EIGHT years ago today, a radio station launched. I was part of the launch team. Joining it would prove to be the biggest mistake of my life, yet ironically I had a very lucky escape.
Saturday, September 2006; 10am was the date. Lime Kiln Studios in (not yet Royal) Wotton Bassett, Swindon was the location. For many years the headquarters of the GWR Group – who, in layman’s terms, laid the foundations for the world of brands we have on our dials today. In short, if your radio station had Graham Torrington on it late at night a decade ago and it’s now Heart, these guys were in charge at the time. A year previously, they’d merged with the Capital Radio Group and formed Gcap. Consequently, operations were moved to Leicester Square, where they remain under Global Radio to this day, who bought them in 2008 and have been responsible for the massive Heart rebrand of most county-wide stations south of Nottingham.
So, basically, the site was vacant, and it was purpose built for a radio station and, consequently was of little use to most would-be tennants. The Local Radio Company (TLRC) had, in a surprise move, won the local license for a new radio station in Swindon, and immediately snapped up Lime Kiln studios as GWR FM moved out to a business park and head office for the GWR Group moved to Leicester Square.
At this time, I was in my third year at Coventry University, studying an incredibly Mickey-Mouse degree. Most of my time, quite frankly, was spent running the Campus radio station, Source FM, where I was basically Selector monkey. In my free time I was freelancing at Rugby FM, an incredibly successful local radio station ten miles down the M6.
Rugby FM was owned from its’ launch in 2002 until 2006 by the Milestone Group, with the CN Group (who themselves would go on to sell the majority of their radio assets to a company called Quidem, ironically run by former GWR big dog, Steve Orchard) having a minority, non-controlling stake. All this changed in February of this year. The CN Group bought the entire shebang outright.
The timing couldn’t be worse. At the time it was pretty obvious that my parents were heading for a divorce after my father, who I still don’t speak to, had a string of extra-marital affairs. That eventually happened three weeks before I moved myself lock, stock and two smoking barrels to Swindon, but I’ll come back to this later, but for reasons I’ll explain if you stay with me; there are certain people in the radio industry who need to know exactly what happened in the correct context in the world of James Martin in 2006 – because I’m basically sick of them still judging me for it.
At Coventry, I was Public Enemy No. 1 at Source Radio, as it had just been rebranded. I make no apologies, even now, for running the station with a commercial mind and the membership, who were basically a bunch of hedonistic left-wing hippies, didn’t appreciate that. However, the city’s CHR station, Kix 96.2, had been controversially folded by the aforementioned CN Group, who were flipping it to their new Adult Contemporary brand, Touch FM. (Yes, I know there’s an AC Touch FM and a Rock Touch FM now but stay with me.) Forget a weekend of Bohemian Rhapsody, at the time they played non-stop music for no less than a week. And then remember the idea of “brands” in radio was a new thing back then and it was several years before Heart and Capital became household names nationwide. Basically there was huge gap in the market, I wanted to attract it, and I was met with attempts to oust me at every corner.
And then the professional station I worked for was taken over by these guys. I still remember when Dale Collins told me the news on MSN Messenger in my digs, who had just left Rugby FM by that time to become breakfast presenter on the new Touch FM Banbury, now Banbury Sound after he took it over himself briefly but now also part of Quidem. There were rumours for months CN would buy us outright but I still shat a brick when I read that. Steve Hyden, PD at CN, had just touted for freelancers and although I got an interview never got any more communication from him until he ended up my new boss a few weeks later anyway.
So with the cocktail of a new regime at Rugby who probably wish they hadn’t inherited me, my Uni life being shit and my parents headed for meltdown, you can understand why I felt I needed to escape come Summer 2006 when I finished my final year.
Rugby FM was set up by a guy called Martin Mumford. I never actually worked for him, but he made Rugby FM one of ILR’s biggest success stories ever. Even back then, a lot of commentators said small-town stations shouldn’t be licensed, and the one up the A5 in my home town, Fosseway Radio (now Oak FM and also part of Quidem) had notoriously been through cutback after cutback in a struggle to stay afloat. Rugby FM not only made a profit, but it recorded a record 44% reach in RAJAR just after I arrived in Q2/2005. The last book had it at 23%. I’d need a very big blog to tell you why it’s lost half its’ audience, mind you.
Martin left Rugby FM in early 2005, just before I joined. He went to work with ex-Fosseway/Leicester Sound man Keri Jones for Radio Pembrokeshire for a while, but come early 2006 TLRC poached him to launch Brunel FM.
LINK: RadioToday coverage of Martin’s appointment.
Presenters were advertised for on Media UK. And I, at pretty much rock bottom and desperate for somewhere to go after I finished Uni, applied, regarding Martin as a trusted name after the incredible success he enjoyed at Rugby FM. If you wanted someone to kick arse against GWR in their own back yard, this was the guy.
I was interviewed by the then PC, a guy called Andy Beeley, who offered me the job two days after I’d been turned down to replace Nick Gurney on breakfast at Fosseway Radio. After a weekend of wrangling, I took Andy’s offer of 14k, which Rugby colleagues said was “bloody good money for Martin” (their words, not mine I need to add.)
