13 May 2024

Sacked by a boss desperate to steal my success : 1991 : Gordon McNamee, KISS 100 FM, London

 It was a little after seven o’clock in the morning when the phone rang. Normally, I would already have been out of bed by that hour on a weekday. However, the previous night’s ‘DJ meeting’ [open to all 44 KISS FM presenters] had tired me out. I was awake, but I was still trying to urge my body to get out of bed. The mobile phone stationed beside my bed rang noisily and forced my brain into action far faster than it wanted.

It was [KISS FM personal assistant to managing director] Rosee Laurence on the line, asking if I could schedule a meeting that morning with [KISS FM managing director] Gordon McNamee. I scrambled out of bed to retrieve my diary from the battered ‘WH Smith’ black plastic briefcase I always took to work. Requests for meetings at such short notice were common although, during the last few days, McNamee had had no contact with me. Laurence suggested ten o’clock. I explained that I already had an editorial meeting [of my programming department] scheduled for half past ten, but I could fit it in as long as the meeting was not going to last too long. She assured me that it would not. I scribbled “10am – Gordon” in my diary, replaced the mobile phone in its charger and got on with the business of waking up properly.

My diary told me that I had two further meetings that afternoon – a weekly sponsorship get-together at one o’clock with [KISS FM finance director] Martin Strivens and the sponsorship manager, Gordon Drummond, followed by a debriefing session in the boardroom at three o’clock with KISS FM’s partners in the Pepsi promotion. During the drive from my flat to the office, I reflected on the possible reason for the early morning phone call. Was McNamee going to tell me what had happened at the previous day’s board meeting? Was he going to pretend that nothing untoward had happened and that the board had approved all his [unachievable] targets for Year Two?

I was already running late when I became caught up in the worst of the rush-hour traffic along Holloway Road. Although my work day officially started at half past nine, I liked to arrive at work earlier so that I could snatch a little time to myself before the inevitable mayhem started in the department. However, that day, there was only time to down a quick cup of tea before walking up to the top floor in time for my ten o’clock appointment. Gordon McNamee was sat in his corner office when Laurence ushered me in. After exchanging morning greetings, I sat facing McNamee across his huge wooden desk. He shuffled from side to side in his chair a few times, avoiding looking directly into my eyes, and he sighed unusually heavily. Several times, he looked up at me as if he was going to say something, but then stopped short.

I stared at him blankly, not knowing what to expect. Eventually, he started mumbling something apologetically, but still he was making little sense. I knew then that McNamee had bad news to break to me. He had always been excellent at whipping his team into a frenzy of enthusiasm when something good was happening, but he was almost incapable of breaking negative news to anyone. He started speaking slowly and managed to explain that he had been “extremely vexed” by the memo I had delivered to him two days earlier. ‘Vexed’ was one of McNamee’s favourite words to use in situations when somebody had done something that displeased him. Anyone else might have been angry, but McNamee was always ‘vexed.’

As he reflected upon the contents of my memo and how ‘vexed’ it had made him, McNamee seemed better able to talk to me directly and to break the bad news. He explained that the board had met the previous afternoon and had decided that the company no longer needed my services. He muttered something about this being the hardest thing he had ever had to do and how he regretted the decision, but I was barely listening to his words. Instead, I was thinking how cowardly was this man sitting in front of me. I was thinking that, even now, he had no intention of telling me the truth of what had taken place at the board meeting, or how he had probably acted to save his own skin. What I wanted to know was what he had told the board about my dissent and what he had told the board of my contributions to the station’s success.

But there seemed little point in saying anything at all to the cowering figure sat in front of me, with whom I had worked so closely for more than two years. I got up to leave the room. McNamee had failed to deliver my promised rewards on so many occasions that I did not need to hear another fabricated story about why I was not getting things to which I felt I was entitled. As I left his office, McNamee said that it would be necessary for me to leave the building immediately, and he thrust some documents into my hand. I walked straight out of his office, shocked that, even at this stage in our relationship, McNamee was still incapable of telling me truthfully why I had to go.

Before I could reach the staircase to return to my office, McNamee had caught up with me and was asking me to stop. For a second, I felt as if I should ignore him totally and just carry on walking, but I turned towards him at the very top of the building’s stairwell.

“We could say that you had resigned, to make it easier for you, if you wanted,” McNamee suggested to me.

I stared at him coldly with a combination of anger and hatred that I could feel welling up inside me.

“Gordon, that’s a fucking insult,” I spat at him. Then I turned and walked down the staircase leading to my office on the next floor.

I was incensed. After all the sweat, blood and toil I had poured into this company. After all the personal sacrifices I had made to ensure that KISS FM succeeded. After my hard work had produced the required results more quickly than had ever been anticipated. Now, I was being asked to resign from a job in which I had achieved nothing but success. McNamee’s cheek to even suggest such a thing had made me really angry. I was in a rage as I stormed into my office. The programming floor was starting to fill up, as staff trickled into work. My first thought was the speed with which McNamee had insisted I must leave the station. Rather than suffer the indignity of being forcibly removed from the building by the station’s security guard, I started to pack up my possessions.

