23 October 2023

Knock me down with a mugger : 1986 : Share A Capital Christmas, Capital Radio, London

 Blam!! A sudden force on my back knocked me over in a second. No time to figure out what had just happened. I was sprawled front-down on the floor with a weight on my back. I shouted. People around me screamed. I could sense a struggle taking place overhead. The object on my back lifted and, from my ground level line of sight, I made out the feet of someone running ahead of me into the crowd.

“Are you alright?” asked one of the group of people standing around me, looking concerned.

“We saw that man push through the crowd,” explained another, “then knock you over and jump on top of you. We managed to pull him off but he ran away.”

They helped me to my feet and I realised that I was indeed alright and thanked them profusely for their swift action rescuing a complete stranger. I was wearing a thick winter coat that had broken my fall. I had been lucky not to have hit my head and to have landed on the soft bag I had been carrying in front of me. Nothing appeared broken. As I rejoined the throng of commuters journeying home, one of the Good Samaritans added:

“It looked as if he knew you were there amongst the crowd and targeted you. It was very strange.”

Indeed, it was. I had travelled this same journey every day and nothing untoward had happened. I always left work at the end of the afternoon, walked across Euston Road to Warren Street tube station, caught the southbound train and alighted four stops later at Charing Cross, one of London’s busiest hubs. I had been walking through the narrow, low-ceiling tunnel that led up from the Underground platform to the railway station concourse when I had been jumped. The train and tunnel had been more crowded than usual because it was Christmas Eve. It seemed bizarre to be jumped on not when I was alone in the winter darkness outside, but amongst a tightly packed crowd inside a well-lit underground travel conduit.

There was one significant difference between all the other days I had travelled home without incident and that day. Stuffed down the front of my underpants was a white envelope containing a substantial amount of cash representing payment for my last six weeks’ work. I had requested my employer’s accounts department pay me by bank transfer but, for reasons unknown, it had insisted on paying cash and only at the conclusion of my contract. If this money was the reason I had been attacked, then only the accounts department staff and the handful of people in my work team knew I had been paid that day. But the latter had just been paid that same day in the same way. So had I been merely a random victim of violence … or had something more sinister happened?

A few months previously, I had applied for a full-time job at ‘Capital Radio’. I was interviewed by Steve Billington, a social worker who had left his job in 1984 managing a social work team in Harrow to become the station’s head of community affairs. Although my application was unsuccessful, he contacted me weeks later to ask if I wanted to manage its Christmas charity appeal. I was soon to finish a non-renewable, twelve-month job creation role managing a team at ‘Radio Thamesmead’ so it was an ideal time for me to switch to a ‘proper’ job. I had dreamt of working at London’s only commercial music station since it had opened in 1973 and had even contemplated not going to university in order to take a programme production role there like Annie Challis on Tommy & Joan’s daily ‘Swop Shop’ show. Back then, I was innocent of the fact that to secure such a job in the media it was rarely, if ever, WHAT you knew about radio but WHO you knew.

Now, thirteen years after its launch, I was finally working at Capital Radio. My first two weeks were spent in the office, sat opposite the amiable charities manager Millie Dunne who helped me organise files of paperwork for the huge volume of goods she had persuaded businesses to donate, a task at which she was extremely proficient. During the subsequent four weeks leading up to Christmas, I worked in the station’s foyer, organising the receipt of donated goods and their delivery to London charities who would distribute them as gifts to needy families. I managed a small team that Steve had already appointed, all of whom were incredible and worked hard collecting and delivering goods as needed.

Steve had also appointed a ‘deputy’ to help me with the project’s management. His name was Pol. Never call him ‘Paul’! Unlike me, he was loud and extrovert, networking relentlessly with anyone remotely important who passed through the revolving door entrance to the foyer. He seemed to view the job as a sinecure that would permit him to further his ambition to be … something famous. While the rest of us worked long hours and weekends, Pol was AWOL for chunks of that time, claiming that he had had to attend appointments for this or that. In the pre-mobile-phone era, it was impossible to call someone to demand “where the hell are you?” I was regularly tempted to complain to Steve about this young man’s work ethic deficiency but I had no inkling if he had been recruited by some friend or relative within the company. He appeared to possess no relevant skillset for our work so I just had to grit my teeth and hold my tongue.

Despite this frustration, the job turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding I have done. Knowing that the radio station was making a practical difference to Londoners’ lives was incredibly heart-warming. The foyer – our ‘office’ – was enormous, more than 1000 square meters, with a ridiculously high ceiling and permanent home to three freestanding stalls: the ‘Capital Radio Shop’ sold station merchandise, ‘Capital Radio Jobspot’ offered job vacancy details and ‘Capital Radio Flatshare’ produced a printed sheet every Thursday afternoon listing rental accommodation available. The building’s ground floor full-length windows on a corner site enabled traffic passing on busy Euston Road and Hampstead Road to view the impressive Christmas decorations within, including a massive, illuminated pine tree. Pedestrians would stop and peer through the glass at us working inside.