LINK: RadioToday coverage of Andy’s appointment
I informed Steve Hyden, who by this point was my boss, the integration of Rugby FM into the Touch network being complete. I announced my impending departure on-air, Rugby FM being a fairly personality-led station at the time, or at least under the old regime. Steve, understandably, didn’t appreciate this and rang me a couple of days later whilst I was in Fosse Park buying a new TV for my Swindon digs, telling me I’d be “taken off-air with immediate effect.” I’d just spent the better part of a month sorting Rugby FM’s Myriad and Selector out so the music library was harmonised with that of its’ Touch FM brethren across the Midlands and to say I was pissed off was an understatement. Steve felt I was “a bit of a loose cannon” and I can understand why he took the decision he did with the benefit of hindsight, this happened a week after my old man finally walked out and yes, my performance on-air massively suffered. I still remember turning up to Spring Street the day after it all happened, still drunk from getting completely off my tits on whiskey upstairs whilst it all played out below me. The first song was scheduled as Gloria Gayor’s I Will Surive. I’ll never forget that. But I was off my game as a result and I can now appreciate why that decision was taken.
Then I was told that Andy had left – in circumstances I’m not sure of to this day – and that a guy called Pete Wilson was taking over. Although I was Andy’s signing, I was told my job was safe.
Late August 2006, emotionally battered even without the upheaval of leaving home, I set up camp in Wooton Bassett. Three days into learning the TSA and trying to find my way around ENCO, the worst playout system in the world but in those pre-Genesys days, very good at networking and therefore the system of choice at TLRC, I was told Pete Wilson was not arriving for health reasons. I never met Pete. Eventually, Tony Dibbin, now of Gold Breakfast fame, was recruited and inherited a team which, pretty much, he didn’t sign.
Tony and I have now made our peace thankfully, and I remain very sorry for what happened next. Genuinely, I do. I talk about it now because of the historical context the entire episode occurred in, and I’m feeling better for writing this all down. On just Tony’s second day, the station launched in a blaze of publicity.
LINK: RadioToday coverage of the launch team
The short version of events by this point is that I wasn’t cut out to present a 6-day-a-week radio show. At the time the station was mandated by OFCOM to be live 6am-10pm every day, the chart being the only exception. I was hired to present the evening show from 6pm-10pm, so I was the only person in the building, 6 days a week, in a new town where I knew nobody. My life back home had completely fallen apart, and I’d felt this was the “get-out-of-jail” card. At the time I was a lot more young, immature and, yes, a bit of a dick. It became obvious I didn’t fit into Tony’s plans, and four weeks after launch he took me off air temporarily and had me work 9-5 doing various coaching and station admin.
I went back on air on Monday, 9th October 2006. after the freelancer pulled in to replace me had a major family emergency herself. I realised, sat alone in Lime Kiln studios, that I couldn’t continue, despite the huge investment made in relocating to Swindon. My last song – scheduled, ironically – up to the junction to meet the network late show was Simply Red’s The Right Thing. I went home, got hideously drunk, talked to Anna Harding (former Rugby colleague and now doing really well for herself at Global/Communicorp) and close friend and also briefly colleague Chris Nash on MSN, and made my decision. I puked outside my window at about 2:30am and then boiled a kettle and poured that over the resulting guff. Christ knows what the neighbours thought.
I woke up the next day, probably still pissed, and at 12 noon, even though I wasn’t due to start my shift until 2pm, cycled into work (I didn’t drive at this point) and informed Tony and Martin of my decision to leave. Both men agreed, in a roundabout way, that it was for the best.
Sadly, the cocktail of the previous ten months broke me at that point. I moved back to the Midlands on Saturday afternoon. From the preceding Tuesday I spent pretty much the entire week off my head. This came to a head on the Thursday when I fired up my laptop after a very long all day session in a pub in Wooton Bassett, and there was a thread called “Is there life after radio?” on Media UK. Everybody knows what happened next, but I genuinely broke.
I forgot I’d done it until I woke up, naked in bed, on the Friday morning. Even when I worked in Spain I didn’t sleep in the buff. Naturally I had a pounding headache and after I’d vommed – again – I fired up Outlook. Chris Nash had emailed me basically calling me an idiot – he’s one of the few people who I’ll let tell me as it is even now! – and it was at that point I remembered what had happened. Paul Easton, still a moderator back then, thankfully removed the worse parts of the post but the rest of it remained online until Media UK moved to a new back-end five years later.
I pretty much killed off my radio career that night. Ian Ison at Fosseway Radio hired me for 18 months a few weeks after my return to Hinckley, and what happened there is a completely different story. I also spent a few months at the independent Banbury Sound but I couldn’t justify the travel costs just to be on the radio and I quit to pursue a couple of years away from the Midlands entirely, which was in hindsight the best thing I could have done at the time and I returned to my hometown in 2012 with a slightly new outlook. Quidem would of course go on to acquire both stations along with the other Midlands assets of CN Radio after my departure from both stations.
Brunel though suffered financially and ended up being acquired by Laser Broadcasting in 2008. Laser had a bit of a reputation for not paying their staff on time. Some of the stories were horrific and people lost houses, livelihoods, everything because of it. Sadly, any attempt to express sympathy on DigitalSpy got opposition from posters under pseudonyms, notably from a guy who called himself Baggage Man. Suffice to say that this guy was so thinly disguised it was embarrassing. They also had a bit of a habit for going bust and phoenixing “new” companies to write debt off. After finally being laid to rest in early 2010, the license re-emerged under a few different names before being bought by Celador Radio in 2012 and becoming a Jack FM. A station required to provide live and local shows from 6am to 10pm reduced to an automated jukebox after 9am just six years later.
Ironically, I had a lucky escape and, in time, that healed the scars. I write this though, on the eighth anniversary of Brunel’s launch, not for sympathy or pity, but partly so I can have a chance to talk about it, and also partly to explain why I went so off the handle back in 2006.