[KISS FM head of music] Lindsay Wesker caught my attention as he walked onto the floor from the staircase. He was one of my senior team members, so I felt I should break the bad news to him personally. The only private place I could think of to talk was the men’s toilet in the stairwell of the floor, so we crowded into the tiny cubicle.

“I’ve just been sacked,” I said to Wesker, “and I’ve been told to leave the building immediately.”

Wesker looked thoughtful, but did not seem particularly shocked. I suddenly understood that Wesker must have been the only member of my team to know what was going to happen to me, before I did.

“Just as you’ve said before,” said Wesker calmly, “it’s always the programming department that gets the chop.”

These were the very words I had shared with Wesker more than a year earlier, during the first programme planning meeting I had convened at [former KISS FM office] Blackstock Mews. Wesker had mulled over my words carefully then and, now, I realised why he had found those words so interesting. In Wesker’s eyes, he had got rid of me at last. I exited the men’s toilet without saying another word.

Having received no sympathy from Wesker for my predicament, I walked back to my office and continued assembling my personal effects. I had spent far more of my waking hours in that building during the last year than I had at home, so many of my own possessions were intermingled with that of the company. There was the portable television I had brought to the office when the Gulf War had started, there was a portable cassette player I used, the records I had used to make station jingles, and unread magazines that were cluttering the floor. These were all mine. I started gathering them together into a manageable pile to take away with me. Other staff on the floor noticed me through the clear plastic partition of my office and started to wonder what was going on.

I told Philippa Unwin, who had worked with me closely as the department administrator since the Blackstock Mews days, what had just happened to me. She became visibly upset. As I told other members of my team, they stood around the floor in disbelief and shock.

[KISS FM head of talks] Lorna Clarke said to me: “They can’t sack you just like that. You’re the only one who knows how this whole station works.”

I felt pressured by the urgency to get out quickly, so I started carrying boxes of my things down three flights of stairs to put in my company car parked at the back of the building. I suddenly realised that my hasty and unexpected departure from KISS FM could be explained away to the staff on any pretext, unless I could make some kind of statement myself. The memo that had ‘vexed’ Gordon so much had recorded all the significant events of the previous week, as well as having stated my unambiguous position on wanting KISS FM to adopt a realistic strategy for its future.

After less than a year on-air, one of the staff’s major criticisms was the lack of information about company decisions that trickled down to them from the senior management. Only those staff working most closely with me in the programming department understood that I was just as ill-informed about what was going on at board level as everybody else was in the building. Using a Prit-Stick from the top drawer of my desk, I glued a copy of my memo to Gordon McNamee onto the clear plastic partition of my office. My room opened onto the floor’s entrance lobby and the partition could be seen by everyone passing through the department. Alongside the memo, I glued the document detailing the programming policy changes I had been ordered by McNamee to devise.

While I continued to gather together my possessions, staff in the department started to read my two memos, all the while expressing outrage that my dismissal could be so abrupt. Then, Wesker burst into my office and handed me a sheet of ledger paper.

“Rosee [Laurence] upstairs says these things are KISS property which you have to give back before you go,” said Lindsay sheepishly.

Inscribed in red ink was a list:

“1) security tag 13-92 + ID pass.
2) office & studio keys.
3) car keys.” 

It was evident that Wesker had been anticipating my dismissal and was acting as messenger boy for the management staff on the top floor who were too cowardly to talk to me directly. I snatched the piece of paper from him, but ignored it. I asked him, rhetorically, how I was expected to take home all my personal possessions without being able to use the company car?

Before leaving the station for the last time, I walked around the programming department and said my hurried goodbyes to the few staff who were already at their desks. Because the majority of my team worked shifts, there were only a few people there. In the DJs’ office, [daytime presenter] David Rodigan was sat at his desk, facing the front windows that looked out over Holloway Road. His back was towards the office door, so I had to interrupt his preparations for that day’s lunchtime show to bid him farewell. He expressed outrage at my sacking and seemed bewildered by the speed with which I was being forced to leave.

There was nothing left to do except thank everyone who was in the department for the good times we had spent together and to give many of them one last hug. Some of the staff were crying, others were visibly angry, and some did not seem to believe the events that were unfolding right in front of their eyes. Wesker was the only person who seemed unmoved by the whole scene. He was busy protesting that I had not left the company’s property that he had been given responsibility to collect. I could not have cared less.

I got into my company car, half expecting someone to rush out and stop me driving it away. But they did not, and I drove away from the station’s car park for the very last time. I had arrived at work barely two hours ago. Now, I was already on my way home again. It felt as if some ghastly mistake had happened, some chance mishap over which I had been able to exert no control. I could not believe that this would really be the very last day I ever worked at KISS FM. The traffic was much lighter on the roads, now that the rush hour was over, so I reached home within half an hour. By then, I was feeling neither upset nor angry about my dismissal. More, I was stunned that the end could have come so abruptly, and without McNamee having offered any gratitude for my significant contributions to KISS FM’s success.

[Excerpt from ‘KISS FM: From Radical Radio To Big Business: The Inside Story Of A London Pirate Radio Station’s Path To Success’ by Grant Goddard, Radio Books, 2011, 528 pages]

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