Capital Radio’s decision prior to the station’s launch to rent the foyer and first floor was a brilliant marketing strategy, as its logo and name were emblazoned across the building at ground level around one of London’s busiest road junctions. To passers-by, it appeared that the station occupied the entire 36-storey tower, the capital’s tallest office block when completed in 1970. In reality, its upper floors were filled with unconnected businesses including the UK government’s military intelligence department intercepting mail. Capital Radio’s high-profile visibility was in stark contrast to its competitor ‘Radio One’ which had operated from an anonymous outbuilding (Egton House) since launch in 1967. BBC bigwigs had feared its youthful staff (including former pirate radio ship presenters) might scare the ‘serious’ broadcasters in Broadcasting House employed on its existing talk and classical music networks.

Another significant difference with its competitor was Capital’s open-door policy, permitting anyone to enter its impressive foyer through the revolving doors without a security check. Music fans would stand around hoping to get a glimpse of pop stars visiting for interviews. Radio presenters walked in and out and up the grand curved staircase to the first-floor studios. During the charity appeal, many generous listeners ventured in clutching their donations of toys which we added to the piles of presents. For amusement, we unboxed and put batteries in one state-of-the-art toy mouse that ran around on wheels with a movement sensor, enabling it to independently charge at speed across the polished floor towards anyone who entered through the revolving door and then chase them wherever they walked. Only on one occasion did we have to close and evacuate the foyer for several hours due to a bomb scare.

Christmas Eve was a sad day when the team had completed the charity appeal and parted ways for the final time. Following my mysterious attempted mugging, I reached home and found I was lucky to have escaped with mild bruising on my forearms. I packed a bag and headed to Deptford railway station, only to discover that the last train had already left. I had to return to my rented room, phone my mother and ask if she would come and collect me as there was no public transport during the next two days. Though she hated driving through London, she kindly drove fifty miles from Camberley to pick me up on Christmas morning so that I could spend the holidays with her and my sister.

In the New Year, I returned to the Capital Radio office to type up a report that catalogued, with Millie’s help, the volume of goods we had distributed during the Christmas appeal and the number of charities and families we had helped. Though no such post mortem had been requested, I considered it ‘good practice’ and I hoped to impress my boss with my thoroughness as a manager.

Much later that year, Steve Billington requested a further meeting in his office. Perhaps a full-time vacancy at the station had arisen? Sadly, it had not. I was asked if I would work on the next Christmas charity appeal. I was grateful for the opportunity. However, I was flummoxed to be told that I was to be demoted to the role of ‘deputy co-ordinator’ despite me having believed I had achieved a satisfactory job the previous year. Then I was gobsmacked to be told that the co-ordinator that year was to be … Pol. It seemed like some kind of voodoo that the person within our team who had demonstrated the least commitment last year should now be appointed to manage the rest of us.

Once activity started in December 1987, did Pol step up to his promotion and manage everything smoothly? No change of spots was evident. The only thing he seemed interested in managing was his own social calendar. It was Hobson’s choice: either the charity appeal would rapidly descend into chaos or I would have to manage it, just as I had the previous year. I took the reins informally, even though it proved frustrating when the most regularly spoken phrase by everyone involved was “Where’s Pol?” The charity appeal proved as successful as the previous year, though on this occasion Pol would take the credit. Did he write a report afterwards, as I had done? Er …

With the exception of the baffling change of co-ordinator, Steve Billington had been a fantastic boss and, in the New Year, he invited our whole team to reunite for a lunchtime meal at a restaurant in Tottenham Court Road to express his gratitude. I was appreciative of the start he had offered me at Capital Radio and the opportunity it presented to further develop my management experience. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time working there and, like my earlier job at ‘Metro Radio’, it taught me a lot about the problems that can befall a commercial radio station.

And so to ‘The Epilogue’:

In 1988, Camilla ‘Millie’ Dunne (daughter of Sir Thomas Dunne) married The Honourable Rupert Soames (grandson of Sir Winston Churchill) at a society wedding attended by her friend Lady Diana, Princess of Wales.

In 1989, I co-ordinated and wrote former pirate station ‘KISS FM’s successful second application for a London commercial radio FM licence, beating 39 competing bids.

In 1990, Capital Radio closed its community department as a result of the new commercial radio regulator ‘The Radio Authority’s ‘light touch’ strategy no longer requiring commitments from licensees to community activities. Steve Billington left Capital Radio.

In 1991, I attracted a weekly audience of more than one million listeners a week to black music station ‘KISS FM’ within six months of its successful launch, as its Programme Director, exceeding the Year One target.

As for Pol …

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