20 November 2023

One little indie music show : 1980-1981 : Saturday night 10 to midnight, Metro Radio

 “You will present a weekly two-hour rock music show on Saturday night,” my manager informed me.

No if’s or but’s. No offer over which to mull. No demo tape to produce. No question asked about previous experience. Without warning, I was appointed as presenter on one of Britain’s largest commercial radio stations. I had just started a full-time backroom job at ‘Metro Radio’ but had never asked to present a show. This was my first paying job in radio and suddenly I was also to be put on-air. The start of my radio career seemed to be heading in a positive direction.

Some aspiring DJs spend their whole life trying to secure a presenting job on radio, often without success. I felt slightly guilty that this opportunity had fallen into my lap without effort. My employer did not even realise that I had started presenting for various London pirate stations seven years earlier, as such lawbreaking activities were not productive additions to a CV then. A decade into the future, employed as programme director of London’s ‘KISS FM’, one young hopeful desiring a DJ job would sit in the station’s reception area day after day, awaiting his opportunity to buttonhole me on my way to lunch at the ‘greasy spoon’ on Highbury Corner. Little did he know that we already had the largest DJ roster of any British radio station, or that management had just cut payments per show by half, or that several loyal presenters had been made redundant within months of launch. Oblivious, he was not so much ‘networking’ as ‘stalking’.

Management at Metro Radio seemed not to care one jot what was broadcast evenings and overnight because commercial stations then believed their advertisers were only interested in daytime shows and that their most significant audience was housewives. My small additional payment for the rock show was eaten into by the cost of driving twenty miles to the studio on Saturday night and then back again in the early hours of Sunday. Nevertheless, the station would jump at any chance to cut its minor expenses, such as the occasion excellent overnight presenter Tony Crosby was replaced in 1981 by a new DJ who offered to do the same show for free. Never mind the quality, feel the penny-pinching! (Tony went on to train as a solicitor.)

No direction was offered me as to what to do in my show. Whereas daytime presenters were required to wait outside programme controller Mic Johnson’s office for individual appointments to hear his critique whenever a JICRAR ratings book was published, management expressed zero interest in what I was doing on-air. There were already two other rock shows on the station. My line manager Malcolm Herdman played two hours of heavy metal and hard rock. Full-time producer John Coulson used his two hours to play an esoteric mix of mainstream rock and read passages from ‘beat generation’/‘new journalism’ authors. I decided to fill the evident gap for the ‘indie’ music that had emerged after several years of punk.

Music trade weekly ‘Record Business’ had published its first weekly ‘indie’ chart in January 1980, following a suggestion by Iain McNay, founder of London’s ‘Cherry Red Records’. I decided to use one hour of my show to run down this chart, playing the new entries and highest climbing singles. As far as I know, mine was the first ever British radio ‘indie’ chart show and was soon mentioned in the ‘indie’ columns of the music trade press. Most ‘indie’ releases were not supplied to commercial radio stations because there was zero possibility of them being playlisted, necessitating me to establish contact with the main ‘indie’ distributor, ‘Rough Trade’ in London, to receive copies. Each week, I would phone its very helpful director and head of promotions Scott Piering to request records that he would then mail to me (later that decade I worked in Scott’s office).

In the other hour of my show, I would play a selection of newly released album tracks, both indie and mainstream. Working full-time in the station’s record library, I had access to all major label releases that arrived either by post or from weekly visits by record company promotion staff. I would place interesting new albums in a holdall I carried back and forward to the show although, with only time to play around fifteen tracks within an hour, my hoard of unplayed recent releases grew heavier by the week. My running order ranged from ‘Steely Dan’ to ‘Joy Division’ to ‘Crass’, none of which were exposed elsewhere within the station’s output.

Although the Tyneside local band scene then was dominated by heavy metal bands and record labels such as ‘Neat’ and ‘Guardian’, there were a few ‘indie’ bands that were recording good quality demo’s or releasing their records independently. I received a nice letter from Paddy McAloon asking me to play his group ‘Prefab Sprout’s first self-published single. I had already been the lone person not walking straight past the stage when the band had performed at the Durham Miners’ Gala, so I was happy to oblige. There were some excellent local bands, including ‘Dire Straits’ and ‘The Police’ who were quickly signed by major labels, but also many that went largely unnoticed until ‘Kitchenware Records’ launch in Newcastle in 1982. I tried to play any local band recordings I found or received.

