Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Radio Magazine

Adrian Juste writing for The Radio Magazine


by Adrian Juste

I was saddened to hear of John’s death last week. Back in 1974 it was he who gave me my first big break in commercial radio

A slight, sometimes theatrical man with large gestures, blessed with a ready smile that revealed a set of perfect white teeth, and a trademark trimmed black beard, he cut an almost piratical figure along the corridors of the old ATV studios in Aston.

As one of ILR’s founding fathers, and programme director of the new Birmingham station, John breathed life into this peculiar radio hybrid, having opened the ambiguous instruction manual you got in the IBA box along with your licence: ‘Er, we want a.. um - sort of BBC local sound with added pizzazz, self-op and ad breaks.

Ooo, and you can play a bit of that noisy pop music too - but not much.’ And if you can make a few quid .. all well and good.’

In those days of course it was ‘Independent Radio’ - not commercial radio - that would have been just too, too vulgar!

Despite this daunting edict from Brompton Road, John used his forces radio background to breathe life into the cheap ‘n’ cheerful mix of features, talks & phone-ins that we had to do to flesh out our meagre 9 hours a day needle-time.

And by crikey, did he make it work - After a few months on air I seem to recall we had a market share of 56%! - here in 2009 you could put a decimal point between the 5 and 6 and most stations would be delighted. We beat the BBC hollow, both local and national.

Wherever you went in Birmingham in those early days, BRMB was on. I smile as I recall Les Ross walking down his road during the hot summer of ’76, and thinking: ‘Why’s Adrian got all that echo on his mic?’ He soon realised that I hadn’t - it was just that every house had their windows open and I was rattling all the way up the street!

We did Outside Broadcasts in abundance - ‘You have to be out there, meeting the audience’ was Russell’s philosophy.

And we were; our OB truck had more miles on it than Paula Radcliffe’s trainers.

If it was in Brum, so was BRMB: Pancake races, theatre premieres, sporting events, even ghost hunts, the cheery red & white logo was always prominent. I recall one afternoon when Jason King (alias Peter Wyngarde) was appearing with us the police were forced to close the Bull Ring as the overcrowding was getting dangerous.

All good stuff for a fledgling station!

After a very enjoyable year doing the afternoon show, John promoted me to breakfast, and I still have fond memories of watching the sun rise over Saltley gasworks as I woke up Birmingham. No idle boast that - we really had a huge audience.

But there was no way I could cope with the 3.30 alarm call that accompanied the breakfast show, and I had to quit, screaming ‘Get Les Ross!’ ... so the poor programme director didn’t really have anywhere left to put me.

It’s no secret that John and I didn’t get along too well during that time, and after three very enjoyable years with some really wonderful Brummies, I was ‘let go’. To be fair to him I don’t suppose I was one of the easiest turns to get along with either!

I’m very glad that he and I patched up any remaining differences we may have had at a Radio Academy seminar in the mid-80s. We parted that day on extremely good terms, our paths never to cross again.

I was doing rather well at Radio 1 by then, and think John was secretly proud that he’d discovered a little Station Assistant from BBC Radio Leicester - and let me loose on BRMB to cultivate my radio eccentricities. Well, broadcasting six hours a day, as you often had to, soon knocked you into shape!

As Robin Valk commented last week; in BRMB’s early years us jocks were a bunch of young, rather insecure types with egos that needed more than a little massage, but the fact that, armed with those decidedly dodgy components, John forged a cohesive and successful team who bonded well, is to the man’s eternal credit.

“I believe I hired presenters with not only engaging personalities, but above all with brains so they did not sound like ‘I speak your weight machines’. Many of them were deeply rooted, born and brought up in Birmingham and those that did not have that background were encouraged to become part of the community and the area’.

That’s true. When I started at the station I was commuting from Leicester, and John told me; ‘It’s important that you move to Birmingham to get the feel of the city and its people’. And he was right. It did make a difference. Oh dear, that must all sound rather twee to the voice-track & plug-liner brigade of today!

Here’s one of John Russell’s final thoughts on UK radio when speaking last year: ‘In my view the path of over-formatted sound, often produced centrally for a group of radio stations presented by anodyne presenters, was and is a grave mistake and has contributed to the decline of commercial radio today.”

When I left BRMB, as a joke, a couple of the jocks bequeathed me a large publicity photo-board of John as a ‘keepsake’.

What they don’t know is that, after all these years and three different houses, I still have it - in the roof of my garage.

You know, I’m going to dust it off and have a quiet reminisce about a man who, despite our occasional personal spats, had faith in me as a presenter ... where many hadn’t.

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