bulletins will help the group invest in their digital future.

But the most exciting thing to me is that the regional journalists will finally be able to go and ‘do’ journalism without having to rush back for a bulletin. I expect that coverage of events across Scotland will actually be more critical, more local and more relevant. Every second a journalist spends doing something other than reading out the same copy as their colleagues in 5 other stations is a second they can spend digging and questioning.

In a time when Scotland is asking some big questions about its future it’s more important that stories are properly reported. Putting reporters on the road instead of in a news booth ripping and reading isn’t just a plan – it’s an imperative.

September 13, 2013
by johnco
Comments Off on Radio. Like the priesthood.

Radio. Like the priesthood.

The thing I really don’t understand in education is the artificial divide between so-called ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ post school education.

As I understand it (remember, I work in education) academics are reflective thinkers. People who gather and assess evidence and use the knowledge gained to go on and make new discoveries. Meanwhile the vocational bods make and mend things, using their craft skills and the sweat of their brow to do so.

I was brought up Catholic, and that gives me a second meaning of ‘vocation’: it’s a calling to do something. While I associate it with a calling to the religious life I expect that anybody who has a burning desire to do something has a vocation.

And that’s where media/ radio finds itself in a funny place. Increasingly I visit academic institution who have superb facilities dedicated to the making of programmes. In them, students learn the craft skills involved in making content.

Now I’m sure these students go away and reflect on their performance and that reflection, combined with the understanding it generates will make them batter content creators. But it strikes me that they are actually following up on their vocation.

Radio broadcasting is a bit like the priesthood. Unsocial hours are the norm and you often find yourself the only person you know working on the Sabbath. The wages are low and over your career you’re likely to move around a bit. When you’re not doing your thing in front of the congregation, you’re still thinking about radio, listening to it and coming up with ideas. When I see the zeal of many students it’s almost as if they’ve had some kind of religious moment.

Now I know that politicians often believe that vocational education is about wearing uniforms: overalls, work boots, beautician’s tunics, chef’s whites and so on.  But that’s too simplistic.

True vocations are about passion and a burning desire to ‘do this thing’. In the courses I’m lucky enough to teach that vocation is for radio and the very best will do whatever it takes to get better at what they do, to network and learn from their experiences in the professional environment we give them.

In fact what matters isn’t whether our skills are taught in an academic or a college setting.

What matters is that it’s taught honestly and realistically. The people doing the teaching need to really know their industry so that they don’t just teach skills – they add real-life experience and access to contacts in industry.

When the students emerge, then the learning really begins.