Because my two hours on-air were so precious, I talked minimally between records and rarely featured interviews. I recall receiving a telegram at home from the station one day asking me to phone it urgently. Our house had no phone so I had to walk to the one phone box in Sherburn Village and call in. Was I interested in recording an interview for my show with ‘Duran Duran’ who were promoting their first single release ‘Planet Earth’? I turned down this opportunity because the group was not local, were not ‘indie’ (having already signed to ‘EMI’) and their music was audibly more ‘pop’ than ‘rock’. However, I did interview local artists such as Pauline Murray from Ferryhill whose first solo album (after the punk group ‘Penetration’) sounded remarkably innovative and remains one of my favourite recordings.

I spent quite a lot of time each week compiling a local ‘gig guide’ from adverts in local newspapers (pre-internet newsprint) and flyers. I would update it each week, type it out myself, pin it on the radio station’s noticeboard and mail copies to all the local record shops. In my show, I would read out the following week’s concerts though I never heard any other presenter refer to my list because, beyond Malcolm and myself, the station seemed to be disconnected from the local music scene. On occasional visits to 'Volume Records', the only ‘indie’ record shop in Newcastle, I would secretly feel proud to see the latest A4 sheet of gigs I had mailed out pinned to its noticeboard. Like my show’s content, the reason for undertaking this research-intensive work was because nobody else seemed to be exposing this information at the time. There was no ‘what’s on’ publication for the region.

Although I had competently operated radio studio equipment myself since my days at school recording pirate radio shows, management at Metro Radio insisted I sat in a soundproofed studio in front of the microphone while a ‘technical operator’ facing me from an adjoining control room played the records, advertisements and mixed the audio. I was unfamiliar with this arrangement, which the station’s managers had brought with them from overstaffed BBC local radio stations at which they had worked previously. I was extremely lucky to have had John Oley assigned as my ‘T.O.’, one of the most professional and enthusiastic people I have had the pleasure to work with in radio. His contribution to my show was enormous and freed me to talk my rubbish on-air and answer the phone line when I occasionally held competitions.

Metro Radio showed no interest in promoting my show so it seemed a miracle when I started receiving letters from listeners who had discovered it. In the days before internet or community stations, each region of Britain was served by only one local BBC station and one commercial music station. Although my show was tucked away in the weekend schedule, it still felt groundbreaking to play music little heard outside of John Peel’s weeknight show on national ‘BBC Radio One’. There were quite a few records lasting only two or three minutes that each required several hours’ work transferring them to quarter-inch tape in order to edit out swear words with a razor blade and white editing tape on a metal block. If only those bands knew how much extra effort was necessary just for them to receive one radio play!

Living in a rural village, there were Saturday nights during winter snows when I was unable to drive to the station. Snowploughs would habitually clear the roads eastward from Durham City as far as the junction with the A1(M) motorway but, frustratingly, not the further one mile beyond to my home. I would have to trudge out in icy temperatures to the public phone box and call either Malcolm Herdman or John Coulson at home, asking if they could reach the studio to fill in for me on those days. Because they lived in Newcastle city, I think they found it hard to believe that I was literally ‘snowed in’. Unfortunately, my salary was insufficient to contemplate a relocation nearer my workplace, meaning I missed out on concerts and the city nightlife which I would have loved to explore.

All good things come to an end. Quickly in my case. Metro Radio made me redundant from my full-time job. I continued to present my Saturday night show for a while through 1981 but the expense of maintaining a car to drive to Newcastle was proving greater than my payments from the station, which had to be subtracted from my Unemployment Benefit. The final track on my last show was 'Decades' by Joy Division. I was applying for any relevant vacancy in the radio and music industries but getting nowhere. In the end, I had to follow Tebbit’s advice and get on my bike (well, in my car to be accurate), leaving the region where I had lived the last five years in order to take a totally different job 218 miles down south. It was disappointing because I had acquired so much knowledge of indie music, the regional music scene and had built an audience for my unique radio show.

The start of my radio career now seemed to be heading in a negative direction. I was unable to secure work in the broadcast industry for a further four years and, only then, by taking a contract in Israel on a pirate radio ship that paid little more than expenses. However, I have always treasured the memories of my time working alongside John Oley and Tony Crosby late on Saturday nights when the only other person in the darkened Metro Radio building on a bleak industrial estate was the security guard downstairs. This was when innovative radio programmes were made … even though Metro Radio probably never realised it.

"... Open then shut, then slammed in our face."

Postscript: Forty years later, I received a polite email from a member of a former local band enquiring if I still had their demo tape I had been sent and played on my Metro Radio show. Sadly, no.

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