London Radio Service – 20 Years On

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July 1997 – 20 long years ago now, but yet it seems only yesterday. I was 23 years old and already a bit of an old hand in the commercial radio world having been a DJ, head of music and programme controller (as well as producer, travel presenter and technical operator to boot). However, my radio career seemed to have hit a wall in early summer 1997 as various groups bought each other out, and each job I had disappeared (despite some heroic efforts by some lovely bosses, Jana Rangooni to name but one!) Things were looking pretty dire. I was back living with my folks in Bedford and was feeling pretty beaten up by the harsh cruelties of UK commercial radio. I’d tried numerous times to get a job in the BBC, but my lack of degree and (seemingly) my commercial radio background kept getting in the way. So, I was applying for anything and everything radio related. One job I’d gone for had meant a trip to Camden Lock in London, to the beautiful Interchange building. I went booted and suited and loved my visit to the home of Associated News and SRS and other international media outlets. I had an OK interview but I’d left not thinking I stood a chance. This was a job for the big boys (AP/Disney) and whilst I was confident in my technical abilities I felt they probably wanted someone with more sound engineering experience over commercial radio knowledge. However, a few weeks later, in early June, I received a phone call from the man in charge, Stuart Sutton-Jones, to be told I’d been chosen to be the studio manager for the soon-to-be launched LONDON RADIO SERVICE…oh, and my honesty about what salary I wanted (I’d said “anything, but double figures would be a major step-up for me”) meant they were offering a higher starting wage than previously mentioned. AMAZING…it was enough to make the move to London! A dream come true. So in July 1997 I rented a room in Tooting (bizarrely, in the house next door to the house I’d lived in just a few years earlier) and started the daily 7am commute to Camden (straight up the Northern Line, a seat always guaranteed at that time of day…don’t get me started on the hell of getting home in the late evenings!)

The Big Ben iz Londona team recording the Xmas 1998 special (which won the New York Award!)

LONDON RADIO SERVICE was funded by the UK Foreign Office but run by AP/Disney. We had beautiful new studios purpose-built in the Interchange Building…sharing space with British Satellite News, a bevvy of international broadcasters, the Met Office, and Associated Press. It was a buzzing cauldron of international news and production, and as a 23 year old, it was utopia to me. Oh, and Camden was EVERYTHING I’d hoped it would be…pubs, bars, cafes, the market, the shops, the live music, the vibe and buzz and electricity (and the sausage rolls for breakfast were rather splendid too). LRS was to provide a daily news service, made available to radio stations around the world via a telephone dial-in service, and various early-internet access. I recall how impressed I was by having access to a T1 line…it made accessing the internet an absolute joy. Alongside the news service (offered in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic…later in Serbian I believe) LRS produced 10 weekly ‘feature’ programmes, which were distributed around the world using the Foreign Office red-box service. This was, to all intents and purpose, a modern day evolution of the old Propaganda Unit…our remit was to promote the best of British, everything from arts and music, to culture and history. Remember, the election of May 1997 had given us a brand new Tony Blair New Labour government, riding high on the crest of the Cool Britannia movement…we had a lot to tell the world about the UK. Six of these programmes were in English, and the other four were in Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian. My role was to run the studios, ensure everything was produced to the highest technical quality, all output was correctly delivered and archived, and to be a general technical/I.T. guru when not making the programmes. This meant I could use my studio and sound engineering experience to help the journalists create their programmes, but also contribute my own features and ideas, produce some shows myself and be the go-to guy for everyone (quite tiring at times…especially when the DALET I.T. system kept failing and it meant regularly staying until 1am to fix things, only to be back up at 5:30am to be in the studio for 8am) I loved it…and especially because I was surrounded by incredibly talented people from all around the globe.

