Thursday, 27 October 2011

How Alan Partridge Destroyed Local Radio And Why I Love North Norfolk Radio

North Norfolk yesterday
The cheery DJ with a smile in his voice gives a generous chuckle as caller Annie from East Runton half-heartedly practises a scream down the phone line.

"So, Annie, who do you think it is?"

"Is it Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars?"

Cue some echoey footsteps, a very creaky trapdoor and a loud splash.

"Sorry, Annie - it's not Mark Hamill which means tomorrow's breakfast show jackpot goes up to £510! Thanks for trying to guess who's on the red carpet here on North Norfolk Radio."

Mystery voice competitions; free, no-obligation fireplace quotes; news headlines about fireworks being sold to children in Fakenham; eye-witness travel brought to you by a cycle shop in  North Walsham - North Norfolk Ray-Dee-Oh is local commercial radio as it should be.

Broadcasting from a farm in the tiny village of Stody near Melton Constable, it's a no-airs-and-graces triumph of community broadcasting - not the quasi-national programming-by-numbers foisted on us by Heart, Kiss, Galaxy and their ilk.

Compare it to the next station along the Liquid Crystal Dial - BBC Radio Norfolk. At 6.30pm last night their presenter was joined by a local magistrate and a solicitor for their Good Week, Bad Week slot. And what burning local issues were they debating? The anti-capitalism protests at St Paul's Cathedral, protocol during the Queen's tour of Australia and a woman in The Sun who'd spent £10,000 on Gary Barlow tattoos.  Not even a rural whiff of a Norfolk postcode.

Meanwhile, North Norfolk Radio's drivetime man was appealing for the owner of a V-reg Ford Galaxy in Thursford to claim their free car valet for sporting a sticker in the back window and the newsreader was telling us that the Travelodge in Norwich is Britain's favourite hotel for illicit affairs. Brilliant.

I grew up on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester in the 70s and 80s. I loved it. The DJs were proper local personalities - Phil Wood, Mike Sweeney (who's rubbish punk band The Salford Jets were a joy), curly-permed Dave Ward who once brought his unforgettable roadshow to the English Martyrs youth club in Whalley Range.

Some of the slicker ones were passing through on their way to bigger, national things - Andy Peebles, Steve Penk, Susie Mathis, the bar-setting Mark Radcliffe, Gary Davies before his execrable bit in the middle on Radio One.

And Timmy Mallett. His evening show was an unmissable masterpiece of self-made, multi-layered, madcap jingles punctuating interviews with local bands and bigger celebrities. He was the Kenny Everett of Piccadilly Gardens.

I made my radio debut on his show. A bit-too-serious appreciation of Yazoo when I was 16. I never forgot that thrill of walking into the dimly-lit studio with the big, red light over the door and sitting in front of a giant microphone which partially hid the great man from view. He asked me to stay for the rest of his stint after my bit and do some jokey inserts. They were hopeless but I was hooked.

Nine years later I managed to get a dream job as a reporter on BBC Radio Leeds, crafting what the boss called "colour radio" with a strip of tape around my neck, a razor blade in one hand and a role of sellotape in the other. Back then there was a budget for actually going out and gathering local news with a German Uher tape recorder on the passenger seat of a branded Peugeot radio car.

Magistrates and solicitors talking about what the Queen was up to on the other side of the world were rarely required.

From there it was the achingly cool (and therefore shut down) BBC GLR in London for me - James! Playing live! In the basement studio at lunchtime! - and then the fabulous Five Live in the glory days of Garvey, Allen, Mair, Sybil and Inverdale.

And it was all started by that love of pre-Partridge local radio. Maybe it was Alan who did for it. His devastating savagery of radio sports reporting began in Radio 4's On The Hour and ended in that self-same Travelodge in Norwich on BBC One.

Now he broadcasts on a YouTube version of imaginary North Norfolk Digital. Maybe local radio never truly recovered its confidence.

Instead the commercial stations have become national brands and the BBC's local stations are easy targets for job cuts - 280 were announced this month. Threaten to shut down a trendy national network and you guarantee a noisy Twitter campaign; lose ten jobs at Radio Cumbria, despite an incredible audience reach of 39 per cent, and who's complaining?

But confidence is brimming at the real North Norfolk Radio. Where the prize of a meal for two at the Dunstable Arms in Sheringham is something worth winning. And it's good to know that P&S Butchers in Holt have probably the largest selection of game in the area. Probably.

Which leaves just one question: is it Paul Gambaccini?

(The author was appointed Managing Director of Sky News Radio in 2007. Funding was pulled before the station launched.)

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