Saturday, 31 July 2010

Amazing Radio and Coast 106: Ghosts of stations past

Over the past two years, I’ve traveled around the country a fair bit, working on consult gigs at different stations. Most of this has been database troubleshooting and coaching, both in RCS Selector and PSquared’s AutoTrack Pro - fine scheduling engines both.

I've been struck by the lingering echoes of old radio ways, which persist down the years, even while the old premises are now occupied by new staff doing new things in new ways. But there are some constants. Almost everything has changed in the way we do radio - except for the people.  

Two recent clients are Coast 106 in Southampton, where my consult period happily and very precisely coincided with an unbroken rise in hours and reach, and Amazing Radio in Newcastle, where I was this month. Both stations are very interesting propositions, both very different from the norm and unique in their different markets. I’m going to post in detail about Amazing soon - it’s a story worth telling.

Coast took over from the previous unsuccessful owners in the teeth of the recession, and have now co-located a set of other local stations in the same premises. When I first visited them their staff numbers were tiny – breathtakingly small – as the station worked towards viability in difficult market conditions. Amazing, for their part, occupy premises first set up for radio in Gateshead for Century FM, another name now long gone from the UK radio map. But here and there, in both places, you could still find evidence of the earlier stations – machines in the racks, frosted glass markings on long-decommissioned production studios, and so on.

And in those old premises, bright and committed staff – less than before, a lot less - do new things in new ways. As the stations consolidate and grow, there is space to expand, for now, although I suspect Coast, with their new services, may be feeling slightly squeezed by now.

For all the new staff, new techniques and new thinking, one vital element remains, constant, reliable and welcome. That same, warm, instantly recognisable radio vibe is still there. It comes from people who passionately love what they do, who kvetch and bitch, rage, laugh, plan, coach, cajole, seduce, brag, strut and fret. It’s intense, even when things are outwardly calm. Stations are driven by passion; sometimes that comes out as desperation, sometimes as elation. That intensity knits teams together, drives the stations, and enables the output. Whether, in the end, all that effort and emotion leaves a mark, whether it actually matters in the long run is not the issue. Much of radio is about the moment, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Show me a radio station, and I’ll show you people who love their work and care deeply about it. In both premises I tried to get a feeling for what went on, back in the day, before the new occupants moved in. At Coast, I wondered how it had been for the staffers at Original; I got my answer a few months ago talking to an ex-presenter who now works in my neck of the woods.

Walking around Amazing made me think, just for a moment, about how it was in the early 90s, when Century first launched as one of the first five regional ILR stations. I was in Scotland then, at another long-gone name, Scot-FM. It was less than twenty years ago, but things were so, so different. Those walls could still talk, just a little. 

I listened, briefly, and then got to work with Amazing’s savvy and willing crew. And it was a pleasure.

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