Our chief was a gentleman called STUART SUTTON-JONES, a veteran World Service journalist and genuinely one of the nicest and most supportive bosses a young guy could hope for. His ear for good journalism was unsurpassed, and whilst he drove the unit hard, he was always about enjoying what we did and ensuring the team got along and socialised. His encouragement for my flights of fancy, desire to do more and recognition of my talents was a real morale-booster. Our head of news was a marvellous chap called NICK CLARK (not the one from Radio 4). A ferociously talented and on-the-ball journalist and editor, he was also a professional rugby referee and was always out running and revising his ref rules. The rest of the news team rotated with the programme producers to ensure everyone stayed current with the news desk, but also had a chance to develop their long-form storytelling techniques. This is where I came in…whilst I did support the daily news production, my main work was to technically produce each of the 10 weekly programmes. And it was a fast-paced and thrilling schedule, with a programme in the studio every morning and afternoon. The schedule was:

  • MON – The Way Ahead (science) / Usboa (Arabic news/features)
  • TUES – New Horizona (health) / Meridiana (Portuguese news/features)
  • WEDS – UK/OK (arts) / Eco Watch (environment)
  • THURS – Money Matters (finance) / Pulsando (Spanish news/features)
  • FRI – (forgotten!) / Big Ben iz Londona (Russian news/features/music)

It was quite a punishing schedule, to get everything recorded with the producer/presenter and guests/reporters, then edit it, add themes, music, interviews and then do the final master mix, get it signed off by the producer and then made ready for delivery. I would delivery each day’s programmes the following morning at 8am to 9am, sending the programme masters via ISDN to a Foreign Office department (who, I assume, had to then clear everything). I also had to archive everything to ensure we could grab any programme again in the future. Every week, for 18 months I did this, and it was amazing. I learned so much from these shows, as well as having the chance to contribute – sometimes stories or production elements, or as music finder for the Russian programme, and eventually as the writer/director of two award-winning Xmas Russian language specials (I know, me doing something in another language, my school friends would die of shock!) Hundreds upon hundreds of hours of high-quality radio programming, all heading out into the world. Millions of listeners in over a hundred countries. It blows the mind. But there we were, in those offices in Camden Lock, cranking this stuff out and all learning culture and experience from each other.

Don’t get me wrong, the hours almost killed me, but I was 23 years old and wanting to prove myself. I was surrounded by people from amazing countries, all willing to chat and share and go for drinks. It was mind-expanding stuff.

So, let me name some more names, the people I had the honour to work with and learn from (apols for those I can’t remember the names of, or those whose surnames I can’t recall):

  • The Russian Team – Susan Poizner (producer extraordinaire), Serge Berejnoi (lead presenter and true superstar), Renata Tairbekova (presenter and force of nature), Julia Zagonek (presenter and inspiration), Tania (producer), Irina (reporter)
  • The Spanish and Portuguese Team – Damaris Magogo (producer/presenter and nicest person in the world), Oscar Rodriguez-Aguilar (producer/presenter, the Lando Calrissian of international radio), Paula Svetlic (reporter and shining star)
  • The Arabic Team – Rashnia (producer/presenter and strong spirit), Sundos al Quasi (reporter and bravest of the brave)
  • The English Language Team – Martin Bedford (producer/presenter and joyeously fantastic), Corinne Fallows (producer/presenter and my partner in audio crime), Alex van Wel (producer/presenter and most-educated gent)
  • The Management – Tim Ayris (sales/content management and the rock around who the rest of us churned), Steve Turner (the big boss man and unit cheerleader)
  • Honourable Mention – Philippe Bertrand (AP sound man and all-round legend of radio and audio)

Me with the fantabulous Serge and Julia

I know I’ve missed many people, we had numerous reporters and producers who came and went, or stepped in during holidays and illnesses. I wish I could remember everyone…but suffice to say, they all brought something special to what was a very unusual operation.

I left in December 1998 after 18 months, headhunted to join Ladbroke Productions in Central London, where I would end up producing hundreds of BBC radio productions, and eventually become the MD and owner, which would lead me to audiobooks and where I am today with Ladbroke Audio and Spokenworld Audio. But those 18 months were probably the most important of my life…they gave me the chance to move to London, start a life here, make incredible friends, be exposed to a truly multi-cultural lifestyle and expand my knowledge of the world. I honed my craft, made some mistakes and even suffered the odd heart-break. But I wouldn’t change it,oh no. All I’d change is the loss of those friends over the last 20 years. I wish we were still a team, even if just through social networking. Everyone went their separate ways. LRS changed hands in 2000, and then closed a few years later. I regret terribly my failure to stay in touch with these talented and genuinely gorgeous people. So, if you are reading this and we used to work together…please reach out and lets see if we can meet up sometime this year. It would be fantastic to make our 20th anniversary the year of reconciliation.

I raise a glass in honour of those founding members of LONDON RADIO SERVICE, and thank each and every one of you for what you gave me…incredible experiences and amazing memories. Is it REALLY 20 years ago?!

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