We all have gatekeepers, who let us through, who sometimes encourage us, and who set us on our way. Often, we don’t appreciate what they do, let alone why. John Russell, who died a few days ago, was one of my most important gatekeepers. He was the first Programme Controller at BRMB, and I had no idea how his opening the gate for me would affect my life.
We forget, of course, that gatekeepers are not perfect; they have their own gatekeepers too. They have to respond, for better or worse, to directives and pressures that we, down here banging on the gate to be let in, don't really care about.
I used to think that being a Programme Controller was the holy grail of radio. I soon changed my mind when I eventually got that job, at a station that I won't name. Instead of building a brilliant radio station, bathed in a golden glow of award-winning creativity, I spent most of my time wiping snotty noses, dealing with emotional crises, and fielding frankly idiotic requests from a distant management that had no idea what the market was about, or even what a radio station was meant to do. Rock and Hard Place doesn’t begin to cover it.
John Russell was probably in much the same position. He corralled a collection of talented but demanding individuals, none of whom lacked for ego, and most of whom, me included, were massively insecure – typical jocks, in other words - and he let us loose on air. Looking back on what he set up, and considering his own management, I marvel at his patience. Of course, this was a wholly different kind of BRMB to the one that the current owners tried to rebuild, before ceding to market pressures and folding it into Free. I’m not entirely sure any of us really knew what were doing. The BRMB of old was an odd beast, but it was an effective station in its way, and it is remembered with affection. And it was John’s beast.
So that’s why I’m talking about gatekeepers. Had John not opened that UK gate for me, I would not have lived and worked in (and from) Birmingham for most of my adult life. I would not have been able to participate in and enjoy the explosive rise of musical talent from our area. I would not have been able to meet and work with fabulously creative musicians, something which I relish to this day. I would not have been able to play with presenter styles and broadcast ideas, exploring ways of communicating with a freedom now completely denied to almost all broadcasters. Nor would I have had the chance to travel all over Europe and the US to work in radio and some of the extraordinary businesses that feed and service our industry. Nor… I could go on.
John opened that gate for me. For most of the time, the gatekeeper dynamic being what it is, I gave him a lot of grief. But right now, 36 years on, I, and a lot of other BRMB veterans, remember him with affection and gratitude.